February 9, 2020

2 Timothy 3:1-9: Responding to Phony Christians

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: 2 Timothy: Faithful to the End Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:1–9

2 Timothy 3:1-9: Responding to Phony Christians

Please turn in your Bibles to 2 Timothy 2. If you’re using one of the Bibles we provide, that’s on page 835. We’ve been working our way through Paul’s second letter to Timothy passage by passage, and today we find ourselves in 2 Timothy 3:1-9. 2 Timothy 3:1-9: 1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men. 

Back when I was in middle school and high school, there was a group of students known as skaters. And skaters had a lot of things in common. They wore similar clothing, listened to similar music, and just had their own distinct style. And, of course, they liked to skateboard. That’s kind of the definition of a skater. Yet there were also some students who tried to fit in with the skaters by wearing skater clothing and listening to skater music, but there was just one problem: they didn’t skateboard. Now they might have carried around a skateboard sometimes, but that was mainly for appearances. The reality is that they had virtually no clue about how to actually use that skateboard. So can anyone tell me what kids like that were called? Does anyone remember? Posers. They were called posers—because they were acting like skaters so that people would think they were cool, but they weren’t actually legit skaters. They were just posing. 

And according to Paul, there are some people who behave in a similar way when it comes to religious things—spiritual “posers,” if you will. And Paul says we can expect to encounter a lot of these people especially during a period of time that he calls “the last days.” That’s the phrase he uses in verse 1. “The last days.” That phrase is a reference to the period of time between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming. His first coming was the one that happened 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross, and his second coming is the one that’s still to come in the future when Jesus will return to rule over this world in a very visible and active way. So even as Paul wrote this passage in 2 Timothy, it was already “the last days.” And even now, in the year 2020, we’re still living in “the last days.” That means we should expect the “times of difficulty” Paul predicts here. He states that “in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” 

And as we’re about to see, the nature of this difficulty is that spiritual posers—or what we might call “phony Christians”—will try to worm their way into the church and will often seek to gain influence in the church and will ultimately cause incalculable harm to the church. So Paul’s main point to Timothy here is simply to be ready for these phony Christians. That’s the main idea of this passage that we’ll be looking at today. Be ready for phony Christians. And according to Paul, there are two ways Timothy should maintain a readiness to deal with phony Christians. Number one, anticipate their secret sins. And number two—to quote from the passage directly—“avoid such people.” 

Anticipate Their Secret Sins 

So first, Paul tries to help Timothy to anticipate the secret sins of these phony Christians. If Timothy’s going to be able to deal with them effectively, he has to be aware of what kinds of things to be on the lookout for in their lives. So Paul tells him in verses 2-5: 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. 

So as you can see, this is quite the list we have here. Paul starts off by describing these people as “lovers of self.” This is the sin that lies beneath all of their other sins. Even though these people may try to mask their self-love, the reality is that all of the things they do in the church—even the things that appear really spiritual—are motivated not by a love for God or a love for others but by a love for self. They want power, they want prestige, they want a following, and they often want money. That’s what’s driving all of their supposed “ministry” to others. And you can see that in the subsequent characteristics Paul lists: “lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive.” That refers primarily to being verbally abusive. Also “disobedient to their parents,” an interesting item to put on this list that reinforces the fact that these people really aren’t willing to recognize any authority outside of themselves and their own ideas and desires. Then Paul continues: “ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit”—another reference to their pride and self-centeredness—“lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” 

And then the characteristic I find most interesting occurs at the end of the list in verse 5: “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” These people appear to be so godly at first glance—so devoted, so sincere. They know how to talk the talk when they come to church. But unfortunately, that’s as far as their “godliness” goes. It’s just an act, a show, a masquerade. Perhaps you’ve seen the news stories this past week Bernie Madoff, the famous investment manager in New York who was really an icon in the world of wealth management. His surprisingly high rates of return and his generous philanthropy were well-known throughout the world. And whenever anyone asked Madoff how he was so successful with his investments, he would tell them that he had developed a secret “black box” model that timed the market just right, showing him when to buy and when to sell. However, all of that came to a sudden and dramatic end on December 11, 2008, when Madoff was placed in handcuffs and arrested for securities fraud. It was then that his entire operation was revealed to be one giant Ponzi scheme—where instead of legitimately investing money for a profit, Madoff would simply use the money of later investors to pay supposed “profits” to earlier investors. The result was that thousands of individual and institutional investors lost their money, which totaled up to a mind-blowing $65 billion dollars. For many of the individuals who invested with Madoff, it was their entire life savings. All of their hard-earned money that they were saving for retirement was gone just like that. Isn’t it amazing how incredible something can look on the outside—like Madoff with all of his philanthropy and success—but be completely different on the inside? 

And that’s what these people Paul’s describing in 2 Timothy are like. They look incredibly godly on the surface, but the reality is that they’re actually not godly at all. They have the appearance of godliness on Sunday but “deny its power” the rest of the week. That is, they fail to exhibit the power of God in their lives that’s foundational to true godliness.  Titus 1:16 puts it like this: “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” Guys, it’s easy to come strolling into church on Sunday morning with a nice smile on your face and warmly greet the people you see and, more or less, act the part. But let me ask you something: what does your life look like the rest of the week? Are you failing to demonstrate absolute integrity in any of your financial or business dealings? Are you tolerating any form of sexual immorality in your life, including having sex outside of marriage or viewing pornography? Are you talking about people behind their backs or spreading any kind of gossip? Are you doing anything or having any conversations or tolerating any habits that you would be embarrassed about if they were revealed to the people in this room? Just about anyone can have the appearance of godliness on Sunday mornings, but are you demonstrating its power in your day-to-day life? 

Avoid Such People

Then after Paul tries to help Timothy to anticipate the secret sins of phony Christians, he says to him quite directly in the final part of verse 5, “Avoid such people.” That’s the second way he tells Timothy to be ready for phony Christians. “Avoid such people.” That means, if someone who claims to be a Christian tries to give off this “appearance of godliness” but stubbornly embraces the godless lifestyle described in verses 2-5, then avoid them. Don’t have fellowship with them. Don’t spend time with them as if nothing were wrong. Jesus gives us even more detailed instructions about how we should approach these kinds of people in Matthew 18:15-17. He says, 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, treat him as an outcast. Remove him from the church membership role and avoid having fellowship with him as if everything were okay. That’s how the church is instructed to treat people who claim to be Christians and try to act all godly on Sundays but who stubbornly embrace obvious sin in their lives without even trying to repent of it. The church is instructed not to tolerate that kind of brazen, unrepentant hypocrisy among its members. 

Now it’s very important for us to remember that the New Testament only tells us to act in this way toward those who claim to be Christians—not toward those who don’t claim to be Christians. If someone’s straightforward about the fact that they’re not a Christian, we don’t expect them to live like a Christian. We don’t expect them to follow the Bible or adhere to the teachings of Jesus. That’s why Paul writes this in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11: 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. In other words, expect non-Christians to do non-Christian things. But if anyone claims to be a Christian and has been baptized and joined the church and yet is openly and brazenly pursuing a sinful lifestyle, don’t associate with them, Paul says. Don’t even eat with them.  And that’s also what Paul’s talking about back in our main text in 2 Timothy 3:5 when he says to “avoid such people.” 

Now, right now, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute…I thought the church was supposed to be a hospital for sinners.” And the answer is that the church is a hospital for sinners, but it’s a hospital for a particular kind of sinner—the sinner who wants to be free from their sin. It’s really not all that different from a regular hospital. Regular hospitals aren’t built for patients who are content to remain sick but rather for patients who want to get better. Imagine someone going to the hospital and telling the staff, “I’d like you to admit me to this hospital, but I don’t want any medicine, I don’t want any tests done, and I don’t want any doctor or nurse interfering with my sickness in any way.  I want to be sick and therefore refuse to receive any kind of medical intervention.”  What do you think the hospital staff would say to that person?  Eventually, they’d have to explain to the person that the hospital isn’t just a place for sick people but for sick people who want to get better. And it’s the same way with the church.  The church is a hospital for sinners, but it’s a hospital for sinners who want to be freed from their sin, sinners who are interested in repenting of sin, sinners who yearn for purity and holiness and godliness. And so, whenever someone is baptized and becomes a member of our church, we require that they at least try to follow the teachings of Jesus in order to remain a member of the church. And if they refuse to do that, we go through the process we read about a few moments ago in Matthew 18 and eventually remove them from membership. That’s how we do what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:5 and “avoid such people.” 

And the reason we do that is because we’re no longer able to affirm the credibility of their claim to be a Christian. Because that’s essentially what church membership is. Church membership is the church’s public endorsement of someone as a true Christian. When we affirm someone as a member, we’re basically making an announcement to the world that we believe this person has credible profession of faith. And here’s what that involves. It involves, first of all, understanding the gospel. The gospel is a message of how we’re sinful and separated from God and under the judgment of God but of how Jesus came to this earth to rescue us from our sin. He did that by living a perfect life and then dying on the cross as our substitute, bearing the punishment for our sins. Then, after that, he resurrected from the dead so that he’s now able to rescue us from sin. That includes rescuing us from the penalty of sin, from the power of sin, and one day even from the presence of sin as we enter into the perfect paradise of heaven. 

However, it’s not enough just to understand this gospel message; you have to actually believe it. And if you believe the gospel, it changes you. Part of conversion is God performing a spiritual heart transplant within you. The Bible describes it in Ezekiel 36 as God removing your heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh. He changes you to the very core of your being. And the result is that you then begin to live differently—a lot differently. Now, you’re not perfect yet—since that won’t happen until heaven—but you are different. And so, if someone isn’t living differently and isn’t even making an effort to follow the teachings of Jesus in a certain area of their lives, we, as a church, no longer able to affirm that they’re a Christian. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re saying they’re not a Christian. We don’t know their heart, so we can’t say that. We’re just saying that, if there’s no desire for repentance, we’re no longer able to affirm with any confidence that they are a Christian. That’s why we have to remove them from church membership. We’re withdrawing our public endorsement of that person’s faith. 

And that’s important for several reasons. First of all, it makes a statement to the world about which people the world should look to as credible representatives of Jesus. Second, it helps other Christians know who they’re responsible to love like family. And third, it communicates very clearly to the person who’s removed from membership that they’re not in a good place spiritually. Hopefully it’s a wake-up call to them and causes them to examine themselves and repent and start following Jesus again. So that’s why we do what Paul instructs Timothy to do here in 2 Timothy 3:5 when he says to “avoid such people.” We do that not because we’re being hateful or judgmental but because we love people and want God’s best for them. 

And in some situations, there’s another reason we “avoid such people.” Sometimes, “such people” are causing trouble in the church by teaching things that aren’t true. That seems to have been the case with the church Timothy was leading in Ephesus. We see evidence of that in verses 6-7, where Paul writes, 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. So the first thing to notice here is that Paul’s not writing these things about all of the ungodly people he mentioned in the previous verses but only about some of them. Notice the words “among them” in verse 6. Within that larger group of phony Christians who embody the ungodly characteristics mentioned in the previous verses, Paul now turns his attention to a smaller group of people “among them.” And these people were even worse than the rest because they weren’t just going astray in their own lives but were actively leading others astray as well. They were creeping into households and capturing weak women, Paul says. Of course, that doesn’t at all mean that all women are weak, either morally or spiritually. But there were apparently a number of morally and spiritually weak women in that particular church. And Paul says that the individuals who were leading these women astray were “burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” In other words, they were “always learning” in that they loved to talk theology. They could talk for hours about theology and loved to show off how much theological knowledge they possessed. So in that sense they were “always learning,” but somehow they were “never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” They never really embraced the truth in a life-changing way. 

In fact, they were opposing the truth, as we see in verses 8-9. Look what Paul says: 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men. So eventually the folly and the error and the hypocrisy of these people will be on display for all to see. 


And as we think about how all of this relates to our church specifically, let me just say a couple of things. Just like Paul tells Timothy to avoid such people—that is, to avoid phony Christians—that’s what we’re committed to do as well. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t love every single person who walks in those doors. The fact is that we want people, from the moment they enter this building, to sense the love we have for them. It doesn’t matter what kind of mess they’re dealing with in their lives or how much of that mess is their own doing. We love them regardless. Sex offenders, drug addicts, those who have in their history a trail of broken relationships—we want them to know that we love them and that God loves them. I mean, praise God that he doesn’t wait for us to clean ourselves up before he loves us. Because the reality is that we can’t clean ourselves up. We need him to enter our lives and change our hearts and enable to live in a way that honors him. And that means we need him to love us even when we’re not in a very lovable condition. And…he does. He loves us even in the midst of our brokenness and sinfulness. And that’s how we want to love other people as well. So my consistent prayer for our church is that, from the moment people enter this building, they would sense the love we have for them—that the most distinctive thing about our church wouldn’t be the gift bags we hand out or the snacks we have or even the worship service itself but rather the love we have for one another and those around us. 

A while ago, two ladies started attending our church. And at first, I thought they might be sisters or just very good friends. But as it turned out, they were romantically involved with each other and had been together for close to a decade. Now, our church doesn’t believe that’s God’s plan for the way human relationships should work, but it was such a blessing for me to see the people of our church loving on those two ladies. I mean, people just went above and beyond to show those ladies the love of Christ. Not only did people warmly engage them in conversation while they were here, but they invited these ladies to their homes. And as it turned out, these ladies had some financial needs, so I saw people from our church giving them generous amounts of money from their own pockets. We were also able to get them plugged into our of our Community Groups. In fact, the people of our church were so loving to these to ladies that even after 3-4 months of involvement in our church, these ladies still had no idea that we didn’t believe the relationship they had was a God-honoring relationship. Now I eventually had to break the news to them, since they applied for church membership and I couldn’t let them be church members. But get this: even when I told them about our church’s position on that issue, they were surprised, but at least one of them wanted to continue being involved in our church anyway because she felt so loved. That’s what she told me. Even though she was now aware that we disagreed with her lifestyle, she felt so loved by our people and wanted to keep coming—and actually did keep coming for a season. Praise God for that. And I pray that our church would exhibit that kind of love more and more as we move forward. 

Yet at the same time, we understand that if we truly love people, that eventually involves calling on them to be disciples of Jesus and to follow his teachings. So, in order to be a church member, you do have to at least be trying to follow those teachings. Jesus himself says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Obedience isn’t optional for those who want to be Christians. If you’re truly saved and if God has truly given you a heart that loves him, you’ll want to obey him. And it’s that path of obedience that will be the path of greatest blessing in your life. The path of sin is ultimately the path to self-destruction, but the path of obedience will lead you to untold blessings as you live life in closeness to God. 

And beyond that, our vision for this church is that we would be a city set on a hill. That’s what Jesus says he wants his followers to be in Matthew 5:14—a city set on a hill. A community of people whose lives have been changed by the gospel shining brightly as a beacon of hope to everyone around them. And that involves being distinct from the world around us. Make sure you understand that. The effectiveness of our witness for Jesus is almost entirely dependent on the extent of our likeness to Jesus. Again, the effectiveness of our witness for Jesus is almost entirely dependent on the extent of our likeness to Jesus. And that means phony Christians—people who have the appearance of godliness but deny its power—really have no place at our church. Our church is a hospital, but it’s a hospital for those who desire to get better and to be well.

other sermons in this series

Apr 19


Mar 15


2 Timothy 4:6-8: Finishing Well

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: 2 Timothy 4:6–8 Series: 2 Timothy: Faithful to the End

Mar 8