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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Bible Background (Part 1 of 2), by Craig S. Keener

Some today seek to get doctrine especially from Paul’s letters, so let us take some New Testament letters as examples. Paul tells Timothy to go to Troas and bring his cloak from there (2 Tim 4:13), yet none of us tries to obey this explicit command of Scripture by going to the excavations at Troas and looking for Paul’s cloak. (Even though Paul also calls Titus to come to him in Tit 3:12, we do not view visiting Paul in Rome as a command to us today.) Even if Timothy did not get the cloak, and even if it still exists, and even if we could be sure it was Paul’s, only one person could actually retrieve the cloak. And none of us could then take it to Paul! This passage of Scripture is addressed to the only person who could fulfill it, namely Timothy. Likewise, do we really need to beware of Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14-15)? Given the mortality rate for people over 150 years old, he has surely been dead for a long time. (For some other situation-specific allusions, see e.g., 2 Tim 1:2-6; 3:14-15; 4:20; Tit 1:4-5.) We can learn principles from Paul’s bond with Timothy and his warnings against opposition, but we cannot press these statements literally as commands for today.

We recognize these as absurd examples; “Those were commands given only to Timothy!” we protest. Our protest is correct, but how many other commands in 1 and 2 Timothy may have been only for Timothy or only for first-century Ephesian culture? We cannot settle that question by simply guessing at an answer we might prefer; nor can we ignore the question and hope to be consistent. Paul was probably aware that the Spirit was guiding him as he wrote (1 Cor 7:40; 14:37), but it is quite doubtful that he expected Christians to be trying to apply this letter to themselves two thousand years later—or even that human history would continue for two thousand more years (cf. 1 Cor 7:29; “we” in 1 Thess 4:17). If they did try to apply his letter to Timothy, he would expect them to take into account what this piece of Scripture explicitly claims to be: a letter to Timothy (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2).

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2004, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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