In one of the classic New Testament texts on preaching, Paul commands Timothy to “preach the word.”
It’s easy to gloss over familiar, oft-quoted texts like this without really pausing to consider what the original author had in mind when he said what he said. That’s why I’d like to give a bit of extended attention to the second part of Paul’s command and endeavor to answer this question: What is the divinely-defined content of divinely-approved preaching?
Of course, the immediate surface answer from the text is “the word.” But there’s a sense in which that’s almost too general and vague to be helpful, right? What exactly does Paul mean by “the word”? The answer to this question is no small and insignificant matter, because as a preacher (in the company of Timothy) this is what I’m commanded to herald.
Our first answer to the question is probably that “the word” refers to the “the word of God.” And that’s certainly right. Just from a cursory glance at the immediate context it becomes apparent that Paul is pointing back to the “scripture” of 3:16.
But it’s also important to factor in the broader literary context of the letter in arriving at a fuller, more robust answer to this question. For example, did you know that the word translated “word” occurs 7 other times in this short letter?
So when Paul says “preach the word” he assumes Timothy will know exactly what he’s talking about based on what he’s already talked about.
Though I would encourage you to look at all 7 references, I want to highlight 3 of them that are particularly significant in helping us understand exactly what we are obligated to preach.
In 1:13 Paul writes,
Follow the pattern [or standard] of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here are a few points to consider from this reference:
- In this instance the word “word” occurs in the plural–“words.”
- In addition, these “words” are described as “sound,” because they promote spiritual health.
- Together these “sound words” comprise the pattern or standard Timothy is to follow or hold fast to.
- Lastly, notice that these words were words “that you have heard from me.” These were Paul’s words, or, more generally speaking, they were apostolic words.
In 2:9 Paul writes,
I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!
In this case Paul describes “the word” as belonging to God. They are God’s words.
And, lastly for our purposes, Paul writes in 2:15,
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
So, what do we take away when we put these 3 references together?
- The standard by which we evaluate what we preach. There is a standard or pattern by which to measure the content of preaching. Timothy’s preaching was to consist of apostolic words, the apostles’ doctrine. As a result, all preaching can and should be evaluated by this standard. I understand Paul’s words in 4:1 to be making this same point.
- The source and scope of the word we preach. Where did the apostles get their words? Ultimately these words came from God. Therefore, preaching is a proclamation of God’s words not mere human words. And, of course, God’s words encompass all of the “sacred writings” of 3:15 or the “scripture” of 3:16, not just the apostles’ doctrine in the New Testament. In this context, then, the “word” includes the Old Testament as well.
- The well-being produced by the word we preach. And since God’s words are words of truth (in contrast to error), they are sound words, promoting the hearer’s spiritual health and well-being when mixed with faith. That’s why Paul says that “the sacred writings . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” and that all scripture, being God-breathed, is “profitable . . . that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
What, then, is the divinely-defined content of divinely-approved preaching based on 2 Timothy 4:2? Simply, it is “the word.” Contextually, it is the entirety of Scripture, both the words of God in the Old Testament and the words of God through the apostles in the New Testament. And in view of the fact that we as preachers will be judged by this standard, and in view of the fact that these true and sound words alone can produce and sustain the spiritual life and well-being of those who hear it, we should be unwavering in our commitment to “preach the word.”