Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5
If you’re just joining us now for this, the third of four Sundays devoted to Second Timothy, here’s what you’ve missed so far:
Timothy must persevere in the faith and teach others to do likewise by passing along the instruction he has received. What is his example for remaining steadfast despite the threat of persecution and the challenges posed by other teachers spreading false doctrine? Paul.
If you’re unfamiliar with basic information about the letter as a whole, may I suggest the first few paragraphs of my commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14?
Second Timothy moves into its climactic section beginning in 3:10 and extending through 4:8. The lectionary assigns most of this portion, although 2 Timothy 4:6-8 has to wait until next Sunday. What makes this section climactic is the return to impassioned exhortation, exhortation to Timothy to learn from Paul’s example as he conducts his ministry in the aftermath of his mentor’s impending death.
Timothy’s charge, as persecutions are sure to come and deceptive theology will gain additional traction, is again to persevere in true knowledge and belief. The letter does not express this as frantic advice-giving. Timothy should already be assured of the necessity to persevere because of what he has come to know and believe, for that assurance comes to him from his predecessors, as well as from his past. The letter refers to the people from whom Timothy has learned. (And it is “people,” more than Paul alone, but a collection of people, since the “whom” in 3:14 is plural. Perhaps the author again has Eunice and Lois in mind, as in 2 Timothy 1:5.) In addition, Timothy possesses, from exposure to scripture during his childhood, knowledge and confidence regarding God’s salvation. This reference (in 2 Timothy 3:16) has the Jewish scriptures (that is, more or less the Christian Old Testament) in view.
The comments in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 hardly amount to a refined “doctrine of scripture.” Moreover, several interpretive questions make them a topic for much discussion among scholars: uncertainty about whether the author means “each piece of the scriptures” or “all of scripture as a whole,” ambiguity in the rare word translated in the NRSV as “inspired by God,” and syntax that allows for different construals of the connection between scripture’s inspired character and its quality as something useful. The comments’ main focus, however, falls on scripture’s utility, its trustworthiness for the ministry Timothy is called to perform. For in scripture one learns about the salvation God provides.
Beginning in 2 Timothy 4:1, the exhortation’s attention turns from the past to the future, beginning with the prospect of Christ’s judgment. The attention to Christ’s “appearing and his kingdom” does not lend urgency to Timothy’s charge. The passage doesn’t issue warnings about a rapidly approaching end as much as it underscores the seriousness of Christ’s future work. The corresponding need to root people in “sound doctrine” and “the truth” matters so they might be prepared.
Timothy receives a solemn charge in 4:2, which might be the centerpiece of the entire letter: “preach the message [logos]”, that is, the good news about Jesus Christ (see also 2 Timothy 2:15). Again, emphasis falls on persistence in this ministry. But persistence does not mean a license to berate or steamroll. Notice the imperatives to “convince, rebuke, and encourage” and to teach “with the utmost patience.” Timothy, one hopes, understands this as being something other than a boom box (remember those?) blaring received teachings over and over again without regard for how others hear them. Discretion must be part of any evangelistic effort, no matter what kind of evangelism we have in mind. Whether by words, by prayers, or by deeds, Christians cannot effectively bear witness to Christ’s good news without careful attention to and deep respect for their audiences.
Preaching the Message of Second Timothy
1. A significant challenge of preaching from this letter, especially this portion, is preachers’ propensity to consider the exhortations to Timothy and apply them exclusively to circumstances of pastoral, ordained ministry. It’s to be expected, given the ways we ministers are conditioned to read texts and reflect deeply on our vocations. Nevertheless, sermons focused on the charge to Timothy should help congregations understand how their individual daily lives, too, are awash with opportunities for authentic ministry.
2. Preachers interested in highlighting this passage’s exhortative character might tend to the motivation embedded in the calls for Timothy to persevere. Notice that the letter, on the whole, expresses less interest in theological arguments or proofs and more interest in situating Timothy’s identity within a lineage of lived, demonstrated faithfulness — God’s, Paul’s, and others’. Paul urges Timothy to persevere, not by explaining to him why the faith is correct or salutary, but by reassuring him that the faith is part of who he, Timothy, is. It’s as close to him as his genes. Imparted, lived, experiential knowledge of God’s salvation has brought Timothy to where he is, and it is enough to complete the job.
The question easily arises, fit for sermons to ask: What women and men, whether famous or obscure, have lived the faith into us, whether we were aware of it at the time or not? Calling attention to these people may inspire us; better, it may bring the living Christ into clearer view among us.
3. Another avenue a sermon might follow leads strictly into 2 Timothy 4:3 and its interesting comment about people with “itching ears,” who “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” It’s an accusation any group might make against those who don’t listen “properly,” and at its root we find a common human tendency, that of surrounding ourselves with teachers and voices who say only the things we want to hear.
The rise of digital culture, with online news sources and the still-strange blogosphere, perhaps makes it easier than ever before for people to isolate themselves in echo chambers, interacting predominantly with like-minded people over serious issues. This becomes most hazardous when it gives us excuses to discount other voices. And when it creates teachers or preachers who pander to expanding audiences and dispense trite solutions. In circumstances where denominations or congregations suffer from deep divides, groups find it too convenient to ignore anyone who doesn’t “suit their own desires.”
Although Second Timothy wasn’t trying to say this to its original readers, maybe nevertheless the warning offered in 2 Timothy 4:3 can help us today realize that listening for “the truth” sometimes requires us to listen to a broad spectrum of people, so we don’t always trust only what our ears insist they want to hear.