A few months ago, I spoke in a church whose pastor is my age and whose staff is made up of millennials. At supper, the pastor and I recalled the 1950s, when America was a church-going nation. Evangelists held prolonged meetings, churches were packed, and many came to Christ. We opened every day at public school with devotions; and we said the Lord’s Prayer at public gatherings. The young staff looked at us in amazement and asked a simple question: “What happened?” None of them could remember a time when America had a Judeo-Christian worldview.
We can answer that question two ways. The first way is historical. The United States was born between the First and Second Great Awakenings. The first Great Awakening prepared the Colonies to become a nation; and the Second Great Awakening established the nation’s spiritual and moral foundation. But even then, the so-called Enlightenment, French rationalism, and secularism were battling for the soul of American, spearheaded by Thomas Paine. Darwin came with his hypothesis. John Dewey shoehorned all this into public education, and the judiciary enforced it as America’s religion. That, in its briefest form, is what brought us to today. I heard a journalist interview Billy Graham and ask him, “How does it feel to be so successful in ministry.” Dr. Graham answered, “I’ve not been a success; I’ve been a failure. America is in far worse shape now than when I began preaching.” Many of us understand that feeling.
But there’s another way of looking at it—biblically. What we are seeing today is what Enoch, Lot, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Jesus, and Paul faced. The followers of Christ have always been a small minority of God-fearing and often despised people in a decadent society—and it’s going to get worse as time goes by.
Background: The most important thing to remember about 2 Timothy is that it represents the final words of the apostle Paul. He didn’t expect to be alive when seasons turned, so this letter poignant and urgent. It is a pastoral epistle. Paul was finished writing to the churches. Now with his last drops of ink and moments of life, he wanted to write to a pastor. His final paragraph of advice runs from 3:1 to 4:5 and contain three key words—commands—that encapsulate his message and outline this passage:
- 2 Timothy 3:1: But know this.
- 2 Timothy 3:14: But you must continue in…
- 2 Timothy 4:2: Preach the Word!
There is something we must know; something in which we must continue; and something we must preach.
1. Know! (2 Timothy 3:1-9)
So know this: In the last days perilous [the Greek word used here is also used to describe the demoniacs in Matthew 8:28, where it’s translated fierce, wild, dangerous, difficult] times will come. People will be…
- lovers of themselves – selfish, thinking only of themselves
- lovers of money – their biggest desire will be the acquisition of wealth
- boastful, proud – narcissistic, wanting to be known
- abusive – there will be a loss of civility
- disobedient to their parents – there will be a breakdown of respect for authority
- ungrateful – people will enjoy the bounties of God without giving Him thanks
- unholy – evil will be paraded as good and moral
- without love – there will be a loss of affection and acts of kindness
- unforgiving – bitter
- slanderous – trafficking in lies
- without self-control – addictive-prone
- brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited
- lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – society will be brainwashed into thinking there is no God, no soul, no ultimate meaning in life, so the only thing left is to live for pleasure and diversion
- having a form of godliness but denying its power – despite everything, people will consider themselves spiritual according to their own definition
This is the world we are now living in. This is the culture we are called to reach. In the next verses, Paul warns Timothy that he face opposition and persecution. In verse 12, he warns, In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
2. Continue! (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
But now we come to the next stage in Paul’s instructions for pastors. The New International Version says in verse 14: But as for you…. We may not be able to change our nation as we want. We may not be able to push our convictions onto our society. We may not be able to force the world to accept our morality. But as for you….
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
That brings us to the Bible’s premier passage on the inspiration, authority, and infallible nature of Scripture.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The only way to be thoroughly equipped to ministering in this chaotic generation is by continuing – to keep on pouring yourself into – this Book. The word “continue” is a Greek word meaning, “to live, to dwell, to move into a place and call it your home.” This is the same word Jesus used in John 15:7, “If you abide in Me, and My Word abides in you.” What does it mean to continue in, to dwell in, to abide in Scripture?
First, we’re to eagerly devour it. I was mentored by men and women who pressed upon me the essential habits of a daily quiet time. Sometimes people have asked me if I ever burned out during 40-plus years of pastoral ministry. I’ve been exhausted many times, but the reason I’ve never felt a sense of burnout is because I was taught to spend time with the Lord every morning in Bible study and prayer – not for sermon preparation but for the nourishment of my own heart.
When the prophet Jeremiah was too weary to continue his ministry, he said, “Your words were found, and I did eat them, and they became unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart”
The truth is, I wish I could read the whole Bible every day—all 1,189 chapters. In the morning, seeing the rising sun, I need to remember Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” When things go wrong in my day, it’s helpful to recall Genesis 50:19: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done.” As I plunge into my work, I should let the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 govern my behavior. And how useful to meet everyone today in the spirit of Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When I face trials in my pathway, I need Psalm 55:22: “Cast your cares on the Lord, and He will sustain you; He will never let the righteous be shaken.” The afternoon is a good time to read Proverbs, with its advice on integrity, cheerfulness, and dependability. I need Isaiah to keep me strong; Jeremiah to keep me tender; Ezekiel to keep me looking to the future; and Daniel to remind me the Most High rules in human affairs. As the day wanes and my work is only half done, how important to remember these words in John’s Gospel: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in Me.” As I click off the bedside light, I need to remember the book of Revelation and its vivid descriptions of the future and heaven. Should I awaken during the night, I can recall the final promise in the Bible and whisper its concluding prayer: “He who testifies these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).
Since I can’t read the whole Bible daily, I must at least read a portion of the Bible each day. If you can’t read the whole Bible every day, read a book of the Bible. If you can’t read a book, read a chapter. If you can’t read a chapter, read a verse. And if you can’t read a verse, well, rearrange your schedule. Take time to be still and read and memorize and meditate on Scripture.
Second, We Must Rightly Divide It. Paul has already stuck this note in the previous chapter, in 2 Timothy 2:15: Present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles (or rightly divides, or exegetes) the Word of truth.
Large numbers of evangelical preachers are thinking of their sermons as spiritual versions of TED Talks — typical, topical talks that try to get across the preacher’s ideas based on some fragments of biblical truth held together by sticky statements. But God did not compose 31,000 separate Bible verses and throw them out the windows of heaven like ticker tape at a parade. He didn’t send them down to us helter-skelter like confetti. He crafted them into a series of 66 sequential, coherent, convincing, intelligent, rational books, in which every verse has a context. One paragraph follows another in a rational way. We are to exegete these books, paragraphs, and sentences correctly, to handle the Word carefully, to rightly divide it.
Psalm 119:130 says: The unfolding of Your words gives light.
That’s why if I could go back and undertake my pulpit ministry again, I would spend, say, 80 to 90 percent of my time preaching expositionally through books in a verse-by-verse manner.
I was talking about this with my friend, Gregg Matte, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Houston, Texas. I asked how much of his preaching was verse-by-verse exposition through books of the Bible, and he said, “90 percent.” He said, “I never need some creative team trying to come up with the next new thing. I just preach consistently through Scripture, a book at a time, and I find that that the Scriptures deal with every need I could imagine, they deal with it consistently and in context, and that’s what people are hungry to hear.”
Our model is Ezra, who read from the book of the Law distinctly, gave the sense, and cause the people to understand the reading. Or we could take the Reformers as our models. Martin Luther once said, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word…. Otherwise, I did nothing…. The Word did it all. It reminds me of what Johann Sebastian Bach reportedly said when someone praised him for his music. He replied that it was nothing. He simply hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument did the rest.
Or we could take John Calvin as a model – not Calvinism, per se, but Calvin himself. He moved to Geneva and began his ministry of preaching and biblical exposition, and he faithfully preached verse by verse through books of the Bible. When authorities came against him and tried to silence him, he fled to Strasbourg and ministered there for three and a half years. Finally the people of Geneva demanded his return and he came back, returned to the church, ascended to the pulpit, and on his first day back in the pulpit he resumed his exposition at the next verse after the last one he had covered before his exile.
People come to Christ and mature in Christ through the consistent unfolding of books of the Bible. Let me give you one example. Say you want to preach a message to fathers on how to be a better dad. Perhaps you go to Ephesians 6:4: Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. You can easily turn that into a topical sermon and come up with six ways of being a good dad. Or you could turn it into a textual sermon and look at it phrase-by-phrase and then end with some application bullet points. But I would suggest Ephesians 6:4 isn’t just a scrap of ticker tape floating in the air; it’s part of a progression of thought begins when Paul tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit in chapter 5, and the verse about fathers is simply the application of the Spirit’s fullness in the home. If you miss that, you’ve substituted your logic for the logic God built into the Word from His omniscient mind.
3. Preach! (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
The third great imperative is found as the passage overflows into chapter 4 – Preach! Preach the Word! Look at the way chapter 4 begins: 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: Preach the Word.
The apostle Paul is writing this from prison, but Someone is with him in that prison. Someone is standing beside him as he writes these words. Who is it? Look down at verses 16-17: At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.
What a verse for the flyleaf of the preacher’s Bible! What if we wrapped ourselves in this verse every time we stand in the pulpit? The Lord is standing at my side and giving me strength, so that His message might be fully proclaimed and that everyone might hear it.
So when Paul opened chapter 4, saying, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His coming and His kingdom, I give you this charge,” it meant that he was so aware of the Lord’s presence around him as he wrote those words, and he was so aware of the judgment coming upon the world, and he was so aware of the impending return of Jesus Christ to this planet, that all he could do was to blurt out the urgent command: Preach the Word.
And he told him to do it in season and out of season. My father had an apple orchard on the Tennessee/North Carolina border, and every October the apples were in season. A few trees were early harvest trees, and we might have a few apples coming in July and August. But September and October were the best months, and I remember the excitement of the apple pickers coming in droves, climbing the ladders, picking the apples, pouring them into the baskets. My dad let me drive the tractor to the packing house, where the apples were poured onto conveyer belts and sized and packaged. A bushel of apples in those days sold for two dollars.
But the other ten months of the years were also full of work. My dad and his workers had to dig holes; they had to set out trees; they had to prune; they had to spray. They worked in season and out of season.
Sometimes our ministry seems to be “in season.” There’s excitement and momentum and growth and things happening. Other periods – maybe most of the time – we don’t see all the produce we’d like to see.
But the Bible says: Preach the Word; be faith in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
As we do this, I believe God will honor our work and bless our results.
Recently I’ve been reading The Life and Diary of David Brainard, a frail young man, tubercular, sickly, and easily depressed. He longed to reach the Indians of Colonial America. He died at age 29 in the home of Jonathan Edwards. But after Brainard’s death, his journal had a profound effect on the launching of the modern age of missions. His words motivated the likes of Martyn, Carey, Judson. His book also had a great effect on Jim Eliot, who went to Ecuador and perished there. Jim’s widow, Elisabeth, wrote up the story in her books Shadow of the Almighty and Through Gates of Splendor. My wife, Katrina, who was a single adult in Florida at the time, read those books and was inspired to leave her job with the city government in Florida and move to South Carolina to attend Columbia Bible College, which is where we met. I could make a case that what David Brainard died in colonial times in what appeared to be a discouraging ministry set in place a series of events that brought my wife and me together in 1973. We must preach when we see results and when we don’t, for God has promised that our labor in the Lord is not in vain. Perhaps our greatest ministry will occur after we’re gone.
Conclusion: So understand this: There will be terrible times in the last days… But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of… 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: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season….