Sometimes you read words someone has written and they seem prophetic. Sometimes they are genuinely prophetic, a revelation given by God about the future. The prophecies we see in the Bible concerning Christ are excellent examples of this. Sometimes words sound prophetic but are merely general, ambiguous statements about the future that will certainly be fulfilled in some manner. We see this in horoscopes, fortune cookies, and people like Nostradamus. If you make your “prophecy” vague enough, those who believe in such things will conclude that it was true. But there is a third type of speech which sounds prophetic. It is when someone says something that was true in the past, but continues to be true even now. As I read people like the early church fathers, C.S. Lewis, and others, I’m amazed at how much of what they said to the people in their day continues to be spot on in our society today.
This morning we turn our attention to 2 Timothy 3:1-14, where Paul speaks in this way. He was warning Timothy about the dangers of his day; about how corrupt the world around him was and would continue to be. He told Timothy to be on guard so that he would not be taken in by such things. When we read what Paul tells Timothy it seems exactly like what he would have said to us if he were living today. We should pay close attention, because Paul’s advice is equally applicable to us as it was to Timothy.
Paul begins by telling Timothy about how things will be in the last days. The term “the last days” confuses many believers, because many think it refers only to the days immediately preceding the return of Christ. While certain prophecies in Scripture do seem to refer to that specific time frame (whenever it may be), here it refers to the last stage of history—the time between when Christ ascended into heaven after the resurrection and when Christ will return again to bring all things to an end. In other words, the period of “the last days” Paul speaks of started over 2,000 years ago and continues to this day. Listen to what Paul told Timothy about the last days,
You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. 2 For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. 3 They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. 4 They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. (2 Timothy 3:1-4, NLT)
Paul gives a long list of traits common to people (or societies) living in disobedience to the Lord. As we go down this list, we see a lot of traits that are common in our society today. He lists these characteristics as a warning to Timothy so he could guard against them. This list of evil activities can be traced back to three traps which ensnare many. We need to guard our own lives to ensure we do not fall into these same traps.
The first trap is Narcissism. Narcissism is loving yourself above all else. The term comes from Greek mythology, which describes a man named Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection. As a result, he spent all his time looking at himself. He died because he was so self-absorbed that he didn’t eat, drink, or do anything else.
There is a lot of similarity with Narcissus in our society today. While few of us are in love with the image we see in the mirror, much of our lives are spent focused on ourselves.
It is not wrong to love yourself—God loves you, and He created you with intrinsic value. Just as you should love every other person on earth, you should also love yourself. The problem comes when our love of self goes beyond appropriate boundaries. When we love ourselves more than we love others, more than we love what is right, or more than we love the Lord, then we have crossed over into worship of self. And the only person deserving of worship is the Lord.
Several of the items in Paul’s list have narcissism at their root: lovers of themselves, being boastful and proud, being ungrateful, considering nothing sacred, being unloving and unforgiving, cruelty. Each of these things is caused by a very simple yet common problem—elevating yourself above all else.
So what is the remedy for a Narcissistic attitude? The remedy is humility. Listen to what Paul said about humility in Philippians:
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3, NLT)
Humility is not thinking of ourselves as less than we are; it is seeing ourselves as we really are and seeing others for who they are. The humble person recognizes their own sinfulness and sees their need for a savior. The humble person doesn’t look down on others because they truly understand that they are no better than the people around them. They see every person they come into contact with as just as important as themselves, so they treat them the way they would like to be treated.
Humility is a difficult trait to cultivate in our lives. In truth, we can’t become humble apart from the Spirit of God working in us. We need to ask for God to make us humble and to work at rooting out these kinds of sinful behaviors in our own lives.
We can cultivate humility by turning Paul’s list around and trying to do those things. Instead of being selfish we should look to the needs of others. Instead of being boastful and proud we should seek to highlight the successes of others. Instead of being ungrateful we should take notice of the things others do for us and express our gratitude to them. Instead of being cruel we should be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. We should give others the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming we know everything. If we will cultivate these kinds of traits in our lives, we can avoid the trap of Narcissism.
The second trap is Hedonism. Narcissism is a love of self; Hedonism is a love of pleasure. God designed things to be pleasing and for us to enjoy. We should absolutely enjoy the things God designed to bring us pleasure—but we should keep them within the limits God has defined. When we pursue pleasure above all else, we begin down a dangerous path. Paul’s list includes several results of a hedonistic attitude: loving pleasure rather than God, betraying friends, recklessness, and having no self-control.
When we think of pursuing pleasure, our minds often go to sex. Many today are facing the consequences of elevating the pleasures of sex over the commands of God, which are designed to protect us. The rise of infidelity, pre-marital sex, pornography, unplanned pregnancies, abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases are all results of placing a desire for sexual pleasure above God’s commands. We have seen the fallout from such attitudes. But the danger of hedonism extends far beyond sex.
We see it with drugs and alcohol—seeking a feeling (whether it’s a high, numbness, or something else), regardless of the consequences. We see it in the way we eat food. Eating is pleasurable, but when we allow that pleasure to dictate our decisions about food, we run into problems. We eat unhealthy foods rather than good foods and we eat way more than we need instead of showing restraint. It’s the love of pleasure that allows our leisure activities to take over our lives, keeping us from our jobs, our families, and our Lord. We neglect the important things of life in order to go “have fun.”
Our culture today is eminently hedonistic. We function by the maxim that if it feels good, you should do it. Or you have to do what makes you happy, because that’s most important. These are popular and oft-repeated statements of how to order your life. But they lead to all manner of evil consequences. A hedonistic attitude toward life leads us away from God, because God becomes less important than feeling good in the moment.
So what is the remedy to hedonism? The remedy is integrity. If we want to combat the hedonistic tendencies in our lives it has to start with a change in focus. Instead of our decisions being based on what makes us feel good in the moment, they should be based on what is right. We have a tendency to avoid anything painful in life, but sometimes the painful things are actually good for us. Parents know this. It’s why we take our kids to get immunizations, why we make them clean their rooms, go to the dentist, and go to school. We know that if our kids only did what made them happy, they would be sick, illiterate, overweight, and toothless. Though our kids might be happy for a short time, they would eventually regret their choices.
We need to apply that same wisdom to our own lives. We need to focus on what is right, rather than on simply what is fun or expedient. Living with integrity means telling the truth, even when it hurts. It means admitting when we are wrong, even if others do not. It means making time for the important things in our lives like going to church, reading our Bibles, praying, teaching our families about the things of God, and talking to our friends, co-workers, and neighbors about the gospel. Though these things are sometimes hard, they have a long-term payoff. There are lots of applications to this principle, but the principle itself is simple—if we want to avoid the trap of hedonism, we must be more concerned about doing what is right than what feels good in the moment.
The third trap is Materialism. Materialism is when we love things more than we love the Lord. Again, many of the things on Paul’s list fall into this category: loving money, being ungrateful and unloving, slandering others, being cruel, and betraying their friends. These things are an outcropping of an attitude that views the accumulation of things (or power, or influence) as more important than everything else. This attitude causes us to view people in terms of what they can give us (promotions, sales, inheritance, gifts, power, etc.) instead of relating to them as people.
Think about where this mindset leads. It leads us not to care for the poor, because in order for us to care for others, we would have to give up something of our own. It leads us to lie, cheat, and steal in an effort to get more. It leads us into the slavery of either debt or workaholism in order to fuel our ever-growing appetite for more. Materialism is the basis for all sorts of evil in our world and in our churches.
So what is the remedy to materialism? It is generosity. Generosity has at its core a change in thinking about the things we have. Materialism views our stuff as belonging to us; the generous person views it as belonging to the Lord. When we view everything we have (our money, our possessions, our talents and skills, our influence, and our time) as belonging to the Lord then our mindset changes. We become more concerned with using what we have to accomplish His goals rather than to accomplish ours. We see our possessions as tools to accomplish God’s will rather than an end in themselves.
Practically speaking, this means we will be generous in tithing to the Lord and in giving to other things when we feel the Lord prompting us. It means that we will learn to delay gratification and avoid spending money we don’t have. It means we will hold the things we have loosely, recognizing that God has given them to us to help us benefit His kingdom, not ours. If we want to avoid the trap of materialism, we must cultivate an attitude of generosity in our lives.
One More Warning
Paul gives this list of all the evil things we are likely to see in the world around us when we put other things above the Lord, but he also gives Timothy another warning—a warning against false teachers. He says false teachers are a natural consequence of placing something other than God in the place of first importance.
They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that! 6 They are the kind who work their way into people’s homes and win the confidence of vulnerable women who are burdened with the guilt of sin and controlled by various desires. 7 (Such women are forever following new teachings, but they are never able to understand the truth.) 8 These teachers oppose the truth just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses. They have depraved minds and a counterfeit faith. 9 But they won’t get away with this for long. Someday everyone will recognize what fools they are, just as with Jannes and Jambres. (2 Timothy 5-9, NLT)
He tells Timothy to be on guard against those who act religious but who are not followers of God at all. These people play the game of religion. Some of these people are in the church. They know the right words to say, they are regular in their attendance, they may even know the Bible, but they don’t do anything with it. They don’t live their lives on what the Bible teaches, or when they do it is only to try to get God to do what they want. We need to be on guard to make sure we don’t become like that. The remedy to that attitude is to constantly be looking for what God wants us to change in our lives. When we simply go through the motions of religion we are wasting our time. If we really believe what God says, it will be evident in a changed life.
Whether inside or outside the church “religious” but ungodly people will deny the truth of the gospel and lead others astray. False teachers like this are evil in their tactics. Paul said they seek to win the confidence of weak-willed women and lead them astray. He’s not saying women are weak, he is saying these people will look for the easiest targets.
Have you ever noticed this is the approach of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons? They often come to homes at times when they expect most of the family will be gone at work or school so they can get someone alone. I came home one day to a car parked in my driveway and recognized the Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on my porch talking to my wife. I was prepared to go and confront them, but didn’t get the chance, because my wife told them her husband the pastor had just arrived home, so they should speak to him. They left before I ever got to my porch. They were hoping for an easy target, but they hastily left once they saw my wife was no longer alone. (Of course, they didn’t realize she’s not an easy target regardless!)
We can recognize false teachers by their evil tactics, but we can also recognize them because they oppose the truth. Paul refers to two men named Jannes and Jambres as examples. These two men are foreign to most of us because their names aren’t in the Bible anywhere but here, but Jewish tradition held that these were the names of two of Pharaoh’s magicians who opposed Moses. When Moses performed a sign of God’s power, Jannes and Jambres did something similar that would prove that Moses’ God was not anything special. Their miracles looked like Moses’ but they were counterfeit, and they were designed to lead Pharaoh away from God.
Many today do the same thing. False teachers use similar words to Christians but redefine them to mean something different. They will redefine or ignore difficult teachings in the Bible so they can gain influence or create a god of their own imagination. They call themselves Christians or a branch of Christianity, but they deny the essentials of the faith. They twist the truth for evil ends. Paul tells us we should be on guard against such people, but he also gives us good news. False teachers will one day be found out! Jannes and Jambres eventually had to admit that the God of Moses was no match for them, and the false teachers of today will one day have to give an account for the things they have said as well. I have said it before and I will say it again—it doesn’t matter what you believe, it matters whether what you believe is true!
Paul contrasts these false teachers with his own life. He tells Timothy to instead follow his example.
10 But you, Timothy, certainly know what I teach, and how I live, and what my purpose in life is. You know my faith, my patience, my love, and my endurance. 11 You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured. You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it. 12 Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. 13 But evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived. 14 But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. (2 Timothy 3:10-14, NLT)
Paul contrasts his life with those who live a godless life. He points to the consistency Timothy has seen in him and urges him to be the same way. He tells Timothy to cultivate faith, patience, love, and endurance.
This is a good reminder for us as Christians. Like Timothy, we must remain faithful to the truth. But Paul reminds us that everyone who seeks after God is going to be attacked by the world. The world does not like the idea of submitting to the Lord. The world wants to put themselves on the throne and will attack anyone who stands in their way. Paul’s says don’t worry when people attack you; continue to stand firm in what you know is true. If the Bible is true, then we know how it ends—God will be victorious!
As we look around at the world today we have to be amazed at how similar things were nearly 2,000 years ago. The sins and perversions of today are not new. They all have the same root cause: allowing something other than the Lord to become our main focus. Paul warns us that when we let our focus drift we venture into dangerous territory. He tells us to avoid people who live that way. We need to carefully choose who we allow to influence us. We should surround ourselves with people who will help us take our eyes off of ourselves, our pleasure, and our stuff, and instead focus on the Lord.
We need to take a hard look at our lives and root out the seeds of Narcissism (worship of self), Hedonism (worship of pleasure), Materialism (worship of things), and Superficial Faith. Is it possible one or more of these things govern your life? Are you unknowingly promoting these things in your family? The world applauds and even promotes people with these attitudes. These passions draw us in like a magnet but that magnet is pulling us to spiritual death and a decaying and reckless society. We must fight to keep our minds on a single goal: to love, honor, and serve our Lord; the only One who can save us from ourselves.
 I am indebted to the writers of the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary, who helpfully pointed out these three traps and their remedies. David Platt, Daniel Akin, and Tony Merida. The Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary, B & H Publishing Group (Nashville), 2013.