On July 13, 1980, John Piper preached his first sermon as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, our mother church. In that message, he quoted a longtime Baptist pastor in Dallas named W.A. Criswell, who said,
When a man goes to church he often hears a preacher in the pulpit rehash everything that he has read in the editorials, the newspapers, and the magazines. On the TV commentaries he hears that same stuff over again, yawns, and goes out and plays golf on Sunday. When a man comes to church, actually what he is saying to you is this: “Preacher, I know what the TV commentator has to say; I hear him every day. I know what the editorial writer has to say; I read it every day. I know what the magazines have to say; I read them every week. Preacher, what I want to know is, does God have anything to say? If God has anything to say, tell us what it is.”
Preacher, tell us what God has to say. We don’t need your take on the latest news and trends. We can read the editorials and watch the commentators ourselves. We’re not here for that. We’re here for God. To hear from him. Preacher, don’t give us your opinions. Tell us what God has to say.
Solemn Charge for Every Season
This morning we come to the sacred text for preaching, 2 Timothy 4:1–8, perhaps the quintessential tell-us-what-God-has-to-say passage. As far as I know, there is nothing quite like verse 1 anywhere else in the Bible. I don’t know that any biblical command (verse 2) gets an introduction like verse 1.
I 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.
I count five intensifications in this preamble to preach the word.
“I charge you”: this is solemn language, like someone testifying under oath or making a declaration backed by sacred authority.
“in the presence of God”: God is watching, Timothy; I am giving you this solemn charge; I may soon be gone, but he will not.
“and of Christ Jesus”: Your Savior and Lord and greatest Treasure, the second person of the Godhead who became man, like us.
“who is to judge the living and the dead”: Take this charge with utter seriousness; Christ the judge will hold you accountable for it.
“and by his appearing and his kingdom”: He is coming back; he will establish his kingdom; your preaching of the truth, no matter what resistance you face, will be vindicated. The word of God will not fail; Christ is returning to fulfill it.
And all that by way of preamble. This is Paul’s moment of “whatever else you might miss, Timothy, don’t miss this.” The charge can’t get any larger; the stakes can’t get any higher. This is the emotional apex of the letter, and we might even say this is the highpoint of Paul’s whole relationship with Timothy. These are Paul’s last recorded words in this letter. And beginning with 3:14, through 4:8, this is Paul’s final flourish — to Timothy, and to the world. And at the heart of it, as the climax of the letter, is three words: preach the word. Like Jesus’s parting words to Peter: feed my sheep.
Preaching We All Need
Now, I’m aware, as I stand here, assigned to preach this text to you, that very few of you are preachers. All of you are sermon-listeners. But few are sermon-givers. And Paul here is talking to Timothy as a preacher. And yet, personal as this letter may be to Timothy, it is not a private letter. Paul means for the whole church to hear this. So this is not just a pastors-conference passage but for the whole congregation. So that’s how I’d like to frame it this morning.
“Through the preaching of his word, God means to rescue people from wandering into the cancer of unhealthy teaching.”
Even though, say, 95 percent of you will never “preach the word” on a Sunday morning — and you have no aspirations to do so — you do care about preaching. It affects your life in a very practical way every week. So let’s consider how this instruction from the apostle to a preacher lands on us as a congregation. Based on this passage, what should we, the church, want in and expect of our pastors in their preaching?
Let’s highlight three needs in particular. The first relates to the world, the second to the word, the third to the reward. World, word, reward. So, we as a church need preaching that will . . .
1. We need preaching that makes us wise to the lies of the world.
Look at verses 3–4:
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
“Sound teaching,” or “healthy teaching,” has been Paul’s concern throughout 1 and 2 Timothy. We saw in 1 Timothy 1:11 that “sound doctrine” (healthy teaching) is “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” Healthy teaching, formed and shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ, produces healthy spiritual lives, and bad teaching is not just false but unhealthy. It has bad effects. It ruins lives. It seems good at first — and makes us miserable in the end. And through the preaching of his word, God means to rescue people from wandering into the cancer of unhealthy teaching.
Who’s in Your Ear?
Have you ever thought about this expression “itching ears”? Ears are designed to let sound in. Yet those who are not enduring healthy teaching — which goes into your ears and instructs and convicts — they want their ears tickled. Just a light touch, a pleasant scratch on the lobe. No challenging words down into the ears. Just a tickle, please.
And they “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Earlier this fall, we paraphrased this as “they curate feeds for themselves to suit their own passions.” Verse 3 is remarkably relevant today. What did it even look like to “accumulate teachers for yourself” two thousand years ago? A hundred years ago, it might have meant to buy their books or subscribe to their periodicals. Accumulate teachers that suit your own passions, rather than make you uncomfortable with God’s passions. Today? Click follow. Subscribe to the podcast, or on YouTube. Read the book, or listen on Audible. Just hit play while you drive, clean, or exercise.
Pastor Joe rang the bell for this two weeks ago, and Kenny again last week. And at the risk of saying too much, I think verses 3–4 are just too spot on for us right now to not say it one more time. Brothers and sisters, who’s in your ear? If you audit your feeds, your podcasts, your library, your apps, what teachers have you accumulated for yourself, and what will be the effect of these voices over time? Don’t think entertainment isn’t teaching. Do you expose yourself to words that pierce your ears with truth, or tickle them with myths? Do they challenge your sinful passions, or suit them?
Slow Slide Within
Notice the process here in verses 3–4. First, they grow weary with healthy teaching. Then they accumulate for themselves new teachers that fit their emerging passions. And then, verse 4, they “turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” The stark contrast here is between truth and myth. Healthy teaching versus unhealthy. But what’s so subtle is that it’s a journey you take one small step at a time. The move from truth to myths is so informal, conversational, unthreatening, so easy. That’s been the surprising thing we’ve seen about the false teaching Timothy was up against — it seems so informal: irreverent babble (2:16); foolish, ignorant controversies (2:23).
But we need to ask, Who are these people going astray? Are these people out there in the world, or are they here in the church?
One clue is the word “for” at the beginning of verse 3. Paul tells Timothy to preach the word — implied, to the gathered church — “for the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching.” In other words, Timothy, the people in your church right now, they receive healthy teaching now, but they may not always. That’s what it would mean to “turn away” (another clue). They were there, in the church. They’re in this room right now. Not just Timothy’s day. Right here, right now.
Don’t Go Soft
But there is a plan. To keep that wandering from happening, Paul charges Timothy to preach the word now. Don’t let up. Be vigilant. Don’t coast. Preaching today keeps the people saved tomorrow. Don’t go soft on your preaching.
So, there’s preaching in relation to the world. Ongoing, week-in, week-out preaching keeps us from slowly sliding into, and being lost to, the world. Now the word.
2. We need preachers who tell us what God has to say.
Look again at verse 1, and then 2 and 5:
I 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, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. . . . As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
“Preach the word,” we said, is the emotional apex of the letter. So, what does it mean to preach, and what is it here that is the word?
Christ and the Whole Counsel
The word for preach here means to proclaim or herald. Like a town crier. Before screens and radio and newspapers, news would travel to a town in the form of a town crier, who would stand up in the street, perhaps ring a bell, and lift up his voice and say, “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye,” wait for quiet, and make his announcement. To herald, or preach, means to lift up one’s voice and declare the news. And a good town crier backs it up with his body and his voice, with appropriate volume and body language and a sense of urgency as he delivers his message.
“We preach the word. Not our opinions. Not stories. Not trends. Not politics. Not lifehacks.”
What, then, is “the word” to be heralded? Throughout Paul’s letters, “the word” typically means the word about Jesus, his life, his death, his resurrection — the word of the gospel. And here in 2 Timothy, this passage follows immediately on what we saw last week in 3:15, where Paul refers to “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Then verse 16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Then — bam — 4:1–2: preach that word.
So we have Scripture, the sacred writings, which Paul says “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” So this is not the Old Testament apart from the coming of Christ. Nor is it Christ apart from the written Scriptures. It’s not either-or. So we might say, we preach the gospel from Scripture. Or we might say we preach Scripture in light of the gospel. Or we might just say we preach the word. Christ himself is the Word of God; the gospel is the word of God; the Scriptures, Old Testament and New, are the word of God.
And so we preach the word. God’s word. His Son, his gospel, his revelation. We preach the word. Not our opinions. Not stories. Not trends. Not politics. Not lifehacks. Not pop psychology. We preach God’s word, in Christ, in his gospel, in the Scriptures.
In other words, Preacher, tell us what God has to say. Which is a lot harder work than preaching whatever you want. Paul said in 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Preaching your opinions and stories and politics and lifehacks and pop psychology is far easier than preaching God’s word. The next thing Paul says after “preach the word” is “be ready in season and out of season.” Faithful preaching isn’t just hard work but also not something you just turn on and off. It is a lifestyle and lifelong project.
Two Voices for Preaching
Then Paul gives three words for what kinds of voices Timothy should have in his preaching: “reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” Paul uses this word “reprove” in 1 Timothy 5:20 for what to do to bad elders; in Titus 1:9, to those who contradict sound teaching; in Titus 1:13, to false teachers. The word “rebuke,” then, seems to be largely overlapping with “reprove,” but perhaps stronger, or more confrontational: if “reprove” is more corrective, “rebuke” may be more confrontive.
Third is “exhort,” or “encourage,” which is a common word that can be very flexible in the New Testament and in Paul. Here it fills out the full scope of preaching in tandem with “reprove” and “rebuke.” To “encourage” is different than to rebuke, and different than to command. Encourage often means to come alongside someone and call them to something: you might use the term “one another” with it like Hebrews 3:13 (“exhort one another every day”), or Hebrews 10:25 (“not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another”), or “brother,” like Hebrews 13:22 (“I appeal to you, brothers”).
So, we have reprove/rebuke, on the one hand; and encourage, on the other. Which is why John Calvin said that preachers need two voices: one to correct; one to encourage. One to sting; one to inspire. We challenge, and we cheer. We wound, and heal. Two voices: one that is corrective, confrontive, rebuking, reproving; and one that is more “positive,” constructive, winsome, encouraging. Preaching should include both, just as the Scriptures include both.
Then comes what may be the most surprising phrase in the passage, if not the whole letter: “with complete patience and teaching.” Complete patience. And teaching. Remember where we recently saw this pairing of “patience” and “teaching”? Two weeks ago, in 2 Timothy 2:24–25:
the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.
The only other place that “able to teach” shows up, as you may know, is in the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Often people ask about this “able to teach” — what does that mean? Is it able in terms of serviceable — if he must teach, he can, he’s able (even if he’d prefer not)? Or is it able in terms of gifted or effective as a teacher; you might talk of an able teacher? I think it’s the latter, but the connection with patience in 2:24 shows us that it’s not just an outward gifting or ability, but also has an inward, temperamental, aspect. It belongs with kindness, gentleness, and patience.
It’s one thing to be a teacher in practice, and another to be a teacher at heart. Good teachers see possibilities in people. They are hopeful. They don’t assume people are what they are and will never change. Rather, teachers want to influence. They want to inform people, and present facts, and give motivation. They want to teach people and change people, not simply judge them for where they’re at and write them off. And Paul says that’s essential in the elders, and essential in preaching. Not only do we rebuke and reprove. We also encourage, with all patience and teaching.
The essential point in verse 5, then, is Timothy, don’t go soft on preaching. Don’t let up. Keep preaching and teaching, in season and out, with patience. Challenge and cheer. Tell them what God has to say. Open to the next passage and keep going, even when resistance comes. And so act, and so say it, as though it is what it is: good!
So world, and word, and finally, reward.
3. We need pastors who keep pointing us to the reward.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6–8)
The “for” at the beginning of verse 6 means that Paul encourages Timothy to keep going, and not let up, with the reality that his time will come to an end. Paul is now at the end. “The time of my departure has come.” Just like Jesus said, “Feed my sheep,” and Paul says, “Preach the word,” so Jesus said, “It is finished,” and now Paul says, “I have finished the race.”
“Challenge and cheer. Tell them what God has to say. Open to the next passage and keep going.”
I love how Paul “keeps his head” (another way of saying “sober-minded”) here. They’re about to take it off and yet he is “not gloomy but upbeat.” As one commentary says, “His demeanor is not frantic or fatalistic but composed and in harmony with an ancient tradition (sacrifice, even self-sacrifice, with confidence in God for the outcome) well-established among God’s covenant people” (Yarbrough, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 443–44).
And now, just as in verse 1, Paul turns again to Christ as the final judge, which is good news for Paul and Timothy, and us, and terrifying for those who wander away. Christ is coming back, with all authority and sovereign power, and when he does, he will right every wrong. Justice in this age, as much as we work for it, and pray for it, will not be perfect and complete in this life. But one day true justice will be done, finally and fully, once and for all, when the judge returns — and he will get the glory as the final judge.
And Jesus will reward his people who have endured. Not just for Paul. He says, “and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”
As we come to the Table, brothers and sisters, I want you to know that your pastors want to keep pointing you to the reward. We want you to be wise to the lies of unbelief. And we want to tell you, week in and week out, as best as we can discern, what God has to say in his word. And when Christ appears, we want you to love his appearing.
And so we pray, “God, do it.” And he does it through means. He gives his word to his church, and pastors to his church. And he gives us his word preached. And he gives us this Table. To remind us that Christ, the Word, has indeed come and given his own body and blood for us, and to be a means of his grace, with the preaching of his word, to keep us as we eat and drink in faith.