But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. 2Timothy 3:1-5, NIV
I’ve always found this passage of scripture interesting. It is a very clear and concise description of a human nature as it exists apart from the influence and power of the Holy Spirit. This particular description certainly had a historical context. It is obvious, in a letter written by Paul and directed toward Timothy, that the time period he was referencing was one which he expected Timothy to witness, and to experience. Whether it is the “last days” of the early apostolic ministry of the church, or a prophetic reference to the coming destruction of the Temple, Paul was giving Timothy instruction for dealing with corruption that would most certainly creep in, and have an effect on the church. After all, Christians are simply forgiven, converted sinners, and when they are not submitted to the Holy Spirit, or not even aware of him, they fall back on their human nature.
Like most scripture, while the specific context in which it was written has passed, the teaching itself is still very relevant. I tend to think that when God was inspiring the writers of scripture, he was giving them some prophetic words and ability to speak beyond their time and their understanding of life as it existed for them, because there would be all kinds of different situations to which their words would apply. Reading and studying the meaning of this passage in 2 Timothy, coming at a time when Paul was himself facing his last days, the understanding of human nature that has been revealed to him, and the inspiration with which he wrote these words was indeed prophetic.
I’m not clicking my tongue and shaking my head at just how bad the world is these days. This passage applies to the church. Yep, that’s right. Timothy was trained by Paul in an apostolic ministry to the church, and Paul’s first epistle to him contained instructions about its inner operations. This second epistle, written while Paul was in prison, was to inspire him in his ministry. Paul understood that the greatest danger to the ministry of the church, and to the ministry of anyone who was called to serve it, was to fall into a selfishness that caused them to rely on their own strength, to lead by their own sense of ability, and to teach from their own intellect. Various brands of outright paganism was the standard religious practice of the day, and with few exceptions, it was supported by outright hedonism. Those who were considered “enlightened” were very critical of the kind of lifestyle and philosophy of Christianity, and looked down at those who practiced it as being less intelligent and less educated than themselves. As a result, going back to the old lifestyle was always a looming temptation for Christians who had been converted out of the pagan beliefs and lifestyle.
There’s a key phrase in this passage, having a form of godliness but denying its power, that I think is particularly noteworthy for the Christian church as it exists in America today. In many ways, much of what passes for Christianity in our culture rests almost exclusively on a foundation of human intellect. That’s why there are so many divisions in the church, so many different denominations, and so much bickering and fighting. We think that our faith rests on our ability to justify its existence through intellectual means, and on the reasoning that comes out of an education conducted on a classical model, with a classical, rather than a distinctively Christian, philosophical foundation. So, going back in church history, we’ve separated those called to vocational service into a clergy class, required them to accumulate a pile of degrees, ranked the quality of the institutions from which they got them, and depend on that to interpret our gospel for us.
…having a form of godliness but denying its power…
There are Christians who have found the power in their faith, and churches which have recognized it for what it is. Generally, in the Christian community at large, they are dismissed as non-intellectual, overly emotional and too rooted in a literal rendering of the scripture. After all, the intellectuals have declared that the Bible, particularly the New Testament and the Gospels, are largely the invention of second and third century Christian zealots who made an itinerant Jewish preacher into the savior of the world. Human intellect has created its own god, one who is all loving, all forgiving, and a Jesus who motivates us to be the best person we can be, showing how our good side can dominate our bad side. Since God is too just and merciful to condemn people to hell simply because they don’t live in a culture with ready access to the gospel message, do we need Jesus as savior and Lord, or do we just need a great moral teacher?
I think I would rather trust my salvation to God, who provided Jesus as a final sacrifice for sin, than human intellect, which, left to its own, produces what Paul warned Timothy about in the last days.
…having a form of godliness but denying its power…