What did you expect, Timothy? Are you waiting for things to get easier? Ministry will be hard.
Paul gives a long, convoluted list of problems — people problems. What’s difficult is people.
What sort of teaching should we be on guard against today? And what sort of people?
The claim was that the resurrection of the dead had already happened. You can just imagine people walking around thinking, ‘I already have my resurrection body! I am living the resurrected life!’
Today we probably don’t hear people claiming that our resurrection has already happened. But there is a teaching with similar effect. What has been dubbed ‘the prosperity gospel’ is the idea that God wants us to be personally happy and blessed and successful. This is said to be manifested and sought after in various ways.
There is some truth to this. Blessing is a big idea in the Bible; blessing is not just part of God’s plan but even the goal of God’s plan. Think of the promises to Abraham!
But what is the scope of God’s blessing? It is all nations — and it goes beyond that to encompass the whole creation. Blessing is not first and foremost about you.
As Christians we can certainly expect to see God’s blessing: we belong to the Giver of life, the Source of all good things. But that means blessing is the blessing of a renewed creation.
The question here is not whether we will be blessed; it is a question of when and how. Can we expect it today? And what will it look like?
Complete blessing is the experience of all things made new. For that we need the full establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. And for that we need the return of the King. That is when all things will be caught up in the good rule of the Father of Lights.
For now, we are in waiting. And so it is no surprise that Paul is experiencing hardship. He is working for a Kingdom that has not quite yet arrived, until which time suffering is very much part of life. And that is especially true for the people of the gospel. To be on the side of the King is to experience the opposition of those who refuse him. Like lightning rods, we will attract the attention of the Evil One, bear the brunt of rejection, and see things gone wrong up close. ‘In the last days,’ Paul says, ‘there will be very difficult times.’ That’s why Paul’s call to Timothy is a call to endurance.
Timothy was facing false teachers who said the end is already here — a lot like saying, ‘Complete blessing is yours already!’ Here’s a clip of Victoria Osteen that went viral in 2014:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koIBkYl0cHk]
When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God… We’re doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. Do good ’cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.
There is some truth in this. God loves his creation and acts in every way for its benefit, and we are part of that. But if you think to yourself, every day, ‘I’m doing this for myself!’ then who and what are you living for? It must be difficult to be other-centred if your own happiness comes first.
For Paul, living for yourself produces division and cruelty. To love God and love others, you need to live for something beyond yourself — to live for Jesus, the one who was truly unselfish, who gave up his life not just for his friends but for his enemies. The message of Jesus is profoundly sacrificial, and it demonstrates what God is like: the life of God is directed outwards, not inwards. We are not living in a self-interested Universe.
Gospel mentors guard this truth: that the God of blessing is also a God of love, which means sacrifical love, love that says, ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me’. In Jesus we see that the way of love is the way of the cross. There is a life of blessing, but it is found on the other side of the cross.
We cannot be fixed on our own happiness when Paul says ‘In the last days there will be very difficult times’. That is the choice Timothy faces: if our resurrection has already occurred, we can have everything now, but if there is more to come, we must endure.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.