"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." — 2 Timothy 4:1-5
I still remember the first time these verses laid hold of my heart. It was February of 1998, and a few college friends and myself hopped in a little car and drove north from Mobile, Alabama to Birmingham, to the campus of Samford University. John Piper was slated to preach the Conger Lectures there.
I remember walking into the majestic chapel at Beeson Divinity School on the Samford campus, and I just sat there and took it all in. It was a magnificent experience. And then John Piper preached 2 Timothy 4:1-5. I do not know if I had ever heard anyone preach this passage before, but if I had, they had not come to my mind since I had been wrestling with a call to ministry.
And I remember being enraptured, but not so much by the spokesperson — though Piper is of course a powerful preacher — as by the force of these verses that spoke to me that day. There is a sense in which that was 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 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 like. 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 the calling to preach The Word.
As President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I can say that we aspire to do many things well as an institution, but that which we most urgently aspire to do well is to train a generation of preachers who will preach The Word. It is the irreducible, indispensable task of the ministry to preach and teach The Word. I want you to see what I came to see in this text, four general marks of faithful preaching. The first is quite straightforward:
1. Preach Biblically
This exhortation is situated front and center in these five verses and front and center in the book of 2 Timothy as a whole. “Preach biblically.” It is stated plainly in the beginning three words of verse two — “preach The Word” — but it is embedded throughout the entire passage.
The words of Scripture themselves–all of the words–are inspired, and thus inerrant, and thus 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. 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, however, get the person who states to be an evangelical, who affirms belief in the Bible, but then is careless, negligent, or reluctant to preach it with full-throated force.
I recall an article I read a number of years ago by Milton Friedman, 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 or 80’s when the nation was going through economic stagnation. There was high inflation, high unemployment, low wage growth, and a coalescence of different economic factors that created a climate of misery for many. Friedman said that 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 think this is quite analogous to a lot of preaching that passes for Christian today. I hear a lot of sermons that have $30,000 homiletical polish, are full of $30,000 illustrations and $30,000 presentation skills, but if there’s only $30 worth of biblical text in it—or none!—it doesn’t matter. That sermon itself is lifeless and dead.
2. Preach Authoritatively
The idea of the sermon being an authoritative act is contained first and foremost in the word preach itself. To preach is to herald, to proclaim. I would argue that any true sermon, any true act of preaching is to be an authoritative act. By this, I don't mean that the pastor is "pulling rank" on a church; rather, he is speaking boldly from a prophetic 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 to that which the Bible speaks authoritatively. It is to transmit an authoritative message.
Paul says, “Be ready in season and out of season.” In other words, regardless of the receptivity or lack of receptivity of your culture, context, or those who hear you, preach The Word. But I think he is also saying to preach the word 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 or particular truth claim, or some other distressing dynamic may make a preacher less inclined to speak the word forcefully, but again, Paul charges us to preach according to the grain of the Scriptures. If they are forceful, we are to be forceful. Who are we to round edges that God has made straight?
Notice that he says preaching the word can look 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 carries the idea of challenging errant thinking and false doctrine. It is not only to reprove, but also to rebuke. That 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.
But here is where it takes some extra effort on the part of 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. But it is not only 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 third 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.
3. Preach Pastorally
“Reprove, rebuke and exhort,” Paul instructs, but notice how at 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. The people need authoritative, bold, direct preaching. But notice the corrective is not merely one of bold and authoritative preaching; it is to come from a shepherd’s heart. Paul is saying here that the antidote to both immature Christianity and hedonistic worldliness 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 preach pastorally.
Consider 2 Timothy 2:24-26 where Paul writes:
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, they still are not your adversary; they are your church. You are to preach boldly, yes, but preach pastorally as you do.
Preach pastorally with an affection for your people. Moreover, preach thinking about your people specifically. Ask yourself, "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.
4. 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.” Regardless of how a particular church identifies its pastor, how that fellow is hired, 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 consider verse five, “You fulfill your ministry.”
Ministers of God, please understand that preaching is not merely a season of your life that you do for a paycheck, but it is who you are. It is in your DNA; God has made you this. 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. This 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 out, in joyful receptivity or not. In the 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 early season of our dating and newly married life, my wife Karen and I got to know Stephen and Heather Olford. We were in our early twenties and they were in their early eighties, 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. Dr. Olford 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.” Recognizing, again, that there are different seasons of life and different ministry stations, preachers are to understand that God has set them apart. Knowing this should not induce swagger; it should induce submission. God has set us apart as gospel preachers to preach the word. We best be about that work as long as he gives us the capability to do so.
Brothers, preach the word. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was right: the highest and most glorious calling known to man is the call to be a preacher. And if he has called you to preach, never stoop to do anything else.