This week we focus on a passage in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. There is some question whether Paul wrote this, or if it was a later leader of the church writing in Paul’s name. One way or the other it is asking “Timothy” to use Paul’s faithfulness and dedication as an example in his ministry. He is being asked to carry on Paul’s legacy in the leadership of the church. There are remembrances and advice, not to mention reminders of how important it is to carry on and continue the mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
This is a personal letter, and it is good to remember that we effectively listening to a conversation between people who are very close, almost like family. The letter opens in chapter 1, “To Timothy, my dear son.” A little later Paul says, “I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, lives in you also.” (2 Tim 1:3-5)
So often, we can look at the Bible as a rule book, a set of instructions for us to follow. That is true, in a sense, but when he wrote this letter, Paul had no idea that it would eventually become part of what is now considered the New Testament. It was merely a leader who thought that we would die soon, writing a letter to his son in the faith. When we look at it, we should consider it in that emphasis. Of course, it has a lot to say to us, perhaps more than we would like.
We are jumping ahead to the climax of the letter. We start at 2 Timothy 3:14.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:8 (NIV)
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
4:1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with 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. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
I was blessed and cursed to go to graduate school in Washington D.C. One of the curses was the traffic. Except on Sunday mornings, it seemed that no matter where you wanted to go, whether near or far it took a minimum of an hour to get there. It didn’t matter whether I walked, drove, took the subway, or took the bus. It was always the same, one hour minimum. As you can imagine, that kept me near campus most days.
One of the many blessings was being able to visit the monuments and the historical buildings. I had the opportunity to see the cherry blossoms near the Jefferson Memorial. I was able to see Abraham Lincoln sitting there larger than life at the Lincoln Memorial. One of my favorite things was seeing the town decorated for Christmas. The first year I was there, almost 10 years ago now, they had a lot of snow, and a friend and I went into town to see the National Christmas tree. It was very interesting with the one larger tree, but I never realized that there were 50 smaller trees in the area to represent the 50 states.
There were buildings all around the field where the trees had been placed. They are all closed up for the night. They were so still and quiet that it didn’t look like anyone ever used them. Did I mention that the backdrop for all of the still and quiet was the White House? Though at a distance.
Katie and I toured the displays, and we both got our pictures by the National Christmas tree. It was a very interesting night. As we were walking back to the car, I took one more picture. I had turned back for a last look when I noticed something. On the second floor of the White House far in the distance, I saw a little tree with a TV glowing next to it. Just like many other houses in the country. Everything was not closed up. There was life there. You could almost think of the place as breathing.
The Bible can seem like an old book written by ancient people who are long dead. How can it have relevance in today’s world? However, if you start looking at it consistently and methodically, you can start to see little hints at life. These continue to grow, as you continue. The early Christians and the Jewish people considered Scripture to be alive. As it says in Hebrews 4:12, “God’s word is alive and active…” During this time period, they would be referring to the Hebrew Bible or what we call the Old Testament. God breathed life into them. Just as God breathed life into Adam, humanity made from the dust. Breathing life into the inanimate. As we are yet alive, the Scriptures continue to have life.
This breathing that we see in verse 16 is also translated in many Bibles as “inspired.” You may have heard the Bible referred to as the “inspired word of God.” That’s where some of the confusion can come in on how we are to regard the Bible. There are three main differences with how people today define the word “inspired” compared with how Paul meant it, and it’s best to clear that up first.
One way that we think of “inspired” today is when we see an amazing performance, read a meaningful book, watch a spectacular sporting event. We might say that the artist or athlete was inspired, or that it was an inspiring performance. In a sense we may say that it took our breath away. We found it amazing, uplifting, thought provoking. What we really mean is that it was inspiring to us. That is not what Paul means here at all. He means that Scripture has actual life in it. It breathes, and it is God’s breath.
Another understanding of “inspired” also has specifically to do with writers. There is the idea of a poet or other writer’s brain going into neutral and words that come from other spiritual sources express themselves directly through the writer’s pen or other device. To me, it has the sound of someone possessed. None of the writer’s own thoughts or ideas are included. When this is applied to Scripture, it would mean that the prophet Isaiah, Paul, Peter, and the rest of the biblical authors were dictaphones or computer processers for God. These days I sometimes take articles or sermons that I wrote out longhand and read them into my phone. It then transcribes what I say into digital text that I can print out from my computer.
There could be some comfort in thinking that God did it that way with the biblical authors, but if you look at the wide variety styles of writing in the Bible, you can tell instantly that this is not correct. Just comparing the styles of Isaiah and Paul, you can see differences in style, personalities, concerns, and much more. It really makes the consistent thread that runs through the Bible all the more amazing.
Last, some people who say that the Bible is “inspired” presume that they know what the Bible is going to say about a particular topic or perspective, and it will agree with them. Over and over, this has been shown to be incorrect. Believing Scripture to be “inspired,” filled with the breath, the Spirit of God, allows us to interact with it in a way that goes beyond any human system of thought.
Part of the wonder and diversity within the Bible is the consistency and unity of the core themes or threads within it. The Psalms teach us that we are allowed to get emotional with God whether in our adoration or in our despair and disappointment. The histories of the Older Testament show us that despite getting it wrong and turning our back on God time and time and time again, God will forgive us and save us over and over and over again. It shows us that there are consequences for our actions, but that God loves us so much that he will shield us from the worst and take it on himself. Through all of the diversity of styles from poetry to history to story to instruction and letters, God helps us to learn about new patterns, new ways to interact with the world, God’s creation, and the people in it. It teaches us about ourselves and how helpless we are without God. God rescues us again and again from our sin, the ways that we miss the mark, forgiving us and transforming us, so that we can be part of the new creation. Through the Breath of God in the Scriptures, we are given new life, just like Adam was given life (literally or figuratively) in the beginning.
That’s the kind of thing that Paul means about the Bible being “inspired.” Really, when you think about it, isn’t that an awesome thing? Even more amazing than the idea of the biblical writers being human transcription machines.
Why is understanding this important? For one thing, there are many within Christianity that use this “God breathed” and “inspired” language to try to control others. It is also used as a way to dismiss Scripture altogether. I was exposed to the human transcription explanation for a long time, and I found that I couldn’t take a religion that believed that was possible seriously. However, this interactive experience between God, the writer, and me is far more compelling. The more time you spend with the Bible, reading it, listening to it, learning it, interacting with it, the more you will see how important you are in the whole process. I’m afraid that merely having a copy of the Bible under your pillow, in your hand, or in your purse won’t do it. You cannot absorb the contents of the Bible through osmosis (though wouldn’t it be great if you could). Having the Bible in all of those places is a great start, but you actually have to interact with it for it to do any good.
Why is interacting with the Bible important? It is a way to interact with God, but even aside from that Paul tells us a couple of things. He says, “[It] is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17) It is a teaching tool, a training tool, for ourselves, and to help others. As important as that is, there is something even more. How can you tell if I’m teaching you, if what you’re hearing on the radio, seeing on tv, reading in a book is right if we are not familiar with the Bible, with God’s word?
Maybe you trust the person. Maybe you trust me. Of course, I want you to trust me, but there is a phrase from the Cold War, “Trust but verify.” It has been overused in the time since then and even inappropriately. Truthfully, I want you check out what I tell you for yourselves. If you feel that you don’t have the knowledge or background to do that, if it seems daunting, I have an opportunity for you. Starting in October, I would like to start a six weeks study called What Is the Bible? It gives a framework, a beginning. Maybe you have been exposed to the Bible all your life, but you really never understood. Maybe you think of it as something that you hear preachers quote. Maybe you think of it as something that others use to insult or hurt each other. Wouldn’t it be great to know what it really is? If you would be interested in finding out more about the Bible, please let me know was I try to schedule the exact meeting time.
Why was Paul so interested in making sure that people had all the information, that Timothy was using it to guide the people under his care, with great patience? Because people were already be drawn away listening to what they wanted to hear. We all do this. It’s natural. We think that our thoughts and ideas are the correct ones, and people who think differently are wrong.
Today, we have more opportunity than ever to have selective hearing. We can tune into the cable channels that present the news that makes the most sense to us. We can look at the websites that cater to our perspective, our prejudices, and our biases. These are not limited to any particular political party or philosophical perspective. We are naturally drawn to them, and we have to make a concerted effort to broaden what we hear, see, and consume.
This applies to spirituality as well. We have access to information about every spirituality imaginable. Lots of people pick and choose parts of different religions that they like or find intriguing. I like this Jesus guy, but I also appreciate some Buddhist perspectives. I like this idea from the Hindus, and I always read my horoscope because, who knows, it might be true, and you know that Virgos are supposed to analyze things. I’m going to put them all together into my own kind of religion.
It is a kind of smorgasbord spirituality. It can sound good on the surface, but what winds up happening is you don’t believe or follow anything. You blow with the wind, and you try the next new thing that comes along. It sounds interesting, intriguing. Maybe it won’t ask too much of you. Maybe it will allow you to stay just as you are. That’s the way God made you right? It’s got to be okay.
This actually is not new. The ancient Israelites did the same once they entered the Promised Land. They had promised, made a covenant, with God that they would worship God alone. It is the first command of the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Ex 20:3-6)
What was one of the first things the Israelites did when they settled in the land? They looked at the nations around them. They admired the culture and started making idols of those nations’ gods and worshiping them. Then they would be conquered by that nation. The Israelites would cry out to God, who would rescue them, and this happened over and over again. They would pick a part of this nation’s religion and something else from another country that God’s law got so watered down that they weren’t doing anything that resembled what God intended. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The end of the book of Judges describes a calamity of evil spiraling out of control as each person or group did what seemed reasonable and right in their own eyes from their perspective. It involved rape, murder, war, genocide, more rape, and murder. The last verse of Judges according to the Common English Bible ends this way, “In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right.” (Judges 21:25)
That could sound reasonable on the surface, but it leads us to hear only what we want to hear. It leads us only to listen to those who say what we like. In reality it is chaos. It is just me, or does the world sound more chaotic every day? People are just shouting at each other louder and louder. Rules of all sorts seem to have disappeared as individuals do what they thing is right.
As strange as it sounds rules can actually give us more freedom. As an example, let’s look at the rules of the road. They actually help us to get to places safely and efficiently. Some of the rules seems silly or shouldn’t seem to apply to us. Don’t raise your hands, but do you always come to a complete stop at a four-ways stop intersection in the middle of the night when there’s no one around? That’s hard rule to follow, right up until the time when someone coming from the other direction has the same idea, and you have a collision. But imagine what it would be like if everyone did what was right in their own eyes on the road at all times of the day. Sometimes we will encounter an individual who has this attitude now, speeding, passing in a no passing zone going around a curve. I wish that I could say that I only saw that once this week, but alas, no.
Back when I was a twinkle in my father’s eye, he was stationed in Iran. This was back in the 1960s. My mother was with him, and as I was growing up, they would describe some of the traffic that was typical there. To say that it was worse than Washington D.C. would be an understatement.
They lived in Tehran, a large modern city with lots and lots of cars and wide boulevards. The main roads might be up to eight lanes wide, four lanes in each direction. We in the United States would expect that. We would expect that to continue when reaching an intersection with a red light. In Tehran at that time, people would start filling in all the lanes. So, when the light turned green, you would not have four lanes going in each direction. You would have eight lanes of cars heading straight for each other. To Americans it seemed like a giant game of “chicken.” It seemed like chaos. Can you imagine?
The bottom line is that if we don’t know the rules of the road, our road with Jesus, the guidelines that God through God’s many servants shows us in the Bible, we won’t know what is right. We will be at risk to believe someone because it sounds good. If we want to follow God, the God who loves us, the God who sent his Son to rescue us, we don’t want to do what is merely right in our own eyes, we want to do what is right in God’s eyes. In a world where it seems like everyone is shouting at everyone else, it is something that can bring us God’s peace.