I am more honored and more happy to be in this role right now than most people can know. I am honored because what we are about here is more important than the installation of a mayor or governor. You will see why in a few minutes. I am happy because I love to be involved in the most important things in the world.
I thought that I would give two messages in this one sermon, one for [the pastor], and one for the congregation. But there is time only for one. So let me just quote the text of the one that will not be given. At the end of the parable of the soils where there are four different ways to receive the Word of God, but only one way that bears fruit and leads to life, Jesus says (in Luke 8:18), “Take heed how you hear; for whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.” So let it simply be a word of exhortation to all of us to take heed how we hear this afternoon. And as you hear my message to [the pastor], think over what it will mean to help in this charge and to respond the way Jesus wants.
The message is mainly to [the pastor].
First let’s read the text, 2 Timothy 3:16–4:4 (NASB). Keep in mind that in the original letters the chapter and verse divisions were not there. They were added later to help us tell people where we are reading.
16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 4:1 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: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 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; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.
[Pastor], my message to you is very simple and very precarious. It is 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the Word.” I call it precarious, because there is a constant temptation to do other things in the place of this. There ARE other things to do in the ministry, as these letters to Timothy show. And we must do them to be found faithful. But none of them is treated as solemnly and forcefully as this one simple exhortation from the apostle: “Preach the Word.”
Notice the five things in verse 1 that intensify this command:
- “I solemnly charge you”;
- “in the presence of God”;
- “and of Christ Jesus” (both the Father and the Son have a great concern in this matter);
- “who is to judge the living and the dead” (the stakes are raised to life and death, and beyond life and death to final judgment—this is why what we are doing here is more important than the installation of a mayor or governor. [A pastor] is called on to deal in more than life and death—the eternal judgment of Christ and what becomes of this congregation not just in your earthly state, but much more in the eternal state);
- and by his appearing and his kingdom—that is, “I solemnly charge you . . . by the appearing and the kingdom of Christ.” That is a remarkable reinforcement of the charge. It must mean that the ministry of preaching has a lot to do with what happens at the appearing of Christ in glory. At that appearing you, [pastor], will be called to account. Were you faithful to this charge? And at that time the congregation will be judged: how did you respond? Were you like the people in verses 3–4? Some “will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.” That’s what the appearing of Christ and his kingdom will reveal.
So I say the command is precarious. Paul realizes that there are many distractions and many obstacles and many temptations to make this seem less important than it is. So he leads into his command with the five introductory intensifiers. And then says, “PREACH THE WORD.” So that is my message to you. “Preach the Word.”
To unfold the command we will ask first, what the “Word” is and second what it means to “preach” it.
We can see two clues in the immediate context.
The God-Inspired Scripture
First, in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” This is immediately followed by the command, “I charge you to preach the Word.” So it is fitting to say that the Word to be preached is first the Scriptures that Timothy grew up on, the Old Testament. When you preach, preach the inspired Scriptures. The “Word” of 4:2 is the “God-inspired Scripture” of 3:16.
Don’t miss the simple fact that the word “Scripture” means simply “writing” or “letter.” This means that the Word of God has come to us in a written form—in a book. Which means that your preparation for preaching will be in large measure book work. You must find your preaching in a book. It must not be dead. It must not be bookish. But it must be book-derived. Book-faithful. Book-saturated. Book-balanced. It must be Spirit-given, Spirit-shaped, Spirit-carried, and Spirit-delivered. But the Spirit inspired the book and broods over the book and lives to exalt the Christ of the book. So preach the Word, [pastor], that is, preach the book.
The Standard of Sound Doctrine
The second clue that we can see about “the Word” in these verses is in 2 Timothy 4:3 which gives the reason for preaching the Word: Preach the Word, “FOR the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine.” So the Word to be preached is “sound doctrine.”
Now what does this “sound doctrine” refer to? 2 Timothy 1:13 gives us the answer: “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me.” Sound doctrine in 2 Timothy 4:3 refers to a “standard of sound words” transmitted to Timothy by the apostle Paul. “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me.”
Notice two things: the word “standard” or “pattern,” and the phrase “from me.”
There is a “standard” or a “pattern” of sound teaching. This means that in the early church there was developing a body of fixed doctrine (or teaching) under the care of the apostles that was being faithfully passed on from church to church. That’s what “from me” indicates in 1:13. Paul delivered his authoritative “standard” of truth.
To put it most simply and relevantly, this “pattern of sound words” or “sound doctrine” is what came to be recorded in the New Testament. Just as with the Old Testament, we needed to have the apostles’ doctrine written down to preserve it from corruption—that is, to keep it “sound,” to keep it healthy.
So the answer to our question is that the Word is the writings of the Old Testament and the writings of the New Testament. God’s word to you this afternoon is to “Preach the Word.” That is, preach the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Know this book. Make this book the main dwelling place of your mind. On every question, ask, what does the Bible say? Meditate on this book day and night. Take the word given to Joshua (1:8) for yourself: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.”
Now we ask, Why does Paul say to PREACH this Word? Not just teach it. Not just read it. Not just share it. Not just memorize it. But preach it. What does that mean? And why is this so important that there should be five intensifying phrases leading up to this command?
Preaching Is Not Just Explaining or Teaching
Preaching (kerussõn) is different from teaching. In 2 Timothy 1:10–11, Paul says, “[Christ] abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, 11 for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher.” That is, I was appointed for three tasks: heralding or announcing the Truth as a preacher; composing, preserving, and transmitting the authoritative pattern of Truth as an apostle; and explaining and applying the Truth as a teacher.
So preaching is not just explaining or teaching. Preaching is heralding. Preaching is what a town crier does when there is a message from the king.
Preaching Is Heralding and Exulting
He gathers a group of people and says, “Here ye, hear ye, be it known to you today that by royal order of his highness, the king, there will henceforth be granted to this town an imperial watch of one hundred soldiers to protect you from the rebel bands who plunder the king’s subjects.”
And a cheer goes up among the people. (Those are the amen’s of the congregation.)
And he continues, “Furthermore be it known to you that the cost for this protection shall be born not by taxation but by the beneficence of the king from his royal treasury!”
Again cheers! (Amen!)
“Moreover, the king would have you know that he loves you, his loyal subjects, and will use all his royal counsel and power to defend you and supply your wants.”
Again cheers. (Amen! Amen!)
“And lastly he sends through me his royal blessing. Blessed be the people whose trust is in the king!”
Preaching is more than teaching. It is, exultation in the Word. “Preach the Word,” means “exult in the Word.” That is, announce it and revel in it. Speak it as amazing news. Speak it from a heart that is moved by it.
Two Reasons Why This Kind of Speaking Is So Crucial
There are two reasons why this kind of speaking in the church is so crucial. One is that the subject matter is infinitely important. There is no other organization on earth that deals in matters of eternal life and eternal death—matters about God and his Son and his Spirit, matters about salvation and judgment, matters about the life that pleases God or displeases him. In other words, no other group of people, besides the church, gathers regularly to deal in such tremendously important realities. This means that there is a form of speech that is fitting as part of that gathering that fits the greatness of that truth—namely, preaching. So the first reason for preaching is that the nature of the truth calls for something more than mere explanation or discussion or conversation.
The other reason why preaching is so crucial is that our hearts yearn for the truth to come to us in ways that highlight the worth of the truth. In other words, not only does the magnificence of the truth call for a heartfelt heralding and passionate exultation, but our hearts call for this too. Our hearts will not be drawn out to worship if someone just dissects and analyzes the worth and glory of God but does not exult in it before us. Our hearts long for true preaching. Some of us don’t even know that is what we are missing. Like children who grew up in homes where mom and dad never exulted in anything. They never rejoiced or praised or verbally admired and treasured anything. They were always flat and unenthused (except when they got angry). You couldn’t tell if anything really moved them deeply and positively. So the kids grow up not knowing what they are missing. That is what many people in the church are like who have never tasted true preaching.
Preaching Must Be Expository Exultation
God exists to be worshiped—to be admired and treasured and desired and praised. Therefore, the Word of God is written primarily to produce worship. This means that if that Word is handled like a hot-dish recipe or a repair manual, it is mishandled. And the people will suffer. The Truth of God begs to be handled with exultation. And our hearts yearn for this and need it. Something in us starts to die when precious and infinitely valuable realities are handled without feelings and words of wonder and exultation. That is, a church starts to die, without preaching.
But, of course, this assumes something massive. To treasure the Truth, and to love the Truth, and be impassioned about the Truth, and to exult in the Truth, you have to know the Truth. So it’s not enough to say that preaching is exultation. We must also say it is “expository exultation.” It is exultation in the Truth of God’s Word. And the exultation is in proportion to the Truth delivered.
In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul tells Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.” This too is part of preaching. Preaching is handling accurately the Word of truth. In other words you can never twist or exploit the Word in order to increase the emotional response of the people. Preaching is not exultation without exposition of the Word. Nor is preaching exposition of the Word without exultation. One error cuts off the head. The other rips out the heart. In both cases the victim dies. No heart. Or, no head. You’re dead. And so is preaching. And not too long after, the church.
So the command of the Lord is, Preach the Word. Keep your head on (exposition) and keep your heart alive (exultation). Handle the precious living Word of God accurately. And come to this pulpit week after week and do expository exultation. Don’t out-exult the Word. And don’t under-exult the Word. There is enough glory in the Word that you need add nothing artificial. Just eat it until your heart is deeply and truly satisfied and then serve the same banquet for your people.
Martin Luther was one of the great preachers of all time. He explained the need for preaching like this:
Because heresies threatened the living apostolic message, it had to be recorded in a book to protect it from falsification. Preaching reverses this process of conservation again, allowing the Scriptures of the past to become the tidings of the present . . . The Gospel has been committed to lifeless paper; fresh words can transform it into glad tidings again.
Scripture turned into glad tidings—that is what happens in expository exultation. [Pastor], if the Lord wills, there are many years in front of you and many trials. You will be tempted in many ways to give up preaching. Satan will lie to you that it is not a great thing. Or that you could devote yourself to something more significant. But when that happens, go back to 2 Timothy 4:1–2 and listen to the apostle. “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.”
Then you will rise up and say with Martin Luther, “If I could today become king or emperor, I would not give up my office as preacher.”
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.