In this passage from the middle of the second letter we have from Paul to Timothy, Paul is encouraging Timothy to be faithful—unlike the people he mentions in the verses leading up to this text—and to embody that faithfulness in the way he conducts his own ministry. As hearers and readers of the Word, we get to take Paul’s message to Timothy personally, and in so doing, we find instruction and encouragement for what it means to be faithful today.
After holding up his own life as an example of faithfulness despite persecution, Paul turns his attention to Timothy directly (“As for you,” he says) and exhorts him to continue his own example of faithfulness. He anchors this exhortation to faithfulness in two ways, and the combination of them is instructive. First, he encourages Timothy to follow the faithful example of those who had brought him up in the faith. Second, he encourages Timothy to be faithful to the “sacred writings” or “Scripture,” which is a tool that God uses to equip those who belong to God.
Paul encourages Timothy to be faithful by instructing him to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (v. 14, NRSV). We know from the first chapter of the letter that Timothy was brought up in the faith by his mother and grandmother, Lois and Eunice. There Paul affirmed their faithful teaching and living and expressed his belief that Timothy would be following in the footsteps of these godly women. Here, Paul basically tells Timothy that he can trust what he learned because he can trust the people he learned it from. Reliable people give reliable information.
This is noteworthy because many Christians, in talking about faithfulness, are tempted to prioritize the proper set of data (“To be a good Christian, you must believe X”) over the interlocking set of relationships that make that data make sense. Faithfulness, to Paul, should not be reduced to holding the right set of information—however important that may prove to be. It is picking up an identity—a trajectory—that has been laid down by those before us. Faithfulness is a personal reality first and an intellectual reality second. This makes sense because the ultimate standard for Truth in the Christian faith isn’t a statement or a proposition at all; it is a person, Jesus Christ.
That said, Paul still affirms that there are objective sources from which faithful teaching comes, standards that help us live lives of faithfulness. Paul refers to one such standard as, literally, “temple letters,” meaning the writings and the learning that would have been come from the temple. And so “sacred letters” or “sacred learning” would be another way of translating that idea. Paul is probably here referring to the holy books he knew as a Jewish Rabbi, what Christians usually call the “Old Testament.” However, when commenting on the importance of these writings, Paul does not seem to repeat his earlier logic, implying that these writings are trustworthy because Timothy knows where they come from—Moses and the prophets. Instead, he gives another reason why they are to be trusted. They make one wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. So, while Paul encourages Timothy to trust his instruction in the faith by looking backwards to the faith of those who instructed him, he encourages Timothy to trust the sacred writings by looking forward to what they can do—enlighten him about salvation in Christ.
Paul continues this theme in the next verse, a verse well-known to many who hold up the Bible as an authority for Christian living. Paul, however, is not exactly referring to the Bible as we understand that collection of books. The New Testament had not yet come together as a collection—indeed, many of the works that would comprise that collection had not even been written yet. On the other hand, Paul is concerned with writings that he calls—using a word he probably made up—“God-breathed,” and most Christian would affirm that such a designation would cover the books that eventually found their way into the New Testament canon.
These writings that are “God-breathed” are also “useful,” though it is not easy to see how Paul relates those two ideas. It is possible to translate his affirmation as “Every Scripture is God-breathed and useful….” But it is also possible to translate it as “Every God-breathed Scripture is also useful….” Paul could either be saying something primarily about the nature of Scripture as inspired or the nature of inspired Scripture as useful. Either way, however, Paul understands that God breaths through some writings in a way that has power for living the Christian life.
The power these writings have should also be carefully noted. These sacred writings are good for their ability to inform and correct. Paul, however, is not content to affirm them as mere sources of data, as if the concern of Scripture was to make sure everyone had the right information. In verse 17, Paul indicates why this teaching and correcting is so important: so that those who belong to God might be “fitted” and “outfitted” for all the good that God wants to work out through them. Knowledge of Scripture is inadequate unless that knowledge is put into godly action.
From his encouragements to be faithful, Paul turns to a more formal charge that he wants to give Timothy. Here, he uses official-sounding language, such as we might have expected him to be familiar with from formal settings like Jewish courts. Paul evokes the idea of Christ as judge and of Christ’s kingdom as the standard by which that judgement will be made. Paul wants Timothy to feel and hear the importance of the work to which he had been called, and it does not do us contemporary readers any harm in hearing that call with the same level of seriousness as well.
The charge to Timothy is to be a teaching evangelist. He is to proclaim the message—whether or not the conditions are favorable to do so—and he is to be both patient and persistent in making sure people understand that message and its implications for the way they live their lives. Because that way of living runs counter to the way of living offered by the world, conviction and rebuke are going to be part and parcel of helping people to see how the gospel of Christ applies to their lives.
Paul also warns Timothy to expect resistance to this message. People don’t want to have their lives corrected and conformed to Kingdom patterns, to “sound doctrines.” They would rather have people tell them what they want to hear and find ways of talking about the meaning of life (“myths,” Paul calls them) that don’t require them to change. The result is that they get “dislocated;” they wander off track and they get put out of joint. That’s always what happens when people choose comfortable lies over uncomfortable truth.
That kind of self-deception may be tempting to some people, but Paul exhorts Timothy to be different. He is to be sober-minded, facing the truth and being the uncomfortable truth teller when that is required. That will, of course, involve hardship, and Paul urges Timothy to be willing to endure that. All of this is for the work of the gospel, which Paul again encourages Timothy to see as his primary task. By pursuing that task, he will fulfill his service, his ministry, and be a good steward of what God has entrusted to him as he awaits Christ’s return.
In these verses, we see that Paul’s idea of a faithful life is the life that picks up on the faithfulness of God’s people in the past—often conveyed to us through these God-breathed writings we call Scripture—and then moves that faithfulness forward into the future, living the way God wants us to live and encouraging others to find faith themselves so that the cycle of faith continues on into the future.