This evening in our series in 2 Timothy we've come to the first nine verses in chapter 3. And we've been given the title Understand the Times. So how do you understand the times in which we are living? Well, our passage this evening from Paul's second letter to Timothy helps you formulate an answer. And I have four headings as we look at this passage – first, A Fundamental Assumption, secondly, A Perennial Problem, thirdly, A Necessary Response and fourthly, A Wonderful Hope.
First, A Fundamental Assumption
Look at 2 Timothy 3 verse 1:
"But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty."
The Bible is, as much as anything, a philosophy of history. In contrast to some ancient Greek philosophy and some Eastern philosophy the Bible sees time as linear – not as a circle. It teaches that there was a beginning and there will be an end. History is not like a never ending great wheel. And this assumption is part of the world view the gospel presupposes or has to teach. For example, in the book of Acts, chapter 17, when Paul was preaching in Athens and people did not have this world view, he is at pains to set it out – this biblical view of history. For it is essential for understanding the gospel message and much else. So in Acts 17 verse 24 Paul talks to the Athenians about "the God who made the world". And then in verse 31 he talks about the end of this world's history. He says God …
"… has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead".
And this view of history is what the Old Testament so clearly teaches. There you get God's promise that one day, in the future, his kingly rule will bring all his good purposes for men and women and the world to a great fulfillment. That will be in a new age that is sometimes called "the last (or latter) days". So when you read in the beginning of Mark's Gospel 1.14-15:
"Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand [literally 'has drawn near']; repent and believe the gospel,'" …
… it would have been beyond comprehension to so many. For life still had problems. It certainly didn't seem any problem-free new age. The hated Romans were still in the Holy Land, for one thing. But why, if God's kingdom, or these "last days", had really come?
This year we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War. By analogy it is helpful to think of Jesus' proclamation of his good news of the coming of God's kingdom as being like the announcement of D-Day in the Second World War. That was when the allied Normandy landings occurred in 1944 before the final ending of the War in 1945. For we now know that the D-Day success was a huge defeat for Hitler. It was then obvious that ultimate victory was inevitable.
So if Christ's first coming was like D-Day, his second coming signals the complete end of the War against Satan and evil and God's final victory. And that means an overlap of this current age and the age to come, or those "last days". And, therefore, although those last days have begun with Christ's first coming, what you can experience now is not yet heaven. So as Paul wrote to Timothy, a young senior pastor of the Church in Ephesus, you have to "understand this, that in the last days [this new age that has already started with Christ's first coming] there will come times of difficulty [and that covers all sorts of suffering, hardship or persecution]". Paul knew that truth only too well, for he is writing this letter to Timothy from prison. And this was regular Apostolic teaching, as being so important. When the Apostles were encouraging new converts "to continue in the faith", they said (Acts 14.22) …
"… that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God".
But what is involved in such times?
That brings us to our second heading A Perennial Problem.
Look at the first part of verse 2:
"For people will be lovers of self."
Paul is saying to Timothy there is a fundamental truth he has to face as a Church Leader. And it is this. Before Christ returns the Christian will have to face the reality of the sin that is at the heart of so many of life's difficulties and problems. And at the root of sin are people putting themselves in the place of God. They will not place God first but themselves first. As Paul says, "people will be lovers of self"; and as he says in verse 4, "lovers of pleasure [or their own desires] rather than lovers of God." They will develop, in fact, what is now called "the Religion of Me".
How relevant this is for today! For that is precisely what is happening in the pagan, secular West and quite openly. A glaring example of this was in the Girl Guides and highlighted nationally at this church with such disgraceful consequences. This was because our Guide leaders rightly refused (and refuse) to substitute the word 'self' for the word 'God' in the new Girl-Guiding Promise. So Glynis Mackie had her JPC guide group (among the oldest in the city and highly regarded by parents) threatened with closure. Thank God, the threats were withdrawn after Glynis gained massive media support.
And this "Religion of Me" is the root cause of arguments over homosexual marriage that President Obama and David Cameron are trying, shockingly, to promote around the world, with Obama currently in Kenya and, thank God, being challenged over it. Certainly it is the root cause of the vitriol poured out on people who argue that (in the best interests of children, individual adults and wider society) sexual intercourse should be reserved for heterosexual lifelong monogamous marriage. Let me say two things about that - one very simple, the other more complicated. I mentioned these two points last Sunday morning in our series on British Values and "Individual Liberty" but I know a number here this evening were unable to be present then. So I will repeat them.
First, of the nearly 200 lands represented in the United Nations, only 20 or so have adopted some version of same-sex marriage or same-sex unions. And an important recent comment by Allan Carlson is this (I quote):
"Despite intense forms of bribery and extortion now practiced by the United States and the European Union, few others are likely to join 'the West' in this latest surrender to the sexual revolution."
Carlson, A., The Majority Report
But, secondly, it is important to understand how this new "Religion of Me" works and why it generates a vitriolic hatred against the majority in the world who say that humanity suffers when there is a sexual free-for-all. What is happening is this. The "Religion of Me" involves the rejection of the Christian common sense understanding of reality. That is of a world out there in which God, our creator, has placed us and in which we need to live together in ordered liberty (not absolute liberty but ordered liberty) and according to his rules. Instead "the Religion of Me" says that it is not God who is at the centre of my universe, but "me".
However, what is then also being rejected with the rejection of, or ignoring of, God's word, is the fact that men and women are of infinite worth because they are made in God's image, as the Bible teaches. So in "the Religion of Me", now without God's truth, how do you have any significance at all so that you are not just your chemistry or a chunk of meat? The irrational answer given by the pagan 21st century is this. It is to say that your dignity and human worth comes from you yourself being able to create your own world and morals and pleasures.
And that is why your absolute individual liberty is so important. For you must be at liberty to do anything you desire provided there is no immediate, short term, apparent harm to someone else. And that is because such unhindered, fulfilled desires give you (it is asserted) human significance and human worth. So no laws or morals must stop you. Those who suggest otherwise, are seen as assaulting your humanity. Hence the vitriol. And as the most unique thing to you is your body, you must be free to do exactly as you wish with it and with whom. And all this is to be enshrined in law. So in the United States, its Supreme Court some years ago ruled that the individual has the right to define the nature (I quote) "of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." These were the actual words used by the US legal establishment to express the essence of what in the 21st century it means, in the godless West, to live now in a free society.
But Christ and the Bible say this is not a free society but an irrational, morally enslaved and decadent society. And – of huge significance – it means Western society is no longer sufficiently attractive to stop some young idealistic Muslims being seduced by extremist groups such as ISIS, Al Shabab and Boco Haram. But do not be surprised by any of this, however sad and depressing. For 2000 years ago Paul wrote to Timothy saying:
"understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty for people will be lovers of self."
That brings us to our third heading and A Necessary Response
The social consequences of putting yourself first are quite destructive of human flourishing. For people are produced who are (look now at verses 2b – 5):
"lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having an appearance of godliness but denying its power."
So what, then, is to be Timothy's response? Paul simply says at the end of verse 5: "avoid such people" – have nothing to do with them. But you say, "Isn't that rather strong?" For up to this point Timothy has only been told to "charge [people] … not to quarrel about words" (2.14); "to avoid irreverent babble" (2.16), and "to have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies" (2.23). Timothy had been told to avoid the negative things people say. But now he is to avoid some people themselves. This is much tougher advice. So doesn't it contradict 2.24 where we read,
"The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness"?
No! Paul is not contradicting himself when you see what these people are really like. For these people Timothy has to avoid, first, have "the appearance of godliness, but [are] denying its power." So they are inside the Church. But although inside, they are a hollow sham.
Secondly, they wrongly prey on weak women. Look at verses 6 - 7:
"For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth."
But, thirdly, the fundamental issue is this (verse 8):
"these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith."
So these people positively oppose the truth of the gospel with its doctrine and ethics – the very thing that Timothy is to guard at all costs. They are, therefore, depriving people of God's life-giving word. It is these people Timothy is to avoid. Paul is not talking about people in the world who don't claim to be believers. For the Christian is to engage with non-believers to win them for Christ. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor 5.9-11:
"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler or drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one."
No! Paul is talking about people who do not preach the Apostolic biblical faith and who are inside the church. And also verse 8 says they can be like the evil magicians Moses had to face - Jannes and Jambres. According to Jewish tradition these were the names of the two chief magicians in Pharaoh's court who opposed Moses at the time of the Exodus from Egypt and are referred to in Ex 7.11. When Aaron cast his rod down it became a serpent. So then these magicians, the Bible says, "also did the same by their secret arts." Theirs was demonic supernatural activity that did not come from God and which, as the Bible makes clear, God hates and abhors. And Ephesus, where Timothy was pastoring and evangelizing, was a place that knew all about the occult. Acts 19.18-19 says this of the Ephesians:
"Many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all."
And there is in the West still an interest in the occult that the Bible abhors – from respectable forms like Freemasonry to the less respectable forms like fortune-telling, horoscopes and Spiritism. Some of it may be bogus, but some isn't. And this can go with people who have "the appearance of godliness." I can remember years ago in a service in a church in Cambridge sitting in the congregation literally behind one of the most theologically liberal US bishops of the 1960s, Bishop Pike of California. He openly denied much of the Christian faith. And this occasion was just after his son had, tragically, committed suicide. But not long after that service I learnt that Bishop Pike was trying to contact his deceased son through a medium - something the Bible expressly forbids. And the séance was televised. Well, such men in the church should be avoided - people who positively deny apostolic, biblical truth. They were to be avoided in Timothy's time. They are to be avoided today.
But remember verse 9 – such people …
" … will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men."
How true that is! No one now is interested in Bishop Pike. His folly has been plain to so many.
That brings us to our fourth and final heading, A Wonderful Hope.
These verses we have had to consider this evening are among the most negative and depressing in this letter of Paul. But they are necessary. It is no good burying your head in the sand and ignoring what the Bible tells you about the real world. However, Paul has already positively reminded Timothy (1.10) that by his appearing, Christ has
"abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel".
For on the cross Christ died in your place for your forgiveness, and he has risen to give you new life by his Holy Spirit. And by faith you simply ask for that forgiveness and new life. So (2.8) Timothy is told to "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead." Christ is victorious. He is alive and reigning. And he does care for you. The Bible says he "sympathizes with our weaknesses"; so you can "receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb 4.15-16). Timothy is to keep all that in his consciousness. But most positive is Paul's conclusion to this letter, where he writes of the wonderful hope that lies before all true believers and so Timothy. Here are Paul's own (nearly) final words – in prison and perhaps awaiting execution (4.6-8):
"I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing."
I shall never forget that passage because it was read at the funeral service of the young Pathfinder leader at our Church in Leeds. He was killed in a car crash on the A1. And at the funeral service his young wife explained she had chosen those verses because when she went to her husband's desk his Bible was open at that passage. This was because he was preparing to speak on it the following Sunday at the Pathfinder Bible class. He was ready for Christ's appearing. Yes, history will end and Christ will return. So, are you also ready for Christ's appearing?
How are you made ready? Answer – it is by trusting Christ as your Lord and Saviour and by then obeying (and being faithful to) his word and witnessing to him in an often decadent world, wherever he calls you to live and work.