Last night, a friend of mine asked, “How do you know when a church is preaching the word?” That is a good question. How do we know? After all, the command is clear–“preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2)–but what does it look like? Bringing it home, how do you know if your church is preaching the word? This is a question every Christian should ask. If the church we attend is not preaching the word, then, as Mark Dever has warned, our very presence is encouraging the continuation of an unfaithful ministry. That is a weighty responsibility. Therefore, how do we know?
Contextually, the command to “preach the word” is surrounded by several marks of a faithful ministry–marks such as verbal reproof, patient instruction, and evangelism (4:2, 5). Rather than look at individual marks such as these, I want to concentrate on some global matters, found in the rest of the letter, pertaining to the preaching of the word.
First, a faithful ministry of the word aims at longevity. In this letter, Paul’s immediate aim is to arouse Timothy out of timidity, so that he will not only join with Paul in suffering for Gospel, but also entrust this word to faithful men, who will then be able to teach others also (1:6-8; 2:2). This word “entrust” reminds us of the preciousness of the word, and of its apparently precarious beginnings. Paul is in prison. His race is nearly finished. Who will bring the word to the next generation? If Timothy fails, how will the generation after him run with the word? Do you see Paul’s aim? Therefore, in great earnestness, Paul exhorts Timothy to guard through the Spirit “that good thing which was committed unto thee” (1:14).
Listen, a faithful ministry of the word looks beyond this present Sunday. There may be few in the pew today, but will there be a faithful preacher in the pulpit tomorrow? In the case of the apostle Paul, all in Asia had deserted him (1:15) and no one had stood by him at his trial (4:16). He himself had a small following, in contrast to the “itching ears” to come (4:3), yet his concern was not with himself but with the next three generations–Timothy, the “faithful men,” and the “others also” (2:2). Moreover, Paul was confident that the Lord Himself would guard the word entrusted to him until the day of Christ Jesus (1:12; cf. 1:14). Though he was enchained, the word was not bound (2:9). In such confidence, we too should assess the faithfulness of a ministry not in terms of present numbers or outward chains, but in terms of long-range transmission.
Second, a faithful ministry of the word endures through the sovereign-historical Gospel. When Paul challenged Timothy to endure suffering “according to the power of God,” he could have stopped writing right there (1:8). What need did he have to say more? After all, it truly is God’s power that enables endurance. Rather than finish his challenge right there, Paul elaborated on the great sovereignty of God in saving us according to a “grace” that was “given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, but is now manifested by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ” (1:9-10). Does your church teach the sovereign-historical Gospel? Do you hear of God’s sovereign good pleasure in selecting sinners unto salvation and then calling them in time by His Spirit through the word? Do you hear of this “grace” being kept hidden until Christ appeared, and then brought us life through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? This is a sovereign Gospel, and a historical Gospel. If your church denies the sovereignty of God in salvation, or flattens the historical dimensions of the Gospel into a simple four-step plan of salvation, then, by implication due to Paul’s elaboration, your church’s ministry of the word will not endure the sufferings to come. A preacher must “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1).
Specifically, a preacher must “hold fast the form of sound words…in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (1:13). In practical terms, this “faith and love” is what the grace in Christ looks like. No mere intellectual persuasion nor raw will-power will endure the sufferings of persecution, or the pressures of popularity. A preacher must seek the inner affections by the power of Holy Spirit, through a holy life of meditation and trusting obedience. Moreover, those who train preachers should not exchange this inner piety for the rigor of mere academics. A faithful ministry holds the theologically and historically rich word with a warm heart.
Third, a faithful ministry of the word uses the entire Scriptures. There is a contrast in this letter between the “foolish and unlearned questions” that cause strife, and the “holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation” (2:23; 3:15). The first, Timothy is commanded to avoid; he must charge men not to “strive about words,” and he must “shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness” (2:14, 16). Please hear me carefully. Just because a preacher may be learned in all sorts of theological speculations or, conversely, in the marketing-techniques and psychological therapies of this world, his multiplication of words does not mean that he is preaching the word. Where are the holy writings? In contrast to the words of the world that do not profit, “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable” (3:16; cf. 2:14). In context, the command to “preach the word” (4:2) hearkens back to “all scripture” (3:16).
Therefore, the final, grand mark of a faithful ministry of the word is an unrelenting commitment to teach the entire Bible to the congregation. All of it is profitable; and all of it, in some way, points to Jesus Christ, the “seed of David…raised from the dead” according to the Gospel Paul preached (2:8). A Bible-based, Gospel-centered message is the cornerstone of a faithful ministry of the word.
So how does your church measure up? Though a lot more marks could be mentioned, and some of them very exciting, such as the personal mentoring by example involved in transmitting the word to the next generation, the three mentioned above form the bedrock of Paul’s argument to Timothy in context. If your church is failing, you face a difficult decision. On the one hand, you can pray, pray, pray, and make requests from your leadership for more of the rich theological, historical, spiritual message of the entire Bible. On the other hand, if your efforts have repeatedly failed, or perhaps been rejected out right, it may be time to vote with your feet and with your wallet in favor of a faithful ministry of the word elsewhere. May the Lord give you great wisdom! It is a weighty responsibility.