2 TIM 3 (# 12): PERSECUTION OR PROGRESS?

Stoning 3PMT-2015-017 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In 2 Tim 3:12 Paul seems to undermine postmillennialism, as I have been noting in this series of posts. Many commentators and theologians see this verse as the very antithesis of the victorious expectations of postmillennialism. But what is Paul actually saying? Is he countering the hope of gospel victory?

“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12)

We will look at this verse in its context. But once again, let’s recall how amillennial scholar James White views 2 Tim 3:12 (as he critiqued me in his webcast). At minute marker 16:39 he argues that Paul’s statement is “gnomic” that is, it is “a general statement of truth that is not limited to the days of Paul.” As such “it is a truth that is true as long as this age continues. As long as this age continues, all who live godly in Christ Jesus will continue to be persecuted.” (I recommend checking my last post for more comments by Dr. White.)


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1. Classic overstatement

White commits a familiar error, one often found in anti-postmillennial writings. He overstates the matter. Since he believes that 2 Tim 3:12 is a “gnomic” statement that is “not limited to the days of Paul,” he holds that “it is a truth that is true as long as this age continues. As long as this age continues, all who live godly in Christ Jesus will continue to be persecuted.” Think carefully about this statement.

Let me ask you: Did you just now read this in your leisure time on my free postmillennial blog site? Did you perchance open your leather-bound Bible that you picked up at your local Christian bookstore? Is this the Bible that you can carry to church every Sunday as you publicly worship Christ with people of like minds and hearts? Or perhaps you reflexively picked up your Bible as you listened to White’s popular Internet webcast program, “The Dividing Line”?

How long did you come out of hiding so that you could read my blog? Or listen to White’s broadcast? In doing so, how long were you able to avoid detection by the persecutors hunting you down? Were you able to avoid “persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to [Paul] at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions [he] endured” (2 Tim 3:11)?

Certainly, there are many places in the world that horribly persecute Christians (N. Korea, Iran, Somalia, etc.). I pray for these brothers daily. But I must confess: I simply am not persecuted for my faith. And I doubt you are. And it does not seem to me that James White is. Something is wrong with his understanding of Paul’s statement: it does not reflect the real world (at least for us in the West).

Simply put: it is not universally true that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” As H. C. G. Moule (Studies in II Timothy, p. 5) notes, and as you can confirm: “No attentive observer can doubt that many and many a loving and humble disciple, is called to lead a quiet life before the Lord … encountering scarcely one perceptible collision on the way.”

Or as famed theologian Patrick Fairbairn (Works of Patrick Fairbairn, v. 2: The Pastoral Epistles, 374) states regarding 2 Tim 3:12:

“That might not be always and everywhere the same; it could not but vary as Christianity itself rose to power, or the reverse; and so, as regards quantity and force, a certain conditional element necessary enters into the statement, which may be put thus: In so far as the world retains its native character, those who are bent on leading in it lives of piety shall meet persecution. If through the diffusion of the gospel the old has to a considerable extent passed away, and a better order of things take its place, then the persecution may narrow itself to taunts, reproaches, spiteful or contemptuous treatment, when at the behest of holy principle a stand is made against worldly compliances or fashionable vices.”


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2. Exaggerated reference

Furthermore, we must recognize that the word “all” (Gk. pantes) does not necessarily speak universally. The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (3:48) states that the word “all” is often used in a way that “reports a certain event with exaggeration,” as we see in Matt 2:3; 3:5; 4:24. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (5:896) agrees, observing that in certain places we must recognize that “pas is not to be taken strictly. It is simply a popular way of denoting a great number.”

In fact, we see this in Paul’s very context in 2 Timothy. 2 Tim 3:9 states that “their folly will be obvious to all.” But he does not intend that all people throughout the world and history will recognize the folly of these Ephesian heretics. Rather, he is speaking from his own circumstances.

The same is true earlier in 2 Tim 1:15 when he states: “all who are in Asia turned away form me.” And later in 2 Tim 4:16 when he writes: “all deserted me.” This cannot literally mean “all” Christians in Asia, for Timothy (2 Tim 1:5; 3:9), Onesiphorus (2 Tim 1:16; 4:19), Luke (2 Tim 3:11), Tychicus (2 Tim 3:12; cp. Act 20:4), Erastus (2 Tim 4:20; cp. Acts 19:22), Trophimus (Acts 20:4; 2 Tim 4:20), and Titus (Tit 3:12) remain faithful. And undoubtedly there were more.

3. Historical oversight

As I have been arguing throughout this lengthy series of articles, Paul is writing an occasional epistle, a letter prompted by current circumstances in his day (see previous articles). And we know that persecution was becoming a widespread problem for Christians, not only from the Jews (Acts 8:1ff; 9:1ff), but recently from Nero and the Roman empire itself. Remember the sampling of actual historical suffering he mentions in the context: “persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured” (2 Tim 3:11).

And what of Paul’s testimony against the false apostles, which testimony he mentions to the Corinthians. He writes that: I endure through

“far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned…. I have been on frequent journeys …, in, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Cor 11:23–28).


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That is the context from which Paul speaks. And now as he writes his second letter to Timothy, he knows he will soon die (2 Tim 4:7–8). His statement in 2 Tim 3:12 arises from a persecution context in a time in which Christianity is an extreme minority and hated by Jew and Gentile alike. His statement about “all” Christians suffering persecution is a basic principle that holds when such conditions prevail. As White noted on his webcast, such prevailed also in the second and third centuries. And later. But again such is not prevailing today in America (where I and White live).[1]

Conclusion

But alas, I must pause this study until next time. I fear one of my neighbors may be annoyed with me for riding down the street on Sunday mornings as I go to church, thereby disturbing their sleep as they avoid church. Such is my suffering.

Note
1. This is not to say that postmillennial, Edenic conditions prevail in America. Or that Christianity is not despised by many here. But I cannot complain that my circumstances are like those Paul endured, those “persecutions” of which he speaks. If we attempt to show how people are miffed at us, then we greatly reduce the true suffering of saints in antiquity and even of many in the world today. Paul defines his persecution as severe external oppression.

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