Paul'S second letter to Timothy is filled with a sense of urgency but also with a great deal of tenderness. When Paul writes, he is in prison for the gospel and says straight out in chapter 4 that he knows the time of his departure has come. Timothy, on the other hand, is in the city of Ephesus where he is working in behalf of the gospel. The purpose of this letter is for the apostle, in his final days, to urge Timothy on in the work and to make sure that he is ready to face the challenges that he will meet.
When Paul begins the third chapter of this letter, he says to Timothy, "But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty." As this chapter unfolds, it becomes fairly clear what Paul means. There are going to be threats from people of poor character who are corrupt in mind and faith, evil men and imposters who go from bad to worse. And it will be a situation where people who are trying to live godly in Christ will know not only the disappointment of the unfavorable environment, but at times the danger that comes from persecution. Paul believed, apparently, that a Christian is not really prepared to live unless he is ready to live in terrible times.
Notice that he says that these things are to occur in the last days. The phrase "in the last days" is not referring merely to the days right before the end of this present age. In Bible terms, this refers instead to the entire Christian age. In Acts 2:17 the last days are the times when God's Spirit is poured out on all flesh and when all who call on the name of the Lord may be saved. In Hebrews 1:1 the last days are the times in which God has spoken to us through his Son and not through the prophets or the fathers of old. And in I Peter 1:20, the last days are the times when the suffering of Christ purposed from the foundation of the world has taken place and when salvation is available through him.
That leads us to think about our own time. In the world, there are constant threats of terror and war that cause no small amount of difficulty and of concern for all people. In the family, the most basic relationship is being reduced to the level of a whim in American culture right now, and we are having to argue, not merely over whether marriage should survive and continue, but even over what marriage is. In the church, there are pressures upon followers of the Lord to conform to the world to the point that sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between light and darkness and between those who are claiming to be followers of Jesus and those who have vocally rejected Jesus. The church is being pressed in the country right now by questions over how one becomes a Christian, how God is to be worshiped, and what the church even is. These are indeed difficult days in which to live.
The questions is "How we should be living in the mist of those days?". It is clear from this passage that Paul is not merely describing hard times. And he is not charging Christians with the responsibility of going and hiding somewhere. He is, instead, telling Timothy that the life of a Christian is to be lived in the midst of these times, and it can be successfully lived. There are three great clues on how to do so in this passage.
The first thing he says is, in these difficult days, above all keep your love pure. In verses 2-5 there are about 18 qualities of character mentioned that are characteristic of difficult days. Notice as we read. "For people will be lovers of self, 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 the appearance of godliness but denying its power. Avoid such people." If you will notice carefully, through that whole description, there is a theme that ties all those qualities together. And the theme is the abuse of love. The first two qualities and the last two qualities talk about love being abused, and in between there are two other illustrations of this.
First, "these are days," he said, "in which the people are lovers of self." Self interest and personal preferences become the most prominent matters of life. Secondly, he says they are lovers of money, covetous or greedy to the point of being unsatisfied with any blessing possessed. And then in the beginning of verse 3 this version says "heartless." The word means "unloving, without the most basic kind of love in life, without natural affection." The love of a parent for a child, the love of a child for a parent, the love of a brother for a brother - that would be missing, according to what Paul is saying here. And then at the end of verse 3, "not loving good." Here is not only a situation in which individuals have no attraction for what is good and upright and decent, but where there is plain hostility toward what is good, upright, and decent. And then in verse 5, lovers of pleasure rather than loves of God. The first and greatest commandment of life is that we should love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. But in difficult days, Paul said, people reject that most basic commandment, and they do so for the smallest trinket. A moment of pleasure is put in the place of God. And the alarming thing about what Paul says here is that he is not just describing life at large in the world. What he has in view in this passage is the kind of life and character shown among religious folks. Verse 5 describes them holding to a form of godliness but denying the power of it. That means that what he is asking here is for Timothy to take a good look at the nature of love possessed by people who claim to be the Lord's people.
Taken as a whole then, what this catalogue of dishonor tells us is that misplaced and misguided love has terrible consequences. One writer said, "Moral corruption follows from love falsely directed." That is a true statement. Look what this does to people's attitudes. Instead of being humble people, people here are swaggering, arrogant, haughty, selfish. And then look what it does to relationships. Instead of the affection of the most natural relationship, there is hardheartedness. Instead of kindness and thoughtfulness, there is self control. There is slander in the place of encouragement. And then look what misguided love does to overall character. Finally people become what Paul calls brutal and without self control, living on the level of wild animals.
No wonder the New Testament calls on Christians to be people of pure or unfeigned love, according to II Timothy 1. Can Christians thrive in the midst of such sad moral and spiritual conditions? Certainly, if we will keep loving what we ought to love and how we ought to love. It is noteworthy that in Paul's letters to Timothy in working with the local church he really stresses this point. In I Timothy 1:5, Paul said the "aim (or the end) of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." In I Timothy 6:11 Paul wraps up that first letter in a similar way. He said, "But as for you O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith." And then in II Timothy 1:7 Paul says to Timothy, "God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self control." Love is not just an optional warm, fuzzy feeling. It, instead, has the way of life attached to it which puts God first, then treats people the way they should be treated because of who God is, and then where we develop within ourselves the character that ought to be there.
The way Paul says it here is "that I want you to understand this" and at the end of verse 5, "avoid such people." The kind of separation that a Christian practices in this world is a separation of love. And the difference between a Christian and one who isn't has to do with who we love. Is it God or ourselves? And how we love - is it for selfish pleasure or is it for unselfish devotion? If you want to live successfully in difficult days, keep your love pure.
The second thing that Paul says in the middle of this great chapter has to do with keeping our heroes honorable. I want to read the text and then we will come back and notice this theme together. Beginning at the end of verse 5, "Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and lead astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth. Men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith, but they will not get very far for their folly will be plain to all as was that of those two men. You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra - which persecutions I endured. Yet, from them all, the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted while evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse deceiving and being deceived."
If you will think about that section, what really is at stake here is a contrast of heroes. Are we to admire and to model our lives after those who seem like they are getting somewhere but will come to nothing, or are we to model our lives after those who have endured great difficulties who have shown a real substance of character in their lives and who are brought through it all by the love of the Lord? The whole direction of our lives can boil down to this crisis of heroes.
Now there are some who instead of being admired or imitated, are to be avoided. These are individuals who, Paul says, have as their mode of operation, stealth. They creep into households. They can't say out in the open what it is they believe and what it is they will stand for. Their victims turn out to be people (and especially in this passage women) of a certain nature. Those who have a conscience burdened by some sin of which they would like escape. Those who are prone to be moved more by emotion than by thoughtful regard for the Lord's word. Those who are impressed by what is new and novel more than by the substance of what they have heard before. Those individuals turn out to be easy game for that one who can pass himself off as something great and who can mislead the unsuspecting.
And then, the way Paul describes the efforts of these individuals is to compare them with Jannes and Jambres. These are the names in Jewish tradition of two of the magicians of Pharaoh in Egypt. Remember in those first plagues in Egypt that when Moses called those plagues down from God that the magicians of the Pharaoh imitated those things with their own work. Here it is saying that there are individuals who will imitate the real gifts of the Spirit that existed in those early days and who will mislead people in that manner. It will seem like they are getting somewhere, Paul says, but they don't get very far.
On the other hand, Paul says in verse 10, you, Timothy, have seen something else. Timothy, you have followed, you have heard, you have observed closely my own life. He starts out with his teaching. It seems like what is taught always comes first. And you can tell a lot by this. Is someone your hero because of what he teaches? Or because of his impressiveness or his charisma, his talent, his skill? Paul goes on to say, "You have seen my conduct, my purpose, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness." And then he comes to persecutions and suffering. Remember where Timothy was from? It was Lystra. On Paul's first missionary journey when he came to Lystra at the end of Acts 14, there were certain individuals from Antioch and Iconium who came there to stir up trouble against Paul. And the result of it was that Paul was stoned because of his teaching of the gospel and dragged outside of the city and left for dead. After a while, he got up and went on with Barnabas to Derbe and preached the gospel and made many believers there and then came back to Lystra and encouraged the church. In Acts 14:22, he let them know that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. Surely that must have made a deep impression on young Timothy. And that is one of the things that Paul is reminding Timothy of here. "Timothy, God delivered me out of all of those." Paul had to endure all of those things but God was with him and brought him up out of it. "And I endured." Now the question is: "Are you going to be like me or are you going to be like individuals such as Jannes and Jambres?
We still have a big question in our own lives over who our heroes will really be. If we are to prepare ourselves to face difficulty in life and to be faithful, we will have to decide whether our heroes are such as are honorable followers of Jesus or not.
Keep your love pure, keep your heroes honorable, and then in the third place, Paul says, "Keep your faith obedient." Look at the appeal beginning in verse 14, "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how, from childhood, you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is breathed out by God (inspired of God) and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training and righteousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."
Look at that. "But as for you," Paul says. In other words, Timothy, you are responsible for doing right no matter what is going on in the world around you. Your first task is to be true to the Lord. "Continue in what you have learned and what you have firmly believed." In other words, keep on acting in accordance with what you have been taught and remain committed to it. Someone wrote, "All true progress must be within, and not away from, the divine fundamentals of the Christian revelation." He is calling on Timothy to keep himself obedient to the authority of the holy scriptures, even in times of difficulty, especially in times of difficulty. He is to keep his faith obedient.
I would just observe that this is a point that we are finding difficult to honor. It is so basic that to some of us we just turn our minds off. But it is so practical that it is one of the first ways our enemy will try to turn our attention away. Morally, we are not very willing to be told from the word that anything is wrong, especially if it involves sexual behavior or marriage. Spiritually, if it is impressive and if it will draw a crowd, it must be right, in our way of thinking. We tend to adapt to what we want instead of looking for what the Lord has said. We are needing to understand that in the midst of difficult times, of all times, we are to submit to the authority of the scriptures.
Paul gives three reasons for that here. First, the scriptures are God breathed. They are his words. He is involved in this message. It is the sword of the Spirit. It is what God uses to change hearts and minds. Secondly, the scriptures are the only source of the kind of knowledge which makes one wise unto salvation. There is no other place to turn for what the scriptures have to say to us. And thirdly, the scriptures are profitable. On a doctrinal level, they first teach and then reprove - one positive, one negative. On the ethical level, they correct and train - one negative, one positive. And in so doing, they fully equip a person for service to God and for life with him in his kingdom.
I saw a little article in "Power For Today" which might help to apply what I am saying. "It was Sunday morning, September 18, 1918, at St. Mahill, France. World War I. My mother's father was preparing to go over the top. An officer said, 'Ross, remove your sharpshooter's medal. It makes a shiny target.' Ross took it off and put it in his left shirt pocket right behind his small New Testament which a friend had given him two weeks before. As the company advanced, German shells exploded all around. A buddy alongside Ross was killed and Ross was himself knocked unconscious. At the field hospital it was discovered that a large piece of shrapnel was embedded in the little New Testament which had been in his pocket just over his heart. Today, I have that New Testament with the shrapnel still embedded in it, and I realize that I would not be here to tell Ross' amazing story were it not for that testament." (Andrew Neal Austin). In a different way, but still true, without something to guard our hearts, we will lose our way.
The message of Paul's short chapter, II Timothy 3, may be of encouragement to us. Keep our love pure, our heroes honorable, and our faith obedient. This morning if you need to take some action to draw nearer to the Lord who can deliver us out of it all, then we want to encourage you. If you need to become a Christian, or if you are a Christian who needs to come home, this would be the time.