This morning I am going to read II Timothy chapter four, verses one through five. Paul writes, beginning in verse one:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
These may well be the favorite verses of most every pastor. More importantly, they should be the most important verses for most every pastor. I still remember the first time these verses laid hold of my heart in February of 1998 and I saw them in many ways for the first time. Me and a few friends in college had hopped in a little car and driven north from Mobile, Ala. to Birmingham, Ala., to the campus of Samford University and the Beeson Divinity School. That month, for the Conger Lectures at that institution, Dr. John Piper was slated to preach. I had never heard of John Piper up until that point, and as I was then contemplating a call ministry, I began working through what God was doing in my life with a few other young men who I was in college with. Someone had just introduced me to John Piper’s preaching ministry, and they described him as being a John MacArthur of the North. The “of the North” part troubled me some, but the John MacArthur part did not. They said, “You will enjoy his preaching.” I listened to a few tapes, and we decided that we would hop in a car together, drive north, pile into one hotel room and stay there for a couple nights to listen to John Piper preach. I still remember us as college students hopping in a beat up car. In fact, before we left town we had to secure bread ties to tie on the front bumper of the car because it was falling off on one corner. I had never been on the campus of Samford University. We went into the majestic chapel at Beeson Divinity School, and I remember sitting there and taking it all in. Dr. Timothy George, Christian George’s father, was the founding dean in 1988. He still serves there. I think I recall seeing a pre-pubescent Christian George playing ping-pong in their rec center that week. But seriously, I remember sitting there and hearing John Piper preach these verses. I do not know if I had ever heard him preach these before. If I had, they had never come to me since I had been wrestling with a call to ministry.
I remember being enraptured, not so much by the spokesperson–though he is a powerful preacher– but being enraptured by the force of these verses that spoke to me that day. There is a sense in which the first time I began to understand more clearly what a call to preaching and ministry would mean. It would mean that I would fall in this great line of godly preachers who for 2,000 years who have sought to preach the Word. It would mean that I would give my life to a task of preaching not knowing where that would take me, what that context would be, what that ministry would be, or any of those things. I began to understand more clearly that for me, saying yes to ministry would be saying yes to preach. It invigorated me, enlivened me, and exhilarated me to begin to see the weighty sense of calling to preach the Word. What those verses did in my life, no doubt they have done in the lives of many of us today who are preachers of the Word. Not all of us in the room today, and certainly not all of us studying for ministry here, understand their call to be to a pastoral ministry; but for those of us who do especially, there is a romance to these verses. There is an appeal to these verses that draws us back again, and again, and again, to what is the very heart of our calling–the call to preach.
“Preach The Word.” This exhortation is situated front and center in these five verses and front and center in this book. It comes with added momentum since we’ve looked at chapter three. There is a contrast of the difficult times which will come and which are upon us; times of the culture and the world, but most especially these difficult times will trickle into the church as well. There can be moral decay, godlessness, devilishness, a sense of distraction, and complacency in the church. To combat this, Paul tells Timothy, “You have a tool, and that is the Word of God.” In verses 1-5, they are all the more strengthened by the rolling context of the decadence of the times in which the church will always be ministering juxtaposed to the power of the Word of God. Paul tells Timothy in verse 16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for reproof, for teaching, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Those are more than words of theory or theology. Those are urgent words spoken to a desperate man. Timothy, we know, is indeed a desperate man. He is vacillating in the faith, he is weak-kneed. Throughout this book, Paul is telling Timothy to buck up and to stand strong, to remain faithful, to renew his calling, and to understand that to which God has set him apart. Apostasy and disavowal of the faith are too common at this point in the First century. Empire-wide persecution is setting in upon the church, and Paul himself, of course, will soon face death as a martyr. So this book comes to us as the dying words of a dying man, but these verses come with a special sense of urgency because Paul, in his heart, is a preacher, and Timothy, in his heart, is a preacher as well. He tells Timothy, “You do something. You preach The Word.” This is Paul’s word to Timothy, Paul’s word to the church, and in a very real way it is Paul’s word to us as well.
We aspire to do many things well as a seminary, but that which we most urgently aspire to do well is to train a generation of preachers who will preach The Word. Moreover, it is to train a generation of men and women strong in the Scriptures and able to preach and teach the Word of God. It is the irreducible, indispensable task of the minister to preach and teach the Word. I want you to see with me this morning, from these verses, four marks of faithful preaching. I could spend the afternoon preaching to these verses, I think. Time does not permit that, but I want to draw in especially on four marks of faithful preaching from these verses. The first mark that is self-evident is to preach biblically. It is stated plainly in the beginning three words of verse two, “preach the Word,” but it is embedded throughout the entire section. I think of it a little bit like 1 Timothy chapter three, where Paul begins discussing the qualifications of a minister by telling Timothy, “The minister must be above reproach.” Then, the next seven verses unpacks what that looks and feels like. It is sort of like that here. We get a straight statement to preach the Word, and the others around it are sort of an unpacking or fleshing out of the prior command to “preach the Word.” He sets it up in verse one, which is Paul’s way of grabbing Timothy by the lapels and shaking him. He says, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom.” Imagine Timothy reading this letter. It has been personal, pastoral, brotherly, and now Paul speaks to him directly and invokes the name of God and God’s Son, Christ Jesus. He personalizes the Father and the Son and brings it to bear personally to Timothy about his calling. This is more than the word of a mentor in the faith; it is even more than the word of an Apostle of the faith. It is the word that comes to Timothy, through Paul before God and of His Son, Jesus Christ. You are to do something; you are to preach the Word. You are to preach–to lift up your voice, proclaim, to be one who heralds a message, and to do it boldly, loudly, and without fear. You are to preach the Word.” I love the simplicity of it. There is a directness in these three words–you “preach the Word”. There is no need to clarify which word or whose word. Timothy knows whose word and which word. He is to preach The Word. In other words, he is to have something to say, and to say it–to speak the Word.
So much is going on here, and we have been hearing week-by-week; so I will not restate all that is going on contextually, but I want to remind us that there is a theme of the centrality of Scripture for ministry that bobs and weaves throughout this book. It is recurring. In chapter one, verse 13, Paul tells Timothy to “retain the standard of sound words.” In chapter two, verse 15, he says to “present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth.” In chapter two, verse 25, he states, “The Lord’s servant is to gently correct those who oppose him, hoping God to grant them repentance so that they may come to the knowledge of the truth.” Chapter three, verse 10, “You followed my teaching.” Chapter three, verse 14, “Continue in the things you have learned from me and become convinced of.” Chapter four, verses three and four, “They will not endure sound doctrine.” “They will turn away their ears from the truth,” verse four. Verse seven, “I, though, have kept the faith.” Then, of course, the capstone of these references to Scripture is in chapter three, verses 15-17. It is a great declaration on the inspiration of Scripture and upon which we build our understanding of the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. The words of Scripture themselves–all of the words–are inspired, thus are inerrant, thus are authoritative for us. So we see throughout this book the setting forth of the primacy of Scripture, the authority of Scripture, and how Timothy’s ministry must be built upon it. If you are not convinced of Scripture and its truthfulness, authority, relevance, and power, you will be disinclined to preach the Word. You may look to it for sermon points, because that is what evangelical preachers are told to do, but you will never let the Word be the point and points of your sermon. Paul tells Timothy, “Preach the Word.” It is our word; it is a perennial word, and it is a necessary word. There has to be a correlation between our stated belief in God’s Word and our commitment to preaching it.
I understand the liberal preacher who does not believe the Bible and therefore does not do much preaching from the Bible. I actually get that and think it is intellectually consistent. I think it is horrible and ruinous to the church, but at least that person is being intellectually consistent. I do not get the person who states to be an Evangelical, who states a belief in the Bible, but then is careless, negligent, or reluctant to peach it with full-throated force. Notice the linkage between verses 16 and 17 especially, and then the pivot to this direct command to preach The Word.
It is a clear, unambiguous charge in chapter four, verse two, which encapsulates a trans-biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation. When we see preaching taking place both descriptively and prescriptively, it always comes back to someone preaching some message from God–usually from Scripture. I will not digress here into a full defense of expository preaching. I am writing about that on my website, which you can access the next couple weeks as I am speaking to these things.
As I have been thinking about these verses in recent days, my mind went back to an article I read a number of years ago by a man named Milton Friedman. Some of you are thinking, “What does Milton Friedman have to do with preaching?” He has nothing to do with preaching. Milton Friedman was a very famous economist. He taught at the Chicago Business School and other places. He wrote an article in the context of the late 1970’s and 80’s when the nation was going through economic stagnation. It was back when we had the Economic Misery Index, as some of you recall. There was high inflation, high unemployment, low wage growth, and a coalescence of different economic factors that created a climate of misery for many. Milton Friedman said a nation’s economy could be big and massive, but it can be brought to a standstill by something that is relatively small. He used an automobile analogy. He said, “You can have a $30,000 car, but if the $30 battery is dead, not only will it not function properly, it will not function at all. It will not move or seek to turn over if the battery is dead.” In this analogy, Friedman said that it is sort of like a nation’s economy. You can have a massive economy, but if one relatively small element is missing, it will bring great challenge to the whole project. I hear a lot of sermons that have $30,000 homiletically polish, $30,000 illustrations, $30,000 presentation skills, but if there is not text in it, it does not matter; the sermon itself is lifeless and dead.
The first mark of faithful preaching is to preach the Word. The second mark we see as we look further into verse two, is to preach authoritatively. Preach biblically first and, secondly, preach authoritatively. Preach the Word. Be ready and alert. Be standing by, poised, eager, and “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, withgreat patience and instruction.” The idea of the sermon being an authoritative act is contained first and foremost in the word “preach” itself. To preach is to herald; it is to proclaim. I would argue that any true sermon, any true act of preaching, is to be an authoritative act. It is not the pastor pulling rank on a church; it is an authority grounded in the authority of Scripture. Preaching is not to get up and subtly back into a few recommendations derived from the Bible. Preaching is to get up and to speak authoritatively that which the Bible speaks to authoritatively. It is to transmit an authoritative message. He says, “Be ready in season and out of season.” In other words, do this regardless of the receptivity or lack of receptivity of your culture, context, or those who hear you. I think he is also saying whether or not it is in season or out of season with your own life. There are times when perhaps personal discouragement, personal fatigue, personal embarrassment, of a passage, verse or scriptural claim, or some other dynamic may make a preacher less inclined to speak the Word forcefully. But again, I charge you and Paul charges us, that when the Scripture speaks forcefully, who are we to round edges that God has made straight? Notice what he says here, “Regardless of the season, you preach the Word, and it looks like reproving, rebuking, and exhorting.” To reprove is a negative corrective word. It is the same word that shows up in verse 16, where Paul says, “Scripture is given to us by God and is profitable for teaching and for reproof.” It carried the idea of challenging errant thinking, and false doctrine. It is not only to reprove, but also to rebuke. It is a reference to the heart, I think. It is bringing a person under the conviction of sin. We are to speak the Scripture with such clarity and force that we are challenging the thinking and life of our people. That is authoritative preaching–reproving, rebuking and exhorting. It is to come alongside and encourage.
Here is where I think we have to be honest and say this is where it takes the extra effort as preachers. Especially those of us who say we are most committed to expository, verse-by-verse, preaching. If we are not careful, our sermons can begin to sound like a rambling commentary on the Bible. Our preaching has to be more than a verse-by-verse commentary. Yes, preaching explains the text and should explain it clearly, cogently, and directly. It is not just to explain a meaning and leave it hanging out there. It is to explain a meaning and to bring it to bear in the lives of our hearers. It is to actually bring it home, to bring it near to us and to let it shape our lives and actions. You see, you can be up to your eyeballs in Bible studies and biblical content, but if you do not bring it to bear, that shows a stunning lack of courage in the pulpit. Great preaching has a way of moving from the third person, and even the first person plural, to the second person. It is appropriate at times to get from the “they” and the “we” to the “you.” That is what preaching is to do.
Preaching is to be biblical; it is to be authoritative, regardless of the season, reproving, rebuking and exhorting. I am reminded of the founding statement of one of my favorite magazines, The National Review, founded in mid-1950s by William F. Buckley and others. In that opening introduction editorial speaking to why this new conservative magazine was being founded, Buckley wrote this, “Our goal is to stand athwart history, yelling, ‘stop’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” We want to yell more than, “stop,” but the preacher is to stand athwart history, culture, and if it is of necessity, he is to stand athwart his own congregation and speak authoritatively that to which the Bible speaks authoritatively.
There is a third mark of faithful preaching here that really is coupled with the second. I think it is a counterbalancing mark. That is, not only to preach authoritatively, but to preach pastorally. “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort,” notice the end of verse two, “with great patience and instruction.” Verse three says, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accord with their own desires. They will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” Again, sandwiched around verse two and verse one is this statement of the neediness of the church and the decadence of the culture. Right after is the tendency of fallen man to want to have their ears tickled. But notice the corrective is not merely one of bold and authoritative preaching, the corrective is also one of a shepherd’s heart. It is one of a pastor. Paul is saying here, the antidote is not merely to scorch the ears of our hearers. The antidote is to preach the Word forcefully, as one broken heart to another, as one bleeding heart to another. It is to do so pastorally. You do this with great patience and instruction.
Similar to what he said in verse 24, chapter two where he says, “The Lord’s bondservant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them resentence leading to the knowledge of truth, and they may more to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” Here is the reality–if God has entrusted you to a flock, they are not your enemy; they are your people. Though they may be obstinate and difficult at times, and though they may have had a long string of horrible pastors who never spoke the Word clearly or plainly, they still are not your adversary; they are your church. You are to preach boldly, yes, but preach pastorally as you do.
This time of year – Easter Week – I always think of the first church I pastored. My wife happens to be here this morning with most of our children. I remember we went into that church with all of the joy and optimism that one should have. My prayer going into that church was that God would give us a very encouraging, happy first church. Of course that is your prayer for every church you pastor; but especially my first church, because I knew that understanding would probably frame a lot of my understanding for pastoral ministry and would perhaps speak to me more about what ministry is to be than what subsequent stops may. I remember the first Easter we had there. We had been there about six months and the church had a really full calendar for Easter week. The had a Maundy Thursday service in addition to the normal Wednesday night prayer service; they had an evening Easter cantata on Good Friday; Saturday morning was a massive Easter egg hunt community outreach; Sunday morning was a sunrise service, which was followed up by a brunch at the church; which was followed up by Sunday school and Sunday morning service; which was followed up by a second presentation of the Easter cantata that was presented on Friday night. You roll that up from Wednesday to Sunday and it is fatiguing just thinking about it, especially as a pastor. I remember looking at all of this thinking, “You mean we have a sunrise service in the middle of all of this?” I had never gone to a sunrise service and that was looking particularly unappealing to me on Sunday morning at sunrise. I am one of these people who is always fiddling with a sermon on Sunday morning and trying to finish it. I really had to drag myself to that sunrise service that first year. You know how those things go. They tend to be the few and the proud at a sunrise service. They are the ones who are at everything else anyway. By our fourth and last year there, I really wasn’t dreading the sunrise service. I was sort of looking forward to it. It is not that I had a newfound love for a really cluttered Easter week, and a newfound love for a sunrise service per se, but over the years my love for that church had grown to such a degree that I not only found myself loving them more, I found myself loving what they loved more. My wife does that. She is here today, and I will brag on her. She has a pattern over the years of taking an interest in that which interests me and loving what I love as an extension of her love for me. College football does not do much for her per se, but she always finds herself happy to watch a game if I want to watch one.
That is what happens in the life of a faithful pastor. Over time as your love for your people grows, you will find yourself not only loving them, but loving what they love. As you do and as they sense that, listen to me, it will grant you more credibility to speak into their lives more directly than you would have ever had otherwise.
Preach pastorally with an affection for your people. Moreover, preach thinking about your people specifically. How will this sermon apply to the 80-year-old widow? How will it encourage the college student struggling with grades? How will it encourage the single mother with three young children trying to make ends meet? What does this have to say to the middle-age man just diagnosed with cancer? What does it have to say to the married couple whose marriage is in turbulent times? Preach with a heart for your church. Preach pastorally.
The fourth and final mark is to preach persistently. Verse three says, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.” As an aside, I do think we overhear hints of congregationalism; meaning, it is the responsibility of the church whom they call as their minister. Whether that has fleshed itself out operationally through a committee or some other structure is okay, but we are reminded here of the reality that the church bears responsibility for who they bring to be their minister. A bad church, one that is not sound in doctrine, and one that is wanting to have its ears tickled, will get someone who will do just that. The propensity of such a church is to turn away their ears from the truth, to turn aside to myths. “But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist,” and especially verse five, “You fulfill your ministry.”
I am lumping together some commands here anticipating the time constrictions of the hour, especially in rolling verse five together with verses three and four, to preach persistently, to understand preaching is not merely a season of your life that you do for a pay check, but it is who you are. It is in your DNA; God has made you one. You may have different ministry stations and seasons of life. You may even retire vocationally in a sense, but there is also a sense in which as long as you breathe you are a preacher. You are to preach in such a way that you fulfill your ministry. It takes sobriety and an alertness to the needs of the people of God. It takes a willingness to endure hardship, to conduct that ministry in a way as an evangelist. Then, the final three words say to “fulfill your ministry,” in season or not, receptivity or not. In light of chapter three and the great decadence of humanity and the needs of the church, and especially in light of the power of Scripture, your call is to preach the Word and your call is to keep preaching the Word.
During the season of life when Karen and I were dating, engaged and just married, we got to know Stephen and Heather Olford. For some of you in the room who are older, that will resonate immediately, and you will think that was a great opportunity. For those of you who are younger, you have never heard of Stephen and Heather Olford and it means nothing. We were in our early 20s, and they were in their early 80s and they were very kind to us. We got to go see them on a couple of occasions in Memphis, and Dr. Olford took a very kind interest in me. Those of you who know Dr. Olford, he died at the age of 86, and he literally preached and ministered until he died. I remember one time he said, “Jason, a lot of people look at me and think I should be living in Florida playing shuffle board, but my Master has not called me to do that. He has called me to be faithful until the end.” Again, I understand there are different seasons of life and different ministry stations, but I also understand that God has set me apart. That does not induce swagger; it induces submission. He set me apart as a gospel preacher to preach the Word. I best be about that work as long as he gives me the capability to do so.
Preach the Word. Lloyd Jones was right, the highest and most glorious calling known to man is the call to be a preacher. If he has called you to preach, never stoop to do anything else.
topicsExpository Preaching, Midwestern Seminary, Preaching