Continue in the gospel (preaching resource for 10/16/22)

This post exegetes 2 Timothy chapter 3, providing the context for the RCL Epistles reading for 10/16/22. This exegesis draws on several sources—John Stott's commentary in particular.

'Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea' by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

Though imprisoned and awaiting execution, Paul’s concern is for Timothy. In particular he is concerned that his protégé will continue to advance the gospel despite personal weakness and the external opposition. This charge serves as a strong exhortation to all of us who are called to continue in the work of the gospel despite our personal limitations and the other difficulties we face.

Know the times (3:1)

1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 

‘Mark this’, Paul exclaims, ‘these last days are times of great difficulty.’ Why such a strong warning after all the others earlier in this letter? Perhaps he feared that Timothy would think that the current troubles would fade and that he should ‘lie low’ until they pass. But perilous times, says Paul, are here to stay—thus we must be prepared to continue forward despite the obstacles.   

Note in passing that many Christians erroneously define the 'last days' as those just before Jesus’ return. But Scripture defines the 'last days' as the age which began with Jesus’ first coming and continues until his second. And though conditions may be worse at certain times during this age, the church will always face obstacles and must always continue in the gospel despite the hardships. 

Beware of false teachers (3:2-9)

2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

6 They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, 7 always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. 9 But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.

Such hardships will often come because certain ‘people’ inside the church will be self-centered and godless. These people infiltrate the church and spread heresy and dead religion.  The rest of this first paragraph of chapter 3 is devoted to a thorough portrayal of these evil ones who are identified by immorality (2-4), false religion (5) and proselytizing zeal (6-9).

1. They are immoral (2-4) 

Paul characterizes the immorality of the false teachers using 19 expressions. Four are compounded with 'love', suggesting that what is fundamentally wrong with these people is that their love is misdirected. Instead of being first and foremost 'lovers of God' (4b), they are 'lovers of themselves', 'of money' (2) and 'of pleasure' (4).

In between these four come fifteen expressions that are almost entirely descriptive of the breakdown of men's relations with each other. The first three enlarge on the meaning of self-love which involves arrogance, pride and abusiveness. The next five seem to refer to family relations—especially the attitude of some young people toward their parents. In an ideal society the relationship of children to their parents should be marked by obedience, gratitude, respect, affection and reasonableness. In 'times of stress' all five are lacking.

The remaining seven words are wider than the family. The first is 'slanderous', speaking of those who are guilty of the sin of speaking evil against others, especially behind their back. They are also 'without self control', ‘brutal’ and 'not lovers of the good' or 'strangers to all goodness' (NEB). Finally, they are 'treacherous', 'rash' (thoughtless in word and deed) and 'conceited' or 'self-important'. Thus we are back to the basic evil with which this hideous list began, namely pride. 

So the root of the trouble in 'times of stress' is that men are 'utterly self-centered (JBP), 'lovers of self'.  Only the gospel offers a radical solution to this problem. For only the gospel promises a new birth or new creation, which involves being turned inside out, from self to un-self, a real reorientation of mind and conduct, and which makes us fundamentally God-centered instead of self-centered. Then, when God is first and self is last, we love the world God loves and seek to give and serve like him.

2. They practice false religion (5)  

It’s sad and shocking that people such as these can seem so religious. Jesus railed against the type, saying to the Pharisees: 'you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity' (Mt.23:25). These purveyors of false religion were meticulous in their religious observance while practicing greed and dishonesty.

Paul makes a similar accusation of some leaders within the church. They practiced an outward 'form of godliness' but were 'denying its power' (5). They evidently attended worship—sang hymns, said 'amen' to the prayers and put money in the plate. But it was *form* without *power*, outward show without inward reality, religion without morals, faith without works. In contrast, true religion combines form and power. Both are essential but one without the other is a departure from true religion.

Of such purveyors of false religion, Paul admonishes, ‘have nothing to do with them.’ Not that Timothy was to avoid all contact with sinners, for Jesus himself was a friend of sinners, and if Timothy were to shun association with them he would have to go right out of the world. Paul means rather that within the church, Timothy was to have nothing to do with the leaders of such false religion. 

3. They recruit others (6-9)

Sadly, these leaders not only practice their error, they zealously recruit others to join them. Paul uses a military analogy to describe their misplaced zeal. The verb translated 'gain control' (6) means to take a prisoner in war and implies being secretive and cunning in doing so. These false teachers were sneaks. They would worm their way into private homes, choosing a time when the men-folk were out (presumably at work), concentrating their attention on women who were weak in two ways. First, they were morally weak, 'loaded down with sins and…swayed by all kinds of evil desires' (6). Their sins were to them both a burden and a tyrant, and the false teachers played upon their feelings of guilt and infirmity. Secondly, they were intellectually weak, ‘always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth’ (7). 

As an example of such false teachers, Paul mentions 'Jannes and Jambres', the names (according to Jewish tradition) of the two chief magicians in Pharaoh's court who had opposed Moses. Like Jannes and Jambres, the false teachers of Paul’s day were impostors and deceivers (13) and thus opposing the truth. The Egyptian magicians opposed the law taught by Moses and the Ephesian false teachers opposed the gospel taught by Timothy and Paul.

Paul rejects these deceivers as men who were of 'depraved minds' and 'rejected’ (counterfeit) as to the 'faith'. Moreover he is confident that such men 'will not get very far'. They will themselves 'go from bad to worse' (13). Their false teaching may temporarily spread 'like gangrene' (2:17). But its success will be limited and transient. How could Paul be so sure? Because 'their folly will be clear to everyone’ (9b) as was true of Jannes and Jambres.

We sometimes get distressed in our day by false teachers who trouble the church. But we need not fear, for heresy will eventually be exposed by the light of truth. This is a clear lesson of church history. God has preserved his truth in his church and that truth is the apostolic gospel.

Stand firm in the true faith of Scripture (3:10-17)

10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In this paragraph Paul places Timothy in stark contrast to the false teachers who were opposing the gospel. Timothy, is called to be different, and if necessary to stand alone and firm in the faith. He gives him this exhortation from the perspective of Timothy’s past and future:

1. Timothy’s past (verses 10-13)   

Paul reminds Timothy that in the past he had not only learned information from Paul, he had believed it, absorbed it and lived by it. Because Paul knew himself to be Christ’s apostle, he did not hesitate to invite Timothy to follow him: 'be imitators of me as I am of Christ' (1 Cor.11:1). Paul is not ‘blowing his own trumpet’ here. Rather he is offering evidence of the authenticity of the gospel he both lived and proclaimed. Indeed the lifestyle of a teacher is a good (though not infallible) test of that teacher’s genuineness. The false teachers lived lives of self-indulgence. The apostle Paul, in contrast, lived a life of self-control, faith and love, and remained steadfast to his principles through many and grievous persecutions.

As evidence, Paul lists the times he was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. Timothy probably witnessed some of this. Perhaps Paul's courage under persecution in Lystra (Timothy’s home town) had played a part in Timothy's conversion. In any case, Timothy had witnessed Paul's persecutions, first watching them, and then discovering that he must himself share in them, for he could not be committed to Paul's teaching and conduct without becoming involved in his sufferings also. 

In v12 Paul makes it clear that his experience was not unique. For all Christians who want ‘to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’ It has always been so. It was so for Christ himself, and he said it would be for his followers: 'If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, "A servant is not greater than his master." If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you' (John15:18-20). 

This inevitability of persecution for Christ-followers is further explained in v13 by the continued activities of false teachers. Paul dubs them 'evil men' and 'impostors' (swindlers or cheats). Such men 'will go [progress] from bad to worse'. He appears to be referring not to their lack of success as teachers, for he has said that 'they will not get very far' (9), but to their own personal deterioration, both intellectual and moral. They are 'deceiving and being deceived'. 

2. Timothy’s future (verses 14-17)  

Timothy must *continue* (abide) in what he has learned and believed no matter what the obstacles (including his own personal weaknesses). Though the gospel must be communicated in new ‘languages’ in new times and cultures and using new technologies, it must never be diluted or otherwise perverted. Thus the Apostle John declares that 'anyone who goes ahead and does not abide [continue] in the doctrine of Christ does not have God' and exhorts his flock 'let what you heard from the beginning abide in you', for then they would ‘abide in the Son and in the Father' (2 Jn.9; 1 Jn.2:24). Similarly here Paul enjoins Timothy to ‘continue in’ (abide in) what he has learned, remaining steadfast and not allowing anyone to shift him from his ground. Timothy must continue in *what* he has learned, because he knows form *whom* he has learned it.  

First and foremost he has learned the gospel from Paul. But secondarily he has learned the Old Testament Scriptures (presumably from his mother and grandmother) that testify to the gospel. The same two grounds for our faith apply today. The gospel we believe is revealed fully (and finally) in the New Testament and is confirmed prophetically in the Old. Concerning Scripture, Paul makes two points:

a. Scripture is inspired. First Paul describes the origin of Scripture: it is ‘God-breathed’—a translation of one Greek work (theopneustos) which indicates not merely that Scripture itself or its human authors were breathed into by God, but that Scripture was breathed out by God. Scripture was brought into existence by the breath (Spirit) of God through the use of human authors who (Peter says) 'moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God' (2 Pet.1:21). It is, therefore, rightly termed 'the Word of God', for God ‘spoke’ it and thus it is the objective and reliable record of the one true faith (the gospel) in which Timothy (and we) must continue at all costs.

b. Scripture is useful. Next Paul explains the purpose of Scripture: it is ‘useful’ (profitable). And this is precisely because it is inspired by God. In order to show its usefulness, Paul uses two expressions. The first is in v15: 'The holy Scriptures', he says, 'are able to make you wise for salvation.' The Bible is essentially a handbook of salvation and since salvation is through Christ, the Bible focuses its attention upon Christ. The Old Testament foretells and fore-shadows him in many and various ways; the Gospels tell the story of his birth and life, his words and works, his death and resurrection; Acts describes what he continued to do and teach through his chosen apostles, especially in spreading the gospel and establishing the church from Jerusalem to Rome; the Epistles display the full glory of his person and work, and apply it to the life of the Christian and the church; while Revelation depicts Christ sharing the throne of God now and for eternity. This comprehensive portraiture of Jesus Christ is intended to elicit our 'faith' in him, in order that by faith we may be saved.

Secondly, Scripture is useful ‘for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (16b).  In short, Scripture is useful for both belief and conduct. The false teachers divorced these two purposes; we must marry them. The NEB expresses the matter clearly. As for our belief, Scripture is profitable 'for teaching the truth and refuting error'. As for our conduct, it is profitable 'for reformation of manners and discipline in right living'. In each pair the negative and the positive counterparts are combined. Do we hope, either in our own lives or in our teaching ministry, to overcome error and grow in truth, to overcome evil and grow in holiness? Then it is to Scripture that we must primarily turn, for Scripture is 'profitable' (useful) for these things.

Indeed, Scripture is the chief means which God employs to bring 'the man of God' to maturity. Who is intended by this expression is not explained. It may be a general term for every Christian, since the words themselves mean no more than 'the man who belongs to God' (NEB). On the other hand, it was an Old Testament title of respect applied to some of God's spokesmen and Paul addressed Timothy by this phrase in his first letter (1 Tim. 6:11). It may therefore refer to men called to positions of responsibility in the church, and especially to ministers whose task it is, under the authority of Scripture, to teach and refute, to reform and discipline. At all events, it is only by a diligent study of Scripture that the man of God may become 'thoroughly equipped for every good work'.

Conclusion

We live in a world, like Paul’s, characterized by ‘terrible times.’ In the midst of this world, some Christians are swept away by sin and error while others retreat into hiding. But neither of these approaches is God’s will for us. 'But as for you,' Paul says to us as he did to Timothy, 'Stand firm. Never mind if the pressure to conform is very strong. Never mind if you are young (or old), inexperienced, timid and weak. Never mind if you find yourself alone in standing up for Christ. You have received the gospel, now continue in it. You know the biblical basis for your faith. Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. Even in the midst of these grievous times in which evil men and impostors go on from bad to worse, it can thoroughly equip you for your work in the gospel. Let the word of God make you a man of God! Remain loyal to it and it will lead you on into Christian maturity.' Amen.