Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 16, 2022
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Commentary
Our lectionary reading for this 22nd Sunday of The Growing Season (more commonly known as Ordinary Time) reminds us of one of the deepest darkest secrets of spiritual growth. As we’ve followed the readings for Year C, we’ve been reminded of the importance of getting the basic gospel straight (Galatians), of staying Christ centered (Colossians), and of continuing in our faith even when the visible facts don’t seem to fit that faith (Hebrews). Now, in his letters to Timothy, Paul introduces the reality of suffering for the Gospel. If we’re going to follow Christ, we will suffer for it. Here in our reading for today, Paul urges Timothy to hold on to the Scripture both personally and professionally in hard times.
That admonition introduces that deep dark secret of spiritual growth. The greatest growth occurs in our lives when we combine suffering and Scripture. Suffering alone won’t produce spiritual growth; mere suffering produces only pain and confusion and doubt and despair and, finally, disbelief. In fact, it has often been said that suffering is the great stumbling stone of the Christian faith. Suffering produces great growth only when the Scripture interprets the suffering, encourages us in suffering, makes promises about suffering, and shows us the suffering Christ.
On the other hand, Scripture alone doesn’t produce much spiritual growth. Scripture alone can fill a head with facts, lead to interesting theological conversation, produce biblical scholars (either serious or dilettante), and, at worst, bore us to death. Scripture produces great growth only when suffering breaks us open, makes our hearts soft, shows us our need and weakness, makes us hungry and thirsty for God, and forces from us the cry, “God be merciful to me!” The combination of suffering and Scripture moves us along the path to maturity in Christ like nothing else in life. At least that has been my experience.
Apparently it had been Paul’s experience, too. In the early parts of II Timothy, Paul has been predicting very hard times for the world, the church, and, consequently, for Timothy himself. He opens the third chapter with a bone-chilling prophecy of the last days, a prophecy that sounds very like early 21st century western culture. He goes on to warn about false teachers who will take advantage of the situation to lead people astray, a warning that should ring over the church today. He concludes this doomsday section in verse 12 and 13 with this: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” What does the future hold? In a word, suffering.
So what are we to do? In a few words, hold on to the Scripture. “But (in contrast to those evil men and in times of great difficulty) as for you, continue….” That’s a favorite concept of Paul’s here in the Pastorals. Continue, hold on, keep on, guard what has been entrusted to you. When the world is changing for the worse, you must hold on to what you’ve received from the past. I’ve pointed out how deeply conservative that advice is, not in the political sense, but in a theological sense. Hold on to the Scripture as a person and as a preacher. That is your only hope for spiritual growth in difficult times and the only hope for the survival of the church in the coming dark days.
Paul’s encouragement in 3:14-17 is a case study in pastoral theology; it is both pastoral and theological. He first appeals to Timothy’s personal history. “[C]ontinue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it….” Remember the role your grandmother and mother played in bringing you to convicted faith, not to mention my own role as your spiritual father. And remember “how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures….” You were raised on the Scripture; it was your mother’s milk, your infant cereal, your first solid food, your constant diet as you grew up. And you’ve discovered that these Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” It was through this Scripture that you were saved. Think of all these personal reasons for holding on to the Scriptures.
Now consider this theological reason. “All Scripture is God breathed….” Now, of course, the immediate Scripture to which Paul referred was the Old Testament, the only Scripture there was at that time for a Jew like Paul, although the rest of Scripture was being written even as Paul wrote (cf, Peter about Paul in II Peter 3:16). Interestingly, Paul says that even the Old Testament was able to lead people to salvation before the Advent of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel. That’s because it, along with the rest of Scripture, was theopneustos. What a fascinating word. Volumes have been written about the idea of inspiration, so I won’t attempt to explain that idea here. Suffice it to say, Paul considered it a crucial concept. These Scriptures are different from anything else, precisely because they are God breathed. So why would you let them go in hard times?
Precisely because they are theopneustos, the Scriptures are useful in the ultimate sense, more useful than anything else ever written. With the Scripture in your hand and mouth, you can teach people the will of God; you can rebuke them when they stray from the path; you can show them how to get back on the path; and you can train them for righteous living. In short, the Scriptures are given us so that “the man or woman of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That’s the nature of the Scripture; it and it alone can bring a human being to completeness, so that you are equipped for a life that is good in every way. It wasn’t given to satisfy your curiosity; it was given to make you complete as a human being.
“Therefore, preach the Word.” I know, the therefore isn’t found in the NIV, but it definitely is in the Greek. It is precisely because of what the Scripture is and does that it must be preached with all diligence and skill. Paul gives Timothy such a solemn charge that it ought to scare straight every aspiring and practicing preacher. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearance and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word.” Who would dare disobey such a charge? Well, many people who have fallen prey to the spirit of the age Paul describes in the next verses.
Before we examine those terrifying words in verses 3-4, let’s dwell for a moment on the phrases that qualify that charge. Those phrases could well be the syllabus for a course on preaching. “Be prepared in season and out of season….” Always be ready to preach, because you live in the Word and because you work hard at this preaching business. I’ve had colleagues who work all week long at the rest of their pastoral calling and then on Saturday throw something together trusting that the Spirit will give them last minute inspiration. Calvin’s comment captures the tone of Paul’s charge. “The pastor… may not exercise his office of teaching merely at his own chosen time or to suit his convenience, but sparing himself no labor or trouble may drive himself on….” Such advice has led some preachers to neglect all else (including family and health and their own spiritual wholeness), so we must pay careful attention to the little word naphe, keep your head, in verse 5. I’ll say more about that later, but it is important to hear the Word of God talk about the seriousness of preaching the Word of God.
Paul goes on to give a very balanced prescription for preaching. It must include correction and rebuking; don’t be afraid to name sin and point the way of righteousness. But be sure you do that with an encouraging spirit. Paul adds that preaching must always be done “with great patience (gentleness) and careful instruction.” Again, Calvin gets it right when he corrects the foam-at-the-mouth-yellers-in-the-pulpit. “They wear themselves out, they shout at the top of their voices, and make a great noise, but all to no avail because they are building without a foundation… reproof should be founded on teaching.”
Paul tells Timothy and every successive generation to preach the Word that way while there is still time. “For the time will come when people will not put up with (the word means endure, be patient with, or tolerate) sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
Can anyone dispute that the day Paul predicted has come upon us? Like the marketplace of ancient Athens, the world is filled with competing myths. I’m not talking about the mythologies of the Greek and Roman gods. No one believes such outlandish stuff today, except maybe Scientologists. But people still scratch their itching ears with a wide variety of myths.
That may seem counterintuitive in a rational age dominated by science. But, of course, reason and science are at the center of two major myths of our time; the myth of reason believes that human reason can solve all the mysteries and miseries of life, especially as it employs the methods and technologies of science. And there’s the myth of government which believes that the right organization of human effort will produce heaven on earth. The current political climate in the US presents us with a fierce debate between competing versions of that myth, more government versus less government. At the heart of all the myths of the 21st century is the ancient myth of the divine self, the belief that each of us is a god in charge of our own life. That one, of course, goes all the way back to the garden and the whispered lie, “You will be like God….”
Paul sounds a fire alarm in our text. When the world is on fire, he says, preach the Word in a doctrinally sound way as you do the work of an evangelist. The word “sound” here is ugiainouses which means literally “healthy.” Preach healthy doctrine, doctrine that is healthy, that will make you healthy in every way. Now, in this setting this word undoubtedly means “correct,” given the strong distinction Paul makes between truth and myth. This is not just moral teaching about how to live; it is doctrinal teaching, teaching about ideas that change how life is lived. The word occurs only eight times in the Bible, all of them in the Pastoral Epistles. In nearly every use of the word, you find that combination of truth for life. Preaching sound doctrine means preaching the truths of the gospel in a doctrinally correct way, so that believers and seekers can live healthy lives in a sick and dying world.
That makes even more sense if you recall the settings to which the letters to Timothy and Titus were addressed. Both were written to young preachers in struggling churches filled with new Christians surrounded by the vibrant pagan cultures of Ephesus and Crete. As they struggled to deepen their new faith and to reach their pagan neighbors, these new Christians needed sound doctrine. It wasn’t enough to tell them how to live as Christians. They needed to be reminded again and again of why they needed to live that way. It was new ideas about God and humanity and salvation and, especially, about Jesus that had converted them to this new way of life. Every day they were bombarded with myths about God and humanity and salvation that denied the truth about Jesus. Sounds very much like our culture, doesn’t it? No wonder that the mentor of these new church pastors said, “Preach the Word in a doctrinally correct way as you do the work of an evangelist.”
Well, I’ve said enough about this. But one last word for all of us, whether we’re preachers or just normal Christians, just one word. Naphe. That’s the word translated “keep your head” in verse 5. That’s what you have to do as you preach the Word in a doctrinally sound way and as you live in these fiery last days. The word there has to do with getting drunk. It means stay sober as you do the work of preaching and evangelism. Don’t get drunk, so to speak, and lose control, or lose your balance, and fall over. When the world’s on fire and your church doesn’t have any fire, it is tempting to become imbalanced in your preaching, to stagger off in one direction or the other as you hear about some new way of doing things. What you need to do is to preach the Word in a doctrinally sound way, as Peter did at Pentecost and Paul did at Athens, trusting the Holy Spirit to produce the experience of repentance and faith in Christ.
My friend was livid with indignation. “Look at this!” she hissed, brandishing a slick full color advertising brochure. On the cover was a slightly sultry woman dressed in elegant clothes. It looked like a catalog for Chico’s or J. Jill, but it wasn’t. It was an advertisement from a Bible publisher. I won’t name it because it is a good company, in spite of what I’m about to tell you.
On the inside cover of this brochure was a note from the editor and vice president explaining the rationale for the brochure. “No two women are the same. God has created every woman with features, skills, and talents that make her uniquely beautiful. I consider my stunning wife and admire how she effortlessly complements her inner beauty with stylish fashion selections. When she saw what our amazing Bible designer was developing, she wisely told me, ‘That is an accessory I need to have!’ That simple statement shifted the way we as a company looked at our Bibles…. [now we have] an entire line called The Style Line, which consists of over 50 designs to enhance any woman’s personal style and attitude.”
Does that hit you as it hit my friend, and me? Yes, let’s sell all the Bibles we can. Let’s get the Word of God into as many lives as possible. But the Bible as “accessory that will enhance a woman’s personal style and attitude?” That seems a long way from “all Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the woman of God may be (stylishly accessorized?) thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That brochure struck me as a sign that the time of which Paul wrote has now come.
Note: Doug Bratt is on vacation this week so we have rerun a commentary by Stan Mast from 2013. Rev. Bratt will return next week.
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