2 Timothy 3:1-17

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Fasten your seat belts, because we are in for quite a ride! In today’s text, the Apostle Paul vividly describes the times in which you and I live.

He holds back nothing as he chronicles a first option of what happens to individuals and to societies in their free-fall, downward spiral in lives cut off from truth and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And then he describes a second option, a life and community of faith that spirals upward in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, one that follows the truth found in the Scriptures.

Before we contrast these two options, let’s take a look at his opening sentence. He writes, “You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1).

This phrase, “last days,” is open to great misunderstanding. There are those who have Bible prophecy charts that try to be quite specific in defining the last days.

I, personally, have always tried to avoid such specific statements. I am gun-shy because I have observed, even in my own lifetime, Bible teachers who have made varying mistakes identifying Antichrists, who have proved not to be Antichrists; identifying particular nations with some of the imagery that have proved to be wrong; and setting dates for the second coming of Jesus Christ based on speculative, numerical systems extracted from the Bible, dates that proved to be wrong.

The scholars that I have read this week describe the end times as that period following the first coming of Jesus Christ who, in humility died for the sins of the world, rose from the dead in victory over sin and death and ascended into heaven and His long-awaited second coming in which He will return in triumph over all human history. The fact is that you and I do live in the “last times.” Every single person who has lived since the first coming of Jesus Christ also lives in the last times, the time in which Satan is endeavoring to make his last ditch attempt to deceive, confuse and destroy, knowing that Jesus Christ is Victor, having accomplished His atoning work on the cross and, by His Holy Spirit, ever since offering amazing grace to all who will repent of sin and put their trust in Him alone for salvation. So whether you choose to go the speculative route, in terms of biblical prophecy, or the much more cautious route that I have chosen to take, the fact is that we do live in the “last days” and should not be surprised at what they entail.

Now, let’s look at the two clear options that confront you and me.

Option #1: The downward spiral of life lived without the truth found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Paul does not hold back in his vivid description of the downward spiral taken by individuals and societies who choose to live detached from the teachings of God’s Word.

How many times in the last few weeks have we seen replays of that NBA, Detroit brawl in the final minutes of the Pistons/Pacers game. Fans and players began to slug it out in such an unsportsmanlike fashion.

The biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, describes the “last days” in similar terms. He relates the story of a rugby game. His team was winning by what should have been a safe margin. With only a few minutes to go, the opposition seemed to realize their cause was hopeless, and they went berserk. They threw themselves about the place, fists swinging this way and that, boots flying out to trip or kick. He writes:

They were furious that we’d won and they wanted to get some revenge in person, even if they couldn’t on the score-line. I vividly remember the sigh of relief when the final whistle went and we all trooped off for a bath and to compare bruises.

He then goes on to describe the last days in similar terms. He writes:

That sense of the frustration of defeat emerges in various New Testament writings which deal with what seemed at the time to be an increase in human evil. The first letter of John speaks of what it’s bound to be like living in the last days. Here Paul says much the same, warning Timothy that the forces of evil, knowing themselves to be defeated in the crucifixion of Jesus, are having a final fling, dragging people into the mud, determined to inflict as much damage on the human race as they can. We who live two thousand years later may find this language of the “last days” difficult to take, though of course two thousand years, by most people’s reckoning, is a tiny fraction of cosmic history. But the early Christians staked their lives on their belief that with the death and resurrection of Jesus God’s new world had begun, so that the “last days” had indeed arrived, the interval between the defeat of evil on Calvary and the final defeat that we still await. The point Paul is making, alongside other early writers, is that in this interval, however long or short, we shouldn’t expect the world to be steadily improving. We should expect, if anything, an upsurge of evil.

Now, in the context of Paul both writing of the last days and us also living in the last days, let’s look to see his description and see how accurate it is. Although we are separated from his time of writing by almost 2,000 years, he describes this out-of-control fight in the last minutes of the game. He describes this downward spiral in the following way.

First, Paul describes a godless, self-centered lifestyle.

He writes: “For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . .” (2 Timothy 3:2-4).

Does that sound familiar? I could write a whole sermon on each one of those observations. Instead, I’ll let you think those out for yourselves. Reflect on each word he has chosen, each phrase. Each is pregnant with significance. Each one describes a person whose lifestyle is “all about me,” instead of “all about God and how God wants to work through me in relationship to others.”

Second, Paul describes superficial religious practice.

He tells of people who are ” . . . holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).

It is possible to go through elaborate religious motions without being in right relationship with God.

Thursday night, we had our final hearing before the Newport Beach Planning Commission. After a couple of years of hearings and conversations with those opposed to our project, they finally voted approval of our building the youth and family center by a vote of six to one. It was a long evening. Our part of the agenda went from approximately 7:00 p.m. until the final vote a few minutes after midnight. I had stepped out of the City Hall chambers to stretch my legs and call my wife, Anne, on the cell phone. As I stood by the street, talking to her, I noticed a man walking up to me–one of our neighbors who used to be active in St. Andrew’s back in the early days. He wanted to talk. He described how active he had been in the church and how many committees he had served on, how many things he had done. Then he declared, emphatically, “Now I am an atheist!” I tried to move beyond the immediate issue of the merits or demerits of the building program to probe more deeply into his personal anguish, and hopefully we can talk some more.

It is possible to be a person who goes through all the religious motions, but doesn’t know God personally. I can’t think of anything sadder than to be a person who attends church, serves on committees, lives a good life, jumps through all the right religious hoops, who has an “outward form of godliness but denying its power.” You can’t sustain forever religiosity. A life of “churchianity” has to be one of the saddest existences. One is a walking corpse, there is no true spiritual vitality. It is a life of outward religious form.

Every one of us has religious needs. Every one of us is a spiritual person. The question is whether or not you are born again by the power of Jesus Christ unto salvation.

I love Scotland, but I am not a Scot. My ancestry on my father’s side goes back to Germany. On my mother’s side, it goes back to Switzerland. I find no hint of Scot’s blood in my ancestry. There is no tartan that bears the name Huffman or Bricker. I could buy a kilt. I could dress up in majestic Scottish regalia, but would that make me a Scot? No, not really. I am not a legitimate member of any clan. The only way for me to become a true Scot would be for me to renounce my present citizenship, move to Scotland and, if they would have me, become adopted into Scottish citizenship. Taking bagpipe lessons and going to annual Scottish festivals at the Orange County fairgrounds won’t do that.

Third, Paul describes intellectual relativism.

He writes of people who are “. . . always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).

What Paul is describing here is a person who has no other sense of foundational truth. Intelligence is not the exclusive possession of either believers or nonbelievers. All of us are called to use the intelligence we have. Paul is not calling for us to have closed minds. How sad is the person who is so fixed in their opinions and even in their belief system that they cannot stop and understand why others may not think the way they do or believe the way they do. I have tried through the years to work hard to be able to understand why a person thinks the way that person thinks and has the opinions that they have. Sad too is the person whose mind is not inquisitive and not continually learning. What Paul is describing is a person who is so fixed in their determination to always be learning that they go in descending circles, unwilling to live their lives fixed on some basic firm truths. Another way of saying it is, their basic foundational truth is “all is relative except the fact that all is relative, and that is the only positive.” How sad is the person who is always learning and never arriving at the knowledge of the truth.

He mentions as his illustration Jannes and Jambres, who opposed Moses, saying, “So these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth. But they will not make much progress, because, as in the case of those two men, their folly will become plain to everyone” (2 Timothy 3:8-9).

Jannes and Jambres were the names given to the court magicians of Pharaoh who opposed Moses and Aaron. At first, they were able to match the wonders which Moses and Aaron did, but, in the end, they were defeated and discredited. They are not mentioned by name in the Old Testament, but a whole collection of stories and legends gathered around their names. Some said that they accompanied the people of Israel out of Egypt. One legend had it that they perished at the crossing of the Red Sea. One of the stories declared that they were behind the making of the golden calf and perished among those who were killed for sin. They were even mentioned in some legends as two servants who accompanied Balaam when he was disobedient to God. The fact is, Jannes and Jambres became legendary figures representing all who opposed and sought to frustrate the purposes of God and His true leaders. They became representative of this downward spiral.

Fourth, Paul describes self-deception.

He writes, “But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).

We’ll talk about this next week when we address these words of Paul in the next chapter: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3).

Can you imagine anyone sadder than someone who is not only a deceiver, but one who ends up self-deceived in the process?

Paul has given us a vivid description of Option #1, telling us that we must understand that this is the way it is going to be in the “last days,” in that time span between the first coming of Jesus Christ and the second coming. These will be distressing times. Let’s not be surprised by these realities.

We now come to Option #2: The upward spiral of life as lived following the truth in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

This is a very different approach to living.

First, Paul says, look at me.

He writes, “Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:10-12).

Thank God for the men and women who have gone before us who we can look to as models. Remember now, Paul has been our mentor all through this series. He doesn’t hesitate to point to his teachings, his conduct, his aim in life, his faith, his patience, his love and his steadfastness. He is not into a health and prosperity gospel where he says this is the way I have lived and everything will be perfect in life. He goes on to describe even his persecutions and sufferings, declaring that all who live this Option #2 kind of life of the upward spiral of following the Truth of Jesus Christ will have our share of suffering.

In Philippians 3:13-14, he states his operational mode for living in these words: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Not only does he ask Timothy and the rest of us to look at him, he also urges Timothy to look at his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, and examine the foundational truths that undergirded them and those same truths that he had learned from them. He writes: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:14-15).

How different this is from the downward spiral of life lived without the truth that is ours in Jesus Christ. There may be suffering and even persecution associated with this lifestyle, but it is one of upward movement because we are living on foundational principles that are extremely important!

We now come to see the value of the Bible in this upward spiral.

The Bible is the source of the most important wisdom in the world, wisdom that leads to eternal life. Often a person will share with me his cynicism, doubt, frustration, his despair for life. In essence, he is crying, “Help!” He wants salvation but does not know where to find it. Salvation is available through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, you cannot learn about Jesus Christ in a vacuum. You need a source book that will open this salvation to you and enable you to grow in your knowledge of Jesus Christ.

There are two major aspects of the Christian life. One is an initial conversion in which, for the first time, you step into the reality of salvation. This is the point at which you say once and for all, “God, I can’t handle my own life. I receive Jesus Christ. I am sorry for my sins. I turn my life over to you.” Another is the dimension in which you grow spiritually, increasing in wisdom, which is “for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The source of this wisdom, both in its initial and its continuing form, is the Bible.

Just what is the Bible?

One way of stating it is that the Bible is ” . . . the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” This means that the Bible is the only fully reliable source of information on what to believe and how to live.

Or, we can put it in other terms. God has chosen to tell me some things about himself, not everything, but enough for me to get along with Him. God has chosen to tell me some things about myself, not everything, but enough for me to get along with myself. And God has chosen to tell me some things about you, not everything, but enough so that I can get along with you. The Bible, in very practical terms, is a repository of divinely revealed truth that enables you and me to live with some foundational absolutes about God, ourselves and our fellow human beings in a world of enormous relativity. Instead of spiraling downward, living life without Truth, we are able to press forward and upward, following Jesus Christ from a foundation of Truth.

Paul writes, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The key word here is useful. Other translations use the word “profitable.”

The Bible is useful for teaching.

Preaching is not enough. A good emotional feeling about God is not enough. You need solid teaching about the Christian faith. The Bible teaches you how to grow in your Christian life.

You may pride yourself on the fact that you became a follower of Jesus a few years ago. You may be sitting back, luxuriating in the knowledge that your sins are forgiven. But you are not exposing yourself to the Word of God. You had better start digging in, or you are going to be in real spiritual trouble if you are not already! Conversion is just the starting point.

Take a doctor, an engineer, lawyer or pilot. It is one thing to be romantically committed to a profession and another thing to be a responsible professional person. It is one thing to claim to be a Christian and to profess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and another to learn about Him, maturing in responsible discipleship. Bible study is useful for teaching.

Not only does it teach us doctrine. It also answers some of life’s most difficult questions. For example, this week, my wife Anne’s father, Crawford Mortenson, died. He passed away peacefully in his sleep Thursday morning. As we sat in the room as family members, thinking back on his life, we were able to reassure ourselves of the many promises of Scripture that he is now in Heaven. We talked openly about the promise of Jesus, “‘I go to prepare a place for you.'” We claimed those words of Paul, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” We even speculated on the possibility that Crawford and my dad, who died in May, and my daughter, Suzanne, who died 13 years ago, might have already had a reunion in Heaven. What we had no sense of is the emptiness and despairing confusion of those who have no answers in the loss of loved ones.

The Bible is useful for reproof.

If you are serious about wanting to grow in your Christian life, you need to be alerted to certain errors in your attitude and your lifestyle. You need to be convicted about things that are out of kilter in your life. The Bible speaks with authority as to what is moral and what is immoral. You may be kidding yourself into thinking that some of your relationships are all right in the eyes of God, when actually, according to His Word, they are downright immoral.

One young couple that I knew, who claimed to be Christians, were living together without being married. When confronted with the question, “Do you trust the Bible?” they said, “Absolutely!” I asked them then how they could live that way. To this they responded, “We prayed about it, and the Lord said this was right for us.” This couple needed reproof from the Word of God, which, although an authority to them, was a closed book.

We need reproof not only for our wrong actions. We need reproof to confront us with our wrong attitudes. One of my former associates says that the three most important words in the English language are: “1. Attitude; 2. Attitude; 3: Attitude.” My attitudes need the reproof of God’s Word.

The Bible is useful for correction.

If you are really a Christian, all your theories, theology, ethics and lifestyles are to be tested against the Bible’s teachings. There are many misunderstandings in life on which you and I need correction. Most of the cynics I know are uneducated in the Scriptures. Maybe they were forced as children to go to Sunday School. They have a little bit of knowledge and have turned on it. Basically, they are inarticulate as to what the Bible asserts. Perhaps you are in this position. You need to be convinced of your errors and then corrected and guided away from your errors back to the truth of God’s will for your life.

A broken arm that has been allowed to heal without proper medical attention has to be rebroken and reset. That’s no fun. But the pain is worth it.

In a ninth grade softball game, I was playing first base. We had no baseball gloves. A ground ball was hit to third. The third baseman threw to me at first. I stretched out to catch the ball, only to have it hit the end of my index finger, jamming my joint. I never went to a doctor, who would have set it correctly and caused it to heal in the right way. To this day, fifty years later, I have a bulge in that joint, and it serves as a barometer, aching on cold and rainy days.

Sometimes those corrections are painful, like the broken leg I had that came unset and had to be rebroken and reset. There may be areas of your life that require restructuring. You will become aware of these as you dig into God’s Word. The pain is worth it, for the ultimate effect is a daily personal friendship with Him.

The Bible is useful for training in righteousness.

This simply means that you need equipment for the Christian life. Your study of the Word of God is not a selfish kind of thing. It is tied to Jesus Christ’s ongoing plan. Any change or conversion that makes you think of nothing but your own salvation is not a true change or conversion. Careful study produces action. That is what righteousness is. It is not just a one-way ticket to heaven. Some of us are downright selfish, worrying only about our own personal relationship with God and couldn’t care less about the world around us. We are like a selfish child, unwilling to share our possessions with anyone else. We need instructions in how to live as God would have us live, in personal purity and with an ongoing sense of responsibility to others.

For God’s teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness to be helpful, you and I need to have Bibles that are open and being studied. It doesn’t do much good to point to a dusty, unused Bible sitting there on a shelf.

That’s why we have biblical preaching and teaching here at St. Andrew’s. Preaching isn’t just popular, inspirational messages on some contemporary theme or motivational self-help talk. Instead, as you know, since September, we have been working through 1 and 2 Timothy. If you have taken this seriously, you are benefiting in all the ways we just mentioned.

It is important that you spend some time with the Lord alone each day, reading the Bible. There is no one right way to do that. I have found that by reading two chapters in the Old Testament and one in the New each day, I can read through the Bible in one year. That way, I am exposed to the entire teaching of the Word of God. For some years now, I have been encouraging you to read the One Year Bible. You do it your way. Just be sure you are exposed to the public teaching and preaching of the Word of God and that you have some kind of private, disciplined plan to, on a daily basis, expose yourself to God’s Word.

What is the result of all this? Paul writes to Timothy, “. . . so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).

You want to be proficient, don’t you? You want to be equipped for every good work don’t you?

The choice is yours. Which will it be? Option #1, the downward spiral of life lived without the Truth of Jesus Christ? Or will it be Option #2, the upward spiral of life lived following the Truth of Jesus Christ?

How you have chosen or will choose between these two options makes all the difference!


John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

Read the other sermons in this series:

Mentored for Sound Doctrine & Godly Lifestyles (1 of 12)
Christ’s Power to Save (2 of 12)
Prayer and Worship (3 of 12)
Servant Leadership (4 of 12)
Believing the Truth (5 of 12)
Relationships (6 of 12)
Greed vs. Contentment (7 of 12)
Strength in Suffering (8 of 12)
Perseverance & Persistence (9 of 12)
Workers Pleasing to God (10 of 12)
Following the Truth (11 of 12)
What Jesus Came to Enable You to Say (12 of 12)

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