Some years ago I realized that the following passage of Scripture admonished the followers of Jesus Christ to not hang out with individuals who claim to be Christians but whose life style is inconsistent with Christian norms. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Corinth urges,
"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber--not even to eat with such a one." (1 Corinthians 5:9-11)
However, for many years I had been uncertain about the interpretation of a passage in 2 Timothy which concludes with the words "avoid such people." Recently, with the help of the other members of my Tuesday home Bible study group, the pieces all came together. Here is what I learned.
Paul gave Timothy some great advice about avoiding unnecessary and unproductive arguments:
"Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will." (2 Timothy 2:23-26)
Since I don't enjoy arguments for the mere sake of argument this passage has long been a favorite of mine. As usual Ray Stedman's sermon, Guidelines for Controversies, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/timothy/3788.html) sheds light on the various classes of arguments and disputes which come up in life. Some of these disputes we really must get involved in, though how we act in disputes, controversies and discussions makes all the difference in the world. There are many other controversies we can avoid altogether because they are senseless and lead nowhere.
Since chapter divisions in the New Testament are often arbitrary what I had failed to see in the opening verses of 2 Timothy 3 was a continuation from Chapter Two of the topic of fights and arguments among professing Christians.
The passage of special interest to me here is the following:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people." (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
Who are these awful people in our society, and why should one avoid them? Since I have often found William Barclay and excellent resource for getting to the meaning of New Testament words I turned first to his commentary. Here is what William Barclay says,
Times of Terror
You must realize this--that in the last days difficult times will set in. (2 Timothy 3:1)
"The early Church lived in an age when the time was waxing late; they expected the Second Coming at any moment. Christianity was cradled in Judaism and very naturally thought largely in Jewish terms and pictures. Jewish thought had one basic conception. The Jews divided all time into this present age and the age to come. This present age was altogether evil; and the age to come would be the golden age of God. In between there was The Day of the Lord, a day when God would personally intervene and shatter the world in order to remake it. That Day of the Lord was to be preceded by a time of terror, when evil would gather itself for its final assault and the world would be shaken to its moral and physical foundations. It is in terms of these last days that Paul is thinking in this passage.
He says that in them difficult times would set in. Difficult is the Greek word chalepos. It is the normal Greek word for difficult, but it has certain usages which explain its meaning here. It is used in Matthew 8:28 to describe the two Gergesene demoniacs who met Jesus among the tombs. They were violent and dangerous. It is used in Plutarch to describe what we would call an ugly wound. It is used by ancient writers on astrology to describe what we would call a threatening conjunction of the heavenly bodies. There is the idea of menace and of danger in this word. In the last days there would come times which would menace the very existence of the Christian Church and of goodness itself, a kind of last tremendous assault of evil before its final defeat.
In the Jewish pictures of these last terrible times we get exactly the same kind of picture as we get here. There would come a kind of terrible flowering of evil, when the moral foundations seemed to be shaken. In the Testament of Issachar, one of the books written between the Old and the New Testaments, we get a picture like this:
"Know ye, therefore, my children, that in the last times Your sons will forsake singleness And will cleave unto insatiable desire; And leaving guilelessness, will draw near to malice; And forsaking the commandments of the Lord, They will cleave unto Beliar. And leaving husbandry, They will follow after their own wicked devices, And they shall be dispersed among the Gentiles, And shall serve their enemies." (Testament of Issachar, 6:1-2).
In 2 Baruch we get an even more vivid picture of the moral chaos of these last times:
"And honour shall be turned into shame, And strength humiliated into contempt, And probity destroyed, And beauty shall become ugliness...And envy shall rise in those who had not thought aught of themselves, And passion shall seize him that is peaceful, And many shall be stirred up in anger to injure many; And they shall rouse up armies in order to shed blood, And in the end they shall perish together with them." (2 Baruch 27).
In this picture which Paul draws he is thinking in terms familiar to the Jews. There was to be a final show-down with the forces of evil.
Nowadays we have to restate these old pictures in modern terms. They were never meant to be anything else but visions; we do violence to Jewish and to early Christian thought if we take them with a crude literalness. But they do enshrine the permanent truth that some time there must come the consummation when evil meets God in head-on collision and there comes the final triumph of God.
The Qualities of Godlessness
For men will live a life that is centred in self; they will be lovers of money, braggarts, arrogant, lovers of insult, disobedient to their parents, thankless, regardless even of the ultimate decencies of life, without human affection, implacable in hatred, reveling in slander, ungovernable in their passions, savage, not knowing what the love of good is, treacherous, headlong in word and action, inflated with pride, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. They will maintain the outward form of religion, but they will deny its power. Avoid such people. (2 Tim. 3:2-5)
Here is one of the most terrible pictures in the New Testament of what a godless world would be like, with the terrible qualities of godlessness set out in a ghastly series. Let us look at them one by one.
It is no accident that the first of these qualities will be a life that is centred in self. The adjective used is philautos, which means self-loving. Love of self is the basic sin, from which all others flow. The moment a man makes his own will the centre of life, divine and human relationships are destroyed, obedience to God and charity to men both become impossible. The essence of Christianity is not the enthronement but the obliteration of self.
Men would become lovers of money (philarguros). We must remember that Timothy's work lay in Ephesus, perhaps the greatest market in the ancient world. In those days trade tended to flow down river valleys; Ephesus was at the mouth of the River Cayster, and commanded the trade of one of the richest hinterlands in all Asia Minor. At Ephesus some of the greatest roads in the world met. There was the great trade route from the Euphrates valley which came by way of Colossae and Laodicea and poured the wealth of the east into the lap of Ephesus. There was the road from north Asia Minor and from Galatia which came in via Sardis. There was the road from the south which centred the trade of the Maeander valley in Ephesus. Ephesus was called "The Treasure-house of the ancient world," "The Vanity Fair of Asia Minor." It has been pointed out that the writer of Revelation may well have been thinking of Ephesus when he wrote that haunting passage which describes the merchandise of men: "The cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls" (Rev.18:12-13). Ephesus was the town of a prosperous, materialistic civilization; it was the kind of town where a man could so easily lose his soul.
There is peril when men assess prosperity by material things. It is to be remembered that a man may lose his soul far more easily in prosperity than in adversity; and he is on the way to losing his soul when he assesses the value of life by the number of things which he possesses.
In these terrible days men would be braggarts and arrogant. In Greek writings these two words often went together; and they are both picturesque.
Braggart has an interesting derivation. It is the word alazon and was derived from the ale, which means a wandering about. Originally the alazon was a wandering quack. Plutarch uses the word to describe a quack doctor. The alazon was a mountebank who wandered the country with medicines and spells and methods of exorcism which, he claimed, were panaceas for all diseases. We can still see this kind of man in fairs and market-places shouting the virtues of a patent medicine which will act like magic. Then the word went on to widen its meaning until it meant any braggart.
The Greek moralists wrote much about this word. The Platonic Definitions defined the corresponding noun (alazoneia) as: "The claim to good things which a man does not really possess." Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 7: 2) defined the alazon as "the man who pretends to creditable qualities that he does not possess, or possesses in a lesser degree than he makes out." Xenophon tells us how Cyrus, the Persian king, defined the alazon: "The name alazon seems to apply to those who pretend that they are richer than they are or braver than they are, and to those who promise to do what they cannot do, and that, too, when it is evident that they do this only for the sake of getting something or making some gain" (Xenophon: Cyropoedia, 2, 2, 12). Xenophon in the Memorabilia tells how Socrates utterly condemned such impostors. Socrates skid that they were to be found in every walk of life but were worst of all in politics. "Much the greatest rogue of all is the man who has gulled his city into the belief that he is fit to direct it."
The world is full of these braggarts to this day; the clever know-alls who deceive people into thinking that they are wise, the politicians who claim that their parties have a programme which will bring in the Utopia and that they alone are born to be leaders of men, the people who crowd the advertisement columns with claims to give beauty, knowledge or health by their system, the people in the Church who have a kind of ostentatious goodness.
Closely allied with the braggart, but--as we shall see--even worse, is the man who is arrogant. The word is huperephanos. It is derived from two Greek words which mean "to show oneself above." The man who is huperephanos, said Theophrastus, has a kind of contempt for everyone except himself. He is the man who is guilty of the "sin of the high heart." He is the man whom God resists, for it is repeatedly said in scripture, that God receives the humble but resists the man who is proud, huperephanos (Jas.4:6; 1Pet.5:5; Prov.3:24). Theophylact called this kind of pride akropolis kakon, the citadel of evils.
The difference between the braggart and the man who is arrogant is this. The braggart is a swaggering creature, who tries to bluster his way into power and eminence. No one can possibly mistake him. But the sin of the man who is arrogant is in his heart. He might even seem to be humble; but in his secret heart there is contempt for everyone else. He nourishes an all-consuming, all-pervading pride; and in his heart there is a little altar where he bows down before himself.
These twin qualities of the braggart and the arrogant man inevitably result in love of insult (blasphemia). Blasphemia is the word which is transliterated into English as blasphemy. In English we usually associate it with insult against God, but in Greek it means insult against man and God alike. Pride always begets insult. It begets disregard of God, thinking that it does not need him and that it knows better than he. It begets a contempt of men which can issue in hurting actions and in wounding words. The Jewish Rabbis ranked high in the list of sins what they called the sin of insult. The insult which comes from anger is bad but it is forgivable, for it is launched in the heat of the moment; but the cold insult which comes from arrogant pride is an ugly and an unforgivable thing.
Men will be disobedient to their parents. The ancient world set duty to parents very high. The oldest Greek laws disfranchised the man who struck his parents; to strike a father was in Roman law as bad as murder; in the Jewish law honour for father and mother comes high in the list of the Ten Commandments. It is the sign of a supremely decadent civilization when youth loses all respect for age and fails to recognize the unpayable debt and the basic duty it owes to those who gave it life.
Men will be thankless (acharistos). They will refuse to recognize the debt they owe both to God and to men. The strange characteristic of ingratitude is that it is the most hurting of all sins because it is the blindest. Lear's words remain true:
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is To have a thankless child!"
It is the sign of a man of honour that he pays his debts; and for every man there is a debt to God and there are debts to his fellow-men, which he must remember and repay.
Men will refuse to recognize even the ultimate decencies of life. The Greek word is that men will become anosios. Anosios does not so much mean that men will break the written laws; it means that they will offend against the unwritten laws which are part and parcel of the essence of life. To the Greek it was anosios to refuse burial to the dead; it was anosios for a brother to marry a sister, or a son a mother. The man who is anosios offends against the fundamental decencies of life. Such offense can and does happen yet. The man who is mastered by his lower passions will gratify them in the most shameless way, as the streets of any great city will show when the night is late. The man who has exhausted the normal pleasures of life and still unsated, will seek his thrill in pleasures which are abnormal.
Men will be without human affection (astorgos). Storge is the word used especially of family love, the love of child for parent and parent for child. If there is no human affection, the family cannot exist. In the terrible times men will be so set on self that even the closest ties will be nothing to them.
Men will be implacable in their hatreds (aspondos). Sponde is the word for a truce or an agreement. Aspondos can mean two things. It can mean that a man is so bitter in his hatred that he will never come to terms with the man with whom he has quarreled. Or it can mean that a man is so dishonourable that he breaks the terms of the agreement he has made. In either case the word describes a certain harshness of mind which separates a man from his fellow-men in unrelenting bitterness. It may be that, since we are only human, we cannot live entirely without differences with our fellow-men, but to perpetuate these differences is one of the worst--and also one of the commonest--of all sins. When we are tempted to do so, we should hear again the voice of our blessed Lord saying on the Cross: "Father, forgive them."
In these terrible days men will be slanderers. The Greek for slanderer is diabolos which is precisely the English word devil. The devil is the patron saint of all slanderers and of all slanderers he is chief. There is a sense in which slander is the most cruel of all sins. If a man's goods are stolen, he can set to and build up his fortunes again; but if his good name is taken away, irreparable damage has been done. It is one thing to start an evil and untrue report on its malicious way; it is entirely another thing to stop it. As Shakespeare had it:
"Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, Is the immediate jewel of their souls: Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands: But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed."
Many men and women, who would never dream of stealing, think nothing--even find pleasure--in passing on a story which ruins someone else's good name, without even trying to find out whether or not it is true. There is slander enough in many a church to make the recording angel weep as he records it.
Men will be ungovernable in their desires (akrates). The Greek verb kratein means to control. A man can reach a stage when, so far from controlling it, he can become a slave to some habit or desire. That is the inevitable way to ruin, for no man can master anything unless he first masters himself.
Men will be savage. The word is anemeros and would be more fittingly applied to a wild beast than to a human being. It denotes a savagery which has neither sensitiveness nor sympathy. Men can be savage in rebuke and savage in pitiless action. Even a dog may be sorry when he has hurt his master, but there are people who, in their treatment of others, can be lost to human sympathy and feeling.
In these last terrible days men will come to have no love for good things or good persons (aphilagathos). There can come a time in a man's life when the company of good people and the presence of good things is simply an embarrassment. He who feeds his mind on cheap literature can in the end find nothing in the great masterpieces. His mental palate loses its taste. A man has sunk far when he finds even the presence of good people something which he would only wish to avoid.
Men will be treacherous. The Greek word (prodotes) means nothing less than a traitor. We must remember that this was written just at the beginning of the years of persecution, when it was becoming a crime to be a Christian. At this particular time in the ordinary matters of politics one of the curses of Rome was the existence of informers (delatores). Things were so bad that Tacitus could say: "He who had no foe was betrayed by his friend." There were those who would revenge themselves on an enemy by informing against him. What Paul is thinking of here is more than faithlessness in friendship--although that in all truth is wounding enough--he is thinking of those who to pay back an old score would inform against the Christians to the Roman government.
Men would be headlong in words and action. The word is propetes, "precipitate." It describes the man who is swept on by passion and impulse to such an extent that he is totally unable to think sensibly. Far more harm is done from want of thought than almost anything else. Many and many a time we would be saved from hurting ourselves and from wounding other people, if we would only stop to think.
Men will be inflated with conceit (tetuphomenos). The word is almost exactly the English swelled-headed. They will be inflated with a sense of their own importance. There are still Church dignitaries whose main thought is their own dignity; but the Christian is the follower of him who was meek and lowly in heart.
They will be lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. Here we come back to where we started; such men place their own wishes in the centre of life. They worship self instead of God.
The final condemnation of these people is that they retain the outward form of religion but deny its power. That is to say, they go through all the correct movements and maintain all the external forms of religion; but they know nothing of Christianity as a dynamic power which changes the lives of men. It is said that, after hearing an evangelical sermon, Lord Melbourne once remarked: "Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life." It may well be that the greatest handicap to Christianity is not the scarlet sinner but the sleek devotee of an unimpeachable orthodoxy and a dignified convention, who is horrified when it is suggested that real religion is a dynamic power which changes a man's personal life."
(The Letters To Timothy, Titus, And Philemon, Revised Edition, Translated with an Introduction and Interpretation by William Barclay, The Westminster Press Philadelphia, 1975)
Next I turned to see what Ray Stedman had written on this same passage. Ray says,
"The passage to which we have come in Second Timothy is one that many have taken to refer to the last days before the coming of our Lord. Writing to Timothy in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul says:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. (2 Tim 3:1-4 RSV)
That reads like a summary of the six o'clock news, doesn't it? I remember reading that in grade school when I was just a boy -- which is not exactly what you would call recent. When I read it, I was filled with fear and trepidation, even that long ago. I was confident that it was being fulfilled in that very day, 50 years ago. The Great Depression was beginning; there was a great deal of trouble and strife in the United States. Fear had settled upon the nations of the world. Already the looming shadow of World War II was gathering on the horizon of life. Many were feeling that those were the last days, when we could expect the return of Christ.
So when I read that, even as a boy, I was aware that this passage was taken by many to predict the last days of the church. But I was unaware that many similar times had come into human history during the course of the 2,000 years since the first appearing of our Lord. Many people take the phrase, "these last days," to refer to the time just before Christ's return, but the biblical usage of that phrase indicates that it refers to the whole period of time between the first coming of our Lord and his second coming. In other words, for 2,000 years we have been living in the last days.
In the account in Acts 2, we read that, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter quoted the prophecy of Joel, in which the prophet said that "in the last days" God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, (cf, Acts 2:17). That, Peter said, was beginning to be fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, almost 2,000 years ago. The first words of the book of Hebrews are: "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son," (Heb 1:1-2a RSV). So it is clear, from that, that "the last days" is a period which has now grown to 2,000 years' duration. The Apostle Paul is saying that within this extended period of time there will come repetitive cycles of distress, times of stress, perilous times, when all the conditions which he describes with these chilling words will obtain.
As we look back through human history during these last 2,000 years we can see how true that is. Again and again in our Western world we have had periods of relative peace and prosperity, only to have them interrupted by these terrible times of stress and agony that repeatedly come into human affairs. So these words are not necessarily a prediction of the last days for the church, rather, they are a recognition of the cycle of days like this that will keep coming. And, of course, one of them is going to be the last one.
Whether we are living in those times or not is difficult to say. Perhaps we are. Surely these times of stress we live in exactly fit the description the apostle uses here. But whether the actual last cycle to come into history before our Lord returns is difficult to say. As in the past, the clouds of peril may disperse and the sun may break out again. Some degree of peace and prosperity may return again to the world.
But what the apostle wanted Timothy -- and us -- to know, he clearly outlines: "Understand this," he says, "that these will be dangerous times, times of great stress, times when our faith will be pushed to the limit of its endurance, when we will be under attack and under threat." Furthermore, Paul reveals a rather startling thing, these times of stress will be characterized by and caused by two major factors, which he goes on to describe. The first factor is very startling indeed. The striking thing about this paragraph is not what I read in Verses 1-4, but what is in Verse 5:
...holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people. (2 Tim 3:5 RSV)
In other words, Paul says that the primary cause of these repetitive cycles of stress and danger is the hypocritical lives of Christians who outwardly look pious, religious, committed and devoted, but are actually unchanged inside and have no power to overcome evil in their lives. Hypocritical Christianity -- that is the bottom line in these times of stress.
I do not think any of us really grasps the revelation of Scripture about the nature of the church. The New Testament everywhere seeks to convince us that the church is the most important body of people in the world. God builds society around what happens in the church. The church is in control of history. "You are the salt of the earth," Jesus said (Matt 5:13a RSV). If the salt loses its savor, becomes saltless, without flavor, the whole world will go to pot. "You are the light of the world," he said (Matt 5:14a RSV). If the light dims, the whole world will sink into darkness. That is what the Scriptures tell us. Immorality in the world is caused by insincerity in Christians. Darkness among the nations is an outgrowth of ignorance and darkness in the church.
Right now [in 1982] I am involved with a number of Christian leaders trying to plan a conference of national proportions that will encourage pastors to once again return to the expository treatment of the Scriptures. The reason for this is that, everywhere I go, I am saddened and depressed by the biblical ignorance of church members. There is a terrible biblical illiteracy across the face of this apparently Christianized nation. People have only the most superficial knowledge of the Scriptures.
Sometimes this can be observed in the ignorant answers they give to biblical questions. One man said, "I thought Dan and Beersheba were husband and wife, like Sodom and Gomorrah." Worse than that, they understand nothing of the great secrets of life which the Bible reveals, such as to how to handle their lives, how to understand humanity, and what is happening in the world. That kind of ignorance results in immorality, not so much the blatant, open, sexual type (although that is increasing in the church), but much worse, an inner hardening of the spirit, a manifestation of totally godless attitudes.
Remember that this terrible list, although very similar to a list at the close of Chapter 1 of Romans which describes conditions in the world, is nevertheless really only a description of what is going on in churches and among Christians who have a "form of religion," of "wholesomeness" (the word is godliness, as it has been translated many times in these letters of Paul to Timothy), "a form of godliness but denying the power thereof."
Let us take a closer look at this analysis by the apostle. It falls into four groupings:
The first one flows out of that first term, "lovers of self." That is the basic sin of humanity. Self love, the worship of another god, is the vilest form of idolatry. It deprives God of the worship due to his name, and it places a rival god, oneself, on the throne of an individual life. That is where some Christians are, Paul says. They have not really been changed, they are still lovers of self.
When this condition obtains in the churches, it will also be much more clearly and widely exhibited in the world. Today, we have what is known as the "Me" society. The focus is all on "my" -- my rights, my needs, my views, is all we hear about on every side. The first question that is asked about anything is, "What am I going to get out of it?" Christians oftentimes point the finger at non-Christians, saying, "Look how selfish they are," but the apostle points his finger, and says, that is what is happening in the church. People are not changed, they are "lovers of themselves."
This philosophy has been put rather graphically in a jingle that says,
I had a little tea party
this afternoon at three.
'Twas very small, three guests in all,
just I, myself and me.
Myself ate up the sandwiches,
and I drank up the tea.
'Twas also I who ate the pie,
and passed the cake to me.
That is the way many people live -- a self-centered existence. Out of this flows all the other things in the list.
The first and primary expression of it is in the next words, "lovers of money." Why are Christian people such materialists today? Why do they, like everyone else, seek a constantly increasing standard of living, a much more luxurious lifestyle? It is because money is a way of indulging ourselves. Instead of using it as the Scriptures exhort us to -- to meet the needs of others, to be ready to quickly respond to human need around us, and to delight to use our excess to that purpose -- we oftentimes merely plan to use it to increase our own possessions, to add to our own enjoyment in life.
I read a startling statistic the other day. There are more people in Russia going to church -- that is, in the visible, open churches -- on any given Sunday than go to church in all the rest of western Europe. Isn't that shocking? I have frequently pointed out that when the missionaries were driven out of China in the '50s, everybody said, "Woe to the church. It is going to go through terrible times." And it did. Yet the church in China has increased seven-fold in these years of persecution.
But it is not persecution that destroys a church, it is prosperity. The churches of western Europe have been wide open for anybody to attend them, but they are virtually empty because they have been destroyed by the love of money, materialism, and sensuality which have gripped and possessed the Christian people of Western Europe. This is the fate that awaits us in the United States if we continue to move along these lines.
Out of this grows another word: "proud." The word is boastful, braggarts. It bothers me to hear churches brag about how many millions of dollars they set aside for missions every year. I welcome the fact that the money is given, but to advertise it, to print it up in brochures that are handed out to others -- I do not know what this does to non-Christians who read it. I am sure it does not impress them very much. They see it as nothing more than the empty boasts of people who are trying to draw attention to themselves rather than to their Lord. That is an outcome of this loving of self.
The word that immediately follows is, "arrogant." Proud people are arrogant people. They have a secret contempt for others; they regard themselves as above them. This is the attitude frequently displayed in many churches and by many Christians today. It often takes the form of a self-righteousness is that looks down its nose at people who have fallen into open, blatant sin. Such Christians use derisive terms for homosexuals, for whoremongers, for prostitutes and pornographers. They gather their robes of righteousness around themselves and pronounce judgment with the same attitude of scornful cynicism revealed by the Pharisees in our Lord's day. That is why Jesus spoke so sharply to the Pharisees and so warmly to the prostitutes.
"Abusive" is the next term. This word describes people who use insulting, pejorative terms that put people down. This is the manifestation of an unhealthy, unwholesome, unchristian spirit within the Christian church.
Then there follows a second grouping that centers around family life. This seems to be addressed primarily to younger Christians. The first term is, "disobedient to their parents." Today there is a total breakdown of the home and a rebellion against parental authority. I read a shocking article this past week about the murder in Milpitas that awakened the concern of the whole nation. Teenagers who knew about the murder of a young girl were actually taken by the murderer and shown her body. They were indifferent to this, seemingly apathetic about it, and failed to report it to the authorities.
The reporter who wrote the article found that, as she talked to these young people, many of them expressed the fact that they deliberately carried on basically deceitful lives. One of them said to her, "What we do is act goody-goody at home so we can get out and smoke all the pot we want, sniff cocaine, and have sex any time we like." That is basically deceitful. The young person who said that had no consciousness that it was wrong or hurtful to act that way. This is what the apostle is talking about.
With this Paul links the word "ungrateful." He is referring to younger people, particularly, who are uncaring about the hours of labor their parents have gone through to provide a home and opportunity for them.
This is Mother's Day. I know that many a mother here this morning is being encouraged by her family who have taken time to show in some loving way, not only on this day, but frequently through the year, that they love and appreciate what their mother, or father, has done. Nothing has blessed my life more than to have my children do, as some of them have done, write me a note now and then to say how much they appreciate my love and concern for them. But this attitude is rare in many homes where young people take for granted what is given to them at great cost by their parents.
The next word is "unholy." This word means an unwillingness to observe even the basic decencies of life. It is a flaunting of ungodly actions, a kind of shamelessness that takes pleasure in doing shocking things to provoke reactions from people. With that is linked the word, "inhuman." This means lacking in normal affections, brutish, beastly, cruel. With that is the word, "implacable" -- meaning beyond reason, unappeasable, having a bitter, unrelenting attitude that nobody can talk to or soften in any way.
All of these attitudes occur within the framework of a Christian profession -- of people who say they are Christians, and act as such on Sunday, but during the week, at home and in business, have an entirely different outlook and attitude. They are cruel, vicious and implacable.
Then the list moves to those areas that touch what we call 'interpersonal relationships.' The next word is, "slanderers" -- literally, devils; "profligates" -- people who are ungovernable, who have to satisfy their lust and their passions immediately; "fierce" -- savage people; "haters of good" -- that was our Lord's charge to the Pharisees, that though they were morally respectable, within they were opposers of God and haters of good, and they proved it by putting to death the best man who ever lived; "treacherous" -- the word is used of Judas, the betrayer; and "reckless" -- careless of what happens, entering headlong into things, impulsively reacting without fear of the consequences. Then the last thing, "swollen with conceit," which literally means, swollen-headed, people who think of themselves more highly than they ought.
Finally, the last grouping deals with the religious pretensions of such people -- "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion [the outward form -- the word is eusebeia -- of godliness, or wholesomeness, a Sunday morning godliness] but denying the power thereof." Why? Why should people who are exposed to the Bible, who profess the truth, sing the hymns, and go through the ritual that is being carried out in thousands of churches across our land today reflect during the week the attitudes described here in such a way that destroy the fabric of society? The answer is in this one phrase: "they deny the power thereof."
We do not have to guess at what that power is. The Apostle Paul tells us very plainly in First Corinthians, where he says, "The word of the cross ... is the power of God," (1 Cor 1:18 (RSV)). When you let the cross have its effect upon you then you will experience and realize the power of God released. It is the denial of the word of the cross that constitutes this kind of Christianity without Christ, godliness without God, spirituality without the Spirit. The word of the cross is that which puts to death the natural life -- denies self, in other words.
Jesus put it very plainly: "If any man will come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me," (Luke 9:23, cf, Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34). This is saying that until we are willing, as Christians, to say "No" to what the cross has denied, what it has put to death within us, we cannot enter into that eternal life that is available to us now. Unwilling to deny self means that we are unable to experience life from God. That is the problem.
That is why we lay constant stress upon the fact that we must practice what we preach. We must say "No" to all the risings of the flesh within us in order that we might lay hold of the supply of power and life and vitality which enables us to walk with God in righteousness and truth. Otherwise we contribute to, nay, even cause, these terrible times of stress that repeatedly come upon humanity.
Dr. R. C. Sproul, an emerging young theologian of our day, has pointed out that the Bible divides life into four divisions of humanity:
The first group is those who are not saved and know they are not saved. They are the godless, the pagans, we call them, the people who do not profess any form of religion, the atheists, the agnostics of our day, who have no interest in the things of God, and say so openly.
Then there are those who are saved, but they are not sure of it. They really have come to Christ, they really do love the Savior, they know they have been born again, but, because they have not been taught properly, they do not understand the promises of God. For one reason or another they think that they will lose their salvation if they slip or fall in any way. When they do, they succumb to despair for weeks and months in a painful condition of uncertainty. This group is not sure of anything about their faith.
Then there is the group who are saved and they know it. These are the ones we would call the strong, mature Christians who are growing, evincing a new, changed life. Though they have the normal struggles of everyone else, they show from year to year evidence of progress and growth in these areas. They know they belong to God; they have no doubts about it.
Finally, there is a great group, which Scripture faces, of those who are not saved but think they are. That is the group that is being confronted in this passage. Jesus said, "Many shall come to me in that day and say 'Lord, Lord, have we not done many mighty works in your name, and cast out devils in your name, and preached in your name?' And I shall say to them, 'Depart from me, I never knew you.'" (cf, Matt 7:22-23). They are the cause -- think of it -- of the times of stress that come upon humanity, times such as we are going through right now."
(Dangerous Times, 1982, by Ray C. Stedman, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/timothy/3789.html)
Just as I was working through these notes and the passage at hand, an email came him from a troubled Christian man who write,
"...it seems to me that the Church in America is becoming increasingly a place of hostility. Christian writers, scholars, television personalities, etc. are getting more and more to the point where they criticize, attack, demonize, and vilify each other over different matters. And what would be funny about it, if it were not so serious, is that a lot of them (not all of them but many) would claim that the issues they're fighting over are not the "most important matters" within the Church world. If these things are not the "most important" things of all, then why are we fighting over them?
"I have my doubts that there will ever be an answer to this question - on either side of eternity - because nobody seems to be able to give THE absolute definitive explanation as to why this is going on. There appears to be too many differing perspectives about what constitutes the issues which of necessity have to be worked out among Christians. Therefore, as I view it, the problem is: if nobody can determine what actually is worth fighting for and what isn't, then are not all these people who are doing this simply wasting their time? After all, it would appear to simply be a matter of opinion as to what is and is not important. But if that's the case, then everything is subjective and nobody really has the full truth regarding the Bible about what is fact and what is opinion.
"Perhaps this does not trouble you, but it does me. How am I to fellowship with other believers, knowing that, at any given time, some issue might come up? And if it does and I give my take on it, what am I to do if some other "Christian" verbally tears my head off because that person holds a different perspective? This is both scary and depressing. (Sad to say, it really makes me not want to spend any more time than I have to with these types of saints in eternity. I'd just as soon that in Heaven they would forever leave me alone! With believers like this around, who love to argue and "prove" everybody else wrong, maybe Heaven won't be all we've been led to believe it's going to be. Oh well, it's still better than the "alternative" so I suppose we'll all find some way of enduring it.)
"OK, how about it? Is there any way to finally resolve issues in the here and now? I'm not talking about resolving them to everyone's satisfaction - some people won't acknowledge reality, no matter what - but I am speaking of resolving things to the extent that any fair and honest person can recognize the truth when it's right in front of them. And if this is not attainable, then what? If not, then I ask again....are we not wasting our time and making fools out of ourselves? And if that's not the case, then, again, where is someone to draw the line between what is and is not really known from the Bible?"
It seems to me that an understanding of what Paul wrote to Timothy so long ago is a big help today. We are living in a very perilous time right now. We ought not to be fooled because a lot of people around us profess to be Christians but really aren't (in all probability). Only a small remnant of people in the professing church really are in God's family. Therefore, we can focus our efforts in building up our fellow Christians--those that really are in the family, and we can rescue the perishing who are all around us. It's OK for us to ignore a lot of the tumult going on around us, and not join in or get involved in "senseless disputes" most of the time. In a crazy, confused and perilous age we can be about our Father's business and focus our time and energy on what really counts. In the words of Jude,
But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; they said to you, "In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions." It is these who set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.
But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh. Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen. (Jude 17-25)
September 10, 2002
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