Faithfulness to “preach the word” requires that you persevere in prosperity and adversity. Paul writes, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
It’s not clear whether “in season and out of season” refers to Timothy and his varying temptations to timidity and fear, or to his audience, who could be either receptive or antagonistic. The smart guys who serve us with their commentaries differ on this. I’m persuaded by those who think it’s a reference to the audience, because verses 3 and 4 describe hearers who “will not endure sound teaching.”
Faithful preaching of the gospel isn’t broadly appealing. And when the message isn’t appealing, you can be tempted to compromise. John Stott writes,
“Whenever the biblical faith becomes unpopular, ministers are sorely tempted to mute those elements which give the most offence.”¹
But whatever the demographics and disposition of your locale, and regardless of numerical growth or lack thereof, your charge is to be faithful to preach the gospel in season and out of season. You must preach this word, whether your hearers are receptive, indifferent, or even antagonistic.
Being faithful to the message requires more than exegetical precision and homiletical skill. Faithfulness to the message requires pastoral wisdom and discernment: “reprove, rebuke and exhort” (2 Timothy 4:2).
We aren’t proclaiming a message in a vacuum. We are preaching the gospel to specific congregations, to people with names and faces. In these words—“reprove, rebuke, and exhort”—these people are in view. Each Sunday you preach to a group of hearers with varying perspectives, temptations, and levels of maturity. And pastoral discernment is required so you don’t rebuke someone you should exhort, or exhort someone you should reprove.
To reprove is to confront or to expose. As Timothy was to confront false teaching, we are to confront false ideas. To rebuke is to humbly and boldly address those who are not listening or responding to God’s Word, who have hard, proud hearts. To exhort is to encourage those who are teachable, attentive, and responsive, to explain to them how to live in light of the gospel. And any of these people could be in your church every Sunday.
Familiarity with the text is required, but not sufficient. We must also be familiar with our church. A pastor must spend time with those he serves. He must get to know them so he can wisely, appropriately, compassionately, and skillfully address them from the text, both through his preaching and in private conversation. Someone once said, “The pastor doesn’t get his message from his people, but he does get his message with his people.” There is wisdom in that. Don’t think you can craft effective sermons while isolated from those you serve.
Faithfulness to the message requires pastoral wisdom and discernment, which you gain by taking the time to know your people. The more you know them, the more skillfully and effectively you can reprove, rebuke, and exhort your church.
This post is part of a series entitled “Ordinary Pastors” and is adapted from a message I preached at T4G 2010, which was published in a compilation of sermons from that conference entitled The Unadjusted Gospel (Crossway, 2012. Used by permission.)
¹ John Stott, The Message of 2 Timothy, 112.