This passage sets the meter to which the expositor’s heart beats. I confess that I have been chomping at the bit in order to get to this specific Scripture because these verses are so dear to me. These verses are the peak, pinnacle, climax, and summit of Paul’s second letter to Timothy. This is the precise point that Paul has been building up to from chapter 1 verse 1 and we have finally arrived here. Paul has taken his time and has used his words with extreme wisdom and precision. He has reaffirmed the validity of the gospel message (1:1-5), reminded Timothy of the source of strength (1:6-18), called Timothy to embrace suffering in that strength (2:1-13), and ordered him to prepare faithful men just as Paul has prepared him (2:14-26) because times will get worse before they ever get better (3:1-9). Timothy’s final instructions are to continue following the examples set before him (3:10-13) and continue to stand upon the firm foundation of God’s sufficient Word (3:14-17).
After establishing the sufficiency and supremacy of Scripture (3:14-17), Paul here delivers the climactic and weighty charge to Timothy to preach the Word. This charge is directly applicable to every man behind every pulpit in every time until our Lord Jesus Christ returns. This charge is simple but not simplistic and is given in three comprehensive stages.
The Pastor’s Charge (vv. 1-2)
“I solemnly 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, exhort, with great patience and instruction.”
Even though we desperately want to get to the commands in vv. 2 and following, do not make the mistake of breezing over v. 1. Paul sets up the following commands by framing them with the utmost solemnity.
A Weighty Charge (v. 1) – What we read in the NASB as I solemnly charge is more literally I urgently/solemnly testify (διαμαρτύρομαι). The scene is more like a courtroom setting whereby Paul takes the stand in order to deliver a final address. True to the Biblical mandate two or three witnesses must affirm any and every detail and so to corroborate his testimony, he calls two witnesses; Almighty God and the Lord Christ Jesus. They will together affirm Paul’s testimony. Paul reminds Timothy that this same Christ Jesus is the only One who will one day judge both the living and the dead. In other words, no man who has ever lived or that will ever live will be able to escape His judgment.
The seriousness of this testimony cannot be overstated. One slip from Paul as the one delivering this testimony incriminates him. Any attempt to ignore his testimony will incriminate the hearer. And yet, Paul continues.
Any testimony in a court of law is given with an oath. In our courts, the witness usually places their hand upon a Bible, the Holy Word of God, before swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Paul does something similar here. What he swears upon or by is the certainty that Christ Jesus, the judge of all things, will come again and with His coming will bring His kingdom. The solemnity of this testimony does two things.
First, it sets the appropriate tone for all that follows. This is not a desperate plea of a man about to die but a serious charge from one of Christ’s Apostles to one of his disciples. Timothy is not commanded to continue Paul’s work, but the work of Christ Jesus. Second, Timothy is now (if he wasn’t already) fully aware that he too stands before Almighty God and Christ Jesus. As he reads these words, as he preaches to the people of Ephesus, and as he continues the ministry given to him, nothing escapes the notices of the One who judges the living and the dead. This is a most weighty charge.
A Simple Charge (v. 2a) – The charge itself is not complicated; preach the Word. To preach (κηρύσσω) is the act of a herald. It means to proclaim, announce, make known, and already implies a public setting for such a pronouncement. A herald is a town crier, one who is given a message to deliver to the people. He would be severely punished for failing to proclaim the message given to him or for altering the message by addition, subtraction, or embellishment. Timothy is charged to herald, proclaim, and announce the Word.
There is no question as to what word (τὸν λόγον) Timothy is to preach. Paul has already mentioned the Word of God (ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ - 2:9) and also the Word of truth (τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας – 2:15). The immediate context revolves around the sufficiency of the sacred writings (3:16) and the God-breathed Scripture (3:16). Timothy is hereby charged to preach the Bible, the whole counsel of God.
This imperative is given very pointedly. We have seen many imperatives in this book but most of them have been given in the present tense and carry the nuance to keep/continue doing. Yet Paul uses the aorist tense here, and the four imperatives that follow. The aorist imperative makes no comment as to what occurs before or after the command. It does not suggest that Timothy has not been preaching but is a simple and direct four finger knife-hand to the chest: Timothy, PREACH!
A preacher is simply a vessel who carries God’s Word to the people. He is a waiter whose only duty is to deliver the goods to the table. He does not substitute one dish for another. He does not rearrange the platter to make it more appealing. He is not free to determine which dish is best served hot or cold. He has been given the simplest of all charges; just preach what God has already said. And yet we see the greatest amount of reckless and arrogant faithlessness, not in the pews, but in the pulpit.
Two things must be said at this point. First, ministry is NOTHING if not preaching. I cannot tell you how many articles I have seen that more or less suggest the same thing: a pastor is more than a preacher. What I think they mean is that a pastor’s duty is more than delivering a single sermon once a week. I think we would all agree with that. But a pastor is nothing more than a preacher of God’s Word. The pastor/elder/overseer is called to do two things exclusively: preach and pray. When we stand in the pulpit, we preach and pray. When we sit at the counseling table, we preach and pray. When we take someone out for coffee, we preach and pray. When we visit the sick and lonely, we preach and pray. That’s what ministry is. Any man who is unwilling, unable, or unaware that he must be prepared to preach and pray 24 hours a day 365 days a year is unfit for the ministry. In other words, if your “pastor” is not a preacher, then he is no pastor. Run him out on a rail and replace him with a man who will boldly proclaim the Word of the living God.
Second, preaching is NOTHING if not declaring the Word of God. A faithful sermon is not judged by how long it runs, how many laughs the speaker gets, or how good the audience feels about themselves when they leave. A faithful sermon is one that explains the actual Word of God and exhorts the congregation to obey it. The preacher must actually open his Bible, read his Bible aloud, explain what the Bible means, and then declare to the people of God that they must obey these words because they are God’s words.
This is such a simple charge, yet virtually no one is doing this. Many speakers, we will not call them pastors or preachers, speak about quasi-biblical concepts or loosely reference biblical passages. But their Bibles are either closed or absent and the people hear nothing but the musings of men. The Word of God is a lion! The preacher is not called to tame the lion or make the lion jump through hoops. The preacher is to simply open the cage and let the lion loose.
A Seasonless Charge (v. 2b) – The next imperative is translated as be ready in the NASB. The idea is that Timothy is now being called to stand fast or be available with the implication of being ready to preach the Word. What follows is a simple phrase that indicates when Timothy is to be ready. Timothy is to be ready, willing, and able to preach the Word of God in season and out of season. On the one hand, this is simple enough to understand; Timothy is to read all the time. There are only two seasons. We are either in season or we are out of season, so be ready to preach all the time. But the nuance is a little more specific.
A better understanding is not so much all the time but to be ready to preach regardless if the Word is in season or not. Be ready to preach when it’s convenient and when it’s not convenient. Be ready to preach when the Word is well received and when it is not received at all. One of my favorite preachers is fond of telling men; you must be ready to preach, pray, or die at a moment’s notice. This is exactly what Paul testifies to Timothy in the very presence of God and Christ Jesus.
A Persistent Charge (v. 2c) – If the second command helps us to understand when to preach then these next three commands will explain how to preach. Reprove is the verbal form of reproof from 3:16. If the God-breathed Scripture is beneficial for the purpose of reproof, then Timothy had better use it as such. The verb here carries the idea of exposing through careful scrutiny and examination. This describes the work of conviction, using the Word of God to expose sin and thus convict the soul.
Paul immediately follows this up with another command; rebuke. The idea here is that of warning. To convict is to declare, “God has called that action sin!” To then warn someone is to call them to cease this sin and repent.
The third (really the fifth, if you’re keeping track) command is to exhort. The Greek term παρακαλέω has been translated various ways in the New Testament ranging from comfort to encourage to exhort. The term simply means to call alongside. The idea is that there is a single standard and that standard is the Word of God. The preacher’s task is to call the people of God to come alongside and submit to this single standard. The tone might be comforting or encouraging depending upon the situation, but the content is always the same.
We might describe these three rapid-fire commands this way. The preacher is to preach the Word of God so as to expose sin (reprove), call people to turn from their sin in repentance (rebuke), and follow Christ (exhort). These three, along with the first two (preach and be ready) must be done in a manner of great patience and instruction.
Few sheep will heed the Word of God upon the first hearing. Some sheep will bite the hand that feeds them. Some will need extra help in seeing for themselves what Scripture has clearly exposed. Timothy will need great patience as he continues to preach. And this preaching must teach or instruct nothing but the Word.
The Pastor’s Context (vv. 3-4)
“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.”
Paul has charged Timothy what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Now he explains why Timothy must preach the Word.
A Dissatisfied People (v. 3a) – Just as Paul warned of a time when hedonistic devils would come, he here warns of a time when people will no longer endure sound and healthy teaching. As a starting point, we must understand that Paul is not commenting on the degeneration of the world in general. He speaks of those inside the visible church. The term sound literally means healthy. Note that Paul calls doctrine healthy.
Most Christian’s cringe at that word doctrine because they have heard all kinds of heretical rubbish that suggests and states that doctrine is unimportant and is the root of all disputes and divisions. Read my next words carefully. Doctrine always divides. But it divides between truth and error, between lies and truth, and between life and death. Yes, doctrine divides, and we praise God for it. The Bible is the only Word that can save and sanctify and thus is the only food that man needs (Duet. 8:3). Yet men and women will no longer endure or submit to this life-giving source.
A Self-centered People (v. 3b) – Why would people not cling to, cherish, and exalt healthy doctrine? Because the Word of God fails to affirm them as they are. The text continues to state that instead of submitting to sound doctrine, they go out and accumulate teachers who affirm their pre-existing desires. The term accumulate means to heap up or to amass. They are not satisfied with one or two teachers who think the same sinful and rebellious thoughts as themselves; they want a legion of licentious litigators. There is only one standard, one criterion by which these teachers are measured: do they affirm my desires?
The objective Word of God is cast aside in favor of their subjective felt needs. They care nothing of truth, desire only to have their ears tickled, and will move heaven and earth to amass for themselves teachers who will do just that. One commentator puts it this way, “Good law and gospel crush and heal and do not scratch a little in order to tickle…The law severely boxes those ears until the itch is gone and the terrors of conscience make them burn; the gospel pours in the power that pardons, regenerates, renews. There will be those, Paul says, who want tickling instead” (Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus, and to Philemon, p. 855).
A Rebellious People (v. 4) – Make no mistake, these people are not just indifferent, but are thoroughly rebellious. The action described as turning away their ears is akin to what we read in Acts 7 when the Sanhedrin covered their ears to prevent any more of Stephen’s sermon boring into their souls, rushed upon him, drug him outside, and stoned him to death. To put it as simply as I can, they hate Scripture. They want nothing to do with God, His people, and especially His Word. This is born out in the next statement.
When Paul says that they turn aside to myths he paints a vivid and grotesque picture. The term turned aside literally means to dislocate. They despise the Word of God so much that they are willing to pull themselves out of join in order to pursue fables and fairytales that are in accord with their desires. Again, this is not describing the culture war, but the war waging in the pews. This is the context in which Timothy, and all pastors, must preach the Word.
The Pastor in Contrast (v. 5)
“But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Contrasting Stability – This is the third time (see vv. 3:10, 4) Paul has mentioned a negative context and then turned to point directly at Timothy in contrast. It matters not what the rebellious goats that have been masquerading as sheep think, say, or do. But you, Timothy, be sober.
This is the only imperative in this passage that goes back to the present tense. Continue to be sober is the idea. This is not a sobriety as opposed to drunkenness, but a sobriety of self-control, measured response, and a level head. This is a command to remain stable in his thinking and reactions and it drives the final three commands.
Contrasting Faithfulness – There are three final commands given to Timothy. Three final knife-hand directives. Three final charges from Apostle to disciple before he puts down his pen and is welcomed into the arms of his Lord. All three of these commands are under the heading “Preach the Word!”
To preach the Word guarantees hardship, and so Paul returns to his call for Timothy to join in suffering (2:3, 9). Timothy must soberly embrace coming suffering. To preach the Word demands that the gospel of Jesus Christ be proclaimed, and so Timothy must do this evangelistic work. The word evangelist (εὐαγγελιστής) is taken from this glorious word for gospel (εὐαγγέλιον), and so Timothy must resolve and steady his mind to call sinners to repentance and trust in Jesus. Timothy’s ministry or service (διακονία) is not complete until the Lord calls him home. There are no vacation days and no retirement packages for the preacher of God’s most Holy Word. Therefore, Timothy must prepare his mind for action and complete what God has already started. In contrast to the faithless and fickle truth haters, Timothy must be found faithful.
The command for every pastor is simple, powerful, and non-negotiable: preach the Word! There is no excuse for failing to do so. In every hour and in every circumstance the Word of God must be proclaimed. We do not whisper it in dark and quiet corners. We do not mold it to suit our fancies. We do not prefer the sensibilities of others. We stand as heralds in the square and cry aloud for all to hear what the Lord hath said. We must never draw a false dichotomy between preaching and pastoring. Pastors are shepherds and shepherds feed the sheep. Pray tell, what do the sheep feed upon if not the Word of the Almighty! I would that every bumbler behind every pulpit be struck mute unless they speak the Word of God. The church needs no entertainers, authors, scholars, speakers, or psychologists. We are in desperate need of preachers!
There are many days that I feel as Elijah and cry unto God, “I have been zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left!” But the Lord, in His mercy and grace, has men even to this day. “Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:14, 18). May the Lord awaken His people through the preaching of His Word. And may there arise an entire generation of men to preach it. Soli Deo Gloria!