Paul here in is 2 Timothy, nearing the end of his life, and it’s puzzling in some sense that in what amounts to some of the last words he actually writes to his beloved Timothy, that he warns him of a particular kind of godlessness, a kind of godless thinking, that will arise in the last days and try to infiltrate the church.
Now, I was reminded of this kind of thing a few months ago at a church where my wife and I used to attend before we moved here, and the associate pastor delivered the morning announcements during Sunday worship. And sort of as a tack on, he said, “Oh by the way, the university is offering a series on mindfulness, a few seminars on mindfulness, which is this new trend of how to reduce stress and how to meditate and so forth. Maybe it’s something that we should consider at this church, maybe we should have some mindfulness seminars.”
And that was it, he was done, and I was shocked. And I turned to my wife, and I said, “Do you know what he’s talking about?” She said, no, she hadn’t heard of it. I said, “That’s Buddhism.” Buddhism has been taken up by secular psychology and self-help and is now pushing this idea of turning inward and focusing on your own thoughts and not judging them good or bad. And somehow that will reduce stress with this particular kind of meditation. It is emphatically not Christianity. And he was saying, “Let’s just have it here in our church.”
The only way to oppose godless thinking that opposes God, that opposes God’s people, is to oppose it with the very power of God that it is opposing.And the terrible reality is that in the church in the last days, there’s a particular kind of godless thinking out there, outside the church, that desperately wants in. A godlessness that opposes God himself, that wants to take out God’s people and must be opposed. How do you do that? How do we oppose godless thinking? Well, our passage this morning helps us with that, where we see that the only way to oppose godless thinking that opposes God, that opposes God’s people, is to oppose it with the very power of God that it is opposing. We’re going to work through our passage in three steps this morning, taking a look at how godless thinking opposes God, how godless thinking then tries to attack God’s people and opposes them, and how we oppose godless thinking with the power of God that it is in fact opposing.
What Godless Thinking Is and How It Opposes God
We begin by reflecting on the profile that Paul paints of this kind of godless thinking, a godless kind of thinking that seems so good, seems so innocent, but is fundamentally anti-God to its core.
The context here in 1 and 2 Timothy and in Titus, the so-called pastoral epistles, Paul was dealing with a bunch of different issues in the church, and he’s encouraging Titus and Timothy in how to deal with it. And Timothy has been placed over the church at Ephesus, which as we learned from Acts, is actually a pretty healthy church scene. But Paul warns them that things are not always going to be that way, there’s a risk involved. And in chapter 2, which we had last week in chapel, we discussed tensions and issues arising within the church. So we have what were described as irreverent babble and foolish controversies and that kind of thing. But here in chapter 3, he’s moving to talk about godlessness outside the church. These men are compared to these magicians in Egypt, as we’ll see, who are opposing God’s people. It’s trying to sneak into the household of God.
And how does Paul describe this godless opposition? Well, two different ways: the when and the what. Paul warns Timothy in verse 1: “Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.”
Now, if you’re in my Acts-Paul class, you’ll know that “the last days” is a loaded term in Paul. Some of guys up here are smiling because I keep hammering this home. It doesn’t have to do with tribulation, rapture, and that kind of thing. It’s his term that he uses to describe the entire period from the first coming of Jesus and the second coming of Jesus. So we’re in the last days now, just as Timothy was then. And even though Paul describes it as something that will come, these men will come, he’s tells them, “Avoid these people,” so they’re apparently already here. We’re in the last days.
And how does Paul describe it? He describes it as a time of difficulty. Now, the word there actually “difficulty” is almost too weak to describe what it is. It’s a time that’s savage and fierce and terrible. In the dictionaries it’s harsh and it’s cruel. So “difficulty” doesn’t really capture in the full sense just how bad things will be.
But here’s the interesting thing: what exactly does this difficulty consist of that Paul’s talking about? We note that it’s not famine, it’s not war, it’s not nuclear holocaust, it’s not the Zika virus or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. What is it? Well, verse two, he says, “For people will be,” and then he goes on to describe them. It’s a people problem. The shocking reality here is that we are often so tempted to think that in the last days it’s going be all these physical calamities and it will, but here Paul is describing godless people.
And how does he describe them? Well he lists, I think, depending on how you want to count them, about 18 different attributes of these people. And we’re not going to go through them in detail, but I want to observe a few different perspectives on this list of vices here in verses 2–5. But actually in verse 8, he summarizes them, so that sort of helps us frame it. He says these men oppose the truth. They are men corrupted in mind and they are disqualified regarding the faith. So what do you notice there? The root issue is actually a thinking issue. It’s a truth problem. These men oppose truth, but it has implications.
While the root issue is a mind issue . . . Paul says that it leads to disordered affections, disordered loves.And let’s look at three different perspectives on what this godless thinking looks like. Five different times, Paul describes these godless people as lovers of something else, something that’s not good or God. And actually, it’s one word, all these different attributes are one word, and in this particular case, it’s the “phil-” word like Philadelphia, brotherly love, it’s lovers of something. So he describes them as lovers of self. That’s one word. Or lovers of money or not lovers of good (also one word), lovers of pleasure, and in this particular case, pleasure here connotes something of physical or even sexual pleasure, and not lovers of God. So while the root issue is a mind issue, it’s a thinking or a truth issue, Paul says that it leads to disordered affections, disordered loves. Love that should be directed towards good or to God is directed to money, self, and sexual pleasure in this case.
Now, another way he describes it is fully half of them, nine times, he describes these attributes by negating a good thing. Same thing, it’s one word, but it’s: they are not obedient, they are not thankful, they are not holy, they are—and this is one word but it’s basically not having normal affections for others, which the ESV translates as “heartless.” They are not reconcilable, they are not self-controlled, and so on. So not only are these godless opponents outside the church, not only do they fail to do the good thing, but they’re actually defined by the very opposite of the good that they are supposed to do.
And then finally, we noticed that even though Paul doesn’t organize these attributes around the Ten Commandments, the contours of that can actually be seen quite clearly here. For instance, the first four commandments, the God-related commandments, we see that they are not lovers of God, they are not holy, and they are lovers of other things in place of God. The fifth commandment, the parents commandment. How does he describe them? They’re disobedient to their parents. The murder commandment, number six: they are abusive and brutal, which, of course, fits with Jesus’s own definition of the murder commandment. Commandment number seven, the adultery commitment: they lack self-control and they are lovers of sexual pleasure. The eighth commandment, stealing: they are lovers of money. Ninth commandment, the lie commandment: they are slanderous, literally diabolos there, they’re almost devilish slanderers in some sense. And the tenth commandment: they’re coveting, they are not thankful, they are arrogant, they are prideful.
Godless thinking opposes the very law of God that defines his character.See, godless thinking opposes the very law of God that defines his character and they stand precisely against it. So it’s not for no reason that Paul summarizes it as not loving God. And in fact, in verse 5 he says they have the appearance of godliness—and this is key—they have the appearance of godliness, but they deny its power. So we must reckon with the fact that in the present day, in the present church and it has been that way all the way back to Timothy, that [00:07:49]there’s a particularly dangerous form of godless thinking that looks so good. [3.5s] It looks godly. It’s like mindfulness, it looks pretty tame. Just a little bit of meditation. A little bit of stress relief. Why not? No big deal. But by leading you away from the good things of God, by actually being the reverse of good things that you’re supposed to do, and denying the character of God as revealed in his law, it stands against God himself.
And so what does Paul say? He says there in verse 5, we should avoid such people. Which is a bit puzzling, actually, because so far he typically focuses on internal issues in the church. So why would he say, “Avoid these godless pagans who are out there doing these kinds of things”? Why was he worried about it? Well, we find out in verse 6 that this secular godless idea doesn’t want to stay secular. It’s a proselytizing movement. It wants to enter in and win converts. It wants to creep into your church and take out Christians.
Godless Thinking Opposes God’s People
So in our second point, we see that not only does godless thinking oppose God, but it opposes God’s people. Verse 6, Paul writes, “For among them,” these godless men, “there are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” Emphasis there again on thinking and truth.
Now it’s challenging actually to kind of tease out who exactly is Paul talking about here. Because on the one hand, it seems like these are non-Christians, based on the way he describes them, but I think that’s actually the point. Elsewhere in the pastorals and particularly in Titus 1, Paul describes how these people outside try to creep into households, the same language that’s used here. So I think he’s talking about the household of God, but he’s talking about specific Christians who are vulnerable to a particular way of thinking. In some sense, they set themselves up to be duped by godless thinking. And he’s described this kind of thing elsewhere.
And I don’t think he’s picking on women here. I think he’s actually just drawing on this category because he’s described a certain category of folks in the churches, certain women who are busybodies and gossips and so forth, that go around being somewhat destructive. And I think he’s using them as an example here that would apply to everyone of those who are vulnerable to godless thinking. It’s the kind of person who goes to the midweek Bible study but on the way home stops at the grocery store to get the horoscope and then goes and trolls people on Facebook after that. So they’re a particularly vulnerable kind of Christian. He describes them as weak, as burdened with sins, as led astray by passions, often chasing intellectual fads, and just sort of easily misled. It’s almost like they’re set up to fall into this, these people who are trying to sneak in and capture them.
So what does this look like in the life of today’s church? Let me give you a few different examples. You recall a few years ago the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code controversy. No matter how educated your church may have been, no doubt there were folks there who are kind of conspiracy theorists and they’e like, “Wow, did Jesus really have an affair with Mary Magdalene? And I don’t know what to make of this. This sounds really scary. I don’t know what to think anymore.” And people who know the Bible and know the first-century context are like, “No, this is completely ludicrous,” but lots of people were led astray.
Or what about a women’s Bible study who says, “You know what, for this term, instead of reading that new Nancy Guthrie book, because I’m kind of getting tired of Nancy Guthrie, why don’t we read Oprah’s book? Because, you know, it’s a book about soul connectivity. And doesn’t that sound really interesting?” Which is actually her current book club book. It seems so innocent. “We’re kind of bored with the Christian books, let’s go do something else.”
What about the culture of microaggressions and trigger warnings on college campuses now? Some of you may be heading into campus ministry and you’re familiar with that, the tendency to take offense at everything, to say, “You don’t have any right to tell me anything.” And that leads folks like my friend at my prior church a few years ago, who had taken membership vows, was under a discipline commission, and he said, “You know what? I’m not putting up with this. You don’t have any right to tell me what to do. I’m just going to switch churches, and I just get out of it.” And that’s what he did. That kind of godless thinking can lead you astray.
What about the corporatization of worship? The idea that somehow our thousands of year history of singing and prayer and so forth need to be upgraded to Nashville, alt-country, Florida Georgia Line meets Louie Giglio and smoke machines from Hillsong kind of idea. That’s what you need to have good worship. Or the marketing principles of Apple and Louis Vuitton somehow belong in Sunday worship. But it cuts both ways. What about the temptation among certain groups towards smugness and self-righteousness to say, “No, the way we do worship in its simplicity and so forth is the right way and they’re all wrong”?
Or what about the temptation that many of you might face now to compare grades, compare accomplishments? Who’s getting a look from RUF or whomever, setting yourself up to have a lifelong ministry of one-upmanship that will poison it.
Godless thinking is brilliant at sneaking in and capturing people.This kind of godless thinking is everywhere and is always trying to get in. Because it sounds good. Sounds relatively harmless, right? Like mindfulness. You know, why not? But your people are the targets of this. You’re the targets of this because godless thinking is brilliant at sneaking in and capturing people. Why? Because it targets the very people who are set up to succumb to it, who are vulnerable.
Now, there’s an interesting sort of unstated issue here. If you think about this passage in light of the rest of Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. Because what has he done elsewhere? The question is how does this even get into the household of God to begin with? Well, elsewhere, Paul has dealt with leadership. He’s dealt with elders and deacons, as well as older men and older women who are supposed to police things, who are supposed to protect the flock. And so if godless thinking enters into the church, there’s been a breakdown of that leadership. Something has failed. The reason why so many churches go liberal is not just because of the pastor, but it’s because of the stay-at-home moms and the retirees and the business guys who say, “Hey, we want this and we embrace it and we push for it.” And you need people protecting the flock in that way.
So how do we do that? How do we avoid such people, as Paul tells Timothy, if they’re so skilled at creeping in and capturing folks in our churches with their godless deception? Paul gives the answer in a very peculiar way here by pointing to a story that’s not really clearly in the Old Testament. But this analogy that he draws on here in our third point is that we oppose godless thinking with the very power of God that godless thinking opposes. So let’s take a look at that.
We Oppose Godless Thinking with the Very Power of God That Godless Thinking Opposes
Paul exhorts Timothy by drawing on this analogy from a story that actually is fairly obscure. He says in verse 8, “Just as Jannes and Jambres”—or Jannes and Jambres if you want to do the hard J— “opposed Moses, so also these men oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith.” Who is Paul referring to here?
If you look in your Bible concordance, you’re not going to find their names except for here. Who are Jannes and Jambres? They’re not mentioned in the Old Testament by name, which is kind of puzzling, but they are mentioned several times in Jewish tradition. And so we take that as pretty authentic here that, of course, Paul mentions them as real people. And one of the earliest places where they do show up is actually the Aramaic translation of Exodus, particularly in Exodus 7. So let’s take a look at what the story is that Paul is referring to, this opposition that Jannes and Jambres posed to Moses.
In Exodus 7, if you recall, God has sent Moses to do miracles before Pharaoh, so that Pharaoh would then release the people. And in Exodus 7:11, which is where these guys names first show up we read this, “Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers and they, the magicians”—and that’s where the Jewish tradition inserts Jannes and Jambres, so they’re are the head magicians—“they also did the same by their secret arts.”
So why does Paul invoke these guys? Why is this a good example here? Here’s the fascinating thing. When God sends Moses to do battle with these magicians, with Jannes and Jambres and all their sorcerers and so forth, what does he tell him? Well, in Exodus 7:1, he says, “See, [talking to Moses] I have made you like God to Pharaoh.” Moses isn’t acting on his own. He’s actually acting on behalf of Yahweh to Pharaoh when he’s going head-to-head with these magicians.
But there’s a twist in the story. What happens in the first three miraculous signs that Moses does, when he does the staff turning it into a snake, when he turns the Nile into blood, and when he brings the frogs out of the Nile? What happens? Jannes and Jambres are able to reproduce the exact same miracle. It’s almost like they’re standing against Moses and really standing against God and saying, “Your God is powerless because we can do the same thing.” That’s what godless thinking does. It says, “You don’t need that because we have a substitute that’s just as good.” So they’re opposing God.
But not only that, they oppose God’s people because what happens every time they reproduce one of these miracles, what does Pharaoh do? He hardens his heart and makes things worse for the Israelites. So these men are an appropriate comparison here because they have the appearance of godliness; they can do everything that Moses’s God can do so far. So how’s this worked out? Well, God does something that they’re unable to reproduce in Exodus 8. This is the gnats plague.
We read this, “The magicians [Jannes and Jambres] tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’” So how are these magicians, these godless men who can replicate all the miracles so far, how are they undone? By gnats. And that’s the sort of miraculous power of God. God defeats his opponents by opposing them with power that they recognize is from him.
Now, how does Paul describe this? He says in verse 9, the last verse of our passage, “they will not get very far because their folly will be plain to all, as it was of those two men,” referring back to Jannes and Jambres. Now, “folly” here is actually another negation; it’s another negated virtue. It’s something like non-mindedness; it’s not mindful. And so their folly, their non-mindedness of opposing God, putting on a show of godliness, how is it undone? When the finger of God shows up, when God himself acts.
The heart of godless thinking is that it’s simply better than the things of God, that it offers a worthy substitute.So where does that leave Timothy? Where does this analogy leave us? Well, the heart of godless thinking is that it’s simply better than the things of God, that it offers a worthy substitute. Why do you need prayer when you can have mindfulness? Why do you need a boring Christian book when you can have something with the imprimatur of Oprah herself? Why do you need lame worship songs from the Trinity Psalter when you can have a Nashville country worship band in your church? Godless thinking turns you away from the power of God towards itself, towards pleasure, towards loving self, slander, lack of self-control, and so forth. Godless thinking argues that looking godly is better than being godly and godless thinking like that wants to enter your church, wants to take you captive.
Godless thinking argues that looking godly is better than being godly.So what do we do? What do we have? Where do we go? All we have are gnats. All we have is the foolishness of the power of God revealed then in gnats and then revealed now in a regular average-looking 30-something-year-old Palestinian man who was chewed up by the godless power of his day and spit out, but he rose again and reigns in power. The very Christ who godless thinking says, “He’s not sufficient. He’s passe. That’s boring. That’s not effective. That’s not going to get people in the door. You need all this other stuff.” But that’s the very power, that’s the very finger of God that we flee to.
So what do we do? How do we avoid such people? Well, we train our leaders, men and women, when they’re in small groups, when they’re in deacons meetings, wherever they are, we teach them to say no, to recognize godless thinking when it shows up. Say, “No, that does not belong in the household of God.” Or ourselves, in whatever ministry you’re in, down the road, whenever people in the church, these weak minded Christians really crave some idea that you recognize is ungodly, you say, “No, that is not allowed here. That’s Buddhism, that’s godless, that’s worldly. We don’t allow that in the household of God.” Even if they’re going to be mad at you, even if they are going to leave your church, you stand against it. And when godless thinking opposes you and me, which it will, we cling to the true source of power, we cling to the finger of God, the very power that it is trying to oppose, because we are convinced that it is better to look like a fool and actually have godliness than to have the appearance of godliness and lack its power.
Lord God, we need your help. We need you to act just as you have acted then. And that is the true power that we have, it’s the one thing that we can preach, the one thing we can go to when we’re assaulted, as we always will be. So please be with us in our midst. We ask in Christ’s name, Amen.