2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5
14Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.
The first thing that struck me about this passage was that it was exceptionally lucid for Paul, who exhorts Timothy to continue his own Christian journey, not allowing outside influences to detract from what he believed. Very quickly we encounter a problem with translation into English. It’s easy to read the first verse of this passage and think that Paul is asking Timothy to think of himself as the source of learning, but the Greek word translated “whom” is plural, not singular, so Paul is showing his humility and accepting that he is one among equals responsible for bringing the Christian faith to people. The second letter to Timothy could well have been the last of Paul’s writings, but he died around AD56, well before the first of the gospels was written, so what were the sacred writings to which Paul refers as helping Timothy from childhood, instructing about salvation through Christ? They couldn’t have been the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) because they made no direct reference to Christ, and Paul’s epistles and letters have long been considered the oldest of the writings we have.
Because of the grammar of New Testament Greek, verse 16 has often been translated “all God-inspired scripture” but the construction of the sentence suggests that the NRSV’s “all scripture is inspired by God” is better. Either way, this passage does not suggest that God dictated everything in scripture. I think of Paul’s favourite response to claims such as that, which could easily be translated as “God forbid!” Paul, of all the New Testament writers, was foremost in admitting to his own fallibility in speaking on behalf of God, often saying “it is Paul writing, not Christ within me”. As a Pharisee before his conversion, Paul would have been used to pulling scripture apart, criticising it, examining it for its meaning in the current time, and putting the message in a contemporary context, so he acknowledged the inspiration from God, but never claimed that God wrote scripture. I like to think of the Bible as “the word of God, as perceived by men (mostly), and written for men in a patriarchal society.” As such I have no difficulty in accepting that the inspiration which resulted in our scriptures is still useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training, but we should look at it the way Paul does: we should be prepared to pull it apart and find out what the message is for us without any cultural clutter from the day.
Paul’s solemn charge for Timothy is that he keeps the faith, through thick and thin, showing patience – what is that in a world of instant gratification? – mindful that the time will come when poor theology will take hold because people will seek leaders who suit their way of thinking and working, not God’s. How often do we ignore what God wants in a leader and seek someone who agrees with us? We banish leaders who say things we don’t like, even if taking note would be to our benefit, just as Jeremiah was because he prophesied against the king. Do we do the same? As part of the process of selecting a new priest for a parish in the Perth diocese members of the congregation are asked what they want of the new pastoral leader. It is tempting to set boundaries such that the new priest would satisfy wants, not needs. For lay people, some churches appear very welcoming to newcomers, but when those new people try to join groups there are often reasons why they can’t, or the established group members talk among themselves and ignore the new, and prospectively best member.
At least one Australian diocese had a training programme for potential clergy requiring a theology degree to be done online, with little or no contact with other students, and a development programme locally based and controlled. That missed the huge benefit of studying with people of different denominations, generating significant discussions on matters of faith and belief, and opening eyes to other ways of looking at scripture. Ordinands in dioceses with such a tightly constrained programme are left open to the problems Paul was suggesting would happen. Having worked, in a number of dioceses, with God-centred people who have offered themselves for ordination and been rejected, I wonder how often that happens not because of the lack of call but because the person doesn’t suit the selection panel’s choice.
The last verse is good advice to all of us: keep sober, endure suffering which comes from standing up for your faith, spread the good news (i.e. be an evangelist), and carry out your ministry fully, even if that does mean pushing boundaries and being uncomfortable. That applies to me, just as much as to anyone else.
For a short passage this is full of punch, though there are passages with more.