Over the years, I have spoken with numerous pastors—most of them men who labor faithfully under difficult circumstances, doing their best to fulfill the expectations of their people. The typical pastor’s days are filled with activities that preclude study, solitude, and reflection. He is busy counseling people who are troubled or confused, visiting the sick, evangelizing the lost, and socializing with church members.
People in the pews generally expect their pastor to make such things his highest priorities. They seem to think that study and preparation for preaching are luxuries—discretionary activities that the pastor can do in his leisure time, if he has any.
That is exactly backwards. The pastor’s responsibility to teach his people is his first and most important priority. Other pastoral duties, though highly important and often urgent, should never take precedence over the pastor’s teaching ministry or bury him with so much activity that he lacks time to prepare well for the ministry of the Word.
The pastor’s responsibility to teach his people is his first and most important priority.
Scripture is clear about this. The Apostles in Jerusalem faced so much busywork that they had little time for prayer and the ministry of the Word. They said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables” (Acts 6:2, NASB here and below). They therefore asked the congregation to select capable, qualified men to do the work of serving so they could devote themselves to the teaching ministry.
One of the fundamental requirements for any man to fill the office of an elder or pastor is that he must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:2, 24; Titus 1:9). The expression denotes skill and special aptitude—a distinctive giftedness for teaching. The man who lacks that ability is not qualified (and therefore is not called by God) to fill the office of a pastor.
Pastor, of course, means “shepherd.” One of the most important ways for an elder to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2) is by feeding and leading his people with doctrines and instruction from God’s Word.
In Ephesians 4, Paul lists some of the principal gifts Christ gave to His people. Unlike the spiritual gifts listed in Romans 12:6–7 and 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, these gifts are not individual skills and abilities. They are men—leaders and officers in the church: “And he gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). These are four offices, not five. Paul ties the expression “pastors and teachers” together with a unique construction. He is speaking about pastors who are teachers.
When the Apostle gives his final charge to Timothy, the focal point of his exhortation is this familiar text: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). Every element of this command has a pedagogical purpose. Paul is directing Timothy to preach in a way that is both didactic and doctrinal. That is unmistakably clear, because he goes on to say, “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” (vv. 3–4). Doctrine (literally “teaching”) is the substance of a faithful preacher’s message. Scripture is the true shepherd’s only text; myths and ear-tickling topics are the favored themes of wolves and hirelings.
The nature of God’s Word itself demands the didactic approach. Just a couple of verses before telling Timothy to “preach the word,” Paul had written, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Mark well the fact that all the profitable ministries of God’s Word are instructional before they are devotional and inspirational.
To ensure that the ministry of teaching would not die with Timothy even when teaching God’s Word fell out of fashion, Paul told Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2:2).
Every faithful preacher today who heeds Paul’s instructions for ministry is in that line of succession. The charge Paul gave Timothy applies to us. We must remain committed to our calling, steadfastly seeking to handle God’s Word rightly.
Dr. John MacArthur (@JohnMacArthur) has been pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., for the past fifty years. He is the featured teacher on Grace to You, and he has written numerous books, including The Gospel according to Jesus.