Dr. D. James Kennedy, Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, now deceased, once explained why he wore an academic robe every week while preaching. In my paraphrase, he said he wore the robe to illustrate that the preaching of God's Word was worthy of our most ardent academic study. Now, I've only worn a robe at weddings and on occasions when I was declaring my membership in the Black Robe Regiment (do a Google search on that one). But, I love the gesture. His word is worthy of academic excellence.
What it means to rightly handle the word of truth is certainly open to debate! In the context of Paul's letters to his younger and less experienced colleague Timothy personal preparation was no doubt in mind. Just the same, few of us would argue that Paul intended Timothy to enroll in one of the rabbinical schools for what was perhaps the only formal preparation available at the time. Timothy had learned Scripture from his mother and grandmother and was urged to prepare himself through rigorous personal study so that he could present himself as a workman who need not be ashamed.
Preparation and study have taken an up-turn in two millennia. My grandfather answered his call in the southern mill-village revivals of the 1930's and 1940's. His preparation was a set of Pulpit Commentaries printed on World War II surplus paper. Week after week he labored over the Word of God preparing sermons for the believers God entrusted to his care. Today, he would have access to umpteen educational resources---distance learning, live-streamed lectures, full theological libraries, and an internet linked to the finest schools and seminaries in the world. In his own time, however, he used what was available in old print media to rightly handle the word of truth to that generation. What an inspiration. I still have those old Pulpit Commentaries, marked and lined, as a memento to his dedication to the Word of God, as well as the three by five inch note cards with his sermon notes typed out in a short-hand only he understood. Study to show thyself approved, indeed.
Many pastors, ministers, and spiritual leaders are tempted in the Presumption Zone today. This is the dangerous place where they don't experience the urgency to prepare. It happens to some called individuals early in the process of their development, an arrogance that they already know what is needed. Even later in life some spiritual leaders have been there, done that enough that preparation is no longer considered necessary. One pastor told me he had moved every three years and therefore three years of sermons were sufficient. Whatever??? But, regardless of the individual circumstances, the Presumption Zone is a dangerous place for leaders whatever their assignment. To presume that we no longer need time in the Living Word, spiritual refreshment in the texts that teach, instruct, and rebuke, is a sad commentary about where we are in relationship with him. It may be another bullet in the list of why the demographics of the contemporary church are so dismal.
There are a couple of angles on temptation in the Presumption Zone.
(1) Just as when we interpret Scripture, preaching and teaching the Word of God is contextual. Yes, surely the Bible is eternal and the truth works in every situation in every generation in every place. In thirty-five years, however, I have found that what was needed in one context wasn't needed specifically in another. If churches weren't different, there would have been one Epistle that could have been passed to them all. Re-using material verbatim may be giving in to the temptation of the Presumption Zone, presuming that a truth that was clear at Place A will apply to Place B.
(2) Even when we've taught the entire Bible line-by-line, precept upon precept (as is the tag line of Precept Ministries and the great inductive Bible Study of Kay Arthur) we should prepare to faithfully exposit Scripture every time we stand to do so. Thousands of pastors and spiritual leaders can attest to the dynamic nature of the Bible and the ways the Holy Spirit guides and inspires us when we teach and preach the word. Every time I open Scripture for study he shows me something I've never seen before. When we don't prepare, we're presuming that we already know what he's going to teach us. In that case, we'd better tread lightly, we're in the Presumption Zone already.
(3) Disciples of Jesus are life-long learners. Pastors and spiritual leaders should be at the front of that learning line. The height of presumption is to conclude we no longer need to learn anything. In my personal opinion, which isn't worth all that much, his call over our lives is worthy of our deepest and most earnest preparation. Today many young pastors and church leaders, in their desire to begin their ministry and answer their calling as soon as possible, will by-pass the more stringent educational and personal preparation. Once again, this is the Presumption Zone. This presumption may help us understand why the commission to make disciples is so weak today.
(4) The preparation treadmill is one of the more grueling aspects of ministry. In most instances, pastors and church leaders must prepare to preach or teach three times, or more, every single week. It is the repetitive hard work, combined with other pastoral duties, administration, family responsibilities, and some personal life that make spiritual leaders weary. The rigorous schedule and constant readiness often guide us into the Presumption Zone. It's another reason churches should insist that their pastors and staff experience sabbatical rest and recovery on a regular basis.
(5) The Presumption Zone is just one small segment of the circle of frustration that leads to the Cave-in Zone mentioned on Monday. When we're presumptive, we don't prepare sufficiently and we're not as effective in the most public element of our leadership. Others may be aware of this cycle. But, we certainly are, and it can have lasting results in our ministry calling if not settled quickly.
Paul's letters to Timothy are so fresh and vibrant, powerful counsel and advice to a younger colleague. Several verses are important to me after thirty-five years of declaring the counsel of God. You see, Paul knew the pains and frustrations of serving, bore on his body the marks of Christ, and always felt unworthy to teach, even though he was educated in the finest rabbinical school. In the second letter he told Timothy, "Therefore, I remind you to keep ablaze the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment" (2 Timothy 1: 6-7).
Keeping that gift ablaze is the thing. It is an outgrowth of what he has given us, the spirit of power, love and sound judgment. When we do, it is possible to "hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me..." (2 Timothy 1:13).
Now, that's what I'm talking about...