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The Basics Conference (IV)

Today’s second session was led by Edward Lobb who spoke on “Preaching as Work,” carrying on the theme begun by Derek Thomas earlier in the morning. Work is, by its very nature, difficult in this post-Eden world. There is a part of us that longs to avoid work and to do something else. But preachers have been called to labor.

The purpose of this session was to bring a fresh challenge but also a real encouragement to pastors. As his text Lobb used 2 Timothy 2:15. This verse derives its force from both what it says and from its context. The force of this letter is very plain. Paul encourages Timothy to keep on with his labor despite and through the difficulties inherent in it. Throughout the epistle Paul has warned Timothy about things he may be ashamed of and things that will come with the position he has been called to. By the end of even the first chapter, Timothy must be feeling weak and beaten down. In the second chapter Paul tells Timothy where his strength must come from. Ultimately the preacher and pastor works among many thorns and thistles. Ministry will never be easy. Those who pastor are put into a particularly thistley and thorny patch and in this we hear the exhortation of 2 Timothy 2:15. Even if the world were near-perfect this would be a difficult command to obey, so how much more so in this world? In verse one there is great assurance of the grace of Christ that will strengthen the pastor, but there are then several commands that are all about what the pastor must do to play his part. Verse fifteen cannot be seen as separated from the assurance of the first verse.

Approval or shame are the two alternatives held out in this verse. Behind the word “approved” is the concept of tested or tried. In the case of the pastor, when does this testing take place? Is it when he is young and goes before the selection board of his denomination? No, of course not, for here Paul is discussing God’s approval. Paul is thinking of the testing that will take place in the rest of Timothy’s life—the ongoing testing. This shouldn’t surprise us because testing is one of the Bible’s great themes. God tests his workers and these tests tend to come not at the beginning of the ministry but in the middle and the later years. Will pastors, in these years, be ready to stand firm, to suffer for the gospel? The biblical evidence, particularly Hebrews 12:23, makes us believe that Timothy was able to stand firm until the end. Pastors will either rightly handle the truth and persevere or swerve from it and be ashamed.

The fundamental character of the preacher’s task is to handle the word of truth rightly. In the Greek the word translated as “handling” really means “cutting straight.” The metaphor of straight cutting is a metaphor of cutting a straight road through the countryside. Timothy’s task is to communicate this word of truth to others, cutting a straight road so it can travel into their hearts and minds. The preacher’s task is to get truth from his heart and mind to the hearts and minds of the listeners. There are many obstacles to this. One obstacle is intellectual fog (either in the preacher or the listener, though the preacher cannot do much about the listener). The fog in the pulpit is part of the labor. The first hour of sermon preparation is not too difficult but then you need to start bracing yourself and start asking some serious questions of the text. Really understanding the passage is only the first task and the preacher must also consider how he will cut this road to the hearer’s heart. What is said in the pulpit must be coherent and logical. The single main thrust of the passage needs to be made unambiguous. The price of clarity in the pulpit is anguish in the study. Another obstacle is lack of confidence that this Word is the sufficient truth. Many pastors today do not quite believe that the Word is sufficient, turning instead to stories and illustrations and anything but the Word. The reality is that real expository is not Bible-based but is just Bible. This is not to say that illustrations are useless, but that there is a danger when the illustrations become the big thing and the thing people remember. The Word of truth is not able just to hold people’s interests but to remake the minds and hearts of God’s people. It is important to note that learning to cut it straight is not just the peserver of young men. Rather, men of fifty and sixty can still be significantly learning to be better preachers.

The fundamental character of the preacher himself is that he is a worker. His work is at the core this task of cutting a straight road—of preaching and teaching the words of God. Paul did all sorts of things: he traveled extensively, made tents, raised money. But his work was to preach and teach and this is the activity to which he gave himself year after year. He knew that people could not be saved if they did not believe and that to believe they need both the preacher and his preaching. When asked your vocation, do you say I’m a pastor or I’m a clergyman or do you say “I’m a preacher?”

Let’s consider this word “worker.” Paul clearly regards preaching as labor and toil. If pastors are to be workers, the work requires planning. He cannot be rigid in his planning and needs to be flexible. Preaching preparation requires planning and this must take into account the specific pastor’s skill and ability. This work also requires vigor. The Scriptures do not yield their treasure to chance inquiry but require dedicated effort.

There are two things that shouldn’t characterize the work of a pastor. Pastors are to be workers but not workaholics. To be a workaholic is to court sorrow and disaster. He may get away with it for a while but there will be inevitable painful payback in the end. Secondly, pastors are workers, not orators. Any preacher knows the temptation to be an orator and knows that oratory can have its own power. But this, at heart, is an attempt to gain leverage over the listener and shows that the preacher doesn’t quite trust the Bible. It relies on stirring oratory to woo the peoples’ hearts. It can also become a self-promotion, a look-at-me technique designed to win men’s praise. Orators really proclaim themselves rather than Christ Jesus.

What is the purpose of preaching and teaching? That listeners should understand the passage, being built up and nourished by it. This work is the best toil and labor in the world, for through it God brings salvation to the lost, joy to the saved, and great nourishment and understanding to His servants.