New Testament Words and Verses
II Timothy 3:1-4, How to Know When the End is Coming
The first two chapters of II Timothy breathe a spirit of comfort and understanding. The author encourages the recipient to be faithful to his charge, despite hardships. A beautiful hymn in 2:11-13 gives us, along with Phil. 2:5-11, a glimpse of the literary and theological creativity of the earliest Christian communities. II Tim. 2 ends with salutary advice about how to face opponents with grace (“correct them with gentleness,” v 25), even though it is also sprinkled with advice about avoiding certain kinds of people (v 23).
Turning to The Last Times
But then the tone changes in II Tim. 3, as the author seems fixated upon the last times or the final things. My first thought is that one wouldn’t write about the last times unless one had the expectation that it was coming rather quickly. That is, the urgency of the pastoral advice in II Tim. 1-2 is now complemented by the urgency of theological advice in II Tim. 3. The purpose of this essay is to examine the language used to describe this expectation in II Tim. 3:1-4. What is evident to me is that the author uses language that not only is quite rare for the NT (we meet several hapaxes), but is generic enough so that people in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th. . . 20th, 21st centuries can easily try to apply the language to their own day and so argue for the imminence of the last days. For people of ahistorical bent, this passage then can fuel speculation, always incorrect, about the proximity of the end times.
We learn in verse 1 that in the last days (ἐν ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις) there will be difficult (χαλεποί) times. The word χαλεπος and the associated verb χαλεπαινω appear frequently in Classical Greek to emphasize the severity or grievous nature of a situation. The word only appears one other time in the NT (Mt. 8:28). We should be warned that the simple word “difficult” to describe the last time is bound to encourage unhealthy speculation. But now comes the barrage of characteristics of people in the last days.
II Timothy 3:2-4
The list is so extensive that it might be salutary (and a bit breathtaking) to see it all at once. I put a number after the word in translation to show how many times the word appears in the NT.
ἔσονται γὰρ οἱ ἄνθρωποι φίλαυτοι φιλάργυροι ἀλαζόνες ὑπερήφανοι βλάσφημοι, γονεῦσιν ἀπειθεῖς, ἀχάριστοι ἀνόσιοι ἄστοργοι ἄσπονδοι διάβολοι ἀκρατεῖς ἀνήμεροι ἀφιλάγαθοι 4προδόται προπετεῖς τετυφωμένοι, φιλήδονοι μᾶλλον ἢ φιλόθεοι,
“For people shall be lovers of self (1), lovers of money/covetous (2), boasters (2), proud (5), blasphemers/slanderers/abusers (4), disobedient to parents (one other time using this phrase), ungrateful (2), unholy (2), unloving (2), implacable/bound by no truce (1), slanderers (many times, since the word is the same for “devil”), powerless/without self-control (1), savage/not tame (1), not loving the good (1), treacherous (3), rash/reckless (2), puffed up/conceited (3), lovers of pleasure (1) rather than lovers of God (1).”
This is quite a list! We thought we probably reached the acme of New Testament moral lists in I Timothy, but these 19 words may set the record. Note how many of them are unrepeated in the NT (7). The word that allows several of them to become unique is the “lover of” addition to the word.
We can see how great a lure this list is for individuals who don’t think historically. They open the text, as if they are the first person ever to have opened the text, read it and say, ‘My God! This SO fits today! Wherever I turn there are people who are arrogant, greedy, undisciplined, reckless, and lovers of pleasure. Certainly this is a sign that the end of times is right around the corner!’ Now one can’t blame a writer 2000 years ago for the way that his writing would be received two millennia down the road; indeed, the author of II Tim. might have thought that his work would soon fade into insignificance, but how can one think that such a list of moral characteristics/deficiencies, when the list is general in the extreme, can be of any help in understanding the phenomenon to which it points? I would think, for example, that being disobedient to parents is not necessarily a sign of the end times but is a sign that life is going along pretty much normally. Disobedience to parents—par for the course in almost any century, but especially in the last century or two.
Pausing on a Few Words
So I must reluctantly add this passage to a growing list of NT passages which I consider unhelpful theologically. But there are some words here that have a pretty deep resonance in the history of Greek language, even though almost none of them play much of a role in the New Testament. Here are six:
ἀλαζόνες— a person involved in αλαζονεία is one who is arrogant, pretentious or has an overestimate of the self. The word appears several times in the LXX, and in one instance is put in parallel construction with υπερηφάνια (Wisdom 5:8). Thus, the we might be on good ground for seeing this and the next word as a hendiadys for an arrogant or boastful person. It is very useful to have both words at the ready, however, since the numbers of these folk show no sign of abating.
ὑπερήφανοι—we could just continue to pile up English words that characterize boastfulness, and we would have defined ὑπερήφανοι—“arrogant, boastful, overweening” etc. If we take the word apart we have reference to those who are “beyond/above” and “shining.” They “shine above” others, or at least think they do! The verb can mean to act insolently towards someone (Neh. 9:10) or to treat someone disdainfully. The common verb υβρίζω, which appears in a noun form in the NT, is a synonym, though it can take on a tinge of violence.
ἄστοργοι—we leave the area of arrogance here and look at a word with the alpha privative and then a verb meaning “to love” (στοργεώ/στέργω) with στοργή being love or affection, but rarely of a sexual nature. The LXX dictionary confirms this by defining στοργή as “the sense of intimate love among those brought up together.” Thus, the addition of the alpha privative just negates the context. People in the last days will not have intimate loves. Well, any takers for when THAT could be?
ἄσπονδοι—the verb σπένδω, which lies behind this word, means “to pour out a drink offering.” A synonym, listed in Gen. 35:14 is επιχέω, or “I pour out.” The σπονδοι, then, are drink offerings poured out to God. It appears in the LXX (Joel 1:9) in conjunction with “sacrifices,” so that it reads “sacrifices (θυσία) and drink offerings (σπονδοι) have been removed from the house of God.” In the Hellenistic era the word took on a broader meaning of a “truce” or “treaty,” because of the presence of drink offerings in these contexts. Therefore, when one adds an alpha privative to the word one has something that breaks the treaties. A person who does this can be called “irreconcilable” or “a treaty breaker.” it really is quite a specific and rare word, and now you know it!
ἀνήμεροι—The world of ήμεροι (hemeros—rough breathing) is something that is cultivated or suited to human habitation. The verb (ημεροω) can mean, in the LXX, to make something tame, such as the intensity of a flame (Wisdom 16:18). It can also mean, in the Hellenistic period, something that is tame or gentle, including humans. Thus, when the alpha privative is added, we are in the world of something untamed or savage or brutal. Existence of these people is certainly a sign of the end times.
προπετεῖς— We see in this word the dual notions of “forward” and “falling,” with the latter verb being πίπτω. The word appears a few times in the LXX with the meaning of “rash” or “reckless.” One might have reckless lips (Prov. 13:3) or mouth (Prov. 10:14). Capturing the sense of motion in the word (i.e., “falling forward”) is the notion that such a person is “ever too eager to act,” according to the LXX dictionary.
Thus, these 19 words illustrate, for our author, the kind of people who will be around in the last days. He gives us a very nice tour of the lexicon, for which I am very grateful, but whether this is helpful at all for you to determine if the last days are upon us—well, you have to be the judge.
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