2 Timothy 3:1 (NIV) 1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.
On verse 1: By “last days” what does Paul mean? “Last days” is a term used by various New Testament writers (e.g 1 Peter 1:20; 2 Peter 3:3; Hebrews 1:2; James 5:3). It refers to the entire period between Christ’s ascension to heaven and his eventual return to earth.
Here Paul is saying that during these last days, something terrible will happen: false teachers will try to influence Christ’s church and lead Christians astray.
How do a recognize a false teacher? In verses 1-9, Paul gives three clues by which you can recognize a false teacher.
First, a false teacher will typically exhibit ungodly character (v1-5). The false teachers Paul is warning Timothy against certainly had charisma, but their character was highly ungodly. Paul describes how they would “worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women” (v6).
It’s not just what a person says that makes that a person worth following or learning from. It’s how that person lives. If a person claims to be a teacher worth listening to, but they consistently exhibit ungodly character, that person is not worth following or listening to.
In particular, in verses 1-5, Paul uses approximately 19 characteristics to describe the false teachers he has seen:
– lovers of themselves
– lovers of money
– disobedient to their parents
– slandering others
– having no self-control
– not lovers of what is good
– treacherous (i.e. people who betray other people’s trust)
– loving pleasure more than loving God
Perhaps you are looking at the above list of characteristics and can relate to some of them. That is why we need the blood of Jesus Christ to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from unrighteousness. But if someone wants to be a teacher of God’s Word, they must not only be saved but sanctified as well. That is, they will not be perfect, but they must show a high degree of godliness and maturity in their character. So if a person claims to be a spiritual teacher but displays ungodly characteristics on a consistent basis, then their self-proclaimed godliness is a powerless one. As Paul says, “have nothing to do with them” (v5).
Second, in the case of a false teacher, their closest and most loyal followers will unapologetically exhibit ungodly character too. As for the false teachers that were threatening Timothy’s church, Paul notes that their closest followers were weak-willed women who were held captive by sinful habits and swayed by all kinds of evil desires. These followers were “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (v7); in other words, they had an insatiable curiosity to learn and experience new things, but they could not centre themselves around Christ.
What can we learn from this? When deciding whether to follow or learn from someone, consider the quality of that person’s closest followers. (By “closest follower” I don’t mean just anyone who says that they listen to him/her, but those who spend the most time with that person and/or those whom that teacher considers to be his/her “best” or “model” students.) If a teacher’s closest followers or “model students” are themselves unashamedly immoral and ungodly, then you must question whether you want to become a close follower of that teacher as well.
Third, a false teacher rejects the clear truths of God’s Word. In verse 8, Paul compares the false teachers in Timothy’s church to Jannes and Jambres. According to Jewish tradition, Jannes and Jambres were the names given to the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed the truth, false teachers are those who reject the clear truths of God’s Word and the clear message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What can we learn from all this? When it comes to learning spiritual truth, you can tell whether a person is worth following, or whether their teaching is worth learning from, by looking at the fruit they bear — in particular, that person’s character, the quality of that person’s closest followers, and the content of that person’s teaching as compared to the Bible.
Jesus says something similar in Matthew 7:15-20: 15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Since we are all called to live out loud and to lead others to Jesus, let’s be careful to watch our character, our conduct and the content of our teaching. May we live lives of godly character and do a good job of pointing others to Jesus the only perfect One.
Heavenly Father, may I be discerning enough to consider the fruit of a person’s life before I allow them to influence me too much. May I be influenced by people in Your kingdom whose teaching is in line with Your Word, whose character is full of Christ-likeness and godliness, and whose ministry bears good fruit. May I be that kind of Christ-like person too. In Jesus’ name, AMEN!