“Preach the Word”: Homiletics or Evangelism?

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

by David Paul

The term “preach” has been hijacked in modern ministry. In the New Testament, “preach” held an evangelistic meaning.[1] Today, “preach” generally refers to pastors homilizing Christians.[2]

There are at least two detrimental effects of the term “preach” being hijacked. First, evangelism is devalued when dozens of biblical examples and commands regarding evangelism are subsumed into homiletics. Second, misunderstanding evangelistic verses as homiletical affects our understanding of Christian instruction and disciple-making. For example, the very meaning of the term "preach" implies a one-directional proclamation of a message from a speaker to listeners. Reading biblical preaching as homiletics contributes to church practices regarding Sunday morning sermons as the primary mode of discipleship. However, if pastors understand their primary role as teachers rather than preachers, it is possible that different, and potentially more effective, methods of Christian instruction have the potential to flourish.

In this regard, "Preach the word" from 2 Timothy 4:2 is a key misinterpreted phrase. Here are some examples of misinterpreting that verse as homiletics in modern literature:

No text of Scripture is as powerful in affirming this calling to use all our skills to exposit the Word as the potent mandate of 2 Timothy 4:1-4.[3]

Paul told Timothy, straight and clear, to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). This is the great imperative... The preaching of the Word must be absolutely central. Sound, expositional preaching is often the fountainhead of growth in a church.[4]

I think the best approach for applying verse 2, ‘Preach the Word!’ (NKJV) is expositional preaching.[5]

These three quotes teach that 2 Timothy 4:2 is a key text for interpreting biblical preaching as homiletics. However, it is doubtful that Paul had homiletics in view when he gave this command to Timothy. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to challenge this misinterpretation of 2 Timothy 4:2 that has contributed to misunderstanding biblical preaching.

Instead, "Evangelize the gospel" is a better interpretation of Paul's command to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2. This interpretation of "Preach the word" is based on three factors. First, Timothy was not a pastor. Instead, he functioned in a role more like a missionary.[6] Since he was not a pastor, he did not regularly homilize a particular congregation. Second, a primary purpose of 2 Timothy was for Paul to call Timothy to take up his mission to the Gentiles after his impending death. Therefore, the context of Paul’s charge to Timothy is evangelistic rather than pastoral. Third, semantically, “Preach the word” means evangelize the gospel. If “preach” in this phrase is homiletical, then it is perhaps the only homiletical use of “preach” in the New Testament.

Timothy was Not a Pastor

Near the end of his life, the apostle Paul gave a final charge to Timothy, his most faithful disciple. The first imperative of that charge was “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:1-5). One contributing factor to the modern misinterpretation of this command is the moniker "Pastoral Epistles." According to Gordon Fee, “When Paul Anton of Halle (1726)[7] first called Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus the Pastoral Epistles (PE), and it stuck, they have been forever thereafter read and understood as consisting ‘mostly of advice to younger ministers.’” [8] Timothy and Titus have been misinterpreted as pastors because these books were inappropriately called "Pastoral Epistles." Since they have been misinterpreted as pastors, many read the Letters to Timothy and Titus (LTT) through a pastoral lens.[9] Therefore, misunderstanding the genre of the LTT has contributed to a homiletical reading of 2 Timothy 4:2 in modern popular literature.

In contrast, understanding the LTT as ad-hoc instructions from Paul to his key leaders Timothy and Titus is vital for correctly interpreting 2 Timothy 4:2.[10] The consensus view of those holding to the Pauline authorship of the LTT is that these letters do not fit within the timeline of Acts but rather describe a later period in Paul's work after his first release from Rome in 62 AD.[11] Paul had a "fourth journey" from about 62-68 AD, where he ministered in Crete, Ephesus, Macedonia, Troas, Corinth, Miletus, and Nicopolis (Titus 1:5; 3:12; 1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 4:13, 20). [12]

In 1 Timothy, Paul gave Timothy the short-term task of “instructing certain men not to teach strange doctrines (1 Tim 1:3)” in Ephesus as well as instruct in church practices (1 Tim. 1:18; 2:1-3:15). Timothy's work in Ephesus was not a permanent post.[13] Paul instructed Timothy to continue this task until his arrival (1 Tim 3:14; 4:13). At that point, Timothy would rejoin Paul in itinerant missionary work. As evidence to this point, Paul often sent Timothy on short-term tasks. Paul left Timothy and Silas in Berea (Acts 16:14). Paul sent Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia (Acts 19:22). Timothy delivered 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10). Paul sent Timothy to Philippi (Phil 2:19ff). Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica from Athens (1 Thes 3:1-6).[14] The point is that Paul regularly commissioned Timothy for short-term tasks as a member of his team. There is no textual reason to believe that Paul’s commission to Timothy in 1 Timothy was long-term. Instead, 1 Timothy was written primarily for the occasional purpose of correcting false teachers in Asia Minor.

Additionally, by the time Paul wrote 2 Timothy, Timothy was no longer in Ephesus. Paul told him that Tychicus had been sent there (2 Tim 4:12). If Timothy was still in Ephesus, it would have been unnecessary for Paul to share that information in his letter. 2 Timothy 4:12, therefore, also indicates that Timothy’s task in Ephesus was temporary.

The short-term nature of Paul’s instructions to Timothy in Ephesus surfaces questions regarding Timothy’s role. Since the LTT are commonly called “Pastoral Epistles,” a misunderstanding has persisted that Timothy was a pastor. However, based on Paul’s relationship with Timothy, most modern commentators say Timothy was not a pastor.[15]Instead, scholars now prefer the term “apostolic delegate” as a more appropriate term for Timothy.[16] In modern parlance, Timothy functioned like a missionary under the leadership of the senior missionary, Paul.

Timothy served for over ten years as an itinerant missionary under Paul. Timothy assisted Paul in planting churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus (Acts 16-19). Timothy co-authored six New Testament epistles with Paul.[17] The New Testament records at least five times that Paul commissioned Timothy for short-term assignments.[18] As a Pauline coworker, Timothy was never called a pastor nor described in pastoral terms in the New Testament. Instead, Timothy established churches with local elders rather than pastoring those churches themselves.

Paul’s final charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-5 must be read considering his role as a missionary under Paul’s leadership. Paul was charging Timothy to take up the pioneer task of proclaiming the gospel where Christ had not been named. Paul's death was imminent (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Before his impending death, he wanted to ensure that the ministry of taking the gospel to the unreached would continue. Therefore, he charged Timothy to "Preach the word." Paul desired Timothy to continue heralding the gospel in new places among unreached peoples as Paul had modeled (see 2 Tim 3:10-11).

Paul Charged Timothy to be His Successor

Paul’s purpose in writing Second Timothy strengthens the argument that Paul’s purpose for Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2 was evangelistic rather than pastoral. In Second Timothy, Paul was preparing for his martyrdom. “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Tim. 4:6). Paul, the prototype missionary, was entrusting his mission to his most faithful disciple. This theme of Paul entrusting his task to Timothy is strong throughout the letter.

Paul’s desire to entrust his task to Timothy is apparent in two passages: (1) 2 Timothy 1:12-14 and (2) 2 Timothy 3:10-14. In 2 Timothy 1:12, Paul referred to his trust, meaning something God had entrusted to him. Then in the following two verses, he shared Timothy's responsibility towards that trust. “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” (2 Tim. 1:13-14). Paul commanded Timothy to guard the trust. Timothy was likewise to guard that trust by giving it to others as Paul commanded (2 Tim. 2:2).

In 2 Timothy 1:12-14, Paul's "standard of sound words" was part of the trust. 2 Timothy 3:10-14 expresses Paul's task more broadly. “Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions and sufferings.” (2 Tim. 3:10-11a). In this second passage, Paul commended Timothy for adhering to his model. Paul's model included his teaching and extended to areas like his conduct, purpose, and character. Paul's purpose was to proclaim the gospel where Christ had not been named (Rom 15:20). Paul's conduct was the lifestyle of suffering and purpose that he lived, as evidenced in the book of Acts. Timothy walked in the same purpose and conduct. Additionally, a few verses later, Paul commanded Timothy to "continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of” (2 Tim 3:14). Paul entrusting his teaching, conduct, purpose, and faith to Timothy is the context in which Paul’s final charge to Timothy was given in 2 Timothy 4:1-5.

The historical and literary context of Paul’s final charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-5 suggests that the missionary work of Paul was in view. Paul gave nine imperatives, “preach the word,” “be ready,” “rebuke,” “correct,” “encourage,” “exercise self-control,” “endure hardship,” “do the work of an evangelist,” and “fulfill your ministry.” Chiao Ek Ho asked a relevant question about these imperatives:

Paul charged Timothy to “preach the Word” … The question that arises is this: did Paul direct Timothy merely to instruct a congregation who needed the Word of God preached to them, perhaps with the false teachings in view? If so, the contents of Timothy’s preaching were strictly intended for the believers and would be void of any evangelistic word. But Paul’s call for Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” suggests otherwise (4:5).[19]

Ho's point is that these nine imperatives appear more missionary than pastoral, especially "do the work of an evangelist."

Therefore, considering the context, it is absurd to think that the charge, “Preach the word,” in 2 Tim