THE PROFITABLE USE OF SCRIPTURE
By Theo Todman
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
We are all aware of the above well known verse of Scripture but the usual context in which this passage is quoted is that of the Inspiration of Scripture. Because of this familiar usage, we have a tendency not to read the whole quotation. We read, in the King James Version :-
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God ...
and then stop! We forget to read on ... and is profitable for ...
What is Scripture profitable for? What was Scripture given for? To whom is Scripture addressed? These are very fundamental questions and affect the way we approach and use the whole Bible just as much as the matter of inspiration does. An unsound Bible could not be safely used for our direction, but one with no application would not be worth using at all.
So what is Scripture useful for? Obviously, the answer, or at least part of it, is found in the passage quoted. However, before discussing the text, let us briefly consider the context.
Paul's Last Letter
The apostle Paul's second letter to Timothy is to be viewed, in many ways, as his 'last will and testament'. It is the last canonical letter he wrote before his death, as can be seen from the following verse:-
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now is laid up for me the crown of righteousness. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
As such, we can expect it to contain those instructions he felt should most urgently be laid on Timothy's heart and which he saw would be most necessary to him for the successful conduct of his ministry.
What were these instructions? The overwhelming concern that Paul seems to have at this point is for the preservation of 'his Gospel' in all its purity. Timothy is exhorted to 'keep', or rather 'guard', certain things:-
What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you - guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Timothy 1:13-14)
The whole letter is scattered with such nuggets of sound instruction.
Just what is this 'pattern of sound teaching'? Where is it to be found? Paul described it as 'what you heard from me'. Our first text pointed us to the Scriptures. Paul may have then been referring primarily to the Old Testament, for Timothy is said to have known them from infancy. However, the present writer believes that all the documents that make up what we now call the New Testament had been written by this time (see J.A.T. Robinson, Re-dating the New Testament, for a discussion of this point of view. Certainly, all Paul's writings had been written by the time Timothy received this letter!) and that Timothy would have understood 'all Scripture' to include these writings, much as Peter understood Paul's letters to be Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).
What is the content of this teaching, recorded for us in Scripture? A major part is taken up by imparting to us the knowledge of God and of His purposes, both as summed up and brought to conclusion in the Person and work of Christ. Why has this information been given to us? The answer is - for us to respond to!
This response can be on two levels. Firstly, we respond to the gospel of salvation. This gospel, in its various ramifications, is the grand theme of the Scriptures, as Timothy was reminded in the present letter:-
... from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:15)
Secondly comes the daily walk and relationship with God that builds upon that faith and initial foundation. It is this theme that occupies the bulk of Scripture. It is for this that we have been redeemed and it is this that will occupy us through eternity.
Returning to our original theme, to whom was the Scripture originally written?
When we reflect on this question, we realise that it was to the redeemed. The whole of the Old Testament was addressed initially to Israel, an elect nation redeemed out of bondage in Egypt.
What about the New Testament? The various introductions to the Epistles, for instance, show that they are written to 'the elect', to 'the saints', to the 'faithful,' to those who were already walking with God, however imperfectly, and who wanted to walk with Him further.
So what is Scripture profitable for? In our first text we had:-
…. for teaching rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
We shall now deal with this phrase point by point.
For teaching what? When, in the King James Version, this word is translated as 'doctrine', we have the old antithesis between 'doctrine' and 'practice' lurking in the back of our minds. However, this is a false antithesis. The two are intimately connected together. False doctrine will lead to wrong conduct, and loose conduct makes a mockery of correct doctrine because instructions for life are part of correct doctrine.
The New International Version rendering of the Greek didaskalia by 'teaching' makes it easier for us rightly to forget this false dichotomy.
Using the word 'doctrine' in the traditional antithetical sense, let us note how doctrines are introduced in the Scripture. A classic case is that of Philippians 2:3-11.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interest of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant ...
Here we see that Paul introduces the great doctrine of Christ's seven-fold humiliation and subsequent exaltation simply as an illustration of a practical exhortation to humility and consideration of others.
Sometimes whole New Testament books are simply strings of practical exhortation - take 2 Timothy, which we have already considered in some detail, or the two Corinthian Epistles for example. This is not to mention the more 'Jewish' books, such as James where, even more clearly, 'doctrinal' works balance the doctrine with much emphasis on practice.
Ephesians is another well known example of this, where the doctrinal first three chapters are balanced by the practical last three. In Romans, after the massive argument of the first 11 chapters, Paul adds as the climax and logical consequence:-
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)
Similarly, in Hebrews the author draws out the point of all his teaching on the Person and high-priestly ministry of Christ by concluding with these exhortations:-
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:19-24).
The ways of God are in many cases different from our own.
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Thus, we need often to be rebuked. We need to have it forcibly pointed out to us that our ways are often in opposition to God's ways. Paul says that all Scripture is profitable for this. It has the stamp of God's ways upon it. If we read it without having our ways radically challenged we have missed its message. The Scripture must stop us in our tracks, much as the angel did Balaam's ass!
If we expound Scripture in a limp manner so that those who hear us or read our words are not confronted with a decision concerning their 'ways' then we are not properly transmitting its message. We are not passing on the 'whole council of God'. We note that in this very letter, Timothy was urged to:-
Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Timothy 4:2)
Note the balance here: the preacher is to rebuke, but to be careful and patient and, most important of all, to encourage.
It is important to note two further things about the preacher. Firstly, he does not need to be perfect to fulfil his role - otherwise there could be no preachers! He should humbly recognise that he himself only very imperfectly submits to the rebuke and correction of Scripture. Secondly, he must have a real, heartfelt desire to practise what he preaches, otherwise he will lapse into hypocrisy. These two aspects must be held in balance. As Paul said to Timothy in his first letter:-
Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)
Even if we are going in the right general direction, and are not in need of open rebuke on a particular point, our path still needs continual straightening out. This is the meaning of correction. According to Grimm / Thayer's Lexicon, the Greek word here, epanorthosis, is a hapax legomenon (a word that only occurs once in the Bible) meaning 'restoration to an upright or right state'.
One thing to be remembered at this stage is that, while Scripture is given to rebuke and correct us, we are not left powerless to put it into practice. We are not in the old situation under the Law aware of the righteous standards of God, but unable to put them into practise. This is why a correct balance of doctrine and exhortation has to be given. No doctrine, and we feel powerless to heed the exhortation. No exhortation, and the doctrine may prove unfruitful. Taking just four examples from Paul's second epistle to Timothy in which we see this balance kept:-
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of discipline. (2 Timothy 1:6-7)
Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you - guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. (2 Timothy 1:14)
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:1)
At my first defence, no-one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion's mouth. (2 Timothy 4:16-17)
Instruction in Righteousness
This is the aim of all Scripture. It instructs us firstly how to be reckoned righteous and then how to pursue righteousness. As Paul taught the Romans:-
Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I have put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. (Romans 6:17-19)
Though we live in a different dispensation to that of the Sermon on the Mount, righteousness is still that for which we should hunger and thirst. Unless this is our desire, how can we experience true fellowship with God?
Thoroughly equipped for every good work
As Ephesians 2:10 reminds us, we are not only God's workmanship. We are also His workers.
For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
To sum up
We have seen, in this brief article, that for Scripture to be profitable for us in our individual lives, we have not only to recognise its authority; we have also to submit to that authority. Scripture is given to teach, rebuke, correct and instruct us. All these things can be painful and costly to us, but unless we acknowledge and respond practically to the authority of Scripture we are playing with the Christian life. Let us take it seriously!
© Theo Todman June 1985.
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