2 TIM 3 (# 13): PERSECUTION OR PROGRESS?

Sunrise 3PMT-2015-017 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

Is it universally true that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12)? Are the pessimistic eschatologies correct in interpreting this verse as gnomic, a general truth for all times? If it is, then postmillennialism would be a doubtful proposition.

As I have been showing over this lengthy series, Paul is writing an occasional letter dealing with issues that Timothy is facing in Ephesus, while Paul is languishing in prison (2 Tim 1:16) and facing death (2 Tim 4:6–8). Therefore, as he prepares to leave this world, and to entrust the Ephesian ministry wholly to Timothy, Paul is warning Timothy what he is to expect and how he is to confront it.

It is in such a context that we must understand Paul’s brief statement in 3:12. And when we do so, postmillennialism is unharmed. Notice that I did not say: “postmillennialism is confirmed.” This whole passage does not touch at all upon the question of the future, victorious conquest of the gospel throughout the world. That is not Paul’s concern.

In my last article I began a list of interpretive insights into 2 Tim 3:12 which show that it Paul is not establishing a universal principle for the church. He is not declaring that the church will always be a persecuted minority. In the last article I noted that Paul’s statement is: (1) a common, classic overstatement for dramatic purposes; (2) the word “all” does not necessarily mean each-and-every person; and (3) Paul’s historical circumstance shows he is speaking from his own dire situation as a warning to Timothy. I will continue (and conclude) this list in this article.

4. Potential contradiction

If Paul is saying that “all” Christians in the future “will be persecuted,” this would contradict many other passages of Scripture.


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For instance, one of the most powerful statements regarding “the last days” (cp. 2 Tim 3:1) gloriously declares the universal progress of the divine message and a consequent peace throughout the world. Consider Isa 2:

“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.”

Isaiah is saying that “in” or “during” the “last days,” the church will be firmly established as the chief influence among the nations. It will draw in “many peoples” who will hear its message and change their ways, bringing in universal peace. We cannot impose on this glorious prophecy any notion that God’s people everywhere will suffer persecution.

Of course, there are any number of such prophecies, such as:

Numbers 14:21 confirms the victorious expectation with a formulaic oath: “Truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.”

Psa 22:27–28 promises that “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, / And all the families of the nations will worship before You. / For the kingdom is the LORD’S / And He rules over the nations.”

Psa 72:5–8 agrees: “Let them fear Thee while the sun endures, / And as long as the moon, throughout all generations. / May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, / Like showers that water the earth. / In his days may the righteous flourish, / And abundance of peace till the moon is no more. / May he also rule from sea to sea, / And from the River to the ends of the earth.”


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Isa 11:9–10 confirms this hope: “They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, / For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD / As the waters cover the sea. / Then in that day / The nations will resort to the root of Jesse, / Who will stand as a signal for the peoples; / And His resting place will be glorious.”

Because of such a prophetic background the New Testament can gloriously declare: “For 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). And Jesus can preach: “”Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:31–32).

On and on we could go. These prophetic and salvific declarations absolutely contradict the notion that “all” Christians in the future “will be persecuted.”

5. Paul’s point

So then, what is Paul’s point in stating “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12)?

He is encouraging Timothy. This faithful pastor is about to lose his mentor and spiritual father to the cruel sword of Nero (2 Tim 4:6–8). And Timothy is witnessing grievous conflict in the church (2 Tim 3:2-9). Timothy must wonder what is happening. Paul is warning him to expect persecution in the current situation as the new faith is being established in a resistant, fallen world.

Timothy must know that God is not chastening him. He must understand that, given the current circumstances in the Roman empire, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12), just as Paul was (2 Tim 3:11). Paul is speaking out of his own and Timothy’s current circumstances, without looking to the distant future.

Thus, as R. C. H. Lenski (I-II Timothy, p. 833) notes on 2 Tim 3:12: since Paul just mentioned himself and his own suffering, other Christians should expect the same “even though they are not apostles or assistants of an apostle.” Paul’s suffering is not a mark of his apostleship, but a mark of his seeking “to live godly in Christ Jesus.” So Timothy and others in the first century should brace themselves for similar conflict and suffering. But again (as I stated earlier in this series): When similar wicked conditions prevail, Christians may expect similarly difficult times.

Conclusion

I believe the local setting of 2 Tim 3:12 and the larger biblical context show that Paul is not warning that all Christians everywhere throughout future history will be persecuted. As a result, Paul’s statement does not undermine the postmillennial hope.

Yet it does indirectly point to the power and glory of the gospel in that: his statement shows what the early Christians endured to establish the faith. We should give thanks to God for preserving them through their trials. And if we endure such trials today (as Christians in many foreign lands do), we should take comfort in the bigger picture and the larger hope of gospel victory.

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