28 Feb 2016

2 Timothy 3.16: the Spiritual Gift of Wisdom unto Salvation in the “Old Testament”

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Bible, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Holy Spirit, Paul, Psalms, Spiritual Disciplines
Sometimes we begin our quotes to late ...

Sometimes we begin our quotes to late … begin with verse 14!

Think Story

The more I read the Bible cover to cover the more I realize how intertwined and Jewish it is as a whole. It is a single integrated Story of God creating and redeeming his creation from beginning to end. Its a story of the same God, with the same people, for the same world from creation to eschaton.

The more we prayerfully read God’s Story our eyes are opened to even from familiar passages when we allow God’s Spirit to impress upon us things we do not know. We join our heart to the Spirit and pray “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps 119.18).

Wondrous Things in Your Law (Ps 119.18)

Early this morning Casper, and I, were reading and praying in the Psalms and preparing for gathered worship with PV, some language about becoming wise, gaining wisdom, etc for some reason made me think of a passage in 2 Timothy. A much used passage too.

We frequently quote 2 Timothy 3.16, 17 without realizing that Paul is actually talking about what has come to be called the “Old Testament” in most of expressions of the Christian faith. Rabbi Paul, the Pharisee (Acts 23.6), was a devotee of the Hebrew Bible and its Greek translation called the Septuagint. The “pattern” he laid down on Timothy was that he devote himself to the study of what we call the “Old Testament” (2 Timothy 2.15) so that in his ministry he could properly explain the word of God (Timothy never read from nor preached from a “New Testament” in his entire life). The Septuagint was what Timothy was do “devote [himself] to the public reading” (1 Timothy 4.13) for the benefit of the his primarily Gentile believers. The historical and the literary context of Timothy show beyond reasonable doubt that Paul talks to Timothy about the Old Testament in 2 Timothy 3.15-16 as the very breath of God.

But Paul would not recognize the term “Old Testament” as applied to the holy Scriptures (a phrase coined by Melito of Sardis in the mid-second century). But it is the language in v.15 that arrested my mind this morning. I have used 2 Tim 3.15-16 many many times in my life but simply failed to “see.”

Not only is Paul referring to the only Scriptures Timothy has known since he was a child, something I have often stressed (the letter 2 Timothy did not arrive via UPS with a note attached –  “NEW SCRIPTURE”), what is called the Old Testament, he speaks of its function in a very typical Jewish way.  What I had missed all these years is that when Paul speaks of Scripture he speaks as a traditional pious rabbi.

“Give Me Understanding … I am yours, Save me” (Ps 119.34, 94)

The text that Casper called attention to this morning as we were praying reads,

and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures [the Hebrew Bible/LXX],

Once you are curious about something you have to look. The language of “making wise” is typical, almost standard, Jewish talk about the function and value of Torah, of God’s “law.” The language of Paul is based on the LXX at Psalm 19.7, the text Timothy devotes himself to study and public reading. The surrounding context of 3.15 is also important. But before I quote that, I want to refer to several other texts Paul, and his Septuagint readers, would have known on this matter.  From Ben Sira, whom Jesus of Nazareth also treasured much of his writing.

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory: I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist …

Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits. For the memory of me is sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more. Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame, and those who work with me will not sin.’ All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob.” (Sirach 24.1-3, 19-23)

From Baruch the congregants in Ephesus would hear …

Here the commandments of life, O Israel; give ear. learn wisdom! Why is it, O Israel, why is it that you are in the land of your enemies? … You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom. If you had walked in the way of God you would be living in peace forever. Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding, so that you may at the same time discern … Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? Who has gone over the sea, and found her, and will buy her for pure gold? No one know the way to her … But the One, who knows all things knows her, he found her by his understanding …

he called it [the Torah], and it obeyed him … This is our God; no other can be compared to him. He found the whole of knowledge, and gave it to his servant Jacob and to Israel whom he loved. Afterward she appeared on earth and lived with humankind. She is the commandments of God, the law that endures forever” (Baruch 3.9-14, 29-4.1)

Though these texts were known to Paul and his contemporaries, they are less known to modern American Protestant readers. But if we turn to texts that Protestants probably (or should) know we see the continued emphasis on how God’s law/torah makes wise those to whom it is given. Moses declared the function of Torah was to make one “wise” and give “wisdom.”  That is the Torah actively operates precisely because it is energized by God’s own Spirit, which is exactly what Paul states to Timothy. As Paul says in Romans 7, of the same Torah mentioned here in 2 Timothy 3.15-16, it, the Law, is “OF the Spirit” (Romans 7.14, most English translations render this as “Spiritual” with a little “s” … See Gordon Fee’s discussion in God’s Empowering Spirit on the matter).

See, I have taught you the decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, FOR this will show your WISDOM and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a WISE and UNDERSTANDING people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” (Deuteronomy 4.5-7; see 4.32-40 and 30.6-20)

he [Yahweh] will be the stability of your times, abundance of SALVATION, WISDOM, and KNOWLEDGE: the fear of the LORD is Zion’s treasure” (Isaiah 33.8)

Psalm 119 is literally loaded with imagery related to Paul’s words to Timothy about the “Old Testament.” Just one sample from 119.97-14 with its emphasis on the Spiritual gift of wisdom and understanding that are carried by the breath of God to those breathing in the word.

Oh, how I love your Torah!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me WISER than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation …
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances, f
or you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding

And finally the text that forms the very verbal allusion for Paul’s language (many other texts could be drawn from though), Psalm 19. I am not sure why I have never made the connection previously. Perhaps even yet on a subconscious level I continue to drive an imagined wedge between the Testaments. Some misconceptions take a life time to recover from … Paul would have sung this Psalm hundreds of times (19.7-11)

psalm1911-17The Torah/law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is radiant,
giving light to the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure
and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.”

Perfection. Reviving. Making wise. Rejoicing the heart. Enlightening the eyes. Delicious in taste. How powerful and rich the Spirit carried Torah of God. Neither the Psalmist nor Paul imagines the Torah to be “dead.”

Final Thoughts,”It {God’s Torah} Imparts Understanding to the Simple” (Ps 119.130)

When we read Paul’s description of what “holy Scripture” does in vv 16 and 17, correcting, training, reproofing, equipping, etc this is all “stuff” that comes from what is declared about God’s word in all of these texts and more. It is typical, traditional, Jewish theology on the purpose, function and gift of God’s Spirit word.

Since he was about five Timothy had been trained to seek wisdom in the Scriptures, that is in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (and for Christians today this would include the Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Revelation but we need to take seriously Paul’s own context and Timothy’s). God’s word has always, from the time of Moses to today, made those who devoted themselves to it … wise unto salvation … because it brings us to God himself.

I do not want us to miss the very traditional and very Jewish way that Paul speaks in this verse about the power and function of holy Scripture because of our own anti-Jewish Protestant American Evangelical context. Saying Scripture, the Old Testament Scripture, makes us wise for salvation is not new but as “old as the hills” to borrow a phrase. And indeed Paul uses Scriptural language itself when making this claim. Not sure why it took me this long to have this epiphany. Paul tells Timothy to devote his ministry to the Hebrew Bible because it does something … it grants through the very Spirit of God wisdom unto salvation.

If the great Lord is willing he {the seeker} will be filled with the Spirit of Understanding; he will pour fourth words of wisdom of his own and give thanks to the Lord in prayer. The Lord will direct his counsel and knowledge as he meditates on his mysteries. He will show the wisdom of what he has learned, and glory in the law of the Lord’s covenant …” (Sirach 39.6-8)

For Further Reading

Sweeter than Honey: Torah, God’s Love Story

Why We Need the ‘Old Testament’: Ten Ways the Hebrew Bible is Necessary for Christian Faith (Reflections on 2 Timothy 3.16-17)


3 Responses to “2 Timothy 3.16: the Spiritual Gift of Wisdom unto Salvation in the “Old Testament””

  1. Connie Pollner Says:

    I loved this Bobby. Your reflections have inspired me to take a much bigger interest in the Psalms and the Torah. Also why I love attending a Messianic Jewish congregation when I can.

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      Thank you for the kind word Connie. I am honored to have you visit, read and comment on my blog. It is amazing how saturated the language of the “New Testament” is with that of the so called “Old Testament.” We (modern disciples) fail to recognize this because we simply do not know the Hebrew Bible the way first century disciples did.

  2. Dwight Says:

    It is true we ought to understand the Jewish thought to understand the Christian thought. The OT wasn’t for the Jews, but for the NT saints as well to understand why they were at the point they were at. The eunuch read from Isaiah in Acts 8:27 and this was used as the spring board for Christ. The message of the OT was Christ, because as Jesus said, “salvation is of the Jews” and they didn’t have much of the NT early on. Peter taught from the OT when converting to Christ in Acts 2.
    The majority of the arrow isn’t the point, but the base or shaft which drives the point in. An arrow without a point hits and then bounces off, but a point without a good body doesn’t take flight at all.


  1. Stoned-Campbell Disciple » Blog Archive » Why We Need the “Old Testament:” Ten Ways the Hebrew Bible is Necessary for Christianity (Reflections on 2 Timothy 3.16-17)

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