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The Word

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on October 10, 2010.
2 Timothy 2:8-15

You could hardly blame the opponents of early Christianity—especially the Romans—for being frustrated that they couldn’t stamp out this low-life faith made up of losers. 

First, a powerful coalition of Jewish and Roman leaders tried to end Christianity by crucifying its leader, Jesus.  But that didn’t work because Jesus was raised from the dead, and so was the Christian movement.  Fifty days later, the Spirit of that Risen Christ fell upon the disciples of Christ during the Festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem, and the church was born.  Before long, this fledgling church was spreading like wildfire throughout the Mediterranean world. 

Several people were responsible for the spread of Christianity, but none more than the Apostle Paul.  One more time, the Romans tried to stamp out Christianity, this time by incarcerating Paul, its chief spokesman, not once but twice.  The first time Paul was imprisoned he remained under house arrest in Rome.  Luke reflects on Paul’s arrest in the last two verses of the book of Acts, writing:  For two years Paul stayed…in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.  He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (Acts 28:30-31)  In other words, house arrest wasn’t about to arrest the spread of the word.

Eventually Paul was released from prison, and of course he kept on proclaiming the word of God.  Finally, the determined Romans arrested Paul again, and this time placed him in a dark, damp dungeon in an unknown location during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero.  Paul was chained to his guard, and he knew his days were numbered.  Paul acknowledges he is chained like a criminal.  But then in 2 Timothy 2 he adds this editorial comment that no Christ-follower should ever forget—God’s word is not chained!  And despite the fact that Paul was probably executed within a year of writing 2 Timothy, the unfettered word of God kept fueling the growth of the Christian movement and the transformation of the world.

Fast-forward to late in the second century during a relative lull in the persecution of Christians.  Up steps a Greek philosopher named Celsus who publishes a book named True Doctrine that delivers a devastating critique of the scriptures of Christianity and Judaism.  From the story of creation to the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, Celsus wrote, the teachings of the scriptures were “altogether absurd.”  The gospel accounts of Jesus were a deception, and so were the writings of Moses.  Jews had been duped into thinking there was only one God, and Christianity was a cult that appealed to the simpleminded and superstitious.  And to top it all off, Christianity encouraged disloyalty to Rome. 

You might think Celsus’ blistering attack on the bible would have buried it forever.  But a church father named Origen responded with a point-by-point rebuttal in a book called Against Celsus.  The book was brilliantly written, and Christianity kept on keeping on.

A few years later the Roman emperor Diocletian had seen enough.  In 303 AD Diocletian unleashed a brutal campaign against Christianity designed to eradicate this miserable excuse for a religion once and for all.  He ordered the burning of all bibles, along with any churches or homes where bibles were found throughout the city of Rome.  Christians who refused to offer sacrifices to pagan gods were to be jailed. 

Rome’s prisons filled quickly.  But the Christian faith did not die, nor did the bible disappear.  In fact, within three years Diocletian would disappear and the new emperor, Constantine, would welcome both Christianity and the Christian scriptures into the heart of the Roman Empire.

Fast-forward more than eleven hundred years.  By now the Roman Catholic Church has ironically become the body that keeps the bible confined, well out of the reach of the common laypeople.  See, the rank and file laypeople couldn’t be trusted to read the bible without the assistance of these priests, and they had no business owning bibles of their own.  

But the “Gutenburg Press”, invented in the 1450’s for the express purpose of printing the bible, was about to change all that.  Soon bibles printed in German began to circulate among the people.  In 1503 a 21-year-old named Martin Luther saw for the first time a complete bible printed in his native language in a German university library.  Of course, the bible was chained to a table so that it could not be removed.  But that didn’t keep young Luther from absorbing the scriptures like a bone-dry sponge.    Eventually, Luther would enter the Catholic priesthood and  own his own bible.  And it was his reading of that bible that prompted him to launch a protest that led to the Protestant Reformation.               

In time colleges and universities—like Harvard and Yale, Princeton and Wake Forest would be founded to train ministers to correctly handle and preach the word of God.  And the Christian movement continued to spread around the world, fueled by the flames of holy scripture.  Today, even skeptics and atheists who don’t believe the bible admit that no book has influenced Western civilization, and indeed the entire world like the bible, the written word of God.

Now, why this impromptu history lesson?  Because I’m not sure many Christians truly appreciate the resilience and the power of the word of God.  In part it may be because we are ignorant of our own history.  In part it may be because the word of God may not seem as valued today.  And in part that may be because in our world of 24/7 news, the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter, we are literally drowning in an ocean of words, and the voice of God gets drowned out in the cacophony of it all.       

Actually, the world in which Timothy lived—first century Ephesus—had its “word” issues too.  All the hard work of church planting that Paul had done in Ephesus was being jeopardized by false teachers who were playing word games and provoking theological battles that confused people no end.

For example, Paul mentions in 2 Timothy 2 Hymenaeus and Philetus who are moving about Ephesus among the new Christians, teaching that the resurrection has already taken place.  Evidently, these two are teaching that the physical body is worthless, the spirit is all that matters, and the spirits of believers have already been resurrected through the resurrections of Christ.  That means there would be no future resurrection of the body to look forward to.  Paul compares this kind of teaching to gangrene in the body because it sucks the very life and hope out of the body.  And Paul instructs Timothy on how to present the word of God so as to both prevent and cure this infection.     

For starters, says Paul, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David.  This is my gospel…”

Most if not all New Testament scholars agree that the two greatest theologians of the New Testament are Paul and the author of the Gospel of John.  And it is positively striking that these two inspired theologians agree that at the heart of the Christian faith is not a proposition but a person.

            John puts it this way:

            In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,

            and the Word was God…

            The Word became flesh  made his dwelling among us.

            We have seen his glory, and the glory of the one and only Son…

In his powerful prologue, John is saying in an unmistakable way – “Jesus, the living word, is the focal point of our faith.”  As Reuben Welch says, “The heart of our Christian faith is not something but someone!”

Nobody knew the particulars of scripture better than Paul.  But Paul doesn’t say to Timothy, “Remember all the details and doctrines of scripture.”  He says, literally, “Keep on remembering Jesus Christ, that Jesus who was both human (descended from David) and divine (resurrected from the dead).”  Jesus is the crown jewel of God’s revelation, the norm by which we understand all of written scripture.  In our own day of seemingly endless debates and painful schisms over scripture, we should remember that while we revere the written word, only the living word of Jesus Christ deserves our worship.

Moreover, Paul urges Timothy to focus on the essence of God’s word.  Again, most New Testament scholars are agreed that Paul is asking Timothy to remember one of the earliest confessions of the Christian faith, namely Jesus Christ, resurrected from the dead, and descended from David.  Before this passage is over, we learn that Jesus is the one who offers us salvation in this life and the next, and Jesus is faithful to his word. 

This is the essence of God’s word, the word we should share, suffer over, and be willing to die for.  Jesus is Savior.  Jesus is Lord.  That’s rock bottom for us, non-negotiable for us.  All the rest is important, but not as essential. 

You’ve probably heard the statement, often wrongly attributed to Augustine or John Wesley, that says, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.”  We don’t know who authored this statement.  But we should recognize its wisdom.

Today, few people argue that our spirits are already risen in Christ.  But think of the time and energy we have devoted to arguments over the when and how of the second coming of Jesus.  And whether or not the elements of communion actually incorporate the body of Christ.  Or whether baptism should happen through sprinkling of babies or immersion of adults.  Or whether God works through free will or predestination.  Or what kind of worship style we should employ.  And we haven’t even gotten to the hot button social and political issues of our day. 

I’m convinced one reason non-Christians are so unimpressed with the church is because they watch us wage battles with one another that seem ridiculous if not irresponsible in a world where thousands die from poverty-related causes every day.  Paul is saying to all of us—focus on the essentials, and don’t get bogged down in endless arguments about the rest.

Here is another word for Timothy from Paul we dare not miss:  “Trust the word.” 

Notice how Paul introduces what is in all likelihood one of the earliest hymns of the Christian faith.  He says, “Here is a trustworthy saying…If you review Paul’s writings you’ll see that this saying about trustworthy sayings is one of his favorites.  In 1 Timothy 1:15, for example, Paul writes: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the worst.”

Over and over again he uses this phrase.  And that kind of repetition is significant because it reminds us that our bible is trustworthy.  This is the way Bruce Metzger, renowned Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary used to describe the scriptures to students like me.  Dr. Metzger avoided loaded words like inerrant, and described the bible as “absolutely trustworthy.”

That means when we run into bible passages hard to swallow or explain, we continue to trust the scriptures to guide us in life and transform us into disciples.  Our passage today contains an apparent contradiction that has stumped Christ-followers for centuries when it says:

            If we disown (Jesus), he will disown us;

            If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

The bible makes no attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction.  At one time this kind of thing frustrated me no end, and occasionally it still does.  I recognize now that I will never fully understand all the mysteries that surround the scriptures.  But at the end of the day, I can still trust the scriptures because they are God’s word.  And our God is faithful.

A final word we may not want to hear—we advance the word of God most effectively not by talking about it but by living it.  For all his verbal skills, I’m not sure Paul would have made the impact he made 2000 years ago without suffering for the gospel.  Jesus and Paul were willing to suffer mightily for the word.  And through them the word changed the world.

A couple of years ago at some cost and inconvenience, we opened our facilities to house the homeless, and I think that single act had more impact on our community than my best 10 sermons on the homeless would have ever had.  Now, we have still other opportunities to practice what we preach in our community, and my hunch is when and as we do people will listen. 

Yes, people today are drowning in a sea of words.  But people still hunger to hear the word.  Will they hear it from us?