“You must understand this, that in these last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligate brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
N.T. Wright translates the first sentence of our passage this way: “You need to know this: bad times are coming in the last days.” Indeed they are. However, we must be careful not to jump to conclusions about what this means. Many have made the mistake of thinking the “last days” are just the period immediately before the return of Christ. The “bad times” are prophetic signals of his imminent return. Actually, the “last days” are the entire intervening time between Jesus inauguration of the Kingdom of God through his life, death, and resurrection and the fulfillment of that Kingdom on His return. In other words, the apostles were living in the last days and so, two thousand years later, are we. Also to note, Paul is not saying that such times are unremitting, rather they will be intermittent: “distressing times will come”.
All of this is to say that Paul’s message to Timothy is for us too. We need to know, we must understand this: that until Christ’s return there will be distressing times when the forces of evil rage most furiously or seduce most deceptively and we are going to be caught right in the middle of them. Moreover, it is right in the middle of such times that we may be called to live out our faith and proclaim the gospel .
Why do we need to know this? So that we will not be dismayed when such times come but will be ready to face them courageously and with confidence. Too often Christians have a sense that being a Christian should involve clear skies and fair winds. They are devastated when these expectations are shattered by a sudden and violent storm. Christ himself has sought to protect us from such false expectations: “In this world you will have trouble,” he tells us.
The opening words of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled are these:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see its truth we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult- and we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once its accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
Indeed, when we know that “in these last days distressing days will come”, they are far less distressing. We may not wish them, but we are ready for them. “’I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” (J.R.R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring)
However, beyond that, we are also given every confidence that no matter what we face we shall be “more than conquerors through him who loved us” or, as Christ himself said, “In this world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” In short, we are not surprised that trouble comes and when it does we are more than confident that we can beat it. We can do all things through him who strengthens us.
Now take a look at the particular evils Paul mentions as a part of the “distressing times”:
“For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligate brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the outward form of godliness but denying its power.”
William Barclay labels this list “one of the most terrible pictures in the New Testament of what a godless world would look like. Here are the terrible qualities of godlessness set out in a ghastly series.” (Barclay, Letters to Timothy…, p.211).
I had not thought of it that way before, but indeed he is right. This is the description of Hell, the world without God. It is a place none of us would want to live and it is the very world that Christ has come to save us from. Is it any wonder, then, that when godlessness impinges Christians are not allowed to retreat but called stand firm for God , continuing to shine His light into the world’s darkness and proclaim His kingdom of life and light, no matter what the cost?
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.
Image credit:Viktor Zimbachevskij