PMT 2014-152 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
This is my fifth article replying to Dr. James White of Alpha & Omega Ministries. On his October 16 webcast, he challenged my postmillennial analysis of 2 Timothy 3. See my preceding articles for context and consult my original article to which he replies (“Postmillennialism and Perilous Times,” PMT 2014-029, March 7, 2014).
White’s Objections on the Last Days
White rejects my understanding of 2 Tim 3:1 which records Paul’s statement: “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.” He mentions that we have been living in the “last days” for a long time, since the first century (Acts 2:16–17; Heb 1:1–2; 9:26). Once again, my postmillennialism agrees with his amillennialism on this understanding of the “last days.”
White, however, believes that Paul is effectively prophesying that the last times will always be characterized by difficult times wherein the majority of men act in depraved ways (2 Tim 3:1-8). And on this understanding, he argues that this cannot fit into the postmillennial expectation of the universal progress and dominance of the gospel in world affairs. And if he were correct in his understanding of Paul, I would agree with him.
In my original article, though, I argue that it is during the last days that difficult times will arise. That is, the last days are not characterized by wholesale moral corruption. But during the last times we must expect periods of such moral conditions. And because of this, Paul encourages Timothy that he should not be surprised at what he is currently facing with the false teachers in the church of his day. Thus, Paul’s statement does not mean that we are to expect only difficult times throughout the whole last days period.
In his webcast at the 37:00 minute marker, White cites my statement that this text does not suggest unrelenting difficult times through all of history. Then at 38:00 he comments:
“If I’m understanding this … what is being described in … v 1 … is referring to specific seasons, primarily, evidently, under the Roman Empire and at other times. I don’t know what those other times are. Does it follow that when you are not in a difficult season the rest of what it says becomes irrelevant to the minister of the church? So is it only during difficult seasons, cause … there is no way you can escape the fact that it is esontai gar [i.e., “for there shall be”]? So the gar is connecting v 2 to v 1. So the reason … is because men will be lovers of themselves. So I would like to know when during the history of the church have men not been lovers of self”?
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He adds: “Or are we saying this is only within the church?” He doubts this is the case: “It seems obvious to me that this is a general description of a sinful society in which the church exists and therefore is influenced by what is going on in that context, which we are seeing today.”
Then at 40:27 he asks: “Are there only seasons?” “Only once in awhile, perhaps only in the Roman empire?… That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me…. I really see vv 12 and 13 as standing against this. All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Is that only during certain seasons? Or is that not the case as long as we are in this age before the age to come? I would say in the age to come that would no longer be true.”
He continues at marker 42:10 “Now you do not judge eschatological perspectives on the basis of your current knowledge of world affairs.” But “I really struggle with this idea that this is just seasonal. That does not flow from the reading of the text.”
1. Some earlier commentators. I would remind my readers that my interpretation of 2 Tim 3:1 is not my own. I picked up on this view from B. B. Warfield, Iain Murray, and others. See my third article in this series (PMT 2014-150).
For instance, in The Puritan Hope (1971, p. 80), Murray writes: “ The peril of which Paul speaks is the contagion liable to be received from the prevalence of such men as those described in the verses which follow. In particular, they are ‘evil men and seducers’ (v. 13), who were alive at the time when Paul wrote, hence the exhortation to Timothy in verse 5, ‘from such turn away.’ And while in their personal character whey would go from bade to worse (v. 13), their public influence according to Paul was soon to pass…. ‘for their folly shall be manifest unto all men’” as verses 8 and 9 show. “Paul was thinking primarily of his own time!”
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2. The meaning of “times.” The Greek word translated “times” in the “difficult times” (KJV: “perilous times”] phrase is kairos. My interpretation of Paul’s statement allows my postmillennial conception of the issue, as dealing with occasional points of time rather than demanding these difficulties exist all the time. Let us consider the definition of kairos.
The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (2:232) defines kairos as: “period of time, moment.” It points out that in Acts 17:26 it is applied to varioius “historical epochs.”
The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (3:833) defines it thus: “time, esp. a point of time, moment.” On p. 834 it reads: “individual periods or points of time.” There it also states that “chronos encompasses . . . all possible kairoi.” But I would note that Paul does not speak of chronos here in 2 Tim 3:1.
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (3:460) defines the word as a “specific and decisive point.” On p. 461 is sees it as a “short space of time,’ a “stretch of time.” It notes on p. 459 that Jerusalem missed its own peculiar opportunity in missing its kairos (Luke 19:44)
The New Linguistic and Exegetical Commentary on the Greek New Testament (504) explains that kairos speaks of a “period of time, season, a particular time.”
Amillennial commentator R. C. H. Lenski (2 Timothy, 820) states of kairos in dealing with 2 Tim 3:1: “within the longer period denominated by ‘the last days’ . . . various short periods (kairoi) shall occur.” He adds (p. 829): “a kairos always bears a special stamp, something that differentiates it as a ‘season.’ Here it is the grievousness.” Of the evil men and seducers, he states (p. 829): “their vogue lasts only for one of the grievous ‘seasons’ mentioned in v. 1.”
Amillennialist William Hendriksen notes of 2 Tim 3:1: “these seasons will come and go” (I-II Timothy, p. 283). Though he believes that toward the end of history they will grow worse and more pervasive.
3. The absence of numbers. A careful reading of Paul will note that he does not say that the “last days” will be a period dominated wholly by moral degradation.
As Warfield notes (Biblical and Theological Studies, p. 500), Paul is not declaring that these circumstances will be “covering the life of the whole dispensation.” And Iain Murray (Puritan Hope, p. 81) notes the “recurrences of perilous seasons or times,” but adds that “Paul does not say how many nor how often.” Indeed, as Murray notes, all we can discern from Paul’s statement is: there will be “some periods of grievous conflict.”
Of course, as an amillennialist Hendrikson ” (I-II Timothy, p. 283) adds his own expectation: these times will be ever increasing and involve “multiple fulfilment.” However, I would point out that this does not necessarily flow from Paul’s statement in 2 Tim 3:1. Hendrikson’s theology reads it into the text.
4. The final revolt. Furthermore, the postmillennial understanding of the flow of history needs to be fully taken into account. Let me explain.
Postmillennialists certainly do see a future era of the long and glorious conquest of the gospel. We do believe that in that era “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD / As the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9b). This is a sine qua non of postmillennialism; this is what distinguishes it from the other (historically pessimistic) eschatological systems.
But we also understand that after this long period of peace and righteousness, there will be a final short revolt. Christians will be the majority in the world at that time. But within that majority there will remain some false professors of faith — just as there are within large evangelical churches today. Toward the end of history God will loose Satan and allow him to stir these unregenerate, cultural-Christians to a final revolt. This will be another of those “seasons” Paul expects.
For instance, Lorainne Boettner (The Millennium, p. 69) writes: “Just before the end God does permit a limited manifestation of evil.” John Jefferson Davis (Christ’s Victorious Kingdom, p. 111) recognizes “a final apostasy … immediately prior to the second advent and after the period of millennial blessing on the church.”
5. A contrary expectation. When we read of the “last days” in Scripture, not all of them are deemed evil and threatening worsening conditions. In fact, Isaiah prophesies glorious things to occur in the last days (Isa 2:2-4).
Now it will come about that In the last days / The mountain of the house of the LORD / Will be established as the chief of the mountains, / And will be raised above the hills; / And all the nations will stream to it. / And many peoples will come and say, / “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, / To the house of the God of Jacob; / That He may teach us concerning His ways / And that we may walk in His paths.” / For the law will go forth from Zion / And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. / And He will judge between the nations, / And will render decisions for many peoples; / And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. / Nation will not lift up sword against nation, / And never again will they learn war.
Postmillennialists look at Isaiah’s prophecy as eventually dominating the flow of history. We do this because it actually is a prophecy. And because Christ himself teaches: “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). He promised: “I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). And on this basis he gave us the great commission:
“Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18–20)
Persecution or Corruption?
White sees Paul’s “difficult times” as flowing against the church from outside, through external oppression and civil persecution. I would not deny that such difficult times did arise in the first and later centuries. Nor would I claim that they no longer do so in our day (North Korea and Iran are notorious examples of such). But that is not what Paul is talking about. He is writing to pastor Timothy regarding the danger of false teachers that he is facing within the church where he ministers.
Paul knows that he himself is about to be killed under the hand of Rome (2 Tim 4:6-8). But he does not warn Timothy of persecution against the church, but rather of heresy and immorality within it (3:2-8), an immorality that will go no further (3:9). In Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Introduction (3d. ed., p. 649), he notes a purpose of 2 Timothy: “during the course of the writing he takes the opportunity of warning Timothy again about the false teachers as he had previously done in the first epistle.”
Guthrie goes on (p. 656) to summarize Paul’s discussion in 2 Timothy: he gives “advice on the treatment of false teachers (2:14-26).” He states of 3:1-9: “Mention of Timothy’s opponents in the last section [2:1-26] probably prompted the apostle to turn his attention to the future to foresee a time of moral decadence. He vividly describes the sins which will characterize the men of this period, even under the cloak of religion, and he declares that these corrupted men will be rejected. The apostle thinks of them as already present, for Timothy is urged to avoid them.”
In this regard we should remember that Timothy is in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:18). When Paul left Ephesus (Acts 20:17-18), he warned the elders what would happen after he left (Acts 20:29-31):
“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.”
This is the very sort of problem Timothy faces and of which Paul writes. Timothy must recognize, expose, and counter the false teachers in the church. As non-postmillennial commentator George Knight (The Pastoral Epistles [New International Greek Text Commentary], p. 428) states: Though Paul uses future verbs in 2 Tim 3:1 and 9, “this is a future in which Timothy is already involved.” He points out the present tense imperatives (commands) in vv 1, 5, which show that Paul is dealing with false teachers “already occurring.”
Non-postmillennial commentator Donald Guthrie (Pastoral Epistles [Tyndale New Testament Commentary], p. 174) argues that in 2 Tim 3:14, Timothy is being urged to continue in what he has learned — over against what the false teachers are promoting. He urges him to remember the sacred Scriptures which he learned as a child, rather than the false doctrines of the false teachers.
In fact, as Philip Towner (The Letters to Timothy and Titus [New International Commentary on the New Testament], p. 553) notes, Paul’s statement “but realize this” (2 Tim 3:1) links back to 2 Tim 1:15. That text reads: “You are aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.”
Timothy had already been warned about this in Paul’s previous letter: “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron” (1 Tim 4:1–2). Timothy must oppose them, and that is why Paul points out specific leaders such as Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander (2 Tim 2:17; 4:14).
Timothy should work against such men troubling the church: “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following” (1 Tim 4:6).
In this regard Towner (The Letters to Timothy and Titus , p. 41) declares: “If there is one thing about these letters on which scholars do agree, it is that they purport to address church or mission situations in which false teachers or opponents figure quite prominently…. More scholars today are inclined to view the opposition as actual …. and the letters as a response to the rise of heretical opponents in these Pauline churches at some point in time.”
We will continue this exercise in my next, final article. Unless some false teachers arise and hack my blogsite.