False teachers in 2 Timothy (2 Tim 3:1-9)

Today we reach a new chapter in 2 Timothy, chapter three. And the first half is a difficult text to find direct relevance for us. Because Paul is continuing his use of the false teachers as a negative example to avoid, launching into a scathing attack. Have a read of it:

Evil in the last days!

2 Timothy 3:1-6 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

This long list is exhausting to read, and it’s supposed to be so. The focus is on the cumulative effect (look at all of these evils!) rather than the individual distinctions. This kind of listing of negatives (often called “vices”) about your opponents was common in Greek moral exhortation, and Paul frequently does this, too.

(Luke Timothy Johnson comments: “Some lists are so extensive as to make one wonder whether the point is simply the rhetorical skill of the writer. Philo, for example, constructed a vice-list with 140 elements.” 1 & 2 Timothy, p.409.)

And it was usually written for the ear – with poetic rhythms and rhymes – which we can’t experience as well in translation. So, at the occasional expense of precision in meaning, here is my attempt to reconstruct the aural effect of it in the Greek, in English:

For people will be self-lovers and wealth-lovers,
self-important preeners and blasphemers, disrespecting their seniors,
un-grateful, un-holy, un-caring, un-yielding,
slandering and philandering,
un-cultured, un­-couth,
back-stabbing, care-lacking, self-deluding,
fun-lovers more than God-lovers,
having a shell of piety, but denying its power,
when you see these – run like hell in the opposite direction!

We have two problems with this when it comes to understanding it:

Firstly, how much of this precisely about the false teachers in Ephesus, and how much is Paul simply using the generalised, typical “slander” that was common in debates between rival philosophers? (Perhaps an equivalent is the use of “yo mamma…” type of insults that may or may not have any basis in reality regarding the target’s mother.) There has to be some connection with the setting in Ephesus, but how much are we to make of the specifics of this vice list?

Secondly, how do we reconcile this scathing attack from Paul with the gospel call to love our enemies – or even Paul’s own instruction to Timothy in the previous chapter about not being quarrelsome, and being kind to everyone?

I think the difference here is between those in danger of being led astray (in which case, be gentle) and those who are knowingly leading others astray (in which case, be forceful). After all, Jesus did the same to the Pharisees who were doing just that. For example:

Matthew 23:13 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Also, debates in the ancient world – particularly in Asia Minor (of which Ephesus was the leading city) – were carried out in this way. These days, our culture doesn’t look too kindly on slanging matches, or people who attack the person rather than the ideas. But in first century Asia Minor, not to do so would have been understood as a sign you weren’t all that serious about your position.

So how should we confront false teachers who are leading people astray – away from salvation? I think the example of Jesus and Paul tells us to be forceful. And (righteously) angry about it! But we also learn (from Jesus, and from Paul’s “all things to all people” philosophy) that we need to do so in a way that’s appropriate to our culture. Bringing out first century lists of vices and throwing them in our opponents’ faces, I would argue, is not being all things to all people.

And finally, remember that this is being addressed to God’s people (in this case, Timothy), not to the false teachers! It’s designed to insulate God’s people against the false teachers, not to win the false teachers over themselves.

In fact, what is the point of all this?

Evil right here in Ephesus!

Notice how it all started:

2 Timothy 3:1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.

Paul starts off talking ominously about what will happen “in the last days.” All of this bad stuff. And then, he says at the end of the list:

2 Timothy 3:6-7 They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.

That’s what’s going on in Ephesus right now. All of these vices (verse 2-5) that characterise “the last days” – they’re happening now, in Ephesus! That’s the “surprise” effect. This isn’t a warning about some distant troubles, but a commentary on what’s going on. We’re in the last days, Timothy!

Gullible women??

What seems to have been happening in Ephesus was a common pattern in the ancient world. The false teachers were using “gullible women” as their base to win over whole households to their teaching. Now this sounds sexist, but it’s not. It’s the world that Paul lived in that was sexist. Let me explain.

The reason these women were “gullible” was likely the restrictions men had put on them. They would have been of the wealthier class (having the houses and the time to make this strategy work). They would therefore have had some education and status. But most of the time, women weren’t allowed to put their learning to any good use. And so they were more likely to be swayed by smooth-talking philosophers who gave them the opportunity to use their minds, and promoted a way of living that freed them from their cultural role as simply baby-makers and home-keepers. (There are suggestions throughout 1 and 2 Timothy that the false teachers promoted celibacy, which would have been embraced by some women as liberating in such a male dominated world. See, for example, 1 Tim 4:1-5.)

Paul’s comments are not so much sexist as they are acute social observation… The problem is obviously not the natural defects of women, but the artificially and culturally induced deficiencies of a society that systematically keeps certain categories of persons in a chronically undereducated and disempowered position, and therefore chronically in the posture of victims of unscrupulous manipulators of desperate human need. (Luke Timothy Johnson, 1 & 2 Timothy, p. 412-13)

Jannes and Jambres

Anyway, it’s this part of the picture that’s clearly not just the standard “yo mamma” insult, but is a description of what’s going on in Ephesus. And Paul draws a comparison between this scenario and two figures from the Old Testament you’ve probably never heard of:

2 Timothy 3:8-9 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.

So you don’t remember Jannes and Jambres from Sunday School? (If you do, give me the name of your Sunday School teacher…) They are the two unnamed magicians of Pharaoh’s court who opposed one of God’s great double-acts, Moses and Aaron. (Just like his current double-act, Paul and Timothy.) These names come from Jewish tradition, not the text of the Old Testament, so you can relax – your bible trivia record is intact.

And just like Jannes and Jambres started out looking impressive – able to match Moses and Aaron’s fancy rod-snake tricks and the first few of the plagues – the false teachers seem like they’re the real deal. But just like Jannes and Jambres couldn’t keep it up…

Exodus 8: 18-19a But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not. Since the gnats were on people and animals everywhere, 19 the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” 

…so, too, the false teachers* will be shown up for the pretenders they are. Timothy should be comforted by the fact that, in the end, the truth will prevail. (Which reminds me a little of Acts 4 and 5, which was written by Luke, who may well have been the one who wrote this letter for Paul while he was shackled in a dungeon…)

To think about

What do we do with these 9 verses? How do they help us look out for false teaching? Do they demonstrate for us how to argue against false teaching? And/or do they demonstrate for us how to warn God’s people against false teaching?

* Ben Witherington sees a strong connection with Acts 19, set in Ephesus. Jewish magicians were calling the name of the Lord Jesus in order to imitate the miracles of Paul – just as Jannes and Jambres tried to do with Moses. Witherington wonders whether this means the false teachers were likely to be Jewish Christians – which would explain their interest in the law and genealogies (see 1 Tim 1:4). See his Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol.1, p. 347-48.

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