PMT 2015-011 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
I am continuing a defense of postmillennialism in response to those who bring 2 Tim 3 to bear against it. This text is almost universally brought up in rebuttals of postmillennialism. And we can easily see why. Paul appears to be presenting a future quite at odds with the optimism of postmillennialism. when he writes: “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come” (2 Tim 3:1).
I would like to provide more contextual background to 2 Tim 3 by surveying all three Pastoral Epistles. But due to space limitations and the nature of blogs, I will have to suppress that desire. Nevertheless, I hope the running commentary that I will provide on 2 Tim 3 will be insightful — even though lacking the fuller treatment.
In my two immediately preceding articles (PMT 2015-009 and 010) I focused on the important phrase “last days” in 2 Tim 3:1. And I would point out that in an even earlier study of this verse (PMT 2014-153) I presented the meaning of the “difficult times” that Paul foresees. In that article I was responding to the amillennial apologist, Dr. James White. I recommend consulting that article to supplement this one: (Click Here).
Briefly though, I argued there that Paul is not prophesying a future dominated by unrelenting “difficult times.” Rather he is warning that during the period of the last days (beginning with Christ’s ministry in the first century and continuing to the last day at the end of history), the church must expect periods of difficulty. A world of difference separates these two understandings. And that difference distinguishes optimistic postmillennialism from the pessimistic eschatologies of amillennialism, premillennialism, and the various branches of dispensationalism. What do I mean?
Regarding the difference nuances: It is one thing to hold that the future is one, long, unrelenting, dark-and-gloomy era that will only worsen until Christ returns in judgment. It is quite another to interpret Paul’s statement to mean that the last days will be punctuated by “difficult times” at various times (who know how often, or for how long) during the unfolding of the last days. And again: I recommend seeing that article. But for now I must move on.
What Paul Is Doing
Non-postmillennial scholar Robert Mounce (Pastoral Epistles, 542) opens his commentary on 2 Tim 3 with these words: “The second main division of the body of the epistle is 2:14–4:8, with 3:1–9 forming the second subdivision. Paul is still addressing Timothy and not the opponents directly, but the Ephesian situation is clearly in his mind, and these verses should be understood within the Ephesian context.”
In his introduction in his commentary, George Knight (The Pastoral Epistles, 4) agrees with Mounce. He notes that “the letters refer to specific events and places and are written in relation to these events.” Later when he finally enters 2 Tim 3 itself, Knight (p. 428) comments: “this is a future in which Timothy is already involved, since the passage is applied to him in his present situation (note the second person singular present tense imperatives in vv. 1 and 5) and since the activity of the false teachers is depicted as already occurring (in the present tense verb forms in vv. 6–8).” Though Knight also sees these vices as worsening in the distant future, the fact is he recognizes that Paul is speaking of his own day.
Again, we must understand that Paul is writing an occasional epistle to Timothy about the difficulties he is facing while Paul is in prison (2 Tim 1:16) and approaching his execution (2 Tim 4:6–8). As I have argued previously, this is important for understanding the local nature of Paul’s statements: he is speaking out of his own historical context. Certainly we may recognize that anything he writes can provide principles for other historical contexts (as is the case with all biblical directives). Yet the fact remains: he is speaking directly to Timothy about his own day and circumstances.
Paul’s Vice List
After Paul’s opening in verse one with a generic statement about “difficult times” (2 Tim 3:1), in vv 2 through 5 he immediately presents a vice list that characterizes the particular difficulty of those times:
The NT has a number of these vice lists. And they usually apply universally to pagan thought and practice. But Paul is not speaking universally here. Mounce well observes that “almost every vice has a verbal or conceptual link to the Ephesian opponents” that Timothy is currently facing (p. 542). Though this vice list can apply in many situations, Paul is not here intending that it speak universally throughout all of church history. For instance, it does not apply to my church in Greer, SC. And I have heard that there is a Baptist church in Cleveland, Tennessee, to which it does not apply. And there may be others — and hopefully your own church.
I will survey this vice list to show that Paul does in fact have his and Timothy’s local opponents in mind in their particular context.
Paul’s Personal Directive
The first line of evidence pointing to an historical application in Paul’s day is the immediate context of his presentation. So before I survey the individual moral errors, I would note the following.
Paul specifically instructs Timothy: “avoid men such as these” (2 Tim 3:5b). Here he uses the present middle imperative: apotrepou, which means that Timothy himself must personally “avoid” or “turn himself from” these evil-doers. Clearly Timothy is facing these men in his day.
Paul then immediately adds: “For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses” (2 Tim 3:6). This is not a universal prophecy for all times; it is a reminder of what the particular Ephesian heretics are doing in Timothy’s day.
This shows that “Paul is not thinking about society in general…. Rather he is thinking of the eschatological evil that has infiltrated the Ephesian church” (Mounce, pp. 542–43). Mounce continues on p. 543, noting that “the vices are … closely tied to the Ephesian situation.”
Philip Towner (The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 554, 555) agrees: “v. 5 makes clear, ‘people’ is not a general reference to sinners but a specific reference to those who apostatize from the faith.” He adds that this list “is associated not with pagans who have never acknowledged God, but with believers who have defected from the faith.”
This has already been anticipated by Paul when he last met with the Ephesian elders: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).
Thus, Knight (p. 11) observes that “it appears that the false teachers and false teaching confronted in all three letters are of the same sort” and that “the false teachers are characterized by . . . immorality (1 Tim. 1:19, 20; Tit. 1:15, 16; 2 Tim. 2:16, 19; ch. 3).” Then he explains 2 Tim 3:6 with this comment: “what these false teachers do is described in the present tense participial clause.” That is, they are currently entering into house to captivate weak women. As Mounce (p. 548) translates the verb to capture the meaning: “for some of these are creeping into the homes.”
An Important Qualification
We must also bear in mind another important issue for the eschatology, pessimism v. optimism debate. The evil of which Paul is speaking arises from within the church and is not associated with persecution from without. Paul is not speaking of the world’s resistance to Christianity.
As H. C. G. Moule (Studies in II Timothy, 105) observes: “To be sure, the lurid account of prevalent evil … [has] developed evidently (ver. 5) within the Church of Christ.” Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann (The Pastoral Epistles, p. 115) begin their comments on 2 Tim 3 by noting: “This is the section of the letter actually dealing with heretics.”
Though Knight (p. 428) sees the vice list of 2 Tim 3:2-5 as presenting “the evil characteristics of mankind,” he notes that “vv. 6–9 apply that description to the particular case of false teachers in Timothy’s situation. The passage concludes by saying that the error of these false teachers will become so evident that their progress will be checked (v. 9).”
So then, Paul’s warnings here do not point to external persecutors of the church.
In my next article, I will begin showing how the vices apply to Timothy’s days and Timothy’s difficulties.