Staying on Track When Others Are Not: A Study of 2 Timothy 3
In Paul’s last letter to his favorite assistant, he warns Timothy about the opposition that Timothy will face, and encourages him to continue what he already knows is true.
Living in terrible times (verses 1-5)
This chapter begins with a warning: But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. Many Jews speculated about what the future held, and many predicted that society would reach its worst point just before God intervened to straighten everything out. As verse 5 makes clear, Paul is saying that the "last days" are already under way (see also Acts 2:16-17 and Hebrews 1:2).
But that was almost 1,950 years ago. How could the first century be the "last days"? Either Paul was mistaken as to how soon Christ would return, or else we are mistaken in how Paul is using the language of prophecy. Or both.
Some of the strongest evidence for the gospel is the example set by people who taught Timothy, especially Paul.
It is a mistake for us to look at Paul’s description, see it happening around us, and conclude that Christ will soon return. We live in the last days, yes, but so did Paul. If Christ’s return could be 2,000 years away from Paul, it might be for us, too. It could be very soon, but it might not, and current events do not prove it one way or the other.
Let’s look at Paul’s description: People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power.
Missing from this list is torture, murder and genocide; the list seems a bit tame in comparison to atrocities that also existed in the ancient world. Paul is not describing the worst of all possible worlds — he is describing Timothy’s opponents: people who might look like they are godly, but who are actually rejecting the gospel.
Paul does not say here what his opponents taught, but other ancient writings help us make an educated guess. Many Greeks thought that spirit is good and matter is bad, so a good God did not create the physical world. Rather, he created a lesser god, who created a yet lesser god, who created another, who created another, etc., in a long series of gradually less-good gods, one of whom was finally so far removed from perfection that he created the physical world, and human souls somehow got trapped in physical bodies.
Salvation was seen as the process of escaping matter, and it required a person to learn the genealogy of the gods and the way to navigate up through these levels in order to reach the original perfection. There was no evidence for these speculations, but they were attractive to some Christians in the first and second centuries. Paul’s advice was simple: Have nothing to do with them.
Truth will prevail (verses 6-9)
Paul describes the result such people were having in the early church: They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.
These smooth-talking salesmen were able to convince some women (sections of 1 Timothy seem to address the same problem), and even though the women learned all sorts of secret "knowledge," they never really learned anything useful. Their anxiety about their sins and desires made them easy prey for a philosophy that offered a way for them to work their way out of the problem. The real truth is much simpler: Christ has done it for us; we do not need to be burdened with guilt or enslaved to our own desires.
Paul compares them to Egyptian magicians: Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these men oppose the truth — men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. "Rejected" is too strong of a translation; the Greek word adokimos may also mean "incorrect" or "unapproved." God has not totally rejected them, but we should reject them as far as the faith is concerned, that is, we reject what they teach.
But they will not get very far, Paul concludes, because, as in the case of those men (i.e., Jannes and Jambres), their folly will be clear to everyone. Paul does not tell us when or how (indeed, he says in verse 13 that the deceivers will soon get worse). His purpose is not to make a specific prediction, but to encourage Timothy to stick to the truth because eventually everyone will see that Timothy’s opponents are wrong.
Staying on track (verses 10-14)
Paul reminds Timothy that he has a firm foundation: You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love… Timothy has heard the arguments, but Paul does not point him there. Rather, he points to the way in which Paul lived out the truth of the gospel. Paul’s own steadfastness is an important testimony to the validity of the message.
Not only did Paul have desirable qualities, he also had some undesirable experiences. Timothy knew about these, too: endurance, persecutions, sufferings — what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured (see Acts 13-14). Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Paul writes this from prison, and expects death, so he knows that the Lord does not rescue his people from all situations. The point is that he can, and often has, so Timothy can be confident that the Lord will take care of him.
Timothy will experience some trouble, too: In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Indeed, it will sometimes look like the bad guys are winning: while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. Paul’s purpose here is not to make specific predictions — the purpose of this "battle rhetoric" is to steel Timothy for the hardships that will come. If he expects the worst, nothing will catch him off guard.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it. Elsewhere, Paul tells Timothy to keep the faith because it is true — but here he tells him to persevere because he knows the people who taught him. Some of the strongest evidence for the gospel is the example set by people who taught Timothy, especially Paul. If Paul can be faithful through persecutions and problems, Timothy can be, too.
The written word (verses 15-17)
Timothy has another reason to be faithful: from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures — which for Timothy would be the Old Testament — which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Paul does not say how the Old Testament informs people about Jesus, but the book of Acts and several of Paul’s letters provide more than a hundred examples of how Paul used Scripture. The Old Testament describes our need for a Savior, predicts salvation through a suffering Servant, and teaches that God is completely trustworthy.
All Scripture is God-breathed, Paul says. He does not say which books are in Scripture; nor does he specify how God breathed these writings. In context, Paul is talking about the Old Testament rather than the New, but the early church said the New Testament writings are inspired Scripture, just as the older writings are.
The important thing about inspiration is not the precise method used, but the purpose: It is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Scripture is not designed to teach us grammar, geography, math or science. It has a more practical purpose: telling us about salvation through Christ, and after that, how we should live. We focus on those, rather than on speculations about the future.
Taking it personally
- Is humanity more sinful today than it was a century ago?
- Why did the ancient deceivers target women in particular?
- Am I loyal to the people from whom I learned the truth?
Does the Old Testament teach me about salvation through Christ?
The Greeks had a Word for it
Theopneustos is a combination of theos, meaning God, and pneō, meaning "to breathe or blow." Ancient Greek writers used this word to describe wisdom, dreams or speech that came from the gods. In the New Testament, it is used only in 2 Timothy 3:16, where the focus is on the usefulness of the inspired writings, and not on the precise means by which God caused his message to be written.