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Preaching God's Unchained Word

Chained to the unchained word to declare the unchanging word to an ever changing world.


Second Timothy 2:8-9: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David. That is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained." As brothers and sisters we are chained to the unchained word of God in order to declare the unchanging word to an ever changing world. This is the paradox of our preaching.

From 1907 to 1970 Harry Houdini, the great escape artist performed successfully in these United States of America. He escaped from coffins, handcuffs, chains, jails, and straightjackets. He did it all in the presence of a live audience. In 1909 he published a book titled Handcuffs Secrets in which he divulged some of his escape artistry. He said sometimes by using properly applied force he could escape various contraptions. He'd use shoestrings and lock pins. Even at will he would be able to regurgitate small keys that he had swallowed that would enable him to escape. He was a great escape artist.

The towering figure before us this morning of the apostle Paul was not an escape artist. He was an endurance artist. He endured chains, handcuffs, and jails. And one day he would escape the coffin, the grave, as he will give in his own eulogy, 2 Timothy 4:6-8. He was a great endurance artist. Paul was familiar with jails. He knew what it was like to be in solitary confinement, to be confined by four walls, and to be guarded by soldiers.

Preachers Behind Bars

In fact, some of the greatest saints and sages of all the ages have had jail time.

Joseph spent years in Egypt, and interpreted the dream of Pharaoh, which enabled the remnant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to continue. Now the children of Israel will have a place to get grain, and Judah will live, and the messianic promise concerning Judah in Genesis 49:10 "The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor lawgiver from between his feet until Shiloh comes," will continue.

Jeremiah, who will spend a brief stint in the miry dungeon without ventilation and without water that was fit for human consumption, yet would emerge out of that miry dungeon with the same consistent message that you're going into captivity. So go on and plant vineyards, build houses, and marry, because you will come back.

Or John the Baptist, the very first cousin of Jesus, who does not even receive a pastoral visit from Jesus. He inquires, "Are you the Christ? Or should we look for another? Have I for these three years been vocalizing a false report?" And the message he gets from the embassaries, from Jesus' mouth himself is this—"The dead are raised, the blind see, the lame walk, the dumb talk, the deaf hear, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." And with that message, there's no miracle at all, John takes the word of God and walks the green mile and makes his transition from the terrestrial to the celestial shore.

Some of the great saints and sages of all of the ages have experienced what it meant to be confined. John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress in jail. Dietrich Bonhoeffer walks from the Flossenbürg jail saying these words: "For you it is the end of life. For me it is the beginning of life." And yes, in this very city Martin Luther King, Jr. writes the letter from a Birmingham jail addressed to eight racist ministers.

And Paul says in this text "I know what it is to be in prison." He says, "Remember Jesus Christ, who is a descendant of David," verse 8 of 2 Timothy 2, "… a descendant of David, one who was raised from the dead." And this is why I am in prison. I am suffering hardship as a prisoner of the Lord because I am bound to an unchained word in order to declare an unchanging word to an ever changing world.

Preaching Without Hindrance

Paul gives us his paradox for preaching. I've come to understand that some of the deepest and richest truths come from the greatest paradoxes. A paradox occurs where two mutually exclusive statements meet at the intersection of apparent contradiction only to produce truth. G.K. Chesterton said, "A paradox is truth standing on its head screaming for attention." It doesn't look like it makes sense, but come a little closer. I am bound to an unchained word so that I might declare an unchained word to an ever changing world because I have an unchanged gospel. It's a paradox.

Paul will spend his first imprisonment in Rome about 60 A.D. It was more of a mobile, more of a free, hands-off kind of imprisonment. Luke gives a summary of it in Acts 28:30-31 to close his history. Paul spent two whole years in a Roman jail and he did it in his own rented house, some say at his own expense, welcoming visitors, proclaiming the kingdom of God, and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. Being one who was bound and yet he preached the kingdom of God with boldness and without hindrance.

The kingdom of God is God's reign that is already and yet not yet. It has arrived, and yet it is coming in its most full expression. It's what my wife used to do for our grandchildren when they were small. She always bought oversized clothes, because she knew that their growth rate was so rapid that if she bought clothes that just fit them they would only wear them once or twice. But she bought clothes that were too big for them so that they could grow up into them. We are already in the kingdom but we're growing up into the kingdom. "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is already done in heaven." In fact, the church is just a Kodak moment of the future state of the kingdom. We are in the kingdom, and yet we are going to realize a fuller expression of what the kingdom is all about.

So he proclaimed the kingdom of God and he taught about Jesus. That's it. If you're going to have a kingdom you're going to have to have a king, and Jesus is the King, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. And one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God.

He preached with boldness. If you follow the life of Paul you will discover that Paul rarely asked for prayers on his own personal behalf. If he asked for prayers at all generally it revolved around a prayer that God would give him boldness when he preached the gospel. You see that in Ephesians 6:19. After going through the whole armor of God and all of that, he says, "Praying always …" and then "Pray for me that when I open my mouth I will speak it, the word, with boldness."

He preached without hindrance. The word began in Acts 1:3 in terms of what Jesus is finally finishing up with. The last agenda item on his life in Acts 1:3 is the kingdom. He taught them about the kingdom. The last question that the disciples raised in Acts 1:6 was about the kingdom: "Will you at this time restore unto us the kingdom?" And Paul preached and taught the kingdom and Jesus Christ without hesitation, without being hindered, without any kind of real restriction, without intimidation. He preached with boldness. Paul was a person who knew how to turn a minus into a plus. Here's a man in jail talking like this. I'm chained, but the word of God is not chained. He knew how to verticalize his situation. Paul was the optimal optimist. He was the quintessential enthusiast. He knew how to turn his prison into a pulpit. But you hear him talking in Philippians 1:12-14 that he doesn't want the Philippian congregation to feel pity for him. He said the things that have happened to me, mainly my being in chains and in prison, those things have further advanced the gospel, so much so that the word has gone to the imperial guard, the imperial household. And even those who preach the gospel have seen how I have responded to my imprisonment, that I have turned my prison into a pulpit, and now they're more bold in declaring the word of God.

I'm concerned about the pulpit today. I think what we have done is to turn our pulpits into a prison so that we are incarcerated. We basically say something like this:

Don't want to upset anybody. I have economic security, and I can't preach the
gospel with boldness. It might get me out of here. It might upset my
denominational apple carts. I can't stand here and be prophetic because if I speak
the truth then people will be disinclined.

Well, I'd rather be a man among monkeys than a monkey among men. You've got to be able to stand, and even though it costs you something, you've got to understand that if you are chained to the unchained word of God, that you can declare the unchanging word to an ever changing world.

Preaching in the Present Tense

Paul preached because he had freedom. Ah, I think we live in a time where people take the gospel and they reduce it and relegate it to past tenseness—what the word did. Or they quote Hebrews 13:8 but they only emphasize the past tenseness or the future tenseness. "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever." I believe that he is the same yesterday, in the past. Yes. I believe that he is the same forever in the future. Yes. But what about Jesus Christ the same today? What about what he's able to do today? He's not in a box. He's not frozen in the past. He cannot be just projected in the future. I want you to know his word still saves. I want you to know his power still heals. I want you to know that his gospel still frees. It's the same today, and I must preach it with a sense of now-ness, not yesterday-ness and not just forever-ness.

But what can the word do now? I think sometimes we need to rehear what Howard Thurman, the great African-American prophet, poet, mystic, talks about in his two volumes, The Negro Spiritual Speaks to Life and Deep River in which he takes Jeremiah 8:22 and he quotes it. "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" He says, and these are his words:

The Negro had a genius about him. He looked at that text that Jeremiah had written, written to serve as a barometer for measuring his ministry. And the text ended with a question mark. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Question mark, interrogative mark. [He said] The Negro took that question mark and straightened it out and made it an exclamation point. And reversed the first two words so that it's no longer an interrogative Is there? It's an exclamation point There is! 'There is a balm in Gilead that can make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead that can heal the sin sick soul.'

And I want you to know today that as you preach, as you serve, we don't need to go around asking, "Is there power in the blood?" There is! Is there salvation in only the name of Jesus? There is! Is there resurrection after death? There is! We are people of the exclamatory and not of the interrogative.

We have to be like what William Augustus Jones referred to as Daniel in the lions' den. He said, "That's a misnomer. Daniel was not in the lions' den. The lions were in Daniels den." Because what God did was to turn the lions' den into a sleeping chamber for Daniel, and Daniel was able to use the lion's body as pillows and to sleep all night long. That's maybe what Paul is referring to in 2 Timothy 4:17. For Paul says that God rescued him, delivered him out of the mouth of lions.

Now Paul's first imprisonment in Rome was less severe, less intense. But his second was more intense, perhaps around 64/65AD. He's writing to Timothy. Perhaps these are his last words. It's a more personal note. Second Timothy 1:2, he calls him my dear child, the child of my affections. He wants him to come because there have been those who have deserted, who have left him, 2 Timothy 4:10-11. "Demas hath [deserted me] forsaken me, because he loved this present world." And he's gone to Thessalonica. And Titus has gone to Dalmatia, and Crescens has gone to Galatia. "Only Luke is with me." So finish up your business, Timothy, and get here before winter, before traveling days are commodious.

In verse 3 of 2 Timothy chapter 1 Paul says to Timothy, "I remember you constantly in my prayers." Verse 4: "I remember the tears that we shed together," they cried together, men crying together. Verse 5 he remembers the sincere faith, the faith without wax that he got from his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. Verse 6, he wants to remind Timothy to rekindle the gift of God that is in him; stir it up. Verse 7, he tells Timothy that "you have not been given the spirit of fear but of love, power, and a sound mind." Then he moves into verse 8 and reminds him you're not to be ashamed or embarrassed about me the prisoner of the Lord. Not the prisoner of Caesar but the prisoner of the Lord. Don't be embarrassed or ashamed of the fact that there is a testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ. Don't be ashamed of me, and don't be ashamed of our Lord. And you can only do this by relying on the power of God, because it's natural to be ashamed of the kind of gospel that you preach. Verse 12, he gives his own testimony. He says, "I'm not ashamed, because I know in whom I believe and I know that he is able to keep that which I've committed unto him against that day." Eschatologically speaking, when the Lord himself shall come. Then he moves to verse 14 and he says to Timothy, I want you to guard the deposit that has been given to you, as you know what it is like for someone to guard me. Give it to faithful people who are able to teach others.

Preaching like a soldier, athlete, and farmer

And now he moves into chapter 2. This is a much more tender, heart-grabbing moment, because Timothy knows for Paul that these are perhaps his last words. Hopefully Timothy will get there before winter comes. Chapter 2:1 Paul says to Timothy, I want you to "be strong in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ." And I want you to be an individual who can pass on to other people that which has been given to you. Now there is a thread of suffering that Paul weaves throughout the metaphoric fabric of three images: good soldier, law-abiding and competing athlete, and a hardworking farmer.

Paul says, first of all, you need to suffer like a good soldier. That's how I'm suffering. A good soldier is an individual who takes and trains, works hard, and who abides by living outside of civilian life. It's kind of what Jesus said in John 17:15: "Lord, I don't pray that you take them out of the world, but I pray that you would keep them from the evil." Don't let them get entangled in the world. Don't isolate them; insolate them. It's what the writer in Hebrews 12:1 was alluding to when he said that we are to "lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily besets us," trips us up. It's what Robert Robinson meant in his great hymn "Come Thou fount of every blessing. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it." You all know what I mean. "Prone to leave the God I love." What is there that produces the proclivity, the propensity, the tendency that grabs you and trips you up? It's your vulnerability. It's my Achilles heel. It's what J. Alexander Whyte, the nineteenth century Scottish preacher, meant when he declared, "Lord, I give myself to Thee. And whatever I cannot give I invite you to take because I had it so long that it's got me now." It's so engrained in me I can't get it—it's some temperament, attitude, root matter, or proclivity. It's something that I wrestle with and the sense has got me. I give you an RSVP. Come and take it, because it's asphyxiating me and choking the very spiritual verb out of me. Got to be a good soldier.

Paul says you've got to suffer like an athlete that abides by the rules, because an athlete takes and "competes," he says, "according to the rules." You hear Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 9:27, "I discipline my body. I bring my body into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others I become disqualified." You and I must make up in our minds today by the power of the Spirit that we will not be a ministerial disqualification or a has-been. We will not be tripped up by some ill-timed decision, some indiscrete action. We will not be people who are referred to in the past tense. And you can't do that by yourself. You don't have the strength to do it. You remember what Paul says right there in 2 Timothy 1:14. He says that you've got to do this in terms of suffering with me by the help of the Holy Spirit. One of my friends came to me and said that an Asian church leader had visited with him and came up with this summary of American Christianity: "The thing that surprised him about American Christianity was how much the church could get done without the Holy Spirit." It was an indictment. How much we can do without the Spirit of God. We've got the buildings, budgets, and bodies. But unless the Spirit of God is operative we can say the Spirit of the Lord God has departed from this place. And therefore, Paul says, you've got to compete by the rules.

Third, in verse 6 he says if you're going to suffer, you've got to suffer as a hardworking farmer, who is the one who should receive the first fruit of the crop. The thing about it is Paul knows in 1 Corinthians 3:6, that he may plant and Apollos may water, but ultimately God gets the increase. God must get the glory. We need to stop wondering about who got the credit and who gets the glory. We must stop asking, what is in it for me? "To God be the glory. Great things he hath done." And the truth of the matter is some of us are going to plant shade trees but we'll never sit under them, and some of us are going to dig a cistern and we'll never drink from them. Someone else will. But it doesn't really matter. What ultimately matters is, will God be glorified?

Preaching the Incomparable Christ

Well, verse 8, Paul says to Timothy go on and keep this in mind, "Remember Jesus Christ." Now that sounds like it's unnecessary to say to Timothy. Sure he's going to remember Jesus Christ. But what he's really saying is keep on remembering him. The perilous times are coming. Keep on remembering him. People are not going to endure sound doctrine. They're going to heap up to themselves teachers that have itching ears. Keep on remembering him. Keep on promulgating him. You got to keep on talking about him. I'm not concerned, Timothy, that you're going to get amnesia or that you're hard of hearing. I want you to keep on emphasizing, because you can't keep on talking about him enough. There is no end to him. He begins the beginning. He ends the end. You have to keep on talking about him. "Remember Jesus Christ."

Remember what? Remember that he was descended from David as the fulfillment of 2 Samuel 7. Remember his humanity, his deity, that he "was raised from the dead," verse 8, "according to my gospel." One hundred percent God and one hundred percent human. In the incarnation God became what he was not, human, and yet remained who he was, God. I don't understand that, but all I have to tell you is that when you preach, you preach not a Gnostic Jesus. You preach an incarnated Jesus. God is the interpreter of his own self. He said this is my gospel. This is my good news.

How can this be good news, Paul? It doesn't seem like it's good news because this Jesus that we preach was born under suspicious circumstances, born through a human mother without the benefit of a human father. There's something suspicious about that. Here's a man who was born in a cow town, Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth. Even Nathaniel, whose name means 'gift of God,' asked the question about the gift of God. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" And this is good news? This Jesus had siblings who didn't even believe that he was who he was before his resurrection. This Jesus called fishermen as his disciples and some other undesirables. This Jesus lived in such abject poverty that he had to declare "Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Everything he had he borrowed. He couldn't even pay his April the fifteenth taxes. He had to have Peter go down to the river and fish up a fish and get a coin out of his mouth in order for him to pay his taxes. So poor that he had to borrow an upper room. So poor that he had to borrow a donkey to ride on Palm Sunday into Jerusalem. And so poor that he had to be buried in Joseph of Arimathea's brand new tomb. And you say this is good news? The Jews see it as a stumbling block, and the Greeks see it as foolishness. And you say, Paul, according to my gospel, it is good news.

It's good news because that's not all of the story. It's good news because in the incomparable Christ, who never had an army and yet all the armies throughout the world have outnumbered all the armies that the world has ever mustered. He's the incomparable Christ. He never wrote a book, and yet library shelves are lined with books about him. And, of course, the Bible, this book is not about the plan of salvation. It's about the Man of salvation. This Jesus really is the center of good news. He never got a Ph.D., and yet he is the wisdom of God. This Jesus never composed a song, and yet the poets have composed thousands upon thousands of songs about him. "Fairest Lord Jesus." "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." I want to tell you that if you don't even know a song he puts a melody in your heart. This Jesus did die, but the good news is that one Sunday morning he rose from the dead with all power in his hand. That's my gospel.

Preaching the unchained Word

Paul finally says in verse 9, now because of preaching this foolishness, the way people look at it, has landed me in jail as a prisoner of the Lord. He says I am suffering like a criminal. The only other time the word kakourgos, which is the word for criminal, is used in the New Testament, is when it is used in Luke 23. It's used three times—verse 32, 33, and 39—where Luke talks about those two thieves, kakourgos, that were crucified alongside Jesus. Jesus did not die between two candles. He died between two thieves. And Paul is saying I am identifying with Jesus as a criminal, as a felon. I wasn't just writing Galatians 2:20 "I am crucified with Christ, therefore I live yet not I but Christ lives in me." I am literally suffering like an evildoer, as a felon, as a kakourgos for Jesus Christ. But look at me. I'm chained in this prison, confined, immobilized, and inert. But the word of God is not chained. It's free, unhindered, and unbound.

Oh brothers and sisters, what a paradox that God had chained us to the unchained word so that we can declare the unchanging word to an ever-changing world. It's true that Paul was chained. And though he endured jails, shackles chains, and one day his head would be separated from his body but when he died he would be unchained. Do you not hear him talk about it in his eulogy? He understood that God may bury his workmen but never his work. That's what happened in Acts 8:4 when Stephen is stoned and Paul is reeking havoc—that is Saul, before he got converted—in the church. People are scattered, part of the Diaspora and the Bible says in Acts 8:4 that wherever the people went they preached the word of God, because the workers are chained but the work can never be chained and limited. Paul said, look here, I know that I'm chained. In fact, I was chained before I was chained. In Acts 20:22-24, Paul admits that he's been chained. But he says in Acts 20:22 I'm already bound not by fetters but by the Spirit. I don't know as I go bound to Jerusalem what awaits me. Verse 23: "except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city that prisons and persecutions await me. But none of these things move me; neither count I my life dear unto myself but that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry that I received of the Lord Jesus Christ to testify the gospel of the grace of God."

You see, the thing that will enable us to bear up without being bound is the fact that we are bound by the Spirit, fettered by the Spirit, and held by the Spirit. But one of these days, there will come a time in which we will be unchained. For Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:6 that "I'm ready to be offered up, and the time of my departure is at hand. [Oh yeah] I fought a good fight, [yeah] I kept the faith and I finished my course," and I'm ready to be unchained. I've been poured out just like a drink offering, and "there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord in his righteous judgment shall give me at that day but not to me only but all those that love his appearing."

You see, down here we have to be chained some time. But one of these days we shall be unchained. We sing in our little church a song, by Charles A. Tindley, called "Beams of Heaven." And he has in it this line. He says,

Harder yet may be the fight.
Right may often yield to might.
Wickedness awhile may reign.
Satan's power may seem to gain.
[But listen to this line.]
There is a God who rules above
With hands of power and a heart of love
And if I'm right he'll fight my battles
I shall have peace someday
But I do not know how long 'twill be
Nor what the future holds for me
But this I know, [I don't guess about it]
This I know [I'm not supposing about it]
This I know [I'm not conjecturing about it]
That if Jesus leads me
I shall get home someday.

I shall take my crown, casting down those golden crowns around the glassy sea. I'll give him glory for the dignity of this grace. I'll take my crown and accept it in exchange for my cross, because he's worthy. And God has called us to be chained to an unchained word that we might declare the unchanging word to an ever-changing world.

Robert Smith, Jr. serves as professor of Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Preachers behind bars

II. Preaching without hindrance

III. Preaching in the present tense

IV. Preaching like a soldier, athlete, and farmer

V. Preaching the incomparable Christ

VI. Preaching the unchained Word