Twin letters penned by the Apostle Paul to Timothy, his young son in the faith, are commonly referred to as pastoral letters.
They contain pastoral instruction for a young leader, written by a seasoned veteran who is about to depart this earth (see II Timothy 4:6). Seeing they are the last words of a dying spiritual father, they take on greater significance.
These letters are filled with exhortations to Timothy to both preserve and proclaim the Gospel faithfully. When emphasizing the importance of preserving the Gospel, there are frequent reminders the Gospel is under attack and Timothy must be ready, at all times, to defend it. “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” the apostle exhorts Timothy (2 Timothy 1:13). He then reminds him to “guard, by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, the good deposit entrusted to you” (1:14). All of these exhortations are vivid reminders the Gospel is always under attack. The most fundamental need, therefore, is to preserve it carefully.
According to Apostle Paul, these attacks come not only from without, but from within. In the passage, Paul speaks prophetically of a time when people will become bored with sound teaching and seek after that which excites and stimulates (4:3-4). This is the result of having “itching ears”; wanting to listen to those who speak things that please them. The end result is they “turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
There is only one way Timothy can avoid the itching ears syndrome—by remaining diligent to “preach the Word” (4:2). The word preach is the translation of a Greek word kerysso which literally means ‘to act as a herald.’ That word describes the act of making a public and open announcement; kerysso is never done in secret. In a word, Paul reminds Timothy of the way to counter this tendency is by the proclamation of the objective truth of the Gospel.
It is interesting to note the apostle does not speak of those with itching ears as rejecting teaching and preaching altogether. They choose the kind of teachers they will sit under (“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”). This speaks volumes about the nature of true preaching. True preachers are those appointed by God to herald the truth, rather than those who are men-pleasers, preaching what they know people want to hear. This implies that true preaching is surgical, cutting deep into the hearts of men, rooting out sin and establishing the everlasting Gospel of grace.
In our day, this desire to have their ears tickled is evident in the growing numbers of people who flock to churches where the word sin is almost never heard. The ear tickling Gospel tells us that the problem with us today is poor self-esteem or a bad attitude. They could not sing the words of that great hymn, Amazing Grace: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Ill-informed or perhaps misguided, but certainly, not a wretch, says the modern Gospel. When the pastor of one of the largest churches was asked why he never uses the word sin in his sermons, he replied by saying that people already feel bad about themselves and that he felt called by God to encourage them. But without knowledge of our true condition, the Gospel is shorn of its power. For Jesus died for sin, not my poor self-esteem or bad attitude.
But in our day we also see this itching ear syndrome manifest in the fact that many see little or no need to sit under the preached word at all. In this postmodern age, people prefer sharing rather than being preached to from an authoritative book. Since in an age such as ours authority is questioned, it stands to reason that those with itching ears resist being preached to, preferring instead to share with others or engage in conversation.
Nevertheless, Paul’s admonition to Timothy stands firm—“preach the Word.” Paul is clear as to the purpose of the ministry of the word: to establish the saints in the sound teaching of the faith. Another word for sound in the text is the word healthy. For Paul, if saints are to be healthy, they must ensure they are sitting under sound teaching. In a word, healthy doctrine produces healthy saints while unhealthy doctrine produces unhealthy saints.
Looking at much of the Church today, it is little wonder saints are so unhealthy. One only has to look at the diet they are being fed to discover the source of their emaciation. Leaders who understand that their first call is the faithful proclamation of the Gospel are in short supply today. Many saints are not being fed the richness of the Word.
In order to curb the itching ear syndrome, Christian leaders today must take their primary calling as preachers of the Word seriously. We must not succumb to the decrease of desire to sit under biblical teaching but commit to it afresh, knowing that it is a major means of ensuring that people grow into healthy, mature believers. Paul is adamant: in the face of this tendency towards heaping to themselves teachers who tell them what they want to hear, Timothy is to remain ever faithful to preaching the Word.