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Perilous Times – II Timothy 3

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Sermon 4 of 8 from the Passing the Torch (II Timothy) series
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July 2003 – You’ve probably heard the old joke about the fellow who was told, “Cheer up. Things could be worse.” So he said, “I did as I was told. I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse.” That in a nutshell is the message of II Timothy. The Apostle Paul, writing from a prison cell in Rome, knowing that his own death was at hand, warns his young protg Timothy of difficult days to come. Although he never loses his faith in God, it is clear that the aged apostle was deeply concerned about the trends he saw all around him. Hard times were coming; days of stress were just around the corner. If a man was not ready, if he didn’t brace himself in advance, he might be washed away when things got really hot.

Verse 1 is really the key to this whole chapter. “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days” (II Timothy 3:1). Two questions come to mind. First, what does Paul mean by the expression, “last days?” That phrase has at least three meanings. It can apply to the entire period between the first and second comings of Christ. Since Christ could have come at any time, the entire church age can be called the “last days.” It also applies to unique periods of spiritual testing that occur at different times in different places. Finally, it obviously applies to the last few weeks and months and years preceding our Lord’s return to the earth. I find it helpful to think in terms of labor pains. A pregnant woman knows when she is about to give birth by the frequency and severity of her labor pains. In the same way, the various things that Paul lists in the first few verses of II Timothy 3 will always be present in some form, but will increase dramatically near the end of the age. Are we in the “last days?” No matter how you define it, the answer is yes. And we may indeed be living in the final days before the return of Christ to the earth.

Second, what will the “last days” be like? The word translated “terrible” occurs only here and one other place in the New Testament. In its other occurrence, it refers to the two violent men who were possessed by demons in the region of Gadara (Matthew 8:28). They were wild, uncontrollable men who lived among the tombs. The particular Greek word used to describe them is also used in II Timothy 3:1. The “last days” will be fierce, violent, dangerous and frightening. Here’s another word you could use: In the last days, savage times will come as men cast off all moral restraint and society begins to disintegrate.

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Raw Paganism

In 1988 evangelical philosopher and theologian Carl Henry made a stunning prediction in his book, Twilight of a Great Civilization (Crossway Books). He said that as America progressively loses its Judeo-Christian heritage, paganism would grow bolder. What we saw in the last half of the 20th-century was a kind of benign humanism, but he predicted that by the start of the 21st-century, we would face a situation not unlike the first-century when the Christian faith confronted raw paganism—humanism with the pretty face ripped off, revealing the angry monster underneath. His words have come true, and are coming truer with every passing day.

So Paul warns Timothy, “After I am gone, things are going to get worse before they get better. Buckle up, Timothy. Terrible times are coming.” That’s why Paul said, “Mark this,” or “Understand this,” or “Pay attention to this.” Don’t be nave and think that everything is going to be okay. It’s not all going to be okay. But forewarned is forearmed. If we know what is going to happen, we won’t be surprised when it does.

I. Perilous Times Described

A. Catalogue of Corruption v. 1-5

The first five verses of II Timothy 3 offer a sobering catalogue of corruption. In a sense, this is a shorter version of Romans 1:18-32. This is what happens when a nation turns its back on God. First, there is a total rejection of God. People are unholy, ungrateful, lovers of themselves, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. This leads to a total moral collapse. People become lovers of money, conceited, without love toward others, boastful, proud, unforgiving, conceited, “not lovers of what is good.” Finally, there is the total breakdown of society. People will be treacherous, rash, slanderous, brutal, disobedient to parents, abusive and without self-control. That last phrase means that in the end, anything goes. No rules, no moral absolutes, no restraints of any kind. Every man does that which is right in his own eyes, and woe to the person who dares to question his “lifestyle choices.” Side note: It’s interesting that Paul includes “disobedient to parents.” It may seem too trivial to be in such a solemn list, but for Paul, disobedience is the spark that ignites the flame that leaves the home in ashes. (Is it any wonder that divorce has become commonplace or that many people want to redefine marriage to allow for homosexuals to marry each other? Answer: No, it’s not surprising, and we haven’t reached the bottom of the pit of moral degradation.) In the light of Bible prophecy, we should expect that as we approach the end times, all these things will increase in intensity and frequency, until we have the situation portrayed in the Book of Revelation, the total implosion of the social order as men utterly rebel against God and destroy themselves and the world in the process. Perhaps this is why Jesus said that unless those days were shortened, no one would survive (Matthew 24:22).

Religious Rebels

But we haven’t gotten to the bad news yet. That comes in verse 5: “Having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.” The word “form” means something like, “having the outward appearance” of godliness. That is, in the last days, as men turn away from God, paradoxically, they will become more religious, not less. Religion will become more popular as we approach the end times because people will seek some refuge in a world that increasingly has lost its way. They will ask the right questions, but will follow the wrong answers. It will be religion for religion’s sake, not religion for the sake of knowing Christ. They will join the church (or some other religious organization), they will be baptized, attend the services, sing and pray and give and go through the motions, but their hearts will not be in it. They will deny the very power they profess to believe. In particular, they will embrace a kind of postmodern religion that allows them to do anything, believe anything, endorse anything, live any way they choose as long as it makes them happy. They will say things like, “We don’t need to be bound by the outdated rules of the Bible. Those were written 2,000 years ago and don’t apply to us today.” That’s not far-fetched. You can say things like that today and be elected a bishop in some denominations.

Notice how Paul says we are to respond to these false religious leaders: “Have nothing to do with them” (v. 5). That’s clear, isn’t it? It’s also judgmental, narrow-minded, rude, unkind, unfair (in the eyes of many people), and a host of other things that are not Politically Correct today. But the word of the Lord remains. We are to have nothing to do with religious people who do not believe the Bible and do not accept its authority over every area of life, including sexual morality. Such people are religious but lost. From time to time, we at Calvary are approached by nice people wondering why we won’t join in with all the others churches in Oak Park in various community endeavors. As I say, these are nice people who wish we would join hands with them and sing “Kum-Ba-Yah” and leave all the Jesus stuff alone so we won’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. There are two answers we give: First, we are happy to work side by side and hand in hand with true believers in Jesus who worship him as Savior and Lord and who accept the Bible as the unquestioned Word of God. We fellowship and work together in many ways with many groups all the time. We do it, we’ve done it, we like it, and we plan to continue doing it. But we do not and will not join hands with those who deny that Jesus is the only way to heaven, who are not born again, who do not accept the Bible, who do not preach salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ, who do not put the Bible above the shifting tide of public opinion. To be frank about it, we just don’t have anything in common with theological liberals. They’ve got their religion and we’ve got ours. Over the years, we’ve been delighted to work with Emmanuel Bible Church, Harrison Street Bible Church, Forest Park Baptist Church, the Rock Church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Fellowship Christian Church, Elmwood Park Bible Church, Woodside Bible Chapel, Judson Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Grace Lutheran Church, and the Chinese Bible Church, to name only a few local congregations. And there are many others in the Chicago area with whom we share a common bond of fellowship in Christ. We happily work and worship together with those who share our common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but as for those who are religious but deny the fundamental truths of the faith, we “have nothing to do with them.”

B. Condemnation of Apostate Leaders v. 6-9

Verses 6-9 describe how these false teachers spread their insidious spiritual venom. First, they prey on weak people. “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” (II Timothy 3:6-7). The Greek term for “weak-willed women” can also be translated as something like “silly” or “unstable” women. It certainly does not describe all women, but rather a certain class of women who are unusually gullible. They carry a load of guilt for their sins, and they let their sinful desires (perhaps a reference to sexual immorality) get them into all sorts of bad situations. The principle applies generally to all those who are easily led and easily confused. Second, these false teachers are nothing new. When Paul mentions Jannes and Jambres in verse 8, he is referring to the Jewish tradition that named these two men as the leaders of the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses in the book of Exodus. And how did they oppose him? By counterfeiting or duplicating some of the early plagues. For instance, when Moses turned the rivers into blood and called forth the plague of frogs, the magicians did the same things. This suggests to me that in the last days, there will be some spiritual leaders who are so in touch with demons that they will somehow counterfeit or duplicate the miracles of God, and millions will believe their deception. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Paul used a word for “terrible” times that was only used elsewhere of demonized individuals (Matthew 8:28). Certainly there will be an outbreak of demonism in the last days leading up to the return of Christ to establish his kingdom on the earth. The greater point is, the false teachers of Paul’s day, and the false teachers of our day, and the false teachers of the final days, are all cut from the same cloth. They’ve been around a long time. Third, their success will be limited and temporary (v. 9). They won’t be around forever because God will make it clear whose side he is on. Just as the waters that parted for Moses also drowned the Egyptian army, even so the hand of God that saves his children will come down in crushing judgment on the false teachers.

II. Three Survival Strategies

If this is what we have to look forward to (and it is), how then should we live? How will we survive the “savage days” that are coming our way? Verse 10 emphasizes that Christians are called to be different. “Timothy, you were called by God to make a difference by standing strong. Don’t be discouraged by world conditions. Don’t let the world change you. Instead, go out and by God’s grace change the world.”

The last part of this chapter suggests three very practical survival strategies for the perilous, difficult, dangerous days in which we live.

A. Follow Godly Leaders v. 10-13

This principle is based on the truth that we become like the people we associate with. If we follow the ungodly, we will become like the ungodly. If we follow the arrogant, we are likely to become arrogant. If we follow those who follow Jesus, we are more likely to become like Jesus ourselves. In this case, Paul uses himself as an example, and says in effect, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” These are the marks of the godly people we should follow:

1. They have nothing to hide. “You know my way of life.”

2. They teach the truth. “You know my doctrine.”

3. They practice what they preach. “You know my faith, my love and my patience.”

4. They aren’t afraid of persecution. “You know my sufferings and my persecution.”

Paul’s point is: Find people like this and follow them. Regarding persecution, he points to his own sufferings. In Antioch he was opposed. In Iconium he was almost stoned. In Lystra he was stoned and left for dead. But it does not matter because “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (v. 12). What happened to Paul will happen to Timothy sooner or later. What is happening around the world to Christians in Sudan, parts of China, in Indonesia, in Iran, in many of the Muslim countries, will happen to those who live in the United States sooner or later. No one gets a free pass that absolves them from suffering for Jesus. It may not involve beatings or torture or imprisonment or death; it may involve subtle forms of ridicule, public embarrassment, marginalization, being made the butt of repeated jokes, being passed over for promotion, social rejection, shunning, and being the object of scorn and vicious rumors. That sort of thing happens all too often. When it happens, it is a true form of persecution, even though it leaves no outward scars.

And while it is happening, evil men will grow worse and worse, deceiving others while themselves being deceived (v. 13). Note that Paul mentions “imposters.” The word can be translated, “magicians,” or “soothsayers,” or even, “jugglers.” Watch out for those jugglers! In the first-century, jugglers were often traveling con men, like those fellows who run Three-Card Monty games or shell games on the sidewalks of big cities. They claim to be running honest games, but everything is rigged against you. The world is filled with religious charlatans who want more than your money, they want your soul. Let the buyer beware.

B. Continue in What You Have Learned v. 14-15

The second strategy is extremely practical. Stay the course. Don’t be distracted by clever-sounding religious hucksters. Don’t believe everyone who knocks at your door. Just yesterday I received a long e-mail about a certain campus ministry that is actually a cover for a very authoritarian religious organization. They begin by inviting students to Bible studies that seem innocent enough. Soon that Bible study becomes an invitation to a religious system that utilizes high-pressure manipulation to keep everyone in line. What seems so wholesome turns out to be very unhealthy and potentially extremely dangerous. The point is, groups like that can be found everywhere. The way to resist them is to continue in what you have been taught.

Paul then begins to develop the heart of his survival strategy for the last days. It involves a proper understanding of the Word of God. In verse 14 Paul reminds Timothy that the Word of God gives confidence in days of difficulty. It steadies the soul by giving us the absolute standard for truth. So Timothy is to remember both what he has learned and also who taught him the truth. Consider your teachers. Ponder their character. Think of their sacrifice. That will keep you on the “straight and narrow” when you are tempted to turn to one side or the other. In verse 15 he reminds Timothy of his spiritual heritage: “And how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” This is the doctrine of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Notice how Paul puts it. The Bible brings wisdom that leads to salvation that comes to us through Christ and is received by faith. Said another way: God’s Word saves us. How?

By the words that are written down: “the holy Scriptures.”

By the wisdom in the written words: “able to make you wise.”

By the gospel the words reveal: “wise for salvation.”

By the faith the gospel produces: “through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Everything we need to know about going to heaven can be found in the Bible. Nothing is missing and nothing needs to be added. The Bible is not an encyclopedia that covers every possible topic in the universe, but it does tell us everything we need to know about the most important thing in the world: How to know God. The truth of the Word of God can save you, forgive you, justify you, sanctify you, purify you, transform you, regenerate you, and one day, it will take you all the way home to heaven for all eternity. Everything we need to know about life with God can be found in the pages of the Bible. If we had needed to know anything else, God would have told us. The Bible is complete as it stands, a finished product that will produce in us a new life, a godly life, a growing life, a fruitful life, a loving life, a Christ-like life, eternal life, the very life of God himself.

Note when Timothy learned this: “how from infancy you have known.” That’s a reference to his godly grandmother Lois and his godly mother Eunice. They started teaching him the truth when he was just a tiny baby. They prayed for him, sang to him, recited Scripture to him, taught him to read by reading the Old Testament to him, and built his whole life around the Word of God. God bless those godly women. I believe the best time to start teaching your children is while they are still in the womb. Expectant mothers should read the Bible to their preborn babies. Start while they are inside you. Read the Word and sing Christian songs to them. Pray over your unborn child. Why should we let the world take the first shot at our children? Let’s start teaching them before they have a chance to listen to TV or the radio or before they start surfing the Internet. Immerse them in the Word while they are still swimming in the womb. And don’t stop when they are born. Kick it up a notch. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. Why shouldn’t we pray the same thing for our children today?

That’s why we spend so much on our children’s ministries. That’s why our nursery workers sing Christian songs to our tiny babies, and that’s why they quote Scripture while they are changing diapers. Who knows what may sink into the impressionable minds of the very young? Start when they are infants so they will know the Word from the very beginning. You never know what difference it may make years from now. That’s why we have an Awana program and that’s why we talk so much about Scripture memory. And as far as I’m concerned, I think the greatest beneficiaries of our current renovation program will be our children’s ministries and our youth ministries. We’re building new rooms so we can minister the Word to more children and more teenagers. That’s the way it ought to be. And on a personal note, that’s why my wife and I have spent the last ten years establishing a Christian school in Oak Park (the Oak Park Christian Academy). We want to give children from all over this region a chance to be “educated for eternity” in a school where the Word of God is the foundation for all that is taught.

C. Let the Word of God Make You Complete v. 16-17

The final strategy is found in verses 16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” If verse 15 teaches the “sufficiency of God’s Word,” then verses 16-17 teach the “authority of God’s Word.” They tell us why the Bible is all that we really need in order to go to heaven. Paul says that all Scripture (the Old and the New Testaments) is “God-breathed.” That’s a literal translation of the Greek word theopneustos. It means that God breathed out the words, and Moses wrote them down. God breathed out the words, and David wrote them down. God breathed out the words, and Daniel wrote them down. God breathed out the words, and Matthew wrote them down. God breathed out the words, and Paul wrote them down. This is the highest possible view of Holy Scripture. It’s not as if Moses was inspired the way that Shakespeare was inspired. Shakespeare wrote wonderful plays; Moses wrote down the very words of God. The difference is total and complete.

Because the Bible comes directly from God, it equips us to do every good work. Do you want to know God’s will? Study the Bible. Do you want to fulfill your mission in life? Study the Bible. Do you want to know what God wants you to do? Study the Bible. Do you want to live a better life? Study the Bible. Do you want freedom from sin? Study the Bible. Do you want God to be pleased with your life? Study the Bible. It will tell you everything you need to know.

Pay attention to the phrases Paul uses to describe the practical impact of the Bible. God’s word tells us what is right (teaching), what is not right (rebuking), how to get right (correction), how to stay right (training in righteousness). Here is the result: We are thoroughly equipped to do what God wants us to do. A soldier needs the right equipment in order to win the battle. The Bible is the Christian’s sword by which we fight the battles of life. But a sword does no good if it is left in the scabbard. You have to take it out and use it. Likewise, the finest study Bible in the world will do you no good if you do not read it.

This is Paul’s final answer to the “terrible times” that are coming in the last days.

Know the Word!

Read the Word!

Obey the Word!

We Never Outgrow the Bible

Make the Bible the foundation of your life. Love it and believe it and obey it and follow it and then teach it to others. That will make you strong and give you confidence when trouble comes your way, as it must come sooner or later. Knowing the Bible now can save your life later. So we can say it this way: We never outgrow the Word of God. We will always need it as the foundation of the church. You need it in your life and I need it in my life. The Word of God will make you complete so that you are ready to do everything God wants you to do.

If we stand back and look at this passage as a whole, we can summarize it in a few key statements:

1) The world will get worse—Don’t be surprised.

2) Tough times are coming—Don’t be discouraged.

3) It’s easier to stand strong if you don’t stand alone.

4) Believers who build their lives on the Bible may be persecuted but they will never be defeated.

Ministry in the last days will be tough business. Only the strong will survive. But God has given us two advantages:

1) He has told us what will happen.

2) He has told us what to do.

Build your life on the Word of God and you will be able to survive the coming hard times. As a practical matter, there are some questions we should ask ourselves as we think about this passage:

1) How am I building God’s Word into my life?

2) Do I submit to the Word of God even when I might disagree or dislike something that it says?

3) Am I willing to run all my opinions through the grid of Holy Scripture?

People of the Book

If we take this passage seriously, then we must say that the great need of Christians everywhere is to become truly biblical in our thinking. We must absorb the Word until our very blood is bibline (a word coined by C. H. Spurgeon). Since we will never outgrow our need for the Word, we dare not live on yesterday’s knowledge, but continue instead to grow in the Word day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. John Wesley once expressed his commitment to the Word this way:

I am a creature of a day, passing through life, as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till a few moments hence, I am no more seen! I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, the way to heaven: how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven. He has written it down in a book! Oh, give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be a man of one book.

Here is a noble goal for all of us: Make us people of the Book. Make us a church of the Book. Make us families built on the Book. Make us men and women who love the book of God. May those who know us, if they know nothing else, know that we are a people of the Book.

I believe the Bible is the Word of God. This church does. That’s why the Bible has such a high position around here. That’s why we give out Bibles to the little children who graduate from kindergarten into first grade. We don’t give them Weekly Readers. We give them Bibles. We believe the Bible is the Word of God. That’s why we have a Sunday School. That’s why we have Sunday School teachers. That’s why we spend thousands of dollars on Christian education. That is why we send the best and the brightest we have to the ends of the earth with the message of the gospel. That’s why we do everything that we do. We believe the Bible is the Word of God and we are going to stand upon it. We have staked our lives upon that fact. That’s why the Scriptures come first in our Articles of Faith. This doctrine is the foundation of everything else we believe, and if the foundation is strong, you can build a house that will stand during the storm, while other houses are blown away by the howling winds of unbelief. Amen.

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