What Does 2 Timothy 3:16 Mean?

This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.

God-Breathed and Profitable

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. —2 Timothy 3:16

The term translated “Scripture” is the Greek word graphē, from which we get our English suffix -graph (as in paragraph). In general, the word denotes writing of some sort. In the NT this word is used as a technical term to refer to the Word of God written in the thirty-nine books of the OT. Paul in his statement specifies “all” Scripture, not just some; the use of “all” may indicate that Paul wishes to stress each and every individual passage of Scripture.

The phrase “breathed out by God” translates a single word from the Greek: theopneustos. This compound consists of two parts, the words for “God” (theos) and for “breathe” (pneō). Some translations render the compound as “inspired,” an acceptable translation that is nevertheless not as accurate as “God-breathed,” which emphasizes the divine authority of Scripture. When the Bible speaks, God speaks. The very “writings” themselves have the characteristic of “God-breathedness.” They are God’s Word.

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

The word translated “profitable” means that all Scripture is useful, beneficial, or advantageous (BDAG, s.v. ὠφέλιμος). Scripture is good for God’s people precisely because it is the Word of God. In fact, we might loosely render this phrase, “All Scripture is God-breathed and therefore is good for you.”

These two attributes of Scripture are often the most challenging to accept and are the two attributes of Scripture false teachers and critics regularly attack. Such critics do not want hearers to have confidence in Scripture as the Word of God. If they fail to convince that Scripture is not God’s Word, then they seek to convince that it is not good for God’s people. The faith of believers can falter on either one of those points.

Four Tasks of Scripture

Scripture is “profitable” for readers in regard to four very specific tasks:

(1) “Teaching.” Scripture tells readers positively what they must believe; it gives sound doctrine.

(2) “Reproof.” Scripture tells readers negatively what they should not believe; it disabuses readers of unsound doctrine.

(3) “Correction” means “setting right, . . . most likely with a reference to conduct.”1 Scripture tells readers negatively what not to do.

(4) “Training in righteousness” indicates “teaching” or “education” in right living. Scripture tells readers positively what they must do.

These four items form a chiasm, with the two negative terms on the inside and the two corresponding positive terms on the outside. John Stott argues that these four terms address creed and conduct. Teaching and reproof relate to right doctrine, while correction and training in righteousness relate to right living:

Paul now goes on to show that the profit of Scripture relates to both creed and conduct (2 Tim. 3:16b, 17). The false teachers divorced them; we must marry them. . . . As for our creed, Scripture is profitable ‘for teaching the truth and refuting error’ [NEB]. As for our conduct, it is profitable ‘for reformation of manners and discipline in right living.’ In each pair the negative and positive counterparts are combined. Do we hope, either in our own lives or in our teaching ministry, to overcome error and grow in truth, to overcome evil and grow in holiness? Then it is to Scripture that we must primarily turn, for Scripture is ‘profitable’ for these things.2

Scripture is good for God’s people precisely because it is the Word of God.

So That We Are “Equipped for Every Good Work”

Scripture is “God-breathed” and “profitable” so that it might produce something in the “man of God” who reads it (2 Tim. 3:17). Some think that “man of God” refers to the pastor in particular. Such an interpretation would mean that Scripture equips the pastor for the work of ministry only, but another interpretation takes “man of God” more inclusively. On this view the phrase refers to “any person of God,” though it may focus on Timothy in this particular case.3

If this second sense is accurate, then Scripture enables any “person of God” to be “complete”—“capable, proficient” or “able to meet all demands” (BDAG, s.v. ἄρτιος, italics original). The Bible enables all believers to be capable of meeting whatever demands God places on them by making them “equipped for every good work.” Scripture states that God saves people so that they might perform “good works” (cf. Matt. 5:16; Eph. 2:10). This text makes clear that Scripture equips and enables readers for every single one of those good works. There is nothing that God calls anyone to do that he does not equip them to do through Scripture.

We must beware any preacher or teacher who attempts to drive a wedge between the Bible and what God is doing in the world. We must beware any preacher who would drive a wedge between the Bible and what God is doing in us. If we have God’s Word, we have everything we need for life and godliness. We have everything we need to be faithful and fruitful in the gospel. For this Word is God’s Word, not man’s.


  1. George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 449.
  2. John R. W. Stott, Guard the Gospel: The Message of 2 Timothy, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 103.
  3. Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 450.

This article is by Denny Burk and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11).

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