PMT 2015-009 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
Is 2 Timothy 3 contrary to the postmillennial hope? Not when studied in its own literary and historical context. I have carefully introduced 2 Timothy 3 in the last three posts. Let’s now enter into the exposition of the passage verse-by-verse. I will begin with (surprise!), 2 Timothy 3:1.
2 Tim 3:1: “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.”
(1) The time of the “last days”
Many — perhaps most — Christians see Paul’s reference to “the last days” as speaking of the very close of human history. Many even believe that we have recently entered into the these last days. Either of these understandings discourage a future hope in contemporary history before Christ’s return. But this is not the case, as we can see from Scripture’s interpretation of the “last days” elsewhere, and from Paul’s own context.
When we read other New Testament references to the “last days” we learn that the first-century Christians recognize that they were already in the last days. In fact, the last days follow the “former days” and place Jesus as the center-point of history. Previous history in the “former days” lead up to Jesus; the following history after Jesus therefore become the “last days.”
In Acts 2 Peter cites Joel’s prophecy to show that the tongues-episode at Pentecost signalled that the last days have begun: “This is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth of my Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams’” (Acts 2:16–17).
The writer of Hebrews agrees, and clearly sets Jesus as the center-point of history in this regard: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb 1:1–2a). He sees Jesus’ work on the cross as the turning point: “Now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb 9:26b).
Thus, Paul can compare the Old Testament and New Testament situations similarly. He informs the Corinthians that “these things happened to them [Israel under Moses] as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11).
We know we are still in the last days because Jesus tells us what will happen on “the last day” itself: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). He repeats this three more times in the context: John 6:39, 40, 54. This, of course, speaks of the promise of the resurrection of the body. Martha expresses her hope in her brother Lazarus physical resurrection in these words: “Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’” (John 11:24).
(2) Timothy’s experience of the “last days”
So when Paul writes to Timothy regarding the “difficult times” that will affect the “last days,” this can clearly apply to his own days. But this matter is not purely theoretical. In fact, Paul specifically applies them to Timothy’s day. As he begins to explain these difficult times of the last days, he opens with “for”: “for men will be…” (2 Tim 3:2). He then lists a host of immoral issues that make the days “difficult” (2 Tim 3:2–8).
Yet, in 2 Tim 3:5b Paul directs Timothy himself to “avoid such men as these.” He declares in the next verse that “among them are those who…” (2 Tim 3:6a) which obviously speaks of people afflicting the church in Timothy’s day. Then in v 9 he encourages Timothy: “But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all” (2 Tim 3:9a).
Then over against these contemporary false teachers, Paul praises Timothy: “But [Gk. de] you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance” (2 Tim 3:10). That is, contrary to their teaching and conduct, Timothy followed Paul’s example. And in the next few verses he re-enforces this with the exhortation: “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them” (2 Tim 3:14).
In my next installment I will continue discussing 2 Tim 3:1 regarding the “last days.” I will note in that article both the overarching character of the last days and their episodic times of upheaval. Until then, let’s all sing together: “Happy trails to you, until we meet again.”