What Paul Means By “Preach the Word”

Since writing for school has taken over writing for the blog, I thought I’d pass on a couple projects that would benefit more than one (professorial) reader. These are the questions I examined for my term paper in New Testament Interpretation at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. This was one of my most satisfying assignments because when I held the final draft in my hands, I realized I couldn’t have written a single page of it at the beginning of the semester. If want to see me “show my work,” a link to the paper is included at the end of the post. Here, I just want to pass on what I learned in clearer language.

“Paul’s second epistle to Timothy grins with affection and rings with finality. In 4:1-5 the epistle—perhaps Paul’s whole corpus and ministry—climaxes with a divine invocation and a exhortation: ‘preach the word!'” Here’s what he says, in context:

I charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and his appearing and his kingdom: Preach the word—persist in season and out of season, rebuke, correct, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching—for there will be a time when they will not endure sound teaching, but according to their own desires they will pile up teachers for themselves who itch the ears. They will turn away from hearing the truth, and instead turn to myths. But you, be sober-minded in all things, suffer well, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (Author’s translation)

What Does Paul Mean By “Preach”?

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Specifically, is “preaching” something different than “teaching,” as C.H. Dodd declared in The Apostolic Preaching (1936)? This is a commonly held distinction in the evangelical church, but 2 Timothy 4:1-5 should give us pause.

It’s tempting to look up “preach” in a dictionary and follow the history of the word back to an official Roman herald. However, by the 1st c., it meant more than simply “proclaim.” It had developed a new meaning, had become an activity of philosophers and religious leaders. Preaching was not limited to standing on a milk crate in Westlake Center. Saying that preaching is “evangelism” and teaching is “instruction” oversimplifies Paul’s command and the Church’s responsibility today.

When we consider the whole book of 2 Timothy, it’s clear that evangelism is not the only thing in Paul’s mind, particularly when he comes to this summary command. All of his direction is in the context of heresy (2:17-18), correction (2:24-25), and false teaching (3:6-9). Nothing in the book suggests that Paul is not talking about those in the church, nor does it suggest that Paul is not talking about those outside the church. He appears to direct Timothy toward whoever needs God’s revelation proclaimed and explained (ie. all of us). Keeping all this in mind, we should consider preaching a broad task that incorporates both evangelistic proclamation and ongoing instruction for the Church.

What Does Paul Mean By “the Word”?

Does Paul mean for Timothy to preach (A) the Bible? Perhaps he means (B) a simple gospel message one might hear in a stadium?

We should hesitate to wholeheartedly accept option A. The other two times this exact phrase, “preach the word” shows up in the New Testament, it simply means “the news” or “the message” (Mark 1:45 and 16:20). Furthermore, the New Testament was (inherently) incomplete when Paul penned these lines, but he clearly meant more than the Old Testament. Paul was not exactly saying to Timothy, “preach the Bible.”

Yet, this command may well be compelling us, in 2014, to preach the Bible. Here I’ll quote the paper directly:

In the middle of this doctinally urgent epistle, [“the word”] should be understood as more than the [Old Testament], but certainly no less. Paul is charging Timothy, not only to preach, but to preach the Scriptures commended in 3:10-17, along with [Jesus’] teachings and theology Paul had taught him. Though Paul was not referring to the Christian Bible, it is the most trustworthy source for the whole [word] in the 21st century.

The command, “preach the word” is Paul’s charge to Timothy to declare all God’s true revelation inside and outside the church, with both immediacy and longevity.

Today, we don’t know anyone who met Jesus or any of the 1st generation disciples, so where can we find this true revelation? We know we can find it in the Bible.

Paul’s command does not “mean” “preach the Bible.” If we could ask him, he would not say, “oh yeah, that’s what I meant.” Yet, what his command does mean, “preach God’s revelation,” demands that we must do exactly that (preach the Bible!) in 2014.

Why and How?

Which this broadened and confident understanding of “preach the word,” the surrounding verses, which all support this three-word command, come to life. The overall argument is:

  • (v.1) God is present, therefore:
    • (v.2) preach the word
    • (v.3-4) since the world is falling away from it
  • (v.5) thereby ministering well.

How does Paul want us to go about this? The directions flow freely: “Persist, even when people are disinterested. Aim for change. Be patient. Back up your injunctions with teaching. Stay levelheaded. Endure suffering. Work to spread the gospel.”

And why? “The presence of the Father and the Christ, the immanence of the judgment, [Christ’s return], and the Kingdom, should motivate your ministry. The disinterest in truth, the popularity of false teachers, and the devouring of myths should alarm you to the need for God’s true revelation.”

Read the full paper here.

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