Monday, September 8, 2008

Studying the Word (2 Timothy 2.14-15)

September 7, 2008 – “Rally Day”
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Truth and error are sometimes not easily discerned. This is one of the early lessons of childhood – children who are warned not to talk to strangers go ahead, explaining that “he was really nice.” Later along, we may hear the crowd of peers saying one thing, but sheer numbers do not create truth. We come to realize that our own feelings may mislead us, and wolves continue to dress in sheep’s clothing. What once seemed black and white only seems to come now in shades of gray.

In a world where truth is an elusive thing, how does one find it? How does one guard against untruth? If we are really going to be salt and light in a dark world, how will we do so without being swept away? This passage from 2 Timothy is rich in answering these questions and more. It is so rich that we are going to take the month of September to go through these verses.

Today, on Rally Day, when we start a new year of Sunday school, and a new season of ministry and mission, it is fitting to pay close attention to this Scripture text, for we will see that study of God’s Word is essential to being a faithful servant of God.

Background: core doctrine and word-wrangling (v. 14)

We are going to focus on verses 14-15, but right off the bat, we are pointed elsewhere. Verse 14 begins, “Remind them of these things…” Well, we’ve got to know what “these things” are! The preceding verses, which we used as a call to worship today, give us a clearer picture of what is at stake. Listen to them again:
11 It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; 13 If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. (2 Timothy 2:11-13)
It IS a trustworthy statement – but why was it being made? It was being made because there were those who were denying the resurrection. This was a bottom-line, essential, and core doctrine of the Christian faith. To deny the resurrection was to deny Jesus himself. Added to this reminder in verse 14 was the charge not to “wrangle about words.” It appears that getting bogged down in this word-wrangling was either taking the place of or a distraction from belief in and proclamation of the resurrection.

What is “word-wrangling?” Some biblical examples from Timothy and Titus show the church arguing about genealogies and the meaning of minute points of the Law, while missing the opportunity to display charity, love one another. It appears, in this context, that word-wrangling had even displaced or replaced a foundational belief in the resurrection.

I believe this practice is one of the pressing issues of our day. Perhaps the most glaring example in recent history is the former President saying “It depends on what the meaning of is is” while apparently dodging the moral elephant in the room. But one need not point the finger at so prominent a public figure. At every college and university in the country, and perhaps even amidst the high schools on down to elementary schools, the basic meaning of words is being challenged as never before. Distorting the technical philosophical approach of “deconstructing a text,” amateur deconstructionists simply vacate important words (even ‘is’!) of meaning and fill in the blank as they see fit. In many ways, we have become the masters of word-wrangling.

If the finger is still pointing too far away, let me come closer to home. Committed, evangelical Christians can often find themselves nit-picking so much over words and concepts that they miss the forest – hours and hours wrangling over free will and pre-destination and missing what God is doing and inviting us to do all around.

There is some balance, of course. When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” the natural response from those around was, “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus went on to explain. And we must be able to discern the difference between the vivid idea of getting a camel through the eye of a knitting needle, and understanding what Jesus meant. It is important to study and understand words, particularly in God’s inspired Word. But we must not miss the really foundational teachings of scripture chasing after secondary things. And verse 14 is talking about more than distraction; it is talking about fighting over such things. The word, “wrangling,” literally means “to fight with words as with a sword.”

Part of the real difficulty, of course, is that to some degree we all have bought into the cultural assumption of personal interpretation. Just like saying, “Jesus is Savior… for me,” we are slowly accepting the notion that ‘is’ can mean one thing for me and another for you. If you’re smart, you’ve learned to discover what another person means by a word – you can’t take it for granted any more. [This does seem to spell the demise of the Dictionary industry!]

Does that seem far-fetched? Consider our denomination – and we’ll be talking about this some on Wednesday night. In denominational circles, I can no longer presume a common understanding of “gospel” or “evangelism” or “justice.” It is necessary to spell everything out with great specificity in order to be precise. We are at the point of wrangling over words.

So what to do? I certainly don’t want to spend my days defining words with excruciating specificity, particularly when they are words that have been so consistently used by the Church. And what assurance do I have that my definitions are any more or less valid than the next person? The next verse points us in the direction we need to go.

The Importance of Reading and Studying the Bible (v. 15b)

How shall I be “diligent to present [myself] approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed?” (v. 15) How do I focus on the foundational truths and not get distracted or re-directed by word-battles? It is by “accurately handling the word of truth.” (v. 15) Do you hear what is being said? These scriptures – this collection of words – is the “word of truth.” It is not wishy-washy or vacillating, or subject to bending to my own interpretation. Rather, it is God’s Word and God is Truth.

This verse also makes clear that human interpretation is involved (speaking of predestination and human responsibility), for it is we imperfect human beings who “handle” this Word in preaching, teaching, reading, and study. There is such a thing as “accurate” interpretation, so also “inaccurate” interpretation. To find God’s truth, though, we do not look within, to personal definitions, feelings, or even experience. Rather, we learn how to read, study, and apply scripture with consistency with itself.

Handling scripture accurately is not easy or obvious, but neither is it mysterious and out of reach. There are portions that speak clearly to the youngest child or simplest mind, and there are parts that will challenge the greatest intellect. It helps to come to scripture with an open mind and heart, but God’s Word can also penetrate the hardest heart. I would say, however, that to accurately handle God’s Word, one must trust in Jesus Christ – that is, be a Christian. For it is Christ himself to whom the Scripture witnesses. To read them apart from Jesus makes no sense at all.

Neither is “accurately handling the word of truth” a job only for theological super-heroes, pastors, and seminary graduates. God’s Word is written for each of you and accessible to each of you, from the youngest child to the oldest adult. And one of the highest priorities at Good Shepherd is not only teaching God’s Word accurately, but equipping each of you to read and study it.

In light of that, I not only invite you, but appeal to you to plug in to Sunday school this year. The purpose of Sunday school is to teach God’s Word to you and to equip you to study it more effectively for yourself. Particularly in today’s world, with the very meaning of words shifting like sand, it is crucial to ground your children’s vocabulary and thoughts in the solid Word of God. And the need is no less for youth and adults.

I also invite you and appeal to you to participate on Wednesday nights. Again children and youth will study and apply God’s Word. And the adults will spend the year studying Scripture through the book “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.” If I had to choose the one most important book (other than the Bible) that I read in seminary, this would be it. With it we’ll look at the Bible and be equipped to read, study, and apply God’s Word. Word is that exercising three times a week is the minimal requirement to stay in shape… I urge you to make Sunday school, worship, and Wednesday night study a minimum in your regular weekly cycle. There are more opportunities above and beyond those – for prayer, study, service, and fellowship. But that grounding in God’s Word is crucial to a healthy faith. And, as the rest of verse 15 explains, that grounding in God’s Word also forms us into approved workers or servants of God.

Approved for Ministry and Mission (v. 15a)

God is on the move. If we ask the questions, “What is God doing and how can I be a part of it?” then we are asking to be used by God as a “worker (or workman).” That’s what is in view here. This is not an appeal to hole yourself away from the world and study ancient manuscripts as the world passes by any more than the realization from Hebrews 11 that earth is not our home means we aren’t active, faithful disciples here and now. Rather, this passage describes the kind of men, women, and young people God delights to use in His mission to the world – those who are rooted in Scripture, committed to hearing, studying, and applying it.

In coming weeks we will return to this passage, for it goes on to address what happens when we accurately handle the word of truth and follow God out into the world. We will talk about discerning truth and error, about being on guard against deception and equipped with truth. In September we will follow the arc of this passage until we arrive at September 28, where I will ordain and install the new church officers and will challenge each of you to identify and respond to God’s calling in your life.

Our church is in the midst of accepting God’s invitation into what He is doing all around us. It is crucial that we know God’s Word, know how to “handle it,” and keep returning to it for truth, guidance, and instruction. Amen.

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