Preach the Word!
2 Timothy 4:1-5
August 10, 2003
I’d like to begin by calling your attention to verses 3-4 of this passage. They describe a scene that seems amazingly contemporary: “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” (II Timothy 4:3-4). Note that Paul makes three predictions in these verses:
1) There will come a time when men will not put up with sound doctrine. They will not only reject the truth, they will refuse even to hear the truth.
2) These men will prefer lies instead of the truth because they have what Paul calls “itching ears.” “Itching ears” are ears that are eager to hear every new idea, every new theory, and every wild idea, no matter how fanciful or farfetched it may be. “They have an itch to be entertained by teachings that will produce pleasant sensations and leave them with good feelings about themselves” (John MacArthur). People with itching ears want preachers who tell them what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.
3) There will be many teachers who will be glad to tickle the itching ears of their hearers.
This passage came true for the Episcopal Church last week when that denomination elected its first-ever openly homosexual bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson. How could such a thing happen in a church that ostensibly believes the Bible? Writing in the Wall Street Journal (August 8, 2003), Katherine Kersten has a very clear answer. She says the Episcopal Church:
has just tossed aside 2,000 years of bedrock Christian teaching about marriage, the family and sexuality. It has rejected beliefs fundamental not only to Christianity, but to Judaism and Islam. Episcopalians’ inability to defend core doctrine suggests that mainline American churches are losing their theological moorings, and increasingly falling prey to the prevailing winds of secular culture.
She goes on to talk about what she calls the new “gospel of inclusion,” which means that we should bless same-sex unions so that homosexuals will feel welcome in the church. She then adds that the new gospel “subordinates thinking to ‘feelings.’” And that’s exactly what Paul meant when he said men would turn away from the truth in order to “suit their own desires.”
It’s almost as if the Apostle Paul, writing from a dark prison cell in Rome, knew all about America in 2003. Second Timothy 4 has come true before our very eyes. And there is more to come. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Somewhere this week I saw this predicted future headline: “Episcopal Church elects first-ever openly-Muslim bishop.” Well, why not? Once you depart from the Word of God, where do you stop? I know there are quite a few evangelical Christians inside the Episcopal Church, including members of my own family. They are understandably dismayed and many are angry at this betrayal of the Christian faith. One Episcopal friend said simply, “The national church is run by pagans.” One can only hope and pray that God-fearing Episcopalians will be able to turn their church back to the truth, but the outlook does not seem promising. In fact, it seems likely that this same battle will be repeated over and over again, in the Lutheran Church, in the Presbyterian Church, in the United Church of Christ, and eventually in the American Baptist churches.
“Make Me Happy”
“Itching ears.” That’s how you get homosexual bishops. We live in a world of itching ears, where people come to church and demand to be told what they want to hear. And it’s not just in the liberal churches, either. It happens in evangelical churches as well. People come to church with a personal agenda in mind:
Make me happy.
Meet my needs.
Don’t talk about sin.
Tell me how to be successful.
Don’t be so negative.
Bible doctrine is boring.
Theology doesn’t matter.
Sermons are too long.
Make the gospel relevant.
Tell more stories.
Make me laugh.
Tell some jokes.
Help me feel good about myself.
Build up my self-esteem.
Don’t be divisive.
Don’t talk about hell.
I want a happy religion.
And the answer comes from the Apostle Paul: “Preach the Word!” This is what the church must do in times like these. “Preach the Word!” This is our calling, our challenge, our mandate. Let’s take just a moment to examine that phrase. To “preach” means to stand as a herald on the street corner. When a king wanted to send an important announcement to his subjects, he sent heralds who scattered across the realm, publicly declaring the king’s message. They went to every corner, every city gate, and every public marketplace, announcing the king’s message. The herald had one responsibility and only one. He was to announce only what the king told him to announce. He was not free to add or subtract or to summarize or paraphrase the king’s message. He was not permitted to add his own personal opinions. In this sense, to preach means to authoritatively declare the truth of God. That’s why Luther and Calvin said that when the preacher truly preaches the Word of God, what the preacher says, God says. That’s right—as long as the preacher is truly preaching God’s Word and not his own opinions. But note the limitation of the preaching. We are to preach “the Word.” Not “Preach your ideas” or “Preach your theories” or “Preach your analysis of current events” or “Preach the latest hot gossip.” And we are not to preach “a” word, but “the” word, the Word of the Living God. We are to stand and declare to an unbelieving world, “Thus says the Lord.”
Consider what this means:
In a world of itching ears, Preach the Word!
To a generation gone astray, Preach the Word!
In a time of moral crisis, Preach the Word!
When people don’t want to hear you, Preach the Word!
When false teachers abound, Preach the Word!
In good times and in bad times, Preach the Word!
When people listen and when they don’t listen, Preach the Word!
“The Word did it all.”
During the days of the Protestant Reformation, someone asked Martin Luther to explain the amazing success of his message of justification by faith alone. It was a good question because his message spread like wildfire across Europe even though Luther himself spent time in prison. How could one man have changed the course of history? In one of his more famous comments, he replied something like this: “While I slept or drank beer in Wittenburg with my friends … the Word did the work.” Then he added: “I did nothing. The Word did it all.”
Let me suggest several implications of this truth for today:
1) The Bible must be the final authority in the church. Though the church has many “lower courts,” such as tradition, history, cultural considerations, and personal preference, the “Supreme Court” of the church must always be the Word of God, from which there can be no appeal.
2) A church that rejects the teaching of the Bible can scarcely be called a church at all. What is happening in the Episcopal Church illustrates the problem. An Episcopal friend asked me in all seriousness, “Where do you draw the line?” Answer: Somewhere well before you start naming openly homosexual bishops. It should never have gotten this far. The friend who asked that question thinks that eventually the church will split, and believes that would be a good thing. It would be better for the church to stay united, but only if there is a genuine return to biblical truth, the kind found in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and in the old Book of Common Prayer.
3) When people come to church, they have a right to expect that they will hear a sermon based on the Word of God. This should be the norm for all Christian churches, whether Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, Charismatic, or interdenominational churches such as Calvary. For that matter, the people who come to hear me preach week after week have a right to expect that every sermon I preach will come from the Bible. If the day ever comes that I no longer preach from the Bible, that will be the time to appoint a Pulpit Committee and call a new pastor.
4) The people of the world have a right to expect that the church will declare the Word of God, even if they choose to reject it. Think about this for a moment. We owe it to people outside the church to be true to the Bible. They need to know that we really do believe what we say we believe. They don’t have to believe it, but they need to know that we do believe it.
5) When preachers substitute personal opinion or political rhetoric, or social commentary, or anecdotal storytelling, or serial joke telling, no matter how amusing or interesting it may be, they are abusing the pulpit, prostituting their calling, and cheating the people of the congregation.
6) A church that truly preaches the Word will find itself at odds with the world. This should be clear to all of us. If your church is never in trouble with the world, it’s probably because your church is in bed with the world. If you preach the Word, you have the blessing of God. If you preach the latest fads and trends, if you preach about the Simpsons or about “Who Wants to Marry My Dad?” you may draw big crowds and you will have the approval of the power brokers and the opinion makers. The church can please God or it can please the world, but it can’t do both.
An Audience of One
Paul brings that point out forcefully in verse 1, when he exhorts Timothy with these stirring words: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge …” (II Timothy 4:1). For the preacher, these are awesome words because they tell us that God pays attention to what happens in the pulpit. Every pastor stands in the very presence of God as he delivers his message to his people. Someday he will give an account for what he has said week by week, sermon by sermon. There is a real sense in which the preacher has an audience of one—God. He first must preach so that the Lord is pleased with his message. If the Lord is pleased, it matters not what men say. If the Lord is not pleased, the applause of millions will make no difference. I take this very personally because I have been your pastor for 14 years. That means I’ve preached hundreds of sermons from this pulpit. That’s a lot of sermons to preach, and that’s a lot of sermons to listen to. The day is coming when I must give an account to God for everything I have said over the last 14 years. Nothing will be overlooked, everything will come to light, and my words and my motives will be examined by the Lord. And just as I will give an account for the sermons I have preached, even so you will give an account for the sermons you have heard.
On earth the pastor may answer to a board or to a committee or a regional superintendent or to a bishop, but one day he will stand before Jesus Christ to give an account for his ministry. In that day it won’t matter how big his church was or how many buildings he built or how many books he wrote or where he went to speak. Those things are for this world only. In that great day, the Lord will ask every pastor, “Did you faithfully preach my Word?”
First Things First!
This means that the pastor’s first priority must be the public ministry of the Word of God. Nothing else can be more important than this. And nothing else can take its place. A pastor may be an able administrator, a charming personality, a good fundraiser, a gifted counselor and a popular storyteller. He may be well-liked and even sought after in the community. All those things are well and good, and they are not to be despised. But the pastor must first of all be a man of the Word. In the early days of the church, a dispute arose between the Greek-speaking widows and the Aramaic-speaking widows in Jerusalem that threatened to consume all the time and energy of the apostles and take them away from more important tasks. Their solution was simple: “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’” That’s Acts 6:2-4. Taking care of the widows is important; it’s vital and necessary. If you were a Greek-speaking widow, and you hadn’t eaten in two days, nothing would matter to you more than food. Then as now, the church must care for its widows. But for the leaders, the ministry of the Word comes first. The pastor must give himself to prayer and the ministry of the Word. First things first!
Shortly after I came as your pastor in August 1989, we invited the three living former pastors back to preach at Calvary as part of our 75th anniversary celebration. That’s how I met John Emmans, who was the pastor here from 1952-1958. In those days the church was located a few blocks from here and was much smaller than it is now. It was called Madison Street Bible Church. Pastor Emmans was a great Bible preacher who loved to preach expository sermons through books of the Bible. When he came to the church, he was a young man and the leaders of the church were quite a bit older than he was. One of the elders was a man by the name of R. E. Nicholas. Mr. Nicholas was a fine businessman who is remembered as one of the developers of downtown Oak Park. He was also a godly man, an elder of this church, and he understood the principle of “First Things First.” Pastor Emmans told me that when he came to our church, the elders (led by Mr. Nicholas) gave him a sign to put on his office door that read, “Do not disturb. In study and in prayer.” They told him that they knew there would be many demands on his time, and they knew that it would be easy to get involved in peripheral matters that would drain his time and energy. Giving him the sign was a way of saying, “We want you to keep the main thing the main thing. Put this sign on your door and we’ll see that you are not disturbed. We want a pastor who studies and prays.”
God bless those elders. They had the right idea. And may I say that our elders today have the same idea. I know it’s very popular to talk about the pastor as the CEO of the church, but you won’t find that in the New Testament. The pastor is to be a shepherd and a teacher first and foremost. Our elders understand that whatever blessing we have experienced has come because for 88 years, this church has preached the Word, correcting, rebuking, encouraging, with patience and with careful instruction. As the 12th pastor of this church, I am happy to say that this church was preaching the Word long before I arrived on the scene 14 years ago this week. By God’s grace, it will continue until Jesus returns.
Should We Give Up?
But we do live in a world of itching ears, don’t we? The events of this week are a portent of things to come. Buckle up, soldiers, and take up the armor of God. This is only the beginning. What should we do in times of enormous moral compromise? Should we give up, quit, drop our weapons and run for cover? Maybe we should sell the building, turn the back part into condos, and turn the sanctuary into a trendy restaurant. Who knows? That might be a big hit—but it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. This is no time for fear, no time for cowardice, and no time to quit. Instead, it’s a time to take a deep breath and march forward into battle. Verse 5 gives us four very specific marching orders as we preach the Word: “Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (II Timothy 4:5). Or you could say it this way:
Do your duty.
I have already alluded to the fact that this week marks my 14th anniversary as your pastor. When I look back on those early days, when I was living with Fred and Erlene Hartman in River Forest because Marlene and the boys had not yet come up from Texas, in those early days when I got lost trying to find my way from my office to the sanctuary, as I look back on those days, I remember being utterly overwhelmed and feeling totally inadequate. As I thought about the eight million people of Chicago, and of all the people in Oak Park, and how my own background was so different from most of the people in the congregation, I had no clear idea of what to do or where to begin. And more than once, I wondered if I had not made a mistake in coming to Oak Park to be your pastor. I can honestly say there was no master plan except to come and preach the Word. Everything else was hidden from my view. Preaching was about all that I really knew how to do, and I threw myself into it with all I had. Back then, I had no idea of the great blessings we would experience together in the 14 years since then. The church has changed and grown, and I have changed and grown in many ways. But in one very important way, the church has not changed and I have not changed. We are still committed to preaching the Word of God. Sometimes that has put us at odds with the powers that be in Oak Park and sometimes it has embroiled us in controversies not of our own making. I am sure it is true that not everyone in Oak Park loves us—hard as that may be to believe. But whether we are loved or unloved, we know what we believe and we are not going to change. In the olden days, this church was a “Bible Church.” Let me reaffirm that nothing has changed: We are still a Bible Church. We may have changed our name, but we have not changed what we believe for the last 88 years. I am happy to announce today our “master plan” for the next 88 years: Preach the Word, win the lost, serve the Lord, pray without ceasing, speak the truth in love, send missionaries to the ends of the earth, love one another, rejoice in the Lord, and do all things for the glory of God. In short, we plan to do in the 21st century exactly what we did in the 20th century. Methods may change, but our core beliefs are exactly the same. We’ve been preaching the Word for 88 years, and we think that’s the road to follow until Jesus comes again.
When I was a child, I learned a little chorus in Sunday School called “The B-I-B-L-E:”
Yes, that’s the book for me.
I stand alone on the Word of God,
That has been our testimony for 88 years and counting. “We stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.” We preach the Word because that is our only message, and it is the message the world desperately needs to hear. Some may wonder, “Is biblical preaching still relevant in the 21st century?” As long as sinners need a Savior, preaching the Word will not go out of style.
Preach the Word! This is God’s command, and this is what I have tried to do. As I wrap up 14 years as your pastor, and as I begin my 15th year in just a few days, I feel as if I could say what Martin Luther said, “The Word did the work. I did nothing. The Word did it all.” Amen.