Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross
Paul’s days as a free man are behind him, and he is awaiting execution (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Yet, his pen has not been silenced and he spends his last days encouraging a young preacher he has mentored and trained. He repeatedly calls Timothy “my son” (2 Tim. 1:2; 2:1; Phil. 2:22; 1 Tim. 1:2; 1:18). Especially in this, the last of his letters, Paul seems to reveal a sense of urgency in revealing practical wisdom to help his young protege to productively serve Christ Jesus (2:1,3,8,10). He likens the work to soldiering (2:3-4), competing as an athlete (2:5), and farming (2:6). He points to how God renders aid and assistance to His faithful proclaimers (2:7-13).
Faithful proclamation of the truth is also something that is proven by taking the proper approach to the task. Paul is concerned about unfaithful men being entrusted with the stewardship of teaching others (cf. 2:2,14-26). Timothy is told to remind them and solemnly charge them “not to” do certain things (14) and to “avoid” (16) and “refuse” (23) certain traps that they could potentially fall into as teachers.
It seems that as we consider the visceral, virulent tack taken by voices of influence within our culture to any number of matters–politics, race, morality, religion, education, etc.–the church, tragically, has at times emulated that tack in our dealings with one another. Whereas Paul described it more as “biting and devouring” when addressing the churches of Galatia (5:13), he is extremely concerned that such a spirit has caught hold with some in Timothy’s circle of influence. Therefore, he warns the young preacher against three traps that those tasked with preaching and teaching the gospel fall into. They are still potent and existent today.
TRAP ONE: WRANGLING ABOUT WORDS (2 Tim. 2: 14)
Paul had warned Timothy about this trap in his first letter to him. He writes in 1 Timothy 6:4 about those advocating a different doctrine, including having “a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words….” (NAS, emph., NP). The inspired Paul does more than diagnose the problem. He addresses root causes like conceit, ignorance, envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction (4-5). He diagnoses the condition of such teachers, calling them “men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth” (5). To these, religion is simply a way to make money (5).
Now, in this second epistle, Paul warns of additional harm done by such wrangling about words (14). It does not serve a good, edifying purpose and it actually tears down. It’s useless and ruinous.
How might we fall into that trap in the 21st Century and in the current climate? Social media is a major culprit, where people–often laboring under the guise of defense or promotion of the gospel–mercilessly criticize what others post. What motivates such contrariness? According to Paul, it could things like conceit, ignorance, envy, etc.
Teachers and preachers might have or develop a reputation for being a gunslinger, ready to fight and argue about anything big or small. Watch or listen to their sermons and classes, and you can be fairly certain that this kind of wrangling will happen. No doubt, the gospel is adequately provocative and offensive to the sensitivities of the heart-hearted or ungodly, but God’s Word doesn’t need “help” from us through crude, sarcastic, mean-spirited attitudes and vocabulary. If we offend, let it be God’s Word presented in love rather than our vicious, sharp-tongued barbs.
TRAP TWO: WORLDLY AND EMPTY CHATTER (2 Tim. 2:16)
Again, this is a theme in Paul’s writing to Timothy. He actually warns against the profane or worldly three times in the first epistle. The law is for the “profane” (1:9; same word). He is told to have nothing to do with “worldly” fables fit only for old women (4:7; same word). Then, Paul closes warning him to avoid “worldly” and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called knowledge (6:20; same word). To define what Paul means, just look at the results. Such teaching leads to further ungodliness, spreads like cancer, and upsets the faith of some (16-18). It included claims and teaching that was outright false, in this case asserting that the resurrection had already occurred.
It can be hard to resist worldly and empty chatter in a world full of it. Our culture can get fascinated with vacuous, fruitless things from the latest trends, ideas, and causes célèbres. We consume all our time and energy on matters that ultimately will not matter. We need to examine what we teach and preach. Does it lead the worldly further down that road? Does it undermine their faith in God and His will? Whether we do that through being a devil’s advocate or encouraging wickedness (19), we do it at our own peril in addition to the peril of those who listen and follow us.
TRAP THREE: FOOLISH AND IGNORANT SPECULATIONS (2 Tim. 2:23)
These may be connected to the youthful lusts Paul has just mentioned (22) or the quarrelsomeness he is about to warn Timothy about (24). “Speculations,” depending on context, can refer to the noble act of searching for information and investigating (Acts 15:2,7; 25:20). But, almost entirely in the New Testament, it refers to matters for dispute or engagement in a controversial discussion (Arndt, et all, 429). It involves a clash of opinions (Kittel 300).
With the call for faith in matters of doctrine sufficiently divisive, what a tragedy when people of influence in the Bible leverage that authority by dividing brethren over what, when boiled down, is nothing more than opinion, speculation, and conjecture. Romans 14 makes clear that not everything is a matter of faith. Christian living necessarily involves judgment calls, and we fall into a trap to confuse either for the other. While a world is dying lost without hope, can we afford to devolve into debates over things that do not, of themselves, affect the salvation, the work, the worship, or the nature of the church?
The beautiful thing about Paul’s sobering words is that for each trap, there is an escape. More than an escape, it is a healthy, fruitful alternative. What is the escape for “wrangling about words”? A diligent, hard-working handling of the word of truth (15). What is the antidote for “worldly and empty chatter”? The firm foundation of God (20) and the proper preparation of self for every good work (19-21). What is the alternative to “foolish and ignorant speculations”? Labor as the Lord’s bond-servant, being “kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness corrections those who are in opposition” (24-25a).
The world is watching and we who teach, in whatever format on whatever platform, incur an especially strict judgment (Jas. 3:1). What a privilege to get to share Jesus with the lost and our brethren! As we do, let’s be aware of these teaching landmines. They are not necessary to effectively represent God; instead, they serve the opposite. Be on the lookout for how to please our neighbor for his good and edification (Rom. 15:2).
Arndt, William et al. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature 2000 : 429. Print.
Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 1985 : 300. Print.