“But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.” (2 Timothy 3:1)
So said the apostle Paul in his last letter as he was encouraging his younger protégé to persevere. He was warning Timothy, and us, that all manner of problems will be encountered by the committed Christian. Yet it’s important to understand what Paul didn’t say.
He didn’t say, “But when difficult times come, realize this: that you are in the last days.”
The words are mostly the same but they imply something vastly different, don’t they? They imply that A) the “last days” are the end of time and B) a period of difficult times presages that end. Put this insinuation in the context of Paul’s impending martyrdom and you arrive at a very pessimistic prophecy.
For many of today’s Christians, this has morphed to the belief that our “difficult times” are the difficult times, i.e. our difficulties are the pinnicle of all difficulties. I fear that many evangelicals in America are arranging their lives and beliefs based on this transformed version of what Paul said.
So what? What is the outworking of such belief?
In a Sunday School class I am attending, a discussion of government encroachment of one sort or another was being discussed recently. It devolved into a complaint about much of what is wrong with society today. It’s a long list from the same chapter of 2 Timothy. Men are narcissistic, greedy, proud, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreoncilable, slanderous, undisciplined, brutal, treacherous, reckless, conceited, hedonistic, disobedient, and mockers. And our government is worse. Boy, these are difficult times. Etc.
An older gentleman interrupted the angst and hand-wringing to say, “I don’t know what we’re all so worried about. Those of us in this room will be raptured out before things get much worse.” Then someone suggested she was looking forward to when Christ would reign… but He’s not reigning yet.
Likewise, many evangelical pastors preach that the end is near. “If the Lord tarries…” is a common refrain. It’s not untrue to preach that the Lord could return soon – He might. But focusing on the idea that He might implies that He will. If He’s coming soon we need not worry much about our difficult times. We need only to recognize them and get ready.
So the outworking is that we might not do much to change society, only try to evangelize our friends and family. Maybe we can help save them from God’s wrath.
But what did Paul actually say?
First, he wrote about the “last days,” not the end of the world. The New Testament writers clearly define the last days as being the New Testament era. Peter interpreted the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as being the “last days” prophesied by Joel (Acts 2:17). Was Peter wrong about being in the last days 2,000 years ago?
The writer to the Hebrews defined “these last days” (Heb 1:2) as being ushered in by the advent (the first one) of Christ. Was the writer wrong about the last days beginning 2,000 years ago?
Peter echoed Paul’s warning about the difficulties of the “last days” (2 Peter 3:3) but goes on to mock those who question the realities of Christ and His law, essentially saying, “Won’t they be surprised!” In the broader context of a “last days” discussion he discounts the notion of predicting the times of Christ’s actions (“a thousand years is as a day”). In other words, the “last days” will include the end of the world… but we don’t know when that is.
Second, what difficult times were Paul and Peter worried about? I know we’re repeating here, but they warned that men would be narcissistic, greedy, proud, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreoncilable, slanderous, undisciplined, brutal, treacherous, reckless, conceited, hedonistic, disobedient, and mockers. That’s quite a list and I certainly recognize all these things in the society around me. But hasn’t that list been with us since chapter 3 of Genesis?
Could it be that Paul was telling Timothy that difficulties would come, still? Just because we’re in the last days doesn’t mean the sun will shine always. You, Timothy, (and you, Christian) will need to continue in the faith and not become discouraged. Preach the word in season and out of season. Difficult seasons will come and go. Wonderful seasons will come and go. Persevere!
Last, let’s think about whether our difficulties are the worst of the worst. Are we throwing Christians to the lions? Drowning them? Burning them? Hunting them down for translating the Bible into common languages? The answer is yes – in some places – but not here in America where the cry is the loudest.
During the economic Depression of the 1930s, Will Rogers said that we’d be the first nation to go to the poorhouse, driving there in our own car. He wasn’t saying we had no economic problems; we did. But America wasn’t a poor nation; we were a rich nation making poor decisions.
I’m not saying that our American government isn’t hostile to our faith. They are and our freedoms are shrinking, not growing. Society is encouraged, even emboldened to disparage our faith. But where’s the church? Where have we been? We are not a faithless nation; we’re a nation rich in faith but not exercising it.
Paul told Timothy that despite the difficult times, his opponents would fail and he should “…continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of.” Let’s study our Bibles carefully and incorporate the Word into our lives fully.
Which means that we should act on the things we have learned and become convinced of. Forget the handbasket.