You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:1-2)
Many men are fickle when it comes to doctrine and legitimate human loyalty. A few men, because of their love and allegiance to Jesus Christ, remain faithful to the end both in their doctrine and in their loyalty to God’s people, especially to his ministers. In connection with this, Paul urges Timothy to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” This is what produces the unusual character of courageous loyalty. The inner strength that distinguishes great men from selfish losers is not our natural disposition, nor our human resolve and willpower, nor secular education and propaganda, but the power of Jesus Christ at work within us.
All Christians must be strong for the gospel by the grace of Christ, but this is especially true for ministers, because they are to do the very thing that got Paul into trouble in the first place. He writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” What are the “things” that Timothy heard Paul “say,” that “many witnesses” can also know, and that reliable men can “teach others”? They are words, sentences, propositions, expressing ideas and doctrines, spoken in a public manner, and in a form that can be understood and transmitted by the same method, that is, by speaking and writing words. This is of supreme importance to the right understanding and performance of ministry, because it defines the nature and method of its work. A minister’s task does not first pertain to politics, economics, and such aspects of life, but it is firstly and directly intellectual. This does not mean that it is academic, but that it pertains to the mind or spirit.
Of course a godly example is important. Paul mentions his own example and instructs Timothy to set a good example before others, and insists that overseers must be above reproach in their behavior and lifestyle. But words and doctrines are infinitely more important than actions. First, without doctrines, we cannot even tell which actions are commendable and which are condemnable. Good and evil actions are distinguished by doctrines. Actions do not speak louder than words, because they do not speak at all. They are interpreted by words and doctrines. If they speak at all, it is because words speak for them. Second, actions are not what ministers of the gospel declare to the world and entrust to reliable men. When it comes to perpetuating the power to save and sanctify, we pass on words and doctrines, not actions and examples, for only the gospel can save, and the gospel is an intellectual message about God, man, and Jesus Christ, expressed in spoken and written words.
A godly example is important, but its importance is frequently misunderstood and exaggerated. It does not directly contribute to the propagation of the gospel. Rather, we set a godly example before the world and the church because by it we honor God, so that we ought to live godly lives even when there is no one watching us, and by it we illustrate (not declare, since the actions themselves are silent and without meaning) the gospel that we preach. Many people stumble when they witness hypocrisy and hear of scandals among Christians. This is irrational, since the failures of Christians have no direct bearing on whether the Christian faith is true. Nevertheless, Christians ought to set good examples in order that irrational people will not stumble because of our failures. This is another important reason to set a good example, and to live godly lives according to God’s commandments.
The words that Timothy received from Paul could be entrusted to reliable men, and these men can in turn “teach” others. That is, Timothy has been taught by Paul, but in order to pass on Paul’s teachings, it is unnecessary to pass on Paul’s person to others. To pass on the things that he said – his words, ideas, propositions, doctrines – is to pass on Paul’s teachings. The same teachings can then be passed on by the same method. The Christian faith is taught, not caught, and it is taught by the use of words.
Timothy was taught by Paul mainly in the sense that Paul spoke words to him about Christian ideas and doctrines. It is a common error to exaggerate the difference between being taught by someone in person and being taught by someone by his words. It is supposed that the physical proximity of a person imparts something that is otherwise unobtainable. This is unbiblical and irrational. Jesus says, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). He tells Philip that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father, and explains, “The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:9-10). A person’s words are sufficient to represent the person.
Thus to receive words from Paul is to be taught by Paul himself. This simple insight carries powerful implications for us. This is because we also have the words of Paul. We have many of his letters, and some of his discourses are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. We also have many words from the prophets and the other apostles, and we even have words from the Lord Jesus. Just as to read the words of Paul is to be taught by Paul, to read the words of Jesus is to be taught by Jesus. This means that we do not have an inferior Christianity just because the apostles have passed on and because Jesus Christ is not among us in the physical and bodily sense. They have left us their words, and this means that they are still here to teach us.
When I mention that we have the words of Paul and even the words of Jesus, I do not mean that we have something essentially superior in the latter. In terms of authority and value, there is no essential difference between the divinely inspired words of Paul and the words of Jesus. Some Christians tend to think that the words of Jesus in the Bible carries special authority, even above that of the prophets and the apostles. However, far from expressing reverence toward the person of God, this position amounts to an attack against the Holy Spirit. Paul states that Jesus himself taught him his doctrines (Galatians 1:11-12), and that the Holy Spirit himself taught him the words to use (1 Corinthians 2:13). The same applies to all other apostles, since Jesus said to them, “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16:15).
The words of Jesus and the apostles are the words of God, and to make the words of one superior to the others is to make God superior to himself, which is impossible. And to say that the words of the apostles are inferior to the words of Jesus is to insult the work of the Spirit in the apostles, which is blasphemy. We must extend the same principle to all the prophets, since they spoke as they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). They declared the very words of God, saying, “Thus says the Lord.” And Paul states that “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), that is, as words spoken by God’s own mouth and breath. Therefore, the whole Bible consists of the words of God. Since to read the words of a person is to be taught by that person, by reading the Bible, we can all be taught by God.
This is good news. People cannot be transmitted. Example cannot be transmitted. But words can easily be transmitted with ease and precision. And by preaching the words, ideas, and doctrines of the Bible, we present the very voice of God to the world and the church. The main task of the ministry is to pass on these words of God and expect the Holy Spirit to use them to affect the people in the way that he wishes. He uses God’s words to awaken, convert, and sanctify those created and chosen for salvation. And he uses the same words to blind, to anger, and to harden those created and chosen for damnation.