Despite the trappings of modern technology and the great gap of years between, our time and Paul's are inextricably bound together. This is evident in the time frame he indicates: in later times. Although some have taken this to mean that Timothy is to beware of a threat that is yet to manifest itself, the time in view actually includes the entire period that was initiated by the first appearance of Christ and that will close with his return (more commonly called "the last days"; 2 Tim 3:1). Paul's point is that periodically throughout the age of the church the faithful can expect the defection and active opposition of some who have professed to be Christians. The developments in Ephesus were to be recognized as "signs of the times," part and parcel of this evil, last age.
This unfortunate aspect of the present age was foretold by the Holy Spirit. The phrase Paul uses, the Spirit clearly says, may indicate a fresh prophetic message or (despite the present tense says) the restatement of a word given at an earlier time (compare Acts 20:28-31 and more generally Mk 13:22-23; 2 Thess 2:3; Rev 13). In either case, it lends authority to the explanation of heresy and implies that the conditions in Ephesus were not to be considered as a surprising development or as evidence that the church would ultimately fail in its task (compare 2 Tim 2:19-21). Since the some that are mentioned had evidently professed the faith, and in the Ephesian situation may have been leaders, one of Paul's concerns here is almost certainly to arrest any doubts about the permanence of God's church.
The driving force behind opposition to the church is Satan. Paul describes the heretics in Ephesus as those who follow deceiving spirits andthings taught by demons. The apostle's ministry was marked by encounters with such movements, and he knew well their point of origin (2 Cor 11:15: "his [Satan's] servants"; see also 2 Cor 4:4; 11:3).
In our era the believing church cannot afford to be ignorant of the evil nature of this last age. Terms such as "heresy" and "apostasy" have fallen on hard times, due largely to the "witch-hunt" connotations associated with them. And indeed through the years (and in the present day) a great deal of injustice has been done to believers in the name of orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the presence of the cults alone recommends that we heed Paul's instruction here. A clear understanding of these "last days" and of the aims of the Enemy will prevent our being taken by surprise and may aid in maintaining a healthy church.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.