Lesson 15: The Danger of Empty Religion (2 Timothy 3:1-9)

Someone has described the evening news as the program where the announcer says, “Good evening,” and then proceeds to tell you why it isn’t! Can you imagine an evening news program that only ran the good news? “Three thousand planes took off and landed as scheduled today, without any incidents. The economy seems to be doing fine. No politicians were indicted for corruption today. Crime is down, and families gathered for a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. Thanks for joining us on the evening news!”

I suppose that would be a surprisingly refreshing broadcast, but we all know that it would not be realistic. Sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring reality is not a helpful way to solve problems or to face the future. So as pessimistic as it may be, we need to know the problems that we are up against so that they will not hit us broadside to discourage and disorient us.

In our text, Paul gives Timothy (and us) a dose of reality about the times in which we live. He warns us that “in the last days difficult times will come” (3:1). The Greek word for “difficult” is used only one other time in the New Testament, to describe the two violent demoniacs of Gadara (Matt. 8:28). It means, “harsh, fierce, savage.” When Paul says “the last days,” he is referring to the period of time between Christ’s ascension and His second coming. “Times” means “seasons” or “time periods.” So the idea is that during the church age, there will be various times, some more intense than others, where the church will face intense, sometimes savage, opposition. Paul here describes in detail the kind of evil men who instigate such opposition against the church.

As you read through this long list of evil characteristics, you probably think of the godless enemies of the faith that never darken the door of a church. But then you come to verse 5, where Paul says that they hold “to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.” You realize, “Good grief, he’s talking about those within the church!” He’s describing professing Christians. Some are church leaders. They teach Bible studies. They’re not passive, sit-in-the-pew members, but those who are active in ministry. But their religion is just an empty shell. They lack the reality of a genuine walk with God, who looks on the heart. They talk a good line, they put on a good front, but in their motives, their thought lives, and their personal relationships, they are not godly people.

It’s easy to read this list and think, “You know, I once knew someone who fit this description. He was a real scoundrel!” Or, “I’ve read about guys like this. Shame on them!” But I think that Paul wanted Timothy and us to do some personal soul-searching as we read this list and ask, “Lord, is it I? Could I be drifting into holding to a form of godliness, but be denying its power to transform my heart?” Paul’s message to us is,

We must knowingly avoid empty religion and those who propagate it.

He makes four points:

1. Empty religion is a constant danger for us all (3:2-4).

It is easy to fall into this trap of outwardly professing one thing, but inwardly and towards those that know us, living another way. The reason that unbeliever often complain about all the hypocrites in the church is that there are a lot of hypocrites in the church! Make sure that you’re not one of them! Paul says three things about this kind of empty religion:

A. Empty religion means having the form without the power.

These men claimed to be Christians! Probably, if they had read Paul’s description here, either they would have mentally shrugged it off as applying to someone else or they would have protested that it was a gross caricature. Hypocrites seldom recognize their own hypocrisy, as Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees demonstrated. Alexander Maclaren observed (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on 2 Tim. 3:5, p. 90), “The worse a man is, the less he knows it. The more completely a professing Christian has lost his hold of the substance and is clinging only to the form, the less does he suspect that this indictment has any application to him…. If a man says, ‘Your text has no sort of application to me,’ he thereby shows that it has a very close application to him.” He adds (p. 91), “Many of us substitute outward connection with the Church for inward union with Jesus Christ.”

If you have the inward reality of a vital relationship with Jesus Christ, you will be judging your life each day by the light of Scripture. You will be confessing and forsaking evil thoughts that do not please God. You will be examining your life with regard to the evil characteristics that Paul lists here, turning from them in thought, word, and deed. Those that are closest to you should observe the reality of the lordship of Christ in your daily life. Do they?

B. The root problem of empty religion is misplaced affections.

It is significant that the first two and the last item in the list talk about love that is wrongly directed: “lovers of self, lovers of money, … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (3:2, 4).

(1). Those with empty religion are lovers of self.

This leads the list and is really the root cause of everything else on the list. Years ago, for a while, I got sucked into the current of the modern church that says, “You need to love yourself properly.” The verse that is always cited for support is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). The reasoning goes, “If you don’t love yourself properly, you can’t love God and others. So you need to develop proper self-love or self-esteem.”

But this idea did not come into the church from the Bible. It came into the church in the past forty years from the teaching of godless men like Carl Rogers and Eric Fromm. I read a lot of men from previous centuries, and all of them uniformly condemn self-love as a terrible sin. The Bible is clear that our root problem is that we love ourselves all too well. There are only two (not three) great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. Self-love is the assumed standard by which you can measure if you really love others. If you would show the concern for others that you practice toward yourself, you would fulfill the commandment. Even those with so-called poor self-esteem love themselves too much. Invariably, they are self-focused people. But the mark of biblical love is self-sacrifice, not self-love or self-esteem (Eph. 5:25; John 13:34).

Jesus said that the first requirement if we want to follow Him is to deny ourselves on a daily basis, not to work on better self-love (Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Many verses in the Bible command us to humble ourselves and not to think too highly of ourselves, which is our innate tendency (James 4:6-10; 1 Pet. 5:5-6; Rom. 12:3; Phil. 2:3). But there are no verses that tell us to love ourselves more than we already do. None! No Scriptures tell us to esteem ourselves more highly than we already do. None! But these lies permeate the modern evangelical church. Our text warns us that self-love heads the list of all manner of evil.

(2). Those with empty religion are lovers of money.

This flows out of self-love. If we love ourselves, then we love money because we see it as the means to a more comfortable lifestyle. While the Bible commands husbands to provide adequately for the needs of their families (1 Tim. 5:8), it also warns us about the danger of loving money (1 Tim. 6:9-10): “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” I find that I have to keep rooting the weed of greed out of my soul, because the world daily feeds us the lie that more money or more things will make us happy.

(3). Those with empty religion are lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.

What a description of our culture and, sadly, even of much of the evangelical church of our day! Many churches today are aping the world by bringing comedians into the church to entertain the saints! I’ve heard sermons where the pastor sounded more like Jay Leno than a steward of the mysteries of God. Frankly, much Christian music falls more into worldly entertainment by glamorous stars, rather than worship.

Almost 60 years ago, H. A. Ironside lamented about the church in that time (Timothy, Titus, & Philemon [Loizeaux Brothers, 1947], p. 217), “The church of God has gone into the entertainment business! People must be amused, and as the church needs the people’s money, the church must, perforce, supply the demand and meet the craving!” He was prophetic about the philosophy of the modern “seeker” church: Find a need and fill it. If the people like drama better than sermons, then give them more drama and less preaching! If people want 15-minute upbeat talks that help them towards personal fulfillment, but don’t mention sin, then that’s what you should give them!

The ironic thing is, genuine, lasting pleasure is not to be found in all of the forms of entertainment that our culture so devotedly pursues. David had it right when he proclaimed (Ps. 16:11), “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand are pleasures forever.” As John Piper has rightly pointed out (Desiring God), it’s not wrong to pursue pleasure. What’s wrong is to pursue pleasure outside of God. We are commanded to pursue and maintain our greatest joy in God Himself.

So Paul shows us that empty religion means having the form without the power. The root of such empty religion is misdirected affections.

C. The manifestations of misdirected affections are many sins of character and conduct (3:2-4).

I can only briefly touch on these, but notice that all of these terrible sins stem from the love of self and they violate the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. This list is a manual on how to have broken, awful personal relationships! If any one of these sins pricks your conscience, don’t brush it off. Deal with it!

(1). Those with empty religion are boastful.

The Greek term referred to traveling quacks that wandered around full of empty boasts about cures and other feats that they claimed that they could accomplish. Spiritually, it refers to people who claim to have a wonderful relationship with God, but the inward reality is not there. They know how to use God-talk to sound spiritual, but they are putting on a front to cover a sinful life. Or, they boast about their easy spiritual remedies that they market to gullible people, but they are false claims.

(2). Those with empty religion are arrogant.

This looks at the inward attitude that lies behind the boastful person. It is the attitude of the person who thinks that he is better than everyone else, but he does not see his own pride.

(3). Those with empty religion are revilers.

This refers to those who blaspheme God or insult other people. It stems from being boastful and arrogant.

(4). Those with empty religion are disobedient to parents.

Satan works overtime to destroy Christian homes, because that is where children should see the reality of Christ in the parents and their relationships and where they should come to know Christ and be trained in His ways. Nothing will sour kids on the faith more than seeing repeated hypocrisy in their “Christian” parents.

Many parents do not train their children to be obedient. They allow toddlers to be defiant and disobedient, without any penalty or consequences. As the child grows older, the parents become increasingly alarmed at their disobedience, so they slap on more rules. But that is backwards. The younger the child, the more you should enforce obedience to the rules. Then, as the children learn to obey your authority, you can back off on the rules as they mature. By the time they are teenagers, they should be living under the lordship of Christ, so that you have very few rules of your own.

(5). Those with empty religion are ungrateful.

This may refer to ungratefulness towards God (Rom. 1:21), as well as ungratefulness towards others. Ungratefulness stems from self-love and looking out for your own “rights.” Gratefulness stems from realizing that you are an undeserving recipient of God’s grace.

(6). Those with empty religion are unholy.

This means that they do not reverence God or respect the things of God. As Romans 3:18 puts it, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

(7). Those with empty religion are unloving.

The Greek word means without natural affection of the sort that even the world displays in families.

(8). Those with empty religion are irreconcilable.

They refuse to seek forgiveness when they are wrong or to grant forgiveness when they have been wronged. They hold a grudge and seek ways to inflict revenge when they’re wronged. It is the opposite of pursuing peace (2:22).

(9). Those with empty religion are malicious gossips.

This is the Greek word diabolos, from which we get the word “devil.” It literally means to throw something against someone. The malicious gossip tries to spread half-truths or falsehoods about someone, often to make the gossiper look good and the other person look bad by comparison.

(10). Those with empty religion are without self-control.

This word means “without power” and refers to a person who gives in to wrong impulses or desires. Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:23).

(11). Those with empty religion are brutal.

The word means savage, untamed, or fierce. Many Christians watch movies that portray and glorify violence. The Bible says (Ps. 5:6), “The Lord abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit.” And (Ps. 11:5), “The one who loves violence His soul hates.” How can you watch with delight a movie portraying what God hates?

(12). Those with empty religion are haters of good.

This refers to hating God and His standards of righteousness. If you hate a godly person because he makes you feel guilty, you are a hater of good.

(13). Those with empty religion are treacherous.

This is the word used of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. It refers to someone who betrays loyalty or a trust in order to further his own interests.

(14). Those with empty religion are reckless.

This means to be rash or careless about things that are valuable in God’s sight. The reckless person goes for a cheap thrill without regard to the consequences or danger.

(15). Those with empty religion are conceited.

The word means to wrap in smoke, hence, to puff up with pride. This is a person inflated with a sense of his own importance. This brings us full circle back to the root evil, lovers of self.

Remember, Paul isn’t primarily talking about atheists or those who never darken the door of a church. He’s talking about people who make a profession of godliness, but they are hypocrites. They do not have inward reality with God, but just empty religion. We need to take personal inventory, to make sure that none of these characteristics describe our lives. Make sure that you are a lover of God, not of self or money or pleasure apart from God.

You would think that they whose lives are marked by such hypocrisy would try to cover it up. But Paul goes on to show that they actually recruit followers to join them!

2. Empty religion always has those who propagate it (3:6-8).

All of the major cults in church history began with those who had the form of godliness without its power. You may wonder, “How can anyone be duped into following a hypocritical, corrupt leader, such as Paul here describes?” He gives four explanations:

A. They propagate empty religion by playing on felt needs.

They “enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins” (3:6). Purveyors of false religion often prey on people with emotional or spiritual needs, such as guilt, but not by offering the gospel. Often, as with Satan in the original temptation, they prey on susceptible women, who may be more emotionally vulnerable than men would be.

B. They propagate empty religion by enticing with sinful desires.

These women are “led on by various impulses” (3:6). This may imply that these false teachers were seducing these women while their husbands were away. Or, it may refer to women who are led more by their emotions than by reason and self-control.

C. They propagate empty religion by playing on the desire for learning.

Paul describes the victims as “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (3:7). “The knowledge of the truth” refers to a saving knowledge of Christ. The learning offered by the false teachers appealed to the pride of these women. They were stuck at home and probably not highly educated. But if they followed the false teachers, they would know more than their husbands know. Often such false teachers gain a following by sensational claims, such as explaining prophecies in great detail. But that kind of learning doesn’t lead to godliness.

D. They propagate empty religion by opposing the truth with counterfeit results.

Paul illustrates his point by referring to Jannes and Jambres, Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses. These men are not mentioned by name in the Bible, but rather in early Jewish writings and tradition. They mimicked the miracles that Moses and Aaron performed before Pharaoh, not by the power of God, but either by sleight of hand or demonic power. But Paul says (3:8) that the false teachers “oppose the truth” and are “of depraved mind, rejected in regard to the faith.” Often the cults will offer results that are promised to believers in the Bible, but they offer them without bringing people to the cross and to faith in Christ. The Mormons, for example, offer harmonious family relationships, but they do not proclaim Jesus as Lord and preach submission to Him.

Thus empty religion is a constant danger and it always has those who propagate it.

3. Knowingly avoid empty religion and its propagators (3:1, 5).

These verse have two commands: “Realize” (or, “know,” 3:1); and, “Avoid such men as these” (3:5). “Realize” means, “Know this in advance so that you won’t be thrown off balance when you see these things happening.” When you see professing Christians and Christian churches brazenly pursuing the love of self, love of money, and love of pleasure instead of the love of God, don’t be surprised. Don’t be taken in by it!

“Avoid such men as these.” Don’t read their books, go to their seminars, watch their TV programs, or join their churches. Never send them money to support their false teaching! I could name names, but I hope you can figure it out. If a man does not preach the cross of Jesus Christ as the only remedy for sinners who are under God’s judgment, or if they promote how to “use God to achieve worldly and personal success,” avoid them!

4. Empty religion will not finally triumph (3:9).

“But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all, just as Jannes’s and Jambres’s was also.” Paul does not mean that these evil men will cease to plague the church, because in 3:13 he says how they will “proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” Rather, he means that God will only allow them to go so far. They will get some victims, but Jesus Christ promised to build His church, “and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).


The only antidote against the insidious evil of the enemy is the true gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of God’s Word of truth. Make sure that you have experienced the transforming power of the gospel through personal faith in Jesus Christ. Make sure that daily you feed on His Word, allowing it to confront your sinful thoughts, attitudes, words, and behavior. Walk in personal reality with Christ, being filled with the Holy Spirit, growing in the fruit of the Spirit in your character. Be brutally honest with your thought-life before God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Confess your sins to God and seek forgiveness of those you wrong. That kind of genuine walk with God is the only way to avoid the danger of empty religion.

Application Questions

  1. Since we all tend to be blind to our own hypocrisy, how can we guard against falling into empty religion?
  2. What does it mean to be a lover of pleasure rather than a lover of God? Is it wrong to enjoy pleasurable things or experiences?
  3. Since the Bible condemns self-love, how is it that it is so pervasive in the modern church? Is the opposite of self-love to dump on yourself? Why/why not?
  4. How can you know whether to correct an erring Christian (2:24-26) or to avoid him (3:5)? When should you break fellowship with someone (see 1 Cor. 5:9-13)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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