Tradition, Take 2

Last week, we were looking at tradition. Actually, we were looking at tradition gone awry as we were looking at the legend of Saint Sebastian and the odd turns and twists it took as that legend made its way through church history.

I wanted to revisit this subject of tradition with you. And this time we’re going to go back to a biblical text. We’re going to go to 2 Timothy 2:2. Now, to set the context here we should really look at verse 1. And in verse 1 of chapter 2, of 2 Timothy, speaking directly to Timothy, Paul says, “You then my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Such a wonderful verse. It shows us the warm relationship that Paul had with Timothy; this is his son in the faith. You definitely see the warmth and the way in which Paul poured his life into Timothy; just wants to see Timothy excel as a minister. So he says, “You then, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

Then we come to verse 2. Now this verse played a very crucial role in the early church. And there are two key words that come out of this verse that functioned significantly in the early church and also speak directly to this issue of tradition, and what do we do with it, and how we can have a good use and a helpful way to employ tradition.

Well, here goes verse 2: “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

There are two key phrases that the early church picked up on. The first one is there—”what you have heard from me.” Now that constitutes Paul’s teaching. The early church used an expression for that. They used a Latin expression depositum fide. This was the Apostle’s teaching. In fact, this is the gospel; that’s how the early church saw it. So this body of knowledge, that Paul and the other apostles, that they received directly from Christ, they then taught others. And that, “what you have heard from me” becomes this deposit of faith. Think of it as the church’s true treasure—the gospel, the teaching.

Then the second key phrase is that next word, “entrust to faithful men.” Now that word entrust, from the original in the Greek, is a compound word with a preposition and a word that means to give. And together it means “to give over,” or “to entrust,” right? It’s a little bit more than just, “Here, let me give you something,” if I were to just hand you a piece of paper or something to that effect. It’s really the idea of I’m bequeathing to you something. This is something that is important and I’m making sure that I give it to you in a way that you recognize its importance—I’m entrusting this to you. You might think of the way we sign things in our will to our heirs perhaps, is a way to think of this.

But what’s interesting is the Latin translation of this text and the Latin translation of this word. The Latin translation is “trādidit.” Now, did you hear in there the English word “tradition”? And of course, every time I think of the word tradition I go back to Fiddler on the Roof, and we think Tevye, and we get up and do a dance. Well, anyway, that’s the word—tradition. And here it is, right in 2 Timothy 2:2. So what Paul is doing is he is faithfully teaching Timothy. What Timothy then is to do is to identify faithful leaders and train those elders, and also teach those leaders and elders, and also teach the congregation, and then they will teach others also.

And so, we have this great, long, glorious line of godly men who have taught us the depositum fide—the apostolic teaching—the gospel. This is the one true tradition.

So this verse, 2 Timothy 2:2 helps us think in a healthy way about tradition.

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