Bring me the Scrolls

It is often the case that a minister only begins to really appreciate the value of his books when the time comes for him to part with them. Sometimes it happens when he runs out of space on his shelves and he is forced to thin them out. Or it may be when it comes to his retirement and he is downsizing his house and there simply isn’t the same amount of space in his new accommodation. Either way, he finds himself struggling to decide which ones to keep and which to let go. It begins to dawn on him that these volumes mean more to him than he may have previously realised.

I well remember an occasion when the value of Christian books came home to me in a way I had never experienced before. It was in relation to a Bible College in South Africa that our church had been able to help. I had met its founder and Principal on a visit to the country a year previously and he had spoken of his desire to build up a decent theological library for the college, but in the same breath said they lacked the finance to do so. It so happened that my church in London at that time was quite close to a Christian charity that specialised in good Christian books and they had a section in their warehouse that was dedicated to theological works. So, I told my friend that the next time he was in London he could come and choose a thousand volumes and our deacons would arrange to have them shipped out.

About a year later I was back in South Africa and the Principal asked if I would come and deliver a guest lecture at his little institution. When I arrived at the college, I was immediately struck by the extreme poverty that surrounded it and just how primitive its facilities were. But the students were overflowing with warmth in the welcome they gave me. It was clear that there was one room they wanted to show me and it was their library. When I saw what these books meant to them, it dawned on me as never before just how valuable such books really are.

That experience in Africa gave me a fresh appreciation of one of the last requests the apostle Paul made as his time in this world was drawing to a close. He asked Timothy to do his best to make the journey to Rome to visit him there in prison (2Ti 4.9-13). He asked him also to bring his cloak (which he had left behind in Troas), but then he adds, ‘…also the books [scrolls], and above all the parchments.’ Here was the preeminent pastor-theologian of the New Testament era yet, even as death looms large on his horizon, he still wants to learn.

The ‘parchments’ are likely to have been portions off the Old Testament, but the ‘books’ were probably writings that related to the Scriptures – possibly even written by his fellow-apostles. But the point was clear, his present circumstances had in no way dulled his appetite for God’s word and for faithful exposition and reflection on its doctrines.

Paul has already said to Timothy, ‘Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved…rightly handling the word of truth’ (2Ti 2.15). Here he shows that the same principle applies to him – so long he has breath in his body. This is no mere hunger for knowledge for its own sake; it is a deep longing for the knowledge of God. His books were his ‘friends’ in that they helped him to come to a deeper knowledge of the Book by which God makes himself known.

It is humbling to see that this foremost theologian of the church should be eager to learn from the theological labours of others. Theology is never a private enterprise, we are always leaning on the insight and understanding of fellow-theologians in the church.

So too, we cannot help but be struck by the fact that Paul, who was used to bring us deeper into the knowledge of God than perhaps any other biblical author, should be longing to go deeper still. (But, since the knowledge of God is inexhaustible, eternity itself will be too short to know him fully.)

There is, however, one other thought that may help us understand this request Paul makes. It is the fact that the knowledge of God brings us closer to heaven. God’s glory, love and grace so shine out of the pages of his book that they eclipse the dark and drab surroundings in which we find ourselves. They give us a glimpse of what, as Paul says elsewhere, ‘No eye has seen, or ear has heard’ (1Co 2.9). The apostle would soon be promoted to glory, but he wanted to do all in his power to whet his appetite for what that would entail. Like Christian in Bunyan’s tale, his sights were increasingly set on the Celestial City and his coming home to God.

Paul’s books were his companions in the closing stages of his earthly pilgrimage. They had been his best friends in his life and ministry along the way and he knew they would not fail him at the end.

For those who struggle to understand why books matter to pastors (and why it is so important to have Christian publishing companies that are faithful to Scripture), think again about the priority Paul gives to his books even as he prepares for heaven.

Mark Johnston