The Bible in a time of change — 2 Timothy 3. What is the place of the Bible in the life of the church?

19 Aug

(This is the transcript of my Sunday night sermon, which comes from a variety of sources. Special mention to Dr. James Thompson). 

If we judged from the number of copies sold, the Bible would still have to be counted the most influential book in the world.  Portions of Scripture have been translated into over 1,750 languages.  New translations continue to be published because people continue to buy Bibles. The Bible and books about the Bible outnumber any other field in publishing. It was not surprising to me to know just a few months ago that more Bible are printed in China than in any other country!

This is a good sign, of course.  But to say that the Bible is a best seller is not to say that it is actually being read, for the Bible has a number of functions.  It may have a symbolic and central place in our church buildings or in our homes.  It may be used as a good luck charm, as if its mere presence could keep away evil.  It may belong to our collection of great books, and we may treat it with respect. We may regard it as many people regard Shakespeare—as a treasure from the past.  But does anyone really read it?bibleclasses

What is the place of the Bible in the life of the church?  On the surface, the answer is obvious enough: The church recognizes the inspiration and authority of the Bible for its life and practice.  The Bible is the basis for    preaching, Christian education, and private devotion. While no one has directly challenged these convictions, one may wonder if our actual practice is consistent with our stated belief about the Bible.

The Bible and Its Competition

The fact is, the Bible faces very stiff competition for our time.  To treat it with respect is far easier than actually to read it.  Besides that, the Bible is a very old book, and we live in a time when we are overwhelmed by information and entertainment that appear to be far more relevant than the Bible. 

We face, in the first place, the extraordinary challenge of the electronic media.  This challenge is so great that some have described our era as the beginning of an entirely new age when the printed page is eclipsed by the electronic revolution. 

Television images relayed by satellite from around the world bring war and famine into our living rooms.  Through cable television many of us may choose our entertainment from more than fifty options each evening–from high culture to mindless situation comedies.  Our computer screens will also bring images from countless alternatives into our homes.  We can be surrounded every waking hour by news, music, and information from the electronic media.

This revolution in the media has changed our lives and, in many instances, has brought improvements to the way we live.  Communication advances have produced the “global village” in which we are able to communicate around the world, bringing isolated populations into contact with the rest of the world.  Missionaries in distant lands employ the electronic media to remain in constant contact with their home churches, and advances in learning once reserved for the great institutions are now available worldwide.

As helpful as this revolution may be, it has left us with at least two major unsolved problems.  In the first place, this electronic explosion has produced “information overload,” leaving us overwhelmed by its sheer volume and unable to make good choices. 

In the second place, this quantity of information may omit the very thing a civilization needs most: that which makes better people. None of the available choices may actually create more wholesome lives.

We should also mention that entertainment is a strong competition. Many Christians choose to allow their entertainment choices to take ‘first place’ rather than attend worship and classes where the Scriptures are being taught.

Educational Options from the Past

When Paul wrote 2 Timothy, the church was faced with a variety of teachers.  In 2 Timothy 3:1-5 Paul offers a depressing portrayal of the moral condition which will invade the church “in the last days” (3: 1).  When we read the entirety of the Pastoral Epistles, we recognize that these “last days” have already begun for the church and the community is now involved in a struggle to preserve its identity against these false teachers. 

The danger to the church will be seen in the decadent moral conditions that will invade from the outside as the worst excesses of pagan culture infiltrate the body of believers.  People will be “lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to parents, … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (3:2-4).  Paul anticipates a time when all of the character building that accompanies  “sound teaching” will be endangered in a church that reflects the worst of pagan morality.

The danger to the church is especially acute because the influx of corrupted ethics will come not from marginal Christians who are not fully transformed, but from those who “have a form of godliness” (3:5).  The danger will come from teachers!  The danger is magnified by the fact that the teachers will have eager listeners. 

As the teachers “sneak in” from house to house, they will take advantage of the most vulnerable people in the church.  The women of Paul’s day were especially vulnerable, perhaps because of the differences in education between men and women in the ancient world.  Thus the false teachers will “take captive weak women, burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses, who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (3:6-7).

Paul sees, therefore, a church where “education” is taking place.  The problem, of course, is that the education is destructive to character and morality.  Unlike the “sound” or “healthy” teaching that produces healthy lives, this form of education will destroy the moral character of the church.

Preparation for the Educational Ministry

How can we address the challenges posed by education that destroys more than it edifies?  Paul’s warnings in 2 Timothy 3:1-9 were not intended to reduce the church to despair over its future, for this warning was only the prelude to his instructions for meeting the challenge in 2 Timothy 3:10-17.  Deliverance for the church under siege, Paul knew, was a well-equipped leader who could offer an alternative to the polluted teachings that were invading the church.  Only the teacher who had received the proper education could meet that challenge. Timothy was that leader.

What is the proper education for the Christian teacher?  In 2 Timothy 3:14 Paul offers a compelling definition of Christian education when he says, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and  have firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it… .” Timothy’s preparation was two dimensional: he could recall “what he had learned”; but “what he had learned” could not be divorced from those “from whom he had learned.” Legitimate preparation had both a personal and an intellectual dimension.

Timothy was asked to recall those “from whom he had learned” because Christian instruction is never limited to the mere transmission of information.  We learn the Christian faith when we see how it has shaped the lives of our teachers.  We may learn higher mathematics without asking how it has shaped the character of the teachers, but the lifestyle of Christ cannot be transmitted devoid of its effect on the lives of its advocates. 

Timothy’s teacher was Paul, and his education included more than academic lectures.  “Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness… ” (2 Tim. 3:10). just as Jesus had equipped his disciples for service with his call to follow him, Timothy has followed Paul in his ministry. 

Timothy had seen the price which Paul had been willing to pay for his convictions.  He had discovered from Paul’s imprisonments and beatings that “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).  He had also seen in Paul’s conduct the alternative to the decadent morality of other teachers (2 Tim. 3:1-9).

According to 3:15, Timothy had been learning “from infancy.  ” Timothy could not recall a time when the faith had not been regularly communicated.  Where the Christian faith is passed on effectively today, the same combination of factors is likely to be present as in the education of Timothy. 

Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:14 remind us that good teaching requires more than good models.  The modeling is meaningless without the content of learning. What Timothy had learned from childhood were “the holy Scriptures.” Long before the printing press made printed Bibles available in every home, Timothy learned “the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:15).  He was now especially equipped to teach the church because he had been educated for the task before him.

All Scripture Is Inspired

What Timothy learned “from childhood” remains the answer for a church in transition.  To a church facing numerous educational options, Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (3:16- 17). 

Scripture is the only source for “teaching, correcting and training in righteousness,” and it is the only  source which is capable of “equipping a person to every good work.” What had nourished Timothy “from infancy” is the only source for the church’s continuing health.  Whereas the false teachers were known for their decadent behavior (2 Tim. 3:1-9), Scripture provides the alternative that will result in healthy lives.

Paul’s words about the Scriptures were actually a reference to our Old Testament, for these were the writings   which Timothy had known “from infancy.” However, we   may apply his words appropriately to the entire Bible, for the New Testament writers were also conscious of writing on God’s behalf.  Therefore what Paul says of the “sacred   writings” which Timothy had known can also be said for our entire Bible: they, and only they, are useful “for teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness.  “

Paul adds ‘encouragement’  in 2 Timothy 4:2. IF we are not using ALL of these in our teaching, we are not using Scripture correctly. Rebuking and correction are often necessary.

Although few today will challenge Paul’s words directly, our actual practice may indicate that we are not convinced of the indispensability of Scripture.  One may wonder if Paul’s words are actually believed when the spiritual nutrition of the church consists of little actual reflection on the words of Scripture. 

If we take seriously Paul’s words, we will recognize that education is vital for the continuing health of the church.  However, as Paul’s experience indicates, some forms of learning can be no better than “junk food,” and other forms can be overtly destructive to the health of the church.  The church that meets the challenges of its time ensures that its education is based on the direct encounter with Scripture.

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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Sermon


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