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Crisis of the Word or A Message to Pastors and Would-Be Pastors (2 Timothy 2:15)

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This message was originally given in chapel at Dallas Seminary on March 11, 1997. It has been modified slightly so as to be shared with a wider audience.


It is said that the last words of a dying man are often his most significant. The imminent prospect of death has a way of galvanizing a man's thoughts and of sharpening his focus.

Even verbose folks—those with the gift of gab—can hone in on the key issues and can state succinctly what really matters to them. In this respect, my wife has intimated that she looks forward to the day I die! For I will, finally, irrevocably, and quickly get to the bottom line. After all, someone who writes an 800-page book and calls it an intermediate anything does not have the gift of brevity!

One of my favorite stories of dying words involves one Thomas Bilney.1 Bilney was an early sixteenth-century Englishman, a graduate (like our beloved Dr. Harold Hoehner) of Cambridge University who—in spite of this—fell in love with his Lord and marveled at the face of Jesus in the Scriptures. Like Luther was doing in Germany, Bilney was speaking out against indulgences, Mariolatry, and the worship of saints. The exaltation of God and not that of saints was his Credo. He was instrumental in bringing Hugh Latimer, the great English Reformer, to a saving knowledge of Christ. But let Latimer tell the story:2

. . . Bilney was the instrument whereby God called me to knowledge. For I may thank him, next to God, for that knowledge that I have in the word of God. I was as obstinate a Papist as any in England; insomuch that when I should be made bachelor of divinity, my whole oration went against Philip Melancthon, and against his opinions. Bilney heard me at that time, and perceived that I was zealous without knowledge, and came to me afterwards in my study, and desired me, for God's sake, to hear his confession. I did so: and, to tell the truth, by his confession I learned more than I had in all my years of study. So from that time forward I began to smell [the sweet savor of] the word of God. . . . "

Years later, Bilney was burned at the stake, as Latimer put it, "for God's word's sake." As the flames were rising around him, licking his flesh and disfiguring his appearance, Thomas Bilney could be heard crying out but two words: "Jesus! Credo! Jesus! Credo!"

At his death, he was a man of few words. Those two summed up his life well.

The New Testament does not record what the apostle Paul said in his last moments on earth. But we do have what is probably his last written communication, a letter to a friend and confidant. Paul's second letter to Timothy is the apostle's swan song, the final instructions of a man who knew he was about to die. In the context of a theological seminary, it is hard to overestimate the importance of such a book. Timothy was Paul's delegate, an ambassador of the gospel. That sacred deposit of truth—the παραθήκη—was passed on to him. And Timothy, in turn, was to pass it on to faithful stewards, among whom we wish to be counted. In a very real sense, what Paul says to Timothy, Paul says to us.

Overview of Instructions in 2 Timothy:
Focus on Word and Scripture

By my count, there are twenty-seven explicit commands given in the body of this letter. In 27 words Paul tells pastors what to focus on. You have to be blind to miss the thrust of Paul's instructions here, because eighteen of those commands—fully two-thirds—have to do with the ministry of the Word.

Listen, for a moment, to some of Paul's instructions:

1:13-14: "Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; (14) guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us."

2:1-2: "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, (2) and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others also."

3:16-17 "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, (17) that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."

And, of course, the Seminary motto:

4:2: "preach the word—κήρυξον τὸν λόγον!—be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching."

2 Timothy 2:15

We would do well simply to read and reflect on these texts. But I want to focus today on one passage, and spend a brief time there with you. Turn to 2 Timothy 2:15:

(2:15) "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth."

This command is set against the backdrop of false teachers. In v 14 Paul tells Timothy to avoid "word-battles" that only ruin the hearers. In vv 16-18, false teachers had said that the resurrection of believers had already come. And their godless chatter was eating away at their audience like gangrene! Make no mistake: 2 Timothy 2:15 is a crucial text for those who would be ministers of the gospel. It pays big dividends for us to look at it in some depth.

"Be diligent"

Paul begins with the aorist imperative, σπούδασον, variously translated "be diligent," "be eager," "make every effort." The term usually implies both sustained effort and deep-rooted, serious, ethical motivation.3 We could almost translate it, "Make this your highest priority," or "Pour yourself into this task."

The King James here reads "Study to show [yourself] approved." This gloss has been criticized as an inaccurate translation of the verb σπουδάζω. For one thing, σπουδάζω is not restricted to mere study. It involves the whole person—heart, soul, and mind. Secondly, to translate this verb as "study" implies that the "word of truth" is a synonym for Scripture. Most likely, however, "word of truth" refers to the good news of Jesus Christ which Paul had passed on to Timothy in oral instruction.

Nevertheless, the King James Version should be defended here, for the word "study" in 1611 English meant very much what our idiomatic "pour yourself into this task" suggests. Only in later English usage did "study" take on a strictly cognitive sense.4 But since the word has changed in its meaning, it communicates something quite different from what Paul intended.

Ironically, just as the meaning of "study" has changed, so has the application of this text. Thus, the King James rendering as "study" affords a pretty decent application of σπουδάζω. That's because the good news has been passed on to us in written form. We can't call up Paul and say, "Paul, what do you mean by this expression?" Timothy could do that, but we can't. Further, Timothy spoke the same language as Paul; we only pretend to. Timothy was Paul's traveling companion; they shared the same Jewish background, had invaded the same Gentile culture, and witnessed the same miracles.

We have none of this in common with Paul. We are removed by twenty centuries, we speak a different language, do not live in the same culture or continent; we do not come from the same background. For us to grasp the full intent of Paul's message, that sacred deposit, that παραθήκη, requires—absolutely requires—diligent study. Even Peter had a difficult time with Paul; in 2 Peter 3:16 he complained, "There are some things in [Paul's letters] that are hard to understand." If this was so with Peter, then it's also so with us. We neglect the study of the Word not only to our own peril, but also to that of our hearers.

"to present yourself approved to God"

Paul goes on with the focus of this diligence: "present yourself approved to God." The adjective "approved" is the Greek word δόκιμος. It has the connotation both of being tested and of passing the test. In other words, this process takes time. When used of silver, the phrase means "legal tender"—i.e., genuine silver with no filler. It is sometimes used of the refining of gold through fire. The fire burns off the dross so that only the pure gold remains. If we truly present ourselves to God, we can be assured that he will slowly, but surely, burn the dross away. All that remains is the authentic person that God has been fashioning in Christ.

Paul constantly harps on this theme in all his letters: Our primary objective in life is to live for an audience of One. It is very easy to miss this. We tend to fail in one of two ways. First, we may present just our minds to God. But that's not what the Scripture says; we must present ourselves. Dallas Seminary has a long history of men and women who have come through these hallowed halls only to know the Word better and to feel terribly distant from God himself when they graduate. In short, a large element in the history of this school is that we have prided ourselves on presenting our minds—and nothing else—to God. Holiness has become optional as long as we know the Word.

This caricature is, of course, not true of everyone. But it has been true of a lot of graduates, too countless to name. And it has been true of me. Five years ago, God in his grace sent me a wake-up call when one of my children was inflicted with cancer. I shall be forever grateful to my sovereign Lord, not just for saving Andy's life, but mine as well.

In the last few years, a different trend has been taking place. There is a sense of God's presence on this campus that was long overdue. Students and faculty alike are grappling with the tough issues of life, not just the tough issues of exegesis and theology. We have even put the Holy Spirit back into the Trinity! All this is healthy.

But there's an unhealthy component here, too. For a variety of reasons—overreaction to the Dallas Seminary of yesterday, the influence of postmodernism, whatever—the Scriptures are increasingly becoming marginalized in our thinking. It's as if we have decided that exegesis must be a bad thing because we know too many good exegetes who are spiritual casualties. But the antidote is not to take back our minds and give God only our hearts!

We know God through his Word. If we marginalize the Word, we marginalize God. And this is the second way in which we may fail Paul's command here, for he says, "Present yourself approved to God." Friends, the single most disturbing thing I see on this campus today is the rampant anthropocentrism. It manifests itself in various ways. Let me offer you some of the tests. Ask yourself these questions:

What was my goal in coming to seminary? Is it to get through here as fast as I can because I think God needs me in ministry?

What courses do I take while here? Those that will prepare me best, or those that will enhance my GPA?

What is my motivation when I study? Is it as an act of worship to my God, or is it to impress my professor?

When I teach or preach, am I more concerned that what I say preaches well, or that it is true? Am I afraid to speak my convictions because I seek the approval of people more than of God?

Am I more concerned about how fast my church will grow, or about how will grow?5

A major key to spiritual maturity is this: I must make the progressively Copernican discovery that I am not the center of the universe. The fundamental component in sanctification must be a doxological and Christocentric focus. If we don't begin to make that adjustment now, the Church of the twenty-first century will reap the harvest of our narcissism.

Paul tells us that we are to present ourselves, our whole selves, to God. We must long for his approval and no one else's.

"a workman who has no need to be ashamed"

The apostle continues on with a description of the person approved by God. He is a workman who has no need to be ashamed. He is unashamed because he knows that God approves of his work, regardless of what anyone else thinks of it. The imagery of a workman is not particularly flattering. Paul is not speaking here of a craftsman, an eloquent speaker, or high-paid professional. Indeed, the word "workman"—ἐργάτης—is most often used of an agricultural laborer, a grape-picker. The imagery here is not that of great skill, but of deep integrity. The workman does not need to be ashamed because he's put in an honest day's work. This is what God requires of us: our greatest ability is our availability.

"rightly handling the word of truth"

The apostle concludes his description of the diligent pastor with the adjectival participial construction, ὀρθοτομοῦντα τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας: "rightly handling the word of truth." There has been a long debate over the meaning of the participle. By its etymology, we could say that it means "cutting true," or "cutting straight." The word is a New Testament hapax legomenon. Further, we have only two instances of it before the New Testament, both in the LXX. In both places it refers to cutting a straight path, but, unlike 2 Timothy 2:15, the word "path" (ὁδός) is used each time).

When you have such a rare word, you can count on no end to the speculation in the commentaries! Parry says it refers to a mason cutting the bricks according to an accurate template. Now this can preach! Our message should be faithful to the original. The problem is, there is no shred of evidence to support this view. Calvin suggested that the word referred to a father cutting pieces of bread to give to his children. This, too, preaches well, but is based on thin air. I've looked at a dozen commentaries on this verse and found 17 different opinions!

However we want to slice this word up [pardon the pun!], two things should be noted about ὀρθοτομέω: (1) At bottom, Paul is saying, "Handle the word properly," "take care in handling the word." (2) If our debates get too heated over the meaning of this term—or any term or theological concept that is not clearly articulated—6 or if we get overly dogmatic when we have insufficient evidence, then we become the very persons that Paul criticizes in the previous verse—those who argue endlessly about words!

The last phrase in this verse is much easier to understand. What the diligent and faithful workman is to handle is the word of truth. This is the gospel message. Paul here speaks of the message as truth because this verse is set against the backdrop of false teachers. These false teachers are those who peddle the word for profit. They lack courage because they are living for the wrong audience. They tickle the ears with entertaining and flattering speech. They are more interested in making people laugh than in showing people their sins. Courage and truth go hand in glove. If you lack courage, you will not pursue the truth.

Quite frankly, the Church today is filled with workmen who have every reason to be ashamed. They have not grappled with the meaning of the text and hence they have not grappled with God's revealed will. They come to the Bible with their own prejudices and never adjust their life because they never see the truth.

You might think that I'm not speaking to you. You say, "I'm insulated from that error. After all, I know Greek and Hebrew." In reality, those who know the biblical languages are in the greatest danger of abusing Scripture. Friend, such knowledge is a profound trust. By the time you get out of this place, you will know enough Greek and Hebrew to manipulate the text and justify your preconceived notions. And if you don't log serious time in God's word, in a breathless pursuit of truth, submitting your life to what you learn before you speak to others, your congregation will pay the price, and it will be a very dear price indeed.

Concluding Principles

I would like to conclude this message by summarizing four principles from this passage.

(1) First is the principle of intellectual diligence. The pastorate is no picnic! It takes hard work. Yet every Sunday, throughout this country, thousands of ill-prepared sermons are delivered in evangelical churches. Prof. Hendricks used to say, "If there's a mist in the pulpit, there's a fog in the pew." I wonder what he would say now? Today, there's a fog in the pulpit! And in the pew? Biblical illiteracy in epidemic proportions and down-right anti-Christian thinking.

Why is that? Why is the Word of God treated so cavalierly today in most churches? And why is our engagement with culture so equally superficial? Our sermons rarely rise above the issues of suburbia and soccer moms. As Frankie Schaeffer put it, Christians are addicted to mediocrity. Why? Part of the answer surely is our lack of willingness to engage our minds in the service of Christ. Because thinking is hard work. But we dare not neglect it. Seventeen years ago, an eastern Orthodox man, Charles Malick, put it succinctly7:

The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. . . . People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the Gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years . . . in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated to the enemy.

. . . For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for [your] own sakes, . . . Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.

(2) Second is the principle of a theocentric focus. We should come to the task of our studies with a sense of delight, of awe. Eighty years ago, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield gave a memorable chapel message at Princeton Seminary. He reminded his students to make each day count, for they would not long be in this place. He reminded them that all of their studies must be offered up as an act of worship to God, that the place they were standing on was holy ground.

Any time we take our eyes off Christ, any time we do less than study for the glory of Christ and Christ alone, we will drown in the task. You take your eyes off Christ in this place and the waves of yiqtols and tiqtols and pluperfects and supralapsarianism and exegetical papers will simply bury you! But if you delight in him, and believe that the sovereign God knew full well what you were getting into when you came here, then your work here will be a joyful offering of praise, and in due time it will yield a harvest.

(3) Third, there is no intrinsic dichotomy between our hearts and minds. We are to offer to God the whole person. For the minister of the Word, holiness is not an option. But neither is knowledge. I heard just this weekend, at church, someone say, "I'd rather know a dozen verses and obey them than the whole Bible and do nothing with it." My question is, Why do we have to choose? We should neither put a premium on ignorance nor on disobedience. Further, the Bible is not just about behavior modification; it is also about belief modification. And what I believe—if I truly believe it—will affect my behavior.

A couple of things are significant along these lines. First, Jesus never condemned the religious leaders of his day for knowing the Bible too well, but for not believing it enough. Indeed, there were occasions when he chided them for not knowing the Scriptures well enough (cf., e.g., John 3:10: "You are the teacher of Israel and yet you do not know these things?"). Second, the great martyrs of the faith died, by and large, for their beliefs, not for their behavior. To be sure, their behavior conformed to their beliefs (for the most part), but they suffered martyrdom because of their convictions.

(4) Fourth and finally, the minister of the Word must be engaged in the breathless pursuit of truth. Whatever else "rightly handling the word of truth" means, it involves a commitment to the gospel message. Christ must be central in our teaching and our thinking. Quite frankly, if our study of Scripture does not make us uncomfortable on a fairly regular basis, then we are not really, wholeheartedly, pursuing truth.


What will be your dying words? Will they be the gasping confession of a workman who is ashamed? Or will they be like Thomas Bilney's swan song, "Jesus! Credo!"

1 See his brief life in John Fox, Book of Martyrs (Liverpool: Nuttall, Fisher, & Dixon, 1807) 1.485-94.

2 Martyrs, 1.490-91. A few items have been changed to smooth out the English. In particular, "I had in all my years of study" is, in reality, "before in many years."

3 Harder in TDNT 7.559-68.

4 See Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "study."

5 Church growth leaders nowadays are often saying that the fastest way to grow a church is to make it homogeneous. For example, grow the church in the suburbs among white, upper to middle class, well-educated folks. This may be the fastest way to grow a church, but it is decidedly not the best way, for it is thoroughly unbiblical. One of the hallmarks of the church is supposed to be its heterogenous nature. If we continue to isolate social groups and keep them separated from one another, there will continue to be skepticism among non-believers about whether anything supernatural is taking place within our walls.

6 This points out the need for a taxonomy of doctrine. Evangelicals, especially of the dispensational stripe, tend not to major on the majors as they should. We tend to huddle around minor, less clear eschatological points as though they are just as clear as the major tenets of Scripture. It is imperative that we hold to a hierarchy of doctrines and place our Christology and soteriology in the center, and certain elements of eschatology near the periphery.

7 Quoted in Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 26.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Teaching the Bible

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