By the Rev. Donald M. Boyd, Retiring Moderator
Preached at the opening of the meeting of Synod on Tuesday, 19 May, 1998
Text:” And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” 2 Timothy 2:2.
THIS is the last of Paul’s inspired Epistles, in which he is giving a charge to Timothy: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4: 1-2). Paul lays this charge upon Timothy as one in the following generation, and it is laid upon the Christian Church through the succeeding generations to the present hour.
Paul writes: “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). He had kept the faith, and his desire was that Timothy likewise would keep the faith. The Apostle expresses this concern against the background that there were those who were departing from the faith. These are mentioned in the previous chapter: “All they which are in Asia be turned away from me; of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes” (2 Tim. 1:15). We find in the chapter of our text this same concern about those who were modifying the gospel. He tells Timothy: “Shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some” (verses 16-18). Because these men were saying that the resurrection was past already, Paul draws attention to the resurrection in this chapter.
In this situation he exhorts Timothy, “Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (verses 1 and 2). He is guiding not only Timothy but also the Christian Church on how to preserve the faith from being perverted.
Therefore, in opening up this passage, we would like to notice in the first place, “the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses” which is more succinctly explained by him in the previous chapter, when he writes: “Hold fast the form of sound words,” (2 Tim. 1:13). We shall then go on to notice in the second place, the duty that is laid upon Timothy, and upon the Christian Church in all ages, to commit the form of sound words “to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also”. And then thirdly, we shall give a few points of application.
First: The form of sound words: “the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses”.
What are these things that Timothy had heard? What does Paul mean by “the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me,”(2 Tim. 1:13)? There were those who were perverting the gospel, “of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying the resurrection is past already;” (verses 17 and 18). So Paul writes to Timothy: “Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel” (verse 8). “Timothy,” he says as it were, “you remember what you heard me preach! Hymenaeus and Philetus are preaching a doctrine of the resurrection which is not correct. They are modifying the gospel, but you heard me often publicly preaching before many witnesses the true doctrine of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.
“Hymenaeus and Philetus have another interpretation of these things. However, you know what the form of sound words is. I did not tell you these things in a corner, but you have heard them of me ‘among many witnesses’, preaching them publicly from place to place. Hold on to these great and precious doctrines, and do not allow them to reinterpret them. ‘Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel’.”
Reinterpretation of scripture doctrine
The reinterpretation of the doctrines of scripture has gone on till the present, to such an extent that, in spite of all the clarity of the Word of God on this matter, a recent survey states that almost two-thirds of the bishops of the Church of England confessed that they had profound doubts about the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
This reinterpretation of scripture has a long history. We find the Apostle Peter talking about those who wrest the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16) wresting or twisting scripture to accommodate their own thinking. Paul emphasises to Timothy: “You have heard the form of sound words; you have heard the proper explanation of the doctrine of the resurrection.”
The doctrine of the resurrection of Christ in apostolic preaching
The doctrine of the resurrection was foundational to apostolic preaching. It was central to the sermons which we read in the Acts of the Apostles. Professor Benjamin B. Warfield stated that the resurrection is the fundamental, apologetical fact of Christianity. The supernatural origin and foundation of Christianity is seen in Christ’s triumph over death, and it gives meaning and purpose to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In chapter 15 of his first Epistle to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul opens up the importance of this doctrine at some length. “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-4). The Scriptures foretold these events, and they took place.
Paul goes on to enumerate the many witnesses to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then he writes: “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:12). Although the resurrection was preached, there were some who were saying that there is no resurrection of the dead. “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not”(1 Cor. 15:13-15). Thus he shows the centrality of the doctrine of the resurrection to preaching and to salvation. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” and “ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:19, 17). Further, Paul diagnoses the problem and shows how this error arose: “. . . some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame” (1 Cor. 15:34). Those who deny the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead demonstrate that they have not the knowledge of God.
The doctrine of the resurrection in Christ’s preaching
The Lord Jesus Christ Himself points out the importance and centrality of this doctrine. This is the great sign which is being given even to a wicked generation. “Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees, answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall be no sign given to it, but” the Lord makes this exception “the sign of the prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12: 38-40). This is the sign to be given to a wicked and an unbelieving generation that Christ died and rose again from the dead. This is the fundamental, apologetical fact of Christianity. They who have heard this doctrine that Jesus died and rose again will have to give an account on the day of judgment for ignoring so unusual, so peculiar a sign. So great a sign! Yet they ignored it!
The significance of the resurrection of Christ
Christ’s resurrection from the dead authenticates all His claims, particularly His claim to be the Son of God in human nature. He was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).
“The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:34), and He has declared to all the world that He has the power and authority to break the bands of death. The significance of His breaking the bands of temporal death is profound in itself, and behind this, it is a sign pointing to His power to break the bands of spiritual death. For we are told by the Apostle Paul that the very same power which raised Jesus from the dead works in the heart of a sinner to regenerate them with spiritual life. The Ephesian believers had been dead in trespasses and sins, but the mighty power of the triune God had been put forth to quicken them. “You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins”(Ephesians 2:1). Paul explains what that power is. He prayed that the Ephesians would know “what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:18-23).
The doctrine of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead teaches us many things. He obtained the power and authority to quicken dead sinners because, by His sufferings unto death, He laid a foundation in justice by which He obtained the authority to forgive sins (Isaiah 53:11; Matthew 9:6). By Christ’s resurrection from the dead, God is declaring that salvation has been accomplished. The Apostle writes: “Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant. . .” (Hebrews 13:20). The great Shepherd of the sheep laid down His life on behalf of His sheep: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). He suffered upon the cross of Calvary, and freely, willingly, and lovingly laid down His life as a substitutionary sacrifice in the place of His people so that the wrath of God which was due to them for their sins might be taken away. Thus “the God of peace” brought Him again from the dead, declaring to all the world not only that this is His beloved Son, but also that He is the Prince of Peace. He has made peace through the blood of His cross (Col 1:20), and in order to make this clear to all the world, God raised him from the dead.
The law and justice of God could wait thousands of years before Christ came to satisfy all their claims against His people, but the world could not be left for thousands of years without being given a divine sign that atonement has been made. The world must know: Has He made peace? Therefore the God of peace brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant. This covenant was from everlasting. God the Father entered into covenant with His beloved Son that He would make peace through the blood of His cross. He was delivered for our offences and He was raised again for our justification (Rom 4:25), to demonstrate to all the world that this is where peace with God is to be found, and “therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).
The Christ who is to be preached to a fallen and ruined world is the Christ that the Father sent into this world as the good Shepherd of the sheep, who laid down His life for the sheep, and who rose again from the dead in order that He might ascend to heaven and appear there, in the presence of God, on behalf of His people to make intercession for them:
Sit thou at my right hand,
Until I make thy foes a stool,
whereon thy feet may stand”
(Psalm 110:1, metrical).
Timothy had heard the Apostle preach more than this. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ pointed to something else to the judgment seat of Christ. It testified to the children of men that death is not the end, that there is life after death, and that their own bodies will be summoned out of the grave to the general judgment on the last day. When the Apostle Paul preached in Athens he said: “God commandeth all men everywhere to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is the assurance that we will all be summoned before His judgment seat. You will be raised from the dead to appear before the great white throne: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor.5:10-11).
The resurrection of Christ recorded in Holy Scripture
These things that Timothy had heard the Apostle publicly preach are now recorded in Holy Scripture by the Holy Spirit, for their more sure preservation and propagation (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Section 1). This is the more necessary because of the attempts to distort the gospel, of which the Apostle Peter writes: “. . . our beloved brother Paul according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Creeds and confessions
And so we find here the Apostle charging Timothy, and charging the Christian Church down to the end of time, to “hold fast the form of sound words”. Timothy had heard the proper explanation of the resurrection and other doctrines orally. The Holy Spirit was now recording these things in writing, but we can see that there were those who were twisting even what was recorded in writing. Therefore the Christian Church, in obedience to this command to “hold fast the form of sound words”, has had to formulate creeds and confessions in order to safeguard the form of sound words, the true meaning of scripture. There is a duty laid upon the Christian Church to hold fast the form of sound words and, as we will now go on to notice in the second place, that they “commit the same to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also.”
Secondly: the duty, laid upon the Church in all ages, to commit the form of sound words to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also which finds expression in, and is the biblical basis for, creedal subscription.
The Word of God has been committed to the Church of God. We find the Apostle, when writing to the Romans, reasoning: “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1-2). The Word of God has been deposited in the Church of God, and although Bible Societies may have their place in translating and distributing the Word of God, the guardians of the Word of God are not Bible Societies but the Church of Jesus Christ.
in Israel he did place,
And charged our fathers it to show
to their succeeding race;
That so the race which was to come
might well them learn and know;
And sons unborn, who should arise,
might to their sons them show”
(Psalm 78:5-6 metrical).
If the gospel is to be preached to the sons which are yet unborn, it must be passed on from generation to generation. The true gospel, the form of sound words, must be preached to the next generation that they might set their hope in God that they may be brought to faith in Jesus Christ through the preaching of this gospel, with the blessing of the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. Then when the sons which are unborn will arise, they will have the form of sound words which they, in turn, “might to their sons show”.
The speed at which the form of sound words can be lost
The Christian Church is to give good heed to the passing on of the gospel from generation to generation, and all the more so because of the speed and suddenness with which the gospel can be lost. The gospel has been lost by multitudes throughout the history of the world because of unfaithful men who did not believe it nor receive it into their heart; and so the gospel was lost to the succeeding generation.
The speed and the suddenness with which this can happen is shown in various places of scripture. For example, the Saviour addresses the angel of the Church of Ephesus: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou had fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Rev. 2:4-5).
“Except thou repent, I will come unto thee quickly.” The Lord will come to them suddenly and He will remove the candlestick! Within one generation! Within one generation things can decline. The Apostle John was still alive, and here is a message from the Head of the Church to the Church of Ephesus that they were in danger of the candlestick being taken away from them. The Church of Laodicea is another example. The Saviour was outside its door already! He was knocking at the door to gain access. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). They were gathering together on the Sabbath day; they were worshipping God together without Christ! He was outside the door! Within one generation!
We use these as but two of the many examples of the speed and suddenness with which the gospel can be lost. If the next generation will not believe the gospel, if the Word of God will not be laid up in their hearts, there is a danger that they will lose the gospel not only for themselves but also for their children and their children’s children.
The teaching office in the Church
How had things come to such a sorry pass in Ephesus and Laodicea? When Paul writes, “The things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also”, he is drawing attention to the teaching office in the Christian Church. In Ephesians, chapter 4, Paul shows that those who were set apart to the teaching office are the focus of unity of the visible Church of Jesus Christ.
The Church is to be careful to set apart to this office those who are faithful men men full of faith who know what the form of sound words is, and men who have got the capacity to teach others, who know how to teach the form of sound words and how to distinguish it from error. The Christian Church, in ordaining men to the teaching office, is to pay special regard to ensuring that they are “faithful men who shall be able to teach others also”. They must have the grace of God in their hearts, not only so that they be a safe repository for the Word of God dwelling richly in their hearts by faith, but also so that they will prove to be faithful stewards; “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:1-2). They have received this deposit and they are to faithfully pass it on to the next generation.
in Israel he did place,
And charged our fathers it to show
to their succeeding race”
(Psalm 78:5 metrical).
The scriptural warrant for creedal subscription.
This obligation to ordain faithful men who hold fast the form of sound words led to the formation of creeds and a confession which the Church collectively confesses. However, it is also the origin of creedal subscription, that is, ministers of the gospel subscribing this confession for themselves, and manifesting that they know what the form of sound words is, and that they know how to distinguish it from error. Therefore we have before us, in this text of scripture, the scriptural warrant for creedal subscription.
When we require of those who are to preach the gospel that they subscribe the Confession of the Church, that is, that they acknowledge and adhibit their signature to it as their own Confession, we are obeying scripture in doing so, and our text is the scriptural warrant for it.
Dissimulation mental reservation
When they subscribe the Confession, they are to do so as faithful men, as men full of faith and not with a feigned faith. You find the Apostle referring to “unfeigned faith” in the previous chapter: “When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also” (2 Timothy 1:5). An unfeigned faith is without dissimulation and without mental reservation.
When faithful ministers subscribe the confession, it is not to be with mental reservation, but with an unfeigned faith. They are declaring plainly that this is not only the Confession of the Church, but also the Confession of their own faith. The Apostle in effect writes: “See to it, Timothy, that when you are setting apart men to the work of the ministry, as I Paul set apart you, that the form of sound words is committed to faithful men. See to it that they subscribe the confession, that they understand the form of sound words, and that they do it with unfeigned faith and not with mental reservation.”
At the end of last century, when religious doubt came into the main churches around the world, that generation proved to be unfaithful. There arose in many churches, and the Presbyterian churches in Scotland were not excepted, those who no longer believed the Confession of their church. They did not sign the Confession with an unfeigned faith. The main Presbyterian churches in Scotland and overseas, instead of insisting upon an unfeigned faith, introduced a Declaratory Act or similar legislation which effectively modified the subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, as well as other things, so that a minister could sign the Confession with mental reservation, with dissimulation. There were parts of the Confession upon which a minister could reserve judgment, and therefore one could no longer be sure if one was committing the form of sound words to faithful men.
But it is required of the Christian Church, if it is to preserve the gospel, that it commits it to those who, like Timothy, have an unfeigned faith. Just as the Apostle was persuaded that this unfeigned faith was in Timothy, so the Christian Church is to satisfy itself and is to be persuaded that this unfeigned faith is in those who are subscribing the Confession of the Church as the Confession of their own faith for the purpose of preserving the gospel and passing it on to the next generation. The form of sound words would then be dwelling richly by faith in the hearts of preachers chosen by the Holy Spirit, who may then be pleased to bless His own gospel through these preachers to the next generation.
As a result of Presbyterian and other churches throughout the world failing at this very point, we have seen declension to this day. We know that there are other matters involved in this declension, but this is the principal point at which they failed. The Saviour had a message for the Seven Churches of Asia, a message which the Christian Church has to heed continually. It is to beware lest the Lord will come and take away the candlestick: lest He will spew them out of His mouth (Rev 2:5; 3:16). This is a lesson which, by the grace of God, we as a branch of Christ’s visible Church have been taught, and which has been pressed home upon us throughout the century. It is a lesson which the Christian churches throughout the world need to learn, and which they need to lay to heart. Commit the form of sound words to faithful men, having unfeigned faith, who shall be able to teach others also.
It was by altering creedal subscription in the Declaratory Act of 1892 that the old Free Church of Scotland legitimated the entry of unfaithful men into the ministry of that Church. Our founding fathers protested against this and separated, and all in obedience to the teaching in this part of scripture.
Thirdly, let us conclude with a few words of application, by briefly noticing what the Apostle says here to Timothy, and which we may apply to ourselves, that is, the means and manner by which this is to be accomplished.
“And thou therefore my son be strong [literally, ‘be strengthened’] in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (verse 1); saying as it were, “There is a fountain of grace in the Lord Jesus Christ for you, and do thou therefore, my son, be strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
In the succeeding verses he refers to the battle for the souls of men. The devil endeavours to rob men of the gospel, and you will need to be strong. You are to obtain this strength from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, for “in the Lord have I righteousness and strength” (Isaiah 45:24). There is the need for personal piety, and personal communion and fellowship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, feeding upon the Bread of God which came down from heaven, drawing into our souls that which we need in order to stand, and to withstand, in an evil day (Ephesians 6:13).
This warfare will need steadfastness: “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (verses 3 and 4). Settle it in your mind that it is a warfare, that there are enemies to the gospel, and that you will need to endure hardness and deny yourself in order to follow Christ, and in order that the gospel may be preserved and preached to succeeding generations.
Paul encourages Timothy by pointing him to the Lord’s continual guidance: “Consider what I say; and the Lord give thee understanding in all things” (verse 7). Paul was to be taken from him. He would not always be there, but the Lord would be there. Have communion and fellowship with the Lord Jesus.
“Remember,” he says in effect, “my own example which I have set before you. ‘Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel; wherein I suffer trouble, as an evildoer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound’ (verses 8 and 9). I suffer these things that the gospel may be preached and brought to those whom God has loved with an everlasting love. For their sakes we are prepared to endure these things. ‘Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory’ (verse 10). Be a follower of them who through faith and patience are now inheriting the promises, and consider the prospect of eternal glory.” There is need for us today to lift up our eyes and look beyond these earthly things, and to consider the eternal reward not only for ourselves but also for those to whom the gospel is to be blessed, “that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory”. “It is a faithful saying: for if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: if we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (verses 11 and 12). And so Paul encourages Timothy: “Be strong, my son, be strengthened in Christ’s grace. Find strength in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Ephesians 6:11-13).
May the Lord bless His truth to us.