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.
Is there a more poignant chapter in the Bible than 2 Timothy 4?
The curtain is closing on Paul’s life and his ministry. You can almost hear the tears in his voice as he writes of the race now finished, the fight now fought, the departure now close at hand (vv. 6-7). He writes with anguish about the virulent opposition of Alexander the Coppersmith, the tragic desertion of Demas, and the loneliness of facing his accusers with no-one to stand by his side.
But in typically Pauline fashion, he also writes with a triumphant certainty—of his confidence in the Lord who will deliver him safely into the eternal kingdom, and of the crown of righteousness that awaits him at the end of his race.
However, this final chapter of what most agree is Paul’s final New Testament letter is much more than a tearful farewell. It is a trumpet blast from close range to his beloved protégé and son in the faith, Timothy.
Paul wants to make completely sure that Timothy understands the gravity of the situation, and the importance of the task at hand. Humanly speaking, the defence and progress of the gospel is now in his hands, and in the hands of those he will in turn teach and train (cf. 2 Tim 2:2).
And so, invoking the majestic presence of God and of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and reminding Timothy of the wonderful and awful prospect of Jesus’ appearing, both as ruler and judge of the kingdom, he has three words for him: preach the word (vv. 1-2).
This must rate as the clearest and most devastatingly succinct description in the New Testament of the nature of Christian ministry. The two components (‘preach’ and ‘the word’) encapsulate so much of what Paul says about ministry in his letters, not least of all in the immediate context of 2 Timothy 4.
In the two verses immediately preceding (3:16-17), he speaks of teaching, rebuking, correcting and training God’s people, so that they are equipped for every good work. In verse two he makes it clear that the task of ‘preaching’ is a long-term, patient, multi-faceted engagement with people, involving reproof, rebuke, exhortation and teaching. In other words, the proclamatory task (the ‘preaching’) does not have only one rhetorical mode. It cannot be limited to what we call ‘the sermon’ (although that is doubtless the central, flagship instance of it in our churches today). ‘Preaching the word’ is the central task of all Christian ministry, whether in a one-to-one relationship, a small group, an evangelistic mission, or a church meeting. But in all its modes, the goal is the same: that the hearers would hold fast to the ‘sound teaching’, have their lives transformed by it, and be equipped for every good work.
Interestingly, the content (the ‘word’) also comes to Timothy in more than one mode. The ‘word’ is the apostolic gospel message, that Timothy had learned from Paul, and seen exemplified in his life (3:10; cf. 2:9, 15); but in context, it is also the ‘out-breathed’ word of God himself, as contained in the Scriptures that Timothy had been brought up on by Lois and Eunice (1:5, 3:15).
It is utterly imperative that Timothy teach, tell, proclaim, instruct and spread this word—not only because of Paul’s imminent departure, but more importantly because of the Lord’s imminent appearing. At the approaching judgement of God in Jesus Christ, Timothy himself will be called to account for his labour and his faithfulness. But his people will also have to appear before the judgement seat of Christ, and they are in danger, says Paul. They are in danger from impostors and predators (see chapter 3). But they are also in danger from themselves, from their own very human tendency to seek out teaching that scratches where they itch; to turn aside from sound and healthy teaching to myths and fables.
And so ‘preaching the word’ must be Timothy’s central and constant task, “whether convenient or not” (as the Holman nicely translates it). Whatever else we are doing in our ministries, this must be our focus, our tuning fork, our preoccupation, our strategy. To preach the word.