Bring the Scrolls
The second letter of Paul to Timothy is sometimes called the farewell letter of Paul.
For 2 Timothy is a deeply personal letter written by the old apostle to his spiritual son and fellow worker in the ministry. The words of this letter ring with pathos, for behind each paragraph we find hints at Paul’s sad circumstances.
Paul sits in prison in Rome, deserted by all but a few, and waiting for the time of his execution. Sitting in a cell in solitude is a fine time to feel sorry for oneself, for the great and costly efforts of Paul for the gospel of his Lord had this result for him: chained, alone, and soon to be dead. Paul had every reason for self-pity, regret, bitterness, even anger. Where were the people he had worked alongside? Where was the support from all the Christians he had taught?
But Paul’s letter to Timothy from his lonely cell is not a missive of pessimistic complaint, but a letter of pastoral concern. Paul was almost done his earthly service, and what does he do? He encourages Timothy to be steadfast in his work and to keep preaching the Word. For hostility and persecution are sure to arise, and there will always be those who doctor the Word to suit their own fancies.
Indeed, in his farewell Paul will not mask the hard reality of what can happen to those who minister faithfully; “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure” (2 Tim 4:6). Even in this, however, Paul can point to himself as one who is blessed by God. He is confident that for him there is a great reward in store, the crown of righteousness bestowed by Christ. This wondrous goal impels Timothy and all workers for the gospel to serve faithfully, to endure hardship, and to remain committed to Christ’s Word of truth.
As he looks to his heavenly goal, Paul expects his end very soon. However, he still hopes to see Timothy once more, “Do your best to come to me quickly” (2 Tim 4:9). He wants Timothy to hasten to Rome, undoubtedly for a time of fellowship, mutual encouragement, and instruction.
In this chapter we get other glimpses into the mind of the apostle. For in verse 13 he also makes this brief request to Timothy:
When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.
About this Carpus nothing more is said in the New Testament, but it seems that Paul had made a recent visit to his house at Troas. Some have suggested that when he was arrested, Paul was forced to leave some items with him as he was hastily removed to Rome. Timothy, probably currently at work in Ephesus, is requested to stop in Troas for the items and then continue to Rome.
This letter suggests that Paul is not under house arrest in Rome like the first time he was imprisoned, but chained in an actual prison. Typical prison conditions at this time were marked by discomfort, cold, and dampness; from verse 21 we learn that winter was also approaching, a cause for more concern.
Requesting the cloak that he left at Troas, Paul longs for a better covering. The word for “cloak” refers to a heavy, circular garment made of wool, sheepskin or goat hair, with a hole in the middle for the head. Such a garment could be used for warmth and protection from the elements, or could even serve as something like a sleeping bag.
But Paul is not just sitting idly in prison, trying to keep warm, for he also asks Timothy to bring his “scrolls and parchments.” The Greek word for ‘scrolls’ refers to rolls of books, writings, or collections of writings. It is used in the New Testament with reference to secular writings (like a divorce certificate), and the writings of the Old Testament, like the book of the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:17) or the book of the law (Gal 3:10). Papyrus was widely used for such scrolls.
Paul also asks Timothy to recover the ‘parchments’ and bring them to Rome. The Greek word describes parchment or vellum, a writing material that was more expensive than papyrus. Parchment was capable of being reused and was also more durable than papyrus, for it was made from animal skins. Parchment would often be used for more valuable writings and documents, while papyrus served for ordinary books and letters.
So the next question is an inevitable one: What were these documents that Paul so eagerly awaited? His request for a warm cloak is understandable in light of his situation in prison. But what about these scrolls and parchments?
The suggestions about what he has in mind are varied. Some have identified the scrolls or papyri with Paul’s Roman citizenship papers, which he would have been eager to appeal to in any upcoming legal proceedings. Another suggestion is that the valuable parchments were the Old Testament scriptures: some volumes of the law of Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, or even the entire Old Testament in Greek.
Other commentators, looking at Paul’s rabbinic style here and there in his epistles, and also at his occasional use of Greek secular writings, propose that the items which Paul requests might be old Jewish exegetical works or maybe a collection of philosophical writings. Perhaps the less durable scrolls were Paul’s notebooks, where the apostle recorded his thoughts and observations on the churches, a record of who was where and what problems persisted in each location, or took notes on his personal study of the Scriptures.
There are more imaginative ideas about these “scrolls and parchments.” The nearness of both Mark and Luke in this same context (2 Tim 4:11) has led some to think that Paul might have been collaborating on an early gospel, a volume containing the all-important narrative of Christ’s life and death.
Sometimes, of course, we must admit when there is no final answer to be found for the questions surrounding a verse. But Paul is almost certainly not requesting his copy of some obscure Greek philosopher or some blank writing material. For he was a student of the Scriptures first and foremost. He had just told Timothy that the Scriptures were God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16-17). Paul’s repeated commands to Timothy to maintain and teach sound doctrine were surely modeled by the apostle as he devoted himself to the Word and its doctrines.
It is striking that though he wasn’t in the comfort of a well-stocked study, Paul would dedicate himself to the Scriptures. In cold and dank conditions Paul continued to open his books and read. He would keep laboring in the Word, to the end a tireless worker for the gospel.
An interesting parallel to Paul’s request is in the history of William Tyndale, the persecuted English Bible translator in the 16th century. When he was in captivity at Vilvorde in 1535, he wrote to the governor with a few simple requests: warmer clothing, a woolen shirt, and most importantly (he said), his Hebrew Bible, Grammar, and Dictionary. Tyndale, suffering physically and certainly mentally in prison, stayed committed to the important work of translation.
It was clear that the end was near for Paul, yet he persisted in opening his books and thoroughly equipping himself for every good work. Perhaps Timothy made it to Rome in time, perhaps not. With this letter of 2 Timothy, the pen of the apostle is laid down, but his voice is not silenced. For Paul’s words still resonate: Even at the close of his hard-fought life, even as one who knew the Scriptures so well—who even wrote Scripture!—he would continue to explore the Word.
Today you and I sit far more comfortably and at ease when we read and study the Scriptures.
Today we are blessed with an unimaginably wide array of good and freely accessible resources for this activity.
And so we are urged to show no less dedication to the Word of God than did Paul. To his dying day, he would read more, study more, and keep sharing the gospel. For this is work that must continue until the day of Christ’s return.