TEXTS: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 and Luke 18:1-8
All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:15-16)
So Paul wrote to Timothy—his friend, his pupil, his fellow-worker for the cause of Christ. Now, Timothy is an interesting character.
The son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father, Timothy was a native of Lystra, a town in Galatia, in modern-day Turkey. He probably became a Christian when Paul came through Lystra on his first missionary journey. His mother also became a Christian, although exactly when is unclear.
The Bible tells us that Timothy was a young man, and also that he was rather timid by nature. Nevertheless, Paul must have seen some leadership qualities in Timothy, and he encouraged his young friend to develop them.
Paul included Timothy in his group of missionaries, an apprenticeship that eventually led to Timothy becoming a leader of the Christians in Ephesus (some say he was in fact the bishop of that city). In today’s epistle reading, Paul’s words of encouragement to Timothy are forceful and bold. He says: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort … be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Tim. 4:2, 5)
That’s challenging advice for someone who was by nature neither forceful nor bold! Where would Timothy find the wisdom and the courage to “reprove, rebuke, exhort,” and “do the work of an evangelist?” Paul has already answered that question : “… continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (3:14-15)
All the courage and wisdom Timothy needs, according to Paul, can be found in the “sacred writings”—the Hebrew Scriptures which Timothy learned on his mother’s knee. And then Paul adds this: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the [servant] of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (3:16-17).
“All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Inspired by God, in other words. The study of Scripture, Paul says, is invaluable for the purpose of teaching, and correcting, and training disciples to be “competent” and “equipped for every good work.”
“All Scripture is inspired by God.” When Paul wrote those words, he could not have anticipated the controversy they would provoke amongst future generations of Christians. Nor, perhaps, would he have imagined that before long his own writings would be considered Holy Writ. For Paul (as for Timothy) the “Scriptures” consisted of the Torah—the books of the Law—and the writings of the Hebrew prophets. The New Testament did not yet exist, and while the apostolic letters were respected and read out loud in worship, they were likely not regarded as inspired Scripture. Not yet, anyway. No matter. They would be considered scriptural soon enough. And so, when Paul wrote what he did about Scripture being “breathed by God,” he started a controversy that has dogged the church for centuries: what do we mean when we say that Scripture is “inspired?”
How do scholars answer that question? Some say the Biblical authors had a sophisticated understanding of how to communicate truth through story-telling. To be sure, Jesus of Nazareth was a master of this craft. Consider his words from today’s gospel lesson (for Proper 24, Ordinary 29, Year C).
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”
In order to understand Jesus’ teaching about prayer in the parable about the widow and the unjust judge, it’s not necessary to believe that Jesus was speaking about factual events in the lives of real people whom he had met.
Indeed, the parable itself is almost certainly fictional—a teaching story, or sermon illustration. But that hardly matters, does it? Its teachings about God, and about perseverance … these are the truths Jesus wanted to tell.
Certain scholars have a view of inspiration that does not depend upon God having dictated every word of Scripture for the human authors to record. They argue that the biblical writers reported events and presented ideas as best they could—often incorporating insights that became clear to them only after the passage of time.
Others insist that there is no metaphor in the Bible—that every word of Scripture is literally and historically true, coming straight from the mouth of God to the pen of the inspired writer. They feel that, unless every verse of the Bible is inerrant, none of it can be trusted!
This latter type of reasoning can be dangerous—not only to your credibility, but also to your health! Consider what you might be led into if you take literally these words of Jesus, recorded in the final chapter of Mark’s Gospel:
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them …” (Mark 16:17-18).
Or even this advice from Jesus, from the fifth chapter of Matthew: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt. 5:29-30).
Jesus of Nazareth was a powerful speaker who loved to use hyperbole and exaggeration—and even absurdity and sarcasm—to make his point. Probably, this was part of his charisma, and the people who flocked to hear him certainly knew his reputation. In any event, there’s no record of any of Jesus’ hearers gouging out their own eyes or chopping off their own hands! But they surely understood the point he was trying to make: “If anything is an obstacle to your faith in God—no matter what it is—get rid of it!”
But those of us who never heard Jesus speak or saw him in person are left, really, with only the words that were written about him in the New Testament. And, let’s face it: many of us are inclined to take things quite literally—especially when it comes to “God-talk.”
It’s not simply that we take the words of Jesus literally. We tend to do that with all of Scripture. Sometimes, we even go a step further, and jump to a conclusion that is not explicitly stated in the passage. Take, for example, the 17th chapter of Leviticus, which forbids the eating of blood. There are those who—on the basis of that passage—refuse to accept life-saving blood transfusions on the grounds that such therapy offends the will of God.
We may think such an attitude is extreme, but the question asked by literalists remains important: “Is the Bible true, or not?”
Years ago, I had a most amazing professor. She was one of the people who taught me how to interpret Biblical texts.
One time, she was supposed to deliver a lecture about “Biblical Inspiration and the Authority of Scripture.” So, of course, she brought a drip coffee-maker and a carafe full of water into the classroom. She also had a tin of coffee and some white paper filters.
“The pure Word of God,” she began, “is like the clear water in this jug. It is so clear, so pure—and so commonplace—that we can easily fail to notice it. In fact, if you’re used to drinking other things, plain water can seem kind of boring.
“So, we try to make it more interesting,” she said. Pouring the water into the coffee-maker, she placed a filter into the basket, and dropped a scoop of coffee into it.
Then she flipped the power switch, and water began to pour through into the carafe, as she continued lecturing (if you can call what she did “lecturing.” I think it was much better than that).
“The Bible,” she said, “is kind of like this coffee-maker. As the water pours through the grounds in the filter, it picks up some things that it didn’t have before.
“Some of the stuff it picks up is very good—like the rich flavor and delicious aroma of coffee. Even the colour of coffee is attractive to me,” she said.
“However,” she continued, “some of the stuff the water picks up is not so good—like dioxins and furans from the bleached paper filter. The coffee grounds also put some not-so-great things into the water—like volatile oils and chemical compounds that may be carcinogenic. And caffeine, of course, which is certainly addictive.”
When the water had all poured through, she paused and poured herself a cup of coffee, which she then proceeded to drink.
“The Word from God,” she said, “is like pure water—clear, but hard to see—and easy to overlook. In order for us to see it, and learn from it, it had to pass through a human filter. That’s what the Biblical authors were—filters. The Word passed through them so that we could drink it in.
“But—just as the water picks up some characteristics from the coffee grounds and the filter—the Word of God revealed in Scripture picked up some of the characteristics of the human filters it passed through.
“And some of that was very good—like Luke’s elegant prose, or Paul’s impeccable reasoning, or the bold and compelling messages of the prophets, or the exquisite poetry of the Song of Songs.
“But some of it was not so good—like the personal biases of male writers who under-valued the spiritual gifts of women, or blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus. “And some of it, “she said, “was neither good nor bad—but still influenced how the biblical message was framed. “For example, the Bible-writers thought the sky was like an inverted bowl covering the flat earth; that’s what they believed, and you have to bear that in mind when you read certain passages.”
After she was finished with her lecture, we all had coffee. Or at least, a few of us did. I was first in line. And as we drank our coffee and reflected upon the story she had told us …
Well, it was like a light was switched on, for many of us. Finally, we got it! The words upon the Scriptural page certainly do contain the Word of God—that eternal, unchangeable, creative Truth which speaks to human hearts, if they are open to it. However, because this divine Word speaks to us using human words, it is no longer as simple or as transparent as it was in the beginning. Even so, it is presented to us in a form that we can access—in words that we can see and hear and think about.
Is the Bible true? Of course it is.
Is the truth of the Bible perfectly revealed through the earthly language and human ideas of its human authors? Of course it isn’t. If they never made mistakes, if they did not have a limited world-view—if they did not add their own unique “flavours” and “colours” to the savoury brew we call “inspired Scripture”—then they would not have been human authors!
Especially when it comes to reporting on historical events, human authors—human lecturers, journalists, story-tellers … preachers … we do the best we can. The story I just told you is an example of that. For the sake of telling it, I’ve presented it as a kind of “quote-for-quote” monologue. Know what I mean? It sounds like I sat in the room and took notes … which I did …
But that lecture took place more than 30 years ago. I’ve long since misplaced the notes I took that day—and they would have been scribbled and incomplete, at best. So, when I tell that story about my prof and her coffee-maker, I do my utmost to recall her words from memory. However … it’s not like watching a video—or listening to an audio transcript—of her talk. I think Scripture—especially the gospels—are very much like that.
So—for us ordinary folk who read Scripture and scratch our heads—I think the message is this: Persevere!
Accept the challenge of uncovering the Bible’s eternal truth. Read it intelligently—but also read it and ponder it and share it with humility, trusting in the Holy Spirit to guide you, and acknowledging both the limits of human understanding and the grandeur of human expression.
Trust me—it is worth it!