My call to ministry was very much a call to preach. Like Jeremiah I felt I could do nothing else but preach: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within there is something like burning fire shut up in my bon es; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer 20.9). Not surprisingly therefore, when as Principal of Spurgeon’s College I was invited to preach at a service of ordination, I often turned to Paul’s charge to Timothy to “proclaim” Jesus:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching… Do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. (2 Tim 4.1-2, 5)
From this charge we discover that preaching in the first instance is ‘proclamation’ . The New Testament word for a preacher is a ‘herald’ (kerux). When Jesus began his ministry, he came as a ‘herald’ with good news from God (Mark 1.14). The same word is found here in 2 Tim 4.2: “proclaim (keruxon). the message” Preachers have a message to deliver: it is not their message, but God’s. As Ben Witherington has shown: “A herald in a city like Ephesus was a person who announced public auctions and sales, new taxes, the manumission of slaves, the beginning of public games, the orders of kings, and the onset of religious ceremonies… He came later to be called the ‘town crier’. His role was simply that of announcer… The basic task of the herald was to publicly announce something to people who had not yet heard the news.”
According to the NRSV & REB Timothy was to “proclaim the message”; similarly, the GNB says that he was to “preach the message. Unfortunately the translation adopted by the NIV (as also the old RSV) is a little misleading: for the charge “preach the word” has led some to conclude that Timothy was to preach “the Word of God as found in Scripture” However, although the Greek word used (logos) literally means ‘word’, the reference it not to Scripture but to the “message” that preachers to proclaim; the news they have to share.
For Christian preachers the news is about Jesus. Indeed, the other word frequently used in the New Testament for preaching is ‘to share good news’ (euagelizo).
Secondly, preachers are to “be persistent, whether the time is favourable or unfavourable”. According to the standard New Testament Greek lexicon the word translated as ‘persistent’ (ephistemi) has here the meaning of ‘being ready’, ‘being on hand’. If that is so, then Paul is telling Timothy to be always available. According to Ben Witherington, Timothy “is to get on with it and not let circumstances determine whether he does it or not”.
It is possible that the underlying Greek word also has the connotation of urgency (so RSV “be urgent”; REB “press it home in season and out of season”). There is a difference between announcing the Good News of Jesus and announcing, say, that the next train to London will be leaving in five minutes. It’s a nuisance failing to hear a train a station announcement, but at least there will always be another train. But missing out on the Good News of Jesus can lead to tragedy. The Gospel is a matter of life and death; people’s eternal destiny is at stake. Opportunities to share the Good News need to be seized, however inconvenient it may be to the preacher.
Thirdly, preachers are to “convince, rebuke and encourage”. There is no one approach to Gospel preaching, for people have different needs.
- An appeal to the reason. The word “convince” (elengcho) can have the positive connotation of convincing people of the truth as it is in Jesus. An examination of Acts makes it clear that Paul in his evangelistic activity took the mind seriously. For example, at Thessalonica Paul went to the synagogue where “he argued… from the scriptures, explaining and proving”, so that eventually some were “persuaded” (Acts 17.2-3); at Athens “he argued in the synagogues…. and also in the marketplace” (Acts 17.17); at Corinth “every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince them” (Acts 18.4); and at Ephesus he “argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19.9). If this is what Paul had in mind when writing to Timothy, then this means that preachers are to engage in the task of Christian apologetics.
- An appeal to the conscience. The word “rebuke” incorporates a call to repentance. Those whose lifestyles are clearly contrary to God’s laws, need to be told that God would have them live differently.
- An appeal to the heart. The word “encourage” (parakaleo) from which the term Paraclete is reminder that there in any congregation there are the lonely and the fearful, who need to know that God is there for them – and that there is nothing in this world or the world to come which can separate them from his love.
Fourthly, preaching is also to include teaching: “Proclaim the message… with the utmost patience in teaching” or as the NIV puts it “Preach the word … with careful instruction” Unbelieves need to hear the good news, and believers need to be taught the faith. However, the distinction between preaching and teaching is not always clear cut: unbelievers need to be taught the basics of the Christian faith, before they can begin to respond: they need to know to whom and to what they are committing themselves. In turn believers also need to be reminded of God’s amazing love for them in Jesus. “Patience”, however is to characterise the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. Patience is required because, as the next two verses indicate, not everybody will respond positively. Furthermore, even those who do respond positively, often need time work out the implications of Christian believing for them.
After a lifetime of preaching, I still believe that preaching is central to Christian ministry. In the often-quoted words of Peter Forsyth: “With preaching Christianity stands or falls, because it is the declaration of a gospel. Without the faithful proclaiming of Christ in the power of the Spirit. the Church could never have survived.” All the more reason, therefore to “proclaim Christ” today!
Over a lifetime of church going ( and hoping to live a life of faith) It had nearly always been the sermon,( along with some well chosen hymns supporting the thought in the sermon), that has touched me most in the service. It has also mattered to me how the speaker comes across – he/she has , above all, to be a person who loves people – and his/her message will not be effective unless that is the case.
I hope I am generous in my judgement of preachers- perhaps my perception is not always right!