2 Timothy 3:1-13 “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 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. Have nothing to do with them. 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. 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. But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone. You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 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. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
Let me put these words in the context of our studies in the second letter of Paul to Timothy. The personal context for myself and our congregation is that this place is about half way through the letter, and for me this is the 20th sermon. But the context within this letter is this; the first chapter of 2 Timothy may be entitled ‘The Charge to Guard the Gospel’ and the second chapter of this letter may be entitled ‘The Charge to Suffer for the Gospel,’ while this third chapter I am calling ‘The Charge to Continue in the Gospel.’ It is an important chapter, and so the apostle begins it with the words, “Mark this!” Now every verse in this letter is God-breathed. Paul was carried along by the Spirit of God as he wrote these words and so we are to mark every verse as important. But in case you should think that this is the moment for a half-time break and that you can switch off because this section is familiar and also rather negative, then God says, “Mark this!” Get out your special device for highlighting twilight memory cells in your brain and apply this passage and these very words to your thinking. Mark this! They will be helpful to you, and if you are not yet a Christian then mix what you read and hear with prayer so that today salvation might come to your house.
- THERE WILL BE TERRIBLE TIMES IN THE LAST DAYS.
i] Let me begin by making clear to you what this phrase “the last days” is referring to in the Bible. Some people mistakenly think that it refers to the time just preceding the end of the world. So when they hear of certain atrocities and the rise of crime, and the killing of the unborn child they say, “These are the last days.” Now for almost 200 years, from the time of Edward Irving, and the Bonar brothers and the rise of the Plymouth Brethren movement thousands and thousands of sincere preachers have been prophesying that Jesus is coming soon, his coming is quite immanent, because the times they were living in had an outburst of evil. Because of that they concluded they were living in “the last days.” All the people who taught that were wrong. Every one. Horatius Bonar was wrong. In fact we now look back to the time in the first half of the 19th century in Scotland and we think what a blessed time it was.
During the first world war and the rise of Mussolini and Hitler people debated which one of those tyrants was the anti-Christ, or ‘the man of sin’ of 2 Thessalonians. The end of the world for those people was drawing near. I once heard a man in an open air meeting on the promenade in Aberystwyth tell us that God had told him that he wouldn’t die before the coming of Christ. The man has been dead for thirty years. They were all wrong. They all had a view of the future that things are going to get worse and worse before the end of the world. There is a man in Aberystwyth who belongs to an obscure religious organization, and he doesn’t attend any church anywhere, but when I bump into him he invariably says to me with a certainty and a glow in his face that the world will soon end. I agree with him that the world is going to end one day, and it might be soon, but no one knows when it is going to end, and our preparedness for the world ending does not depend on any certainty we have as to the time. We are all uncertain about the time and so we are always to be ready, with our lamps lit.
In the Old Testament the book of I and II Chronicles is called in Hebrew the ‘book of days.’ The history of the church is the history of the days God gave his people, and the coming of the Messiah marked the beginning of the last of such days. The new age, promised by the Old Testament, started with the birth of Jesus Christ. With his coming the old age of sacrifices, and badger skins, and Jubilee years, and a holy city, and judges, and tribes, and cities of refuge, and not wearing clothes of two fabrics all began to pass away; the last days had dawned with the life and death of the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth. Peter on the day of Pentecost could quote Joel’s prophecy that it would be ‘in the last days’ that God would pour out his Spirit. Peter told the multitude in Jerusalem that this prophecy relating to the last days had been fulfilled. The coming of the Spirit of God at Pentecost was the event that Joel had been referring to. So the last days the prophet mentioned had started. Or again, another familiar verse is the opening of Hebrews; “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Or again Peter writes in his first letter these words, “you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers . . . with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake” (I Pet. 1:18-29).” So we are living in the last times. Therefore what follows in the verses of our text is a description of today, the end of February in the year 2016. It is not a description of the future. It is a description of the whole period that has elapsed between the first and second advents of Christ – the buzz phrase is the ‘inter-adventual period.’ The last days are these days.
ii] There will be terrible times in the last days. Now he does not say that all the 2000 years between the coming of Christ (when the last days were inaugurated) and the return of Christ (at the end of the world) will be “terrible times.” They will not be uniformly and consistently perilous. We know differently. There have been great reformations and revivals in these past 2000 years. These have been the years when we first became Christians and were encouraged by meeting many other Christians. We got married and became parents. Then we have known of the spread of the gospel through the world. These have been the years when there’s been remarkable advance in medical science so that tuberculosis and infantile paralysis have almost disappeared in the UK. There has also been the virtual banishment of poverty in our land. I no longer see what I saw as a boy – children without shoes on their feet on the streets of Merthyr Tudful. The last fifty years has seen peace in Europe, and many countries have got a liberty and democracy that they did not have before. We have seen the spread of freedom, and there is the extraordinary ability common people now have to communicate instantly by Skype and Email with people all over the world. The earth has become a cosmic village. In these years we have seen our children come to know the Lord, and even our grandchildren saved. There have been excellent publishing houses who have given us the most helpful Christian books. Every day at least two new books appear which any Christian would love to own and have the time and discipline to read. God has blessed churches, conferences, seminaries and camps. True Christians have been put in influential places in the media and in local schools. All this has happened in the last days.
But all such blessings do not cancel out the truth of what we read here in our text that there are also terrible times in the last days. The two go hand in hand. Maybe we are facing a future when on the one hand anti-Christian forces will grow in power and hatred such as the church has not yet seen, a very great time of tribulation, and yet at the same time reviving grace will fill the world and there will never have been so many true Christians in the world as there will be then.
iii] The reason for the terrible times is also given to us here in that “people will be . . .” terrible. It is not because God is sovereign and God sends terrible times. People act in these different ways. It is people who are responsible for the menacing seasons which Christians and congregations have to endure. Fallen man is in rebellion against its Creator, and the chief marks of its rebellion are its indifference and total apathy about Jesus Christ. People’s souls are dead in trespasses and sins. They are not subject to the law of God neither indeed can they be. They will not and cannot please God. They are responsible for all that follows. God cannot sin nor does he encourage anyone to sin. They are the ones who spread evil in the world and heresy in the church.
iv] Lists of vices have their place. We so-called conservative evangelicals are often accused of being legalists, and one of the marks of us being considered legalists in the eyes of the world is that we’ve got lists! There are things we do not do. There are places we do not go. There are practices that we oppose. There are little choruses that make fun of us and our lists. “There are three things you cannot do, you cannot smoke, or drink, or chew . . . or go out with girls that do.” I suppose that ‘chew’ there means chewing tobacco. So we believers are tempted to join in with the world in caricaturing Christian ethics, how Christians are mistaken in having such simple lists as that. We are against lists, we say sagely. We want to ‘wrestle’ with what is right and wrong, and ‘agonize’ about our conduct, and then when we do something that is incompatible with what God says in the Bible we can say, “But I agonized over it.” I had a friend and he was taking his family out to a party in someone’s home and they had cleaned up the children and they were having a shower and they told the children to keep clean and tidy. But when they returned downstairs in half an hour the little boy was nowhere to be found and when he did come in from the garden he was dirty and needed a change of clothes and a wash all over again. He was reprimanded, and he said sorry, adding these words, “But I did it with a heavy heart.” Well, we don’t like lists; we want to think and agonize and choose even if it means doing wrong with a heavy heart – that is existentialist angst and much to be preferred than showing mere obedience to some list – even if God requires it.
But why should lists be wrong per se? Where do lists come from? They are in the Old Testament, the ten commandments, and this list of Paul can be traced back to them. Yes, but also lists certainly come from gentle Jesus meek and mild. The disciples were involved in a dispute with the Pharisees because they did not ceremonially wash their hands before eating. Jesus then explains to them that what is in us, in our hearts, and that it is far worse than what we swallow. Jesus says, “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean’. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’”” (Mk. 7:20-23). The Son of God listed sins. One of the reasons is the sheer rhetoric effect, a relentless list of wickednesses, building up the multifarious nature of iniquity. We might feel rather proud of ourselves that we are law-abiding in much of our lives, but then there is this one sin, and it easily besets us, maybe envy, or is it evil thoughts? Then we realize we are guilty people, guilty in God’s sight and we need mercy and pardon just as the thief and the murderer also do.
- THE VARIEGATED NATURE OF HUMAN SINS.
Jesus there listed thirteen sins. Paul here lists about nineteen. They are common and uncommon sins that characterize our day and age. This is a most contemporary list of what men are and what men do and they amplify the phrase, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” In other words, here are some of your bosom sins. Let me read those words again with comment of application; “People will be lovers of themselves [entertainers and singers], lovers of money [bankers and crooks], boastful [politicians and sportsman], proud [academics and teenagers], abusive [football fans], disobedient to their parents [kids who whine, ‘It’s not fair’], ungrateful [husbands who never say thank you], unholy [people who refuse even to think of God], without love [short-tempered abusive men], unforgiving [people who never forget wrongs they think have been done against them], slanderous [those who run down others and spread exaggerated stories about them], without self-control [people who quickly fly off the handle], brutal [the people who groom girls and boys], not lovers of the good [those who describe good living students in their class or in the office as ‘goody-goodys’], treacherous [people who say one thing to you with a smile on their face and then say another thing against you behind your back], rash [preachers who do not think before they speak and act], conceited [church officers full of themselves], lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God [people whose priority is the world rather than the Creator of the world].” Those are the nineteen. So there is none righteous, no not one. All the world lies guilty before God.
John Stott helpfully divides the people described by our text into three categories.
i] The Moral Conduct of These People
John Stott draws attention to the first and last expressions. The first says that they are ‘lovers of themselves’, and the last, at the end of verse 4 says that they are not lovers of God. Then four of the nineteen words are compounded with the word ‘love.’ It suggests that the fundamental problem with these people is that while they have an affection this love of theirs is a misdirected affection. The greatest command is to love the Lord our God with all our beings and then to love our neighbours as ourselves, and yet these people just love themselves. They preen themselves as they dress up and look at themselves in their mirrors and put on their make-up. Then you see that they are also lovers of money, and lovers of pleasure. Then in between those four expressions – those four love-words – come fifteen other words which more or less describe a breakdown of people’s relations with one another.
The first three expound what are the characteristics of self-love, “boastful, proud and abusive.” These people are so full of themselves that they are dismissive of others. The next five, from the middle of verse 2 seem to refer to family life, and especially the attitude of young people to their parents. In the Greek form these five words are all negative. Here are people known by what they are not rather than what they are, dishonouring their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, or as J.B Phillips translates it ‘Utterly lacking in normal human affections.’ Then fifthly, unforgiving, quite implacable, unreasonable, irreconcilable. A man in Savannah, Georgia, said to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” Wesley said to him, “I hope you never sin.”
The remaining seven words are wider than the family. These people live in society; they all have neighbours; they affect the people they are bound to meet, but they are, Paul says, firstly ‘slanderous,’ that is backbiters and scandalmongers, and then the next is ‘without self-control’ – they have a hair-trigger reaction to others; then ‘brutal’ – untamed men, like wild beast, a brute, a horse that hasn’t been broken in; then ‘not lovers of the good’ – strangers to all that is good; then ‘treacherous’ – Luke uses this word to describe Judas; ‘rash’ – reckless in word and deed; ‘conceited’ – bumptious people; lovers of pleasure rather than loving God.
Here then is a portrait of the godless life of mankind all over the world, in every kind of society! Here is life in Wales in the 21st century. This is the consequence of abandoning the living God, his Son, his salvation, his indwelling Spirit, his law, his day, his people, living without those realities. This ugly and wretched behaviour is the consequence, such a bleak future faces a nation which abandons its Creator. This is the message of this list of nineteen words. The root of the trouble in terrible times is that we are lovers of self instead of lovers of God, and only the gospel offers a radical solution to this situation because the gospel comes by a birth from above and it enters the hearts and lives of people. It changes people from within. It turns people upside-down and inside out. From self to un-self, from the shadowlands to the light of God’s presence; from “I can’t get no satisfaction” to satisfaction. Conversion changes the whole order of this list. Christians start with loving God; he is in the beginning, and he is the alpha, and then we go on loving our neighbours as ourselves.
ii] The Religious Observance of these People.
“They have religious observance? These people – “without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” – they have a religious observance? Apparently they do. We are told in verse 5 “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” They actually have some structures of godliness. Think of the chief priests who orchestrated the crucifixion of the Son of God and mocked him as he hung dying. They observed all the outward forms that Leviticus required of the priests. If certain clothes needed to be worn they were worn. If certain psalms needed to be sung, they sung them. If there were certain sacrifices that needed to be made, they were sacrificed. The form was there perfectly, the choreography, the dress, the music, the words – it was all very impressive and beautiful, but, and it is a huge ‘but’, all the time they were doing very correct religious things they were plotting the murder of the lovely Lord Jesus, the money they’d give Judas, the time of the trial, the jury, the payment bribing the witnesses, the encounters with Pilate, the mockery on Golgotha, when to go there from their homes, what to chant, when to return home for a glass of wine and a celebration meal with their friends.
But don’t you know this possibility? That you know what it is to have been locked into the form of religion? You are keen to get to the church on time, singing the hymns you like, putting money into the box, looking pious, but utterly detached from the inward power of the life of God. Piety without sincerity. Religion without morals. Faith without works. Public prayers without private praying. What is Timothy to do with such a people? “Have nothing to do with them” says Paul. What was Luther to do with such people? He had nothing to do with them. Not of course that we cross the road when we see them approaching us. Our Saviour was the ‘Friend of Publicans and Sinners.’ I enjoy discussing in the street the Christian faith with all the ministers of the town that I meet. I will talk to the Jehovah’s Witnesses as they now come out to talk to people in the Owain Glyndwr Square. We are all in this large house, and if we were to try to avoid contact with sinners entirely we’d have to go and live on the moon. We have to meet them, but we can’t evangelize together. We do not agree on something as basic as what is a Christian. If they are members of our church, and are at the same time what the Book of Common Prayer calls ‘open and notorious evil livers’, then we are under obligation to beseech them to change, to rebuke them and entreat them to turn and repent of such a lifestyle, and if they remain hostile then they are to be excommunicated. Then there’s one more thing about this list:
iii] The Evangelistic Zeal of these People.
Now you can hardly credit this. It was hard to swallow that such ungodly people yet had a form of religion while living like that, but now we are told something even more incredible, that they were proselytizing. Some were, Paul says. “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” (vv.6&7). Here is their strategy’ the ‘gain control’ means to take captive in warfare, to take prisoners of war. They are not open and direct. They are furtive and secretive and cunning. They choose a time when their husbands are at work. They use the back door. They are sneaks and they insinuate themselves into people’s houses. They focus on weak women. A Jehovah’s Witness came to my house yesterday. It was a woman. There were three who were in charge of a table of Watchtower publications in town and the three were women. You see the strategy here. It is as old as the fall of man. The devil targets the woman first. There is in motherhood a tenderness and a sympathy that Satan will exploit to his own ends. But here are people after the fall and so they are burdened women, “loaded down with sins and are swayed with evil desires” intellectually weak, biblically ignorant, credulous, gullible; open to any tall tales. Please don’t be up in arms, women, when you think of all the wretched men in the Bible, the monsters of wickedness are all males. Paul is describing here not all women but certain women, weak in character and weak in mind, open to religious hucksters who can manipulate them. These are the easy prey of door-to-door religious salesmen.
Then Paul gives us an example of this kind of thing. “Timothy you’ve known the holy Scriptures from a child and you know the story of the magicians in Pharaoh’s court. We Jews call them Jannes and Jambres though they don’t have names in the Scriptures. They led the campaign of Pharaoh against Moses that brought such destruction on all of Egypt. What Moses said to them was absolutely true. The warnings were true; the miraculous signs were true, but all they had was conjuring tricks. They opposed the truth (v.8). And so do these men you know about, Timothy, with their congregations, largely of women. They oppose the truth in their message to needy women.” See how Paul is not abashed at putting himself and Timothy on the same level as Moses being opposed by the Egyptian tricksters. “Don’t lose an hour’s sleep over them Timothy because it is all a temporary phenomena, like mushrooms that spring up overnight and die overnight so these men have their five minutes of fame and then down they’ll fall, with moral collapse and shame. They won’t get very far, says Paul (v.9). You think of Gnosticism; it was a central foe of Christianity in the New Testament. Today we are not very certain even what they believed. Its folly became “clear to everyone” (v,9) and it’s dead and gone.
Here we are given a remarkable word photograph of the society in which we are living, utterly amoral and immoral and yet where there is religious activity. God has given us a blueprint so that we should be forewarned, and prepared, and not discouraged. But more than that he tells us how we can triumph in such a day. Where does the victory lie? Not in techniques and programmes but in living like the apostles full of the Spirit of Christ. That was the way then and it is the way of victory now. Listen to his words to Timothy, “however” your eyes are not to be fixed on these sins and these evil men. You fix your eyes on the life of an apostle of Jesus Christ; thje contrast is with another list, and what a wonderful list it is of nine great virtues; “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings” (v.10ff) and that is what overcomes the world; that is what makes the gospel church more than conquerors through Jesus Christ. Paul can rehearse some incidents of persecution that happened to him that Timothy knew about. There is nothing like hearing of such suffering for Christ to put steel in a Christian’s backbone, and to know that the Lord rescued God’s servant from them all. So though we are promised no more than our Saviour experienced we will know deliverance too while there is no deliverance for the ungodly, quite the reverse; “while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (v.13). That is the stark choice that faces you in the future. Either a life of trials and testings, but many great deliverances, or this fearful cliché that’s describing an unspeaking future, ‘going from bad to worse.’ Things seem bad for you today, but tomorrow they may be worse, and tomorrow, and all your tomorrows, worse and worse! Turn to Jesus Christ, the Son of God today and ask him to become the truth, your true teacher, and protector and the Lamb of God who will take away your sin. Keep asking him until you know he has heard and answered you.
28th February 2016 GEOFF THOMAS