The Difficulty of Preaching–part 3
The propensity for listeners to turn away from the truth–2 Timothy 4:3-4
How are you at listening? There was this older couple who was sitting at home enjoying a quiet evening together and the wife told her husband she wanted some ice cream. So he decided to get up and get it for her and as he was going she said, “Now wait a minute. I would also like some ice cream with some whipping cream on top.”
He said, “Okay,” and he started to head toward the kitchen. She said, “Wait a minute. Don’t forget this–I want you to write it down.” He said, “I don’t need to write it down.” She said, “Okay, but just don’t forget, I want some ice cream with whipping cream and also I would like some nuts on top.” He said, “Okay, I’ll go get that for you.”
She says, “You had better write that down or you’re going to forget it.” He says, “I don’t need to write it down; I won’t forget it.” Then he went and disappeared into the kitchen and came back fifteen minutes later with a plate of eggs. She said, “I told you to write this down.” She said, “See? You forgot the bacon.” Mmmm . . . old age or bad listening?
Listening is a strength. The modern, suburban proverb says it this way. In the first year of marriage, the man speaks and the woman listens. In the second year of marriage, the woman speaks and the man listens. In the third year, they both speak and the neighbors listen. Another suburban proverb–husbands are the best people to tell secrets to. They will never tell anyone, because they are not listening anyway.
Listening is what Paul tells Timothy will be his greatest challenge in preaching. The lack of listening will also be the reason why make-believers walk away from the truth. Today, lack of listening could destroy you. Listen to what Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:3 to 4.
Start reading in verse 1, “I solemnly charge you 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: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Paul has given a sober challenge to Timothy in verse 1, a description of the necessity of preaching in verse 2, and now today the difficulty of preaching in verse 3 and 4. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”
Verse 3 begins with the conjunction “for”–that gives the reason why strong biblical preaching is so critical. The prophetic time that Paul says “will come” is now here. Many church attenders refuse to “endure sound doctrine.” Instead, they seek out teaching that scratches where they itch. To scratch that itch, Paul says they’ll gather up piles of teachers who will tell them what they want to hear.
It’s as if Paul is writing to us today! How many do you know who react to a biblical message by trying to find some supposed expert who agrees with their opinion instead? If they can find two or three people who agree with them in some blog or book, they feel like they can ignore the Word of God. Once their ears are scratched, they’re happy.
Make three observations with me as I read this text again. Let me highlight some things to look for. There are two participles in this text–“sound” and “tickled“. There is the repetition of the word “ears“, describing the listening of churchgoers to preaching. Then there are five verbs translated with the English word “will” in front of them.
Verse 3, “For the time WILL come when they WILL not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their EARS tickled, they WILL accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and WILL turn away their EARS from the truth and WILL turn aside to myths.” Listen carefully for a moment. The grammatical parsing of these five different verbs is exactly the same except for the voice. They are all future indicatives. Again, each verb is indicated in English by the word “will“, describing the future tense–“will come . . . will not endure . . . will accumulate . . . 4 will turn away . . . will turn aside.”
Each verb being in the indicative mood describes certainty–it’s a fact. So the future indicatives describe a fact that will happen in the future. But the voice of each verb actually informs the reader what Paul is saying to Tim. The first two verbs are middle voice, the next two are active voice, and the last one is a passive voice.
In this context, what that means is when someone does this to themselves (middle), then they will begin to act a certain way (active), and the result or consequence will be this (passive). So what Paul is telling Timothy is this in verses 3 to 4. When someone does this to themselves (middle)–what do they do to themselves? “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine”–not endure.
As a result, they act a certain way (active). How do they act? “But wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth.” And the consequence, even judgment, for this behavior is this (passive). “And will be turned aside to myths.” The result is they believe myths.
Paul tells Timothy in verses 3 to 4, when a church attender begins to make certain choices about not listening to biblical teaching and sound doctrine, then they will begin to act a certain way, which will result in them embracing error. Using the different voice in each verb, Paul gives Timothy three steps to turning your heart away from truth.
Three steps to hardening your heart to preaching. Three steps which will turn your heart away from Christ and His Word. Three steps which show the difficulty of preaching to this generation. Paul has already warned Timothy how difficult it is to preach God’s Word and promote sound doctrine to people.
In his first letter, Paul warned Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:9 to 10, men and women are “lawless and rebellious . . . ungodly and sinners . . . unholy and profane . . . murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers” living lives that are “contrary to sound teaching.” Why? Because sound doctrine is a stinging rebuke to ungodly living that it is unacceptable and intolerable to those who persist in sin. Those who live contrary to sound doctrine resent and resist the teaching of sound doctrine.
Later in 1 Timothy 6:3 to 5, the apostle warned again, “If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.”
Then in 2 Timothy 1:13 to 14, Paul commands Timothy, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me . . . Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.” Sound doctrine and biblical truth are difficult for people lost in sin to endure, and for a few battling to endure. There will certainly be those who in the future will . . .
STEP 1 EXCUSE yourself from the TRUTH (middle voice)
Paul is precise in giving Timothy the reason why he must preach the Word. It is because people choose to move away from the truth. Verse 3, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine.” The more faithfully Timothy proclaimed God’s Word, the more faithless some would prove themselves to be.
Paul is telling Timothy to preach the Word and not pull any punches. This command is in keeping with Paul’s challenge to train men in chapter 2:2 and pass on God’s Word to the next generation. Truth doesn’t change–it is not relative. Truth is timeless. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine. Calvin says this means that they will not only dislike and despise, but will even hate sound doctrine.
This is the reason why Timothy must be diligent in the work of heralding the Word. In every period of history, there will be a season during which men refuse to listen to sound doctrine. People will not tolerate the truth. This time has arrived and will continue.
Even in Paul’s day, a rising tide of defection from the Church and direct opposition against God’s revealed Word was developing. This rising tide will continue to grow until it becomes a tsunami in these last days. The word translated “endure” means to hold. More and more, church attenders will not hold onto the truth. It’s happening now.
RC Sproul’s ministry did a nationwide survey of Bible teaching church attenders. Out of those, 58% percent of Americans don’t believe the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation. 58% believe worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church. And 59% of adults today think the Holy Spirit is a force and not a person.
Add to that alarming trend, more pulpits and Christian college professors are men who don’t believe in an inerrant Bible, the physical resurrection of Christ, His literal return to Earth–and they deny the need for the new birth. Verse 3, “the time has come.” These men and women are wolves in sheep’s clothing, blind leaders of the blind. Paul says to Tim, “They chose to not endure sound doctrine.” They themselves stop enduring.
Enduring means bearing, putting up with, accepting, receiving, embracing sound doctrine. This starts when churchattenders decide to no longer listen to healthy truth, good teaching, the author’s intended message, which verse 2 says includes reproving, rebuking, exhorting, with great patience and instruction.
They don’t want to hear the truth any longer. Christians forget how flawed, corrupted, messed up, and distorted with sin they are. Yes, you are washed and ready for Heaven, but you have a bent toward sin which won’t quit. It is the problem of the flesh. Before you were washed by Christ, each of you was like Swiss cheese, filled with the mud of sin. Every crevice and hole was loaded with disgusting dirt. When Christ saved you, He washes all the sinful mud away and you start with Christ, clean and tasty.
But if you are left alone and not dependent on the Spirit, you will begin to stink. And if you are not continually washed in God’s Word, you easily collect dirt in your many crevices. You desperately need God’s Word to be at home in your heart. God’s Word washes you and you and I need washing continually.
It is easy to fall into not wanting to, verse 3, “endure”. How do you see it? People will show it by inconsistent church attendance, so they don’t have to hear preaching. They remain distant from other believers who are in the Word. They will attend in a low accountability environment, be a spectator, with no discipleship. Then they will begin to collect entertaining preachers, and finally embracing error.
What is it that makes it really difficult to endure? Verse 3, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine.” The term “sound” (hugiano) in “sound doctrine” literally speaks of healthy. We derive our English word hygienic from it. It’s been said, “If our doctrine is healthy, then it will often hurt!”
Sound doctrine is a major concern of Paul when he writes Timothy and Titus. And sound doctrine must be a major concern for every church today. Sound doctrine always results in healthy Christian living–in making you more like Christ. So what is Paul’s warning in this context? Sound doctrine is set in contrast to what people like. It’s almost as if sound doctrine is what people do not like.
Paul does say sound doctrine must be endured. Sound doctrine is like health food and non-sound, weak-sauce teaching ranges from junk food to poison. Like health food, sound doctrine doesn’t always feel good at the moment, because it confronts our selfish desires. But in the long run it yields healthy Christianity.
Sound doctrine is spinach and other teaching is Twinkies, some of it laced with rat bait. What that means is shocking. If I have not taught you something from this pulpit that has made you uncomfortable or offended you, then I’m not doing my job as a preacher. I’m not talking about offending you with my comments about cats or Hemet–that’s all me.
I should be offending you by teaching you God’s Word–the truth should offend you. God’s Word is “living, active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” God’s Word “cuts”–you need to take your spiritual medicine like men and women. If you refuse to do so, you will inevitably turn away from the truth and seek out a substitute.
This is the first step toward decline and denial. In this season, not all attenders will remain under God’s Word. They’ll not be faithful to regularly hearing the truth. They’ll tire of sitting under expositional preaching. The middle voice tells you they make this choice themselves. They make this decision and the result is scary. They next actively . . .
STEP 2 EXALT your own decisions and desires (active voice)
They do what they want. They do what feels good. They decide to find another form of preaching where they don’t have to listen to, verse 2. They don’t want any more reproving, rebuking, exhorting–they’re no longer patient and they don’t want instruction. What do they want? Verse 3b, “but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth.” When you’re running from truth, you will . . .
First Seek to be ENTERTAINED
Verse3b, “but wanting to have their ears tickled.” What is meant by ears tickled? Some versions translate it “itching ears.” The listeners want to hear something new–they want to hear ideas that excite their fancies. They want to hear information that pleases them and facts they agree with.
The Greek word tickled is a participle, giving it the idea of ear tickling. The New Testament usage of tickle in the passive sense means feel an itching. Combined with hearing or the ear, the entire clause comes to mean “having itching ears.” The phrase is used here as a figure of curiosity. It is used of someone who looks for interesting bits of information.
The itching represents a heart which is only relieved by messages from new teachers. They literally have an irritating desire. You’ve been around one of those dogs that goes from person to person in pursuit of someone to scratch them. If you scratch them for a while then stop, the dog will move on to the next person to try to get the pats, pets and scratches it desires–the dog doesn’t care who scratches him, as long as he gets the petting.
Paul gives the same image here. These are bored churchgoers who wander from teacher to teacher, church to church, trying to find someone who’ll scratch their itch. What do they want to hear? What does it mean to tickle their ears? What are the messages churchgoers crave? “Make me happy . . . meet my needs . . . don’t talk about sin . . . tell me how to be successful . . . don’t be so negative . . . Bible doctrine is boring . . . theology doesn’t matter . . . sermons are too long . . . make the Bible fun . . . tell more stories . . . make me laugh . . . tell some jokes . . . help me feel good about myself . . . fuel my pride . . . feed self . . . don’t talk about Hell . . . be positive . . . I want a happy religion.”
These are the ideas that tickle itching ears, but do not teach truth. Preaching the Word correctly does not accommodate personal whims. The focus here is not on the preacher, but on the listener–you. Are you a fickle listener or a faithful listener? Are you committed to enduring instruction or entertaining ideas? Do you want the truth or the tickle? Do you want nutritious food or noxious food?
Instead of receiving sound doctrine, many churches fiercely reject it, wanting rather to have their ears tickled with unbiblical notions that raise their comfort level, justify their sins and overlook their compromising behavior. And what do they do about it?
Second Collect a new crew of TEACHERS
Verse3c, “They will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.” Notice the last phrase . . . the desires of these churchgoing listeners is very strong. The Greek for desires is the same word for lust in the New Testament–they have very strong emotional appetites.
These church attenders have strong longings for certain kinds of teachers. Their craving is for teachers who will suit their fancies and their own perverted tastes. This is a tragic reversal of God’s intended plan. Instead of choosing teachers who will exhort them to control their lusts, they choose teachers who are in accordance with their own lusts.
They want teachers who, verse 3, are according to or fit, or are suited for their own likings. They desire teachers who will condone their own sinful conduct. So great is their hankering, these so-called Christians pile up teacher upon teacher. Accumulate means to heap up into piles–a powerful word picture meaning they pile up a group of a certain kind of teacher.
John Calvin highlights the usage of plural teachers when he says they, “Shall heap up to themselves teachers. It is proper to observe the expression, heap up, by which he means that the madness of men will be so great, that they will not be satisfied with a few deceivers, but will desire to have a vast multitude; a pile.”
Churchgoing tares will accumulate for themselves ungodly teachers in accordance to their own ungodly desires. Bible scholar Marvin R. Vincent wrote insightfully, “If people desire a calf to worship, a ministerial calf-maker is readily found.” Add to this, the church attending tares will call anyone, who presumes to hold them accountable to doctrinal beliefs or any moral standard–will call them unloving.”
So, in a twist of purpose, the genuine preacher is the one they are least likely to hear, yet the biblical preacher is the only one who will preach the Word they need the most. This was nothing new, the Lord told the prophet in Ezekiel 33, “They … sit before you as My people and hear your words, but they do not do them, for they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouth, and their heart goes after their gain. 32 Behold, you are to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; for they hear your words but they do not practice them” (Ezekiel 33:31-32).
Apparently, Ezekiel was a captivating speaker to whom the people liked to listen purely for his impressive oratory. But they totally rejected what he had to say, because they were determined to pursue their own lustful desires. They are not interested in learning the truth, making them much like the Athenians, who in Acts 17:21 used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.
The church attending, so-called-Christians pictured here are more interested in something different and sensational, far more than exposited truth. When healthy doctrine is presented, they are not interested in the Word itself, but only in the way it is presented, the preacher’s style, his oratory, his voice, bearing, looks, mannerisms, his Facebook and his exotic teachings. What teachings?
In these last days, people will ride fantastic theological hobbyhorses. Church attenders will crave to hear sensational news, to see miracles, to explore occult mysteries, to indulge in unsound hermeneutic systems of interpretation, to espouse fanciful theories on the fulfillment of prophecy, and to spawn weird cults, leading them to . . .
Third Turn your hearing off from TRUTH
Verse 4, “and will turn away their ears from the truth.” Paul teaches Timothy these church attenders will certainly (future active indicative) turn away. The imagery of the ear and listening continues–the hearers will turn “their ear away from the truth.” They will no longer listen. The phrase “to turn away the ear” can be translated “to shut one’s ears, to stop one’s ears, to stop listening, to refuse to listen, to turn away from listening, to turn one’s hearing away.”
Paul is telling Timothy they will no longer listen to the truth. The image Paul uses here is powerful. The verb turn away strongly implies these churchgoers professed to hold to the truth once, but now they “will turn away from the truth.” They turn away from “the truth,” which is the message and teaching of Christianity as the absolute truth, making this the third term Paul uses in 2 Timothy to describe what Timothy must teach–the Word, sound doctrine, and now the truth.
They actively no longer want it and shut their ears to it. Because they have chosen themselves to no longer endure sound doctrine, they have actively turned away from truth–so God says, the consequences from God are these . . . He will cause them (passive voice) to turn aside and embrace myths.
STEP 3 EMBRACE the myths of errant teachers (passive voice)
Verse 4, “and will turn aside to myths.” Tares will actively cause their ears to turn away from the truth and they’ll be caused to embrace myths. The Greek verb for “turn aside” means to turn, to twist. It has a medical connotation and is used to describe the dislocation of a limb. A dislocated arm or leg has no freedom of action.
Similarly, people who are twisted away from the truth to receive a lie become the helpless victims of the delusions they embrace. They refuse to receive the love of the truth and take pleasure in unrighteousness. So spiritually, “turn aside” means a dislocated joint. The minds of those who reject God’s truth will become spiritually dislocated and knocked out of joint.
In the last days, these church attenders will be gullible and are easy victims of false teacher propaganda. These so-called Christians cannot stomach God’s redemptive truth, which exposes their sin, requires their surrender, demands repentance and requires inner transformation. These tares turn away from it and embrace the myths.
When Paul writes Tim, he includes the article with “myths“–it is THE “myths“, which implies that these fables are the same ones Paul has already warned Timothy about in 1 Timothy 1:4, not to pay attention to myths. “And have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women” (1 Timothy 4:7).
These “myths” were the legendary tales believed by false teachers in Ephesus. These “myths” were not new teachings, but empty doctrines and foolish teachings. To turn aside to error is to receive “fables” seriously, and to believe in them. Whenever God’s truth is rejected by your friends, they will invent a substitute.
As Paul anticipated his execution, he was concerned Timothy and other Christians might be lured away by false teaching. You should share this same concern, especially since 24 out of 27 books of the New Testament explicitly warn believers against false teachers. You don’t need a complete understanding of cults or false teachings, but you do need to know the truth. When trained in the truth of God’s Word, you’ll be able to detect error and all that is not from the Lord.
Many churches today are filled with those who want their ears tickled with the myths of easy-believism. Church attenders now demand the preacher feed their ego, boost their morale, and pardon their sin, instead of preaching God’s Word and equipping them in truth. People attend to have their egos fed and their sins dismissed, not to have their hearts cleansed and their souls saved.
These empty ideas are so popular, stadiums are filled with folks who want to be entertained with self-help principles. They only want to feel good, and sadly they do not want to be made good. Tragically, these myths only serve to insulate people from the true Gospel and worse, drive them further away from the Lord. Even though preaching is a lot of study and a lot of work, Timothy and you and I today must preach the Word, seeking the one accurate interpretation of every verse in its context, so God alone is heard.
SO TAKE THIS HOME
First Remember the corollaries for acceptance of UNSOUND Doctrine
Those who embrace unsound doctrine are demonstrating an unsaved heart or a heart of rebellion. Regardless, unsound doctrine is always linked to unsound lifestyle. Those who embrace unsound doctrine want to live contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture. They may be pursuing preferences or pursuing a full-blown immoral lifestyle. But unsound doctrine is always linked to unsound lifestyle.
Plus, embracing an unsound doctrinal point is never alone. Bad doctrine is linked to bad doctrinal systems. Maybe they reject a literal thousand year physical rule of Christ–but with that often comes the baptism of infants, increased church tradition, the minimizing of serving your giftedness and more. Unsound doctrine is also never alone. When someone embraces unsound doctrine, there are other correlations to consider.
Second Help those making poor CHOICES toward Sound Doctrine
Remind those you love of these verses which describe the downward spiral toward myths.
Step 1 They excuse themselves from the truth and stop listening. After doing this to themselves . . .
Step 2 They exalt their own decisions and desires over the authority of the Word. Then finally . . .
Step 3 As a result, God will cause them to embrace the myths of errant teachers. Warn others of messing with sound doctrine which comes from accurate teaching.
Third Pay the PRICE to keep listening to Sound Doctrine
Take the hint–you have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice as much as you speak. Take the hint–your ears do not close, but your mouth does. Be quiet and listen. Work at listening. Remind yourself how much you need accurate teaching and sound doctrine. Paul is telling Timothy how hard it is going to be to accurately preach God’s Word. He’s also reminding you it will take faithful labor for you to listen to God’s Word.
Make getting ready for Sunday and your community group a priority. Show it by making good choices on those days and for Sunday, the day before. Remember the first step is a choice not to endure–when you don’t feel like it, when it is inconvenient, when it is convicting, when it is not family-friendly, when you have other things to do. Make the choice to endure healthy doctrine, which comes from accurate teaching.
Fourth Listening to truth requires first knowing the TRUTH
John 14:6, “Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.’ ” Revelation 19:11, “And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True.”
If you don’t know Christ, then you will not know the truth, nor love truth. Have you submitted to Christ in faith and repentance–exchanging your life for His? Dying to self and embracing Christ as your life and your truth? John 16:13, “When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.”
All genuine Christians have the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of truth loves the truth, therefore those He indwells love truth too. Keep learning truth. John 8:32, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Let’s pray.