Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5
Once again in these verse from chapters three and four of 2 Timothy, Timothy is being exhorted to continue in and remain firm in what he has learned from “Paul.”1
And there are two striking, and troubling pieces of this passage, which may speak as well to our current Christian climate in the United States of America as any passage in Scripture.
“Paul,” once more, charges Timothy with the proclamation of the Gospel:
Proclaim the message…
…convince, rebuke, encourage…
…with utmost patience in teaching.
This is, broadly speaking, a fine summary of what preaching and teaching (and living) ought to do. The reason for this solemn charge is telling,
For 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, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
While this has surely always been a challenge to believers, in some ways it seems right now that challenge is particularly great. Not only are there “other gospels,” and rival religious narratives, we live in a golden age of story-telling. Television and film (and of course novels and podcasts) are able to tell stories about redemption, about life and death, about “creation” and visions of apocalypse in ways that may be deeply attractive. It is into the “white noise” of contending (if not opposing) stories that seek to provide meaning and purpose for life, that “Paul’s” gospel nutshell of “Jesus (the) Christ, raise from the dead, a descendant of David” is to be spoken.
I would describe this climate “challenging,” and not something more serious-sounding, because there is still something deeply provocative, alarming, and attractive to this Gospel-story. It is different than any other story that is told. It is life out of real death. It is strength that looks like weakness. It gives the lie to false stories of dishonest progress and unreflective (careless or heartless) growth. It is the work of the evangelist—the one tells the “good news.” Such work requires just what “Paul” outlines: persistence, conviction, law and gospel. That is the calling to which all preachers, from Timothy on, are entrusted.
The second striking thing about this text is the claim that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful” (2 Timothy 3:16). This is striking because on the one hand it may seem like an absolute claim that is perfect for we Bible-story peddlers, in the face of rival or alternative narratives in our culture. This sounds to many like a claim of pure truth, and an antidote to stories that don’t matter or, worse, lie.
But what lies at the heart of that word “inspired,” is much more profoundly theological than any claim to literal or infallible truths about the biblical text. “Inspired” in Greek, is theopneustos, which can literally be understood as something like “God-breathed.” As I read Timothy, and think about the promise “Paul” sings that:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;…
if we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:11b-13).
I cannot help but be reminded of the way that God breathes in the Bible, and how that breath is creative, life- and faith-giving. Think of Genesis 2:7, “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Or again of John 20:22, “When Jesus had said this, he breathed into them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
I take theopneustos, “inspired,” here, to be a summary of the way in which God and God’s breath/Spirit Work. This is theology at work. All scripture is a means by which God can breathe life and faith and hope and love and forgiveness and resurrection, into people.
More than anything, then, this reading from 2 Timothy articulates both the nature of, and the import of our preaching.
As such I would add to “Paul’s” exhortation of proclamation—and here we must think of more than just preaching, but as Gerhard Forde puts it, “in the sacraments and the liturgy, but also in the everyday mutual conversation of Christians”2—some other words, words which speak to “foolishness of our proclamation” as a means of God’s life-giving God-breathing. Our proclamation, both from the pulpit and embodied in the lived-faith of those who hear us, needs to be persistent and convincing, yes; it needs to speak both law and gospel; and it needs to be patient in doing all of this. But it needs also to be faithful and trusting; humble and unashamed; and above all filled with loving—for our message, “Paul’s,” and Timothy’s message, is one of the uttermost humility and love—it is “instruction for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
- Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 20, 2019.
- Gerhard Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 2.