An Opportunity to Advance

The newspaper and news sources in general can be depressing reading these days. No matter who wins in November, America and the world are in for uncertain times. Instead of ruminating over the negative possibilities, Christians should see all of what will be coming as opportunities. It’s in uncertain times that Jesus entered the world. Israel was a captive nation with no political power. The church was birthed when Rome controlled nations from Great Britain to the coast of Africa and everything in between. The newly formed Church went about doing its job to bring the gospel to the nations. In time, Rome collapsed under its own fragile moral center, and the Church expanded, setting the moral agenda for the then-known world that is still impacting today’s world.More…

While things look grave for our nation, there is not much comparison to what these early Christians faced. We still have the freedom to make changes at all levels of society. We only lack the will. There are millions of Christians who have taken a position similar to that of popular Bible teacher John MacArthur who states that “‘Reclaiming’ the culture is a pointless, futile exercise.”[1] He comes to this conclusion based on an eschatological reading of 2 Timothy 3. He quotes selective verses (vv. 1-5, and 13) in an effort to support his belief that Paul is describing the inevitable triumph of evil prior to the “rapture.” These verses, cut off from their immediate context, could lead almost anyone to come to the same conclusion as MacArthur does at any point in history. A study of the entire passage, however, shows that Paul’s message is not about the inevitability of evil over good. Paul compares the supposed progress of the ungodly in Timothy’s day, the “last days” of Old Covenant Judaism (Heb. 1:1-2; 1 Cor. 10:11), to the overthrow of Jannes and Jambres in Moses’ day (Ex. 7:11): “But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all, as also that of those two [Jannes and Jambres] came to be” (2 Tim. 3:9).

Paul is forthright in encouraging Timothy that those who exhibit the deeds of wickedness will suffer the same fate as the two Egyptian sorcerers who served in Pharaoh’s court, the most powerful kingdom of the day. Paul backs up his claim of optimism not with a treatise on end-time speculation but from an incident from the Old Testament that shows that God’s people, through His providential care, triumph over wickedness:

Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers, and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same with their secret arts. For each one threw down his staff and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs (Ex. 7:11-12).[2]

While it is true there is an attempt by the ungodly to dominate culture, and some are successful for a season, the fact is, that over time “they will not make further progress”; their fling with ungodliness is only temporary (cf. Rom. 1:18-32). Christians can be optimistic even if the actions of the ungodly increase in their own day. If Christians remain faithful in preaching the gospel and applying a biblical worldview to every area of life, the world can be changed. History and God’s providential care are on our side.[3]

Paul, however, does not allow Christians to remain passive as the ungodly self‑destruct. Timothy has followed Paul’s “teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, [and] sufferings” (2 Tim. 3:10-11), and he calls on us to do the same. While the ungodly expend capital from their contrary and corrupted worldview on present‑oriented living, the Christian is to develop future‑oriented spiritual capital to replace the bankrupt culture of secularism, humanism, materialism, relativism, and hedonism.

Notice that the characteristics of the ungodly are all self‑directed and short‑lived, summarized by the phrase “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4). Sin is pleasurable for a time: “He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not become rich” (Prov. 21:17). The love of pleasure is no investment in the future.

The characteristics of the godly are future directed, foregoing the lure of present pleasures for the benefit of future productivity. Teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love and perseverance take time and energy from the present but result in future rewards. Moreover, even persecutions and sufferings should not deter future‑oriented Christians because “out of them all the Lord” delivers us (2 Tim. 3:11).

The ungodly are involved in a game of self-deception, so that even they are “being deceived” when they think their worldview will ultimately prevail. We also must remember the previous words of Paul: “But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all.” While the ungodly burn themselves out on present-oriented living, the faithful steadily influence their world: “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of” (2 Tim. 3:14). In time, faithfulness will be rewarded: “And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal. 6:9).

Paul does not deny “persecutions” and “sufferings” (2 Tim. 3:11). In fact, his words echo those of Jesus: “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Even so, Paul tells Timothy, “out of them all the Lord delivered me!” (2 Tim. 3:11). If God delivered Paul and the Christian church of the first century from Jewish persecution and Roman tyranny, what leads us to believe that God cannot and will not do the same today? A belief in the inevitability of certain prophetic events, the belief that we are the terminal generation, can lead to a spirit of malaise, indifference, and despair.

It’s been said repeatedly that ideas have consequences. What a person believes about the future impacts how he lives in the present and plans for the days and years to come. We often look at present circumstances and see them as the standard to evaluate where we are in the world. Of course, we’re not the first generation to do this (Num. 13-14), but it seems that we’re the first to make it an article of faith.

Josef Tson, a Christian leader from Romania, was challenged in 1977 by a friend to help set up an organization that would expose communism. Pastor Tson’s response was startling given the oppressive regime that dominated his country. He assured his Christian friend that “Communism is an experiment that has failed. It wasn’t able to fulfill any of its promises and nobody believes in it any more. Because of this, it will one day collapse on its own. Now, why should I fight something that is finished? I believe that our task is a different one. When communism collapses, somebody has to be there to rebuild society! I believe our job as Christian teachers is to train leaders so that they will be ready and capable to rebuild our society on a Christian basis.” Who could conceive of such a future scenario given the seemingly indestructible nature and advance of Communism and the claimed inevitability of apocalyptic doom?

Pastor Tson’s friend challenged him by claiming that “Communism will triumph all over the world, because that is the movement of the Antichrist. And when the communists take over in the United States, they will then kill all the Christians. We have only one job to do: to alert the world and make ready to die.” Eventually, both men were forced to leave Romania. Pastor Tson started a training program for Christian leaders who remained in Romania. His friend, as Pastor Tson tells the story, “has not done anything for Romania. He simply waited for the final triumph of communism and the annihilation of Christianity.” Contrary to his friend’s expectations, neither event came to pass.

The Communist regime in Romania fell, and President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were captured, tried, and found guilty of genocide. They were executed on December 25, 1989. The remaining Communists were swept from power in later elections. Pastor Tson trained more than a thousand people all over Romania. Today, these people are the leaders in churches in evangelical denominations and in key Christian ministries. Who could have imagined such a development? Certainly not prophecy writers who had assured us that Communism was the inevitable end-time movement to usher in the antichrist. Pastor Tson understood that eschatology matters: “You see, the way you look to the future determines your planning and your actions. It is the way you understand the times that determines what you are going to do.”

    [1]John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994), 12.

    2]For a study of the “magic” used by the Egyptians, see Gary DeMar, Thinking Straight in a Crooked World: A Christian Defense Manual (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2001), 252-254.

    [3]Francis Herbert Stead, The Story of Social Christianity, 2 vols. (London: James Clarke & Co., Limited, 1924) and Phillips Brooks, The Influence of Jesus (New York: Dutton, 1980) and J. Wesley Bready, England: Before and After Wesley-The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1939).