Was Paul’s Reference to His “Cloak” a Meaningless Triviality?

By Wayne Jackson

Some have charged that the Bible contains a lot of trivial information, such as Paul’s request that Timothy bring the apostle’s “cloak” and “books and parchments” when he comes to Rome (2 Timothy 4:13). These items had been left in Troas (in western Asia Minor) with a brother whose name was Carpus. Critics say this sort of personal and superficial reference negates the idea that the Scriptures are verbally inspired of God.

Is there any validity in this objection?

What appears to be “trivial” to some, upon deeper reflection, may contain a rich depository of truth. The skeptic is always impulsively rash to throw out alleged problems to which he scarcely has given any thought at all.

The Cloak

The “cloak” was a cape made of heavy material (probably wool; sometimes leather) with a slot for the head. It was somewhat comparable to a Mexican serape. It was used in frigid weather to ward off the cold and rain. At night, it could be used as a blanket. With the coming of winter (v. 21), imagine the Lord’s apostle in a cold, Roman dungeon — with no coat for comfort for his chilled and trembling frame. Consider these possibilities.

Why was his coat left behind?

Why did the apostle leave his coat in Troas? Was he forced to flee, and thus had no time to obtain it? We know that his ministry was fraught with dangerous circumstances that made rapid flight imperative on many occasions. From Damascus he was let down through the city wall in a hamper (Acts 9:23-25). He had to leave Thessalonica under the protection of night (Acts 17:10).

Read his catalog of ordeals in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 and envision the constant threats and dangers that pursued him relentlessly. Was this “cloak” request but another hint of the apostle’s ongoing persecution in his declining years? Perhaps.

Paul’s sacrificial poverty

The request is but another commentary on the sacrificial poverty of him who was willing to spend and be spent for the cause of Christ (2 Corinthians 12:15). Think of it — chilling weather approaching, and yet the apostle’s only coat is a thousand miles away! Paul was no stranger to “cold and nakedness” (2 Corinthians 11:27), or to poverty. Think about this in view of the fact that so many complain about the most inconsequential economic inconveniences.

Neglected by the brethren

What about the saints in Rome during this time of Paul’s physical need? Was there no one who could provide the beloved apostle with a coat to warm his scarred back (Galatians 6:17)? Where were those enthusiastic Christians who had rushed out of the city years earlier to meet the tireless preacher as he approached the imperial city (Acts 28:15)? Had many of them been scattered by persecution? Had others, like Demas (2 Timothy 4:10), turned against the apostle (see Philippians 1:15-17)?

At Paul’s “first defense” (perhaps a preliminary procedure in his present legal ordeal), no one took his part; all forsook him (2 Timothy 4:16). And even as this second letter to Timothy was being composed, only Luke remained with him (v.11). People can change for the worse; love can wax cold (Matthew 24:12).

The toughness of Paul

The passage is revealing of the fortitude and independence of the magnificent Paul. Tough as a pine knot, no word of complaint or whimpering escapes his courageous lips. No browbeating of neglectful brethren and no pitiful solicitation from others is here in evidence. What a man!

God cares about the little things

The incorporation of this request into the sacred narrative is a reminder that God is concerned with the most intimate details of our lives. If he is attentive when a single sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29), is he not mindful when one of his saints is without the bare necessities of life? God cares (cf. 2 Kings 20:5)! Believe it, and be “comforted” thereby — even when “discomfort” surrounds you.

Paul didn’t expect a personal miracle

The text also demonstrates, however, that our Father does not exempt us from the common distresses of life — even though we are his faithful children. Not even the apostle expected the Lord to provide him with a supernatural heat source to protect him from the cold.

Rather, Paul knew that he must exercise his own ingenuity in the matter (by making a request to a devoted brother), and let Providence orchestrate the rest. Faith, without an appropriate response from man, produces nothing.

What About the Books and Parchments

There has been much discussion among Bible scholars regarding the significance of the terms “books” and “parchments.”

“Book” (biblion — in the singular, i.e., a scroll) was a fairly broad term. It could designate one of the Old Testament writings. In the synagogue at Nazareth, for instance, Jesus read from the “book” of the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:17; cf. Hebrews 9:19).

On the other hand, biblion could also refer to a literary or legal document. Jesus used the word to designate a divorce decree (Matthew 19:7; Mark 10:4). The “books” would include writing materials manufactured from the papyrus plant.

The Greek word for “parchment” is membrana (cf. English — membrane, skin). This material was made from the skins of sheep or goats, which, when processed, provided a fine, durable writing material called “vellum.” Parchment documents were more expensive than papyrus.

There are two views (based upon grammatical considerations) regarding the “books” and “parchments” of this text. Some hold they represent two different classes (as outlined above), papyrus and parchment. Others suggest that “books” is a generic expression that includes “parchments,” and that the apostle is simply saying, “bring the books — by that I specifically mean the parchments” (Fee, 295).

But what were these documents? No one knows for certain, but there are several intriguing possibilities.

#Some suggest the parchments could have been legal documents (e.g., his proof of Roman citizenship). If so, this might indicate that the rugged missionary was still fighting for a release from prison so he could continue his proclamation of the gospel. This would illustrate Paul’s unconquerable spirit to the very last.

  1. Others think they were blank parchments that the famous writer would employ in sending messages of comfort and consolation to churches and individuals in his waning days. This certainly would be in harmony with his fervent, encouraging temperament. Always others, never self.
  2. A common view is that the reference likely is to certain copies of the Old Testament scriptures. If that was the case, then we have Paul, the ever-eager student, retired (by force) from his missionary travels, but not intellectually dormant!

Each of these possibilities ignites the imagination and warms the soul.

Carpus

Aside from that, the passage implies something about Carpus, mentioned only here in the New Testament. He was a companion of Paul’s (perhaps a convert). The apostle obviously had great confidence in this brother, trusting him to see that these valuables would be protected, and thus eventually dispatched to their owner.

Carpus may be one of the many unsung heroes, mentioned merely in passing, but whose courageous exploits will be revealed in eternity, and to whom we will express our gratitude for his tender care of our beloved, brother Paul.

Let it never be said, therefore, that this, or any other passage of Scripture, is meaningless or trite. The Holy Spirit, who included the text in sacred writ, is a better judge of this issue than any fallible antagonist. Such superficial criticisms come only from those who have neglected the responsibility of serious investigation. There is no insignificant sentence in the divine Volume.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Fee, Gordon. 1988. 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus. Hendrickson: Peabody, MA.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.