PMT-2015-016 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
In my continuing, lengthy study of 2 Tim 3 and its use in the eschatological debate, we now come to perhaps Paul’s most significant — and misunderstood! — statement:
“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12)
This certainly seems to undermine the postmillennial hope in history. How can postmillennialism speak of the victory of the gospel leading to worldwide faith and righteousness among men — if all those who live godly in Christ are to be persecuted?
How did this study arise?
My study of this passage was prompted by apologist James White’s webcast critique of my views on 2 Timothy 3. For context you can see my introductory comments on his critique: click here. In his webcast, White comments:
“Does [Gentry’s view of a specific first-century point] also mean that in v 12 that was only true in the first century: that all who in the first century desire to live godly for Christ Jesus will be persecuted, but that won’t be the case in the second century, well it was the third century…. Okay it still is all the way to today.” Then he states: “I mean all over the world, every generation has… That will always be true.” And further: “If v 12 is always true, what’s the contextual clue that don’t worry about v 13, that is already fulfilled? That’s not a natural exegesis.”
“There are limits placed on evil men” so that the gospel will never be crushed out. That doesn’t change the reality that the situation the church will be facing will always be one of conflict, or warfare … I don’t see how you can read 2 Tim. 3 and come to the conclusion, well, what this means is that eventually we will predominate…. I don’t see it discussing any of that. But what it seems to indicate is that each generation is going to face the same categories of difficulty and necessity for watchfulness no matter where the ministry is taking place.”
These are powerful observations and charges. But are they valid? I do not believe they are. Let me explain.
Let me quickly dismiss White’s most egregious errors in his reply to me. Note that he is speaking of 2 Tim 3 when he states: “I don’t see how you can read 2 Tim. 3 and come to the conclusion, well, what this means is that eventually we will predominate…. I don’t see it discussing any of that.” I can see why White does not accept my argument: he does not understand it.
White is absolutely correct here. But totally irrelevant. No postmillennialist would read 2 Tim 3 all by itself and declare on the basis of reading this passage: “eventually we will predominate.” This is because, as White notes of the passage, “I don’t see it discussing any of that.” Nor do I! We do not use 2 Tim 3 as evidence for the progress of the gospel in history. Because, that is not Paul’s point — as White himself notes.
Neither do I see in 2 Tim 3 Paul discussing the Trinity, the mode of baptism, the role of deacons, six-day creation, or a whole range of other important theological issues. Similarly, Paul is not here presenting the positive case for historical victory. Rather, he is helping Timothy confront licentious, false teachers who are afflicting the church in Ephesus (just as he predicted earlier, Acts 20:29–30).
As I have spent several posts demonstrating: 2 Tim is an occasional epistle. In it Paul is dealing with local problems that Timothy is facing. He does not happen to mention the final, historical outcome of the Christian faith in world history. Paul does provide us with positive evidence for the future progress of the gospel in other places, such as Rom 11 and 1 Cor 15. But not here. He is not providing a full-blown eschatology here, just as he does not do that in many other places.
What does Paul mean?
Continuing with White’s observations, let us note his further comments:
“Is that just in Paul’s day? I mean, obviously what happened to him at Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, were historical realities — part of Paul’s life, right? That’s a given. But then, from that specific statement that had an historical fulfillment in Paul’s experience, you have this general statement, ‘Indeed, all who desire to live Godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’ Now, it seems to me that that is what we would call a ‘gnomic statement.’ It is a general statement of truth that is not limited to the days of Paul. It is a truth that is true as long as this age continues.”
Now this observation potentially has merit. Merit that could — if correct — undermine the postmillennial hope. But fortunately, it too is mistaken. As I will show. In my next article. To quote either Gen. Douglas MacArthur or Curly Howard (I can’t remember which): “I shall return.”