Ears Itching for the Obvious

I 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: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry
— 2 Timothy 4:1-5
This engrossment in first principles has an adverse effect upon the evangelical church. It is as if an intelligent child should be forced to stay in the third grade five or six years. The monotony is just too great. The mind cannot remain alert when the elements of surprise and disclosure are missing. Personally I sit through the average orthodox sermon with the same sense of bored frustration one might feel who was reading a mystery story through for the twelfth time.
— A. W. Tozer The Warfare of the Spirit: Religious Ritual Versus the Presence of the Indwelling Christ

Two of the schools I have attended made this verse in 2 Timothy 4 one of their institutional life verses. For seven years of my academic life I was taught the importance of teaching expositionally — preaching verse by verse through the Bible. The value, I was told, was that it forced you to teach on subjects you would normally prefer to avoid. And, a quick reading of Paul’s words to Timothy, would seem to advocate for that same thinking. “Preach the word,” he tells his young protege. This matters because “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching.” Paul says that some people will have “itching ears” — eager for teachers that will tell them what they want to hear. So, my many teachers say, commit yourself to bible exposition and teaching theology, that’s how you fulfill this call. 

But I have noticed something unexpected. Many pastors preach expositionally…and it’s dull. It has been a long time since I have heard anything in any sermon that stirred me, or taught me something new about God. Don’t think that I am so arrogant that no one can teach me anything. It’s simply that I have encountered only a small number of preachers that seem to study the text and emerge with any fresh insight about themselves, about us, about our community, or anything else. Too many want to preserve the heritage of the Reformers and the Puritans, but too few want to wrestle with the text like Jacob wrestled with God—not quitting until he heard something in return. Jacob refused to yield until God spoke to him something that would wound him, heal him, and rename him. Most preachers and congregations are content with the same three points we have always heard and the threadbare poem that always elicits a tear. 

This is not a new problem. Two generations ago, A.W. Tozer expressed his frustration with many preachers. He says that "The vast majority of our Bible conferences are dedicated to the obvious. Each of the brethren (usually advertised as “widely sought after as a conference speaker”) ranges afar throughout the Scriptures to discover additional passages to support truth already known to and believed by 99 percent of his hearers” (67). He describes this experience they way he imagines someone "who was reading a mystery story through for the twelfth time.” This endless belaboring the obvious is the “result of our lack of prophetic insight and our failure to meet God in living encounter.” He continues, 

“The knowledge of God presents a million facets, each one shining with a new ravishing light. The teacher who lives in the heart of God, reads Scriptures with warm devotion, undergoes the discipline and chastisement of the Holy Spirit and presses on toward perfection is sure every now and again to come upon fresh and blessed vistas of truth, old indeed as the Word itself, but bright as the dew on the grass in the morning. The heart that has seen the far glimpses of advanced truth will never be able to keep quiet about them. His experiences will get into his sermons one way or another, and his messages will carry an element of surprise and delight altogether absent from the ordinary Bible talks heard everywhere these days.”
— A. W. Tozer, The Warfare of the Spirit (67)

For most of my life I was taught that 2 Timothy 4:1-5 meant that people would reject sound teaching for obvious heresy. I don’t think that is entirely what Paul meant. Of course it is true that some people will reject sound doctrine for something obviously divergent. It’s so obvious I’m am not convinced that it deserves a warning. The greater danger—and I think the danger that Tozer describes—is a rejection of the deeper things of God because our ears are itching for the obvious. The greater danger is rejecting the Word that rebukes, corrects, and trains—pushing aside the Sword of the Spirit that pierces into even the most fundamental and hidden parts of who we are—because it might reveal some new facet of God, leading us to our knees again. 

Photo by  Alvan Nee  on  Unsplash

Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash

The gods that pose the greatest threat to Jesus are not Allah, Shiva, Brahman, or the common atheist. The greatest threat to Jesus is his statue. It resembles him in every way, except the one which matters most: the real Jesus is alive. The real Jesus is calling us to know him personally, while most of us are content with knowing a picture of the real Jesus. 

I believe that there is one meaning that each human author of Scripture had as they wrote their respective books. I also believe that God had his own layers of intent as he inspired the writer and the writing of Scripture. As a collection of books whose writing was superintended by God himself, they have one meaning and thousands of applications. Paul says that the Scripture “rebukes, corrects, and trains” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The author of Hebrews calls Scripture “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) that pierces "the division between of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and [discerns] the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” When we approach the Scripture, not as a word-puzzle to be untangled, but a powerful, life-giving, interaction with the living God, then any exposition or meditation or homily becomes filled with God’s presence. Without that, any preaching, expository or not, will lack the power of God’s presence. 

The thing that is important to remember is that the Scriptures are inspired but their power and authority is secondary. There is nothing like the Bible to transform a person’s heart and mind. But the Bible is authoritative and powerful because it was “breathed out” by God (2 Tim 3:16-17). These are God’s Words and that is the source of their power. We have to walk a fine line between maintaining the Bible’s sole authority and conflating the Bible with the God who gave it to us. Otherwise we risk reducing the living God to stories and ideas confined to ink and paper. Our ideas about God, however true, cannot transform. But the living God, revealed to us by the Spirit through Scripture, can soften the hardest heart and breathe new life into those long-dead.