“But mark this,” writes Paul. “There will be terrible times in the last days” (2 Tim. 3:1). On the face of it, you would say this does not apply to us because our modern technological world has nothing in common with the ancient world. They walked and rode camels; we drive cars and fly airplanes. The average person knew nothing of what happened elsewhere; we get news from around the world 24/7. Back then they kept records on clay tablets; we also use tablets, but ours run on batteries and connect to the Internet. Ancient doctors used natural remedies; we have CAT scans and open heart surgery and transplants.
People say times have changed. But, when it comes right down to it, how different is today from the time of the apostles? Aren’t we living in difficult or terrible times right now? The housing market still has not recovered from a few years ago. The job market is still way down. The national debt has soared to unbelievable levels. Businesses are failing. Government regulation is increasing. Our schools are failing to educate our children. We have a severe water crisis here in California which means also the severe danger of fire in many locales.
But this is not what the apostle has in mind. The apostle talks of terrible times, difficult times, awful times for the church; more specifically, he sees difficult times coming for the churches that he by God’s grace established: the churches of Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, Thessalonica.
Applied to today Paul talks to us about doing ministry while surrounded and assailed by great evil and wickedness.
We are gathered together this week to talk about the ministry we are doing as elders and pastors of the URCNA. We are gathered together tonight to pray about this ministry. But as we meet and as we pray we need to be reminded of the things mentioned by Paul in our Scripture reading—things that pertain to ministry some two thousand years ago; things that pertain to ministry today.
“But mark this,” writes Paul. “There will be terrible times in the last days” (2 Tim. 3:1). Paul sees terrible times in the “last days.” The “last days,” as most of you realize, is a technical phrase for the whole time between Christ’s first and second comings. So we should not be surprised that Paul’s description of the troubles sounds eerily familiar to those of us who are in church office today. Paul is reminding us that every day is difficult in a fallen world. Because of sin, things are not the way they are supposed to be. This has been the norm since Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden, and it will continue to be so until the return of Christ. Our time, in other words, is exactly like Paul’s time.
Want proof of this? Listen to Paul’s partial description of what makes the last days so terrible. And ask yourselves, aren’t we like this too? “People,” he says, “will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money” (2 Tim. 3:2). That certainly sounds like today. “Boastful, proud, abusive” (2 Tim. 3:2). Our televisions are filled with news of athletes, movie stars, and government officials who act this way; sad to say, we see this behavior in neighbors, and church members too.
“Disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy” (2 Tim. 3:2). Wow, Paul, are you sure you are talking about the first century and not the twenty-first century? “Without love, unforgiving, slanderous” (2 Tim. 3:3). I see this all the time; it seems to make little difference whether you are in or out of the church. “Without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited” (2 Tim. 3:3–4). Nothing out of date here. “Lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4). That certainly sounds like today.
Paul continues by describing religion without godliness. He writes, “Having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Do you recognize this in your church—people going through the motions and meaning none of it?
“Always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). Doesn’t this sound like those who hop from church to church at the drop of a hat?
Paul ends his description of “terrible times” by talking about opposition to the truth and persecution of those who live a godly life in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:8–13). Don’t we see more and more of this?
Paul’s list is not exhaustive. It represents some of the ways unrepentant sin displays itself in the lives of people.
Now, did you notice how Paul starts? The first thing he specifies is that people will be “lovers of themselves.” He could have mentioned anything else in his list, but he starts with a preoccupation with the self. He is telling us that the terrible, difficult, awful times for the church all arise from a selfish, me-first mentality. Excessive self-love, he says, feeds vices. When love is misdirected toward the self instead of the Lord, the only result can be sin. Which reminds us that our calling is to lead people away from love for self and into love for the Lord.
Do you know what is the saddest part of the “terrible times” described by Paul? Paul is describing life in the church. IN THE CHURCH. Yes, much of this also applies to the world. Yes, much of this applies to the great state of California with its same-sex marriages and medical marijuana and every liberal and nutty cause you can think of. But Paul is also describing life in the churches he was privileged to plant. And, as I have already pointed out, it certainly sounds like life in our churches today.
Look at some of the ways Paul’s description of terrible times comes to expression in our churches. In our churches, just like in the world, members lie and cheat and steal and commit adultery and hold grudges and fight with family members. In our churches, just like in the world, marriages are falling apart. In our churches, just like in the world, people are viewing pornography. In our churches, just like in the world, children need to be protected from abusive parents. In our churches, just like in the world, members become addicted to drugs and alcohol. In our churches, just like in the world, imperfect kids are being raised by imperfect parents. In our churches, just like in the world, some sins are deemed more respectable than other sins. We must never make the mistake of underestimating the great power of sin.
“There will be terrible times in the last days” (2 Tim. 3:1). We are living in those times. We are ministering in those times. As the Synod of the URCNA we are meeting in those times. So, keep in mind that we are dealing with sinners and their sin.
Ministry in Terrible Times
Now, what kind of ministry is called for in “terrible times”? That’s the question I want us to answer this evening. What are we to do as a Synod? More importantly, what are we to do as United Reformed churches?
There are those, like the Barna Group, who say that “terrible times” require special ministry. We need to do special ministry or we will lose our children and grandchildren. We need to modernize ourselves or we will become irrelevant. We need to get with the twenty-first-century way of doing things or we are part of a dying breed. I am sure everyone here has heard those arguments. Maybe you have even heard them from members of your own churches.
What is the result of this kind of thinking? In the 1980s many pastors were given the opportunity to go for free with their wives to the Crystal Cathedral to learn how to do church through the power of positive thinking; things aren’t looking so positive now, are they? In the 1990s many pastors were sent for free to Willow Creek Community Church in the greater Chicago area and told to be seeker friendly; even Bill Hybels, the founding pastor, now admits this was a mistake. More recently, pastors have been sent to Saddleback Church to learn from Rick Warren how to be purpose-driven. If there is anything these fads teach us is that they are just fads that come and go like the tide. They come and go because they are human driven and not Bible driven.
So, what is the Bible’s way of ministering in terrible times? Listen to what the apostle says: “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of” (2 Tim. 3:14). The key word here is “continue.” The key thing to ministry in difficult, terrible, awful times is to continue. Continue in what you have been doing. Continue doing what you have always been doing. No need to change course, to jump ship, to try something new. Continue.
Continue what? Continue in the “holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).
I can hear the cries and the screams (I hope not from anyone here): “But that is so old-fashioned. That is so yesteryear. That is the way our grandparents did church. That is the way the Reformers and apostles did church. Our times are special and different. New methods and new ways are needed. The old ways are inadequate.” Really? Do you think that is what Bob Schuller is saying right now? I notice that many of us here are Baby Boomers. If there is one trait that defines Baby Boomers it is this: Baby Boomers drink up change and innovation. So they want to be different, they strive to be distinct, and they constantly cry for change.
In contrast to this desire for constant change and innovation is the Bible’s call to continue: “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of” (2 Tim. 3:14). Continue as you minister in terrible times. Continue as you minister to sinners.
In these terrible times, as we do the Lord’s work in the URCNA, we need to continue. “Continue,” says Paul, in the “holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).
Many churches have lost that. We were attending a clergy group meeting. One of the men wanted to know how we who are Reformed decide what to preach on. In his church, he explained, there are so many special Sundays that the preacher gets to pick only a handful of topics or passages to preach on per year. His church observes the Christian calendar, of course. But on top of that they also celebrate Earth Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Justice Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and the list goes on and on. In contrast to this, we continue to proclaim the Bible’s message of sin, salvation, and service. In contrast to this, we continue to proclaim the Bible’s message of repentance and faith. Because we know Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
A funny story. Trinity URC of Visalia has a church plant in Big Springs, California, near the Oregon border. A number of years ago the Big Springs church was without a pastor and was thinking of closing its doors. Rev. Bernie Van Ee agreed to look them over. On the Sunday he came to preach the church building was packed. He decided to take the call. Much to his surprise the attendance was down to half after he started his ministry. What happened? Turns out one of the members owns a gas station. He offered a free fill-up to everyone who attended when Bernie was looking the church over. But what did Bernie do? He did exactly what Paul tells us to do: he continued. He preached the gospel message. He preached and he taught and now, by the grace of God, there is a group of brothers and sisters who are committed to continuing as church. “Continue,” says Paul, in the “holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). Specifically, what does this call for? Paul breaks this down for us throughout his letters: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).
It is the same theme again: continue. Continue in the Scriptures. We are to be Word-centered, not program centered. We are to be Word-centered, not building centered. We are to be Word-centered, not seeker centered. Our ministry, our work as elders and pastors, our work as churches, our work as Synod, is to be centered on the Word. Because this is what is needed in these terrible times.
We live and work and minister in terrible times. What are we to do? We are to continue in the holy Scriptures, which make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Continue because human nature has not changed. Continue because the gospel has not changed. Continue because the means of grace have not changed. Continue. Amen.
Rev. Adrian Dieleman is Senior Pastor at the Trinity United Reformed Church in Visalia, CA.