by Bob Wheeler


II Timothy 3

Up until now here in the U.S. it has been easy to be a Christian. The church occupied a privileged position in society. From the Pilgrim Fathers to the Civil Rights Movement Christianity has exercised a powerful influence on American life.

What most Americans do not realize, though, is how exceptional all of this has been. When the history of the Christian church is taken as a whole, it is a picture of hardship and suffering, of persecution and martyrdom. Indeed, right at the outset Jesus warned his disciples, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as servants and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16; NKJV). The plain fact of the matter is that we are engaged in a spiritual war against a determined enemy. And that war will not end until Christ returns to claim victory.

All of this is reflected in Paul’s comments to Timothy in II Timothy, chapter 3. He begins by setting the stage by telling Timothy that “in the last days perilous times will come” (v. 1). There is a bit of confusion here, because we normally think of “the last days” as the period just prior to the Lord’s return, whereas Paul goes on to warn Timothy about things that were going on back then at the time that he was writing. The answer, I think, is found in I John 4:3: “And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” We are engaged in a spiritual war that has lasted throughout the church age, but will intensify as we approach the end and will reach a climax during the Great Tribulation.

What, then , is the situation we face? Paul describes a society almost devoid of human qualities. It begins with people being “lovers of themselves” (II Tim. 3:2) – completely devoted to their own individual self-interest. In line with that they are “lovers of money” – frankly materialistic in their outlook. Doesn’t this look like a capitalist society in an advanced stage of social decay? It is an apt description of the “me” generation.

Then follows a list of character attributes that stem from this basic self-centeredness. What is striking is that in the Greek the list includes no less than nine different adjectives that begin with the Greek letter “alpha,” which denotes the absence of something. These people are “unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, without self-control,” among other things. It is almost as though they are incapable of doing good to others, so devoted are they to pursuing their own individual self-interest.

Remarkably, however, the citizens of this decadent society are still religious – at least outwardly. Paul describes them as “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (v. 5). The translation “godliness” is perhaps a bit misleading. The underlying Greek word might better be translated “piety” or “reverence.” The idea here is that this decadent society still goes through the outward motions of religion. They attend church, they sing hymns (or at least mumble their way through them), they put money in the offering plate (at least a token amount). But they “deny its power.” There is not personal acquaintance with or attachment to God, and no evidence of God’s working in their lives. They may go through the motions outwardly, but inwardly they are spiritually dead.

It is in this context that false teachers arise. Paul says that they prey on women, who sometimes can be a little gullible in such matters (it all started in the garden!). This is not to say that all women are gullible or naïve, but there is a certain type of woman who is particularly susceptible to this kind of thing. The may struggle with emotional issues, and as a result can be manipulated by cunning men who reassure them that God loves them just the way they are and wants them to be happy and fulfilled.

As for the false teachers themselves, they are in the position of “resisting the truth” (v. 8). Paul compares them to Jannes and Jambres, who, according to Jewish tradition, were two of Pharaoh’s magicians who tried to counter Moses’ miracles with some of their own.

But why would someone want to resist the truth? What is the advantage of falsehood? Paul says that they are “men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith” (v. 8). They are “evil men and imposters” who are “deceiving and being deceived” (v. 13). In other words, they themselves are hopelessly deluded, and they do not know what they are doing. They constitute a very real threat to the church.

It was in this context that Paul conducted his own ministry. Paul tells Timothy that “you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance. . . .” (v. 10). Doctrine (or, teaching) was, of course, central to Paul’s ministry. But it also involved much more than that. His personal had to back up his teaching. He had a sense of purpose and direction. He had to have a firm trust in God and a love for others. But it also required longsuffering and perseverance. The reason these qualities were so important is that Paul had also encountered outright persecution. Paul refers specifically to the experience he had had on his first missionary journey through central Asia Minor where he encountered opposition from angry Jewish mobs who chased him out of Antioch and Iconium, and stoned him nearly to death at Lystra (cf. Acts chapters 13 & 14). Since Timothy was a native of Lystra he may have witnessed these events firsthand.

Paul’s conclusion to all of this sobering: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). The Christian life is an offense to a godless, secular society, and if they cannot ignore us they will try to attack us.

Which brings us to Paul’s charge to Timothy. “But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of . . .” (v. 14). Specifically, he reminds Timothy of the importance of Scripture. First of all, because the Bible is God’s inspired Word. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (v. 16). “. . . for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,” as Peter put it in II Pet. 1:21. Down through history God has spoken through various prophets and apostles, so that we have in our possession a real revelation from God Himself. The Bible must always remain our standard of truth, and we forsake it at our own peril.

But the Bible is also an immensely practical book. It is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:16,17). Scripture is obviously useful for doctrine – indeed, it is only through Scripture that we can know about God, about the meaning and purpose of life, and about what lies beyond the grave. And it is valuable precisely because it comes from a source outside of ourselves – from our Creator Himself who alone can tell us these things authoritatively.

But the Bible was also intended to do more than just fill our heads with facts and information. It was meant to give us practical guidance on how to live. It is profitable “for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Reproof and correction are necessary because we are prone to go astray. Sometimes we need something to get us back on track. Scripture is filled with practical guidance on how we ought to live. And living a life that is pleasing to God ought to be our main concern here on earth.

The end result, Paul says, is that “the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (v. 17). The Bible contains all the information we need to be able to live the Christian life successfully.

We live in troubled times. Dark clouds are looming on the horizon. Increasing pressure will be brought to bear upon us to conform to the perverted values of a godless society. In times like these it is more important than ever that we remain faithful to Scripture. It comes down to a choice between God and man – to whom will we listen? If we follow God’s Word it will lead us to eternal life. But once we forsake the Word, we are doomed to wander in the barren wasteland of ignorance and self-destruction. Which will it be?