Where have you heard this text preached before? At an ordination service, you might remark. That’s probably true. On those occasions when we solemnly set apart men to serve Christ’s church through preaching the gospel, we often hear this text expounded or at least read. And that’s quite appropriate since it focuses on the pastoral charge regarding God’s Word.
But the tendency that some, outside those whose lives center on the exposition of God’s Word, may be to let this passage run into one side of the ear and out the other, thinking that it really doesn’t have strong bearing on the non-preachers among us. Yet I hope to show that this is not the case, for if those whom God raises up to serve us through the ministry of the Word have such strong accountability to Him for proclamation, then it seems that those on the receiving end of proclamation have equally strong accountability for hearing and heeding the ministry of the Word. At least that seems to be the case with what Paul had in mind.
We enter into the last chapter of Paul’s last letter, as far as we know, to anyone. It could have been that only a few weeks or even days after sealing this letter and sending it to Timothy, that Paul faced the executioner’s axe on the Ostian Way [John Stott, BST: The Message of 2 Timothy, 105]. So, the solemnity of the great apostle’s last words, bear even heavier weight than normal. As Paul prepared to face the Judge of the living and the dead, he offered his last series of exhortations to his understudy. The timing of his exhortation should tip our thoughts toward the importance of the message.
So should the simplicity of what Paul commanded, i.e., “preach the word.” He could have gone into lengthy explanations about Christian ministry, demonstrating how each aspect of gospel work connects with the church’s life and practice. But he said it so simply—preach the word. The method and content of Christian ministry for every age remains bound up in that little phrase. While pastors are bombarded with antics, strategies, and endless methods to conduct church life, Paul sticks with one, simple rule: preach the word. Often, as I turn the pulpit over to one of our men to preach, I quietly remind them, preach the word. For that is the challenge facing every gospel sermon—to stay on that narrow path of not overreaching into some new philosophy or cleverly pontificating on some new religious idea, but to simply, narrowly preach the word.
Yet, having noted its narrow simplicity, the preaching of the word touches every area of life! It’s a narrow message with broad implications. Nothing stands outside the scope of this powerful Word of God. It remains, as Peter put it to Jesus, the “words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Biblical exposition must always remain the central focus of our corporate life. We’re committed to this as a church. But why remain committed to biblical exposition? Let’s think about this under six simple thoughts.
1. Biblical exposition fuels our worship, faith, and practice.
No one would argue that the theme of these verses is found in verse 2, “preach the word.” Paul uses the language of the herald when calling for the act of preaching the word of God. In ancient times, when a governor or king or general needed to pass along an important message they utilized a herald to deliver the precise word. The herald might stand in the marketplace or in the city square or at the city gate where he would clearly declare the message that had been passed along to him by his master. He had no liberty to play with the message, to change it up so that it sounded more soothing, or to throw in his own version of it. He announced what his master desired to disclose to his subjects.
Maybe the nearest comparison we can find is the press secretary for a governor or the president. When Jay Carney stands at the podium in the White House answering questions from journalists or making announcements, he is the voice of the president. That is a weighty responsibility for anyone to handle. But I would suggest to you that it is an even weightier matter to speak on behalf of the Eternal King of the universe!
The content of the message is simply “the word.” That’s Paul’s shorthand for the gospel. It’s what he has been describing throughout the epistle. It’s the message that Timothy heard from his mother and grandmother, and later from Paul (1:5-6, 13). It’s that same message that cannot be imprisoned (2:9) but speaks through the ages of “Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David” (2:8). It’s the same message that was opposed by the false teachers in Ephesus (1:15; 2:16-18; 3:1-8). But it’s also the same message that Paul declared to be God-breathed and fully sufficient (3:16-17).
We cannot just presume that the gospel is preached every occasion that the Bible is opened. Many sermons preached in Christian churches are not Christian sermons. They could just as easily be spoken in a Jewish synagogue or at the local civic club. Preaching the word means that the sermon is lashed to the gospel that declares salvation only through Jesus Christ by His death and resurrection. Jesus is ultimately the focus and intent, even when considering OT passages. When Jesus taught the two disciples on the Emmaus Road He began with Moses and worked through the prophets explaining in all of the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27). Jesus told the Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life: it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:39). All of Scripture points ultimately to Jesus Christ.
Preaching the word means that the source of the sermon has divine origin—God’s Word. So it is always pertinent to the hearers what God has spoken. Biblical exposition, as we call it, means that the job of the preacher is to let the text of Scripture speak, to unfold and unpack its message in such a way that it becomes clearer to those who hear. The message comes from the biblical text rather than something imposed on the text. It starts with the Bible and moves through the lips of the preacher to the hearers. Hearing the word proclaimed takes us to the biblical text and ultimately, to the Lord of life who gave us His word.
If we would worship in “truth,” we must have this preached word. If we would believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved, we must have this gospel proclaimed to us. If we would endure all things, persevering in them faith, we must have this good gospel preached to us. We cannot do without the Word. We can do without programs, without buildings, without worship folders, without seats and air conditioning, without activities, but we cannot do without the word of God proclaimed that lifts high Jesus Christ as Lord.
2. Biblical exposition comes to us with divine authority
Paul’s exhortation begins with a solemn charge: “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.” Nothing is said of the congregation in Ephesus waiting to hear what Timothy had to say about the Bible. Nor is anything said of the larger church that might catch wind of Timothy’s preaching skills. Instead, Timothy learned that preaching is all about the God who gave the Scripture and the Christ who is the embodiment of the gospel. The seriousness of the act of preaching is found in the audience—not the Ephesian church but the Lord God.
Many years ago, in the midst of difficult days of opposition, I preached on this text one Sunday evening. What struck me as I studied this verse was that Paul teaches us that the primary audience for the preaching of the word is not the congregation; it’s the Lord Himself. I remember making this point very strongly, emphasizing that the congregation is really secondary when it comes to the preaching of the Word; the Lord is primary. When I said that, one man that had been quietly opposing our ministry stood up and walked out. A few days later, another who had contrary sentiments argued with me about this passage. But the language is too clear. Paul’s charge to Timothy to preach the word came “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,” that is, in the very face of God. In similar fashion, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about his remonstrance with them regarding his apostleship, he explained, “All this time you have been thinking that we are defending ourselves to you. Actually, it is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ; and all for your upbuilding, beloved” (2 Cor 12:19; italics added). Although speaking to the upbuilding of the Corinthians, Paul indicated that a more important audience heard his message to them—the Lord! He spoke in the sight of God.
This changes the preacher’s preparation and delivery of his sermon. It means that his goal must not be to impress his hearers but to please the primary Audience! When Bishop Hugh Latimer had been appointed chaplain to King Henry VIII, one of the king’s courtiers told Latimer, “Beware of contradicting the king.” Latimer knew of Henry’s impulsiveness and quick temper, yet he better understood the divine charge given to him to preach the Word. He stood before the king and spoke: “There is as great distance between you and me as between God and man; for you are here to me and to all your subjects in God’s stead; and so I should quake to speak to your Grace. But as you are a mortal man having in you the corrupt nature of Adam, so you have no less need of the merits of Christ’s passion for your salvation than I and others of your subjects here” [Merle d’Aubigne, The Reformation in England, vol. 41–43]. Latimer understood that he must first preach to honor the Lord and not to appease an earthly sovereign.
In light of the preacher’s accountability, the congregation must hold greater concern for God’s approval than personal preference when it comes to preaching. The charge to preach came in the face of God’s presence and of Christ Jesus, “who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom.” Paul looks at the bigger picture rather than the waiting approval of a congregation to what they hear. The Judge is listening! This same Judge and Redeemer will one day appear in glorious array for all the world to see and bow before as King of kings and Lord of lords. The same King who calls for faithful heralding of His message also calls for faithful obedience to His word by those who hear. Let us beware of being sermon-tasters who can sample the pulpit fare, offering judgment on its flavor but failing to heed the instruction of the Word!
3. Biblical exposition provides diverse angles for exposing us to the Word and applying the Word.
God’s Word is always in season: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season,” or as Bill Mounce translates it, “Be prepared when it is opportune or inopportune!” [WBC: Pastoral Epistles, 572]. Times will come when the hearers will bristle at the proclamation of the Word. Preach it anyway! Some might rather have entertainment. Give them the Word instead. But what if they threaten to fire you? Give them the Word! In so doing, keep in mind the three-fold approach: “reprove, rebuke, exhort.”
Reproving implies correction by bringing one’s attention to the truth. It means that biblical preaching serves as a mirror so that we truly take a look at ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness. It brings us to repentance and casting ourselves upon the merits of Jesus Christ alone.
Rebuke implies a word of censure, particularly calling for stopping a sinful action in progress or curtailing the pursuit of sinful desires. Latimer rebuked Henry VIII when the king had put his horses into Abbeys where the poor lived, leaving the poor no place to stay. “A prince ought not to prefer his horses above poor men” (d’Aubigne, 2:45).
Exhortation runs the gamut of appealing to someone to repent or urging a new course of action in response to the gospel or encouraging someone to walk in the truth. It literally means to come alongside and help, just like someone on the roadway urges a runner forward. It’s a word of comfort and perseverance.
The power of God’s word every time it is proclaimed means that on any given occasion, reproving, rebuking, or exhortation may take place in the same sermon! As the preacher opens the text, expounds it and applies it, the Holy Spirit drives it home to the heart with such power in ways that the preacher cannot fathom.
4. Biblical exposition must avoid becoming mechanical.
Paul does not put the preacher forward as a machine that cranks out corrections, rebukes, and exhortations. Rather, all that he does must take place “with great patience and instruction.” Patience or forbearance means that the one preaching must be conscious of gently helping those to whom he ministers the Word. He must not become frustrated when his hearers do not respond, and thus try to lash out in anger toward them. Even when the congregation reacts against him, he must patiently bear up and consistently proclaim the Word.
The lack of patience in the pulpit may be one of the top reasons for short pastorates. It is so easy to get discouraged when you open the Word and the congregation yawns instead of responding, or worse, reacts in anger against the proclamation of God’s Word. Patience calls for the pastor to not grow weary in faithfully proclaiming the Word. Robert Hall of Arnsby, a mentor for William Carey and Andrew Fuller, was shut out of his church for seven years, enduring regular harassment by the church trustee and a small mob. But he patiently preached the Word until it melted the hearts of those in Arnsby, leading to great usefulness by both this pastor and his congregation for the sake of God’s kingdom.
“Instruction” or teaching—implies doctrine. Preaching must have content. It is not about how loud one can get! It’s not about waving of the arms or threatening tones. Biblical exposition instructs the hearers. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones appropriately explained, until the doctrines of a text have been addressed, the Word has not been properly expounded [in Preaching and Preachers]. I once heard a preacher take the first couple of chapters of Job as his text, reading them in a magnificent way. He gradually worked the congregation into a virtual frenzy by his melodious voice and speaking skills. He spoke as one with exceptional gifts. But when he finished, we were none the better off, for he had left us no doctrine upon which to build our lives in times of suffering. Preaching must patiently instruct. It must leave us with truth to live on.
5. Biblical exposition guards the church from the natural inclinations of the flesh.
Paul warned what would happen in Ephesus. “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.” Our minds most naturally prefer to be stroked and coddled rather than rebuked or instructed. Itching ears remains an affliction that continues in every generation. It surfaces by the rush to crowd in on the ‘feel-good’ preaching that would by-pass the mind and tickle the emotions.
However, biblical exposition requires thinking. Instead of tickling the ears it calls for responding to the demands of the gospel. It demands decision on the part of the hearers.
One Sunday, a lady that had visited our church for a couple of weeks walked out the door, looked me in the face, and said, “I’ve got you figured out. You don’t give any options.” I later learned that she attended a Unitarian church where options abounded. She was right: biblical exposition does not offer a cafeteria smorgasbord that allows you to pick and choose what you want the gospel to be or what you think constitutes being a disciple. Instead, it lays out in plain language “thus says the Lord,” and leaves no other option for our response.
This kind of biblical exposition counters the soft, innocuous Christianity that grows in popularity in every generation. In Ephesus, it meant turning away from truth and turning to myths. In our day, it may mean turning away from the truth of the gospel and turning to health and wealth teaching or pop-psychology or any number of man-centered, therapeutic messages so popular in our day. Rather than “sound doctrine” being loved, many prefer to have someone scratch where they itch, but that fails at preaching the word. Here we must check our own hearts. Do we prefer ear tickling to sound doctrine? One gives us a temporary pleasure; the other establishes us in Christ.
6. Biblical exposition demands pastoral perseverance for the health of the congregation.
After looking at the soft-version of Christianity being promoted in Ephesus, Paul makes a strong turn in the opposite direction. “But you,” unlike the ear ticklers, “But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” Paul calls for perseverance in biblical exposition [Mounce, 576]. He does it through four imperatives.
(1) Be vigilant: “be sober in all things.” The term implies wakefulness or keeping your mind in check. Rather than being duped by the world, keep your mind focused on the truths of God’s Word and your spirit sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is easy to be dulled by the ordinary demands of life so that we lose sight of eternal things.
(2) Be diligent in hardship: “endure hardship,” literally means, to suffer evil or suffer hardship. Paul had already affirmed Timothy in following after his suffering (3:10-11) and warned him that suffering persecution is the lot of godliness (3:12). But this takes it further, that particularly in the work of ministry, he would be called upon toendure hardship. Christian ministry is no place for the faint of heart! The ministry is of such value that one must persevere in the face of hardship for the sake of gospel work.
(3) Be good news centered: “do the work of an evangelist.” The verb construction calls for urgency in bearing the good news of the gospel. Paul probably is not thinking of evangelist so much as an office in the church as he thinks of it as the function and call of God on Timothy’s life [Mounce, 576]. Without the work of gospel proclamation, those under Timothy’s hearing would not know the way to God through Christ or the way to live faithfully before the Lord. Biblical exposition must always aim for the cross of Christ that declares the way of salvation for all who believe.
(4) Be ministry focused: “fulfill your ministry.” No time for laziness or slacking off. The urgency of Christian ministry calls for perseverance in finishing the task. But the work is never done! Yes, that means that God calls for faithfulness in the work entrusted to the minister until the Lord declares it complete. It also means that the congregation must anticipate the ever increasing aim “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
Biblical exposition stands at the heart of pastoral ministry. By it we hear the gospel, grow and mature in Christ, receive correction and exhortation, and find the truth necessary to worship the living God. Pray for those who expound the Word in this place. Pray for those who hear to receive the Word. Let’s us remain unflinching in our commitment to biblical exposition.