A recent conversation shocked me. I was talking to a believer I had always admired, one who in my limited judgement, not only possesses the gifts of grace and service, but regularly applies them. However they confessed to me they felt a failure as they were not a bible student. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” 2 Tim 2:15 was the passage brought forward as evidence of their deficiency and lack of self-worth.
Study is valuable, study is good but it is only one component of a healthy functioning body of believers. In Rom 12:5-8 Paul identifies different roles and gifts people bring to the body. These gifts are varied:
- showing mercy
As he notes elsewhere in connection with spirit gifts, there was variety but the essential point is we contribute in the areas which are suitable to us. Whereas in Rome some had various spirit gifts, today we have the various abilities God has developed in us through natural inclinations and life experience.
As happened in the first century, certain areas of ministry can be exalted and desired. It is not uncommon, especially in youth circles, to encourage members to be bible students and/or speakers. Paul’s words to Timothy give apparent warrant for such exhortation. However Paul had already instructed Timothy to “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” 1Tim 4:16. Paul speaks to Timothy as one whose responsibility was to teach and relay the message of the gospel. We should frame the instruction to Timothy in this context.
The stark reality is many of us, while more literate than first century believers, are not natural readers or students. I’m sure many of us know friends and family who have struggled to reconcile their personal aptitude and abilities with the expectation they will be a ‘bible student’. The reality is many of us are not well suited to books, especially those employing the seeming impenetrable fog of 17th to 19th century English. We are each invited to be in God’s image, not the image of a teacher who mistakenly may think their particular stream of service is the only (or most critical) one.
The word logos is familiar to many of us, the Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament gives its meaning as: “λόγος lógos; gen. lógou, masc. noun from légō (3004), to speak intelligently. Intelligence, word as the expression of that intelligence, discourse, saying, thing.”1 I.e. the idea of logos is a spoken word – not a written one. The gospel was preached orally. The early believers heard the word. Even when inspiration (finally) recorded the word on paper it was designed to be read among the believers and copies shared to be read elsewhere (Col 4:16). Throughout Paul’s epistles he comments on the believers having heard the God’s Word gospel and believed what they heard (eg Eph 1:13, Col 1:5-6, 1 Thes 2:13). The literacy we enjoy in many first world nations today (though still variable) is a recent phenomenon and not integral to the effectiveness of the gospel. As noted in various bible dictionaries, the usual view is that literacy in the first century rarely exceeded 10%.2 Paul under inspiration wouldn’t have being insisting on members of the community all being bible students given they didn’t have the fundamental tools to implement this. In our world of mass literacy we can misunderstand Paul’s message specifically to Timothy. Paul is not instructing each individual believer to be handy with lexicons. Studying God’s word is an essential part of a healthy body, but not only is it not an end in itself, it is also not the most appropriate spiritual pursuit for many.
The essential point here is for us to value all the gifts required for the body and not to cause distress to some members of the body by undue emphasis on a single gift. Faith comes by hearing. Study is a critical contribution to the spiritual health of any God fearing community (“the priest’s lips must keep knowledge” Mal 2:7), as is exhortation/encouragement, grace and service. Collectively these gifts strengthen our community and effectively enable all of us to better fear the Lord and speak together about His name (Mal 3:16.)
- Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
- Gamble, H. (2000). Literacy and Book Culture. In C. A. Evans & S. E. Porter (Eds.), Dictionary of New Testament background: a compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship (electronic ed., pp. 644–645). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.