Jannes, Jambres and the Stories We Tell: A Reflection on 2 Timothy 3
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 (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV).
O Lord, open our lips;
And our mouth shall proclaim your praise. Amen.
This morning, I exercise the preacher’s prerogative to extend the lectionary reading a bit. You have heard the latter part of 2 Timothy 3; but, that text stands on and flows from the former part of the chapter that we did not read. Its fullest sense depends on the contrast it draws to what went before: not that, but this. So, we have the former words.
2 Timothy 3:1–9 (ESV): 3 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 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. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
In the last days, Paul writes, there will come times of difficulty. This is less a prophecy about those years and months and days immediately preceding the Second Coming of our Lord — whenever that may be — as it is an observation about the times through which Paul and Timothy were then living, as it is an observation about the times in which you and I are now living. The death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus marked the end of one age and the beginning of a new age: the last days. The Church always has lived and the Church always will live in the last days. And, in the last days, there will always come times of difficulty, characterized by people who oppose the truth, who are corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. You heard Paul’s description of these people; we don’t need to rehearse it yet again, because you know these people, because you live and work and play among these people, because this is a picture not just of first century pagan culture but also of twenty-first century post-modern Western culture — a culture that has rejected God and godliness.
Paul likens these “last days” people to Jannes and Jambres who opposed Moses. From Jewish sources — from the Talmud — we learn that Jannes and Jambres were the chief magicians of Pharaoh, those who, for a time, imitated the signs and wonders that Moses and Aaron worked before Pharaoh and even the plagues God brought upon Egypt.
Exodus 7:8–13 (ESV): 8 Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’ ” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. 12 For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.
Jannes and Jambres, chief of the sorcerers of Egypt. And know this: they thought that their opposition of Moses and Aaron was good and right and proper. Why? Because they had been raised on and formed by the story of Egypt: the story that spoke of — the story that assured them of — the manifest destiny of Egypt and Pharaoh and the gods, the divine right of Egypt to conquer, the divine right of Pharaoh to rule, the divine right of the gods to be served and worshipped. It belonged to the Hebrews to be Egypt’s slaves. It belonged to the Hebrews’ god to be humiliated and dismissed by the pantheon of Egypt in the persons of Jannes and Jambres and a company of sorcerers. It belonged to the Hebrews’ leaders, Moses and Aaron, to be destroyed by Pharaoh. This was the story that Jannes and Jambres had been told, and the story they were inhabiting.
The notion of self-made man or self-made woman is so much foolishness then, now, and always. We are made by the stories we are told, by the stories we inhabit, by the stories we believe and act upon. So it was with Jannes and Jambres; so it was with our fathers and mothers, so it is with us, so it will be with our children.
The story that Jannes and Jambres learned on their mothers’ laps, the story they breathed and drank in simply by being Egyptian, the story they practiced and mastered under the tutelage of their mentors in the mystic arts — these stories worked … for awhile, worked until they didn’t work any longer. They worked until the seventh plague, until the boils came:
Exodus 9:11 (ESV): 11 And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils came upon the magicians and upon all the Egyptians.
And Jannes and Jambres watched Egypt brought to its knees by the Hebrews. Jannes and Jambres watched Pharaoh humbled before two former slaves. Jannes and Jambres watched their gods — their impotent, little, no-gods-at-all — brought low before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jannes and Jambres watched as their story unraveled before them as the great cultural lie it was.
So, Paul writes to Timothy:
8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men [these last days men] also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
And now — only now — are we ready for today’s text:
2 Timothy 3:10–13 (ESV): 10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 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.
You, however: you, Timothy, are not like Jannes and Jambres, not like the “last days” men all around you in Ephesus. You are not opposed to the truth, not corrupted in mind, not disqualified regarding the faith. Why? Because you have heard, you have believed, you have inhabited, you have acted upon a different story. Timothy had been formed by the story, by the Gospel, of the Lord Jesus Christ that he heard first from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice, the story in which he was confirmed by the laying on of Paul’s hands and the gift of God, the story he had witnessed firsthand in the life of the apostle: a life of patience, love, steadfastness, persecution, and suffering — a life of all godliness. This is a story that does not fail because it is the one true story of the one true God redeeming one true people for himself. The world — evil people and imposters — will go from bad to worse because the story they have been told, the story they tell themselves, is false and dehumanizing and demonic. But you, Timothy, and you, my brothers and sisters, you may go from one degree of glory to another — if you choose — by holding fast to the story of Jesus.
2 Timothy 3:14–17 (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.
Where do we learn this true story? Please God, from our godly grandmothers and grandfathers, from our mothers and fathers in the flesh and in the faith, from our elder brothers and sisters in the Way. We learn the true story in the community of the Church — in the body of Christ — in worship and prayer and service. Yes to all of that, and thanks be to God for it! But here, in this his final letter, Paul points his son Timothy toward the “sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). Where do we learn the story? From the Scriptures which narrate the true story from the creation of all things by Christ and for Christ to the recapitulation of all things in Christ. That, brothers and sisters, is our story.
Now, I am going to get myself into trouble. So, pay attention; you don’t want to miss this. If we have been formed more by the story of the United States of America than by the story of Israel and the Church, then we are living by the wrong story. If we can sing more Top 40 hits — if the Top 40 chart is still a thing — than we can sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, then we are living by the wrong story. If our concept of justice has been shaped more by the Constitution than by the Law, the prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, and the two great commandments, then we are living by the wrong story. If we are influenced more by social media influencers or the Kardashians or the rich and famous of Hollywood or CNN or Fox News or one of the political parties or some ideological demagogue than we are by the saints — by the Fathers and Mothers of the faith — then we are living by the wrong story. If our schedules, our priorities, our spending is more determined by the demands, priorities, and values of a world that does not know and acknowledge our Lord Jesus than by the reality of the Kingdom of God, then we are living by the wrong story. And all of us, brothers and sisters — myself chief among us — all of us here and there, now and then are living by the wrong story. And all of us, brothers and sisters — myself chief among us — all of us need to repent whenever, wherever, and however that is true: repent today, repent tomorrow, repent every day that God grants us life and breath. And we need to come again and again and yet again to the sacred writings which are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. For,
2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV): 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.
All Scripture is breathed out by God, not just those passages highlighted and underlined in our Bibles, not just those passages that comfort us and make us feel good about God and ourselves, not just those passages that vindicate our opinions and agendas, not just those passages that are ever so interesting to us. The purpose of Scripture is not to satisfy our curiosity, not to indulge our questions, not to bless our inordinate desires, but rather to form us into the people of God, into a kingdom of priests — holy and faithful men and women. Back in the dark ages of my public school education at Lonsdale Elementary and Rule High schools, we were taught history — world, American, and Tennessee history — yes, and civics and economics, too, not simply to inform us, but rather to form us according to the values of this people to whom we belong so that we might effectively take our place in this nation as patriotic, productive, and responsible citizens. The texts we read, the parts of the founding documents we memorized, were the tools that the state-sponsored, state-mandated, and state-funded educational system wielded to shape us. But, as good as they might have been, they were not breathed out by God. They were not always profitable for reproof, for correction, or for training in righteousness except in the limited domain of American citizenship — not a bad thing, but not an ultimate concern. To become citizens, immigrants must pass a rigorous test on these same topics — history and civics — a test that probably few of us could pass without studying. It is a first step of formation, of drawing people out of one story into another story, a step of formation in which the government has a vested interest. And that, too, is what Scripture does. No matter from whence you’ve come, no matter who you were, this story — the story of Scripture — is your story now. This is who you are. This is your people. This is your God.
Scripture makes us into one, new people. Scripture fits us for life in the Kingdom of God, by reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. That is a sobering thought; if we read Scripture and are not on a regular basis reproved by it, corrected by it, trained in righteousness by it, then either we are already perfect or else we are not really reading Scripture. I am not yet perfect, as those who love me most and know me best remind me. I am a work in progress, God’s work in progress. So, like Timothy, I need the God-breathed Scripture to reprove me, to correct me, to make me complete, to equip me for every good work. We all do, don’t we?
We need this transformational power of Scripture not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world, a world full of diminished, disorienting, delusional, destructive, demonic, dead-end stories — stories like those that formed Jannes and Jambres. The word of God — Scripture — is intensely personal, but it is never private. It is certainly for us in the Church, but it must also be through us to the world.
2 Timothy 4:1–5 (ESV): 4 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.
Some are called by God and ordained by the church to be preachers of the word, authorized to reprove, rebuke, and exhort publicly and privately — always with patience and sound teaching. I am duty bound, by sacred vow before God and the church, to do this, as are all ordained clergy in the Anglican Church. Woe to me if I do not do. But evangelism? That is no proprietary domain of the clergy. You are duty bound, by sacred vow before God and the church, to do this, in season and out of season, as are all baptized believers. You are called to be an evangelist, all of you. Perhaps the simplest way to do this is to immerse yourself in Word and Sacrament until you are formed by the story these two tell and then to go into the world, your world — your school, your office, your team, your club, your reading group, your local coffee shop — and there live out the story genuinely, unpretentiously, unashamedly. Then, when people see the fruit of this different story, when they ask why you are not fearful but rather have a spirit of power and of love and of self-control, then you can answer, then you can speak the word that you have read on the pages of Scripture, that you have heard preached and taught, and so fulfill your ministry as evangelist.
As I bring this homily to a close, I want to say that this was not what I wanted to write or preach. This was the text I was given, and I’ve tried to be faithful to it; ultimately God will judge that. No, I really wanted to write and to speak a love letter to the book that is God’s love letter to us, to Holy Scripture. I wanted to move you to such aching longing for the word of God that you couldn’t wait to get home and read it for yourself, to find your delight in the word of the Lord. I wanted to stoke your wonder at the great treasure that we have in ink on paper: a word written by the God who called all creation into being by his word spoken, a word written by the God who became the word incarnate to redeem you and all the world, a word written by God and carried on the breath — the Spirit — of God to sanctify his people. The Word was, the Word is, the Word ever shall be, and we have this great treasure written in a language we understand, at a price we can afford, in a country that still allows us to have it and read it. I am a Christian because the story in this book makes better sense of the world and my experience of it and myself than any competing story ever told. I am a Christian because the story in this book is good and true and beautiful and can still, after all these years, perhaps because of all these years, make me weep with joy and make my heart ache with longing. That is the homily I wanted to give you this morning, but I just don’t have the words. Thanks be to God, the Scriptures do. Amen.