Back to the Basics Again — Part Two
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Back to the Basics Again — Part Two

2 Timothy 4:1–5  (ID: 3082)

While there will always be those who promote a spirituality disconnected from the Word of God, it is the duty of the pastor to bring the truth of Scripture to bear upon the church. Teaching from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Alistair Begg reminds pastors of the charge they have been given, the challenge they face, and the character they are to have. Those who preach God’s Word must stay alert, endure suffering, and do the work of an evangelist as they fulfill the ministry to which God has called them.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 7

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23008

Basics 2015

Trusting the Word of God to Do the Work of God Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23515

Sermon Transcript: Print

“I charge you”—4:1—“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.”

I’m pretty sure that it’s Luther who says that he was married to the book of Galatians in much the same way that he was married to his wife. It was his book. And it’s increasingly apparent to me that I—not at the same level or anything—but I do feel myself married to the Pastoral Epistles. The longer I go, the more I realize the tremendous benefit in them and wisdom from them and the necessity of adhering to them, not just in what is in them but in what is left out of them—that there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t in Paul’s swan song. And we assume that guided by the Spirit of God, we have only that which was necessary to have. And if you think ever about writing a final letter, whether it be to your children or to your wife, or even to your congregation, you wouldn’t fill it up with a bunch of extraneous material. You certainly would not wish to tax their patience. You would give to them the essentials.

And so, it is a matter of purpose that we remain in anticipation of the basics which will come again in 2016. How phenomenally boring is this? Basics, basics, basics, basics. But do you play golf? I hope you don’t read five of those golf magazines every month, because if you do, you’ll go crazy, especially as you turn from page to page, correcting one thing and then another thing and then the next thing in your golf swing till you’re a raging crazy person. You’ll hardly be able to walk onto a golf course until somebody says to you, “You know, you don’t need to pay attention to all of that. You just need to make sure that you do the basics well and you do it most of the time.”

Steve Wynn, whom I haven’t quoted at a pastors’ conference before—but you may know him if you gamble in Las Vegas, and even if you don’t—but Steve Wynn, who’s a billionaire, I found a quote from him just the other day. This is what he says concerning business practice. He says, “If you don’t have a voice that forces you back to basics, you’re a dangerous person. Or to put it another way, you’re at risk, and the people with you are at risk.”

“If you don’t have a voice that forces you back to basics…” Well then, let me be that voice, as we leave this morning, that first of all speaks to my own heart and says, “Make sure the things you say are the things you’re going to do.” Because, you see, with the death of the apostle, which he mentions in verse 6—which is the verse to which I have to come in returning to my studies next week here at Parkside—with the death of the apostle, the highest office now in the church—the highest office now in the church—is not a bishop, is not a pope; it’s a pastor-teacher. It is an elder. It is a presbyter. It is an episkopos. It is a poimen. The phraseology that is used to describe the responsibility.

And it is vitally important that we recognize that one of the aims of the Pastoral Epistles is to strengthen the authority of the ordained minister—is to strengthen our authority. Now, we know, because he writes in it, that we’re not to lord it over people.[1] It’s not our authority. It is a God-ordained authority. The authority that Timothy has is apostolic authority, and the authority that we have is apostolic authority. So the pastor, not in a dominating spirit of his personality but with genuine care and love, is charged, we are charged, with bringing the apostolic authority which is inscripturated for us to bear upon the church—the church which Paul describes in 1 Timothy 3 as being “the household of God,” which he says is “a pillar and buttress of the truth.”[2]

And I love the church. And I’m sure you do too. It’s not that I love everybody in the church the way I should, because I don’t. I often say to myself, you know… I like some of Bill Gaither’s songs, and I appreciate them. You know that wonderful song “I’m so glad that you’re part of the family of God.”[3] Actually, the way I sing it, looking out in the congregation, is, “I’m surprised that you’re part of the family of God.” And I can do that because I know they’re looking at me and feeling the exact same way. When Dick Lucas was here with us some years ago, he says, “I tell my congregation routinely, ‘If you knew what I was like, you would never listen to me preach.’” And then he says, “I pause and I say, ‘And if I knew what you were like, I would never, ever preach to you.’” Because we’re building with bananas, aren’t we, in terms of the work of the gospel? We’re all misshapen, strange, peculiar characters. And that’s the genius and beauty of the church. It’s not like anything else. It’s not a country club. It’s not a union. It’s not a gathering of people that went to the same university. It’s not people who have a certain interest in a certain kind of hymnody.

One of our friends—and we have begun to read him; I don’t know if we’re still reading him—we began a book by the journalist and poet Steve Turner in England. And in that book—I don’t think we’ve got to this chapter yet—but he says of the church,

The church humbles us. It is one of the few places in our societies today where we sit with rich and poor, young and old, black and white, educated and uneducated, and are focused on the same object. It is one of the few places where we share the problems and hopes of our lives with people we may not know. It is one of the few places where we sing as a crowd. Although the church needs its outsiders to prevent it from drifting into dull conformity, the outsiders need the church to stop them from drifting into individualized religion.[4]

One of the things that we were thinking about earlier on. And in that, the role that is entrusted to the pastor-teacher is absolutely crucial.

Timothy’s Challenge

Now, we noted on Monday Timothy’s charge—his charge, which we said was solemn and was straightforward and was searching. And then in verse 3, with a conjunction, the word “for,” he then explains that the reason this charge is so pressing is because not only does Timothy have a charge, but he has a particular challenge. And the challenge is for him and for his colleagues to be good ministers of Jesus Christ. Now, that’s the phrase he uses in 1 Timothy 4: it’s a “good servant” or a “good minister.” He says, “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good [minister] of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and … the good doctrine that you have followed.”[5] So there’s a direct relationship between usefulness, effectiveness, and the place of a good conscience and a sincere faith.

And now he sets before him his challenge. He’s made him aware of the fact in 2:18 of those “who have swerved from the truth”; they are denying the reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And having been alerted to that, he now has to exercise his ministry faced with people who are, you will notice here in the verse, turning away from the truth and wandering into myth. Turning away from the truth and wandering into myth. And he says to him, “For the time is coming when they won’t endure sound teaching, but they will just turn away from listening to the truth. They will wander into myths.”

Now, obviously, this is not hypothetical. There’s no point in him telling him about something that is going to happen in 2015. What possible relevance would that have had to Timothy? The letter is being written to Timothy; it’s not being written to us. And we apply it in our day. What do we know? Well, we know the way in which he uses time like this is in terms of recurring phenomena. Chapter 3, he had mentioned at the beginning of it, the “times of difficulty” that will surely come, again alerting Timothy to something that he would face, as well as something that the church throughout history would continue to face, until eventually we came to the last days of the last days.[6]

Now, on Monday, I made a passing reference to Deuteronomy 4. And if you have your Bible, I want just to turn you there for a moment to reinforce something that I think I skipped over too quickly. And in Deuteronomy chapter 4, Moses is commanding the people in relationship to the absolute necessity of their obedience to the voice of God. And he reminds them of what had happened when, picking up in verse 10,

How on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord [had] said to me, “Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.” And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.

And then he goes on, he says, “And he declared … his covenant [to you], which he commanded …, the Ten Commandments.” And then in verse 15, he has the “therefore.” Moses now exhorts them in the same way. What does he say? The exact same thing, actually, that Paul says to Timothy: “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb”—which was purposeful on the part of God; he “spoke to you out of the midst of the fire”—now, “beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, [in] the likeness of male or female,” and on and on and on he goes.

And what happens? The people, despite their affirmations of what they will not do and what they will do, they go out and do the very thing they said they’re not going to do: they exchanged the truth of God for a lie.[7] They looked around at the people surrounding them, and they said, “You know, that actually looks pretty good. I don’t see why we couldn’t just introduce that. I mean, we wouldn’t need to make it the focus, but, you know, we could incorporate it. It would be nice to have a few manageable gods of our own making.” As Luther said, if a man will not have God, he must have his idols. And whenever the people of God give up on God as he has revealed himself to us, then they don’t become godless; they actually become all kinds of gods that invade their thinking.

And so, Timothy must be prepared for the times, he says, “when people will not endure sound teaching.” He’s already been told to “follow the pattern of … sound words.”[8] He has been warned already about those who teach “a different doctrine” that doesn’t “agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[9]

Throughout history, the people of God rejected the instruction of God. And in the case of the prophets, it wasn’t because the prophets weren’t clear; it was because the prophets were too clear.

Now, this word sound or “healthy” is a word that I grew up with in Scotland. I’ve told people before, but it’s worth retelling. Usually, in circles that I inhabited as a boy, sound meant anybody who believes what I personally believe, and anybody who doesn’t believe what I believe about these particular areas—about whether you should wear a kilt or not wear a kilt; you know, “essentials” of the gospel—if you don’t believe that, then, of course, you’re not sound. But setting aside those peripheral things, it was also used actually fairly straightforwardly, as in the Pastoral Epistles, to say, “We understand what healthy means, and we understand what unhealthy means. We mustn’t have an unhealthy view of God or of Christ as he in all of his fullness is embodied in him and so on.”

And I was preaching years ago when I was a young man in Londonderry in Northern Ireland. I was invited there by a man called T. S. Mooney, who was a bachelor, a retired bank manager, and a very godly little man who actually knew the entire catechism off by heart, amongst other things. And I stayed with him in his flat in Londonderry, and he, although in his seventies, was the leader of the Londonderry Young People’s Convention. And into his seventies, he led all these teenagers—which is a testimony, again, to the fact that teenagers, they’re not really looking for somebody who’s hip; they’re looking for somebody who loves them and who will guide them. Anyway, that’s an aside for another time, for those of you who are in youth ministry.

But the evenings took place in a Methodist Church. And every night we would gather in a sweaty room behind the church auditorium, and we would have a prayer time. And T. S. always led out in prayer. And then we went out, and we had some songs, and then I spoke. And when I spoke, I noticed on the first evening that he fell asleep as I was speaking. I said, “Okay, maybe he’s tired.” On the second evening, he did the same thing. And on the Wednesday evening when we’re driving home, having watched him fall asleep again, I said to him, “You know, T. S., I have to ask you something.” And he said, “What’s that?” I said, “Well, you come in the sweaty room, we do the prayer, you’re very earnest in your prayer, and then you go out there, and within about seven minutes, you’re in the third stages of anesthesia. I mean, you are completely gone. Why do you do that?” He says, “Well, it’s just like this: I just stay awake until I know you’re sound, and then when you’re sound, I go off for a wee sleep.” Well, there’s some validity to that, isn’t there? He invited this boy across the Irish Sea; he needs to make sure he’s not coming up with a bunch of tomfoolery. But as soon as he’s confident that the fellow can fly the plane, he feels quite comfortable in row 24C just to nod off for a little while. And I’ve noticed that a number of my congregation are apparently working on the same basis.

So the notion of whether someone is actually orthodox or heterodox is very, very important, isn’t it? “The time [will come] when people will not endure sound teaching.” In other words, instead of availing them of teachers that will make them godly and healthy and useful, they go in search of the intriguing, the fascinating, the speculative, and the spicy. These people are everywhere. You meet them as you travel. They’re full of CDs and downloads and blogs and all manner of thing. It’s amazing to me that they can manage to hold all these things in tension, apparently. They’re interested in novelty more than in orthodoxy. When they think about calling a pastor, they don’t look for a pastor who will teach them the Bible; they look for a pastor who will tell them what they want to hear. And if he’s not prepared to do that, then, of course, they will have no time for him. It’s novelty; it’s not orthodoxy.

Now, we know that that was not unique to Timothy’s day. We know that because of contemporary life, but we also know that because throughout history, the people of God rejected the instruction of God. And in the case of the prophets, it wasn’t because the prophets weren’t clear; it was because the prophets were too clear. Because they actually said what God had for them to say. And so the people come to him, and they say, “Now, listen, we don’t really want you to stop preaching. But we just want you to preach in a manner that will suit our fancy and will accommodate our passions.”

Now, I’ll leave you to research this on your own, but let me just get you started. Isaiah 30:9, God’s word through his prophet:

They are a rebellious people,
 lying children,
children unwilling to hear
 the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, “Do not see,”
 and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
 prophesy illusions,
leave the way, turn aside from the [truth],
 let us hear no more [of] the Holy One of Israel.”

“We’re tired of this stuff. Can you not just lighten up, Pastor? Can you not just tone it down a little bit?” We’re not talking about style now. We’re talking about content. We’re not talking about the forcefulness of delivery or the histrionics of the preacher. No, we’re talking about the fact that they reacted to the instruction that came from the mouth of God.

And so it is in our day. It’s not a new thing to encounter those who are “spiritual,” as they would say, who are in search of God, and they are proponents of a spirituality that is disconnected from the truth of God’s Word. A spirituality that is disconnected from the truth of God’s Word. And unless this is pointed out, unless this is made clear, then they will accumulate more and more people, like a stone that gathers moss as it rolls. And it is a great danger. They are accumulating teachers along the lines of the “weak women” that Paul has already mentioned earlier on—women who were “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”[10] A tragic picture of people who are very interested in and keen and so on, but they’re nowhere.

As I’ve traveled around, I’m always going in bookstores and coming out and picking different things up. And I know that San Francisco is a different place, but it is a place. And in San Francisco, visiting my granddaughter a few weeks ago for her fifth birthday, I picked her up at her art class. And at her art class, I availed myself of some of the literature that was around, and an invitation here, in a very beautifully produced brochure, to attend the Zen Mountain Center for the guest season, beginning April 30. And the fascinating thing about it is, again, as Tim said yesterday, a lot of this stuff has a real element of truth in it. I mean, there’s sessions here on “Be yourself and forget yourself.” That’s one of my mantras. But what they’re talking about is something very, very different. And so, for example, one of the offerings is to “discover the awakening practices at the heart of religious tradition.” “Awakening the heart and mind has taken many forms throughout the centuries, and now, here in the United States, it is being shaped by both Eastern and Western influences.” And so, they’re encouraging us to come and listen to a lifelong Benedictine monk and a former abbot as they offer a variety of practices to help reveal the connection between Zen and Christianity: “Meditation and prayer, faith and spiritual authenticity and awakening, and salvation will be among the many topics that will be explored by practicing and talking together.” And then they identify these people with unpronounceable names who will be here.

Now, why do I mention this? It’s no surprise that that’s out there. No, I mention this because if you’re not careful, you will have somebody in your congregation saying, “You know, we’re going out to San Francisco. There’s a wonderful opportunity out there to explore. And you know how much I like to explore.” Because the silly lady, when she drives around, she has a bumper sticker on the back that says “Jesus Is the Only Way,” and she has crystals hanging from her wing mirror, so that she can cover herself both front and back, just in case she’s left out any possibilities. Now, I’m not making fun of this. I’m telling you that it is true. And you know it’s true. And it is increasingly true. The Main Streets of our society are filled with all the trinkets and evidences of world religions which are in direct opposition to the singular truth that Paul is calling Timothy and all contemporary Timothys to convey here—and with the warning, the necessary application.

You got the same in Jeremiah. Jeremiah 5: “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land.” What is that? “The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction”—in other words, the priests do what the people tell them to say—and “my people love to have it so.”[11] They “love to have it so.” Now, that observation, that condemnation, there in Jeremiah, has application far beyond Jeremiah’s day. David has already said that it rings with sad and telling judgment in our native land of Scotland. It also has a telling judgment on my adopted home. The facts are clear. The charge is clear. The challenge is great. Itching ears. Lots of teachers to suit their passions. “I don’t like it, Pastor, when you tell me I can’t sleep with my girlfriend. I want a Christianity that allows me to go ahead and do that. I don’t like it when you say these things about this or that or the next thing.”

So the real temptation for us is not that we will just step aside from the Bible, but that we won’t actually really teach the Bible, that we will not actually allow the Bible to say what the Bible says. So we become theologically vague. We become harmlessly accommodating. We’re just hopeless. The devil is not so interested in dead pastors—of whom there are many—but half-dead pastors. Prefers if we’re just half-dead, so that we’ve completely lost any passion, we’ve ceased to fan into a flame,[12] and so on.

An Opportunity for Character

Well, the charge is there, and the challenge is great, and finally, it provides Timothy with an opportunity to display his character. So the outline is clear: his charge, his challenge, and now his character. “As for you”—once again, distinguishing between Timothy and the false teachers. “As for you,” and now he adds four more imperatives to the five that he has already employed in verse 2. And he gives to Timothy a tall order—a man-sized challenge, if you like. Someone says what we have here in verse 5 is a realistic statement of what Christian ministry is all about. I find that quite helpful. Confronted by opposition, facing the danger of feeling completely isolated, it would be really easy for him to throw in the towel, to decide that he wasn’t going to keep it going any further, to exit the race. That’s why Paul is going to go on and say, as a word of encouragement to him and as an example for him, “I’ve run the race. I’ve kept the faith. I have finished the fight. And I want you to do the same, Timothy. I don’t want you chucking it now. It’s very important.”[13]

The devil is not so interested in dead pastors—of whom there are many—but half-dead pastors, so that we’ve completely lost any passion.

Some of you might have come along here. It’s not unusual for me to get a note afterwards, someone says, “I came to Basics ’15, and I said, ‘This is my last shot. Unless I get some kind of resolution here at this conference, I’m going back, and I’m done with this whole affair.’” And in the providence of God, he went home, and he was done with the whole affair. [Chuckles.] No! He went home encouraged. But if he was supposed to be done with the whole affair, it would be better that he was done with the whole affair, right? So… If you can stay out of pastoral ministry, stay out. And if you’re in, then stay in. You know? Bloom where you’re planted.

No time for self-pity; rather, an opportunity to do what Paul says: to stay steady, to face whatever suffering may come, to go on steadily preaching the gospel and complete the task. And I’m making a career out of verse 5, actually, but here, let’s just iterate it once again for each other. Your wife says to you, “Well, what are you going to do, having come home from Basics?” You’re going to tell her, “Well, I’m going to be as basic as I possibly can.” And she says, “What does that mean?” You say, “Well, I’m gonna endeavor to always be sober-minded.” “Always be sober-minded.”

“As for you, always be sober-minded.” There were all these people around him who’d become intoxicated with the heady wine of heresy. And they had lost their minds. We’ve mentioned some individuals today. I’ll leave that sit, but I concur exactly with what has been said. I knew some of these people when they were orthodox. I listened to them preach when they were orthodox. What happened to them? Well, in part, they began to become intoxicated by the heady wine of acceptability, by wanting to be well thought of by the academy, by fearing lest people thought them obscurantist or too simplistic or whatever it might be. And perhaps without ever wanting to, they found that they had begun to drift—drifted away, drifted off.

And so he’s simply saying to Timothy, “I don’t want you to drift off. Don’t drift off. Make sure that you’re always sober-minded. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel. This is no time for automatic pilot. Keep your hands on the wheel.” I’m not a fan of cruise control, I must tell you. I don’t think cruise control is a great idea. It takes you out of the game. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like, can you, when we all have these cars that will be driving us around? I mean, the good thing is, I suppose you can read the newspaper in the back seat, if you can relax. But it seems to me quite an incredible prospect. Because if you have that cruise control on and you fall asleep, you got no way of rectifying that. If you have your foot on the accelerator and you begin to fall asleep, you at least have the possibility of being alerted by the fact that the car begins to slow, because your foot comes off the accelerator. But if you’re on cruise, you could destroy yourself and those who are in there with you. You have to stay alert when you’re driving.

And so, he says, “You better stay alert. You better make sure you don’t fall asleep. It’s crucial that you’re alert, that you’re vigilant, that you’re not susceptible yourself to the speculative notions, you’re not unsettled by the numbers of people who are drawn away by all of these teachers.” And notice once again, it is not that you’re supposed to be intermittently sober-minded, but you are “always” to “be sober-minded.” Here we go with the adjectives again: “complete patience” and “always … sober-minded.” Or as the NIV has it: “Keep your head in all situations.”

And then, “Endure suffering.” Dan said to me, “It’s interesting that although we had a kind of tagline for our conference, there’s a sense in which there has been a recurring theme that was never intended, and that is that Christian ministry takes us into the realm of suffering.” I suppose, if we were to go through and take all of the talks that have been given and just, you know, do a search for the word suffering or for the notion of suffering, I think that’s absolutely right. I think it has run all the way through, and I think purposefully so.

And here we have it at the end: “Endure suffering.” He’s not sounding out a new note. When he invited him to take his part in 1:8, his invitation was to share “in suffering for the gospel.” He explained to Timothy that it was because of the gospel that he suffered. “This is my gospel,” he says in chapter 2, “for which I am suffering.”[14] In Paul’s case, it was definitely physical, as it is for some of our brothers and sisters today. We heard from Isaac on Sunday night, those of us who were here, about what’s happening to the church in India and in other places in the world.

And for Timothy, that was possibly before him, and for us, suffering may still come in that way. But suffering mentally and suffering emotionally is a severe form of suffering. And as people chased around in first-century Ephesus in search of a more amenable story, of a different kind of gospel, of a more acceptable proclamation, and as people in our day bury the gospel under political expectations or seek to provide a gospel that is itself politically acceptable, there is a definite cost involved in guarding the good deposit.[15]

I mean, you only need to encounter a group of people in an environment that is not a safe territory for us, wherever it might be—just in the thoroughfare of life. And when things come down to the very heart of the matter, now, be honest with yourself: Don’t you find that there’s a real cost involved in actually saying, “Well, yes, I know that you think the answer to your problem is inside of yourself and that the problem that you’re facing or the problems that you’re facing are outside of yourself, but I have to tell you today that the gospel says the reverse: that your problem is inside of you and that the answer is outside of you”?

And they say, “Well, what do you mean by that?”

And then we would say, “Well, outside of you—in a very real sense, outside of the walls of Jerusalem—Jesus of Nazareth was nailed upon a cross.” Because

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n, and let us in.[16]

And the pushback comes: “But you can’t possibly be serious! Are you saying that only in Jesus is salvation? That only in Jesus?”

And you’re saying [weakly], “Yes. Yes.” You want to say, “Yes!” But it comes out like that, doesn’t it? At least, that’s the way it comes out of me.

That’s why this is so helpful, isn’t it? You’re gonna have to endure the suffering. You’re gonna be on the receiving end of accusations. You’re gonna be on the receiving end of the devil’s insinuations. The devil comes to deceive you, to discourage you, and to derail you, if he could. And how many times Timothy must have, in the face of this kind of suffering, repeated the words of Paul to him at the beginning of chapter 2: “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” There is a cost, loved ones, in telling men and women the Bible’s assessment of man as man outside of Christ—namely, sinful, guilty, responsible, and lost, and condemned. And unless you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, since you stand condemned already, you will be condemned for all eternity. There’s a cost involved in that. “Endure suffering.”

Of course, if you want to bottle it, if you want to just be well liked, if you want to move around the community and just be known as a happy Charlie who’s whatever he is, then you can go do that as well. But Paul says, “No, I want you to endure hardship, endure suffering, and also to do the work of an evangelist.”

Well, the two things go together. What I’ve just said is “doing the work of an evangelist.” I take it that Paul is not suggesting that Timothy has a change of role, that he quits being a pastor and becomes an evangelist. Rather, he’s simply reinforcing the charge that he’s given to him already, which is to preach the Word. As J. B. Phillips paraphrases it, “Go on[, Timothy,] steadily preaching the Gospel.” Just “go on steadily preaching the Gospel.” We’ve always been helped as a team by a quote from Jim Packer in his book A Quest for Godliness, where he writes, “If one preaches the Bible biblically, one cannot help preaching the gospel all the time, and every sermon will be, as Bolton said, at least by implication evangelistic.”[17]

Now, why is this so important? Well, think about it. Think about church history. Think about the immediacy of your own church history. Don’t we all have occasion to reflect with sadness on the fact that we know of godly ministers who have deviated from the course? And not just because they have gone into moral confusion, but some of us are tempted to deviate from the course as a result of determining that the balance of our ministry is now not going to be one of proclamation, but it is going to be one of denunciation—that we’re gonna chase down the heretics; we’re gonna use every opportunity we have to point out everyone that’s wrong and everything that’s wrong. The devil’s very happy with that as well. Because what you’ve done is you’ve given up preaching the gospel. You’ve now just become a sort of grumpy old character—or a grumpy young character, for that matter. You say, “Well, are you saying that we don’t point these things out?” Are you listening to me? We’re doing Timothy! Of course we do. But that’s not the measure of our ministry. And some have deviated as a result of denunciation.

And others, along the same lines, in just exercising a ministry of condemnation, cursing the darkness. I don’t know how you sit under that kind of ministry: just constantly the person uses it as an opportunity to tell everybody how dark, how gloomy, how horrible, how miserable everything is. Or are you really gonna spend the balance of your ministry trying to fix America, turn it back to flags and apple pie and all the stuff? Is that what you plan on doing? Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your time! It’s about a gospel ministry. “Do the work of an evangelist.” Tell people about Jesus. The song that we sang reinforces that: “’Tis all my business here below to cry, ‘Behold the Lamb!’”[18]

If you go to Spurgeon’s grave in Upper Norwood, outside of London, what does he have there? On his tombstone he has,

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream
[His] flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.[19]

He’s got it right! I have to be engaged in making sure that I am declaring again and again that the Son of God came to die for us and for our sins. “His only righteousness I show.”[20] He now offers to clothe us in his righteousness and to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.[21] To say to men and women that the only safe haven is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Jesus, in whom every part of our salvation is complete.

John Murray—the late John Murray of Westminster Seminary—says, “The passion [for evangelism] is quenched when we lose sight of the grandeur of the [gospel],”[22] when we just lose sight of the immensity of the story that we’ve been given to proclaim. And he goes on to say, “It is on the crest of the wave of divine sovereignty that the unrestricted summons comes to the weary and to the heavy laden. This is Jesus’ own witness, and it provides the direction in which our own thinking on this subject must proceed.” Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying it is because God has purposed to save a people, that it’s because of that that evangelism has any significance at all. That we’re not out there trying to twist people’s arms up their back. We’re out there to tell them, “Look, here is the story. Here is Jesus.” And “on the crest of the wave of divine sovereignty.” Then he says, “Any inhibition or reserve in presenting the overtures of grace should no more characterize our proclamation than it characterizes the Lord’s witness.”

And finally, “fulfill your ministry.” That’s as good a place to finish a conference like this as any, isn’t it? “Fulfill your ministry.” Your wife says to you, “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to fulfill my ministry.” In other words, “I’m gonna keep going, honey. I’m going to finish the job, God being my helper. I’m gonna discharge all the duties of my ministry. I’m going to carry out to full the commission that God has given me.” In secular Greek, the language here is used often to denote the fulfilling of a promise or the repaying of a debt. And Timothy had promised in his ordination, and so have we. Timothy was indebted to Paul, to Christ, just as we are indebted to those who led us to Christ and who have nurtured us. Jesus, in paying a debt he didn’t owe, kept his promise to the Father, who in turn promised him the nations as his inheritance.[23]

And so, here we are, with the great complexities of life before us and with the future coming in at the rate of sixty seconds a minute, and returning to the task. As one of the Lutheran commentators say, “The pulpit draws the preacher the way the sea draws the sailor. To preach, to really preach, is to die naked and to realize every time you do you’ve got to do it again”[24] in the evening.

The hymn writer helps me, usually, with this:

Facing a task unfinished
That drives us to our knees,
A need that, undiminished,
Rebukes our slothful ease,
We who [resolve] to know thee
[Declare] before your throne
The solemn pledge we owe you
To go and make you known.

We bear the torch that flaming
Fell from the hands of those
Who gave their lives proclaiming
That Jesus died and rose;
[And] ours is the same [ambition],
[And] the same glad message ours;
[And] fired with the same ambition,
To you we yield our pow’rs.[25]

The challenge that we face, the character that we forge, and the charge that we fight.

Father, you’re the one who searches us and knows us. And we thank you that you love with such a heart of compassion, that you don’t snuff out the flickering wick, you don’t snuff out the candle that’s just barely visible, but you come in order to fan it into a flame—that you do not discard the broken reed, the flute that gives less than a beautiful sound, but again you come to enable. And some of us feel ourselves to be those flickering wicks and those broken flutes, as it were.[26] So we look away from ourselves to the cross, and we thank you that there, in Jesus, is all of our righteousness. And as we look upon his sacrifice, we hear the call from the cross to give ourselves away in the service of Christ. Help us to do so, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] See 1 Peter 5:3.

[2] 1 Timothy 3:15 (ESV).

[3] William Gaither and Gloria Gaither, “The Family of God” (1970). Lyrics lightly altered.

[4] Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 122.

[5] 1 Timothy 4:6 (ESV).

[6] See 2 Timothy 3:1.

[7] See Romans 1:23–25.

[8] 2 Timothy 1:13 (ESV).

[9] 1 Timothy 6:3 (ESV).

[10] 2 Timothy 3:6–7 (ESV).

[11] Jeremiah 5:30–31 (ESV).

[12] See 2 Timothy 1:6.

[13] 2 Timothy 4:7 (paraphrased).

[14] 2 Timothy 2:8–9 (paraphrased).

[15] See 2 Timothy 1:14.

[16] Cecil Frances Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (1847).

[17] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (1990; repr., Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 169.

[18] Charles Wesley, “Jesus! the Name High over All” (1749).

[19] William Cowper, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” (1772).

[20] Wesley, “Jesus! the Name High over All.”

[21] See Jude 1:24.

[22] “The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1, The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 59.

[23] See Psalm 2:8.

[24] Bruce W. Thielemann, The Wittenburg Door 36 (April–May 1977), quoted in Joseph M. Stowell, “Why I Love to Preach,” in The Moody Handbook of Preaching, ed. John Koessler (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 69. Paraphrased.

[25] Frank Houghton, “Facing a Task Unfinished.”

[26] See Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.