“I can’t believe the elders won’t fire him,” exclaimed my friend. A few years earlier, while sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, my friend had a strange feeling that he had heard the pastor’s sermon before. The same thing happened a few weeks later. This time, he gently nudged his wife in the pew next to him. She pulled out her phone and did a quick web search. Sure enough, to her great dismay, she confirmed that her pastor was preaching a sermon written by a famous pastor.
Later that week, during an uncomfortable conversation, my friend confronted his pastor about pulpit plagiarism. The pastor apologized profusely and swore it would never happen again. Several months later, it happened again. This time my friend got the elders involved. Sadly, they did nothing.
This is not an isolated incident. Pulpit plagiarism is on the rise. Several times a year, I hear the gut-wrenching story of another church firing their pastor for stealing sermons. Pulpit plagiarism is just one indicator that preaching is not highly esteemed among evangelicals. There are other indicators.
It is the constant pushback I got from students. I taught future pastors at a seminary in Portland for roughly ten years. Whenever I talked about the centrality of preaching my students pushed back. It surprised me at first, now I expect it.
It is the pattern of search committees. I know of three search committees who hired a lead pastor even though they all agreed that his preaching was “mediocre” at best. A search committee at a prominent New England church narrowed the field to two candidates (after two years). Half of the committee wanted a cultural ambassador and half of the committee wanted a preacher. Since they could not agree on what they wanted in their lead pastor, they hired neither and started the whole process over again.
It is the state of preaching in America. After listening to 36 sermons from nine of America’s largest Evangelical churches one scholar detected four clear patterns—the gospel was almost entirely absent, repentance was rarely mentioned, forms of the prosperity gospel were common, and the Bible was ignored or abused.
I’m not the only one who is concerned about the low view of preaching in the West. John Stott says in his book Between Two Worlds, “The standard of preaching in the modern world is deplorable. There are few great preachers. Many clergy do not seem to believe in it anymore as a powerful way in which to proclaim the gospel and change the life.”
What causes such a low view of preaching in the evangelical church? I am more and more convinced that the main cause of the demise of preaching in the evangelical world is a lack of biblical conviction about the centrality of preaching.
This brings us to the Pastoral Epistles. Why focus on the Pastorals? Although the whole Bible is inspired, the Pastoral Epistles specifically address pastoral priorities. In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul urges Timothy to make preaching his central governing activity. In other words, preaching must be the activity that governs all of his other activities.
We see this clearly in Paul’s charge to Timothy found in 2 Tim. 4:1-5. This charge is one of the most important texts on the centrality of preaching in the Bible. Furthermore, many scholars believe that it is the crescendo of 2 Timothy.
(Read 2 Tim. 4:1-5)
To strengthen your convictions about the centrality of preaching, we are going to look at five aspects of Paul’s charge to Timothy.
The Context of the Charge
We can only understand Paul’s emotional charge to Timothy in chapter four by starting in chapter three. At the end of chapter three Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Who is the man of God? Contrary to what I used to think, the man of God is not referring to all Christians or every Christian man. The man of God refers specifically to Timothy and every other preacher of God’s Word. How do we know? Context.
Throughout chapter three Paul exhorts Timothy to remain faithful to God and his calling to preach the Word. At the very end of this long exhortation, Paul reminds Timothy (the man of God), that God has given him the God-breathed Scriptures to help him remain faithful to his specific calling.
How do the God breathed Scriptures specifically help the man of God (i.e., the pastor)? They make them competent and equipped for every good work, but especially the work of preaching. Why do I say “especially” preaching? Because Paul tells Timothy that the Scriptures are “profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” These activities, especially teaching, reproof, and correction, are all aspects of preaching (2 Tim. 2:24 and 1 Thess. 5:14).
The Scriptures make the pastor, competent for every good work, especially the work of preaching. This means, pastors, that if you have the Word of God, you have everything you need. It is not seminary training, personality, years of experience, or gifting that makes you competent to preach. It is the Word of God that makes you competent to preach.
The Scriptures make you competent to preach, because they are living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. When you are handling the Scriptures, you are handling the most powerful weapon in the world. What other weapon has power to bring the dead to life?
You don’t need a thumping band, an amazing facility, or a great personality to build the church. All you need is the Word of God!
The Seriousness of the Charge
“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” (2 Tim. 4:1).
This charge is serious because it is made in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. With this charge, Paul reminds Timothy of God’s omnipresence. God is everywhere present. Which means that God is is present when Paul makes this charge, and God is present whenever you and I preach.
This charge is also serious because it reminds Timothy that Jesus Christ will return to judge the world in righteousness (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10). Paul is so near to death that he can almost see the judgment seat of Christ. He wants Timothy to see it too, especially when he thinks about the task of preaching.
Preachers, we must remember that we will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (ESV).”
Hugh Latimer was one of the infamous “five English Reformers” of the sixteenth century. He was also one of the greatest preachers of his day. As a result, he had many opportunities to speak. Once he was asked to preach before the King Henry VIII of England (describe his character). As he thought about his great responsibility to bring a message before the king, he realized that the message that God laid on his heart was not the message that the king wanted to hear.
As he began his sermon he said, “Latimer! Latimer! Do you remember that you are speaking before the high and mighty King Henry VIII; who has power to command you to be sent to prison, and who can have your head cut off, if it please him? Will you not take care to say nothing that will offend royal ears?”
He then paused and continued, “Latimer! Latimer! Do you not remember that you are speaking before the King of kings and Lord of lords; before Him, at whose throne Henry VIII will stand; before Him, to whom one day you will have to give account yourself? Latimer! Latimer! Be faithful to your Master, and declare all of God’s Word.”
Latimer believed that Jesus Christ is omnipresent. Therefore, he knew that he would be present when he preached to king Henry VIII. Furthermore, Henry VIII would not be his final Judge, Jesus Christ is the final judge. As a result, he preached boldly.
Eventually he was burned at the steak by Henry’s daughter Queen Mary—also known as bloody Mary.
Preachers, we must fear God more than men! Sadly, I believe that there will be many opportunities to capitulate to fear of man in the coming days:
-Are you willing to speak boldly of the exclusivity of Jesus?
-Are you willing to talk about the flames of hell?
-Are you willing to take a stand on the LGBTQ issues?
When you are tempted to tone down your message, you must remember that Jesus Christ is present in your congregation. His approval is the only approval that matters.
The charge to preach is a serious charge, but what exactly does it mean to preach.
The Specifics of the Charge
“[P]reach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Let’s look at the specifics of this charge:
Timothy is charged to preach!
In 4:2, Paul tells Timothy to “preach the Word.” Paul is an old man. He probably wonders if he will ever see Timothy again. This is probably his last chance to address his young disciple. What would you say if you were Paul? What did Paul say?
Paul could have exhorted Timothy to do many things. “Timothy, I charge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus ….”
-Timothy, be a cultural ambassador.
-Timothy, I charge you to end human trafficking…
-Timothy, engage in mercy ministry.
-Timothy, manage all the ministry teams…
-Timothy, cast vision
-Timothy, I charge you to be the CEO of your church…
Some of these things are useful. Yet, this is not what Paul said. Instead, he said preach the Word! Timothy is charged to preach!
What does this mean? The word preach is the word kerysso. It is often translated with the word “herald.” This is the most prominent Greek word for preaching in the NT.
Gordon Hugenberger notes that a keryx often traveled into “enemy territory ahead of an advancing army to warn the enemy of certain destruction unless they accepted the proffered terms for peace.” This implies that the king gave the keryx the authority to accept his enemy’s surrender or declare war on the king’s behalf. The herald’s authority was a derived authority, but it was nonetheless real authority. How? The herald spoke with the authority of the king.
Preachers when you preach the Bible, you are preaching God’s very words. This means that you are speaking with God’s very authority.
I have served on jury duty twice. There is a big difference between invited to a party and being invited to jury duty. Being invited to a party is an invitation. Being invited to serve on jury duty is a summons. What is the difference? If you ignore an invitation, it does not really matter but if you ignore a summons to serve on the jury you go to jail.
Preachers are not inviting people to obey God’s Word; they are summoning people to obey God’s Word. Since they speak with the authority of God himself! Preaching is authoritative speech.
Preaching is not sharing, it is declaring. Paul was not stoned, beaten, and whipped for sharing some devotional thoughts. Preaching is not a discussion. Preaching is not a dialogue. Biblical preaching forces people to take sides. Which means that at its core, preaching is a polarizing activity.
If you are not opening up the Bible and telling people what to do, believe, or change, you are not preaching. Increasingly our culture hates authority and there is nothing as authoritative as preaching. Since preaching channels the very authority of God. Never forget this.
Timothy is charged to preach the Word!
“[P]reach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). Timothy did not have the freedom to preach whatever he wanted. Paul urged him to “preach the Word.” The “Word” was a clear reference to the God-breathed Scriptures of the OT, which are profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Timothy, and every pastor after him, must devote themselves to preaching the Word. In other words, the message of the Scriptures must reign supreme in every sermon.
We must not preach psychology. We must not preach self-help. We must not preach politics. We must not preach the latest findings from sociology. We must not preach our opinions. We must not preach our hobby horses. We must preach the Word! Which means that we must rightly interpret the Word, which is hard work.
Timothy is charged to preach with application!
“[P]reach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
The last three imperatives (correct, rebuke, and encourage) describe the task of preaching. This means that preaching is far more than explaining theological concepts and retelling Bible stories. Preachers must correct, rebuke, and encourage. (A similar list of activities is found in 2 Tim. 3:16—teaching, reproof, correction, and training—implying that “the man of God” described in 2 Tim. 3:16 is a preacher.) In the absence of correction, rebuke, and encouragement, a pastor is no longer preaching—they are merely lecturing.
With that said, preachers must correct, rebuke, and encourage with “complete patience.” Why is complete patience so important? Because God is completely patient with us (1 Pet. 3:20; 2 Pet. 3:15). If we have not applied the sermon (with complete patience), we have not preached the sermon.
The Reasons for the Charge
“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” (2 Tim. 4:3–4).
Today, more than ever, church attenders are abandoning sound doctrine for progressive Christianity and the prosperity gospel. Paul urges Timothy to keep on preaching sound doctrine, because people have itching ears. Which means that they will be tempted to latch onto the latest and greatest heresies.
Several weeks ago, the country’s largest “evangelical” adoption and foster care agency announced that it has abandoned its biblical stance on the LGBTQ issues. It will now place children with openly gay and transgender couples. This organization has 1,500 staff members. How did they come to their decision? They have itching ears, and they have accumulated for themselves false teachers. Sadly, these false teachers claim to be Christians.
Good preaching protects people from destructive doctrines. This happens as we proclaim the truth and denounce error. We must do both, for the sake of our people. If we just say nice things and never critique false doctrines, philosophies, and religions our people will be vulnerable to false teaching.
Timothy must be willing to preach sound doctrine from the Scriptures, even when it makes him an object of scorn. Are we willing to do the same?
The Conclusion of the Charge
“As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).
The phrase “sober-minded” is the only one of the nine imperatives in 4:2, 5 in the present tense, implying that Timothy must always be sober minded in order to fulfill his ministry of preaching.
Furthermore, Paul reminds Timothy that suffering is part of his calling as a preacher (2 Tim. 1:8; 2:1-3, 10; 3:11-12; 4:16-17). Preachers must never forget that they follow a crucified Messiah. If Christ’s enemies persecuted him, they will surely persecute his preachers. I’m not a prophet, or the son of a prophet, but I do work for a nonprofit. And I think persecution is coming. Eventually, Timothy ended up in prison (Heb. 13:23). Was this for preaching the gospel? More than likely.
Finally, Paul tells Timothy to do the work of an evangelist and fulfill his ministry. The word “fulfill” is from the Greek word plerophoero, which means “carry out fully; perform all of it thoroughly.” In other words, Paul urges Timothy to give himself wholeheartedly to preaching ministry.
When Timothy “fulfills” his preaching ministry Jesus will say to him, “well done good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:14-30). God will say the same thing to every faithful preacher of the gospel on the day of final judgment.
This brings us to the end of Paul’s passionate charge to Timothy. From this charge, we learn that preaching was a central component of Timothy’s ministry. Maybe you are still not convinced that preaching is important. Yet, nearly everywhere you turn in the Pastoral Epistles, Paul charges Timothy and Titus to preach the Word.
Yes, a pastor is called to do many important things. Yes, there are other ministries of the Word that are critical. Yes, not all pastors/elders are called to devote themselves to preaching ministry in the same way. Yet, at least one person at every church needs to devote themselves to preaching.
Your eyes are really important. Your ears are really important. Your nose is really important. Your hands and feet are really important. But your heart is essential. You can live without your eyes, ears, nose, and feet. But you can’t live without a heart.
Is the pastor called to do a variety of important things? Of course, but preaching is the heart of pastoral ministry.
Let me conclude with two quotes. David Larsen says, “Preaching has always been the life-blood of the church.” Gardiner Spring says, “The great object of every minister of the Gospel ought to be to give the services of the pulpit the pre-eminence over every other department of ministerial labor.”
Dave Farley is the lead pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship in Spokane WA, he recently completed his DMin in expository preaching from Western Seminary in Portland, OR.