American Journal of Biblical Theology Copyright © 2004, J.W. Carter
2 Timothy 3:1-17.
Minister with Steadfastness in Persecution
Many Christians look at the state of the church and its relation to the world today and come away discouraged. We see a world that is antagonistic to the church and its message. Modern media pokes fun at the church at best, and actively stands firm against its influence at worst. Barely a week passes when we do no hear of some court action, some political intrigue, or some public event that is specifically targeting the Christian church in an attempt to suppress its message. At the same time, Christians are often the first to criticize themselves as any self-inspection uncovers a church that is not as effective as it could be despite its persecution by this pagan and evil world. Many small churches serve only themselves, having no more impact on the kingdom of God than a social club with a religious theme. Churches seem to have withdrawn into themselves, forming schools for their own children, providing a social outlet for its members, and doing very little to spread the good news of salvation to their community.
Ah, for the good-old days. When were the "good old days"? The state of the church and its relationship to the world has not changed that much since its forming. The godless world has always been opposed to the church and its message. The church itself has always struggled with sin's expression. Maintaining the purity of the gospel in a church that seeks obedience to God's purpose for it has always been a daunting task when that message and purpose is continually under attack both from within the church and without.
As Paul writes his letters to Timothy, he sees a church that is in much the same state as the church today. There is a remnant of the church that seems to have overcome the resistance, demonstrate true obedience to the Holy Spirit, maintain a purity of message, and actively seek the lost. However, as is still true today, the great majority of the church cannot be so characterized. The culture of the world has been so accepted by the church, that their cultures are all but indistinguishable. Church congregations rationalized away the truths of the gospel and replaced them with the tenets of pagan culture. Today we understand some of these tenets to carry labels such as secular humanism and relativism, two of many world philosophies that can trace their roots back to pagan Greek philosophy.
Paul knows he is approaching the end of his life and ministry, and knows that he probably will not see Timothy again, as later verses in this letter will show. As he observes the state of the church, his concerns are much the same as those many Christians share today. The church had become secularized, leaving its roots in the gospel for a position more in keeping with the culture of their contemporary world. So, Paul's letter to Timothy is, at this point, of great importance to the church in Ephesus as Timothy struggles to bring the church back from the brink of assimilation into the world. Likewise, Paul's letter has been relevant through the history of the church, as the struggle against Satan and the power of sin never ends.
We should understand that Paul's letter, though exposing the sin in the church, is not an indictment against it, but rather serves to illuminate the dark corners of the church culture, bringing to light areas that must be considered and addressed so that the darkness does not overpower a church that is failing to draw from the power of God. Once he identifies the sin in the church, he provides instruction on correction. Paul loves the church, and has dedicated his life, his struggle, and eventually his life, to it. His desire for a pure and obedient church is one his strongest motivators, and his zeal for the body of Christ is still shared by many today. But still, the problems persist, and those dark corners still require illumination.
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.
With these words, Paul enters into a paragraph where he illuminates those dark corners. Few people desire the exposure of their secret sins, and collectively the church body is no different. Some would rationalize away the following paragraph arguing that Paul is not talking about the church (denying vs. 5), or arguing that this is referring only to the time immediately prior to Jesus return (denying the language and context of vs. 1). Paul always expressed an urgency about the second coming of Christ, and having met Jesus on the Damascus road, fully expected that Jesus could have returned in his own lifetime. Paul would probably have been astonished to think that his letters to Timothy and Titus would still be read by the church 2000 years later. The Greek word for the second coming is perousia. "The last days" is the English rendering of the phrase en eschatais hemerais, is a Greek translation of the similar Hebrew phrase found in Isa. 2:2, and Micah 4:1, a reference to the Messianic age, the period between the ascension of Christ and His return. However, this is not to deny that it also emphasizes His imminent return, and so Christians always consider themselves as experiencing the "last days."
How are these last days charactized? The adjective used for perilous refers to violent danger, a word used only one other place in the New Testament when it referred to the violent demoniac of Matt. 8:28. The last days will be a violent time for the church, a time when it is under attack, split apart from within and without by the ravages of sin. Paul goes on to describe some of the characteristics of those who inhabit the church in the last days.
For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
Paul lists no less than 18 sins common to those who populate the church congregation. With the church in such a state, it is no surprise that the body of Christ is not as effective in the world as it could be.
Lovers of their own selves. Though there is no ranking implied in this list, the first sin mentioned is that of selfishness. The very characteristic of God's agape love is one's love for others. Paul describes people who are not motivated by God's love for others, but rather people who love only themselves. This could be considered both personal and corporate. Individuals are self-centered, and not caring for others. These people will not be engaged in personal efforts to spread the gospel. They see those outside the church as "outsiders," and their interest in inviting them into the fellowship is in word only. In this way, the selfishness becomes corporate when the church congregation becomes self-centered, placing a wall of protection between themselves and the lost world. Instead of fishers of men, they become keepers of the aquarium.
Covetous. Though the church may use flowing and godly words, because of their lack of true agape love for one another, their list of hypocritical deeds continues. Seeking for themselves, they demonstrate more of a love of money and material things than they do for the kingdom of God. They horde what they can for themselves, giving to God and to those in need only enough to appease their guilt. Their giving to the church may be enough to keep it alive, but is far short of any obedience to the tithes, offerings, and gifts that are appropriate. Such churches literally starve their pastors, denying them the support that God commands, often requiring them to work secular jobs in order to continue in ministry. They are willing to give money to projects from which they profit themselves, such as new buildings and facilities, but by placing so much investment in themselves, deny true generosity to the needs of others.
Boasters, proud. The Greek word used here was once a positive adjective, used to describe people of great renown who deserved such accolades. By the time of the first century church, however, the word became a negative description of one who demands such accolades without deserving them. Rather then demonstrating a spirit of humble, servant-leadership, these people prefer to exercise their prideful self-centeredness by demanding power and control, demanding their own way. These people will think of themselves as being better, or more important, than other members of the church body. They will use their titles as weapons of control rather than as an identification of their calling to servanthood. These people will tell pastors and other leaders what they want, and do so in a demanding and critical manner. They have no real interest in the Holy Spirit's leadership in others no more than they do in themselves. These will be the first to quote the scriptural axiom that "God hates pride," but their demonstration of it to others cannot be hidden. Where "boasters" refers to the words these people say, "proud" refers to the attitude in their hearts.
Blasphemers. How often do we hear Christians begin quiet and muffled sentences with the words, "Did you know that ____ ..."; fill in a person's name. One of the characteristics of the sinful and pagan spirit is to elevate one's self by denigrating another. People will spread gossip, criticize those who serve them, doing all they can to speak evil of others, spreading slander in an attempt to appease their own guilt. The reference here is to treating one another with verbal abuse in a manner that is directly tied to the boasting and pride that Paul just mentioned. Any time a Christian speaks of another, he/she should do so with the same love and grace for that person as Jesus would of them.
Disobedience to Parents. When we look at our culture today, we can see the decline that has taken place in its morality in the last 40 years. When one thinks of our grandparents or great-grandparents we often see a system of morals that we might consider more conservative and wholesome. How does such a decline take place? If children followed the teachings of their parents, such a moral decline would not take place. Parents come under blame for not teaching their children, but at the same time, children do not seek to emulate their parents. Instead, the rebellion of the sinful self is expressed not only towards God, but towards their parents as authority figures. Paul lists this sin among the most grievous because of the devastating effect it has on the spiritual health of the church. As society goes, so does the church. Of course, not all children disobey their parents in this way, no more than all church members are described by the other sins in this list. However, the problem is real, and Paul uses this opportunity to bring it to light.
Unthankful. I once heard a prayer raised before dinner that went something like this, "God, I don't know why I should be thankful for this food that I got only from the sweat of my brow..." Granted, the individual raising the prayer was experiencing profound grief and stress, and it is evident that his prayer was not the real feeling in his heart. However, many, by their actions demonstrate no more thankfulness to God for what He has done than did this poor gentleman who had just lost two sons and was also about to lose his farm to war. If prayers of thankfulness are raised, they are simply empty words, as God remains largely ignored as one goes on through life in their own way with little real consideration of the miracle of life and resource that God has provided them.
Unholy. This is probably one of the most serious sins among the body of Christ that Paul exposes. As a "body of believers," Christians are called to be holy: separated out for God's purpose. Their is little doubt that the church has been successful in separating themselves out, but the description here is of a group that is not fulfilling God's purpose. These are people who carry the name of "Christian," but are not living lives that are truly separated out for God's purpose. They serve their own purpose, and "minister" only to those in their little circle. They are quick to support and visit one another when in need, but have no interest in reaching outside the walls of their group. They define God's purpose in their own way, preferring it to refer only to activity among themselves. Their edifices become monuments to themselves, often even named for themselves. Among the pomp and rhetoric of godly words, their resources and lives are dedicated only to themselves.
Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,
Without natural affection. It is incredible that this list continues, and its direction is moving towards the true hypocrisy that exists in the church. The first description in this verse is literally, "without love." It is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in Romans 1:31 where it refers to one who is without love. Love is the very foundation of the Christian faith, it is God's agape love that defines a Christian. Still, there are those in the church who claim the name of Christian, but are not empowered by love. The love of God is, instead, only an expression of their own interpretation of what is lovable, and their relationships with others are similarly based. Love is shared only as it serves their own purposes, and affection that is characterized as godly is replaced with that which is not. Love becomes phileo and eros, expressed in ways that are sinful and self-serving. Today's church has become so permeated with this world's pagan culture that many congregations openly embrace unnatural affections such as immoral sexual behavior and homosexuality.
Trucebreakers. Only used here in the New Testament, the term aspondoi refers to one who refuses to forgive another. Such an individual carries a grudge against another. This person would seek their own judgment against another rather, seeking only their injury. This is the natural response for one who is "without love," for such a characterization is only of one who is unloving. God's love always seeks restoration and reconciliation so that love can find full expression.
False Accusers. The Greek term used here, diaboloi, is similar in application to the slandering mentioned previously, but adds the full impact of evil intent. It is a love-less characteristic that can only be described as evil, expressed by one who may praise God, but in their lives demonstrates only allegiance to Satan.
Incontinent. The meaning of this word has, most likely, changed over the years. Today, the word is used to refer to one who has lost the ability to control bladder or bowel. The Greek word used here, akrateis, refers to a lack of self-control, but applied more specifically to bodily lusts.
Fierce. Anemeroi, refers to one who is brutal. We might first think of one who is physically brutal, and the context is certainly consistent with the previous adjective. However, those who are in the body of Christ often hide their brutality by expressing it in ways that are less obvious. People can be brutal in what they say to one another. They are brutal in their condemnation of their pastors, leaders, and one another. They are heartless in the way they treat one another, caring only for their own lusts for domination.
Despisers of those that are good. It is encouraging to know that, with such an intense list of transgressions that are characteristic of some in the church, that it does not apply to all. There are those who do truly seek to follow Christ. These people are characterized by humility and love for one another. The "despisers" see these traits as weakness. They may treat Timothy with nice-sounding words, but in their actions they expose their disrespect for him. These people hate humility. These people hate expressions of agape love. They will hide back in their dark corners when called upon to express either of these Christian virtues, for they will not express any ministry or action that is not self-serving. Some even take part in sacrificial and difficult ministries so that they will be seen doing it, with no real other motivation other than to look pious, yet despising those to whom they minister, and despising those truly loving Christians who surround them.
Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;
Traitors. Used to describe Judas of Iscariot (Luke 6:16), prodotai refers to one who is treacherous. Such an individual actively forms schemes to manipulate and control those around for his/her own purposes.
Heady. Propeteis, refers to one who is brash, forward, and reckless. This is the "bull in a china shop" who moves through the congregation with ignorant disregard for the damage he/she does. He is not concerned with the hurt he causes others, nor is he concerned about how his actions diminish the impact that the work of the church has on the kingdom of God. He will get his own way no matter who stands in front of it.
Highminded. This word moves us over to where this person's love lies: in himself. This is the person who is conceited, who's love for himself overshadows his love for God or for others. I believe it was Carly Simon who, in 1970-1971 made popular the song, "You're so vain." as she sings of one who "looked into the mirror as you watched yourself walk by." (Yes, I really do remember all the words!). He is a mirror watcher, who when he looks in a mirror sees an improvement in the scenery.
Lovers of pleasures ... How does one demonstrate where his/her love truly lies? When a young man and woman first fall in love, they want nothing more in the world than to spend time with each other, to get close to one another, and to experience things together. Such is a demonstration of true love. When one loves God, the desire is no different. A Christian who loves God wants nothing more in this world than to spend time with Him, to get close to Him, and to share experiences with Him. One who is in love with the things of this world does the same as he relates to the things in the world he loves: worldly pleasure. For him, church is a one-hour obligation on Sunday morning to be followed by lunch and 18 holes on the golf course. His investments will be in the toys of entertainment: cars, boats, houses, electronics, and all the things this world can buy. Tithing for him is a chore, not a joy, and so he will rationalize a bevy of reasons why generous giving is not appropriate for him. Imagine what could happen if he just sold the boat and gave all the proceeds back to the Lord's use? What evangelical congregation could not find a godly application for several thousand dollars? The lover of pleasure simply cannot make the sacrifice.
Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
This verse really summarizes the characteristic of those described in the previous two. These people, many of whom can be described by one or more of the terms of the previous two verses, are active members of the church congregation. They are skilled at "playing church." Through the application of tradition and legalism, they can successfully go through the motions of godliness. They dress up in their finest, show up for the church service on time, and go through all of the motions of worship. However, their words and actions really expose their folly. They will criticize the music for its failure to entertain them ("we don't like those new songs."), they will criticize the pastor's message, "(he went ten minutes over today. He should watch the clock better.") They expect entertainment and gratification from the church experience, rather than simply coming to humbly worship the God who loves them and desires their repentance so he can bless them in a far greater way than they can ever gain for themselves.
Consequently, because of their self-centeredness, their worship is powerless. How is Timothy to respond to them? Apotrepou, simply means to turn away, to have nothing to do with. It also carries the sense of rejecting what they are doing, rather than rejecting them. Do not give authority to their words. Having experienced considerable criticism from ungodly church members myself, I have often been asked why it is not upsetting to me. My answer is simple: I will accept the criticism of one who loves me and has a genuine care for me; however, I give no authority to one who does not. I still love that person, but deny their authority because of their lack of love. This leaves me able to minister in love to them and to try to teach the truth both through word and deed. Do their unkind and brutal words hurt? Yes, for a time. Turning away in the sense that Paul describes is not natural, but empowered only by God's love, the full application of which all Christians aspire to, but find difficult to attain. Paul does not say to summarily shut the door on these people and reject them, for such a response is not consistent with God's love, and in other writings Paul makes this teaching more clear. Timothy is to continue to love, pray for, and teach these people, but he is to reject their doctrine and their authority.
How much of what we have seen in these three verses have we experienced in our own church experience? It is tragic that there are people in the church who are more characterized by this list than by the simple model of grace, humility, and love. The amount of hurt and damage that has been done in the church by these people "in the name of Christ" is incalculable, and the continued presence of such people in the church has dramatically diminished its influence in the world, playing into the worlds criticisms of it, and becoming in itself more worldly than godly in some instances.
For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, 7Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
In the last few verses Paul exposes the characteristics of those who love themselves and this world rather than God. In the next few, he exposes their depraved thinking. He describes them as worms or snakes who slither quietly in through the cracks in the foundation of a home to prey on those who are ignorant of their intentions. It is their intention to gain control over others, a motivation quite in contrast with that which is inherent of one who truly loves another. This desire for control is one of the characteristics that exposes the snake in the church. The desire to dominate another is contrary to agape love. The translation of "silly women" might be an unfortunate rendering of gynaikaria, women who are diminutive, more easily dominated then men. These snakes take for themselves those who are powerless to resist. Bullies do not find success in toppling giants ... they pick on those who cannot defend themselves. Since the purpose of these snakes is to satiate their need for dominance and control, they prey on those who are already overburdened or overwhelmed by sin, possibly living a sinful lifestyle. Such people are easy prey for false teachers, and when the false teacher specifically seeks to exploit the sin-laden woman, he is able to manipulate her in order to satiate his own depraved desires. leading her further into sin.
Though the example her is gender-specific in its illustration, the principle is genderless in its application. The church snake will prey on anyone who is weak, and seek to gain from them that which will appropriate their own profit. Since it is sin that they gain to profit, they will feed on the sin of others to gain and hold their power. Their focus is so intense on their own desires that, though they may be under the hearing of good doctrine, they do not hear it. They will be the first to say, "nice sermon, pastor", having totally disregarded its application in their own lives. They see its application for someone else, that someone they despise. Rationalizing away the application of truth for their own lives, they maintain their own system of belief, and never come to the knowledge of God's will and purpose for their lives.
Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. 9But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men, as theirs also was.
To illustrate the example of false teachers, Paul draws upon a traditional story of Jannes and Jambres, Egyptian mystics who stood against Moses in the Exodus. Their folly was exposed by God's mighty hand in freeing the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage and taking them to the promised land. Paul's words can encourage Timothy, who may feel that his mission is hopeless. Timothy is up against self-important false teachers who have their own, loyal, following. However Paul is quick to note that their folly will be exposed. Certainly, if they carry their dominance to the grave, they will lose it at the judgment when the folly of all men is exposed.
But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience, 11Persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me. 12Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.
As Timothy considers his persecution at the hands of those ungodly leaders in the Ephesian church, Paul reminds him of both his own persecution, and the imminent persecution of all those who live godly in Christ Jesus. When considering persecution, James wrote, "Count it all joy!" (James 1:1). A corollary to this axiom is its opposite: if you are not experiencing persecution, you may not be living godly in Christ Jesus. Paul tells Timothy that he shares in his persecution, and that such persecution is an indication that he is demonstrating a life similar to his own: characterized by faith, longsuffering, charity, and patience. These words can be an encouragement to all who serve in congregations where there are those who seek to control, or those who otherwise may be described by the earlier verses in this chapter. Persecution is part of the job description because sin is always part of the lives of those to whom the minister is called to serve, for if the served knew no sin, there would be no need for ministry. Submersion in ministry is like jumping into a pool of water. The world is immersed in sin, a sin that they bring with them into the church fellowship. Sin touches us on every side, and like one who jumps into a pool of water and comes out wet, one cannot become immersed in the sins of this world and come out untouched. Satan hates God, and Satan's world hates the church. Satan will do everything possible to diminish the effectiveness of the church in this world, and by influencing the lives of Christians, and through the presence of unsaved people in the church, Satan is empowered to do so. Those who maintain obedience to God will continue to experience persecution at the hands of those who do not, and unfortunately, many of those are people on the rolls of the fellowship. Persecution is to be expected.
But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. 14But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them;
Is the situation going to get any better? Paul certainly does not think so. In the beginning of this chapter he implies the continual degradation that will come to the church at the hands of evil men, a degradation that will continue until the end of the age. What would happen to the church if its obedient remnant was not preserved? This would be the ultimate destruction of the church, and the ultimate victory of sin in this world. Satan would not be the prince of this world, but rather its Lord and King. However, this scenario will never occur, as God has always preserved his remnant and will continue to preserve it until the end of the age. Its preservation depends upon godly people, like Timothy, who hold fast to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is these who will stand firmly on what they have learned, and been assured of. The faithful remnant knows the truth, and knows that its source is none other than God alone, the God who created them and all that is known to them. This is a call by Paul to all believers to hold firm to their faith and to the assurance that God has given them: an assurance of his love, his grace, and the surety of salvation through the seal of the Holy Spirit. Christians are assured that Jesus is the Son of God and that his teachings are true and reliable because they come from God the Father through God the Son, empowered now by God the Holy Spirit. With this knowledge and assurance, Christians can stand firm against the church snakes and not be bullied by them, experiencing restoration and reconciliation in some instances, and enduring persecution in others.
And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works..
There is an old Southern American idiom that instructs one to "dance with the one what brung ya." Thought the grammar may be lacking, the message is not. The illustration is to command a dance partner to avoid changing partners in the middle of the dance. In application it refers to one's staying with the original pattern that brought success. Paul bases the successful model on the inspired, holy scriptures. For Paul and Timothy, the scriptures referred solely to the Old Testament.
I was once told by a member of a rather cultic Christian group that the Old Testament was no longer relevant, and there is no need to give it any consideration at all. He was astonished when I chose an Old Testament passage to study while we were engaged in a cross-country driving journey. Such a teaching is certainly inconsistent with the application of the Old Testament by the New Testament patriarchs. Paul clearly stated that all of those scriptures have authority and application in the Christian life. It is those scriptures that he is referring to when he identifies their inspiration of God. Because of their inspired nature, they are fully reliable, and infallible in their original form. Because of this there is no error or inconsistency in scripture. Any time one uncovers an apparent inconsistency or error, that conclusion is simply based upon an incomplete exegesis of the text. One of my favorite study exercises is to tackle apparent inconsistencies raised by critics of the Word. Doing so often requires no little amount of research into the context, language, and application of the text, a process that will at some point surrender the truth and answer the naysayers. All scripture is reliable, and Timothy knows it. He has known this his entire life, so he does not need to succumb to the false teachers who, surrounding him, in unanimity deny the reliability of scripture.
Scripture serves many purposes in the life of a Christian, as it provides the basis for full, complete, and correct doctrine. Serving as the one model of truth, it exposes that which is false, and gives teaching on the correction of falsehood by teaching the full measure of righteousness. The purpose for this scripture is to enable the one who loves the Lord to be complete, to have appropriated for him//herself the full measure of what God intended when he/she was created. The word that is rendered, perfect, does not refer as much to the obtaining of perfection in one's life, as it does to the appropriating for oneself that which is needed to be "complete." To be complete is to be fully furnished with sufficient knowledge and understanding of God's word, and God's purpose to be able to respond to Him in obedience and faith.
This chapter fully describes the challenge that Timothy faces in the church in Ephesus, a challenge that is still evident in the church today. Though there is a faithful remnant that preserves the Word of God, and by so doing, preserves the church, there are many in the church who do not. For many, the church is a social club with a Christian theme. Many use the church to satiate their own lust for control over others. Many who are influential in the church body bring doctrines of their own mind or doctrines of the world rather than doctrines from the inspired Word of God, leading the church further away from the truth. The first step in dealing with the problem is to expose it: get it out into the light. That is what Paul is doing in these verses.
Then, Paul calls upon Timothy to stand fast on what he knows to be true. It is this truth that he is to continue to teach as he continues to love those who he is called to minister to. Though he will experience persecution at the hands of these church bullies, he can rest on the knowledge that such persecution is a badge of honor, as it is an illustration of the consequences of their obedience to Christ. Just as Paul shares these issues with Timothy, he shared them with the Ephesian church, and shares them with the church today so that each would be "thoroughly furnished unto good works."