It is almost certainly one of the last bits of Pauline writing we have in the New Testament. That’s true whether you think this really was penned by Paul himself at his life’s end or is the last bit of pseudepigraphical Paul. Either way, this is it. And what a grab bag of treasures and oddments it is!
We’ve got a classic text on biblical inspiration. We’ve got indelible words on the need to preach in season and out of season. We’ve got a moving testimony from a man at the end of his life’s race and ready to receive his crown of righteousness. And as if all that is not enough, we end up with a hodge-podge of people to be scorned and people to be praised as well as reminders to grab a left-behind jacket and a few much-loved pieces of literature. The passage is one-part soaring Scripture and one-part the kind of sticky post-it note you’d put on the back door to remind you before leaving the house “Grab Jacket!”
Oddly enough, though, when you take a step back and take in this entire passage in one glance, it has a rather striking unity to it after all. And the golden nugget at the center of all this that lends such unity to these otherwise rapid-fire and seemingly random reflections is the Word of God.
Not for the first time in his correspondence with Timothy Paul reminds Timothy of the life-giving nature of God’s revealed and inspired Word. It is all-but certain that the “Holy Scriptures” Paul refers to here are what today we’d call the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. Everyone knows, of course, that you can read those Scriptures from Genesis to Malachi and never encounter the name “Jesus Christ.” Yet Paul tells Timothy that the better he knows those very chapters and verses, the more wise he will become for salvation in Jesus Christ. Huh? If you take a flat-footed literalist approach to the Old Testament, that makes no sense because nothing in all those thirty-nine books mentions Jesus. Yet Paul says he’s there and you will tee up your soul the best for the salvation uniquely offered in Christ if you know those words well.
Paul saw clearly what we too often miss today: the Bible is finally a single Story with a single plot from beginning to end. If you had told Paul it seemed odd to suggest someone could become wise unto salvation in Jesus Christ from a bunch of writings that don’t talk about any of that, I’d guess Paul would have found the comment merely baffling. Of COURSE the whole of Scripture leads you right to the foot of Jesus’ cross and right to the entrance of his empty tomb. That is precisely what the whole thing had been about from the get go. Once you realize what God has been up to since the dawn of time and even earlier than that, everything falls into place and makes singular, final sense in Christ alone.
True, Paul wrote all this before he knew fully that there would be four gospels added to the canon of Scripture not to mention his very own letters and those of several apostolic colleagues. But you get the feeling that to Paul’s way of looking at things, that all was just bonus material, just gravy, just the cherry on the top of an already really good biblical confection. And he most assuredly would have found patently absurd any and all who would eventually try to put a chasm between the Testaments or suggest that the God of one part was a different God (and/or a different kind of God) from the other one).
It’s all one Story and finally one Message and that is why Paul immediately is reminded to urge Timothy one last time to keep on preaching it come what may. It’s the only true Message there is. So preach it. Preach it often and over and over again. Don’t be surprised that some people will eventually start hankering for something else or outright reject the Word of truth. That won’t be surprising and surely has nothing to do with the veracity of the Gospel because the larger Story to which the Scriptures bear witness tells us that this is also to be expected. There is a devil, there is a counter-narrative, there is an abiding attempt to oppose God. None of this is breaking news. So don’t let it deter you.
Even the kind of “P.S.” with which Paul concludes what may be his last epistle is about this (the passage actually continues a few more verses beyond where this lection stops). After all, what do you think was on those “parchments” Paul was so eager to have back? It most certainly was not some ancient world equivalent of Newsweek or a collection of his mother’s favorite recipes. These, too, were no doubt sacred writings, copies of Scripture, commentary on Scripture, precious notes on the Gospel. Even the line about the metalworker Alexander is finally all about keeping the Message clear. “He opposed our message” Paul says and in saying that, he knew he’d said it all. This warning about someone Timothy may again encounter is likewise finally all about keeping one’s eyes on the prize that just is the inspired Word of God.
Today those of us who preach do so in a world of so many competing stories and counter-narratives. We’re steeped in a culture that wants to respect all stories lest any one story gain the upper hand and come to dominate in ways that might mean squashing other claims to truth or relevance or whatever. And let’s admit that history teaches us the mayhem that can come when someone uses even the one true Story of Scripture as a kind of weapon with which to bash critics or naysayers. If we actually pay close enough attention to where the Gospel brings the whole Story of God’s saving Love, we’ll know that’s not right.
Still, it remains as challenging as ever to contend for the faith and for the Story of God’s Word. Ours is also a world with lots of “itching ears” that hanker for “new and improved” stories over against the old and traditional ones. But if God’s Word is Life itself and if the whole Story climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of the one named Jesus, then we just have to keep preaching it and talking about it in season and out of season and until that time when God himself will make all things new.
Many readers remember the striking image author Kathleen Norris sketched in her book Dakota. The memoir recounts Norris’s move from the metropolis of New York City to the quiet rural confines of tiny Lemmon, North Dakota, and her return to church life along the way too. She notes “I was drawn to the strong old women in the congregation. Their well-worn Bibles said to me ‘there is more here than you know,’ and made me take more seriously the religion that had caused my grandmother Totten’s Bible to be so well used its spine broke” (Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris, Houghton Mifflin 1993, p. 94). Something about how those well-used Bible spoke to her of a larger truth puts me in mind of Paul’s focus on the enduring Word of the Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3 and 4.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 16, 2016
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Commentary