Preach the gospel (preaching resource for 10/23/22)

In exegeting 2 Timothy 4:1-22, this post provides context for the RCL Epistles reading for 10/23/22. It draws on several sources, principally John Stott's commentary.

"Paul in Prison" by Gustave Doré (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

In 2 Timothy, Paul is reflecting on about 30 years of labor as an apostle and evangelist. And now with his execution imminent, Paul has come to the end of his work of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. As he writes in chapter 4, Paul, having fought a good fight, finished his course, and kept the faith, awaits his ultimate rewardthe crown of righteousness reserved for him in heaven. In reading what Paul says in this chapter, we are profoundly stirred. May God give us a similar commitment and passion for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in our day!

The nature of the charge (4:1-2)

Paul begins chapter 4 with this charge to Timothy:  
1 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: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

Paul is urging Timothy to do as he has doneto proclaim the gospel. Paul's charge to Timothy has three parts, which we will cover in this sermon: the nature of the charge, the basis of the charge, and Paul’s own example of faithfulness to the charge.

The essence of Paul's charge to Timonthy is summed up in three words: Preach the word. But what is this word? Paul did not have to specify, because he knew that Timothy knew well that the word to which he refers is the body of teaching Timothy has heard from Paul and which Paul now commits to Timonthy to pass along to others. Elsewhere in this chapter the word is called 'the sound teaching' (3), 'the truth' (4), and 'the faith' (7). The word consists of the Old Testament Scriptures, which Timothy has known from childhood and has heard proclaimed by  Paul. 

The word is the sacred deposit of truth committed to the church, and Timothy's responsibility is not only to hear it, believe it, obey it, and  guard it from falsificationhe is also to preach it to others. He is to lift up his voice without fear, and boldly make this word known to others. 

In v2, Paul lists four marks which are to characterize Timothy's preaching of the word:

1. Preach with urgency 

The verb ‘be prepared’ means to be urgent. The Christian preacher/teacher knows that they are handling matters of life and death. They are announcing the saving action of God through the death and resurrection of Christ, and the summons to sinners in need of salvation to repent and believe. How can they treat such themes casually? 

Such urgent preaching, Paul adds, must continue 'in season and out of season'. The NEB margin clarifies the meaning: 'be on duty at all times, convenient or inconvenient'. We must, with diligence and a sense of urgency, proclaim the gospel at all times.

2. Preach with relevancy

The word is to be conveyed in ways that address people’s real lives in order to ‘correct, rebuke and encourage'. God’s word is useful in all three ways in all sorts of circumstances. The preacher must remember this and be relevant and skilful in its interpretation, illustration and application.

3. Preach with patience

Although we are to preach with urgency (longing for people to respond to the word), we are to exercise ‘great patience’ in waiting for that response. We never resort to pressure techniques. Our responsibility is to be faithful in preaching the word—the results of the proclamation are the responsibility of the Holy Spirit, and we can afford to wait patiently for him to work. We are to be patient in our whole manner as well, for 'the Lord's servant must ...be...kind to everyone, those who oppose him he must gently instruct' (2 Tim. 2:24, 25). 

4. Preach with intelligence

We are not only to preach the word but to teach it, or rather to preach it 'with careful instruction'—apparently a reference to doctrinal teaching. This is precisely what Paul had done in Ephesus, as Timothy well knew. For some three years he had continued to teach 'the whole counsel of God,' both 'in public and from house to house’ (Acts 20:20, 27). Now Timothy must do the same and appoint others who would do likewise.  

The basis for the charge (4:1, 3-8)

Understanding Timothy’s battle with timidity, Paul adds three incentives to his charge to proclaim the gospel: Christ’s coming, the culture’s condition, and Paul’s departure.

1. Christ’s coming (1)

1 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:

Paul is not issuing his charge in his own name or on this own authority but 'in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus'. And the charge is given with a great end in mind: Christ’s return. At the end of his ministry, Paul himself continues to look forward to it, lives in the light of it and describes Christians as those who love it (8). He is sure that Christ will make a visible 'appearing' and that when he does so he will 'judge the living and the dead' and thus consummate 'his kingdom' or reign. 

2. The culture’s condition (3-5)

3 For the time will come when people 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. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

The second basis for Paul’s charge to proclaim the gospel is the condition of the culture which Timothy must face—it is a culture (quite like ours) where people (sadly including some professing Christians) cannot bear the truth. They 'will not put up with sound doctrine’ but will ‘gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear' (3). They 'will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths' (4). In other words, because they have no appetite for the truth, they find teachers to preach falsehood. 

How is Timothy to react to this? One might guess that such a desperate situation should silence him. If people cannot bear the truth and will not listen to it, surely the prudent course will be for a preacher to hold their peace? But Paul reaches the opposite conclusion. “But you…” (5), says Paul to Timothy; and then follows four commands that seem to be deliberately framed in relation to the situation in which Timothy finds himself, and to the condition of the culture to which he is called to preach the word.

  • Because the people are unstable in mind and conduct, Timothy is above everything else always to 'keep’ his ‘head in all situations'. The Greek means literally to be sober, and figuratively to be balanced and self-controlled. When people get intoxicated with heresies and doctrinal novelties, ministers must keep 'calm and sane' (NEB).
  • Even when people refuse to listen to sound doctrine, Timothy must persist in teaching it and so be prepared to 'endure hardship' on account of the truth he refuses to compromise. 
  • Because the culture is woefully ignorant of the gospel, Timothy is to 'do the work of an evangelist'. Paul is bidding Timothy to ‘make the preaching of the Good News your life's work' (JB). 
  • Even if people forsake Timothy's ministry in favor of teachers who tickle their fancy, Timothy is to 'discharge' his 'ministry'. He must persevere until his task is accomplished, just as Paul has done.

3. Paul’s departure (6-8)

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

The third basis for the charge to proclaim the gospel is Paul’s impending martyrdom. Paul's argument runs like this: 'Timothy, I’m about to leave—you, therefore, must step to the plate and fulfill your ministry.’ Here the apostle uses two vivid figures of speech to portray his coming martyrdom, one taken from the language of sacrifice, the other of boats. First, 'I am already being poured out like a drink offering.' Secondly, 'the time has come for my departure'—where the Greek word for ‘departure’ means 'loosing' and is probably an allusion to untying a boat from its moorings. These two images correspond, for the end of Paul's life (outpoured as a drink offering) will be the beginning of another life (putting out to sea). Already the anchor is pulled up, the ropes are untied, and the boat is about to set sail for another shore. 

Now, before the great adventure of his new voyage begins, Paul looks back over his ministry of about 30 years and describes it in three short yet vivid expressions:

  • I have fought the good fight. Paul is again comparing his ministry to the struggle of a soldier in battle.
  • I have finished the race. Some years previously, speaking to the elders of the Ephesian church now pastored by Timothy, Paul had declared, 'I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace' (Acts 20:24). Now he is able to say that he has done so.
  • I have kept the faith. Paul is affirming his faithfulness in being a guardian or steward of the gospel (the word) that was committed to his trust.

Paul has been faithful to the end, and nothing remains for him but the prize, which he terms 'the crown (garland) of righteousness', which is 'in store’ (laid up) for him, and which will be given him at the finish line 'on that Day'. Paul calls this crown 'righteousness'—a deliberate contrast to the sentence he is expecting from a human court. Emporer Nero may declare him guilty and condemn him to death, but 'the Lord, the righteous judge', declares him righteous. The same vindication by Christ also awaits 'all who have longed for [Christ's] appearing'. It is not that this longing justifies them, but that the believer, having been justified, looks forward to Christ's coming and has set their heart upon it. Being ready for it, they will have boldness when Christ appears (see 1 John 2:28). 

Paul’s faithfulness to the charge (4:9-22)

Paul reinforces his charge to Timothy to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ with his personal faithfulness to the charge despite three current, major obstacles

1. Despite isolation (9-13, 19-21)

9 Do your best to come to me quickly, 10 for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. 12 I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.... 19 Greet Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus. 20 Erastus stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus. 21 Do your best to get here before winter. Eubulus greets you, and so do Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brothers and sisters.

Though Paul has some friends remaining loyal (including Luke who is with him), the apostle feels so isolated that he longs for people to keep him company (Timothy and Mark in particular), a cloak to keep him warm, and for books and parchments to keep him occupied. Yet despite these quite understandable human longings and even feelings of despair, Paul remains active in proclaiming the gospel to the end.   

2. Despite opposition (14-15)

14 Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. 15 You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.

Paul faces severe opposition—specifically from Alexander, a 'metalworker'—probably the false teacher of 1Tim.1:20 who has done Paul 'a great deal of harm'—perhaps being responsible for Paul's current imprisonment and pending execution. If Paul’s arrest had occurred in Troas, it would explain why Timothy, who will pass through Troas on his journey to Rome (13), is warned: 'be on guard against him'. In any case, though Alexander 'strongly opposed’ the proclamation of the true gospel, yet Paul is determined to continue to proclaim it, and urges Timothy to do so as well, turning the problem of Alexander over to God, believing that 'the Lord will repay’ Alexander ‘for what he has done.'

3. Despite desertion (16-18)

16 At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. 17 But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Paul complains that ‘at my first defense…everyone deserted me’. This is probably a reference to a preliminary hearing related to Paul’s current imprisonment and death sentence. And if ever a man needed help, it was in this circumstance, yet no one stood up in Paul’s defense or support. Either because Christian friends could not or would not, Paul was unsupported and alone. Nevertheless, he knew that he was not alone. Though he says that 'all deserted me' (16), yet 'the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength' (17). 

Christ's presence at Paul's side and his gift to him of inward strength fortified him to continue to proclaim the gospel, as at least temporarily he was ‘delivered from the lion's mouth'—probably a reference to a temporary stay of execution. In the future too, Paul goes on confidently, 'the Lord will rescue me', not indeed from death (for he is expecting to die, [6]), but 'from every evil' outside God's permitted will. He will also 'bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom’, though Nero may soon dispatch me from my earthly kingdom.

So despite these three formidable obstacles, Paul ‘preached the word.’ Perhaps he did so before Nero himself—he certainly did so before a group of judges with, no doubt, a crowd of the general public present. As Paul expresses it: 'the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it’ (17). 

Conclusion (19-22)

19 Greet Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus. 20 Erastus stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus. 21 Do your best to get here before winter. Eubulus greets you, and so do Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brothers and sisters. 

Here Paul gives his parting instructions and goodbyes, mentioning several coworkers who have faithfully joined him in proclaiming the gospel. Perhaps then Paul, who has dictated this letter so far, takes the pen into his own hand and writes these final words: 

22 The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you all.

Paul prays that the Lord be with Timothy ('you' here is singular), as he has been with Paul during his many trials including this final one. Then Paul prays that 'grace (the word in which all Paul's theology is distilled) be with you all'. This time 'you' is plural, which helps us understand that the letter was intended for public use. This final sentence is thus directed to the whole church, including, by extension, us today. By combining 'grace be with you all' (22b) with 'to him be glory for ever and ever, amen' (18b), we have a wonderful summary of Paul's life and ambition. First, he received grace from Christ, then he returned glory to Christ: From him grace; to him glory. This is a wonderful summary of our life and service in Christ, and we fulfill this charge as we proclaim the gospel--through the actions of our daily lives, and through our words (including preaching and teaching)--words that proclaim the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Dear friends, let us be about our Father's business: living and sharing the gospel. Amen.