Paul’s second letter to Timothy contains the apostle’s final “charge” (2 Tim. 4:1–2) to his right-hand man in Gospel labors. The mandate has a clear focus: “Preach the word.”
This direction is not given to all men, but to Gospel ministers. It is they who have been called and “separated to the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). Therefore, “It is not desirable that [they] should leave the word of God￼and serve” in other useful functions; rather, they should “give [themselves] continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2–4).
In the flow of Pauline logic, the word therefore links an important statement with what has gone before. “I charge you therefore … preach the word.” What foundational truths has Paul laid down before giving this charge to Timothy?
First, thereforebrings before our minds the wonder of God’s Word as expressed in 2 Timothy 3:16–17. These verses begin, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (literally “God-breathed”). What a remarkable treasure God has entrusted to His ministers—divinely spoken words!
All other religions of the world have made their gods. They speak to their gods and about their gods, creating religious chatter. But their gods are motionless, lifeless, and silent. There are no words from the gods in response.
In contrast, the one true and living God, the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, made us. He carries us from the womb to the grave. And He has spoken in human language. He communicates to mere men His divine thoughts, His will, His plans, His heart. Men must be told what their Creator and Judge has said. Second, Paul’s therefore in 2 Timothy 4:1 points back to the power of God’s Word. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul reminds Timothy “that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
The English word able comes from a Greek word from which we have taken our words dynamite, dynamo, and dynamic. The Holy Scriptures have a powerful capability to lead us to the wisdom that saves, a capability of producing faith in Christ Jesus.
Paul also affirms his confidence in the power of the Word elsewhere. In Romans 1:16, he writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes….” In Romans 10:17, Paul makes it plain that faith is powerfully produced by the Word: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
Throughout Scripture there are similar expressions of confidence in the power of God’s Word to save. “My word … that goes forth from My mouth … shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). “Having been born again … through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23). “The word of God is living and powerful …” (Heb. 4:12). “It pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).
Thus, Paul makes clear that it is the very words of God that are powerful to save. But in his brief charge, “Preach the word,” the apostle also has something to say about God’s preferred method of conveying His mighty Word. The Word of God is to be heralded. It is to be spoken authoritatively by Almighty-sent messengers. That is the meaning of the Greek word translated “preach.”
Rulers in ancient times published messages by sending heralds to announce the will of the sovereign. They went from place to place and gained a hearing for the words of the master. The Lord of heaven and earth has done the same. Throughout the Scriptures, we find a divine preference or priority for bringing salvation by means of His Word, spoken by His emissaries. Paul underscores this in the great evangelistic passage of￼Romans 10:9–15, where he meditates on the great text from the prophet Joel: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32).
Paul cites the urgency of preaching the Word by asking the following questions: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher [or “herald”]? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” Paul’s emphasis is on the spoken word.
There is a priority to the spoken word. The Word proceeds from God’s mouth. The Law was in the mouths of priests of the Old Testament, in order to turn many away from iniquity (Mal. 2:6–7). In the New Testament, faith is expected to come from hearing. God saves through the preached message (1 Cor. 1:21).
In the United States, preaching may be at its all-time low point. A majority of churches have turned away from two preaching services on the Lord’s day (including evangelical and Reformed churches). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, listening has been cut in half. Even in one service each week, pageantry and even laughing in the aisles displace preaching.
Young ministers go to parishes in which they are expected to serve in many capacities. Pressures are brought to bear that leave little time to attend to preaching. Few church officers are found to encourage them to the highest priority of their calling—preaching the Word. The minister should be protected from the multitude of ideas that draw him away from his God-given calling. Preaching the Word is not a task that every member can do in his spare time. Men must be separated to the work. Furthermore, men who fear God should relish hearing God’s Word preached. But instead, preachers often struggle to preserve the place of preaching—so vital to salvation.
Throughout 2 Timothy, Paul reflects upon the appalling conditions in which he is about to leave Timothy. At the beginning of chapter 3, he speaks of the disintegration of the social order in which he lives. The apostle mentions narcissism (men who are “lovers of themselves”), materialism (“lovers of money”), and hedonism (“lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God”).
When there are such signs of decline in the human condition, the only hope of recovery is to unleash the power of God’s Word in the divinely appointed method of preaching. This was the pre-eminent need of Timothy’s hour, and it is the chief need of our hour, as well. In every age, when the moral character of society has been changed for the better, it has happened through the preaching of the Word.
In addition to facing a crumbling culture, Timothy was to face opposition within the church (2 Tim. 4:3–4). Hearers will not endure sound doctrine. They will prefer seeker-friendly places of worship where a man’s own desires will form the worship. Fables will be preferred to truth. Human stories and human ideas will displace God’s Word in preaching.
Encouragement to preach the Word will not arise from society or from the church. Martin Luther found no support in the culture of his day or in the church of his time. George Whitefield preached in the fields because churches wanted nothing to do with his preaching.
The world and the church are often unkind to those who preach the Word. Yet God continues to call: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” (Isa. 6:8) Struck with an awareness of God’s call and with the importance He places on preaching the Word, and with an awareness of the power attending preaching of the Word, preachers will continue to go.
Inward impressions of these truths in preachers bring a sweet violence to preaching. The inward convictions given by Scripture bring a mysterious power to the proclamation of the Word of God. It is not genius. It is not elegance. It is not from any definable element of sermon structure or illustration. But in preach
ing the Word may come a holy force. It is the confident authority of one who knows he has been sent by God with God’s words.
John Brown of Haddington once wrote, “Now after forty years preaching of Christ, and His great and sweet salvation, I think I would rather beg my bread all the laboring days of the week, for an opportunity of publishing the gospel on the Sabbath to an assembly of sinful men than, without such a privilege, enjoying the richest possessions on earth.”
Whether we preach or whether we hear preaching, let us never forget that its great end is that sinners “call on the name of the Lord” and thus find salvation. Let us never forget that the Lord chose this method of effective transmission of His Gospel. Divine power to save comes to us in the preaching of the Word.