“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). Paul had just commanded Timothy to be careful to preach the Word in all situations. Why did the apostle find it necessary to say this to an experienced minister who had faithfully served with him for so many years? Paul understood the great pressure brought to bear on every prophet by the culture in which he preaches. We tend to think that Paul never felt intimidated by the ethos of pagan society. Yet the intrepid missionary admitted that he entered the gates of hedonistic Corinth in weakness, fear, and trembling (1 Cor. 2:3). In Athens he experienced the impact of the derisive laughter of the intellectually elite philosophers at Mars Hill when he told them that Jesus walked out of His grave. Paul personally knew the reality of the temptation to adapt the doctrines of the gospel
to oblige the lifestyles of the world.
We live in an age when being politically correct is more important than being truthful. The college student engaged in casual sex wants to hear that promiscuity is a practice an understanding God condones. The materialist wants to hear a preacher tell him that his money is primarily for his pleasure. The homosexual wants a deity that will baptize and sanctify his sin. The student in her first year of college who has discovered she is eight weeks pregnant wants a Jesus who will recommend a doctor to deal with that inconvenience. We have the nature to create gods that will protect our pet sins. The alcoholic’s classic characteristic is to deny his addiction. That is symbolic of the characteristic we all have in our resistance to genuine confession of personal sin.
The sinner is faced with two options. He can submit to the authority of God’s Word, confess his sin, repent, and throw himself upon God’s grace. Or, he can change the message to commend his lifestyle so that the “sin” actually becomes a virtue. If one chooses the latter, he must then find a church that will alter the message from God to fit the culture. Paul was warning Timothy that he would encounter people wanting him to be a preacher who would accommodate their passions. The phrase “itching ears” (v. 3) graphically describes them. Their ears “itch” to hear something pleasant — words that will soothe them in their cocoons of transgression rather than convict of wrong and warn of danger. So these verses speak both to the person sitting in the pew and the preacher behind the pulpit.
The minister who changes the message from God to fit the desires of the world around him aids in the destruction of lives, families, and civilizations. The prophets who were preaching in Judah during Jeremiah’s ministry abetted that nation in her sins and contributed to her destruction. God had warned that when Israel forsook Him and His word, He would bring a nation to war against them and would banish His people from the land. Isaiah and Jeremiah were sent by God to tell Judah that God’s judgment was upon them. They preached for three generations that Babylon would be used to destroy Jerusalem and carry the people into exile. However, the majority of the Judean prophets preached that their nation was not under God’s judgment. Their sermons ignored the gross sins of that society and spoke of peace and prosperity (see Jer. 6:13–14). They were seduced into preaching messages that would be popular with their hearers. Individuals, families, cities, and nations are not healed by such preaching. Rather, those preachers rock sinners into a comfortable sleep on the precipice of physical and spiritual destruction.
If you had lived in Jerusalem during the sixth century BC, would you have wanted your family to sit under Jeremiah’s preaching that disturbed and alarmed or the preaching of one of the prophets who made your family comfortable? Every Christian plays a role in the drama of preaching. We either encourage or discourage our ministers to preach the whole counsel of God. There is no neutral territory here. We either pray for our ministers to be filled with the Holy Spirit and preach with His fire or we don’t. Some congregations are like spiritual sponges soaking up God’s truth even when it involves the confrontation of their own sins. Such a people actually “cheer” the true prophet as he preaches. Some congregations will resist and disregard the preaching of the gospel to the point that they pressure the minister to modify the message.
I have a friend who is an oncologist. He delivers bad news almost every day. Each patient wants to hear him say, “The tumor is benign.” If he altered his diagnosis when cancer was present to please the patient, he would place that person in greater danger. Maybe we should tell our hospitals to become very positive and never diagnose anyone as being sick. That is exactly what our culture has told our ministers and churches to do.