“Difficult Times & Dangerous People, Part 1” – 2 Timothy 3:1-5
“But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these.”
Once again, we are forced to limit our study to digestible portions. These verses are only the first portion of an argument that runs all the way through v. 9, yet I am afraid that time would never allow for us to plumb the depths of all nine verses at once. We shall content ourselves with the text before us.
The connection to chapter 2 lies in the beginning adversative but. Paul had just given hope that through the proclamation of truth and the correction of error, false teachers and those poor souls under their spell may be granted repentance and awaken from their stupor (2:25-26). While this hope remains valid, Timothy must live and minister in reality. It is uncertain and unknowable from the human perspective if God will grant these people repentance or not. What is knowable and what is certain is that difficult times will come. The text before us reminds Timothy of what he already knows to be true. But to many Christians, there are things here that we must take the time to understand rather than assume.
Paul is reminding Timothy so that he will be able to stand against false teachers and pretending Christians. We must understand what Paul only briefly reviews. There are four things in these verses that every believer must understand if we too are going to be able to stand against heretical grifters and hedonistic goats.
Understanding the Times (v. 1)
“But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.”
The command here is to know or to realize. Paul is telling Timothy to sit up and pay attention. Timothy must know or understand that in the last days difficult, hard, or even harsh times will come. But what does he mean by in the last days?
**WARNING – Pastor’s Rant*** I’m sure that we’ve all heard people wonder aloud if we’re in the last days, as if we have now unknowingly slipped into final judgment of God as found in Revelation. This is yet another symptom that betrays the gross ignorance of many Christians regarding the most basic elements of the Christian faith. Notice that Paul is not teaching eschatology here. He’s assuming eschatology and assuming Timothy is tracking with his line of thought while making another point. But because eschatology is never taught in churches and has been labeled taboo by ignorant and convictionless men, the faithful Christian remains in the dark.
The Bible uses this phrase (ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις in the NT and בְּאַחֲרִ֣ית הַיָּמִ֗ים in the OT) to refer to the time nearing the end of man’s rebellion. This time will come to a close when Messiah rules and reigns. The Old Testament speaks of the last days in both a positive light as it looks forward to a repentant Israel (Deut. 4:30; Hos. 3:5) as well as other nations (Jer. 48:47; 49:39). This positive depiction of the last days culminates with the ushering in of Messiah’s Kingdom (Mic. 4:1; Is. 2:2). But on the same token the Old Testament speaks of Israel’s rebellion (Deut. 31:29) and Yhwh’s judgment (Jer. 23:20) that will also occur in the last days. So the last days will reveal both rebellion/judgment as well as repentance/restoration and blessing.
The New Testament brings great specificity to this concept of the last days. In his famous sermon in Acts 2, Peter explains the new indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a mark of the last days (Acts 2:17-21- compare with Joel 2:28-32; Hos. 3:5). So we know that the last days have been going on ever since that day. To answer the question: “are we living in the last days?” Answer: most certainly, but so were Paul and Timothy. Yet it does not answer the question: “what are the last days?”
Hebrews begins by stating, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb. 1:1-2). These last days began with the first coming of our King and savior, Jesus Christ, and will end when He comes again to claim what is rightfully His. These last days are the days between Christ’s first and second coming, and we’re living right in the midst of them.
These last days will be characteristically harsh, difficult, and hard. What makes these times more difficult than any other time? The people who fill these times.
Understanding the Opposition (vv. 2-4)
“For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, slanderers, un-obedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unfeeling, unappeasable, adversaries, without self-control, without gentleness, without a love of good, traitors, reckless, puffed up;”
Paul explains the harshness of these times by explaining that it is because wicked people come with these times. The term men here (ἄνθρωπος) is general and indicates people rather than males. Wicked people will come in these times and that is why they are so difficult.
The list of vices and characteristics is almost dizzying to analyze. There are so many heinous and foul attitudes and actions represented here. A careful look at this list will reveal that this is a detailed and purposefully ordered list that drives a single point. Paul did not randomly spew forth negative adjectives as if he was grasping for the best way to describe the wickedness of these people. There is a clear order that drives a single point.
You may have noticed that I have reproduced vv. 2-4 with my own translation. There’s nothing wrong with the NASB’s translation of these verses, but I want you, the reader, to see what Timothy would have seen as he read the Greek. This list is a chiasm; a linguistic tool where the first and last items mirror each other, the second and next to last items mirror each other, and so on until we get to the center. Biblical authors use chiasm with some frequency to emphasize or to draw attention to something specific. These tools either draw attention to the dead center funnel or to the beginning/end. This seems to do both.
Their Root of Self-Love – The concept of self-love begins and ends this long list. These people love themselves, money, and their own pleasure instead of loving God. This is the root of all sinful action and attitude. People murder, rape, pillage, and plunder because they love themselves more than anyone else. Their goal is to look out for number one to the point that they will kill anyone who gets in their way. The love for money and pleasure are almost inseparable from a general love of self. In order to care for me, then I am very concerned with the means to care for me as well as my own pleasure. The word for pleasure here is where we get our English term hedonism (ἥδομαι). Paul is quite clear that this root of selfishness is not compatible with God’s people. If my chief concern is me, my resources, and my pleasure and desires, then I cannot possibly be concerned with God.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes the chief end of man: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. You can pursue the glory of God or you can pursue your own pleasure, but you cannot do both. The Chief and foremost commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. If you cannot do that, then it is impossible to love your neighbor as yourself; a fact that Paul will soon demonstrate.
Their Response of Self-Importance – The next layer of the chiasm views the natural response of those who are quite in love with themselves; self-importance. A more biblical approach would be to call this naked pride. The pride in v. 2 (boasters, arrogant, slanderers) describes the attitude of self-importance while the counterparts in v. 4 (traitors, reckless, puffed up) reveal the action. Their pride permeates their thoughts and deeds.
Their Rejection of Restraints – Next comes a long list of negated qualities. The Greek marks these negations by simply adding an alpha (α) to the beginning of a noun or adjective. In English we have similar markers such as adding “un,” “dis,” or “without” to or before the word in question. If you look back at the translation that I purposed, you’ll note that if you were to remove the “un” or “without,” each characteristic would be a virtue rather than a vice. Not only would these be virtues, but they are marks of God’s gracious restraints that he built into humanity. Yet these restraints are fallen with our nature and completely cast off as society rebels.
This anti-virtue list begins with the disobedience of parents. Many recognize the importance of the family unit, but what we may not realize is that the parent/child relationship is the linchpin between man’s relationship with God and his relationship with others. God created the family in such a way that father and mother function as ambassadors for God to their children. When a child disobeys his parents, he is in reality rebelling against God. The love of self, love of pleasure, love of money, and total lack of love for God seeks to throw off any and all restraints. This level of conceit reveals a person who is not just dead inside, but dangerous.
The vices which I chose to translate with the negative “without” show where a lack of restraint leads. They are without self-control, having no conscience or inhibitions restraining them from pursuing what they desire. They are without gentleness, meaning that they are brutal and savage. It is not that they could be more gentle, but that they are completely without the virtue. They are animalistic in their brutish efforts to gain what they seek. They are without a love for good; not that they cannot recognize what is good, but they simply have no desire or appetite for it.
Their Revelry as Rebels – Right in the middle of these negative qualities stands a single term, διάβολοι. The NASB translates this as malicious gossips. This Greek term does indeed mean slanderer or adversary but is also the root from which we get the term devil. The devil is a slanderer. THE adversary. Paul’s point is that the last days are difficult because the people that occupy them are devil-like. These are the same people that are held captive in the devil’s snare and are doing the devil’s bidding (2:26). Unless they are corrected by the gospel of Jesus Christ and God grants them repentance (vv. 24-25), they will never awaken from their stupor. This way of putting things may alarm some who read this. What is more alarming is that this is not only a description of fallen humanity in the last days, but also describes people who are masquerading as Christians within the church.
Understanding the Deception (v. 5a)
“holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power;”
These same people, who are in love with themselves and thus pursue self-interests until they resemble their father the devil, hold on to a form of godliness. The idea of this form (μόρφωσις) describes only the outward appearance. There is a shell that looks okay from the outside, yet there is no substance underneath. Godliness (εὐσέβεια) is more than just morality but describes the Christ-like fruit of a regenerate heart. Paul uses this term to describe the genuine products of a converted heart. Godliness is not something that we do. Godliness reveals what has been done to us. These wicked devil-like people throw up a false front of godliness while at the same time denying its power.
This is the fourth time that Paul has used a term from the root δύναμαι (power/ability). Timothy is reminded that he was given a spirit of power (1:7). Timothy’s ability to suffer alongside Paul for the sake of the gospel would not be his own, but the ability provided by and consistent with God’s power (1:8). Paul explained that God is powerful/able to guard the same gospel that was entrusted to him (v. 12) and that he entrusted to Timothy. These people deny the power/ability of the gospel to redeem, change, and purify lives.
This is not only an ancient problem. This not only a future problem. These dangerous men have been around and will continue to be around so long as these last days endure. These wicked people occupy both pulpit and pew. Their love is reserved only for themselves and they will stand as an adversary to any who dare step in their way. They speak and present themselves with a shell of Christianity yet deny the power of the gospel to save and sanctify by word and works. What are we to do with such people?
Understanding the Response (v. 5b)
“and avoid such men as these.”
The command here is to avoid or come away from these people. Timothy is commanded to disassociate from them, to remove himself from their presence. These individuals have been ensnared by the devil to do his bidding. They must not be allowed to remain. This is what church discipline is for, to remove the unclean from the camp.
Sometimes these people are not found within our own assemblies but are rampant in others. Sometimes these people hold high office and enjoy the attention of thousands. It matters not who or where they are, avoid them.
In 1987, John MacArthur preached this same passage. In that sermon he said:
“There seems to be today a greater apostasy than ever before; a greater tolerance for things that displease God; greater confusion, more religious phonies and charlatans, more false Christians, more apostasy of every sort.…The church is suffering deep wounds right now. The enemy is winning on many, many fronts, because the church is not only tolerating self-love, it’s advocating self-love, as if it was biblical, and all the garbage that comes out of it.”
Beloved, that was over thirty years ago. The writing was on the wall even then. Self-loving men and women wink at sin so as to make excuse for their own wickedness. Next comes unbridled rebellion and the celebration of hedonism. There are not enough hours in the day to count how many pastors, authors, speakers, and Bible study leaders both promote and practice these things. They put on a veneer of godliness yet deny the gospel’s ability to change lives by advocating we replace God with self; just like their father, the devil. Beloved, avoid them.
The times we live in are evil because people are evil. There are wars within Christ’s church because she has been infiltrated by these same evil people. There is zero reason to be concerned about attacks from the outside for the gates of hell will never prevail. Yet it is the shepherd’s mission to protect the sheep from such ravenous wolves that seek to penetrate the fold. Identify these charlatans and avoid them. Our hope is in the One who will return to put an end to these times. Come quickly, Lord Jesus! May we be found faithful upon His return. Soli Deo Gloria!