Ancient debatePMT 2015-007 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

One of the key negative passages brought against postmillennial optimism in history is Paul’s third chapter in 2 Timothy. Probably second only to the election of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States, these verses are deemed to present us with a dark and bleak outlook on history.

In 2 Tim 3 Paul speaks of “difficult times” and “evil men and imposters,” even warning that “all who live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Do these statements undermine the postmillennial hope? This is an important question to consider in the eschatological debate. Pessimistic eschatologies see these statements as normative for the flow of church history to the end. But do they declare the normative expectation for Christianity throughout the future?

I am continuing a reply to James White’s October 16, 2014 webcast, where he challenged my postmillennial understanding of 2 Timothy 3. You should consult my preceding articles for proper context and even check out my original article to which he is replying (“Postmillennialism and Perilous Times,” PMT 2014-029, March 7, 2014). But I am taking a new turn in my response, now engaging a careful presentation of the postmillennial understanding of 2 Timothy 3.

In my last article I began introducing 2 Timothy. There I noted that it is an occasional epistle that deals with specific first-century events and issues and that it highlights particular first-century opponents of Paul. If we overlook these facts, we will misunderstand what Paul is doing in 2 Timothy 3. In this article I will make two more relevant and important introductory observations about 2 Timothy (and the Pastoral Epistles).

2 Timothy Is Doctrinally Concerned

In the pastoral letters Paul is deeply concerned for the historical well-being of the church. He sees false teachers as threatening its very existence. This also will be significant as we consider the meaning of his negative statements in 2 Tim 3. Consider the following comments by various scholars.

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Dictionary of the Later New Testament (p. 877): “Paul testifies that pastoral concerns loomed large in his apostolic ministry: ‘there is daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches’ (2 Cor 11:28)…. The letters of Paul are explicit in their pastoral thrust. The needs of the recipients are usually addressed directly, and the letters contain immediate instruction and exhortation to meet the doctrinal, corporate and personal needs and problems of believers.” This will be all the more influential in 2 Timothy.

Paul is particularly concerned about his opponents and their false teaching in his second letter to Timothy. In the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (pp. 662–63) we read: Paul’s “opponents represent the same type throughout the Pastorals…, a more developed form of the false teaching that plagued Paul’s and other apostolic missions virtually from the beginning.” These included “teachers in Pauline congregations and defections from Pauline theology, including former associates and coworkers (1 Tim 1:3–5; 2 Tim 1:15–16; Tit 1:10–11).”

Knight (Pastoral Epistles, 11, 12) notes that: “It appears that the false teachers and false teaching confronted in all three letters are of the same sort.” “The false teachers were primarily but not exclusively Jewish (Tit. 1:10). Paul regarded their teaching as opposed to Christ’s teaching and the apostolic teaching (1 Tim. 6:3; cf. 2 Tim. 4:5) and to the truth (2 Tim. 2:18).”

Towner (The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 41) points out that: “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.” Opposing these rebels will be Timothy’s important task — and will explain Paul’s negative observations.

What is worse, the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (p. 661) observes regarding the churches about which Paul is concerned: “They were increasingly endangered by a judaizing-gnostic countermission (1 Tim 1:3–7, 199–20; 4:1–2; 6:20; 2 Tim 4:3–4; Tit 1:10–16) … that included church leaders and probably former coworkers (2 Tim 1:15–18; 2:16–17; 3:6–9; 4:10; Tit 3:9–14). Some house churches were ravaged and near collapse as Paul’s instructions to Titus indicate: ‘Restore the things that remain …. for many deceivers … are overthrowing whole houses’ (Tit 1:5, 10–11).”

As the New Bible Commentary (2d. ed., p. 1063) notes regarding the Pastoral Epistles: “They are clearly personal letters, written by the apostle Paul to his intimate fellow-workers Timothy and Titus, concerning the discharge of their responsibilities of oversight, particularly in the churches of Ephesus … and of Crete.” In fact, it is evident that “Paul realizes that his own day of witness is passing, and that the future of the work rests with the younger generation. He is concerned still more because he is aware of the present prevalence and certain, increasing menace of false teaching, and of its unhealthy moral consequences in perverted character and conduct.”

Clearly Paul is having to face false teachers who have caused an enormous crisis in the infant New Testament church. And as previously noted, he even names some of them, so vehement is his opposition to them. False teachers are a leading concern in the Pastoral Letters, and especially in the latest one, 2 Timothy. And this will affect our understanding of Paul’s point in 2 Timothy 3 in a way radically different from what Dr. White and other amillennialists argue.

2 Timothy Is Historically Located

Another helpful point of introduction is to note that 2 Timothy was probably written in AD 67 (Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 662; see also S. M. Baugh in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, 3:479). Other scholars place this epistle around AD 65 (Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 3d. ed., 651; New Bible Commentary, 1293; Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 687). Either of these time-frames is significant for our understanding of 2 Timothy 3. For in either case 2 Timothy would have been after the outbreak of the Neronic persecution in AD 64.

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It is clear from 2 Tim 4 that Paul expects to die soon. There he states: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Tim 4:6). According to the church father Eusebius, Paul died around AD 67. According to virtually all of church tradition he died under Nero.

In fact, as the Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds (p. 775) observes: “The experience of persecution, suffering for one’s religious beliefs or behavior, is widely attested in the pages of the NT…. Christians were persecuted by Jews (Acts 5:17–4:2; 6:8–8:1; 17:1–14; 18:12–17; 21:27–36; 2 Cor 11:24; Gal 5:11; 6:12; 1 Thess 2:14–16), and Christians suffered under Roman officials (Heb 10:32–35; 12:3–7; 1 Pet 1:6; 4:12–19; Rev 2:10….).”

And in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (p. 18) we read about Paul specifically: “The trials and afflictions which Paul experienced were many and varied, and this is reflected in the catalogs found in his letters (Rom 8:35; 1 Cor 4:9–13; 2 Cor 4:8–9; 6:4–5; 11:23–29; 12:10).” Paul was under relentless assault, an assault that would impact those who were associated with him.

This will affect our understanding of an important statement in 2 Timothy 3. There we read: “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). This almost certainly provides the gloomy context of Paul’s statement. More about this in my exposition in a later article.

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One thought on “2 TIM 3 (# 2): PAUL v POSTMILLENNIALISM?

  1. scaldaferri January 16, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Great article! It gives us hope in today and in the future too!

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