I 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; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.2 Timothy 4:1–5
Of all professions, there is none so privileged, none so perilous, none so universally needed as that of preaching. In the New Testament church, there is no specific ministry spoken of more thoroughly or exemplified more fully. Our Lord himself is the primary model. He prioritized preaching above all other engagements (Luke 4:43). He instructed his disciples to preach (Mark 3:14). Following his ascension, it was the chief exercise of the apostles to preach (Acts 5:42, 6:2). They knew that, for this world to know God, to know the gospel, preaching is absolutely essential. Preaching discloses the Trinity, revealing to us the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:23–24), the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8), and mysteries from the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:12). Preaching is the indispensable prerequisite for salvation (Romans 10:14)—indeed, for the expansion of God’s kingdom outposts (Romans 15:20). Right preaching reveals the God who is there, and in doing so ignites a fire among men that cannot be put out.
Right preaching, then, is our aim, for Paul tells Timothy that there is such a thing as wrong preaching, offered by snake-oil story-tellers and equivocating con-men. These preachers are sloganeers and people-pleasers, presenting sermons custom fit to the disordered passions of their audience. They replace sack-cloth with therapy session. Yet for all their culpability, Paul says that these teachers are only a symptom. They are the inescapable outcome of an age where every man seeks for what is right in his own eyes. They are the product of the Age of Self.
In the Age of Self, the individual is ultimate. Radical freedom and self-determination are non-negotiable principles. Men and women who live in the Age of Self reject any instruction and authority that does not ultimately defer to the Self. They will listen only to messages that tout self-care, self-actualization, or self-help. They will open their ears to any teacher that climaxes with the message, “whatever makes you happy.” Paul warned us of this time, a time when people look only to their own passions for answers. Though there have been various iterations of this Age throughout the history of the church, we are surely mired in it now. We are in a time imprisoned in the Self, and in the divine irony, we have lost all sense of who we really are.
In this Age, Christian preaching must offer a remedy to the Self. In this Age, Christian preaching must rightly order the Self in relation to the Other. The need of our time is the exaltation of God and the humbling of man. The heartbeat of preaching is to declare, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30, NIV). We need not embrace unchristian distortions, obliterating the self as in Buddhism, or making the self an eternal slave, as in Islam. These are not Christian ideas. On the contrary, the Christian depiction of ultimate reality grants the individual the highest and most precious privilege of adoption, which is nothing less than participation in the family life of the Triune God.
The preacher is required to stand against the onslaught of this Age not only in his doctrine but in his life as well (1 Timothy 4:16). Because the central message of Christian preaching is of the absolute claim that the Lord Jesus Christ has over our lives, will we nullify our message by allowing Asherah poles to remain in the high places? Tear them down! How can we speak of the supremacy of Christ when we ourselves imbibe the Spirit of the Age of Self? We must realize the scope of Christ’s claim on our vocation. There is an urgent need for the preacher who is wholly devoted. Yes, all Christians must live a gospel-centered life, attempting to live as portraits of the grace of God. A preacher must hear this admonishment twice, no, three times over. For beyond the base call to obedience that Christ lays upon all believers, we must as a second level of obedience model the shepherd heart of Christ in laying down his life for his flock. We must see our work of instruction and protection as a sacrifice demanding our whole lives. And beyond even this, we must as a third level of obedience model the incarnational heart of Christ in identifying with his flock. We labor to pray ourselves into the hearts and minds of our people, seeing their hurts, feeling their sorrows, sharing in their joy. A preacher is not called merely to open his mouth; he must preach the Word into his own soul. He must talk the talk; he must also walk the talk. In doing so he is nothing less than a God-wrought living witness to ancient and eternal realities.
The Imperial Charge of Preaching
Because the requisites of a preacher are so complete, not many should presume the office. But for those who have answered the summons to address this need, there is laid upon us an imperial charge. Paul uses the strongest language possible. We are to preach “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus.” This is a reminder that we are to always preach in the counsel of the holy Trinity, not as pagan philosophers or Jews, but as Christians. Therefore, all preaching should be done from the vantage point of the New Testament, for there we find God’s fullest revelation of himself. It is who he is, who he has always been, and how he has worked throughout the history of redemption. The Son and the Spirit were never in the jump seat, waiting for the Father to hand off the controls. They have always been a part of the story. This also means that we are always to preach from the perspective of the promised Christ. He is the judge of all, the sovereign Lord, the coming King. He is God in the flesh. Any word that we preach must run along a trajectory that either culminates in or progresses out of the incarnate life, propitiatory death, and vindicating resurrection of Jesus Christ. In an Age where we are urged to put ourselves at the center of the story, the preacher must put Christ at the center. In an Age where felt needs set the agenda for the message, the preacher must allow Christ to set the agenda.
In the presence of Christ, we must always be ready to preach. The Age of Self is insidious, pervasive—it is the air we breathe. Preparation requires that we train our hearts in prayer and our minds in Scripture. These are the duties to which the Apostles gave themselves in their own day, and they are no less effective in our own. Do not let the sophists or the spiritualists force you to pit the work of prayer against the work of scripture. Engage in both, prayer and study, heart and mind, child-like trust and rock-solid syllogisms. As Warfield admonished, what could be better “than ten hours over your books, on your knees?” Our words to God and God’s words to us are the most effective weapons we have in any age.
The presence of Christ not only equips us to be always at the ready, it also equips us to speak consistently with authority. When we preach the Word of God, we speak with the authority that comes with the office. We must go further than friendly advice and less than authoritarian force. We do more than suggest, but less than control; “we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). God’s Word, and only God’s Word, enables us to do this. Preachers in the Age of Self have the Self as their highest authority, so they either offer nothing or demand everything. But when the authority rests not in the Self, but in the Word, we speak as those who have been broken by the Word, healed by the Word, and empowered by the Word.
This kind of preaching requires patience and teaching. Patience is the gentle, long-suffering work of helping your brother to understand. It is necessary not only because they are sinners, but because you are also. We know that the main idea of the biblical story is not complicated. It can be told to a child in one sitting, but this is only because they are children. They have lived so little life, and so their objections are weak and their imaginations strong. Adults have grown up, gained knowledge, forgotten to trust. The Self is strong in these ones. We must be patient when dismantling worldviews. That sort of thing can require careful surgery, and it often brings tears.
If patience is enduring in character, teaching is enduring in instruction. A preacher must be patient, and he must be a teacher. Let us set aside the thorny debate over the distinction between teachers and preachers. For our discussion, a preacher is someone who feels the need to proclaim the fulness and glory of God in the moment. A teacher is someone who sees the need to proclaim the fulness and glory of God through a curriculum. This is why a preacher must be a teacher. We must have a plan to lead people through the labyrinthine halls of Scripture. Without a plan, we will either continually walk in circles around a pet doctrine or wander aimlessly from text to text with no way to understand the connection. In either case, we miss revealing the gems strategically placed throughout the palace. We miss showing how each hall leads back to Christ. And we miss showing off the Big Pictures of God’s story.
For all of its unfolding glories, our imperial charge boils down to just three words: Preach the Word. This is our royal order. This is our divine directive. Right preaching is nothing more and nothing less than proclaiming the Word of God as sufficient, authoritative, necessary revelation. The world outside scripture may have wisdom that shapes the Christian. Yet for the nearly infinite sources of knowledge available to us through general revelation, there is only one source where our minds may be shaped according to the mind of God. There is only one way to develop a framework that places all knowledge in its correct setting and proportion. And there is only one book that tells us who we truly are. God’s Word is his special work, and it alone reveals things that we will find nowhere else in the universe.
There is an urgent need, but many don’t even know what that need is. They are lost in sin. They are lost in themselves. A preacher’s task is to get them lost in God. Only in losing our lives in in God, and in his gospel, will we find them. We must aim to bring the whole counsel of God for the whole health of our people. A steady diet from the cornucopia of the Word grows them in the way that God has rightly ordained. After all, he made us, and he knows how we work, how we hurt, and what we love. He knows what we need. And in his great love, he has told us. Preacher, what has he told us? Tell us what he has told us! Give us the Word.