“Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down!” Does that little ditty bring back memories? If it does, you must be over forty. If it doesn’t, let me fill you in on a cultural phenomenon from the 70s. Weebles were little egg-shaped plastic figurines that were weighted in such a way that, when knocked over, they would bounce back to an upright position. No matter how hard or how often they wobbled, Weebles always returned to their default position.
So, what’s my point? Simply this: when it comes to doctrine, we’re not unlike Weebles. That is to say, we have a default position. When left to ourselves, we naturally gravitate to error. Why? There are numerous reasons. We’re attracted to the carnal and sensual, meaning we’re drawn to whatever appeals to our senses. We’re enamored with novelty and, therefore, always on the lookout for the spectacular and sensational. We’re susceptible to relativism – the notion that everyone is entitled to his version of the truth. We’re susceptible to mysticism – the notion that truth is discovered through private intuition. We’re susceptible to pragmatism – the notion that we determine the value of truth by its perceived usefulness to us. And on it goes.
Our natural disposition to error is but one of the many reasons why we must constantly affirm the primacy of Scripture in the life of the Christian and in the life of the church (2 Tim. 3:16–17). This primacy ought to be evident in (at least) four ways.
We handle Scripture rightly
Paul writes, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The expression “rightly handling” is orthotomeo. It’s the source of our English orthodox. It literally means to cut straight. Paul’s point is that we must seek to be accurate in our interpretation of God’s Word.
First, we must avoid the danger of contentious words. Paul says, “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Tim. 2:14). Some people appeal to this verse to argue that we shouldn’t debate doctrine: “Let’s not talk about that issue. It only ruins those who hear.” But that’s a serious mishandling of this verse. Paul isn’t talking about words in Scripture. His concern is extra-biblical teaching – what he calls “endless genealogies” and “silly myths” (1 Tim. 1:4; 4:7). Quarreling over such things ruins those who hear. The Greek term for “ruin” is the source of our English word catastrophe. It means to pull down. It’s used to describe God’s destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet. 2:6). Paul’s point is that an approved worker doesn’t get involved in this kind of destructive teaching.
Second, we must avoid the danger of irreverent babble. Paul says, “But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Tim. 2:16). He gives an example of what he means in verse 18. According to Hymenaeus and Philetus, the resurrection had already taken place. In all likelihood, they’re dualists, believing the spiritual is good and the physical is evil. As a result, they define the resurrection as an awakening of the soul to a special knowledge of God. That’s the kind of nonsense we must avoid. Paul gives three reasons why an approved workman must stay away from such “babble:” it leads to ungodliness; it spreads like gangrene; and it upsets the faith of believers (2 Tim. 2:16–18).
We follow Scripture unwaveringly
Paul writes, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it …” (2 Tim. 3:14). The context for Paul’s exhortation is his warning earlier in the chapter: “But understand this, that in the last days, there will come times of difficulty” (2 Tim. 3:1). In Scripture, the phrase “last days” refers to the time between Christ’s two advents. Paul warns that this time will be difficult. Why? He proceeds to describe false teachers, who deceive the vulnerable and oppose the truth. It’s against this backdrop that Paul exhorts Timothy to continue in what he has learned from him. What had Timothy learned from Paul? Earlier in this letter, Paul speaks of “the sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), “the good deposit” (2 Tim. 1:14), and “the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). As far as Paul is concerned, there’s an accepted and established body of truth. There’s a rule. There’s a standard. He exhorts Timothy to continue in it.
Interestingly, Paul roots his exhortation in his example: “knowing from whom you have learned it.” Earlier, he commends Timothy: “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings …” (2 Tim. 3:10–11).
Paul wasn’t after money: “We never came with a pretext for greed” (1 Thess. 2:5). If he were alive today, he wouldn’t own a private jet. He wouldn’t drive a Bentley. He wouldn’t appear on stage in expensive suits with quaffed hair. He wouldn’t profit from the gospel. He wouldn’t market the gospel. He wouldn’t market himself. He wouldn’t plaster his face on bill-boards and book-covers. He wouldn’t say that God willed his financial prosperity. He wouldn’t define the abundant life in terms of material wealth. He wouldn’t teach that we should give, so that God will prosper us. He wouldn’t turn the Christian faith into a commercial enterprise.
Paul wasn’t after glory: “Nor did we seek glory from people” (1 Thess. 2:6). If he were alive today, he wouldn’t be concerned about making a name for himself. He wouldn’t want to draw attention to himself. He wouldn’t start a church bearing his name, or a ministry bearing his name, or an organization bearing his name. He wouldn’t be the focus of every conference. He wouldn’t go on a book-signing tour. He wouldn’t use gimmicks. He wouldn’t manufacture controversy, in order to get attention. He wouldn’t be verbally edgy or culturally savvy. He wouldn’t talk about himself in the third person. He wouldn’t create a cult of personality. He wouldn’t turn the Christian faith into a means by which he could stroke his over-inflated ego.
Paul served for the glory of God. He urges Timothy to do the same, emulating his example.
We proclaim Scripture faithfully
Paul writes, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:1–2). To preach is to proclaim as a herald. A herald is a king’s principal means of communication with his subjects. Paul charges Timothy to be God’s herald.
Paul proceeds to say five things about biblical preaching. (1) Preaching evidences conviction: “be ready in season and out of season.” The term “ready” indicates that preachers must always be on duty. There are fruitful and unfruitful seasons. Either way, the preacher is to be ready. (2) Preaching exposes sin: “reprove” and “rebuke.” To reprove is to correct. To rebuke is to forbid or admonish. Both are expressions of authority. In reproving and rebuking, preachers seek to expose sin. As physicians of the soul, preachers diagnose spiritual ailments and prescribe spiritual remedies. (3) Preaching encourages obedience: “exhort.” To exhort means to urge a practical response to God’s Word. The goal of preaching is change. In Scripture, God sets before us life or death, blessing or cursing, favor or fury, salvation or condemnation, heaven or hell. These aren’t mere trifles. (4) Preaching exemplifies endurance: “with complete patience.” The farmer doesn’t sow his seed, and expect to see a crop the next day. The sun must shine. The rain must fall. The seed must germinate. Preaching is no different. It requires great patience, as change takes time. (5) Preaching emphasizes doctrine: “teaching.” A great temptation in preaching is to by-pass the mind. Why? It’s easier to excite the emotions than edify the mind. It’s easier to be inspirational than instructional. But preaching that by-passes the mind can only ever engender a temporary affect. Lasting change is always affected through the mind. As we grow in knowledge, the truth embraces the affections, thereby producing change.
Why’s this kind of preaching so urgent? It isn’t normal. Paul gives the norm in the context: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3). The promiscuous wants to hear that what he does in private is his own business. The materialist wants to hear that his money is for his personal use. The alcoholic wants to hear that his sin is a physical disease. The carnal wants to hear that he can approach God however he pleases. The idolater wants to hear that he can serve God and follow his own ambitions. The legalist wants to hear that God keeps score. The idle wants to hear that some sins are mere trifles. The misogynist wants to hear that he’s exercising his God-given authority in the home. The embittered wants to hear that he has a right to be angry. The irresponsible wants to hear that someone else is to blame.
People want to hear about their perfectibility, not their depravity. They want to hear that God wills their prosperity, not their adversity. They want to hear that God loves them unconditionally, not that He unconditionally commands them to repent. They want to hear that God is concerned about their happiness, not their holiness. They want to hear that God is satisfied with semi-regular Sunday-attendance, a few cold prayers, and a half-baked faith, not that He demands their absolute allegiance. They want to hear that God is accepting, not that He has ordained a narrow gate that leads to a narrow way.
When we hear the Word, we face two choices: we can submit to it, or we can find a church that will tell us what we want to hear. When we preach the Word, we face two choices: we can declare it, or we can adapt its teaching to cater to itching ears – the opinions, sentiments, lifestyles, desires, and values of the age in which we live.
“All Scripture is God breathed.” We must affect our hearts with its inestimable value. It reveals a glorious God. It reveals a great Saviour and a great salvation. It’s the means by which God breaks a hard heart, humbles a proud heart, awakens a sleepy heart, enlightens a darkened heart, and regenerates a dead heart. It’s the means by which Christ cleanses His bride. It’s the means by which the Spirit sanctifies us. It sustains in times of dark affliction. It comforts in times of deep sorrow. It strengthens in times of danger. It guides in times of confusion. It promises the greatest blessings. It entitles us to the best inheritance. It has God for its author, Christ for its matter, and eternal life for its end. It is, says George Swinnock, a “special treasure,” which God has deposited “into the hands of the children of men.”
 George Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling in The Works of George Swinnock: Vol. I-V, ed. James Nichol (London, 1868; rpt., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992), 1:141.