How different are our times from apostolic times? The modern technological world seems light years away from the world of antiquity, at least on the surface. They rode camels, we fly in jets. What more needs to be said?
Whatever continuity we can establish, the bridge between the days of the apostles and our own is long indeed.
Yet the apostle Paul’s description of the “difficult times” ahead for the church sound remarkably familiar. We are in difficult times right now. The stock market has plunged, the housing market has collapsed, foreclosures number in the millions, and the national debt and unemployment are rising to worrisome levels. Financial hardships, however, are not the kind the apostle has in mind.
The difficulties highlighted by the apostle that resonate with us today have to do with ministry in the context of rapidly escalating evil. Let’s look at a sample. In the difficult time of which he writes, people will be “lovers of self, lovers of money” (2 Tim. 3:2). That sounds familiar. “Boastful, arrogant…ungrateful, unholy” (3:2). Yes, we recognize that. “Without self-control…haters of good…reckless” (vv. 3–4). Contemporary indeed. “Lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (v. 4). Oh my! That hit 2009 right on the head. There’s more. His description of religion without godliness and learning without truth (vv. 5–7) sums up the spiritualism and relativism of our time pretty well. Opposition and persecution for those who follow the apostolic teaching and practice (vv. 9–13)? Yes, we’re seeing more and more of that.
What then are we to do? What kind of ministry is called for in “difficult” times? Special times need special ministry, don’t they? “If we selfishly cling to the old, familiar, and comfortable ways we’ll lose the entire next generation” — I’ve heard that said at important denominational meetings, the claim backed up with the authority of Barna.
Listen to the apostle: “Continue in the things that you have learned and become convinced of” (v. 14). Continue, he says. Continue. That, apparently, is the crucial commitment for ministry in difficult apostolic times. Want people to get saved, Timothy? Continue in “the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (v. 15). Want people to grow? Preach the word in such a way that it teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains in righteousness, and the result will be that the people of God will be “equipped for every good work” (vv. 16–17).
Here’s some additional ministry counsel to the same Timothy facing the same difficult times: pray a full-diet of prayer (“I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men,” 1 Tim. 2:1ff.) and read Scripture (“give attention to the public reading,” 1 Tim. 4:13). “Oh, and by the way,” the apostle Paul might continue, “the preaching that I mentioned above, it should arise out of the reading,” that is, preaching should be expository (“give attention to the public reading, to exhortation and teaching”). “You’ll want to sing intelligent, thoughtful, edifying, instructive songs as well, but I’ve said that before” (1 Cor. 14:14–19; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
Here, then, is the critical question: Are our difficult times enough like the difficult apostolic times to just “continue”? Generational hubris hampers clarity of thought. Baby Boomers in particular have always thought of themselves as so different and, truth be known, so superior to all that came before them, that change is instinctive. They, and subsequent generations, drink innovation like mother’s milk. To tell the church to just “continue” to preach, read, pray, and sing the Scriptures, sounds to them so…yesterday. Our times are unlike any before us. New methods are essential. The old ways are inadequate. We have the capacity to enhance ministry with the use of video, power point, lighting effects, drama, praise bands, and even an array of stunts and gags. Why not?
“Why not?” was exactly the question facing the sixteenth-century Reformed church. They restored the simplicity of the word read (lectio continua), preached (sequential and expository), prayed (restoring the six basic genres of praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, and benediction), sung (psalms and biblical hymns), and the sacraments administered with frequency. They assumed, as does the apostle Paul in his instruction to Timothy, continuity between their time and his. What worked for the apostle is adequate for Timothy, and would be adequate for the Reformers in the difficult times ahead for them.
The apostle Paul tells Timothy, the Reformers, and us to “continue” because fundamental things do not change: the gospel, human nature, and the means of salvation.