The Truth About the Enormous Problem of Itching Ears

The Epistle of Galatians

In the past couple of posts, we addressed the idea of how believers in Paul’s day were abandoning Jesus for another gospel. We defined some of the words Paul used in describing the defection of the Galatians. We looked at the words, ‘I marvel’, ‘turning away’, and ‘so soon’. In today’s post, we are going to look at some of the signs the Word of God warns us about when people consider turning from their first love. When the Bible says people have itching ears, just what exactly does that mean? Let’s take a look at Paul’s admonition to Timothy.

Galatians 1:6–9 (NKJV) 6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

Sign Number One: Itching Ears

  • One of the signs showing a trending in the wrong direction is what the Bible calls ‘itching ears’.

2 Timothy 4:3 (TNIV) 3 For the time will come when people 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.

  • What exactly are ‘itching ears’?
  • The UBS Handbook to Second Timothy has the following note: “The expression itching ears (or “ears that tickle”) occurs only here in the New Testament and is used as a figure for curiosity. Unfortunately, what they will be curious about is not sound doctrine but interesting and spicy pieces of information that “tickle” their ears.”1
  • The New American Bible Revised Edition has the following translation.

2 Timothy 4:3 (NABRE) 3 For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers

  • The Athenians in Acts 17 suffered from a hot pair of ‘itching ears.’

Acts 17:21 (NABRE) 21 Now all the Athenians as well as the foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing something new.

  • Paul was constantly correcting and adjusting the saints over doctrinal issues.
  • But, he uses future tense language in his exhortation to Timothy.
  • He says ‘for the time will come.’
  • If the time will come’, that means it hadn’t arrived yet.
  • So this admonition to Timothy about not enduring sound doctrine and people having itching ears was something out in the future.
  • It was something getting ready to happen.
  • How far out in the future?
  • Is this a prophecy for today?
  • To answer that question, it’s helpful to read verse three in context.

2 Timothy 4:1–3 (NABRE) 1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: 2 proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. 3 For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers

  • Paul instructs Timothy to proclaim the word; to be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; to convince, reprimand, and encourage through all patience and teaching.
  • Paul was getting Timothy ready for what he was getting ready to face.
  • The ‘itching ears’ phenomenon is not some special season of time.
  • It’s something which has always been and is now.
  • So, Paul’s admonition was relevant in the first century and it’s relevant today.

Put Up with Sound Doctrine

  • The Greek word ‘sound’ means to be correct or accurate.
  • It is conceived as being free from error.
  • The word ‘doctrine’ means the content of teaching or instruction.
  • In the original language the words ‘put up with’ is a verb which means to allow or to permit the presence of without opposing or prohibiting.
  • Per these words, Paul, inspired by the Spirit of God, states that people will oppose ‘accurate, free from error’ Bible teaching.
  • Who are these people who do the opposing?
  • Who are these people who resist the gospel preached in an accurate way in our day?
  • Oddly enough, it’s some of the teachers who are in the body of Christ.
  • Who is it who declares that the ‘days of miracles are past’?
  • Who is it who deprives others of the ‘bought and paid for’ blessings of Calvary?
  • It’s no different than Paul’s day as he was writing to arrest the Galatians who themselves were abandoning the truth of the gospel for teachings which including circumcision and the adherence to the law.

The Root to the ‘Itching Ears’ Tree

  • What is it which drives the ‘itching ear’, refusing to adhere to ‘sound doctrine’ phenomenon?
  • Paul tells us right in the middle of this verse; ‘to suit their own desires’.
  • Wrong desire is the source of ‘itching ears.’
  • The ESV translates it as ‘to suit their own passions.’
  • The Greek word ‘desires’ means an evil craving; an inordinate, self-indulgent craving which displaces proper affections for God.
  • This same word is used two other times in Second Timothy.

2 Timothy 2:22 (NABRE) 22 So turn from youthful desires and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord with purity of heart.

2 Timothy 3:6 (NABRE) 6 For some of these slip into homes and make captives of women weighed down by sins, led by various desires,

  • The motivation to hear a different gospel is rooted in personal cravings.
  • These cravings are so strong that they ‘heap to themselves, teachers’.
  • The word ‘heap’ means a large number stacked up in piles.
  • ‘Heaping’ or piling up is the ‘fix’ people use to satisfy this wrong craving.
  • So, it’s not the truth of the Word, it’s some personal agenda which must be gratified.
  • For example, people have prayed for a loved one to be healed and when they weren’t, instead of examining the Word over the issue, they piled up teachers who say that Jesus no longer heals today.

Call to Action:

There are many other examples of this in the church world today. People have ‘pet doctrines’ motivated by lust and self-justification. Stay with the Word, Get back to the Word. Cling fiercely to the Word. Build your life on what God said. As one minister put it, if you don’t have scripture for what you say you believe, all you have is opinion.

Question: In what areas are you seeing the ‘itching ears’ phenomenon? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. Daniel C. Arichea and Howard Hatton, A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to Timothy and to Titus, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1995), 242.