In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I START TODAY BY REMINDING YOU OF, or perhaps introducing you to, a five dollar theological term: not because it is fancy, and certainly not so you can impress people by using it, but because it is important and because you will often hear it in theological discussions or stumble across it in biblical literature and commentaries. The word is eschatological. You might encounter it in other grammatical forms — eschaton or eschatology — but they all denote the same thing: last things or final things.
I mention it today because our epistle text, 2 Timothy 3 — perhaps among the last canonical texts that St. Paul wrote — is an eschatological text. Its theme is last things/final things, two last things in particular: the last days and the last/final word.
St. Paul introduces his eschatological theme with these words:
2 Timothy 3:1 (ESV): 3 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.
In the last days. I don’t know what you hear when you hear that phrase. For some it may conjure images of Left Behind theology with Rapture and Tribulation and Armageddon. For others it may invoke a distant and hazy future, something always “out there” and beyond us. In Western Christianity, the last days is an ambiguous phrase, ill-defined, subject to private interpretations of Scripture and the daily news. But, Paul was a Jew in the Second Temple period. For Paul and his Jewish compatriots — especially Pharisees like himself — the last days had a well-defined meaning. All of history — by which they meant past, present, and future — all of history could be divided into just two ages: the present age and the age to come, i.e., the last days. The demarcation between the two, the point of boundary and transition, was the appearance of the Messiah. The last days were the Messianic age in which all the trials of the present age would be resolved, all the wrongs of the present age put to rights. In the last days the Kingdom of God would be established: an age of God’s righteous rule mediated through the Messiah; an age in which Israel would be purified, elevated, and delivered from exile; an age in which the knowledge of the glory of God would fill the whole world as the waters cover the sea; an age in which the righteous — including the resurrected righteous dead — would be rewarded and the unrighteous punished or destroyed. The last days would be a golden age, a Jewish utopia. This was Paul’s basic understanding of the last day, but he had re-centered this understanding on Christ. And that required some revision to the standard notions.
Paul agreed that the transition point between the ages was the appearance of the Messiah; for Paul, Jesus of Nazareth was that Messiah. So, perhaps at Jesus’ birth, but certainly from the time of his resurrection and ascension, the last days had dawned. That means that Paul and Timothy were, and that we are, living in the last days: not awaiting it in some dim and distant future, but living in it right now. But that raises an important question: if the last days are to be a utopian era of the righteous rule of God when all things wrong are put to rights, then how can Paul say, “In the last days there will come times of difficulty”? If the Messiah has taken his rule and the Kingdom of God is now on earth as it is in heaven, why is the world in such a sad state? It is precisely at this point that Paul re-envisions the last days in a uniquely Christian manner. Paul makes the theological move from eschatology to inaugurated eschatology. In and through Jesus Christ the last days have been inaugurated — they have begun — but they have not yet been completed. You have likely heard of the New Testament tension between the already and the not yet; this is a perfect case in point. We already live in the last days, but they are not yet complete. A simple way to say it is that we live at the beginning of the end, at the first of the last days. All shall be well because we are in the last days. All is not yet well because we are only in the first of the last days. So, we should expect difficulty in the meantime, in the midst of the last days.
Now, while this goes beyond the scope of the text, I need to address some last days, Kingdom of God issues. We do not build the Kingdom of God by our own efforts throughout these last days; Kingdom building is God’s work. Our calling, our work, is to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of the world and to bear witness to God and his Kingdom. We are to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. We are to love the Lord our God will all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to proclaim the good news that God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. We are to be a holy people as God is a holy God. We are to be the prophets, priests, and kings of new creation: proclaiming the Gospel, representing God to the people and the people to God, ruling over — bringing Godly order to — our vocational areas of expertise and influence. God will take all that, bless it, break and multiply it, and give it away for the reconciliation of the world to Him. It will be some of the “raw materials” through which He builds the Kingdom. But, it will not happen as straightforward, unimpeded human progress toward utopia. That was the false hope of the enlightenment and of modernity. No; instead Paul says, “In the last days will come times of difficulty.”
2 Timothy 3:2–5 (ESV): 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
Paul goes on to say:
2 Timothy 3:12–13 (ESV): 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
Does St. Paul’s description of humanity in the last days, humanity apart from Jesus Christ, ring true to your experience: selfish, greedy, proud, violent, heartless, slanderous, reckless, sensual, spiritual-but-not-religious? This is to be expected throughout the last days; this is the fallen world in opposition to Christ. This is the diminished image bearers of God enslaved by the passions. It must not be so among us. But, tragically, it too often is. We have purveyors of the prosperity gospel, a false gospel which is a thinly veiled appeal to greed, pride, and sensuality. Let’s get this straight: all who promise health, wealth, and prosperity as expressions of God’s will and pleasure in these last days are false prophets, having only the appearance of godliness. We have sexual predators, narcissists, and power mongers wearing robes and collars and suits and ties, leading churches while grooming their victims of sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse. Let’s get this straight: they are wolves and not shepherds, feeding on the flock instead of tending it. We have those who are advocates for the current disorder and delusions of our culture, particularly gender issues, divisive approaches to race, support for abortion. Let’s get this straight: they are blind guides leading the blind, and both will fall into the ditch.
Frankly, it is easy to be lured into following these false gospels. How do we become aware of these problems among us? How to we come to understand them for what they are and know from whom they come? How do we take proper action to reject and oppose them? For all that we need the last word, the final word, the authoritative word. Paul writes:
2 Timothy 3:14–4:5 (ESV): 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
4:1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
In the beginning was the Word, the logos, the divine Son and second person of the Trinity. Strictly speaking, Jesus — the incarnate logos — is himself the final word, the perfect self-expression of God which no other word needs to clarify or correct. But, Paul insists that Scripture is also a final word — derivative of the divine logos, yes, but a final word nonetheless; Scripture is the written word that mediates to us the living Word, Jesus Christ. It shares the truth and authority of Christ because it is breathed out by God. And that is evocative language. Adam was given life in the Garden through the breath of God which made him a living soul and an image-bearer of God. Jesus breathed on the disciples gathered in the upper room and in doing so bestowed on them the indwelling Holy Spirit. Paul wants us to understand that we find life in the Scriptures, that we are re-formed into the image of God through the Scriptures, that the Scriptures are the work and tool of the Holy Spirit. Strictly speaking, the Scripture is not authoritative in and of itself. Jesus says that all authority in heaven and on earth is given to him. But, he delegates authority: to Scripture, to the Church which is his body, and to his faithful ones. It is this secondary, delegated authority of Scripture to which Paul appeals. It is this delegated authority that makes Scripture profitable/useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, for equipping the saints for service. It is this delegated authority of Scripture which makes one wise for salvation through Jesus Christ.
So, Paul exhorts Timothy to preach the word in season and out of season; to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, and always with complete patience. It falls to some of us to exercise this pastoral ministry; it falls to all of us to receive this pastoral ministry. In these last days, more perhaps than ever, we need the final Word — Jesus Christ — mediated to us through the final word of Scripture.
But Paul’s exhortation doesn’t stand alone, no text of Scripture does. We also need to hear Peter say:
2 Peter 1:19–21 (ESV): 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
The Reformation rightly emphasized the delegated authority of Scripture and rightly insisted that every Christian must have access to Scripture in his/her native tongue. But, too many sons and daughters of the Reformation have wrongly assumed this emphasis to mean that Scripture is a matter of private interpretation, that truth may be reliably discerned by the individual pouring over the Scriptures alone. In dethroning one Pope, the Reformation inadvertently enthroned countless others. Scripture did not originate with the will of man, and no prophecy (no telling forth) of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. Rather, we read Scripture in company with the Church, with the Great Tradition that spans time and space. We seek in Scripture that truth which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. The final word is the consistent word spoken by the consensus of the faithful.
So, let me give a final word in summary. In these last day in which we find ourselves, difficult times will come. This is simply the beginning of the end which will not be realized until Jesus returns to make all things new. In these last days, we need a final word to re-orient us, to re-make us. That final word is Jesus, the perfect icon of God. But that living final Word is mediated to us in Scripture, the living and active word written, interpreted, and applied by the Holy Spirit. So, as good Anglicans, we pray:
Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.