Epistles: Living in Terrible Times (2 Timothy 2:16-3:13)


Paul advises, if you don’t want to be embarrassed, then “avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly” (2:16). Don’t waste your time with pointless discussions. If we give them “equal time,” “their teaching will spread like gangrene.” And then Paul gives a specific example: “Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.”

We are not sure how those two men got that idea. Maybe they took Paul’s idea that we are raised with Christ, to conclude that we already have all that God has to offer. That idea would not be very attractive to an apostle on death row! They probably thought their idea was the most important teaching in the church, but Paul says it was a waste of time, and it had caused some people reject Christianity.

Even though some people lead others astray, “nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”“ The Greco-Roman world had many buildings with inscriptions.

If God’s church had a foundation stone, what would be inscribed on it? Paul says it would have a promise, and a warning. God will be faithful to his people, and his people need to stay away from sin. If we want the results of righteousness, we need to do what is righteous. We need to be faithful to our commanding officer.

A noble instrument (verses 20-26)

Paul turns from the building, to objects inside the building: “In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble.” Some are fine dinnerware; others are good for scraping mud off your boots. Some are ornate decorations, and others are chamber pots.

But what is Paul’s point in this analogy? “If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” There’s a good way to live, and a bad way. If we want the results of righteousness, then we need to put wrong ways out of our lives. So Paul advises Timothy to “flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” All of us who follow Christ should love these virtues.

And then Paul returns for a third blast against fruitless disagreements: “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” Some people may try to divert your attention toward their favorite topic of disputation, but don’t take the bait.

“The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” Just teach the truth; don’t get involved in personal attacks (which were common in the ancient world; there was intense competition for status and honor, often at the cost of insulting and tearing down possible competitors).

Paul explains how to deal with enemies: “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” They have a distorted view of reality, and they unwittingly serve the devil’s purposes. But we do not condemn — we hope for the best, praying that God will eventually help them see the truth.

When personal resentment rises up within us, we need to respond not only with prayer for our opponent, but also prayer for ourselves, that we too might escape the trap of the devil.

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 (2 Timothy 3:1-5)

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.

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 10-12)

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.

Author: Michael Morrison

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