“Make every effort to present yourself approved (by testing) to God, a worker unashamed, teaching rightly the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15; my translation)
In what is probably the last known letter from Paul, the apostle instructs his younger co-worker, Timothy, on how to conduct himself. The first verb means to make every effort or do one’s best or be eager. The KJV translates it as “study,” a word that of course anyone involved in academia knows all about. The goal of making every effort/being conscientious is not, however, to gain academic recognition. Instead, it is to be able to present yourself to God as genuine or approved. The word for “approved” is related to a verb that means not only to be tested, but to pass the test, as in being assayed like gold (or Fool’s Gold). Paul exhorts Timothy to make every effort to present himself to God as one who has successfully passed the test of being and doing what God desires. Such a person does not need to be ashamed. While we in the U.S. dislike shame, in Paul’s world honor and shame were supreme cultural values; being ashamed, or gaining shame, was a terrible thing to experience. In this verse, the demonstration that one renders or presents oneself to God approved is through being a worker who teaches rightly the word of truth.
As someone involved in biblical studies, this can prove harder than it sounds. First, because of the studying I have done, typical devotional books are not very devotional because my first question—often unconsciously—is, “Was that verse used out of context?” Then, “Is that what that passage is really saying?” Then there’s the challenge of Bible study vs. Bible study! There have been many days, both during my doctoral work and since, I am afraid to admit, when I have spent time studying what others say about a biblical text, but not spent time reading the Bible to hear from its ultimate Author. I am teaching an online course this semester for Asbury Theological Seminary on Paul’s “Captivity Letters,” Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. Having prepped for this, I can explain what scholars think that Paul means when he says in Eph. 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, in order that we may walk in them,” but I have not taken time this semester, even though I have talked about this verse, to read it myself and ask the Holy Spirit to open my eyes to the specific good works I should be walking in. So studying the Bible as a biblical scholar is not the same as, nor a substitute for, personal Bible study. The first helps me learn about the meaning of the text, while the second helps me to hear the text for my own Christian life.
I am reminded of a statement by C. S. Lewis in the Great Divorce, in which a character says, “There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself . . . as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist!” While the particular challenges of integrating my faith and my discipline may be unique to biblical studies, it might be true for others that research, teaching, and the other demands of life can crowd out personal devotions. Paul would have us make every effort to present ourselves as workers who do not need to be ashamed. Being able to translate the Greek New Testament or explain the approaches to interpreting Jesus’ parables is not a substitute for seeking to connect with God through reading and studying Scripture. Paul believed that this instruction to Timothy was important enough to put into his last letter written to anyone, as far as we know. If Paul thought that this was that important for Timothy to do, surely it is vital for us too.
1. What is your greatest obstacle as an academic to spending time in God’s word?
2. What are some creative ways to deal with this obstacle?
Lord, sometimes, even when studying Your Word academically, seeking to hear from You is crowded out. We pray that You would supply us with Your power, with wisdom, and with a strong passion to seek You. Help us to make every effort in encountering You and hearing Your voice through the Bible, that we may be able to present our efforts to You as workers who have been tested by our busy schedules, and chosen You over the things that clamor for our attention. Help us to be workers who do not need to be ashamed, because we have made meeting with You the highest priority in our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. Touchstone edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Kenneth D. Litwak has a Ph.D. In New Testament studies. He teaches as an online adjunct for Asbury Theological Seminary, a computer programmer, and continues trying to find a full-time teaching position in biblical studies.