The Instruction of 2 Timothy in Assessing The Faithfulness of Our Churches.
The podcast with the backstory for this letter is here and a follow-up YouTube here:
If I go wrong it hurts me but if I get your Word wrong it hurts everybody.John Piper
I am persuaded that God is preparing His people for the Second Coming of Jesus, perhaps even within some of our lifetimes.
As such, He is preparing His people to stand.
I am also persuaded that similar narratives are being used by Satan to compound doctrinal heresies in the Church that are currently hamstringing many congregations and many people of sincere faith.
Please bear with me as I have laboured over this written piece to be as concise as possible; as you read, also remember that this word is addressing matters of eternal significance.
The main burden of my letter is located in 2 Timothy 2:16-18:
“But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.”
Therefore, let me ask you: What type of church do you belong to? What type of church do you lead? What type of teaching do you spread? What type of theology and community do you support? And as you consider Paul’s final writing to the Church, can the congregation that you go to be legitimately considered a ‘faithful church?’ (1:13).
As we consider these questions by looking at the book of 2 Timothy, it would be helpful to remember our friend, Melvin Tinker, who very sadly passed away last week.
Perhaps you’ll imagine him as he lay praying on his bed with the dying request of being able to witness to the nurses who were with him – to be able to share the gospel just one more time – and being delighted as the Lord opened up that particular way of grace.
As we recall the fruit of Melvin’s ministry – the ‘pattern of his sound words’ (1:13) – we shouldn’t be surprised by this dying crescendo because the gospel heartbeat of his life was being seen in concentrated microcosm as the time of his departure from this earth drew near. (cf. 4:6).
This is exactly how we must come to read the book of 2 Timothy:- as a ‘concentrated microcosm’ of Paul’s whole life and his dying plea to churches for global faithfulness in the Body of Christ.
As he makes his final appeal to Timothy to ‘follow the pattern of the sound words you have heard from me’ and to ‘guard the good deposit entrusted to you’ (1:13,14), there is a particular weight in Paul’s words, both from the sum-total and the signature emphases of his life.
We must keep this in mind as much as we might keep in mind the final words of any faithful saint on the verge of passing away.
Whether praying in hospital or writing from a prison, people tend to prioritise precision when their earthly privileges to pray and preach are slipping away, when the finishing lines of their races begin to appear.
It follows that over and above Paul hoping to again see his favourite cloak, books and parchments left in Troas (4:13), he urgently charges Timothy to preach the word (4:2) and to guard the good deposit of the gospel (1:14)…the gospel with which he had himself also been entrusted (1:12).
If Melvin was still praying in hospital now, if Paul was still writing to the Church from a prison in Rome, I believe the urgent nature of their instructions to us would be just the same: ‘preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching.’ (4:2)
However, for Paul, this ‘prioritising precision’ was more specific than only, ‘guard the good deposit of the gospel’.
Rather, like Melvin’s specific desire to share the specific gospel of Christ’s unique grace to two specific nurses, it is the signature characteristics of Paul’s life – his most precise priorities – that we see in microcosm in this letter:
Paul’s five precise priorities in microcosm:
- Intense eschatological awareness (4:1,8 cf. 4:9);
- Encouragement to endure suffering (1:8,12;2:3,9;3:11,12;4:5);
- The kindness of repentance (1:2,18;2:25);
- The kingdom of heaven and the hope of glory (4:7-8,18);
- True vs. false doctrine (1:5, 15,16; 2:17; 3:5,8-9,13; 4:3-4,9-14,19-21).
And yet, even more precisely than these, we see that Paul’s charge to Timothy specifically involved an awareness of three types of people:
- Those who were in doctrinal error but for which there was also hope (2:21,25)
- Those who were in doctrinal error but for which there was zero hope (3:8-9)
- Those ‘who have loved his appearing’ (4:1,8).
These very same categories of people characterise our church landscape today but they are not always easily identifiable.
Why? Because the precise detail as to what constitutes sound biblical doctrine is predominantly viewed by churches as a subjective matter. The result of which, therefore, is a church of chaotic contradiction.
Pause to think about it. Isn’t it devastating how widely accepted and commonplace theological contradictions are?
Ergo, to one extent or another, we are all lost in a colossal maze of denominational contradiction; the mirage of an easily navigated denominational ‘spectrum’, (that we think is our corporate reality), is, in fact, merely the stuff of fairytales.
You see, our commonplace acceptance of opposing theologies and doctrines under the nonsense of ‘streams, ‘variety’ and ‘conviction’ act so as to blur Paul’s distinctions between:
- Those people who are presently not faithful
- Those people who never will be faithful and
- Those people who are faithful.
However, rather than rejoicing, don’t we squirm or even balk under Paul’s clear plumb-line of Christian faithfulness in this letter? The implications of what he writes are too disruptive to our establishments and denominations and heart-allegiances that we simply do not know where to begin.
So we don’t.
Instead, we tend to think like this:
- “He’s so anointed, isn’t he, so therefore what he is saying must be fine…”
- “They have heaps of amazing books and albums available to buy, so therefore what they are saying must be OK…”
- “They have lots of members getting baptised so therefore what they are teaching must be blessed…”
- “What he is saying is “straight out of the Bible” so surely what he is teaching must be sound…”
Perhaps but perhaps not.
Firstly, let us consider our second category of people.
You may be aware of the Richard Rohrs of this world, the type of ‘corruption’ (3:8) that denies basic Christian doctrine while feigning Christian worship. Or you may be conscious of the wider progressive ‘wokerati’ of the church who wander far from the core rudiments of what actually makes a disciple of Jesus in favour of the cultural liquor of the day.
These are the most obvious and straight forward of Paul’s charlatans to identify, as with Jannes, Jambres and Alexander who also represent this second category of people, (3:8-8; 4:14).
Paul says that these people are, ‘…men corrupt in mind…’ and ‘…disqualified regarding the faith.’ (3:8).
This is the language needed to describe the terminally ill.
These men are worse than people in error; they are wolves in sheep’s clothing and, like any good shepherd, one shouldn’t sit down to discuss biblical ‘fine print’ with wild animals; rather, one should take a stone with a strong arm and sling it deep into their wolfish skulls.
Secondly, Paul also identifies our first category of people.
Both Phygelus and Hermogenes are named as men who had ‘turned away’ from the truth (1:15) but who may have yet come to repent and return to faithfulness under the gentle ministry of correction (2:25) as did, for example, the household of Onesiphorus (1:16 cf. Philemon).
However, we must be under no illusions: Paul says that these people, though not in terminal error, were still captured by the devil to do his bidding (2:26).
This first category of people are the main burden of my letter and who I will return to very shortly.
It is difficult for many people today to even imagine, let alone identify, that there could be those among them who are in this first category of diseased doctrinal error. The most difficult thing for us to accept is that some of what we currently consider to be ‘good’ and holy and ‘of God’ must be cut away.
It is easier to beware the circling wolves outside the camp and much harder to recognise the gangrene within.
But Paul’s burden (in part at least) is precisely for this type of people (2:25-26).
These people are not the magicians of Pharaoh or those who deny the deity of Jesus; no, these people are brothers and sisters leading churches but who have ‘swerved’ (2:18) from the truth and who are teaching things, in the Name of Jesus, that are not true.
Hymenaeus and Philetus were teaching the Church that some believers (perhaps all believers) had already entered the glorified post-resurrection state (2:18b).
Doesn’t this sound eerily familiar to us today?
Perhaps you’ve heard or even sung something like, “we’re living under an open heaven…” or “…if we are made in the image of God, doesn’t that make us little gods?” or “…it is your legal right to be healed in Jesus’ Name!”.
It is significant that the specific heresy that Paul describes in his very last letter to the Church is described as spreading like gangrene (2:17).
Again, please pause to consider Paul’s use of language.
The stark reality today as for Paul and Timothy then, is that church leaders often teach error and unless we act decisively to cut away the gangrenous tissue, we will die.
The Lord has shown me clearly that people of sincere faith are being ‘upset by teaching’ that is not sound (2:18); He has show me a maze of denominational contradiction not a spectrum.
When I hear for myself church pastors triumphantly prophesying that there will be no COVID-19 in their church, of umpteen people in the same church (including the actual pastor) then contracting COVID-19 but excusing their false prophecy by appealing to Isaiah 53:5 as the “ultimate reality” that people “must come to appropriate”, I am reminded that gangrene is spreading. (Correct theology is found in Paul’s words in 4:18).
When church leaders teach their people that God will look after their businesses and health and careers and travel plans and everything else in life that they want in order to remain comfortable, I am reminded that gangrene is spreading.
When friends phone me asking about the “little gods” theology being taught in their church and whole congregations lapping it up like dogs eating their vomit, or about authoritarianism, spiritual abuse and all the distress and confusion that this causes, I am reminded that gangrene is spreading.
When senior leaders teach their congregations that they must not confront culture, and when people express concern about this but never enough concern to walk away, I am reminded that gangrene is spreading.
It seems clear that gangrene has very much spread and is very much spreading.
But this is not necessarily due to malevolent wolves; this gangrene is more dangerous than the threat of wolves because it is spread by wayward sheep.
As painful as it may be to accept, the simple reality is that unless gangrene in Christian congregations is cut away, unless correction occurs (2:25), it will kill them and it will kill you.
What kind of church do you go to? Is your church faithful? Is what you believe true?
These are questions that we are not necessarily afforded the luxury of time to consider at length.
Imagine a surgeon stood over you asking for your consent to remove your gangrenous limb. Would you ‘sleep on it’, would you deliberate over the Christmas period and “…come back to it in the new year?”
No, you would imagine a life without your limb, feel the anguish and distress of its removal but you would immediately consent for the sake of your life.
Doctrinal error may come in different forms in different churches and at different times but we have been given very clear wisdom in the book of 2 Timothy to be able to identify it and respond accordingly.
Error must be gently corrected (2:25) and, thus, it must be cut away.
But it may be easier to cut yourself away from it rather than it from you.
If your church does not look like the summarised list of Paul’s five precise priorities in microcosm above, you must correct or you must escape.
Christ is coming.
(Edinburgh, December 1st 2021)
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
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