Appeared originally in Smith’s Chats From A Minister’s Library
There is a verse tucked away, we might say, on the last page that Paul probably ever wrote, dictated in a dingy and damp prison at Rome, shortly before the Apostle’s death, which, more than any other one sentence in all his writings, indicates his passionate love for books and especially for The Book. I refer to the words he wrote to Timothy (II Tim. 4:13)—“The cloke that I left at
Only rarely does the Apostle, in all of his voluminous writings, speak of his university education, or of his intellectual pursuits. Standing before the multitude in Jerusalem he could declare that he was a man who, though born in Tarsus, was brought up in the city of Jerusalem “at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the strict manner of the law of the fathers.” (Acts 22:3.) In the Second Epistle to the church at
Speaking to the Athenians he was able quickly to quote relevant lines from their own poets.
From these words, certainly, we at least gather that Paul was a diligent student, nor do we believe that he ever stopped being a hard student all the days of his mature life, in spite of his traveling, in spite of his imprisonment, in spite of all the churches he founded, and all the correspondence he had to carry on.
In the first letter to Timothy, he admonished his son in the faith to (literally) “keep your mind on the reading” (4:13). And now he himself tells Timothy that his mind needs to peruse again the books and parchments which, for some reason, he had left at
I should like us to look at this verse in three different ways. First, let us ask ourselves exactly what these books and parchments may have been. Then, we might consider, for a moment, some of the more pertinent remarks of our great commentators on the verse itself, and then read together some wonderful lines from two of the greatest preachers of the English world in the nineteenth century on these words,--Charles Spurgeon and Alexander Whyte.
The word here translated books is a common one in the New Testament. It is the word biblion from which comes our word bibliography, meaning, the science of books, and, our much greater word, Bible, which means The Book. The word bibliarion, meaning a little book, is found four times in the tenth chapter of Revelation, and only there in the New Testament. The word biblos, meaning a written book, a scroll, is found thirteen times in the New Testament, five of these times in the Book of Revelation. It is the word used in the very first verse of our New Testament. “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” It is the word used by the beloved physician, when speaking of the preaching of John the Baptist, which he tells us was predicted “in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet.” (Luke 3:4.)
Almost always, outside of the Book of Revelation, it is a word used in reference to the Old Testament. The exact word Paul used in writing to Timothy—biblion—meaning, a small book, or scroll, is used thirty-one times in the New Testament, and frequently means simply a written document, like a bill of divorcement. Paul uses here then a word that is quite common in the New Testament, though one rarely used among New Testament writers, to refer simply to books as such.
The word translated parchments, however, occurs nowhere else in all the New Testament Scriptures. It is the word membranas, from which we derive our word membrane. These parchments were first made of dressed skins, at the city of
Professor A.T. Robertson tells us that “at first both the papyrus and the parchment book would be made into a roll. Sometimes the parchment leaves would not be pasted together in a roll, but left in loose form. This may have been the case with the parchments that Paul had left with Carpus. The papyrus were rolls of pieces of papyrus glued together of any convenient length. The columns of writing would be unrolled as one read, while the part just read would be rolled up again. Sometimes the roll would be fastened to a stick at each end. There would often be a case for the roll. The book wrap would hold a number of these rolls, whether of papyrus or parchment. The leaves of parchment, if not bound together in a codex, would lie open in the book wrap.” (A.T. Robertson’s Studies In The Text Of The New Testament, pp. 108-109.)
The question now arises as to exactly what these books were, which (probably) no man will be able to definitely determine, while we are here on this earth, with our limited knowledge. Paul gives really no hint of what they were, but, inasmuch as he distinguishes between the two, it has generally been thought that whatever the books were, the parchments were probably rolls of the Old Testament Scriptures, as Kenyon of the
The late Walter Locke, in his Commentary On The Pastoral Epistles (p. 118) says they might have been “possibly official copies of the Lord’s words or early narratives.” They could have been, and how wonderful it would be if we could be sure of this! Dr. A.T. Robertson, along this line (and he was a careful scholar), goes so far as to suggest that “it is possible that both of Luke’s books—the Gospel, and the Acts—were in that book wrap. Paul’s copies of Luke’s books, presentation copies we might say, may have been in the bunch of books in
Canon Farrar, in his brilliantly written Life And Work Of St. Paul (Volume II, pp. 571-572), helps us to reconstruct in our own minds something of the environment in which Paul wrote these words.
“Perhaps he had bought these books when he was a student in the
“No, he is much more than content. His soul is joyful in God. If he has the cloke to keep him warm, and the books and parchments to teach and encourage, and Mark to help him in various ways, and if, above all, Timothy will come himself, then life will have shed on him its last rays of sunshine; and in lesser things, as well as in all greater, he will wait with thankfulness, even with exultation, the pouring out in libation of those last few drops of his heart’s blood of which the rich, full stream has for these long years been flowing forth upon God’s altar in willing sacrifice.”
For some strange reason, the Church Fathers made very little use of this verse, and when they did quote it, they paid almost no attention to the clause speaking of books and parchments, but made all their comments upon the cloke.
When we come, however, to that peer of commentators of the sixteenth century—John Calvin—we have something entirely different, definite and practical. These are Calvin’s words, with his usual common sense.
“It is evident from this that the Apostle had not given over reading, though he was well preparing for death. Where are those who think that they have made so great progress that they do not need any more exercise? Which of them will dare to compare himself with Paul? Still more does this expression refute the madness of those men who, despising books and condemning all reading, boast of nothing but their own divine inspirations. But let us know that this Apostle gives to all believers a recommendation of constant reading that they may profit by it.”
Speaking of commentators, one of our own generation, without illuminating the text as much as we wish he had done, for he was easily able to do this,--the late Dr. Lenski—frankly faces the often-asked question whether a sentence mentioning such trivial things as a cloak and books is inspired. “Offence has been taken at the fact that Paul should mention such articles, especially the cloke. Some also ask whether inspiration is needed for a verse like this. The answer to the latter is that if inspiration is able to watch over what we admit as the great utterances of Scripture, why should it not guide also what some of us may admit the most minor ones? Certainly the Holy Spirit does not need the advice of men to tell Him what to inspire, and what not…Let the Holy Spirit judge regarding the importance…Your comfortable circumstances and mine have not been those of all other believers.” (R.C.H. Lenski: The Interpretation Of Paul’s Epistles To The Colossians, Timothy, etc.
The reading of Calvin’s words, written in 1556, leads us to another great scholar of the Church of the very same generation, William Tindale, who twenty years before this was executed—October 6, 1536. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the only known letter we have of William Tindale was discovered in the Archives of the Council of Brabant, a letter written when the great martyr and scholar was in prison at Vilvorde in Belgium, addressed to the Marquis of Bergen, Governor of the Council. Certainly Tindale knew, when he wrote this tender note of request, that another martyr fifteen centuries before had the very longings when he was in prison that he was experiencing, also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. These are Tindale’s words, and I give them as a precious parallel of the last words of the dying Paul.
“I believe, right worshipful, that you are not ignorant of what has been determined concerning me (by the Council of Brabant); therefore I entreat your lordship and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here (in Vilvorde) during the winter, you will request the Procureur to be kind enough to send me from my goods which he has in his possession, a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh, which is considerably increased in this cell. A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin: also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings: my overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. He has a woolen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth for putting on above; he also has warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also his permission to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study. And in return, may you obtain your dearest wish, provided always it be consistent with the salvation of your soul. But if, before the end of the winter, a different decision be reached concerning me, I shall be patient, abiding the will of God to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, whose Spirit, I pray, may ever direct your heart.” (William Tindale: A Biography, pp. 537-538)
Now, if I may, let me come for a moment to some modern sermons on this text. Strange to say, there are not many, and most of them, as with the Church Fathers, deal not with the books, but with the cloke. Some of them become quite fanciful, and give those using the text a handle for preaching on such subjects as “On Leaving Things Behind” or “Luggage Left Behind.” The only two sermons of the last century that I have discovered dealing directly with Paul’s request for these books and parchments are in the writings of two men, both preaching in London; one in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the other in the first quarter of the twentieth century—Charles Spurgeon and Dinsdale T. Young. To speak of the last first, Dinsdale T. Young preached to 3,000 people every Sunday in Westminster Hall,
Mr. Spurgeon preached on this text at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on Sunday morning, November 29, 1863. The first two-thirds of the sermon have to do with Paul’s request for a cloke, and I think that his seven pages on this single clause are the finest pages in the English language on this particular portion of Paul’s writings. It would be a grand thing sometime if one with much leisure and a love for books and a discerning spirit, would give us a great series of volumes in which the very finest things said on each particular phrase in the New Testament were brought together. These are Spurgeon’s words:
“We will LOOK AT HIS BOOKS. We do not know what the books were about, and we can only form some guess as to what the parchments were. Paul had a few books which were left, perhaps wrapped up in the cloak, and Timothy was to be careful to bring them. Even an apostle must read. Some of our very ultra-Calvinistic brethren think that a minister who reads books and studies his sermon must be a very deplorable specimen of a preacher. A man who comes up into the pulpit, professes to take his text on the spot, and talks any quantity of nonsense, is the idol of many. If he will speak without premeditation, or pretend to do so, and never produce what they call a dish of dead men’s brains—oh! that is the preacher. How rebuked are they by the apostle! He is inspired and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He has seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written a major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, ‘Give thyself unto reading.’ The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master’s service. Paul cried, ‘Bring the books’—join in the cry.
“Our second remark is, that the apostle is not ashamed to confess that he does read. He is writing to his young son Timothy. Now, some old preachers never like to say a thing which will let the young ones into their secrets. They suppose they must put on a dignified air, and make a mystery of their sermonizing; but all this is alien from the spirit of truthfulness. Paul wants books, and is not ashamed to tell Timothy that he does; and Timothy may go and tell Tychicus and Titus if he likes—Paul does not care.
“Paul herein is a picture of industry. He is in prison; he cannot preach: what will he do? As he cannot preach, he will read. As we read of the fishermen of old and their boats. The fishermen were gone out of them. What were they doing? Mending their nets. So if providence has laid you upon a sick bed, and you cannot teach your class—if you cannot be working for God in public, mend your nets by reading. If one occupation is taken from you, take another, and let the books of the apostle read you a lesson of industry.
“He says, ‘especially the parchments.’ I think the books were Latin and Greek works, but that the parchments were Oriental; and possibly they were the parchments of Holy Scripture; or as likely, they were his own parchments, on which were written the originals of his letters which stand in our Bible as the Epistles to the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, and so on. Now, it must be ‘especially the parchments’ with all our reading; let it be especially the Bible. Do you attach no weight to this advice? This advice is more needed in
Now let me come to what, if I may so say, is the best of all, the greatest thing ever done in our language, and probably that ever will be done in reference to Paul as a student, and the bearing of this fact on our being students of the best books, and most of all THE Book. I take these words from Alexander Whyte’s marvelous, moving volume, The Apostle Paul.
I really wish I could prevail with you who are no longer young to put aside, as Butler beseeches you, your books and papers of mere amusement, and to read Cicero’s Cato, and some of the other old age classics, if only to make those fine books to serve for so many foils in a fresh perusal of the Epistles of the Imprisonment. It is our bounden duty to read a Greek or a Roman masterpiece now and then, such as the Phaedo or the Cato, if only to awaken ourselves again to the immensity of the change that came into this world with the Incarnation and the Resurrection of our Lord. What a contrast between philosophy at its very best in Socrates and
“Well, after repeated readings lately of the Cato and the Epistles of the Imprisonment, and the Art of Dying Well, and Jeremy Taylor, and suchlike author’s for old age, I will now tell you some of the reflections, impressions, and resolutions, that have been left on my own mind. And take first Paul’s so touching message to Timothy about his cloke, and his books, and his parchments. For all that comes in most harmoniously after we have just been reading Cato about our keeping on reading and writing our best to the end…
“And if I might be bold enough to add one word after Calvin. I am not now, alas! a neophyte in these matters, and I will therefore take boldness to say this to you. Read the very best books, and only the very best, and ever better and better the older you grow. Be more and more select, and fastidious, and refined, in your books and in your companions, as old age draws on, and death with old age. I wonder just what books they were that Paul missed so much in his imprisoned and apostolic old age at
“Now the first instruction, as I think, intended to us out of Saul’s student days is this—that the finest minds in every generation should study for the Christian ministry. Perhaps the very finest mind that had been born among men since the beginning of the world entered on the study of Old Testament theology when Saul of Tarsus sat down at Gamaliel’s feet. And all Saul’s fine and fast maturing mind will soon be needed now. For a work lay before that weaver boy of Tarsus second only to the work that lay before that carpenter boy of Nazareth, though second to that by an infinite interval. At the same time, there has been no other work predestinated to mere mortal man to do for God and man to be spoken of in the same day with this weaver’s boy’s foreordained work. For even after the Lamb of God had said of His work,--it is finished! how unfinished and incomplete our New Testament would have been without the life and the work of the Apostle Paul. There was a deep harmony pre-established from all eternity between the work of Jesus Christ and the mind and the heart of Paul His apostle. No other subject in all the world but the Divine Person and the redeeming work of Jesus Christ could have afforded an outlet and an opportunity and an adequate scope for Paul’s magnificent mind. While, on the other hand, the law of God and the cross of Christ would have remained to this day but half-revealed mysteries, had it not been for God’s revelation of His Son in Paul; and had it not been for Paul’s intellectual and spiritual capacity to receive that revelation, and to expound it and preach it. Every man who has read Paul’s epistles with the eyes of his understanding in light, and with his heart on fire, must have continually exclaimed, What a gift to man is a fine mind, and that mind wholly given up to Jesus Christ! Let our finest minds, then, devote themselves to the study of Christology. Other subjects may, or may not, be exhausted; other callings may, or may not, be overcrowded; but there is plenty of room in the topmost calling of all, and there is an ever-opening and ever-deepening interest there. No wonder, then, that it has been a University tradition in
“And then, the best of all callings being chosen, the better his mind and the better his heart are, the more profit, to employ Paul’s own word about himself, will be made by the true student. For one thing, the better his mind, the more industrious, as a rule the student of divinity will be. And the absolutely utmost industry in this supreme department of study is imperative and indispensable. An unindustrious divinity student should be drummed out of the Hall as soon as he is discovered intruding himself into it. With what a hunger for his books, and with what heavenward vows and oaths of work young Saul would set out from
“’Give attendance to reading,’ was Paul’s old-age reminiscence of his student days, in the form of a counsel to young Timothy. ‘Paul has not lost his delight in books, even when he is near his death,’ says Calvin. And I myself owe so much to good books that I cannot stop myself on this subject as long as I see a single student sitting before me. I have a thousand times had Thomas Boston’s experience of good books. ‘I plied my books. After earnestly plying my books, I felt my heart begin to grow better. I always find that my health and my heart are the better according as I ply my books.’ But you will correct me that Paul could not ply the great books that Thomas
“Up, and abolish death. Up, out of your bondage all your days through fear of death. Up, and practice dying in the Lord, till you take the prize. Up, and read Paul without ceasing, and pray without ceasing, till you also shall stand on tiptoe with expectation and with full assurance of faith. Yes; up, till you also shall salute His sudden coming, and shall exclaim, Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!” (The Apostle Paul, by Alexander Whyte, pp. 174-175; 176-177; pp. 14-21; p. 181)