Sound Advice: A Reflection on 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

One of the most-quoted literary works of the twentieth-century is not a novel, a poem, or a play, but something that wasn’t supposed to be ‘literature’ at all. I’m talking about the collection of personal letters written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, published in 1929 as Letters to a Young Poet. In these letters, Rilke provides advice to a young man questioning whether he has what it takes to be a writer. They are full of wit and wisdom, as he generously coaches or mentors the youth in not just the craft of writing but more importantly in the craft of living. The New Testament epistle known as 2 Timothy purports to be a similar type of writing: the established apostle Paul’s words of wisdom to his young apprentice Timothy. Today I’d like to explore the particularly helpful section of the letter that the lectionary assigns to today, which tackles the big question of authority in teaching and theology.

The passage starts off with an instruction about what would later be called ‘tradition’: “As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it …..” There is no learning apart from the teacher-learner relationship, and in that sense we are all traditioned. While in this case, since the teacher was an Apostle, specifically chosen and instructed by God to spread the Gospel, this appeal is to divine authority, the principle applies just as easily to any of us. We don’t come to life or Scripture as blank slates, so no matter who our teachers were and are, we need to remember them and their influence. When I look at the teachers who have most shaped me, whether those I’ve been taught by in person or through their writing, I see that they all had difficult lives, filled with uncertainty and suffering and which required real courage. This means that their thought has all been through the refiner’s fire and come out the other side stronger and purer for it. I feel comfortable and confident then in remembering ‘from whom I learned’ the faith.

The text continues by discussing the roles of Scripture: “ …from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” This is both the clearest and most confounding text in our Scriptures about the nature and role of the Bible. No matter what one believes about Scripture and how it should be interpreted and applied, one can base that belief on this text! But even with that in mind, we can say that the primary role of Scripture according to this text is to lead us to the kind of faith (that reciprocal relationship of trust and trustworthiness) that ‘saves’ us — that is, which brings us to a place of spiritual health and safety. It is therefore a helpful aide in teaching, correction, and training in righteousness, or justice.

Faithfulness is therefore the primary goal of Scripture, and it looks like “everyone who belongs to God be[ing] proficient, equipped for every good work.” The word translated ‘proficient’ here means something like ‘perfectly fit to the job’; it is for example used for stones shaped to be fit together in a building, or to refer to children all grown up and ready to take on their adult responsibilities. (It’s therefore very reminiscent of the section in Ephesians on growing up in the faith.) The job in question is that catch-all term, ‘good works’ — actions that bear the good fruit of the Spirit, like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and more. Again we see that what is in mind, even for reading the Bible, is not gaining intellectual knowledge, but gaining proficiency in a lifestyle that blesses others.

In his leadership role, Timothy is to persist in proclaiming the Good News, no matter the circumstances: “For the time is coming,” the text continues:

when people will not put up with healthy instruction, 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.

The difficulty with a text like this is that we are all prone to using it to point fingers at those who disagree with us, as evidence that it has come to pass, instead of focusing on ourselves. But we would do better to use it as a call for our own continual repentance and reassessment in light of the Gospel. Does the teaching we follow make us “proficient” and direct us towards actions that produce good fruit in the world for others? Does it make us more loving? Kinder? Gentler? More joyous? More in control of ourselves and our impulses? Or does it make us stingy and judgmental? Afraid? Angry? Does it justify our doing whatever we want in the moment, regardless of the consequences for ourselves and others?

To focus on a different part of the teaching, do we jump from teacher to teacher, or do we stay the course? Do we collect spiritual books, or do we apply them? Do we attend conferences or workshops because they make us feel good, or in order to legitimately change the way we live?

There is wisdom here for all of us. And, in the areas where our relationship to spirituality and instruction is not bearing good fruit in us for the sake of others, we must repent and start anew.

In a lot of ways, this section of 2 Timothy mirrors the very different advice Rilke gave his young friend. Both tear away the veil of outward appearances and checklists to the spirit the lies beneath — whether the life of a poet, or the life of a Christian. There is a lot of sound advice here, and so I’ll leave you today with the questions our text raised for its recipient:

  • Who are your teachers? What did they teach you and why?
  • Does your reading of the Scriptures direct you towards a changed, other-oriented lifestyle?
  • Does the teaching you follow produce the fruit of the Spirit in you?
  • Do you let new teachings sink in and permeate your life before jumping to the next ones?

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