The Lord's Day Morning
November 12, 2006
II Timothy 4:1-4
Biblical Priorities for the Life of our Church (2)
How in the World does the Church Grow?
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to II Timothy 4. A couple of weeks ago we began a new series on biblical priorities for our life as a congregation of Christians; that is, we wanted to look to the Bible to see what the Bible said about how we are to order our lives together — what our priorities ought to be as we live and work together as fellow Christians in this local congregation in obedience to God's word.
We started that series off by looking at something of the context in which the church finds itself today. We asked the question “Where in the world is the church?” in the sense of asking what is the context that the church finds herself in today? What are the forces afoot in our culture that are impacting the way we live and minister together in the church? We identified three particular currents in our culture that are having tremendous influence on us: relativism, individualism, and consumerism.
By relativism we mean the denial of absolute truth, and we said that many liberal Christians and liberal churches have latched on to that and they've said ‘Yes, you know, people don't believe in the absolute truth of God's word anymore. They don't believe that Jesus is the only way of salvation, and so our message is going to have to change if we're going to be able to reach them. The gospel is outdated, so we need to update it. The message doesn't work anymore, so we need an improved message.’ On the other hand, evangelicals have tended to lean more towards being influenced by individualism and consumerism.
Individualism says the self is sovereign — the world revolves around me. It's all about me. “What's in it for me?” is the first question that the individualist asks, and of course that impacts church life. Many evangelicals have said ‘You know, people are asking what's in it for me, and so we've got to build church around that question, so that the first thing that they experience when they come in the doors of our church is ‘This is a church that is built for me’. They’ll come back.’ The problem is the church is not built ‘for me.’ It's for God. And so if you try and bring people into a fellowship of people whose whole goal is to renounce self, and love and worship and serve the living God, but you’re going to do it by saying that everything that we do is all for them, you’re sending (to say the least) a mixed message. But it transforms what church life is like if it's all built around you.
Add to this our penchant for consumerism, the view that we have that we're all customers and everybody else is a service provider…clerks…and we tend to approach religion that way, too. Many people view God as the ultimate service provider, and they view themselves as the ultimate customer.
I was in an airport waiting to get on a plane a number of months ago, and there was a woman sitting there in the loading/boarding area and we got into a brief conversation. She gave me her card, and on the card it had a number of occupations that she had, but Number One was “Life Coach.” I thought to myself, “I don't think I would put that on a card, if that were my job…that I was a ‘life coach.’” You can tell just from that description, by the way, that it was a very interesting conversation!
Well, you know some people sort of think of God as their “life coach.” It's God's job to coach me in my life so that I may meet my goals, achieve my aims, acquire my aspirations, follow my dreams. You know…God's the ultimate life coach. He's the life coach who can help you more than any other life coach. That's a very customer/consumerist view of religion, and of course that's captured many churches. How do you stand against that in this culture, with those trends going on?
Well, you determine that you are going to live by The Book. You determine that it's going to be the Bible, not the winds of doctrine, not the cultural trends, that is going to be the final determining factor of how we live our lives together as Christians. And that's really all that we're going to do in this series. We’re going to look at several priorities that will help us to be faithful Christians, salt and light in this world, growing Christians, disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, believing Christians, those that love the truth of God's word in this world that's still sending all kinds of crazy mixed messages to us. That's what we're going to be doing in this series, and today our goal is to focus on expository preaching.
Interestingly, it is precisely at the point of answering these trends that preaching speaks most clearly, because instead of your mind (as the Apostle Paul speaks about in Romans 12:1, 2)…instead of your mind being conformed to this world, Paul says it is to be transformed. How? By its renewing according to the word of God, and in preaching one of the things that's supposed to be going on is that your mind, your heart, the very depth of your being is being transformed and brought into conformity with Scripture, not with the world. And so it's appropriate that we start with preaching, and it's appropriate when we start with preaching that we go to II Timothy 4, because it's Paul's final charge to Timothy.
Now let me tell you what we're going to do today. All we're going to do is this. I want to look at the solemnity of this charge with you. I want you to get something of how serious what Paul is saying to Timothy is. Secondly, I want you to see the content of this charge; and, thirdly, I want you to see the context of this charge; and then all we're going to do for the rest of the time together is we're going to do five applications of points two and three. So you've got the solemnity of the charge, the content of the charge, the context of the charge, and then we're going to apply points two and three for the rest of our time together. So before we read God's word, let's pray and ask for His help.
Heavenly Father, You have been so gracious to reveal Yourself in the Bible. You wrote down in words what You are like, Your love for Your people, Your mighty acts on their behalf, the way of salvation, how we're to live this life; and You gave it to us in this great book, the Bible. We ask, O God, that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth from Your word, that we might live and minister together in the way that is biblical, because we ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“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; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 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.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
The Apostle Paul in this passage is exhorting Timothy to preach the word. Why do you think that's so important? And how are we supposed to listen to the word in such a way that it profits our souls, anyway? That's the question I want to tackle with you today. I've actually been very tempted to write a title to this sermon that went something like this: “How to Listen to a Bad Sermon” – because I'm something of an expert in that area. I have preached many of them in my time, and I think that I am uniquely qualified to help believers survive sermons that I preach. And that is indeed part of my agenda today; to help you not simply survive, but thrive on the preaching of God's word even when it's not up to its best possible quality.
But before we do that we need to think in the first place of why preaching is important anyway, so let's walk through II Timothy 4:1-4 together.
I. The solemnity of the charge
First of all, in verse 1, I want you to consider how solemn this charge is that Paul gives to Timothy. Some of you have had to testify in court, and you have been (to use the old word) abjured by the court. You have been publicly charged by the court as to what your obligation is to do in giving testimony, and you have probably used words something like this. While holding your left hand on a Bible and holding your right hand aloft, you would have said, “I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Now the point of that charge (or that abjuration, to use the old legal term) is to impress you with the solemnity of what you are about to say. You are saying it before the court that represents this republic of which you are a part. You are swearing that you will tell the truth, and you are saying ‘I understand the consequences of my not telling the truth. I could be convicted of perjury and subject to the sentences thereof if I am not faithful to this abjuration.’
Well, here the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Timothy, stand up. Put your hand on the Bible. Raise your hand; and as you raise your hand, raise your eyes, because I want you to look and see Who's at the bar.’ Who does he say in verse 1? ‘God and Jesus Christ…that's the Judge, Timothy, that I'm getting ready to abjure you before. That's the Judge that I'm solemnly charging you in front of: it's God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And remember, Timothy, that They are coming to do…what? They are coming to judge the living and the dead. Their kingdom is coming. And, Timothy, listen up.’
II. The content of the charge
Now at that point you’re thinking, “Paul, you must have something really important that you want to tell Timothy!” He does. And look at the content of the charge. It's in the very first three words in your English version of the next verse: “Preach the word.” That was what Paul made him stand up and put his hand on the Bible and raise his hand for, and look at God in the bar of justice and think of the coming of Christ for judgment? That was what…? Yes! Paul is writing his last letter to Timothy, and it's the last chapter of the last book that the inspired Apostle Paul will ever write, and he opens it by saying ‘Timothy, one thing – don't you ever forget it: Preach the word.’ Why?
There are a thousand answers to that question. There are a thousand biblical answers to that question. The apostle gives him two answers, one positive, one negative. The positive answer you see in part, given in shorthand in verse 2: “Reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction.” In other words, the Apostle Paul is saying to Timothy that preaching is the way that sinners are converted: reprove, rebuke, exhort. And it's the way that saints are built up, or grown or matured — with great patience and instruction.
By the way, that's the same thing that our Catechism says about the preaching of God's word. Open your hymnals, if you would, and turn with me to page 876…and look at Question 89. It's talking about how the Spirit of God uses the word of God, and look at what it says in the middle of the answer (page 876). It's in the left hand column, Question 89. Here's the answer:
“The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word an effectual means of…” what? “…convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith unto salvation.”
So the preaching of the word is used to convert and to build up…to convert sinners, to build up saints. So there's a positive reason.
III. The context of Paul's charge
But Paul spends most of his time in telling Timothy to keep faithful to the preaching the word of God because of what he says in verses 3 and 4, and that's the context that I wanted you to see. We've seen the solemnity of the charge; we've seen the content of the charge; but look at the context. The context is: ‘Timothy, there's going to be a time when people don't want to hear the word of God. They’re going to want to hear messengers that tell them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. They’re going to want to hear messengers who tell them smooth talk, but not the word of God; and so it is urgent, Timothy, that you always preach the word.’
And, my friends, we live in a day and age where this is no less true than when Paul first spoke it. For every church where you can hear the word of God proclaimed in our land unvarnished, there are five where you couldn't hear a drop of the gospel if you were thirsting to death. And so the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Timothy, let me tell you what. If you ever stop preaching that word, I'm going to come out of heaven myself for you! You preach the word, because there's going to be all kinds of other stuff being preached. And, Timothy, that other stuff won't convert anybody, and it won't build up anybody. It’ll just smooth the skids to hell, so you preach the word.’
So how do we then approach hearing the word of God preached? How do we listen to preaching? How do we benefit from preaching, or, to put it negatively, how do we listen to a bad sermon and get something out of it?
How do we avoid that context which we live in, in which there is an antipathy for preaching? I mean, face it. When somebody tells you, “Don't preach!” they’re not talking nicely about preaching. When somebody looks at you and says, “Don't preach to me!” they’re thinking, “What word, what verb for communication can I use that has the most negative connotation in order to keep you from getting ready to say what I'm afraid that you’re about to say to me?” So preach is regularly reached for. When somebody says, “Don't give me a sermon,” they’re not complimenting sermons, OK?
And that's the kind of world we live in. We live in a world that doesn't like preaching and doesn't like sermons. Not only that, we like sermons that say nice things…that don't step on our toes, that don't meddle in our lives, that don't tell us that we're wrong. So how, in that context, do we listen to sermons so that we don't fall into the trap of verses 3 and 4 of II Timothy 4?
Five quick answers.
The first is simply this: We must listen as if life itself depends on it. We must listen as if life itself depends on it, because, my friends, it does.
Those of you who are frequent fliers have heard countless times those immortal words: “Please turn all electronic devices to their full off position and stow them. Make sure that your seatbacks and tray tables are stowed and in their full and upright locked positions. Please buckle your seatbelts…” and so on and so on. And as those words drone on, what do you do? You pay absolutely no attention to them. You've heard them a million times. There's nothing that…. You are utterly bored. You’re leafing through the SkyMall magazine. You’re grabbing for whatever's left to read around you because your iPod and your Blackberry and your laptop have been momentarily ripped away from you, and you’re looking for something…you’re even reading the design manual on the plane in front of you, just to find something to do! But you’re not listening to those instructions. But twenty minutes later, let's say that suddenly the plane, having climbed to almost the full altitude that it was designed to get to on your flight to wherever you’re going…let's say the plane had plunged 2,000 feet suddenly, having hit an air pocket. And in the force of that plunge, damage had been done to the engines of the plane and to the safety of the plane. And the pilot had informed the stewardess — or the flight attendant…let me be politically correct — the flight attendant — that you were going to have to make an emergency landing. And now suddenly those instructions that had been given twenty minutes before (and you had been utterly bored by them) sound incredibly compelling: “Assume position for crash landing. Make sure that your tray tables are up and locked, and that your seats are in a full upright position. White lights will lead to red lights to show you the emergency exit should we lose power upon landing. Make sure that you check behind you. The nearest exit row may in fact be behind you.” Those things that you utterly ignored twenty minutes before now are incredibly compelling. Why? Not because the content had changed, but the context had changed.
My friends, we come to preaching Lord's Day after Lord's Day and we don't think that life depends on it, and it does, because in this fallen world, we're on a DC-10 in a nosedive. The problem is we just don't live like that all the time.
And that leads us to the second point that I want to say, and it's simply this: We have to recognize the seriousness of our life situation. What does Paul say in Ephesians 6:12? That we need to realize that our battle is not against flesh and blood. It's against principalities and powers, rulers of this world, world forces of darkness, all arrayed against us. And yet we trip along merrily unaware of that day by day.
Maybe you've gotten some of the circular emails that go around our city. Unfortunately, the content of them is true 80 percent of the time. Somebody's been carjacked. Somebody's been held up at a gas station. Someone's been followed home and robbed. And it frightens you. And what does it do? It also makes you more aware of your surroundings when you go out to the grocery store at night, more careful to see if someone's following you home. In other words, it makes you aware of danger that was already out there but that you might not have been aware of.
My friends, the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:12 is telling you that you live in a dangerous environment; in fact, you’re in a war zone. The most dangerous thing in the world would be for you to be in a dangerous environment and not realize that you’re in a dangerous environment.
But that's how most people are. Most people think of the Bible and preaching and God's word like they think of that fire extinguisher with a sign that says “Break glass in case of emergency.” You see, the assumption is you’re not in an emergency “… but if I were, I could break the glass and get my Bible out and get God's word.” What the Apostle Paul is saying is ‘My friends, you live in an emergency. You just don't know it.’ And you need that word, because what did Jesus in Matthew 4:4, quoting Moses?
“Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
It is a life and death thing, this word of God, and you’re in a dangerous context, and you need that word more than you can possibly imagine.
You know, there are people all the time that talk about “boring sermons.” Now, I understand that, because I preach boring sermons every once in a while. But you know what? I bet that none of you heard your children come home from school two weeks ago and say, “You know,
Mr. Herring made a boring announcement about the fire at the church.” I’ll bet none of you heard that! Oh, there would have been a lot of chitter-chatter about how our building was on fire and they had to be outside on the playground for two hours while the firemen came and put the building out, but none of them said, “You know, Mr. Herring's announcement about the fire was boring.” Why? Because they understood the context, the danger that they were in, and they weren't particularly caring about the way that the fire was announced. They just wanted to get to safety.
It's the same with the proclamation of the word of God. If you come knowing you’re in danger and the thing that you need is the word of God, then the way you approach a sermon is going to be entirely different than if you come in thinking that the Bible is one of those “Break glass in case of emergency” things.
And that leads us to a third thing: We need to realize that it's God's word that we need in such a circumstance. What does Psalm 119:105 say?
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and it's a light to my way.”
In other words it is the thing that instructs me how to go, how to live, how to walk, how to survive; and in that context you don't want a really clever orator who can tell cute stories, who can amuse you, who can hold your attention. You want someone who gives you what you need. What is it you need? You need God's word.
Have you ever been to a sermon — heard a sermon before — and the Scripture is read at the beginning of the sermon, and the guy gives a very interesting talk. And a half hour later you wonder what exactly did that Scripture have to do with anything that he said during that half hour? Oh, my friends! What people need is not clever human wisdom, interesting stories. They need God's word. And that's why we aim, even in this topical series that we're doing, we aim to make sure that it's God's word that you’re feeding on. All we're doing is applying II Timothy 4:1-4 today.
Fourthly, we need to understand that it is God's help that we need. If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Psalm 40:17. I could go to a hundred other verses in Psalms, but this is maybe obscure enough that its truth will hit home. The psalmist says in Psalm 40:17:
“Since I am afflicted and needy, let the Lord be mindful of me.” [So notice — he knows his context. He's afflicted and needy. Now look what he says.] “Thou art my help and Deliverer. Do not delay, O God.”
In other words the psalmist is saying he knows who his help is, he knows who his aid is, he knows who his hope is. He knows that the only One who can come to his rescue is God. It is God's help that he needs, so in preaching God's word that truth always ought to come through. And you ought to be looking for that truth to come through, because everywhere in the word God is bringing that truth home; and so, when you walk out of a sermon you ought to know where to look for your help if the word of God has been preached. But if the word of man has been preached, then you may have been pointed to all kinds of helpful principles and rules, and stories…but not to the one place of help that really matters.
Fifth and finally, in order to benefit from preaching, in order to listen to a bad sermon, even, and benefit, you need to appreciate that communion with God is your goal.
What does the psalmist say in Psalm 27:4?
“One thing have I asked of the Lord…[one thing!] …that I might dwell in the house of the Lord, that I may seek His face, that I may see the beauty of the Lord.”
In other words, he's saying ‘My desire is set on God.’ The same thing in Psalm 42:1 —
“As a deer pants for water, so my soul pants after You, O God.”
Bible preaching always points you to the one desire that ought to be above all desires: God Himself, through Jesus Christ our Lord; and if you don't appreciate that communion with God is your goal, you won't appreciate the ministry of the word, because the ministry of the word is to focus your desires on God as your ultimate goal. You know, our goal is not simply to convey true and right and useful information. That's of course part of it, but ultimately the desire in preaching is that your hearts would be transformed so that they’re set on God; and any preaching that points you away from God as your only lawful goal, as the only place of satisfaction and ultimate fulfillment is leading astray, is not biblical preaching.
So how do you listen to a bad sermon? You listen as if your life depended on it; you recognize the seriousness of your life situation; you realize that it's God's word that you need in every circumstance. You understand that it's God's help that you need. You appreciate that communion with God is your hope; and if the minister is just faithful to the text, no matter how boring he is he will tell you those things, and you can go away enriched with the only truth that will last beyond the grave. And you’ll be pointed to the only desire that will ever satisfy you, the only help that will ever really come to your aid. You’ll be saved from the only danger which your life should fear, because you will have listened to God's word as if your life depended on it.
So if you do a test, you can say as you listen to a sermon, was God's word proclaimed? And did I hear it? Was the context of the preacher's message my true need, the world's need? Was the only remedy to that need held forth — the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? Was my soul encouraged to look and desire God in Christ above all things? If the answer is “yes” to those questions, no matter how boring the preacher was — and it's not our goal, by the way, to be boring! It's not a sin to be interesting…we want to make it as easy as we can — but no matter how boring he was, if the answer is “yes” to those things, your soul can feast on the word of God.
That is the way we live, because “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
I've got to say one last thing. It's not enough that we would be hearers of the word. We must also be doers. You see, Jesus doesn't want us to be sermon-tasters…Paul doesn't want us to be sermon-tasters. We don't need to be going around to hear “the best” preacher preach the word here and there. No, the goal is that the word would be worked deep down into my heart so that I love what God loves, I love God above all else, I trust Christ in the gospel, and that I walk according to His word, so that I show Him that I love Him by loving others, by showing charity to my neighbor, by putting Him first in all things, by living according to His word, by desiring Him above everything else in this world.
So let us, friends, be hearers of the word, and doers. Let's pray.
O God, teach us afresh how to listen to Your word. By Your Spirit, transform us by it. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.