Previously, we studied Proverbs 13:20 under the theme of being “intentionally wise.” We considered, first, the meaning of wisdom. We narrowed it down to a working definition: Learning to see the glory of Christ in the details of life—to see beyond the immediate. We saw that wisdom is the ability to wee beyond gratification to glory and grace, to see the eternal rather than focusing on temporal. Wisdom is the ability to live out what we learn.
We then considered an important means to wisdom: wise companions. In the Hebrew text, there is a poetic parallelism between “walking” and “companions.” We noted that the word “companions” has the idea of contentedly grazing with another. We therefore grow in wisdom to the degree that we graze with the wise.
We saw that we need to be intentional about this. Being rightly related to God (justification) must be our passion; being righteously responsive to God (sanctification) must be our pursuit. And we need companionship with the wise to do this.
This growth in wisdom does not just happen. The invitation is to all, but only the intentional need respond! “He who gets wisdom loves his own soul” (Proverbs 19:8). We have choices to make with reference to wisdom. Will we be foolish or wise? Will we live as those who say no to God (foolish) or as those who say yes to God (wise). And being intentional about our companions is a vital component in this.
One of the most ominous verses in Scripture is found in 2 Samuel 13:3. Listen to these verses:
After this Absalom the son of David had a lovely sister, whose name was Tamar; and Amnon the son of David loved her. Amnon was so distressed over his sister Tamar that he became sick; for she was a virgin. And it was improper for Amnon to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend . . .
(2 Samuel 13:1-3)
As it turned out, even though “it was improper for Amnon to do anything to her,” Amnon’s friend arranged matters so that he got her. A companion of fools, Amnon became foolish himself.
On the other hand, the psalmist—potentially Amnon’s father David—wrote, “I am a companion of all who fear you, and of those who keep your precepts” (Psalm 119:63). Clearly the psalmist—whether David or another poet—was a wise man.
Psalm 19:14—“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer”—is the goal of the wise. But the question remains, how to? In this study I want to encourage you with regard to one very practical means of walking with the wise: reading. We touched on this only in passing previously, but it deserves greater attention. And our text comes from Paul’s last inspired letter, written to his young friend Timothy.
Exegeting the Text
When Paul wrote 2 Timothy he knew that he was most likely nearing the finish line (4:6-8). He had run the race wisely and desired to finish wisely as well. He was evidently lonely in prison (4:10-11, 16), although not entirely alone. He had Luke with him (4:11), and more importantly, the Lord (4:16). He had wise companionship.
No doubt, he spent time imparting wisdom to Luke as well as receiving it from Luke. Though he was a wise man, Paul was not beyond the need for help. Never think that the wise don’t need help! Never underestimate your ability to help others to be wise.
In writing to his young friend Timothy, Paul made some simple requests (4:9-12). H. C. G. Moule wrote of this passage,
What a prosaic message, what a matter-of-fact commission! Such may be the reader’s first reflection; he may almost wonder that the Holy Scripture has room for such details. But the God of Scripture has room in His heart for every detail of human life; and human life is mainly written in prose, and in detail, and is a matter certainly of fact. Poor and shallow is that conception of life which thinks scorn of the commonest of common things; they are the very substance of man’s story.1
Let’s consider briefly what Paul asked for.
First, he requested an urgent (“speedy”) visit from Timothy. “Be diligent to come to me quickly” (v. 9). We are not told precisely why Paul wanted to see Timothy. Perhaps he wanted to pass the mantle to his young disciple. Perhaps he simply wanted to impart more wisdom, or perhaps he wanted to gain a heart of wisdom himself (Psalm 90:12). He may have wanted to hear first-hand the encouraging reports of Timothy’s Ephesian ministry. Perhaps he wanted to pass on some wisdom to the Ephesian assembly. We cannot say for sure, but he nevertheless requested an urgent visit from Timothy.
Second, Paul asked for the presence of John Mark. “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (v. 11). Mark would act as a beneficial aid to whatever ministry Paul had left. Of course, there was a time when Mark lacked the necessary wisdom to be useful to Paul (Acts 15:36-41), but much had changed. Evidently under the discipling ministry of Barnabas, he had matured a great deal.
We should perhaps pause here to note an important principle: Be hopeful! Barnabas was hopeful about Mark’s usefulness in the ministry, and Paul eventually came to agree with Barnabas. Furthermore, we should learn to be helpful. Barnabas evidently spent time influencing Mark (just as he had spent time influencing Paul), and his influence clearly bore fruit. And we should also learn, like Paul, to be humble. Paul had once considered Mark to immature to be beneficial in the ministry, but he was humble enough to admit that things had changed. Mark had matured a great deal, and Paul was now willing to put him to work.
To return to Paul’s requests, however, we see that, third, he asked for his “cloak” (v. 13). Winter was at hand (v. 21) and Paul recognised the need for protection against the elements. He did not see the need for the material as somehow unspiritual.
But, fourth—and this is our primary focus in this study—he asked for books and for the Book. “Bring . . . the books, especially the parchments” (v. 13).
The word “books” is a translation of the Greek word biblios, and it simply describes papyri. It could be a reference to writing materials, correspondence, official documentation, or even certification of Roman citizenship. Whatever it was, it was something with words!
The word “parchments” could refer to notebooks (even unused), to Paul’s version of the Old Testament in Greek, to official copies of the Lord’s words, or to early narratives of His life—or to books! Whatever precisely these “parchments” were, “Paul did not despise the use of means. Nor should we. When our spirit is lonely, we need friends. When our body is cold, we need clothing. When our mind is bored, we need books. To admit this is not unspiritual; it is human.”2
MacArthur notes that Paul clearly “had no plans to finish studying or to finish writing.”3 Douglas Milne adds, “What is instructive is Paul’s commitment to reading, writing and productive activity right up to the end of his life, even in prison.”4 And Fairbairne writes, “But what respectively might be their nature and contents cannot be known, further than that, being urgently sought at such a moment, they must have related to things of highest interest—if not Scripture itself, writings, more or less bearing on its revelation of truth and glory.”5
Right up to the end of his life, Paul was committed to gaining a heart of wisdom, and books (whatever these were) had a part in this. There is a connection between books and wisdom; between words and wisdom. Principle: Wisdom is a product of walking with the wise as well as engaging with wise words.
Moule makes reference to the words of William Tyndale, while imprisoned—and shortly before his martyrdom—in a letter to the Marquis of Bergen, who was in charge of the prison where he was detained:
I entreat your lordship, and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I must remain here for the winter you would beg the Commissary to be so kind as to send me, from the things of mine which he has, a warmer cap; I feel the cold painfully in my head. Also a warmer cloak, for the cloak I have is very thin. He has a woollen shirt of mine, if he will send it. But most of all, my Hebrew Bible, Grammar, and Vocabulary, that I may spend my time in that pursuit.6
Also alluding to Tyndale’s letter, Barclay notes, “When they were up against it, and when the chill breath of death was upon them, the great ones wanted more than anything else the word of God to put strength and courage into their souls.”7 In other words, they were intentional about being instructed in wisdom.
Applying the Text
So what can we learn from Paul’s requests with regards to practical application. Let me mention a few important principles.
Words are Influential
Vladimir Lenin once referred to the most powerful soldiers in his army as the 26 letters of the English alphabet. Those who seek to influence society—journalists, historians, etc.—know the influential value of words. Shortly after the death of the late Christopher Hitchens, Al Mohler posted a blog entry noting that his legacy will live on thanks to the prolific amount of writing material he left behind. Clearly, words are influential.
If words are influential—and they are—then surely the most influential words are God’s words. Consider the creation account: When “God said,” things happened. The psalmist wrote,
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper.
Again, Psalm 119 speaks of the great benefit of God’s words: “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word. . . . Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You. . . . My soul clings to the dust; revive me according to Your word” (vv. 9, 11, 25).
Of course, Jesus Christ is identified as the incarnate Word of God, who has been “declared” (literally, “exegeted”) by the Father (John 1:14, 18). The words of God have the ability to change lives and bear much fruit, as can be seen in Jesus explanation of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:18-23). “The word of truth” is the agent by which God “brought us forth” in order to “be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (James 1:18). Peter further emphasises the saving and transforming power of God’s Word (1 Peter 1:22-25).
Consider the life-transforming power of God’s Word as expressed (or experienced) in Psalm 19:7-9.
The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the judgements of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
Importantly, those who are transformed by the power of God’s Word find themselves developing an appetite for it. “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).
The Words of the Wise
Since words—and particularly God’s words—are so powerful, it is of paramount importance that we expose ourselves to the words of the wise. (A word to the wise, and to those who would be wise: Listen to the words of the wise!). “A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel” (Proverbs 1:5). “Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.” (Proverbs 9:8-9).
But how exactly should we go about exposing ourselves to the words of the wise.
First, by reading through the words of the wise (“the books”).
Primarily, of course, you should expose yourself to Scripture. God’s Word is sanctifying truth (John 17:17). Wash yourself in and with that wisdom! Prioritise Bible reading. Find yourself a Bible-reading plan in which you are consistently reading Scripture. One of the simplest to follow is to simply read three chapters of Scripture a day, and five on Sundays, and you will have read through the entire Bible in a year. If you find it difficult to read from cover to cover, then mix it up. Start with Genesis, and when you are finished, perhaps move to another book of the Bible. It is not essential to follow the books of the Bible chronologically; it is necessary to read daily.
If you will prioritise Bible reading you will have to be deliberate about it. Your flesh will present all sorts of distractions, and it is imperative that you remove as many of those distractions as you can. This may mean drastically restricting or even removing the TV. You may have to discipline yourself to not look at your computer or smart phone or tablet before you have completed your daily reading.
The Bible is God-breathed and profitable for us in every area (2 Timothy 3:14-17). God’s Word was used in Timothy’s life to make him “wise for salvation.” Jewish parents taught their children to read by means of Psalm 119, which is divided into 22 eight-verse sections. Each verse in each section begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the psalm is arranged so that each section follows the previous one in systematically arranging the alphabet. (That is why, in your Bible, you will find headings in Psalm 119: aleph, beth, gimel, etc. Those are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.) What a wonderful way to teach children to read!
Spending quality time in God’s Word on a daily basis will surely have a tremendous influence in your wisdom. Listen to Deuteronomy 4:6: “Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”
Be sure to expose your children to such wisdom. Spend time with them in God’s Word. Let them see you reading it, and encourage them to read it. Expose them to the children’s ministries of your local church, where they will receive instruction from God’s Word.
Prioritise biblical exposure yourself. Read to see, read to know, read to grow. Read with the prayer of the psalmist on your lips, “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law” (Psalm 119:18). You may find it helpful to listen to the Bible read aloud on CD or MP3 as you are driving in your car. It will prove beneficial for you to listen to biblical preaching, either at corporate gatherings or obtained on CD or downloaded from the Internet.
However you do it, expose yourself much to the wise words of Scripture.
But, second, let me encourage you to read good, wise Christian literature. Hear the words of Stott, writing with reference to 2 Timothy 4:13:
Of course some Christians today scorn reading and study altogether, and assert that they would not feel the need of books at any time, let alone in prison. Let Calvin answer them: “Still more does this passage refute the madness of the fanatics who despise books and condemn all reading and boast only of their enthusiasmos, their private inspirations by God. But we should note that this passage commends continual reading to all godly men as a thing from which they can profit.”8
Stott, as a matter of interest, had a practice of his own: He devoted one day a week, one week a month, and one month a year exclusively to reading. And his life of wisdom was testimony to the wise value of doing so.
I read a great deal in my sermon preparation. I am thankful for the friends—some living, some dead—from whose wisdom I can glean. And it is often obvious from my reading that those authors have read others themselves and have gleaned from them.
Proverbs 23:23 says, “Buy the truth and do not sell it.” (I have often appealed to that Scripture when I have returned home from a book shop with a pile of books in my arms!) According to Solomon, those who buy the truth and do not sell it will reap “wisdom and instruction and understanding.”
So let me encourage you to invest in the truth. Be a good steward of the appetite the Spirit of God has given you. At the same time, beware of Christianised junk food! There is a great deal of published material out there that is barely worth the price of the paper on which it is printed. Be discerning, and be willing to ask other discerning believers if you are unsure.
Some will immediately object, “I don’t like to read.” To that complaint I reply that most children don’t like to eat broccoli, but they must learn to do so anyway. You may not particularly enjoy reading, but if you want to grow in wisdom you should learn to do it anyway. Your soul and those you influence need you to do so.
Third, let me suggest that you read diversely. Variety is good. Together with my fellow vocational pastor at BBC, I have started to put together a list of books in various categories that I believe will be of particular help to our congregation. We will make the list available so that our people have some idea of what to read. The suggestions will include doctrinal books, expositional books (commentaries), books dealing with practical Christian issues (e.g. prayer, fasting, etc.), (auto)biographies and even books on history. In our age, blogs can also be a source of wisdom, although this requires a great deal of discernment. There is a heightened potential within the blogosphere of becoming sour and slanderous and therefore of short-circuit your thinking. “Sound bite” theology can spin the story and shortcut sound thinking, which often results in bloggers being sidetracked into “issues.” Nevertheless, there are some bloggers that you can trust, and if you find them you would do well to read them.
Fourth, and on a practical level, let me encourage you to read to your children and teach your children the love of reading truth. Even if you do not enjoy reading, instil a love for reading in your children. Charles Bridges writes of Proverbs 13:20, “It is not left to us to determine, whether there shall be any influence, only, what that influence shall be.” Paul urged his readers in Corinth: “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits.’ Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 15:33-34).
Help your children to overcome the folly to which they are being exposed. Some of your children are being instructed by fools in the classroom. Help them! Some are being instructed by foolish friends. Help them! Help them to walk with the wise so that they too can learn to be wise.
Fifth, it may be helpful for you to connect with a book club—or even to begin one! My wife and daughters recently told me that they had decided to begin a mini family book club, and asked my opinion on potential reading material. Perhaps you can find something beneficial to read, and rope some others with you into reading and commenting on it. Being part of a book club helps to discipline you to read (accountability). It helps you to be challenged in your thinking. It helps you to grow in discernment. It helps you to develop healthy appetite for truth.
Your local church simply cannot give you everything you need for growth in wisdom. There simply is not enough time or opportunity. It is up to you to fill the gaps.
Seeing Christ in it All
All that has been said is rooted in a relationship with Christ. It’s about knowing Him and growing in Him. He is the sum of all wisdom. And since He has (is) all wisdom, you will want to acquire your wisdom from and for Him. Hear the frequent testimony of Scripture bearing witness to the wisdom of Christ.
- Luke 2:52—And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.
- Luke 11:31—The queen of the South will rise up in the judgement with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here.
- 1 Corinthians 1:23-24, 30—But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. . . . But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
- Colossians 2:3—In [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
- Revelation 5:12—Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honour and glory and blessing!
- Jude 25—To God our Saviour, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.
When Christ Jesus the Lord is your treasure, then regardless where you are in your life, your request will be, “Bring the books!”
- H. C. G. Moule, Studies in II Timothy (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977), 157. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, Guard the Gospel: The Message of 2 Timothy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 121. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., 2 Timothy: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 211. ↩
- Douglas J. W. Milne, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1996. ↩
- Patrick Fairbairn, 1&2 Timothy and Titus (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 396-97. ↩
- Moule, Studies in II Timothy, 158-59. ↩
- William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon: The Daily Bible Study (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1968), 252-53. ↩
- Stott, Guard the Gospel, 121. ↩