Sunday, April 29, 2007

2 Timothy 3

Ever seen those washing detergent adverts? You know the ones I mean, there’s Brand X, which is so hopeless that the poor mothers may as well have just used their own saliva. Then there’s Magical Brand Semua Pun Boleh!, which somehow manages to get rid of all the shirt stains that your kid has accumulated from having investigated the rubbish dump, played football on a waterlogged pitch and winning a foodfight with his sister. The (obvious) intention of the advert was to show you the stark contrast between the two pictures.

That’s the point in chapter 3. The picture being painted in verses 1-9 are not meant to be your topics for polite conversation! But they’re meant to be a hugely negative example. This is serious business, conveyed by Paul’s "But understand this...". It has an urgency about it. Think of a father, who, knowing he is going to die soon, and having hidden the family heirloom, grabs his son by the shoulders and shakes him hard: “Do you understand, son, that they’ll be plenty who will turn away from you, torture you, but you must never reveal where I’ve hidden it!”

I won’t pretend to know definitively what "last days" mean, but for my purposes, I’m going to assume that it simply refers to the age after Christ’s ascension and his second coming, in other words, the age we’re living in now.

Paul gives us a long list of behaviour which is simply terrible. Some people think that the list springs out of the very first characteristic: "lovers of self". This is plausible; the list is bookended by the last phrase in verse 4: "rather than lovers of God". It doesn’t make a difference to the main point though; what we’re seeing is akin to an artwork by Van Gogh being defecated upon, or Mozart being horribly mangled, as people, made in the image of God, degenerate into ugliness. Arrogant. Abusive. Heartless. Treacherous.

We might be nodding our heads at this point as we recall some event or encounter with a non-believer that fits in somewhat with this description. And here is the real danger. Paul isn’t really talking about the surrounding culture. Rather, he is talking about the culture in the church itself. Here we have those who have "the appearance of godliness, but denying its power" (v.5). In other words, there are some who look like Christians. They go to church, attend Bible study, pray. But there is no true inward change, no transforming power at work in the life of this person. He is like the wannabe paikia or gangster. (Sorry for this trivial illustration!) Ultimately, his love for God isn’t there. "Always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth"(v.7). This is, for me, possibly the most sobering verse in 2 Timothy.

Paul commands Timothy to avoid them. Leaders, do not get involved with them because they will bring poison into your flock. Those under Christian leadership, if your leaders are faithful to God and his word, don’t be tempted to stray to those whose teachings might be more palatable. To heighten the impact of his warning, Paul uses by way of illustrations the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses in the plagues (Ex. 7:11). In the end, their teaching will not get very far and they will be shown for what they are (v.8-9)

3:10-17 is the point of contrast. Paul now wants to show what it means to "live a godly life in Christ Jesus". He sets himself as an example first of all (v.10), and implicitly we recall the spiritual legacy passed down from Tim’s mum and grandmum (1:5), and his responsibility to then entrust it to others(2:2). Leaders are to be modellers. This will, however, inevitably involve persecution. "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." I don’t really have to explain that verse do I? Paul is stressing that his position is not unique. Not everyone will go to jail for their faith, but we will experience some degree of suffering simply because we are Christians. But Paul shows that the alternative is actually much worse, for evil people and impostors will continue on their demeaning path. Sadly, they’re not only deceiving, but they deceive themselves. A few contemporary examples might be leaders of cults, but there are probably more subtle cases out there as well.

Timothy is now called to abide in what he knows to be true, that is, the Scriptures. We must never ever think we’ve graduated from them, but be a student under the word of God all our lives. It sounds conservative, but it is actually the way forward to being the most radical and counter-cultural Christian ever. Just imagine, if you truly believed we should “share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus” (2:3). If we understand that it is not wise to take part in “foolish, ignorant controversies” (2:23). If church leaders corrected their opponents “with gentleness” (2:25). If we ultimately believed that we are asked to love God and neighbour. And we understand all this is possible only by grace. For the word of God "make(s) you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (v.15).

2 Timothy 3:16 is a famous verse of course, and set in context, acquires more force*. It is tempting to think of the Bible today as outmoded. Sacred writings sound so...primitive! Isn’t this the Information Age? Church leaders especially might be tempted to turn to substitutes such as motivational techniques (not wrong in itself) and let it trump Scripture. But these are God’s words, and can be used to pierce us in many different ways. It can teach us. It can tell us where we’ve gone wrong. It can help strengthen our faith. And ultimately, it makes the "messenger of God" (v.17, footnote) to be one who is ready to help do some kingdom work.

As we look back on chapter 3, we find a hopeful realism. In the previous chapter, Paul has asked Timothy to watch over his flock by handling the truth rightly, avoiding needless quarrels, and to correct his opponents with gentleness. But he wants Timothy to know that there will be opposition to be endured and people which are to be avoided, and asks that ultimately, Timothy not lose confidence in the gospel and God’s word. For us today, the charge is the same, and is especially critical for those in positions of Christian leadership. Keep on the beaten track!

As always, this post is open to feedback.

*A little digression that I thought was worth pointing out but not worth interrupting the main flow of thought. When Paul was writing this verse, “all scripture” then meant of course, the Old Testament. Occasionally we can fall into the danger of ignoring the Old Testament altogether in favour of the New, but this verse tells us that even the Old Testament is useful for teaching, reproof and so on. Of course, the Old Testament is not easy to interpret, and we have to be careful in handling it. Perhaps one place to start is by reading Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all its worth.

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