When my granddaughter Kariss comes to stay at our house, she usually wants doughnuts for breakfast. I am not supposed to buy any doughnuts for myself, but I can hardly say no when Kariss looks at me and says, “Poppy, I want to get some doughnuts.” So like a good grandfather, I take her up the street to the doughnut shop.
Kariss usually wants glazed doughnuts, but while we’re there I figure I might as well show her some other kinds she should consider. She usually goes for my choices, so by the time we get home there are more doughnuts in the box than she can eat by herself. We have taught her not to waste food, so when Kariss says, “Poppy, I can’t eat all of these – will you help me?” I feel obligated to respond as a good grandfather. Not wanting to contradict the lesson that we have been teaching her, I assist my granddaughter with the doughnuts. That way I can eat doughnuts, but say I didn’t buy any for myself!
This doesn’t happen very often, which is good because there is one major problem with doughnuts as a meal. They are succulent, but insignificant when it comes to any real nutritional value. They taste sweet and bring momentary pleasure, but they don’t leave anything of lasting value behind that the body can use to nourish itself. Anybody who tries to subsist on a diet of doughnuts is going to be sadly lacking in the sustenance needed to grow-at least to grow in the right way.
I’m afraid that this “doughnut principle” applies to churches that are more concerned with satisfying their members’ spiritual “sweet tooth” than in providing nourishment for solid spiritual growth. Doughnut churches can be very popular, because what they offer tastes so good and there are a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice sustenance for succulence. But the church that wants to be authentic in its ministry must be bibliocentric, or Bible-centered, in its message. When the Word of God is not central to the church’s proclamation, what you are left with is a spiritual doughnut shop.
What We Need to Proclaim
The Bible is amazingly clear and concise when it comes to the heart of the church’s proclamation. Talking about God’s Word in the context of the church’s ministry takes us back to the Pastoral Epistles, the books of 1-2 Timothy and Titus that tell us how the church of God ought to function.
In this chapter I want us to consider several passages from 2 Timothy 4:1-4, which addresses the church’s proclamation. This is the Bible speaking of itself, for the apostle Paul instructed Timothy, the pastor at Ephesus, “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” (2 Timothy 4:1-2, italics added).
The Centrality of God’s Word
I love the Bible’s simplicity. When Paul told Timothy, and all the pastors and teachers who would follow him, to declare God’s Word, it was like taking a Bible, putting it into his hand, and saying, “This is your message.” I know that the whole Bible had not been revealed, written down, and conveniently bound together in one volume in Paul’s day, but the message to the church is the same. Whatever else the church does, we need to proclaim the Word of God in its entirety.
In fact, we have no excuse whatsoever for failing to preach the Bible, because we do have the entire Word of God in our hands. Years before writing 2 Timothy, Paul had told the elders at Ephesus, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). Any church that can say this is doing a lot of things right. The Word must be central.
That means a lot of other things must be peripheral. We are not told to preach our feelings, because feelings are notoriously unstable and offer no standard for truth. Neither are we told to preach human reasoning and intellect, which is flawed and limited and puffs people up with pride. The church isn’t even called to preach good morals, in the sense of drawing up lists of dos and don’ts, because people have many different ideas of what’s right and wrong, and what falls into the so-called gray area. What your momma told you may not be what my momma told me, in other words. So don’t go around the church saying, “Well, my momma said.”
The only issue that really matters is what God has said. His Word is the only standard and authority for the church. You may be saying, “Come on, Tony, that’s obvious. Everybody knows the Bible is the church’s standard.”
No, not everybody does know that. And a lot of people who know it in their heads don’t believe it in their hearts or practice it In their churches. It needs to be said again and again that the Bible.
Is the church’s only standard for the message we preach. Without it, the ballgame is over.
I say that because this subject reminds me of Bill Klem, the legendary baseball umpire of the early 1900s. Klem ran the game with an iron hand and wouldn’t allow the rough characters of those days to intimidate him. One day a runner slid home on a close play with the game on the line.
Klem was on top of the play, but he didn’t call it right away. The catcher and the runner both jumped up and started yelling, and both dugouts screamed at Klem to call the play their way. But Klem just studied the situation, until someone finally roared at him angrily, “Come on Klem! What is he, safe or out?”
Klem shot back, “He ain’t nothin’ till I say what he is!”
We live in a world where everybody wants to call the play their way. But the authoritative word has not been spoken until God has said it. And God has spoken in His Word. Our job is simply to deliver the message, the way a king’s herald in medieval days would ride into a town, unroll the scroll of the king’s message, and read it to the king’s subjects, who were then obligated to obey. To preach is to declare what God has to say to His people, that they might understand the expectations and demands of the King.
The Power of Biblical Preaching
Biblical preaching confronts men and women with God through His Word, inspired and energized by the Holy Spirit, filtered through the personality of the pastor, so that the church will understand and respond to Him. Proclamation involves reading, explaining, and applying the Word.
Why does God want His church to preach the Word? Because we spend too much time listening to and studying the words of men, and too little time coming to grips with what God has said to us. You aren’t going to find the world grappling with the Word, but there ought to be one place where you can go and get the real deal about what God thinks on the issues of life. That place is the church, the only entity on earth specifically charged with the responsibility of holding forth God’s Word. The Bible is like a telescope. If you look through it, you can see the world far beyond. But if you just look at it, you don’t see anything. The great danger is that the church will look at the Word and not through it.
So we need to make sure that the message we are delivering to the church is “Thus saith the Lord,” not “Thus thinketh the pastor.” I tell our people at church that if they want to know my personal opinions, call me at home, because in the pulpit my job is to deliver the King’s message. I need to be evaluated as a pastor by how faithfully I preach the whole Word of God, not by whether I can move people to tears or shouts or impress them with my eloquence. The question is, Does what I say agree with what God says?
I want our church to be like the Bereans of Acts 17:11, whom Paul called “noble-minded” because “they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” They didn’t buy what Paul was preaching simply because he was an apostle. The Bereans’ attitude was “Let’s see if God really said what you just said that He said” – and Paul couldn’t have been happier about the situation.
You have probably seen those metal stands at the airport that tell you whether a piece of luggage qualifies for carry-on. If you set your bag in the stand and it doesn’t fit, you can’t take it on the plane no matter what you may feel or think or what your momma told you. That metal rack is a fixed standard that doesn’t budge, no matter how hard you try to stuff your oversized bag into its dimensions. You have to conform to the standard; it doesn’t conform to you.
When We Need to Proclaim God’s Word
2 Timothy 4:2 contains another needed word to the church concerning our biblical proclamation. Paul wrote, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season.”
The Greek word season literally means “convenient.” The answer to the “when” question concerning the church’s proclamation of the Word is at any and every time, whether it’s convenient or not.
Now that has a lot of applications. For a pastor it means to preach the Word no matter whether the congregation is saying amen or sitting and glaring. Preach the Word whether doing so reaps praise or anger. Preach the good parts that make everyone smile, but don’t neglect the tough passages that have a hard message for God’s people.
I remember hearing a story about George Beverly Shea, the longtime soloist with the Billy Graham organization. Shea was at a luncheon one day when the master of ceremonies spotted him and came over to invite him to sing. The man only had one request, that Shea not sing a gospel song since this was a secular gathering. Shea graciously declined, explaining that the only reason he had to sing was Jesus. Shea may not have sung that day, but he was ready to witness for Jesus even if the master of ceremonies thought it would be inconvenient.
If the devil can’t silence the preaching of the Word through force, he’ll try to silence it through intimidation. And, sad to say, it can happen in the church, because not every body of people that meets together under the banner of the church is really ready to hear and heed God’s Word.
Why does God command His church to preach His Word all the time? Because there is no season and no time when God’s people do not need to hear from Him. There is a reason that we don’t go through the Bible once and then move on to something else. An old advertising slogan used to say, “You never outgrow your need for milk.” I can’t comment on the nutritional accuracy of that statement, but I can say with authority that we will never outgrow our need for God’s Word. In fact, most of us need the inconvenient, “out of season” messages more than we might like to admit.
If you are looking for a church right now, or ever need to find one in the future, one good test by which to evaluate any church’s ministry is the “seasons” test from 2 Timothy 3:2. That is, does the preacher handle the tough stuff from God’s Word as well as the more easily accepted parts? Do any of his messages step on toes or make people uncomfortable?
I’m not talking about being disagreeable or hammering people with the Word. But the late preacher Vance Havner had it right when he said his job was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If everything is “feel good” preaching, then you have a right to question whether the Bible is being preached in and out of season. Truth isn’t always convenient.
With today’s increased emphasis on “praise and worship” in the church, one of the things we have to be careful of is that the declaration of God’s Word doesn’t become devalued. With all the talented worship teams and catchy worship choruses the modern church has, it might be “convenient” for a pastor just to read a verse or two and offer a few thoughts at the end of the service and send the people home. But the church is not a performance center; it is a guardian of the truth.
Earlier in 2 Timothy, Paul wrote, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me…. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:13-14), which is the Word of God. We have learned from 9/11 that we need to be on guard at all times, even when it’s not convenient.
How We Need to Proclaim God’s Word
When the church is faithful to proclaim the Word of God, lives will be changed, because the Bible deals with the central issues of life through its principles and examples. We’re not left in the dark as to how to preach the Word, thanks to our key verse in 2 Timothy 4:2 and another passage just above it in 2 Timothy 3:16.
There are a lot of important terms in these two texts that describe the effect the Word of God will have when it is applied to people’s lives. Obviously, this doesn’t have to be done exclusively by preaching, but the church’s public proclamation of the Scriptures was Paul’s concern in 2 Timothy 4, and that’s our focus. In that context the apostle instructed Pastor Timothy, “Preach the word . . . reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Before we look at these terms, let’s add 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for train- ing in righteousness.”
There is some overlap in these two lists, but when we put them all together what emerges is an amazing picture of the power the Word has to shape and correct people’s lives. The Word, and only the Word, has this power, because it is “inspired by God.” From cover to cover the Bible is true or inerrant, which means without any error at all. Since the Author of Scripture is perfect, it is impossible for the product not to be perfect. The God of truth can only produce truth.
Proclaim the Word as Truth
So the fundamental answer to the question of how the Bible is to be preached and taught is that we are to present it as truth – absolute truth – without apologizing or stuttering. Remember that the church is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). I was reminded of how little our culture cares for truth when I was contacted about being on the television program “Politically Incorrect,” which has since been mercifully canceled. This was a panel discussion program with the goal of doing nothing but batting ideas around to see what everyone thought, and the more outrageous and twisted the opinions the better. Occasionally there were guests on the show who would try to defend some area of truth or decency, but they were usually ridiculed or shouted down. I turned down my invitation to appear, because the program wasn’t interested in trying to get at the truth.
We know the Bible is true because this is the testimony God gives us concerning His Word. We need to keep coming back to Jesus’ statement, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). And because the Word is truth without any mixture of error, it can do what no other book can do. God’s Word produces lasting results when it is faithfully and fully taught. Let’s look at some of these results.
Preach the Word for Results
The apostle began with the word reprove, the same Greek word translated in a slightly different form in 2 Timothy 3:16 as “reproof.” This means basically to tell someone what is wrong, not just to chastise but with a view to changing the wrong behavior. The Bible has an incredible ability to point up areas of sin and shortcoming in our lives. A preacher doesn’t have to know what is happening with all the people in the congregation. All he has to do is preach the Word, and the Holy Spirit makes the application.
Timothy was also told to rebuke when necessary. This is a different word that means to bring a person under the conviction of guilt. See, a lot of folk know what’s wrong in their lives. They just don’t care that they’re doing wrong and have never been brought under conviction to get it right. Jesus said that one of the Holy Spirit’s jobs is to “convict” the world of sin and righteousness (see John 16:7-11). I don’t have to try to work up people’s emotions and play on their guilt to make them behave. The Word preached in the power of the Spirit is more than adequate to rebuke and convict.
Paul used a term in 2 Timothy 3:16that is translated “correction,” the only place this word occurs in the New Testament. It means to restore something to its original condition. The goal of the church’s proclamation is to lead people into relationship and fellowship with God that restores man’s original purpose and reverses sin’s condemnation and corrupting influence in people’s hearts.
The next word in the list of 2 Timothy 3:2 is exhort. Although reproof and rebuke are negative, this is the term for encouragement, the arm around the shoulder in support, urging the person along the right path. Biblical encouragement is more than just saying, “Hang in there” to someone. It has content because it is based in the Word. The best way I can encourage people as a pastor it to preach and teach God’s Word faithfully and consistently.
The content of our rebuke, reproof, and encouragement is found in the words instruction (1 Timothy 4:2) and teaching (2 Timothy 3:16). These are two forms of the same word, with the emphasis on what is taught and not so much on the method of teaching. We’ve already seen that the Scriptures themselves are the church’s textbook for living.
Preach It with Authority
One other verse is important here because it provides a further clue as to how the church should proclaim the Word. Paul instructed Titus, his other pastoral representative, who was assigned to the island of Crete, “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15). The church’s preaching must be done with authority because in the Bible we have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
We keep coming back to this issue of truth because it is rapidly becoming a lost concept in our world. And since 9/11 the intense focus on Islam and the Muslim world has given us a new truth challenge to contend with. This is the charge that we Christians are being arrogant and bigoted when we claim that the Bible is the only true Word of God. After all, the Muslims and other religious people have their own “holy books” too.
We could talk about all the evidence that supports the Bible’s truth claims, but we’ll save that for a study of the Bible itself. The point here is that what the Bible calls authoritative preaching of the Word is now considered by the world at large to be biased and even hate-filled preaching.
Actually, this problem isn’t all that new, because Paul and Timothy also lived in a world that was hostile to absolute truth. First-century Ephesus was a culture of relativism, but Paul’s instruction to the church there was to preach the Word when people liked it and when they didn’t, when they wanted to hear the truth and when they didn’t.
No pastor who is preaching the Word needs to apologize for the message. People need an absolute and absolutely reliable standard by which to measure their lives. I illustrated this at church one Sunday morning by reading the time on my watch and then asking several people in the congregation what time they had. One person’s watch agreed with mine, but others were several minutes different. One guy’s watch wasn’t even close to the time, making me wonder where he had been.
But the point I made was that it didn’t really matter whether we all agreed among ourselves, because none of us on our own had the exact time. That is kept by the government’s atomic clock in Colorado, which sets the official time for the nation. Without that we could argue all day about the right time. But once the standard is set, we have to adjust to it. The church must proclaim God’s Word with authority so everyone is on the same page when it comes to God’s standard.
Why We Need to Proclaim It
Having seen what, when, and how the church is to carry out its ministry of proclamation, we’re ready to answer the why of the matter.
Why must we preach the Word in all of its convicting and teaching power? Because people need to hear the truth and feed on healthy spiritual doctrine, and because they aren’t likely to get this if left on their own.
This is the positive side of Paul’s admonition concerning the necessity of preaching the Word: “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” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
People Need to Hear the Truth
Human nature is such that people will get itchy ears and begin to gravitate toward teachers who will only say what they want to hear. I f all you care about is attracting a crowd, start a “doughnut” church whose primary goal is to make people feel good and be happy about themselves. In a church like this people can get any kind of doughnut they want, with as much glaze over the truth as they want, and it will all taste sweet. But the result will be a group of people on a temporary “sugar high” who will stumble and falter someday for lack of solid spiritual nourishment.
Now I’m not saying it will always be easy to preach the truth, or to hear and obey it. When my granddaughter and I make our morning run to the doughnut shop, there is usually a line of people ahead us crowding in to get their sugar fix. But did you ever notice that you don’t see long lines at the health food stores? There is a message here for the church, because the Greek word for sound in 2 Timothy 3:3 means “healthy.” By and large, people won’t gravitate toward either healthy food or healthy doctrine if left on their own. That’s why the church has to make sure that there is one place where people are being fed a healthy, balanced diet of the truth as it is found in God’s Word.
People Need Healthy Spiritual Food
Whenever I teach this passage I think of our trips home to my parents’ house in Baltimore. My momma is still determined to make sure that I eat right, and she doesn’t care one bit that I am a grown man and grandfather who is capable of making his own choices. When we sit down to eat, she’ll put a bowl of squash or some other nasty stuff I don’t like on the table, and may the Lord have mercy if I try to pass it along without taking some.
The fried chicken will come by, and you can be sure I get my thighs. The potato salad, green beans, and hot bread come around, and I’m in business. Then the squash comes and I try to pass it on. But if momma sees me, she says, “Boy, what do you think you’re doing?”
I try to protest. “Momma, I’m a grown man and I don’t want any squash. I know what I like and what I don’t like, and I don’t like squash.”
To which my mother will say, “You know what, you are in my house now” She will then take the bowl and start spooning this stuff onto my plate. And she always puts more on my plate than I would have if I had just gone ahead and done it myself. Then she hits me with the clinching line, “And you’d better eat it all, too, because it’s good for you.” I know that, but if it were up to me my meal would be fried chicken and the other stuff without worrying about what’s good for me.
When you come to church there is nothing wrong with getting some chicken and mashed potatoes, but you need some squash too because it’s good for you. We need to hear the parts of the Word that we may not prefer because the Holy Spirit uses them to “meddle” in our lives. But if we don’t get the truth in church, God help us, because we aren’t going to get it in the world. The world can’t digest healthy doctrine, and there are plenty of teachers out there ready to sugarcoat the truth, even in the name of God.
There will always be things in the Word of God that go against what we would like to believe, or what we have been taught. There may be something we want to do, and would do too, if it weren’t for the Word standing there saying, “Thou shalt not.” People with ears itching for what they want to hear and what agrees with their prejudices can always find a teacher willing to scratch the itch, to make the Word fit conveniently into their plans and their ideas.
But the nature of truth is that it doesn’t matter whether you agree or what you think. Truth doesn’t change, so the church’s job is to help people keep their ears turned toward the truth – which, by the way, will not only scratch the real itch inside but satisfy with solid spiritual nourishment.
Changing the analogy, the church’s proclamation should hold up the mirror of God’s Word to our faces so we can see what we really look like and make any adjustments necessary (see James 1:23-25). Let’s make sure that we are holding up the Word of truth for all to see. “Preach the word” is God’s charge to the church.
From God’s Glorious Church by Tony Evans. Moody Publishers. Copyright (c) 2003 by Tony Evans. Used by permission.
Tony Evans is Senior Pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, TX, and President of The Urban Alternative.