The apostle Paul wrote a warning for the church: “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3).
The Greek word translated “itching” literally means “to itch, rub, scratch, or tickle.” To want one’s ears “tickled” is to desire massages rather than messages—sermons that charm rather than challenge, entertain rather than edify, and please rather than preach. The people Paul warns about will have, as one commentator put it, “ears which have to be continually titillated with novelties.”
“Itching ears” is a figure of speech that refers to people’s desires, felt needs, or wants. It is these desires that impel a person to believe whatever he wants to believe rather than the actual truth itself. When people have “itching ears,” they decide for themselves what is right or wrong, and they seek out others to support their notions. “Itching ears” are concerned with what feels good or comfortable, not with the truth—after all, truth is often uncomfortable. Paul’s warning is that the church would one day contain those who only opened their ears to those who would scratch their “itch.”
Those with “itching ears” only want teachers who will assure them that all is well, teachers who say, “Peace, peace . . . when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Where there is a demand for something, the suppliers are not far away. Paul says that not only will there be great demand for watered-down, personalized messages, but there will be “a great number of teachers” willing to provide such pap and steer people away from “sound doctrine.”
Evidence today of people having “itching ears” includes the popularity of messages that people are not required to change, as if repentance were outmoded; that people are basically good; that God is too loving to judge anyone; that the cross, with all its blood, is not really necessary; and that God wants His children to be healthy, wealthy, and content in this world. As people turn their backs on the truth about sin and condemnation, they disregard their need for repentance and forgiveness. And a craving for “new” and “fresher” ideas grows—even though there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9–10)—accompanied by a longing to feel good about who they are and where they’re going. Messages that tickle ears can fill a lot of churches, sell a lot of books, and buy a lot of time on cable tv.
Some of the early followers of Jesus complained about some of the Lord’s words: “Many of his disciples said, ʻThis is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ . . . From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:60, 66). Walking away from hard truth is easy to do.
In today’s postmodern church, we see many walking away from the hard truth. Some churches that once preached sound doctrine now teach as acceptable the very evils the Bible condemns. Some pastors are afraid to preach on certain passages of the Bible. “Christian feminists” deny God as a heavenly Father, calling Him a “she.” “Gay Christians” are not only welcomed without repentance into church fellowship but into the pulpit, as well.
The church’s remedy for those who have “itching ears” is found in the same passage of 2 Timothy: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). It is a solemn charge, made “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom” (verse 1). And it contains all the elements needed to combat the temptation to tickle ears: preach, correct, rebuke, and encourage. The content of preaching must be the written Word of God, and it must be preached when convenient and when inconvenient. This takes “great patience and careful instruction,” but sound doctrine is worth it.
The church’s quest to manage the comfort level of its audience must never take priority over preaching the Word. The fear of offending people’s sensibilities can never supersede the fear of offending God. Rather, the church should follow the example of the apostles: “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
The church today, more than ever, needs to re-examine the teachings it endorses. We need to ask ourselves the following questions:
• Are our teachings truly from God or simply itches we want to scratch?
• Are we standing on solid biblical grounds, or have we allowed the world to influence our thinking?
• Have we guarded ourselves from the schemes of Satan (Ephesians 6:11)?
• Are we keeping ourselves “blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)?
The truth is, God is not concerned with scratching our itches but in transforming us into the image of His Son (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4).