The Trustworthy Word
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The Trustworthy Word

2 Timothy 3:16–17  (ID: 3057)

The Bible’s power to change us stems from the fact that it is God’s Word, spoken by Him and absolutely trustworthy. Simply agreeing with this fact is not enough, though. In order to hear God speak, we must read His Word. In this message, Alistair Begg encourages us to read the Scriptures prayerfully every day and apply what we learn, allowing the Word to do its work in our hearts.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Work of the Word

Four Essential Attributes of Scripture 2 Timothy 3:16–17 Series ID: 27301

A Study in 2 Timothy, Volume 3

God’s Word for Godless Times 2 Timothy 3:1–4:5 Series ID: 15504

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, I invite you to turn now to 2 Timothy and to chapter 3—I think for the final time in chapter 3. I hope so. You might be hoping so as well. I don’t think we’ve exhausted these verses, but I think I may have exhausted you, and so we will move on to chapter 4 next.

Two Timothy 3:16:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, … for training in righteousness, [so] that the man of God may be [competent], equipped for every good work.”

O Father, we pray that the Spirit of God will enable us. It’s warm in this room. We pray for strength to be able to think properly and for the work of your Spirit to illumine our minds and quicken our hearts, that we might be conformed into the very image of your dearly beloved Son. For it’s in his name we pray. Amen.

I’m told that the late Howard Hendricks, who was a beloved professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, had a sign either on his wall or on his desk—I’m not sure which—he would see on a daily basis when he walked out of his study and into the classroom where he was about to teach. And the sign said, “What are you doing with these people?” “What are you doing with these people?” In his case, his students, whom he had responsibility for; in the case of Timothy, the people who are under his care as he pastors the church here in Ephesus; and in my case and in the case of my colleagues, the congregation that is under our direction as we open the Scriptures routinely and consistently together: “What are you doing with these people?”

It is a peculiar privilege to be in a place for a long time, because, one, you get to know the people, and the people get to know you. It takes away all of the surprises. I always tell people, “They are able to discount your highs and your lows. They’re neither thoroughly impressed with you, nor are they thoroughly surprised when you let them down, because you have had the same experience in their lives.” As Dick Lucas reminded us, he told this congregation, “If you knew what I was really like, you would never listen to me preach.” And then he added, “And if I knew what you were like, I would not actually preach to you.” So, it cuts both ways, and the benefit of being in each other’s company is considerable.

Because even with that, if you take that this is the second of our three morning congregations, how possible—how impossible, rather—is it for any one individual to be able to get his head or his heart or his hands around all of the hopes and the concerns, the fears, the expectations, and the failures that are represented in just a congregation of this size? It’s clearly impossible for any one individual, in preparation for the teaching of the Bible, to be able to make application of the truth of the Bible, taking into account all of these dimensions. Now, this, of course, ought not to surprise us but to remind us of our dependence upon the work of the Spirit of God.

Henry Twells, who was an Anglican minister in the nineteenth century in the UK, was also the headmaster of a school for some time. And on one occasion, as the headmaster, he had the responsibility of exercising the role of adjudicator at an examination that was taking place in one of the great halls. There was no time frame on the examination; the people could take as much time as was required in order to complete their task. And he records how one young fellow seemed to be planning on staying well into the evening, because he was the only person left, still scribbling. And, of course, the headmaster was there with him.

And as the headmaster waited on this boy to finish, the sun was beginning to set, and his mind began to wander—hopefully not the boy’s as well, but the headmaster’s mind was wandering. And he wandered to the place in Luke where it says, “And as it was towards evening, they brought all of the sick to the Lord Jesus, and he healed them.”[1] And as he began to think about the ministry of Jesus as the evening shadows fell, he started to scribble down a little bit of poetry, which eventually became a well-worn hymn, as least in the United Kingdom—a hymn that begins with the line, “At even,” or “At evening,” “ere the sun was set, the sick, O Lord, around thee lay; O in what divers pains they met!”—various pains they met—“[and in] what joy they went away!”[2]

And then, along the same lines as I’m suggesting to you now about the hopes and the fears and so on, he then reflects on the magnitude of need that is represented amongst the gathered people of God and wrote lines like this:

O Savior Christ, our woes dispel;
For some are sick, and some are sad,
And some have never loved thee well,
And some have lost the love they had; …

And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And [those] who fain would serve thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.

And there are two verses that are routinely left out from the hymnody, from the hymn books. They go as follows:

And some are pressed with worldly care,
And some are tried with sinful doubt;
And some such grievous passions [fear]
That only thou [can] cast them out.

And some have found the world is vain,
Yet from the world they break not free;
And some have friends who [cause] them pain,
Yet have[n’t] sought a friend in thee.

And there’s the sense in which he only scratches the surface of the magnitude of humanity that is represented when we gather before the Word of God. The question on Hendricks’s desk was “What are you doing with these people?” The better question might be “What is God doing with these people?” and the secondary question, “And how is God doing what he’s doing with these people?” And the answer, of course, is the answer that we have been turning to for some weeks now: God is at work by the Holy Spirit through his Word. And the way in which God does that is both mysterious and it is marvelous. It is unmistakable, and yet it is almost incomprehensible.

But if we think about it, it’s not too hard to grasp why this should be. After all, each of us, to one degree or another, has been sustaining ourselves through the week that is past as a result of the intake of water and of food. Without water and without food, then we are malnourished. In the same way, the spiritual life of the believer is maintained by the food of God’s Word, and the absence of the food of God’s Word leads as surely to malnutrition in the spiritual dimension as the absence of physical food leads to the same in the physical realm.

Jesus, when he refuted the accusations and intimidations and temptations of the devil in the wilderness, recorded in Matthew 4, in each instance he responded to the devil by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy. The reality was that he used the Word of God in order to drive back these accusations. And then he says to the devil, “Man [does] not live [on] bread alone, but [on] every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[3] How does a person live their spiritual life? Through the “word that comes from the mouth of God.”

The spiritual life of the believer is maintained by the food of God’s Word.

Eating disorders are painful, and they are ultimately harmful. We teach our children, even the little ones that are fairly orderly, how to chew their food. “Don’t play with your food,” we say. “Don’t fiddle with it. Chew it.” And then, when they’re chewing and chewing and chewing, we say, “Why don’t you swallow the stuff? We don’t have all day for breakfast”—something along those lines. And our children are often bemused and confused by our honest and genuine desires and designs to make sure that they eat properly. The same frustration you find in the role of pastoral ministry. You’re saying to your congregation, “Chew the jolly stuff, would you?” And then, after a while, “Would you please swallow it, and let’s get on? How long do we have to spend on this?” And the congregation may be as confused and bemused as our tiny children are. Because actually, some parts of the Bible are harder to understand and chew than others, aren’t they?

Now, we dealt with the doctrine of providence last Sunday evening. We’ll come back to it this evening again as it relates to the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. And I’ve been greatly helped recently by turning again to the Westminster Confession of Faith, in particular to a wonderful new book that’s been written by a friend of mine. And quoting from the Westminster Confession, in chapter 1 on the doctrine of Holy Scripture, it reads as follows. Part 1, section 7, for those of you who always get in touch with me on Monday mornings and say, “Where was that from?” Section 7 of part 1. All right? I’m very happy to respond to that. Actually, I don’t, but Kay does. Anyway…

Not all things in Scripture are equally plain in themselves or equally clear to all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly stated and explained in one place or another in Scripture, that not only the educated but also the uneducated may gain a sufficient understanding of them by a proper use of the ordinary means.[4]

What are the “ordinary means”? The means of grace in the Scripture and in the illuminating work of God the Holy Spirit.

“If,” says the writer, “this is God’s Word, then little wonder that it is to be our rule of faith and life. Here we learn who and how to worship, who and how to trust for our salvation and all of our needs, and how to live our lives. It is for this reason that the whole Bible should be read frequently by all Christians, and should be at the centre of the Christian church. Those,” notice, “who ignore the Holy Scripture are doomed to stumble into ever deepening darkness. Those who embrace the Scripture, believe what it promises, … walk by its precepts, will never be without a guide or a light, and they will find their way to their Father’s home.”[5] How will you find your way to the Father’s home? Only guided by the light of Scripture itself.

Now, we recognize, too, that the things that are plain are plain, and the things that aren’t plain are not plain. Some of the things are inscrutable. That’s why it’s important for the congregation to understand, and the teachers of the congregation to understand, that it is not the role of the Bible teacher to explain the unexplainable. “The secret things”—remember Deuteronomy 29:29? “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things … revealed belong to us and to our children forever,” not in order to answer our curiosity but in order “that we may [follow] all the words of this law”—the same law that Jesus quoted to the devil in the temptation (Jesus was actually doing this), and the same law that the people discovered when they asked Ezra to bring out the Book and teach them.[6] And when they discovered what the Word of God said and how far distant they were from its instruction, they didn’t regard it as a cute little operation for taking notes and going out, but they wept when they heard it,[7] because the Word of God came home to them with such conviction that they realized, “This is the very Word of God. This is the basis of life. This is the secret to godliness. This is the way,” as the writer puts it, “into the Father’s home.”

The Bible doesn’t tell us—as Sinclair reminded us a couple of weeks ago—the Bible doesn’t tell us everything about everything. But it does tell us everything that we need to know in order to know him and in order to know how to live as he desires.

In other words, what Paul is saying to Timothy here in these concluding verses, starting around verse 14 in our version—he’s essentially saying, “Timothy, here’s the normal Christian life, and here’s the key to the normal Christian life. Here is the complete handbook that is required in order to know what it is to know God and to know what it is to live for God. It’s the complete guide, if you like, to Christian living and godliness.” And so it follows that Timothy is then being urged to teach the Bible as faithfully as he can in order that the confidence of God’s people may be in God’s Word.

You see, when I tell you that it’s important to pray for your pastors on multiple levels, I mean it most sincerely. I don’t think the real danger confronting the average pastor like myself or my colleagues, who are convinced and continuing in these things—I don’t think there’s a real danger of us stopping believing the Bible. But there is a danger that we might stop using the Bible—just stop using it; start to believe that your ideas are the key, that your strategy is the key, that your five-year plan for the future is really how it all works. And so you become like a soldier who has a rusty sword that remains sheathed. It has never been unsheathed for ages. It just hangs listlessly by its side. It has never been used in battle for ages. Oh, he believes that it is an effective implement, but it’s just a useless relic from a bygone age. He has not unsheathed his sword in the longest of times.

You should always be on the alert to make sure: “Pastor, teach the Bible. Pastor, we want you to teach the Bible. We want to say to you what was said to Ezra: ‘Bring out the Book. Bring out the Book.’ And we want to hold you to that book, so that we as students of this book will be able to make sure that you are holding the line to the Book, as opposed to trying to impress us with your ideas about the Book.” There’s a vast difference, you see. There’s a way to respond to the Bible that is almost entirely sentimental, or with an intense practicality that’s just looking for seven little principles to run away with, but they may never actually dig deep down into your soul to change you.

Now, there has been a repetitive element to what we’re doing, and purposefully so, because we want to be clear, as Paul makes it clear to Timothy, that it is by means of this Bible that salvation comes. “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”[8] The Bible tells us that we need to be saved, that we can’t save ourselves by trying to be good or trying to be religious. It tells us that only God saves, because he sent Jesus to die in our place; that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the punishment that sin deserves has been borne in him. The position, the penalty, has been assumed by him, and having paid that penalty and borne that punishment, he then invites repentant sinners into a relationship with himself. That’s what the whole book is about. It’s about saying, “Do you know that the God who made you and from whom you are alienated as a result of sin, this God is seeking to have a relationship with you? The creator of the entire universe pursues you in the person of his Son and has made provision for your alienation in the cross and seeks to draw you to himself.”

How will we find our way to the Father’s home? Only guided by the light of Scripture itself.

Remember, we quote Calvin all the time on this: all that Christ has done for us is of no value to us so long as we remain outside of Christ.[9] And so the real pressing issue at the threshold of it all is “Have I turned in believing faith and in childlike trust to the Lord Jesus Christ, asking him to be the very Savior that I have personally admitted I need?” Your mom can’t do it for you, your grandpa won’t do it for you, your schoolteacher can’t do it for you, and the fact that you are serving in ministry at Parkside, that will not do it for you either. Until the Spirit of God brings us to the dawning realization that (a) “I am a great sinner,” as Newton put it, and (2) “in Jesus I have discovered a great Savior,”[10] then we remain outside of the realm into which the Spirit of God seeks to bring us.

Now, he goes on to say that this is the work that brings salvation, and once God has brought us into a relationship with himself, he continues his work to conform us to the image of his Son. Remember C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, where he talks about when God comes to a life as he had come to Lewis’s life. Lewis was agnostic at least or atheistic at worst, and he finally acknowledged who Jesus was and why he came. And then, as he writes in Mere Christianity, he says, “Imagine yourself living in a house, and God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he’s doing, just some basic repairs. But then he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and doesn’t make sense. Why is this? You thought that you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but he is building a palace—a palace in which he has come to live himself.”[11]

You don’t live in dirty palaces. He’s not making rundown dwellings. And how is he achieving this objective? How does he conform the child of God to the image of the Son of God? Well, the answer is here: he uses the Bible. He uses it not only to save but also to teach. To teach. We don’t need to belabor that point. But the fact of the matter is, it’s not simply a matter of information; it’s a matter of transformation. In chapter 2, remember, he had gone on a bit of a run, and he says to Timothy, “Think about what I’m saying, and the Lord will give you insight into all of this.”[12] In other words, the part of the listener is to reflect, and the part of God is to illuminate.

So, the teaching role is to make sure that those under the care of Timothy understand what is: what is true and what is right. The negative part of that comes in the verb, or the noun here, as it is: “for reproof.” “For reproof.” What is this “reproof”? Well, the teacher has to be prepared not only to say, “This is what it is,” but also, “This is what it isn’t”—not only to point out what is true but also to expose error when it is present.

And the error that was present in Ephesus was fairly clear to see, and so he had a responsibility to do that. And everyone who’s going to teach the Bible must do that. I don’t think we should establish hobby horses and just jump off into things, but as we come to things in the Bible, as we’re tackling them, we want to say, “This is what the Bible says.” For example, “Marriage is… And therefore, this isn’t marriage.” “This is what the Bible says about human life as a gift of God, and therefore, this is the very desecration of human life.” So, it is to say what is and to say what isn’t. That is the reproving element.

If, however, the pastor just wants to be liked by everybody and knows some people in the congregation feel that he’s a little over the top on something, and thereby, being afraid of them, he dulls his tone, then he’ll eventually amount to nothing of any consequence at all. I know that because Margaret Thatcher told me—not personally, but this is what she writes: “If you just set out to be liked, you’ll be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and thereby achieve nothing.” If you set out to be liked—everybody has to like you (and we as pastors are a bunch of insecure individuals)—if your insecurity drives you to the point where you’ve got to be affirmed by everybody, then eventually, it’ll amount to nothing, and you’ll give no leadership to the church at all.

You see how important it is for Timothy? As things are going from bad to worse, as impostors are present, as the pressing crush of the Ephesian culture moves in on him, and as people from within the leadership of the church that Paul had established there begin to crumble, “Timothy, remember: this book is for teaching,” positive, “and reproof.”

Now, it’s not an invitation to become a reproving individual. Some people love that word “reproof”: “Whoa! Nothing I like better than a nice reproof.” If you find a tendency in yourself that way, you need to ask somebody to help you with it. Because now, you know, you’re no longer Miss Piggy. You’ve become Waldorf or Statler, the two old boys up on the balcony, who just—all they ever do is heckle the people down on the main event. They’re just harrumphing and pumphing all the time. And there is an element within the framework of evangelical Christianity that seems to really, really like that. It’s not a nice thing. Who does the teaching? The Bible does the teaching. How is the reproving? The Bible does the reproving.

Thirdly, it provides correction. Well, “reprove” and “correct” sound like the same word. They sound like synonyms, don’t they? Well, they are, in one sense, synonyms—except that the first two refer to belief and the second two refer to behavior. When he comes here to correction, he’s talking ethically, not just intellectually, so that the outworking, the behavioral aspects, of what it means to be conformed to the image of Jesus are then being addressed by the Word of God. So the Word of God positively teaches us, negatively reproves us, and then corrects us when we are out of line.

The word that is used here, actually: epanorthōsis. Epanorthōsis. Now, say that three times quickly. Epanorthōsis. If you just stick with orthōsis, you’re going to be close to it, especially if you can think orthopedics or orthodontist, because that is actually where we get that word. It is present in the Septuagint. It is not present anywhere else in the entire New Testament. Paul uses it only once, and it’s only once found there. And what it essentially means is the realignment of things, bringing things into straight, bringing things that are out of line back onto line. And so there’s a thing in orthodonistry called Thin-o-Line. What’s that -in-o-Line thing? Yeah, Invisalign! That’s exactly it. So that you don’t have to be like, “Hello!” You can be brought into line without it being, you know, like a major event in your life.

And the work of the Spirit of God is that Invisalign work. So he takes that which is crooked and bent and out of alignment and brings it into line. And he does it in such a way as to give us a lovely smile, so that our smile may not simply draw attention to ourselves, but our smile might be a means of people saying, “Why do you have that smile? Why don’t you do the crooked things? Why are you ethically engaged in this way in business? Why is it that you always return your telephone calls? Why is it that you polish your shoes, and you polish the heels as well as the toes? Why are you the way you are?” You say, “Well, it’s the correcting work of the Spirit of God through the Word of God in my life.” George Herbert, the religious poet, in a paraphrase of the Twenty-Third Psalm, has these lines:

Or if I stray, [God] doth convert,
And bring my mind in frame,
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.[13]

So, it is also there to train—to train “in righteousness,” in right living. That’s essentially what it means. Remember when Jesus was baptized, and John the Baptist said to him, “Well, you shouldn’t… This is the wrong way around. You should be baptizing me.”[14] Jesus says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting … to fulfill all righteousness.”[15] There’s more in it than I’m going to mention, but there is this in it for sure. Jesus says, “This is the right thing to do. I’m going to do this because this is right to do.” And the work of the Word of God in the child of God is just that very same thing. It brings us to an understanding of where we’re out of line and corrects, and then it trains us in righteousness itself—our belief and our behavior brought under the jurisdiction of God’s Word.

So that the local church has an ER: Emergency Room—in British terminology, Accident and Emergency, A&E. People come in as accidents, and they are cared for. There is long-term care. There also is the opportunity for preventative medicine, and so the metaphor could just catch us up and swallow us. But there is to be a gymnasium element about the church. Because notice that the effect, or the result, perhaps even the objective of all of this—verse 17—is “that the man of God may be [competent and] equipped for every good work.” Thoroughly competent. “How are you going to, as a man of God, Timothy, be able to handle this?” “Well, I’m telling you how,” he says. “Stick with your Bible.” How is the Christian leader supposed to do this? The same way. How is the believer to do this? The same way.

And the word that is used here for “equipped” is the word that you find in the Gospels for the disciples, who are, after one of their fishing trips, on the shoreline, and Jesus comes upon them, and he sees “James the son of Zebedee and John his brother,” who were “in [their] boat,” and they were “mending their nets.”[16] “Mending their nets”: repairing them, cleaning them, preparing them. That’s the word that is used here.

How do you get clean? How do you get repaired? How do you get prepared? Answer: by the means of the Word of God. That’s why in Ephesians 4, where it says that the ascended Christ has given gifts to the church, part of that gifting is pastors and teachers, who then in turn are to edify the saints so that they might do the works of ministry[17]—so that the work of the Word is to cleanse, to repair, to prepare, to mend, and to fit us for usefulness.

Now, you see what trust this demands? Because if you think about it, that kind of impact is not usually immediately apparent. It’s like raising your kids: the benefits are usually not obvious early. And some of us are hoping that some of those benefits are still about to be revealed, you know, and justifiably so. The impact of this kind of ministry is usually not dramatic either. And so if the man of God, if the servant of God, if the church leader, if the child of God is consumed with immediate gratification, immediate impact, dramatic results, then the temptation will be to go to all the latest fads, to the newest ideas, to the hot buttons, to whatever else it is, to just to try and make sure that something is happening.

You see, you’ve got to have great confidence in the Bible to week after week read your Bible every day, Sunday by Sunday teach the Bible. “Teach the Bible? Why? Why would you keep doing this? Are you stupid? Have you got no decent ideas? Have you not read a book? What’s the problem with you?” No! No, no, no. I have read a few books. No, but this is the Book. This is the Book. This is the book that introduces us to Jesus. This is the book that corrects our faulty thinking, that teaches us how to think properly, that brings us into line, that keeps us in the fairway.

Are you encouraged by that? I hope you are. Because, you see, here we are this morning, broken. Broken! Well, not totally broken, but chipped. Bashed. I am. I’m chipped, bashed. How can I be fixed, repaired? Here. Dirty, selfish thoughts, bad acts, impure thinking. How can I be made clean? Here. I am misshapen. How can I be brought into line? Here.

Now, you see, when a congregation believes this—it may take a while, but when the truth dawns—it’ll be good. Really good. And right now, it’s quite good. So we’re hoping for really good. And we look to God alone.

Well, Father, thank you so much for the instruction of your Word, the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. We pray for ourselves as a congregation, that you will save us from pride on the one hand and despair on the other hand. I thank you that the gospel deals with both. It deals with my pride and tells me that only in Christ do I have forgiveness and salvation. It deals with my despair when I think I’ll never make it, because it promises that you not only equip us but that you will bring to completion the good work that you’ve begun.[18]

And we pray that you will quicken us and help us as we think about these things, as we look to the past and enjoy the present and anticipate the future, so that we might increasingly be convinced of the authority and sufficiency of your Word, so that the glory of your name might be the thing that fires our ambitions. Hear our prayers, O God, for your Son’s sake. Amen.

[1] Luke 4:40 (paraphrased).

[2] Henry Twells, “At Even, Ere the Sun Was Set” (1868).

[3] Matthew 4:4 (ESV).

[4] The Westminster Confession of Faith, Modern English Study Version, 1.7.

[5] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014), 10–11.

[6] See Nehemiah 8:1.

[7] See Nehemiah 8:9.

[8] Psalm 3:8 (ESV).

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1.

[10] John Newton, quoted in John Pollock, Amazing Grace: John Newton’s Story (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), 182. Paraphrased.

[11] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952), bk. 4, chap. 9. Paraphrased.

[12] 2 Timothy 2:7 (paraphrased).

[13] George Herbert, “The God of Love My Shepherd Is” (1633).

[14] Matthew 3:14 (paraphrased).

[15] Matthew 3:15 (ESV).

[16] Matthew 4:21 (ESV).

[17] See Ephesians 4:8, 11–12.

[18] See Philippians 1:6.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.