When a Lover of Good Thinks About Evil
2 Timothy 3:1–13,
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
One of the great blessings of being a Bible-saturated church with a Bible-saturated eldership and a Bible-saturated people is that the strange juxtapositions in the Bible of seemingly contrary emotions and emphases and truths prevent us from becoming a superficial, simplistic, lopsided people.
For example, a superficial, simplistic, lopsided person might watch another person get angry at some sinful attitude he sees in a group, and draw the conclusion: This angry person is not a very compassionate person; he doesn’t have a lot empathy; he’s not able to weep with those who weep. But the instincts of a Bible-saturated person would not draw this conclusion because over the years he has been deepened and broadened in his grasp of the complexity of godliness, by running into so many strange juxtapositions. He has been shaped by texts like Mark 3:5 where it says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” And the superficial, simplistic, lopsided notion that godly anger and godly compassion cannot coexist in the same godly heart has been banished from the Bible-saturated mind forever.
Day after day, week after week, year after year, Bible-saturated minds and hearts are being formed by the hundreds of such deep and wonderful juxtapositions in the Bible. A people are being created whose instincts and inclinations are as complex as the Bible. And whose responses to situations are often as little understood as the Scriptures. Closer and closer to “the mind of Christ.”
Welcome to the Bible
So here we are in today’s text, 2 Timothy 3:1–13. And it is predominantly bleak and ugly. In verses 1–5 there's a list of nineteen ugly characteristics of evil people. Then in verses 6–9 there's a description of how they creep into houses and take women captive; and a glimpse into history and how this has been going on for centuries. And then in verses 10–13 there's a description of what it costs those who try to live a godly life in such a culture.
Nineteen specific descriptions of moral ugliness! And there's an even longer list in Romans 1:29–31. Is this the same Paul who said in Philippians 4:8, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Does the juxtaposition of “Think about what is pure,” and a list of nineteen human impurities jar your mind?
Welcome to the Bible. Welcome real life. Welcome to the complexities of holiness. Welcome to truth and to the mind of God. The Bible-saturated mind loves to linger long and mainly on the beauties of holiness, and the Bible-saturated mind knows that the ugliness of evil is real (in us and in the world) and we dare not be ignorant of it.
We Need to Know About Evil
Paul begins the chapter, “Understand this . . .” Or literally: “Know this . . .” Here is something beauty-loving people need to know. We need to know about evil. And I see at least six things about evil that we need to know in verses 1–13.
- The times of evil.
- The severity of evil.
- The specifics of evil.
- The creep of evil.
- The limit of evil.
- The alternative to evil.
1. The times of evil (verse 1)
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self. . . . etc.”
In the mind of Paul the last days bring an intensification of evil. In 1 Timothy he says, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” (1 Timothy 4:1). The apostle Peter says, “Scoffers will come in the last days” (2 Peter 3:3). Jude says, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions” (Jude 1:18).
And all the writers of the New Testament would agree that the “last days,” the “later times,” the “last time,” began with the coming of the Messiah, Jesus into the world. That was the arrival of the end, the beginning of the end, the last chapter of world history before the consummation of Christ’s kingdom. 1 John 2:18: “Children, it is the last hour.” Hebrews 1:2, “In these last days God has spoken to us by his Son.” 1 Peter 1:20: “Christ was made manifest in the last times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20).
So we are living in the last days. We have been since Christ came. The evils that characterize the last days burst forth again and again in history. And as we come to the end of the end — the return of Christ — we may expect that there will be the greatest intensification of all.
This will happen while the faithful remnant of God’s people experience white-hot devotion to Jesus Christ and a willingness for martyrdom (Matthew 24:12–14). Which means that we must be very careful not to assume that the degeneration of culture at the end of the age is owing to the failure of the church to be holy. There is no promise in the Bible that the holiness of the church will guarantee the transformation of culture.
And we must also be careful not to assume that our day is the last of the last days. It may be that between now and the end of the end God plans for another great revival in the church and another great awakening in the world. I think we should pray and evangelize to that end. It is not our calling to agree with the darkness, but to preach the gospel of light.
2. The severity of evil (verse 1)
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.”
“Difficulty” is a mild translation. The word is used in one other place in the New Testament, namely, Matthew 8:28 in reference to the demoniacs of Gadara: “Two demon-possessed men met Jesus, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way.” “Fierce.” That is the word used in 2 Timothy 3:1, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come fierce seasons.”
In other words, the evil will not simply be ugly to watch, and grievous to the godly mind, it will be at times violent, fierce. Verbally fierce and physically fierce. We will see this in the list that follows.
Which means that the invincible joy we know as believers because of the work of Christ and our new, secure relation to God our Father, does not depend on the absence of moral ugliness or the absence of physical danger. We need not and we must not let the immorality and horrors of the last days dampen our joy in Jesus. This is one of those strange, deep complexities of Christian holiness. O how easy it is to slip into a morose pity-party that our little heaven on earth is becoming a hell! We were never promised that earth would be our heaven before Christ returns. And you are preparing for yourself a great disappointment if you try to make it so.
“We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). “In this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” — joyful patience (Romans 8:24–25). “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
3. The specifics of evil (verses 2–5)
In verses 2–5 Paul lists 19 examples of the kind of evil people who will populate the last times — the now times — and worse at the end of the end. I’m going to do what I encourage you to do. I’m going to read the list and add my brief description of what I think each one means. The aim of a list like this is not to grovel in evil or gloat over others or savor indictments. The aim is to understand the untrue and varieties of evil and to spot these things in ourselves and others with a view to overcoming them and avoiding them.
- Verse 2: “For people will be lovers of self (narcissistic),
- lovers of money (materialistic),
- proud (loving to draw attention to their accomplishments),
- arrogant (with an inflated view of self),
- abusive (wanting to be verbally hurtful),
- disobedient to their parents (having a rebellious spirit),
- ungrateful (assuming that they have a right to the things they get),
- unholy (indifferent to the attitudes and acts that reflect the value of Jesus),
- heartless (unable to sympathize or empathize),
- unappeasable (unwilling to forgive),
- slanderous (devilishly distorting what other say and do),
- without self-control (a slave to their appetites),
- brutal (dead to all tenderness),
- not loving good (unable to see and savor moral beauty),
- treacherous (breaking promises for their own advantage),
- reckless (craving admiration for taking risks),
- swollen with conceit (blind to the ugliness of self-preoccupation and the beauty of admiring others),
- lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (finding more satisfaction in physical titillation than in the divine admiration),
- having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (using religion for personal gain without treasuring Christ above all).” (2 Timothy 3:2–5).
You can tell that Paul knows he is in the last days because he begins in verse 1–2 by saying that these are the kinds of people that come in the last days, and he ends the list in verse 5 by saying to Timothy, “Avoid such people.” They are there. Not just coming, but present. And so they are today.
When he says “Avoid them,” he doesn’t mean never talk to them. In 2 Timothy 4:5 he tells Timothy “Do the work of an evangelist.” Talk to unbelievers. Instead he means: Don’t hang out with them month after month as though they're not in trouble.
But the sheer fact that Paul gives such a long list of evils shows that he had seen a lot of evil in his day. And he had thought a lot about the way sin ravages human life. You will see a lot, too. Think deeply about what you see. Grieve. Pray. Care. Cherish the gospel that saves you and speak it to the perishing. And pursue holiness which pleases the Lord.
4. The creep of evil (verses 6–7)
“Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”
The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference in Orlando last June was historic for several reasons: Reformed, complementarian, and focused on God, not women’s issues. In addition to this, 4,000 women gathered from around the world. One of the reasons I was thrilled to be a part of it is precisely because of verses 6 and 7. It is not God’s will that women be weak in their discernment, burdened with sin, and led astray by passions. It is not God’s will that women be vulnerable to creeping moral and theological error from those who possess a form of godliness and deny the power of it.
This vulnerability may have been the case in Timothy’s setting. But the point of this text is not to encourage it. The point is that evil is insidious. It creeps toward the weak: weak women, weak men, weak children. And the task of the church is to make women and men and children mighty in the word of God. Saturated with the word of God. So that women — and men — can stand against the wiles of the devil. So that women — and men — will not be dabblers who are always sampling new trends and never landing on anything firm.
So let it be said loud and clear that the vision of biblical complementarity between men and women is that both be deeply and solidly grounded in Bible and doctrine. You will know the truth, women — and men — and the truth will set you free — free from the weakness of ignorance (through the Bible), free from the burden of sin (through the gospel), and free from the power of passion (through the Holy Spirit).
5. The limit of evil (verses 8–9)
“Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.”
I think what this means is that those who are true Christians will not be taken in by these creeping opponents of the truth for very long. Jannes and Jambres are the traditional names of the magicians who opposed Moses with their ability to do counter miracles (Exodus 7:11). But you recall that three miracles into the ten their power gave out (Exodus 8:18; 9:11). And they were exposed.
That is what Paul has in mind here. These creeping opponents of the truth may not get spotted for what they are right away. Remember they have "an appearance of godliness." But they will be spotted. God knows those who are his. And he will protect his sheep.
6. The alternative to evil (verses 10–13)
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
The alternative to evil is godly suffering, and final deliverance. You have seen my persecutions and my sufferings, Timothy (verse 11). I am telling you, Timothy, that with this kind of evil in the world that we’ve been talking about, anyone — not just me — who takes a stand for godliness and who seeks to live out a life of positive purity and holiness and love which rescues the perishing — that person will be persecuted. Verse 12: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” So don’t think it strange. Know it is coming. And remember “my patience, my love, my steadfastness,” and imitate me.
The power to do that will come from the confidence of your blood-bought deliverance from evil — especially your final deliverance. Verse 11 (at the end): “. . . which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.” Paul didn’t mean that the Lord keeps us from persecution and suffering. He was stoned so severely in Lystra they thought he was dead (Acts 14:19). But does he mean: Ah yes, but I am still alive? He rescued my life.
Maybe. But I doubt it. I think he means, the Lord stood by me. Never forsook me. He preserved my faith so that I am still walking with him and still on the path to his heavenly kingdom. And by his grace I will make it. The reason I think this is because of what he says at the end of this letter (2 Timothy 4:17–18):
But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (2 Timothy 4:17–18).
The final rescue Paul has in mind is entering the heavenly kingdom. When he is finally killed he will be rescued. This is the great and final alternative to evil. It may cost you much to stand against the evil of the last days. But I promise you, by the authority of God’s word, if you stand by faith in your crucified and risen Savior you will be delivered and it will be infinitely worth it. Let verse 18 of chapter 4 be the flag that waves over all your affliction: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” And we will say with great joy, "Good-bye evil, forever."