The following is adapted from the September 2022 issue of The Messenger.
“Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
“It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops” (2 Tim. 2:6).
Most of us are familiar with the adage, “Patience is a virtue.” We also know that patience is a rare commodity, especially in our fast-paced world. In a consumer-driven world like the one we live in today, we prize Amazon’s promise to deliver an order by the next day, the local “fast food” restaurant’s speedy filling of our order, or the latest social media that can send out a quick message or tweet to its recipients. By contrast, who relishes the prospect of a long commute to work, waiting for a slow train to get through an intersection or an excessively long and meandering sermon that never comes to the point?
Though it would be easy to multiply examples of circumstances that try our patience, my purpose is to call attention to a noteworthy characteristic of the ministry of the Word and, indirectly, the work of preparing students for the ministry. At the close of his second pastoral letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul solemnly charges him to discharge his principal task as a gospel minister “with complete patience.” Timothy is not only encouraged to preach the Word courageously and faithfully but also to preach the Word “in season and out of season” with long-suffering patience and forbearance. Literally, Paul tells Timothy that he must minister the Word with “all” patience. In his commentary on 2 Timothy, John Calvin captures the burden of Paul’s charge well. Timothy’s ministry of the Word of the gospel must be marked by “ruthless persistence.”
The charge the apostle Paul gives Timothy is urgent and sobering. Paul reminds Timothy that his charge is given “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom.” God (the Father) and Christ Jesus (the incarnate Son), to whom Timothy is to bear witness, stand behind and will judge Timothy’s labor in ministering the gospel Word entrusted to him. Though he may not be ultimately subject to the judgment of others (cf. 1 Cor. 4:3-4), Timothy will have to give an account of his ministry to the Lord, who will judge his faithfulness. Preaching the Word of God is serious business. Those who preach, including Timothy, must do so as those “who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17).
Immediately after charging Timothy in this solemn manner, the apostle Paul observes that there will be many among his hearers who will not endure “sound doctrine.” They will have “itching ears” and seek out preachers who will “suit their passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Paul introduces this observation as part of the reason for insisting that Timothy pursue his calling with all patience. He insists that Timothy continue to fulfill his calling with steadfastness out of an awareness that he might be tempted to become discouraged at the meager fruits of his ministry. He does so also out of a concern that Timothy might be tempted to accommodate his message to the desires of those who hear his preaching.
Paul’s concluding charge to Timothy is not unrelated to an analogy he used earlier in the letter. In chapter 2, he uses three analogies for the work of the minister. Like a “good soldier,” ministers must make it their aim to please the one who “enlisted” them, namely, Jesus Christ (2:4). They may not allow themselves to become entangled in civilian pursuits. Like an athlete, ministers are obliged to compete according to the rules of the game in which they are engaged (2:5). And like a farmer, ministers who wait for the fruit to be borne upon their efforts will receive their corresponding reward (2:6). The third of these analogies is especially pertinent to the need for great patience in the work of the ministry. Farmers must wait long for the seed they have sown and cultivated to produce fruit. They must wait patiently upon the Lord of the harvest. They know that the seed sown will not produce plentiful fruit without the nourishing rain that only the Lord can provide.
Students, seminary professors, and ministers desperately need this timely reminder to continue their labor with “all” or “complete” patience. The church that Christ is gathering by His Spirit and Word will not be built in a day. Christ Himself has been building His church from the beginning of the world until now. And He will continue to do so until God’s house is filled with all those whom He redeems. Accordingly, ministers are charged to preach the Word with patient confidence that their labor in the Lord will not be in vain.
Dr. Cornelis Venema serves as the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, as well as a Professor of Doctrinal Studies.