Let the Lion Out
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Let the Lion Out

2 Timothy 4:1–5  (ID: 3100)

In starting a new job, it’s important to recognize the tasks, challenges, and requirements for the position. Likewise, as Timothy prepared to preach the Gospel, Paul counseled him on what was needed for his task. Reviewing Paul’s instructions, Alistair Begg teaches today’s pastors to share Paul’s objective: reliance on the Word of God to accomplish God’s work by His Spirit. As the Word is preached, pastors should look to biblical truths, patiently teaching while God opens blind eyes and softens hard hearts.

Series Containing This Sermon

Encore 2021

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25917

Sermon Transcript: Print

The verses of Scripture to which I should like to draw your attention you will find in 2 Timothy chapter 4. The longer John preached, the more I thought he was going to preach my entire message. I don’t ever remember sitting there praying, “Dear Lord, help him to stop.”

Two Timothy 4:1:

“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.”


Father, we pray that with our Bibles open, that the Spirit of God will be our teacher. Many of us have been entrusted with the immense responsibility of being the students and teachers and preachers of your Word. And as we’ve sung in these songs, our hearts are hungry to know you, to learn of you, and to make much of you. So in this time we pray for your help to this end, that in everything the Lord Jesus Christ may actually be everything. For in his name we pray. Amen.

Having given you my text, I want to let you know that my title for this talk I am borrowing from a well-known quote from one of Spurgeon’s sermons, a sermon that he preached entitled “Christ and His Co-Workers.” Here is the quote, and I think you will quickly determine what the title is:

A great many learned men are defending the gospel; no doubt it is a very proper and right thing to do, yet I always notice that, when there are most books of that kind, it is because the gospel itself is not being preached. Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion …. There he is in his cage, and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him. Well, I should suggest to them, if they would not object, and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back, and open the door, and let the lion out! I believe that would be the best way of defending him, for he would take care of himself; and the best “apology” for the gospel is to let the gospel out. Never mind about defending Deuteronomy or the whole of the Pentateuch; preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Let the lion out, and see who will dare approach him. The Lion of the tribe of Judah will soon drive away all his adversaries.[1]

And so, our text is 2 Timothy 4:1–5, and our title is “Let the Lion Out.”

Paul here, in the opening verses of these chapters, is identifying the necessity that is laid upon Timothy. As the chapter goes on, he’s telling Timothy that the time for his departure has come. He’s fought the fight, he’s finished the race, he’s kept the faith, and now it is absolutely crucial that Timothy, his young lieutenant, will do likewise. And he is urging upon him the absolute priority of the ministry of the Word of God—to peach the Word, to let the lion out. For what Timothy believes about the Scriptures will become apparent in his preaching. And what is true of Timothy will be true for you and me as well.

In the concluding verses of chapter 3, from which we have quoted already this morning, Paul is not informing Timothy there of truth that he hadn’t known. Timothy would not have read 3:16–17 and said, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that about the Bible.” Timothy had grown up with an understanding of the Bible. He knew the familiarity of the Old Testament phrase “the word of the Lord came”—to Solomon, to Shemaiah, to Samuel, to all of the prophets. But he understood that what Paul was doing was reminding him of a truth that he dare never forget. And essentially, my brief this morning is to do just that: to remind us of what we know and, hopefully, to encourage us in that very task.

The Scriptures are divinely inspired. They are completely reliable. They are totally sufficient. And as Paul has pointed out, they provide the key to the competence and to the usefulness of the man of God.

Now, he’s made Timothy aware of the fact that he had faced himself, as the apostle, a wholesale desertion in the context of Asia. “They’ve all deserted me,” he said, “and you should be prepared for the fact that they will all desert you too.”[2] From a human perspective there was actually no guarantee that the fledgling church would be sustained in the next generation—from a human perspective. And therefore, it was crucial that Timothy continue in what he had learned, had become convinced of, and had firmly believed.

Because he was actually ministering in an environment not too dissimilar to our own. He was to preach the Word of God in a time of absolute confusion, and particularly on two fronts: moral and doctrinal; in a context where people did not know how they were supposed to behave, and they did not really know what it was they were supposed to believe. And so, with the departure of the apostle and the transition from the apostolic to the postapostolic church, it is time now for Timothy to take up this charge.

And I want you to notice, first of all, his charge in verses 1 and 2, his challenge in verses 3 and 4, and the opportunity to display his character in verse 5.

Timothy’s Charge

First of all, then, his charge, noticing that it is a solemn charge: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…” There’s nothing casual, nothing inconsequential, about it. Matthew Henry says aptly, “The best of men have need to be awed into the discharge of their [ministry].”[3] “Awed into the discharge of their [ministry].” And so Paul reminds his young friend that he exercises this ministry with the Father and the Son as his witnesses—that when Jesus comes in power, he will “judge the living and the dead.” And what he’s actually doing is urging Timothy to live his life and exercise his charge in the very same way that Paul had done. Because he lived in the light of Christ’s appearing, and he lived in the concept and expectation of the consummation of Christ’s kingdom. So Timothy needs to do the same.

The writer to the Hebrews puts it in terms that are quite awesome when he reminds the people that they must pay attention to their leaders, because they keep “watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”[4] Now, they’re not giving an account to Mrs. Philpot, who’s played the piano for fourteen years and is a nuisance, or giving an account to the board of trustees, who show up intermittently and never very profitably. No, the account is being given to the God before whom he serves.

Knox, remember—who had a few stools thrown at him in his day—was said to have feared the face of God so much that he never actually feared the face of any man (or woman, for that matter).[5]

Now, you see, Paul lived his life in the now in light of the reality of the then. And when we read church history, don’t we discover that those who have lived in that way, for whom the prospect of then—I remember one of whom it was said, “Heaven was in him before he was in heaven”—so that the prospect of then so impinges upon the now that it makes them different from what they would have been otherwise. Some of us are so convinced about living in the now that we’ve almost completely lost any thought of the then.

Not so for Murray M’Cheyne!

When this passing world is done,
And when ha[th] sunk [this] glaring sun,
When we stand with Christ on high
Looking o’er life’s history,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe.[6]

It is a solemn charge. It’s much worse than getting married. If you use the Anglican prayer book, you know that you say to the couple, “Marriage is ordained by God” and so on, “and it is not to be entered upon lightly or carelessly but thoughtfully, with reverence for God, with due consideration for the purposes of which it was established by God.” Such is the call and the charge to the ministry of the Word of God: solemn.

Secondly, it is simple—simple charge, in the sense that it is straightforward. It’s not hard to grasp. Timothy can get ahold of this immediately, and so may you and I.

The Word of God accomplishes the work of God by the Spirit of God.

Now, all that Paul has already written to Timothy in this letter—and, indeed, in his previous letter—concerning “the pattern of the sound words,”[7] “the good deposit,”[8] “the word of truth,”[9] “the sacred writings”[10]—all of that underpins this directive. It is a ministry of the Word. It is to be exercised in the awareness that the Word of God accomplishes the work of God by the Spirit of God, and that powerful preaching of the Bible is not related to the histrionics of the preacher but is directly related to a consciousness of God—a consciousness which must be a consciousness, first, of the preacher before it will ever be of the congregation; a sense of God’s presence; a sense of God’s majesty, his otherness, his awesomeness, his transcendence, and yet at the same time his immanence: that he is here, that he is present, that the charge is received in the presence of the Father and of the Son and in light of the appearing and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.

That’s why preaching is culturally neutral. Doesn’t matter where you go in the world; people understand what it is to sit and listen to somebody speaking with authority. The Congress has done that this morning, listening to Netanyahu. They didn’t all get together and have a little study with one another about the issues in the Middle East. Apparently, they do that a lot, and not to much effect. But nevertheless, it is culturally neutral, because people understand what it is to do it. And it is there from the very beginning. Deuteronomy chapter 4, God says, “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 … earth, and that they may teach their children so.”[11] “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.”[12] “Only a voice.”

And I’m sure you’ve been asked—I’m asked routinely by some clueless and yet kind friends who say, “How do you manage to come up with something all the time? How long have you been doing that? Goodness gracious, how do you come up with it?” Well, sadly, too many of us have been coming up with it, haven’t we? Pulpits filled by inventive, well-meaning individuals speaking with a contrived emphasis, suggesting that somehow, to expound the Scriptures is simply to provide—that the ultimate objective is achieved by providing increased knowledge about the passage with a few practical pointers that you can take home and talk about with one another in the afternoon.

That’s all well and good. But surely that is not the objective. That is not the primary objective of the ministry of the Word of God. It is that as the Word of God is brought home by the Spirit of God, we then may have a life-shaping, grace-changing encounter with God himself, that we are made different as a result of it, that we are different on account of it, because God has accomplished his purposes.

That’s why Machen, when he addressed his students, was very clear on this, pushing them again and again back to the Bible. He says to them, “It is with the open Bible that the real Christian preacher comes before the congregation. He does not come to present his opinions. He does not come to present the results of his researches in the phenomena of religion, but he comes to set forward what is contained in the Word of God.”[13] So that what God has spoken to the apostles has been bequeathed to us in the Bible, so that we, like Timothy, are to preach the Word and nothing but the Word.

Sangster, the famous Methodist preacher from Methodist Central Hall in London, died, I think, towards the end of the 1950s. Thousands of people, apparently, would come to listen to him preach. But as he neared the end of his life—albeit not aware of the fact that his life was petering out—he bemoaned the fact, as he put it, that “preaching is in the shadows. The world does not believe in it.”[14] And here we are now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Is it unkind to suggest that we might replace “world” with “church”? “Preaching is in the shadows. The church does not believe in it.” Is it fair to say that we’re sorely in need of this solemn, simple charge? May I ask my colleagues: Are you convinced that the regular, expository preaching and teaching of the Bible, owned by, clothed in, sustained by the work of the Spirit of God, that that is the driving force that shapes authentic church life?

In verse 2, it’s obvious that Paul is preparing him for these various seasons that will come. Some will be more daunting, potentially discouraging, than others. And so he says, “I want you to preach the Word and to be ready, when you do, in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, complete patience and teaching.” The New English Bible, which I don’t often quote, translates it, “Press [the message] home on all occasions, convenient or inconvenient.”
I think that’s quite good.

In other words, there is no excuse here for fearfulness or for laziness. Preach the Word when people are hostile or when they’re receptive; when they’re tuned in or when they’re tuned out; when the prospect of a Sunday is delightful, when the thought of a Sunday is dreadful; when the crowd is growing, when the congregation is dwindling; in the awareness of the fact that by its very nature, Scripture will do what it does. It will reprove, it will rebuke, it will exhort. It won’t always be comfortable, but it will always be profitable, as Paul has said in verse 16 of the previous chapter.[15]

Who is sufficient for this? We think about the vastness of our congregations. If they’re more than fifty, how can we know everything and know everyone? How will we know just exactly what to do and how to say and how it will apply? Well, he says, “You bring home the Word of God, and realize that God opens blind eyes, and God softens hard hearts, and God will accomplish his purposes. And as you do this, do so with complete patience and teaching.” Phillips paraphrases it, “Using the utmost patience in your teaching”; the NIV, “with great patience and careful instruction”; and here, in the ESV, “with complete patience and teaching.” What an unfortunate adjective, “complete.” Couldn’t it have just said “with a wee bit of patience”? “Being intermittently patient in your approach”? No, “complete patience.”

You know, I confess to you that just yesterday, as I reviewed this and sat at a table somewhere, I had a vivid flashback—actually, a painful flashback—to a park in suburban Glasgow and to a summer evening, as I tried desperately to teach my son to ride a bike without any stabilizers, or training wheels, as we refer to them here. I was so committed to him being able to ride a two-wheeler bike. I was passionately concerned that he would be able to be so. But I haven’t checked, because I don’t want to, in case he also remembers that early summer evening. ’Cause I lost my patience with him. And what should have been a wonderful occasion of discovery, albeit with a wonderful objective and good motivation, was actually marred by my impatience.

And then I thought, “How often in these years of pastoral ministry has it been your impatience, Begg, that has marred the benefit of the instruction you have conveyed?” And then I went looking for a quote from volume 2 of Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Ian Murray, on page 458, and there it was, just as I thought it would be. Quoting someone who said, “A young minister is prone to try to attain by one jump the height which others have reached ‘by a long series of single steps in the labour of a quarter of a century.’”[16] And I think it was Jim Boice—it was Jim who said it to me, since we’ve quoted him already—he said, “You know, as you engage in things, Alistair, remember that what you think you can accomplish in a year you won’t be able to do, and you’ll be surprised how much one is able to accomplish in five years.”

Timothy’s Challenge

So, to recap: The charge is solemn. It’s straightforward. It is the inerrant Word that is to be preached—to be preached when the wind is with us, when “all occasions do inform against” us,[17] and to be preached patiently and carefully. And the reason this is so important Paul now sets before Timothy in the challenge that is his—verses 3 and 4.

He’s already been made aware of those who have swerved from the truth. (That’s in 2:18.) And now he’s going to exercise the ministry in the absence of Paul, faced with people who are turning away from the truth and who are wandering into myth. The “time is coming.” It’s always coming. It’s a recurring phenomenon.

We quoted earlier from Moses’s words in Deuteronomy 4—absolute clarity as God speaks through his prophet to his people and he says, “This wasn’t a visual thing; this was an audible thing. This wasn’t about what you would look and see; it was about what you would listen and hear.” And he says, “I’m distinguishing you amongst all the nations in this one respect—particularly, that you will listen to my voice, that you will pay attention to my word. You will be distinguishable by this very feature.”

And what happened? Well, they immediately went out, and they were intrigued by, attracted by, all kinds of visual possibilities. They all seemed far more appealing—in contemporary terms, much easier to invite their friends to—than another boring sermon. Instead of bowing before their Creator, they became creators themselves, creating their own manageable little gods who would accommodate them. Essentially, they “exchanged the truth [of] God for a lie.”[18] And as Martin Luther observed, if a man will not have God, he must have his idols.

So Timothy must be prepared for the times when “people will not endure sound teaching,” or “put up with” sound teaching.[19] He’s already exhorted him to follow “the pattern of sound words,” and in the first letter, he had told them of those who teach “a different doctrine”—chapter 6—that “does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[20]

This adjective “sound” is a very British adjective, at least in my background. As a boy growing up, I would hear of those who apparently were sound and those who were not sound. I never really understood it until I had grown up a little bit, and I realized that sound was a euphemism, a synonym, for “They agree with me.” But no, not really. It meant “They are orthodox in their view, their understanding of the Bible, and so on.”

Just one little anecdote as it comes to mind. I was preaching in Northern Ireland years ago, and my host was a little retired bank manager called T. S. Mooney, who was regarded as the sort of unelected bishop of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in the North of Ireland. He was a very funny man. He had all kinds of one-liners, and he was very devout and had taught young people—boys in particular—for fifty years in a Bible class up to the day of his death. And every evening as I spoke at this young people’s convention in Londonderry, he would come into the little room in the back of the Methodist church, and we would have a prayer together. He would pray very earnestly that God would help me as I preached and so on, for which I was very grateful. And then he would go out, and eventually the time would come for me to speak.

And in the first night, as I’d hardly got through the “This is my title,” and he was already in the third stages of anesthesia. He was he was gone. And it happened on a Monday night, happened on the Tuesday night, and on the Wednesday—’cause we were living together; I was living in his flat. And I eventually, as I was driving with him, I said, “T. S.,” I said, “you know, every night you come in the prayer time, and you pray these earnest prayers, and then you go and you’ve fallen asleep every single night.” And he knew he was caught out. And he was a funny little man. And he looked at me and he says, “Al, Al, it’s just like this, you see: I just stay awake till I know you’re sound.”

Well, people won’t put up with sound doctrine. As soon as it goes sound, they have decided to exit stage left. Instead of availing themselves of teachers and of teaching that will make them godly, make them healthy, make them useful, they are now in search of the intriguing, the fascinating, the speculative, the spicy. They’ll be more interested, he says, in novelty than in orthodoxy. They will essentially seek out teachers who tell them what they want to hear.

Now, of course, this was not new information. This was not unique to Timothy’s day. In Isaiah 30, we find God’s people rejecting the instruction of the prophet not because it wasn’t clear but because it was too clear. They didn’t want him to stop preaching; they just wanted him to preach in a manner that suited their fancy, that accommodated their passions. See, the real challenge for most of us is not that we actually stop believing the Bible; the real challenge is that we actually stop using the Bible; that we stop actually allowing the word of God—if I might use “allowing the Word of God”—that that we stop submitting to the authority of the Word of God in our own lives and in our proclamation.

And listen to the way in which Isaiah 30 reads:

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 path,
 let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”[21]

No, it’s no new thing to encounter those who are in search of and then proponents of a spirituality that is actually disconnected from biblical truth. And that surely is the environment in which most of us are operating now. People tell us all the time, “I’m a very spiritual person. I just have no interest in the Bible. I’m a very spiritual person.”

These individuals accumulate teachers, along the lines of the “weak women” that Paul has already mentioned in the letter—those individuals who were “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”[22] They accumulate them. You can just imagine that their Facebook page is just filled up with teacher after teacher after teacher: “Did you hear this one? Did you see that one? Oh, look at this one!” They’re tweeting while you preach. They’re trying to find new information all the time. They have CDs from every imaginable place in the world. You could line an entire trailer truck with them all, with all the information. But if you ask them, “And what do you know of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ?”—well, they know nothing at all. They’re “always learning,” but they’re “never able to [come to] a knowledge of the truth.”

John quoted it, and it’s worth requoting it, isn’t it?

An appalling and horrible thing
 has happened in the land:
the prophets prophesy falsely,
 and the priests rule at their direction;
[and] my people love to have it so.[23]

Now, I have the unfortunate distinction of living in a city that has more losing sports teams than, frankly, is manageable under any circumstances. But far more devastating is the fact that in Cleveland we have the headquarters of arguably the most liberal Protestant denomination in America—namely, the United Church of Christ. Their current marketing slogan, which is all around me as I drive in Ohio, is “God Is Still Speaking.” And the byline is “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” They got that, actually, from the papers of Gracie Allen, a well-known “theologian” who was married for most of her life to the comedian George Burns. It all sounds very apropos, doesn’t it? It seems very accommodating.

At a recent gathering in Cleveland, where representatives of the denomination—high-ranking representatives, clergy people—were arguing in favor of a gay-rights agenda, a friend of mine happened to be going down on the elevator with this man and his husband, who had been there representing the church in this discourse. My friend, taking his courage in his hands, said kindly to the man, “What do you make, sir, if I may ask, of Matthew 19, where Jesus said, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,’[24] and went on to say, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother, and the two will become one flesh’?”[25] And my friend said the man looked at him quizzically for a moment, and then he said, “But of course we don’t believe the Bible at all.”

Well, that’s clarity, isn’t it? That’s helpful. And yet those churches have people in them every single Sunday—not many, mercifully. But it is in that environment that we find ourselves ministering. I say it without any spirit of condemnation. It applies far and beyond there—rings out, sadly, in my native land as well as in my adopted home.

Timothy’s Character

Well, the charge is clear, isn’t it? Verses 1 and 2. The challenge is great—verses 3 and 4. And so, verse 5, Paul says it provides him with an opportunity to display his character.

This is no time for self-pity. This is an opportunity to stay steady, to face whatever suffering may come, to keep on preaching the gospel, to complete the task.

This fifth verse adds four more imperatives to the five that are present in verse 2. Timothy is assigned a tall order, a man-sized challenge. Here in this fifth verse we have, as one commentator put it, a realistic statement of what Christian ministry is all about. Confronted by opposition, by isolation, it would be all too easy for Timothy just to throw in the towel, to quit the fight, to lie down in the grass, to exit the race. But this is no time for self-pity. This is an opportunity to stay steady, to face whatever suffering may come, to keep on preaching the gospel, to complete the task.

And so, without much elaboration, let’s just notice this fourfold directive.

Number one: “Always be sober-minded.” He was surrounded by some who had become intoxicated with all of their mythological notions. They had wandered away; they had drifted off. This wouldn’t be a good time for Timothy to use a pastoral cruise control or automatic pilot. He daren’t fall asleep, for his own sake and for the sake of those under his care. He must be vigilant; so must we. He must be alert. He must be prepared to endure. He must make sure that he’s not susceptible to the speculative notions, nor that he is unduly influenced by the numbers of people who flock in the direction of these kinds of teachers. “Always”—always—“be sober-minded.” Or, in the NIV, “Keep your head in all situations.”[26]

Secondly, “Endure suffering.” Paul began his letter by inviting him to join him in suffering for the gospel.[27] He’s spoken about his suffering all the way through: “This is my gospel, for which I’m suffering,” he says again and again. Timothy would not have been able to recognize many of our approaches to what it means to be a gospel minister. In Paul’s case, the suffering was obviously physical. In Timothy’s case, it may not be. For many of our brothers and sisters in the world, it is physical. For us, it may be more mental or emotional, but it’s real, nevertheless.

As people chase around in search of a more politically acceptable gospel, there’s a cost involved in guarding the good deposit.[28] There’s a cost involved to declare in public, and then in private, the Bible’s assessment of man as being sinful and guilty and responsible and lost. It’s hard to do that and say, “Come in, and bring your coffee and your donuts. We want you all to just have a lovely time this morning. Don’t want anybody getting upset or anything. But by the way, you’re sinful, guilty, responsible, and lost. Don’t spill your coffee!” You see, you can’t do it. You can’t do it.

And that’s why superficial worship and silly introductions do not set the scene for decent biblical preaching. And half of the context in which worship takes place is so unlike anything that the Bible would regard as worship that it makes it far harder to actually bring any kind of solemnity or God-ness into the experience of the Scriptures. “Timothy, you’re gonna have to endure suffering. You’ll be on the receiving end of accusations, the insinuations of the Evil One, who comes to deceive you, to discourage you, to derail you, if he possibly could.”

As I read and reread this this week, I thought how often Timothy must have taken to himself—the way you would take a piece of hard candy and keep it in your cheek—take to himself the opening statement of Paul in his second chapter: “[Timothy], be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”[29] He would have said to it again and again, “That’s it. I’m strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

“Sober-minded.” “Endure suffering.” Thirdly, “Do the work of an evangelist.” Oh, so Paul wants him to get a new job? It’s a change of role, is it? He’s not going to be a pastor-teacher; he’s going to be an evangelist.

I don’t think so. Rather, he’s reinforcing the charge to preach the Word. J. B. Phillips paraphrases it, again—and you can tell I like J. B. Phillips’s paraphrase—“Go on steadily preaching the Gospel.”[30] “Go on steadily preaching the Gospel.” “Be a gospel man, Timothy. If you’re going to be known for one thing, be known as a gospel man.”

Packer in A Quest for Godliness has a wonderful quote where he says, “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.”[31] So that we are ultimately saying, “We beseech, you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.[32] You’re not here simply to be informed a little, with a few practical tips to take home for conversation in the car. We preach to you as M’Cheyne preached: as men who will soon die to those who are on their way to death. Therefore, we beseech you on Christ’s behalf. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.[33] He who knew no sin became sin for us that in him we might become the righteousness of God[34]—that the only safe haven for the sinner is in the mercy of God himself.” And when this begins to dawn on the preacher and on those to whom he preaches, then we’re moving in the realm of useful, effective, biblical evangelism.

In my lifetime, such as it is, I have watched, sadly, many good, godly, effective gospel ministers deviate from their course, either determining that it is now their calling to chase down the heretics, so their ministry becomes one of denunciation; or simply to curse the darkness (“Do you realize what a mess we’re in?”), and their ministry becomes one of condemnation; or at the same time to embrace political agendas, so that it now becomes politicization. And what happens? The work of evangelism is not done.

Timothy dare not neglect this work: declaring that the Son of God came to die for us and for our sins; that he offers to clothe us in his righteousness; that all that God has done for us, as Calvin said, is of no value to us as long as we remain outside of Christ.[35] To misquote John Murray, “The passion for [evangelism]”—he said “the passion for missions”—“the passion for [evangelism] is quenched when we lose sight of the grandeur of the [gospel].” He said “evangel.”[36]

And for some of you young men, let me just say this final word to you—almost final. Some of you have rolled over in your beds and discovered biblical theology, and for that I rejoice. One of the incumbent problems that has come with it is that somehow or another, you’re stymied when it comes to pressing upon people the claims of Christ and the free offer of the gospel. Beware of this, loved ones. Choose your mentors well. And listen again to Murray: “It is on the crest of the wave of divine sovereignty that the unrestricted summons of the gospel comes to the weary and the heavy laden. This is Jesus’ own witness, and it provides the direction in which our own thinking on this subject must proceed. Any inhibition or reserve in presenting the overtures of grace should no more characterize our proclamation than it characterizes the Lord’s witness.”

Finally, “Fulfill your ministry”—which in my case means “Stop.” “Keep going. Finish the job. Carry on to the full the commission that God has given you.” In the secular Greek, the verb sometimes denotes the fulfilling of a promise or the repaying of a debt.

Well, I think we can finish there.

Timothy had promised in his ordination—and so have we, those of us who are called to this task. Timothy was indebted to Paul just as we are indebted to those who led us to Christ, who have nurtured us, who continue to encourage and inspire us. Jesus, in paying a debt he didn’t owe, kept his promise to the Father, and in turn, he received the promise of his Father, granting him the nations as his inheritance.[37]

So perhaps an old mission hymn, seldom sung, can serve as our conclusion. Do you know these words?

Facing a task unfinished
That drives us to our knees,
A need that, undiminished,
Rebukes our slothful ease,
We who [resolve] to know [him]
Declare before [his] throne
The solemn pledge we owe [him]
To go and make [him] 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 powers.[38]

The challenge that we face is clear. The character that we forge is in process. The charge that we find is solemn and straightforward. I say to you, my brothers: let the lion out. Let the lion out.

Father, thank you that your Word always accomplishes its purposes, and for this we are immensely grateful. We cast our bread upon the waters.[39] O God, look upon us in your mercy, and define and redefine and refine us, Lord. Prove us and reprove us, for in many cases we have less in front of us than we have behind us. We don’t want to waste our time or waste our days or besmirch your name, spoil in any sense the wonder of your amazing love. And we pray in your Son’s name. Amen.

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, “Christ and His Co-Workers,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, no. 2467, 256.

[2] 2 Timothy 4:16 (paraphrased).

[3] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, ed. Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), 1897.

[4] Hebrews 13:17 (ESV).

[5] Attributed to James Douglas in W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 283.

[6] Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “When This Passing World Is Done” (1837).

[7] 2 Timothy 1:13 (ESV).

[8] 2 Timothy 1:14 (ESV).

[9] 2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV).

[10] 2 Timothy 3:15 (ESV).

[11] Deuteronomy 4:10 (ESV).

[12] Deuteronomy 4:12 (ESV).

[13] J. Gresham Machen, introduction to J. Marcellus Kik, The Narrow and Broad Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1934).

[14] W. E. Sangster, The Craft of Sermon Construction: A Source Book for Ministers (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1951), 11.

[15] See 2 Timothy 3:16.

[16] William M. Taylor, The Ministry of the Word (New York, 1876), 4, attributed in Iain Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939–1981 (1990; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004), 458. Murray’s quotation of Taylor differs slightly from Taylor’s original.

[17] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 4.4.

[18] Romans 1:25 (ESV).

[19] 2 Timothy 4:3 (NIV).

[20] 1 Timothy 6:3 (ESV).

[21] Isaiah 30:9–11 (ESV).

[22] 2 Timothy 3:6–7 (ESV).

[23] Jeremiah 5:30–31 (ESV).

[24] Matthew 19:4 (ESV).

[25] Matthew 19:5 (paraphrased).

[26] 2 Timothy 4:5 (NIV).

[27] See 2 Timothy 1:8.

[28] See 2 Timothy 1:14.

[29] 2 Timothy 2:1 (ESV).

[30] 2 Timothy 4:5 (Phillips).

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

[32] See 2 Corinthians 5:20.

[33] See 2 Corinthians 5:19.

[34] See 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[35] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1.

[36] “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.

[37] See Psalm 2:8.

[38] Frank Houghton, “Facing a Task Unfinished” (1931).

[39] See Ecclesiastes 11:1.

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.