Posted by: mattcolvin | September 29, 2008

2 TIMOTHY 2:14-26

(I interrupt your regularly scheduled teenaged programming to bring you some notes on the Bible.)

My comments on 2 Timothy are taken from Sunday school class, which is run at a less academic and more accessible level than the men’s Bible study in which I’m doing 1 Corinthians. So there won’t be as much discussion of Greek.

We are concerned to understand the nature of authority in 2 Timothy. For Paul, authority is especially in Stories.

Already Paul has encouraged Timothy to understand Paul’s imprisonment in terms of the story of Joseph, or of other OT exile-and-return narratives. We’ve also noted that Hymenaeus and Philetus’ hyper-preterism ruins the Biblical story by taking away the proper ending, and saying that it has already happened: “Sleeping Beauty got kissed, but she didn’t wake up, and the castle is still surrounded with thorns.” Such a revision to the Bible’s meta-narrative turns it from a story of hope and joy, with assurance of a future change in the human condition, into a story of depression and unrelieved continuation of the status quo. Is it any wonder that such a change of story would “shipwreck the faith of many”? Why believe in YHWH, the God of exile and return; why believe in Jesus the Messiah who died and rose again, if “this is as good as it gets”? Stories are Paul’s battlefield in his polemic against Hymenaeus and Philetus.

Now Paul uses another OT story to help Timothy make sense of his own situation in Ephesus, contending with these false teachers:

2:19 – The “solid foundation” is two-fold, and contrary to certain modern theologies, there is no contradiction between the two parts:

First, “The Lord knows those who are His.” On the face of things, this is merely an endorsement of the doctrine of Election, a cornerstone of Israel’s faith. God has a people that is his. There is no question of Him forgetting who they are.

But we must be aware of the source of the quotation. It is a slight modification of Numbers 16:5, in which Moses deals with the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram by saying to Korah, “Tomorrow morning YHWH will show who is His and who is holy.” There is a difference between the righteous and the wicked, no matter how the latter may have insinuated themselves into the congregation.

Second, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from unrighteousness.” Having spoken of election, Paul now speaks of our duty to walk righteousless. There is no contradiction with election here. Paul is giving another near-quotation from Numbers 16, in this case verse 21, where YHWH says to Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourself from this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment,” and 16:24, “Get away fromt he tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram,” and 16:26, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men! Touch nothing of theirs, lest you also be consumed in all their sins.”

Implication: this story ends in the destruction of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Paul is telling Timothy that Hymenaeus & Philetus will end in a similar way: God will destroy them. So again and again, he addresses Timothy with “but you…” and warns him to stay away from them. Don’t touch the filthy chamber pot. Keep yourself clean from them, and then you will be like a washed and clean bowl or vase sitting in the cupboard ready to use for some noble purpose.

Notice how Paul is using Israel’s Scriptures to place himself and his opponents and Timothy in a story that (1) makes sense of things for Timothy by mapping current roles onto the Biblical characters (Paul = Moses, Timothy = Aaron, the Ephesians = Israel; Korah et al. = Hymenaeus & Philetus), and (2) provides a clear understanding of what to do next in order to live in accordance with the story.

Stories are a way of exercising authority. Remember when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.” He was doing something very similar: he got a whole nation of Star Wars viewers to place the US and the USSR in a narrative they understood, so that they would act accordingly. Now, we’re supposed to be doing the same thing with the Bible’s stories (and with other stories that reinforce the Bible).

Biblical illiteracy impairs our ability to think in terms of the Biblical story. The Christian life is not reducible to a checklist of commandments. It requires that we be in the Word. The Prayer of Jabez was a huge commercial success despite being a theological failure, because it used the power of a story — the tiny, almost insignificant story of Jabez — and encouraged Christians to misread that story and to place themselves in it. That’s what set it apart from all the other books of self-help or prosperity-gospel Christianity.

There are some churches that catechize children. This is a good practice, but it is often not done properly because the catechisms that are used — I think especially of the WSC — are not about the stories of the Bible, but about the definitions of technical terms in Reformed dogmatics. Our kids need to know the stories. How many of them know who Korah, Dathan, and Abiram are? (Jamie Soles is a great help here.)

The Book of Common Prayer is not a substitute for the Bible. It does not contain all the stories you need to know. When our church commemorated the feast day of St. Bartholomew, we sang a hymn in which one line said, “We know not his accomplishments, but know that he was true…” No mention of the Huguenots or the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The omission was disappointing to me because I want my children and my church to know the story of Adm. Coligny and the Calvinists who were murdered for their faith. I want them to think of that event as part of their story, part of what gives them their identity as Christians.

Note that Paul does not want Timothy to transform his ministry into the anti-Hymenaeus-and-Philetus show. He doesn’t want us to change our church’s sign to read, “We’re not the Sodomite Episcopal Church.” He wants Timothy to refute these heretics gently and patiently and then move on so that he can be busy about the church’s business. He doesn’t want him to make his ministry into a heretic-hunting expedition.

There are applications for us here: quite apart from whether Federal Vision theology is Biblical or Reformed, you should view with great suspicion any pastor who continually blogs “refutations” of it. Such a person is probably falling into precisely the traps Paul warns about here: “wrangling over words, that just leads to strife”; “foolish and ignorant controversies, which breed infighting”; “heated disputes that do nothing but harm.” (It is interesting to me that the pro-FV pastors who blog — D. Wilson, P. Leithart, Jeff Meyers, et al. are not one-note pianos on the internet. They write about all sorts of things other than FV.) The job of a pastor is not to be a professional controversialist. He must refute false teaching — the qualifications of elders require this — but that is not the primary job of a pastor. We are engaged in building the church. That is not the same thing as preventing others from tearing it down. The latter is necessary, but secondary.



  1. […] The parallel between between Numbers 16 and 2 Timothy 2:14-26 Now Paul uses another OT story to help Timothy make sense of his own situation in Ephesus, contending with these false teachers: […]

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