Digging in Deeper: 2 Timothy 4:3-5

“For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, exercise self-control in everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (CSB –Read the chapter)

Here are some reflections this morning in light of the current teaching series we are working through at my church on Sunday mornings. I did not preach yesterday as we were out of town for the weekend. My Minister of Students filled the pulpit for me and did a terrific job tackling the tough subject of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. It really is a freeing thing being able to leave town knowing things are in good hands while I’m gone. Thinking about this series, though, what prompted the whole thing was a series of wrong answers given by people identified as evangelical Christians to very basic questions of Christian theology. How is it that so many Jesus followers could get such basic things wrong about their religious worldview? With some words from Paul to Timothy as our guide, let’s explore this together today.

It’s hard to believe that words written so long ago can still be so relevant for today. Paul wrote his second letter to his protege Timothy sometime very near the end of his life in the mid- to late-60s AD. It was almost certainly before 70 AD, when the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem took place, or else he would have surely made at least some reference to that, but probably not long before then. Still, if you’re a math person, that puts these words’ being written somewhere in the neighborhood of nearly 2,000 years ago. Yet look again here at what Paul wrote near the close of his letter, perhaps some of the final words he ever wrote (at least that we have still preserved for us today).

There is a day coming when people aren’t going to tolerate sound doctrine. That is, they are going to have little patience for good and sound teaching about what is right and true when it comes to the Christian worldview. Instead, driven by a desire to have someone tell them what they are already predisposed to want to hear, they will seek out multiple teachers who all assure their audiences that they are telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. These teachers, who don’t all agree with each other, will allow them cover to doubt the parts of the genuine Gospel truth they don’t like, while pointing them to slight (or major) deviations from it along lines tracking with where their life is already headed. They will be glad to buy into myths – that is, convenient lies wrapped in a garb of truth and designed not to inform, but to explain uncomfortable or otherwise hard-to-explain parts of life.

I’m sure that when Paul first wrote those words, he was specifically making reference to some near future point in Timothy’s life and ministry. And yet, he could have just as easily been writing about our culture today. Now, people have never been especially tolerant of sound doctrine. The trouble is that sound doctrine gets in the way of what we want to be true. Sound doctrine points us consistently toward things like God’s total sovereignty and our total responsibility. It insists on our utter inability to contribute anything meaningful to the process of salvation save our faith. Given our druthers, we’d much prefer ideas other than those so we can more effectively hide from our sin and justify ourselves. Still, though, at least in my lifetime of what is far closer to a half a century than not (there’s an uncomfortable thought for the day!), I can’t think of a time when sound doctrine has been less tolerated than it is today.

On the multiplication of teachers, never has it been easier to listen to more and different self-proclaimed preachers all insisting they are delivering nothing but the Gospel truth every time they open their mouths. Some will even guarantee that you too can share in their powerful gifting if you’ll just contribute a regular monthly sum to their ministry. Then there are things like TikTok. TikTok is absolutely ruining the church when it comes to sound teaching. Although I have admittedly never been on TikTok myself (nor do I plan on addressing that lack), I understand that there is a whole movement of Christian teachers offering short clips of truth for those who are seeking it. The trouble is: there’s no one to vet any of these folks. You can receive an ordination certificate online from multiple different “ministries” for one low payment of $19.99, so checking on whether or not they are ordained doesn’t help much. And the range of ideas coming from these folks spans the gamut from truth to lies. This just means you can always find someone saying what you want to hear to feel affirmed in whatever direction you currently have your life pointed.

And as much as all of this kind of thing is proliferating in the culture at large, the church is not immune to it. Far too many believers who are active in their churches and ostensibly committed to their faith are getting swept up in these cultural waters and without realizing what is happening are drifting away from the truth.

A few years ago, my wife and I got to spend ten wonderful days in Kauai for our tenth anniversary. It was a terrific trip. We stayed busy doing things all over the island, but one of the highlights for me was when we went snorkeling. We headed to a beach that a local we met in the Los Angeles airport told us about that isn’t quite as popular with the tourists. There wasn’t as much coral there for us to explore, but there did turn out to be bale of sea turtles floating along the coast. That was pretty cool to see. The other thing that turned out to be part of that adventure was a current. It wasn’t strong and it wasn’t out to sea to put us in any kind of danger, but there was a definite pull down the beach away from where we had originally put our stuff. It was gentle enough, though, that you didn’t notice it while you were out in it. You simply looked up after swimming along for a while and discovered that you were suddenly 100 yards down the beach from where you started. Unless you constantly and intentionally swam against the current, you got pulled along with it without ever noticing.

I know of a family who could be active members of a church. They bring their kids to all the major kids’ activities. They’ll participate together in some of the big community activities the church does. They’ll show up for Easter and possibly Christmas. And they are theologically astute. When they occasionally show up for Bible study or Sunday school, they regularly have good and true things to add to the conversation. But they aren’t otherwise involved. Covid provided an exit from active involvement, and they haven’t reversed that trend. Yet they are convinced they are doing just fine with the Lord and are getting all they need from their time together as a family on their farm and from…you guessed it…TikTok teachers. They are mistaken. They are, in fact, on a trajectory that is spiritually poisonous. But they can’t see it because they have drifted with the culture.

And while this theological drift used to be a feature of the cultural and political left, the cultural and political right has rapidly been catching up over the past ten years (and probably not really even that long).

The result of all of this is that on nearly every major point of Christian doctrine, a majority of professed followers of Jesus strongly hold positions that are diametrically opposed to what the Scriptures actually teach about them. While there are still many good and even great churches who are doing incredible things to advance the Gospel, it should not be any surprise to us at all that at the culture-wide level the church is quickly receding into the background. When a majority of our people don’t believe any differently than the world around us believes, the world around us really doesn’t have any reason to join a movement that far from asking them to believe something different from what they already believe (except perhaps when it comes to their political affiliations), is only going to insist they don’t do some of the ostensibly fun things they have heretofore been enjoying.

So then, what can we actually do about this? Paul gives us the answer here in his counsel to Timothy. And it amounts to this: Stick to the truth no matter what. We are to exercise self-control in everything. It is not enough to simply stay away from this or that vice. The church has tried that in the past and it failed then too. The culture we are in is drifting in a direction away from orthodox Christian belief and practice. As we keep moving forward, the current is picking up speed. And the thing is: the devil isn’t picky. If he can neuter the Gospel effectiveness of only part of your life, he’ll take that. Half-hearted Gospel effectiveness often results in a whole-bodied failure of discipleship. That’s a win as far as he is concerned. If we aren’t exercising a Gospel-rooted self-control in every single part of our lives, we are going to drift with the culture in whatever parts we miss. To put that another way: governing our behavior without similarly guarding our beliefs won’t cut it. Neither will consciously checking the right doctrinal boxes while living like the world. It is a both-and affair that we need.

Exercising self-control like this, though, is going to bring the world’s attention to our doorstep. That won’t be to our good. More than ten years ago now, Jack Phillips, a Christian baker in Lakewood, CO, politely declined to make a custom-designed wedding cake for a gay couple looking to get married (and at a time when gay marriage was not legal in the state of Colorado). In the years since he has been subjected to an unrelenting stream of hatred and abuse and vitriol and persecution (legal, yes, but also a near constant threat of physical) from his home state. He won his initial Supreme Court case five years ago, but has since been hit with multiple more lawsuits both from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission the Supreme Court took to task in the initial decision, as well as from a local attorney and transgender activist who has declared that he will continue coming after Jack until he is driven completely out of business for good. All of this because of his commitment to stand on a Gospel principle that ran against the cultural grain.

Just like swimming constantly against the current on the beach in Kauai eventually wore us out, swimming against the cultural current will wear us out as well. It will wear us out because it will bring with it an unrelenting stream of hardships. These will come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they will come. We have to be prepared to endure them, standing firmly on our Rock all the while.

More than simply enduring these hardships, though, our call is to advance the Gospel in spite of them. Paul told Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist.” An evangelist is someone who shares the Gospel with the lost. Our call as followers of Jesus is to share the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection and the eternal life now available in Him with everyone including perhaps the very people who are bringing these hardships to our doorstep. Being different today is not a good thing. We will suffer for it in some capacity. We are to love those who make us suffer. We are to pray for them. We are to take every opportunity we are given to make sure they know the truth. We are to invite them to join us in being truly different, in spite of the cost, so they can enjoy the blessings and benefits that come no other way.

In all of this, we are to fulfill our ministry. We are to do the work God has given us to do. What that looks like is going to be different for each one of us. God has designed and equipped you for a specific task in the larger effort of advancing His kingdom throughout the earth. Your role in that is going to necessarily be different from mine because you are different from me. It will do you no good wanting mine or for me to desire yours. Our tasks are our own, given to us by our Creator because He knows us better even than we know ourselves. He knows that the way will be tough. He’s the one who told us to count the cost because of how difficult it was going to be. He also promised to never leave us alone as we journey forward. Let us fulfill our ministry. Someone else’s eternal destiny just may depend on it.

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