2 Timothy 4:2-5 NRSV
Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Somewhere in the last 50 years, the Church in America embraced a practice called “relationship evangelism.” The point of this practice is biblical: to love people, allow them to see Christ in us, and then share the gospel. Somewhere, pieces of that got lost. First, we lost the “share the gospel” part and were just satisfied with loving people and allowing them to see Christ in us. Then, it became too much of a burden to live like Christ, so we just loved people. And finally, we stopped loving altogether.
Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller (a comedian/magic team), recently posted a video on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JHS8adO3hM). In it, he talked about a man who came to watch the show and then bought tickets for a second night simply to wait in line after the show to give him a New Testament. This man didn’t wait to try to establish a relationship, but rather went up to a stranger on that stranger’s own turf, knowing there was the possibility he could be ridiculed or even evicted, to witness to this entertainer.
“Whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” Paul knew that there would be times that people would not want to hear the gospel, where the message would be rejected, where there would be taunting and even cursing at the one who was proclaiming it. It’s interesting that the word translated “proclaim” here means: preach, proclaim, publish. Potentially that covers everything: preaching in the church, proclaiming in the streets, publishing by text. And while the letter to Timothy is addressed to a young preacher, the Holy Spirit includes no qualifiers. It would seem that this passage is addressed to us all.
In the last verse notice “endure suffering.” (I know that’s the phrase we don’t like to see.) Paul doesn’t qualify that phrase (“If you suffer, endure it.”). He knows that Timothy will suffer. The Holy Spirit knows that we will suffer. We are in a world entrenched with sin. We will suffer simply because of that. If we are witnessing, we will suffer as people deride and reject the message. Paul encourages us to endure through the suffering. Don’t stop, but endure. It’s interesting the progression: be sober. Endure suffering. Evangelize. Carry out the ministry fully. As if enduring suffering sets the ground for evangelizing. (I’m not saying it does, but it’s an interesting thought.)
But that gets to the meat of this passage: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” I think that we need to be extremely mindful of this passage because there is a strong tendency in America to lean toward teachers who satisfy our lust and toward churches where we can get lost (and hide our sins). In a 2005 article on mega churches, I read:
“These churches can do a ton of things that smaller churches can’t,” said Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at the Boston University School of Theology. “They have the resources to produce a professional-quality production every weekend, with music (often specially composed for the occasion and backed by a professional ensemble) and video and lighting and computer graphics and a preacher who knows how to work a crowd.” (http://www.christianpost.com/article/20051126/megachurches-attract-crowds-link-individuals/index.html)
Now, I’m not bagging on mega churches, but if you attend one, you need to ask yourself why. In fact, we should be asking ourselves why we attend wherever we are. Do we attend because the activities are fun and we really like the music and the preacher? Or do we attend because we come away convicted and repenting? Are we in a place where the Holy Spirit convicts over and over again? Or are we attending a place where we are simply confirmed in our lifestyle? While I think there is a place for comforting the hurting, we need to realize that we like our comfort . . . a lot! And there is comfort in conviction! There is comfort in repenting! And as a people we like need a lot more repentance than comfort.
What kind of preaching attracts me? I have to be honest and say that depends on where I am in my spiritual life. If I am closely walking with the Lord, then I want a preacher who will preach the Word with boldness, where the Holy Spirit convicts where I have strayed away from the Way. If I am away from the Lord, then I like a good encouraging message because it allows me to continue in my wandering. Those convicting messages, well, sometimes they hit too close to home. And then I have to get to the point where I realize that I’m looking for a message to tickle my ears, that I’m not following sound doctrine.
Can we even discern between sound and unsound doctrine? That’s one thing that scares me. I think that many of our “good” preachers have attended schools and seminaries where sound doctrine isn’t emphasized. Instead, they’re taught about business management and evangelism techniques and how to script an interesting sermon. Many young pastors I’ve met have never read Tozer or Redpath (or even Schaeffer). It scares me that, as Christians, we are becoming more and more illiterate. Are we comfortable in that? (I think there is a modicum of comfortableness in ignorance.)
I’m not sure where all of this leads. I know that, as a believer, I have a strong desire to learn sound doctrine, to not give into the lusts of my life that can turn me away from the truth of the Word. And this passage challenges me to step out even more. I need to learn how to become more deliberate in my witnessing. And I need to make sure that I am living godly so that the Spirit can work through me at any moment.