An amazing story emerges from the pages of the New Testament. No, I am not referring to God’s love in sending Jesus to rescue us from our sins, although this is truly amazing. Rather, I am referring to the glimpses we are permitted into another astounding and sobering story, a story involving people.
To fully appreciate the magnitude of what God has done, consider humanity’s first encounter with a bit of truth in the form of a command. Humanity was told, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). However, at the first opportunity to receive some misinformation, humanity embraced the distortions. Evil desires grew, resulting in disobedience.
Considering the bungling of this initial opportunity to handle truth, not to mention humanity’s long history of subsequent failings, is it not absolutely astounding that God has entrusted the most important message ever into human hands? And yet from Paul’s writings it is clear that God has.
As the years swept by, when an aging Paul needed to help Timothy and Titus navigate strange and unhealthy teachings, he recalled to their memory how God had entrusted him with his word (Titus 1:3; 1 Timothy 1:11). Paul wrote to Timothy that his appointment as a preacher, apostle and teacher of the gospel had caused him to endure suffering, because he realized God was able to guard what had been entrusted to him (2 Timothy 1:11-12).
Furthermore, Paul passed the responsibility of being entrusted with God’s message forward to Timothy, “Keep as the pattern of wholesome teaching what you heard from me in the faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the precious deposit that was entrusted to you through the Holy Spirit … the things you have heard from me, through the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 1:13,14; 2:2). Like a cascading river tumbling down from one level to another, the authentic message was to flow from one generation unto the next.
If Paul’s writings are representative of what Timothy heard Paul teach, and this seems reasonable, then the message Timothy was instructed to guard encompassed much more than the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. It also included “the Lord’s command” regarding worship practices (1 Corinthians 14:37), how the household of God was to conduct itself (1 Timothy 3:14-15) and a body of teachings that would be effective against the appearance of strange and unhealthy ideas (Ephesians 4:11-15).
To underscore that the messenger is not free to alter this message as he might deem best, Paul would drill into the Corinthian church’s psyche the necessity of stewards, who are entrusted with handling God’s word, to prove faithful (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). God determines, not the human servant, whether the handling of the message has been valuable, inconsequential or destructive (1 Corinthians 3:12-17; 4:3-4).
Yet, knowing all of this is not sufficient. A subtle force can still be at work reshaping the message into its own image.
Whatever is granted a higher priority than faithfully maintaining the message will create a powerful filter determining how scripture is interpreted. Greater value might come in the form of maintaining a particular human tradition, or always presenting a positive message, or gaining the most adherents possible, or building a personal legacy, or accommodating what people think is right, or protecting the church from being considered irrelevant. The list can go on and on.
Whoever listens closely to the apostle whom Jesus personally commissioned with his message will place a premium priority upon handling the word of truth correctly, in order that God might approve their ministry (2 Timothy 2:15). Accordingly, as they watch both their life and their doctrine closely the result will be they will save both themselves and their hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).