Text: 2 Timothy 4:1-8
Here we have some of the very last words spoken or written by the apostle Paul. They were probably recorded just weeks, perhaps even days, before his martyrdom (he is believed to have been beheaded on the Ostian Way, near Rome).
The prospect of death, of course, concentrates the mind wonderfully. And there can be no doubt about what Paul is concentrating on in our passage tonight. It is all about faithfulness to ‘the word’, v2. It is about maintaining ‘sound doctrine’, v3. It is about keeping ‘the faith’, v7. That much is clear. But I want to ask two questions about all of this: ‘how?’ and ‘why?’.
1. How should we remain faithful to God’s word?
(a) By proclaiming it faithfully
V2 – ‘preach the word’
Of course, we are not just talking about ‘a word’, any word; it is ‘the word’, God’s word. Elsewhere in the NT it is called “the word of Christ,” because much of it was given by him, and all of it bears witness to him. It called is “the word of [God’s] grace,” because it celebrates the free grace of God as seen in Christ’s dying love for our fallen race. It is called “the word of the cross”, because in the death of Christ God’s power and wisdom revealed. It is called “the word of the gospel,” because it brings glad tidings of great joy to all people. It is called “the word of the kingdom,” because it holds out the hope of an everlasting kingdom of righteousness and peace. It is called “the word of salvation,” because the purpose for which it was given is the salvation of sinners. It is called “the word of truth,” because it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without mixture of error for its contents. It is called “the word of life,” because it reveals to a fallen and perishing world God’s plan for life and immortality. It is called “the word of faith”, because faith is the proper and sufficient response to it.
No wonder, then, that Timothy is not only to hear, believe, obey, guard, suffer for and continue such a word; he is also to preach it. Now the word ‘preach’ does not just refer to sermons delivered in church on Sundays. It refers to any kind of proclamation of God’s word. And it isn’t just the job of ordained ministers or pastors. It’s also the responsibility of lay preachers, leaders of small groups, leaders of children’s and young people’s classes, and parents in the home. Indeed, there is a role for every Christian to proclaim God’s word as they seek ‘to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have.’
This, then, is the key imperative of this passage: proclaim God’s word. So important is this that Paul follows it up with eight more imperatives that indicate what it means to proclaim God’s word faithfully.
V2 – Be prepared in season and out of season – I take this to mean that there are just two occasions when God’s word should be proclaimed: when we feel like it, and when we don’t feel like it.
Correct, rebuke, encourage. To ‘correct’ is to put bad thinking right; to ‘rebuke’ is to put bad behaviour right. But there is an important place for encouragement too. We should know how to use God’s word to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
And all of this with ‘great patience and careful instruction’. This implies systematic, regular, painstaking, Bible teaching.
V5 – Keep your head in all situations – lit. ‘stay sober’. When others become intoxicated with new teaching and experiences, stay cool, maintain your presence of mind. When others are unstable in thought and behaviour, be steady.
Endure hardship. If we proclaim the word faithfully, then we will have to endure hardship. It is one thing for the minister of the word to endure the contradiction of sinners. But to have to endure the contradiction of saints is another matter. Are teachers of God’s word prepared to speak uncomfortable truths, even if half the congregation leaves? Those who desire to remain faithful to God’s word we may need considerable capacity for disappointment.
Do the work of an evangelist – God’s word needs to reach far, as well as near. How many of us have retreated from this? We have, at best, focussed on ‘invitation’ evangelism at the expense of ‘invasion’ evangelism? But we are not doing the work of evangelists if we do nothing more than put up notices outside our churches saying, ‘All welcome’. Jesus called his disciples to be ‘fishers of men’, not merely ‘keepers of the aquarium’.
In all these ways, then, Timothy is called to faithfully proclaim God’s word, and so discharge all the duties of [his] ministry, and so are we today.
But we do not remain faithful to God’s word only by preaching it faithfully. We also do so
(b) By hearing it faithfully
V3,4 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
Many books have been written and many conferences organised on faithful preaching. How many on faithful hearing?
And yet the very reason why Timothy needed to be so determined in speaking God’s word was that he could expect resistance from his hearers. In this regard, Timothy was to expect difficult times. In fact, it’s perfectly clear that these times had already begun.
Paul refers to hearers who have ‘itching ears’. They want teaching that will suit their own desires: that will tell them what they want to hear.
But as hearers of the word, don’t ask for, and don’t accept, anything less that the whole counsel of God.
As hearers of the word, encourage those who proclaim the word. Don’t just tell us whether you ‘enjoyed’ the talk, or even whether you agreed or disagreed with it. Tell us if you found it helpful, stimulating, challenging, difficult, puzzling, provocative. Examine the Scriptures yourselves to see if what we say is so. Have high expectations. Expect God to speak to you from his word. You rightly expect us to work hard at preparing and delivering our messages. Please work at listening and responding to them.
How should we remain faithful to God’s word? By proclaiming it faithfully, and by hearing it faithfully. But now,
2. Why should we remain faithful to God’s word?
We find in this passage two great incentives for being faithful to the word.
(a) Look who’s coming
Paul sets the whole thing up in v1 with a solemn charge. He utters this ‘in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus’
You can see that Paul is acutely aware of the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. But his particular emphasis is not so much on the present, as on the future.
Christ Jesus, he says, ‘will judge the living and the dead’. No-one will escape divine judgment. In particular, all who preach the word of God and all who hear it must give an account to Christ when he returns.
Paul also refers to Christ’s ‘appearing and his kingdom’ – The word translated ‘appearing’ was used in connection with a Roman emperor’s visit to a town or province. The streets would be cleaned and everything would be put in order in preparation for the visit. So Christians are to do their work in such as way as to be ready for Christ’s ‘appearing’.
What a difference this should make to everything we do! How liberating! We can afford to be less concerned about gaining the approval of others. We don’t need to be so over-sensitive to criticism. We can be protected from that self-centredness that demands thanks and praise from everyone around us. We don’t need to be so hurt by the ingratitude of others, if the thing we covet most is the “Well done!” of Jesus Christ when he returns.
(b) Look who’s leaving
In v6f Paul virtually writes his own epitaph.
‘My departure’ – the image that Paul conjures up is that of a ship being loosed from its moorings. Already the anchor is weighed, the ropes are slipped, and the boat is about to set sail for another shore. But before this new voyage begins, the great apostle glances back over his 30 years of Christian ministry.
‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’. Now the picture is that of an athlete: “I have competed well, I have finished the race, I have played by the rules.”
‘The crown of righteousness’ – the laurel wreath that was given to the winner of the games
This applies, says Paul, ‘not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing’. We cannot all be Pauls, or even Timothys. But we too can fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith. We too can leave this life with a good conscience before God.
There is a passage in Pilgrim’s Progress which describes old Honest’s passage across the river of death. “The river,” says Bunyan, “at that time overflowed its banks in some places; but Mr. Honest in his lifetime had spoken to his friend Good Conscience to meet him there; the which he also did, and lent him his hand, and so helped him over.”
There is, throughout this passage, a vivid sense of the changing of the guard; the passing on of the baton. God buries his workers, but God’s work goes on.
‘The torch of the gospel is handed down by each generation to the next. As the leaders of the former generation die, it is all the more urgent for those of the next generation to step forward bravely to take their place…We cannot rest for ever on the leadership of the preceding generation. The day comes when we must step into their shoes and ourselves take the lead. That day had come for Timothy. It comes to all of us in time.’ (Stott)
Let us make up our minds that by God’s grace we will be faithful to his word, as we proclaim it, and as we hear it. Let us keep before us the blessed hope of Christ’s return as judge and king. Let us thank God for those who have gone before, picking up the baton from them, and running our race with energy and determination until we reach the very end.