On Tuesday this week I had the joy of preaching in chapel to the men at The Master’s Seminary in Los Angeles, California. (Over the years I’ve enjoyed watching conversations between their chancellor, John MacArthur, and our chancellor, John Piper—for example, in 2007 and 2022.) I tailored the sermon specifically to pastors and to pastors-in-training. My text was 2 Timothy 2:15: “Do your best [that is, work hard] to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, [by] rightly handling the word of truth.”
I summarized that command in five words: Work hard for God’s approval. And I applied two aspects of that command to the pastors and pastors-in-training: First, work hard (don’t be lazy). Second, work for God’s approval (not the approval of others). I won’t re-preach the sermon here, but I’ll share the gist of the first exhortation to work hard.
Accurately handling God’s words is the way a pastor works hard for God’s approval. The book of Proverbs says a lot about hard work (for example, see Proverbs 6:6–11; 10:4–5; 12:11, 14, 24; 13:4; 14:23; 19:15; 20:4, 13; 21:25; 22:29; 26:13–16; 28:19). The gist is that it is foolish to be lazy, and that it is wise to work hard.
So what are some areas in which pastors and pastors-in-training should work hard and not be lazy? I’ll briefly suggest seven areas:
- Work hard at knowing God’s words. Feast on them every day. Meditate on them. Be a man of the book. You should bleed Bible. You should know the Bible better than any other book.
- Work hard at gaining proficiency in Hebrew and Greek. In my opinion, this is the most valuable part of seminary training. Very few people have the discipline and opportunity to learn Hebrew and Greek like you can in a good seminary. Since you have that immense privilege here, you should be a good steward of that great gift.
- Work hard at tracing the argument of passages in the Bible. The Bible is not a list of unrelated bullet points. It’s not pearls on a string. It’s not a reference work like a dictionary or an encyclopedia. It’s literature. And in the stories and poetry and letters, the authors argue. The authors assert truths and support those truths with reasons and evidence. Work hard at tracing the argument of Bible passages.
- Work hard at understanding the Bible’s storyline and how the Bible fits together. How does the whole Bible progress and integrate and climax in Christ? For example, can you trace the theological significance of Melchizedek in Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and Hebrews 5–7? How does circumcision in the Old Testament compare to baptism in the New Testament? What are the major covenants in the Bible, and how do they relate to each other?
- Work hard at learning from what godly and brilliant exegetes and theologians over the centuries have written about God. You can learn from men in (1) the early church and (2) the Middle Ages and (3) the Reformation and post-Reformation and (4) the modern period. Creeds, exegetes, and theologians are not ultimately authoritative; only Scripture is. But Charles Spurgeon wisely remarked, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”
- Work hard at correlating how everything in the Bible and outside the Bible coheres with reality. Special revelation and general revelation are never at odds with each other. They harmonize. And God’s words are never at odds with each other either. God’s words never contradict each other; this is why we can do “systematic” theology. Work hard at answering the question “What does the whole Bible teach about [fill in the blank]?” How does it all gloriously fit together?
- Work hard at living out God’s words. 2 Timothy 2:15 does not say, “Work hard to present your mind to God as one approved.” It says, “Work hard to present yourself to God as one approved.” So watch your life and doctrine. Pray without ceasing. Evangelize in your sphere of influence. Invest in global missions. Be a faithful husband and father and church member. Be outstanding in your vocations. Never indulge in pornography. Be like Ezra in Ezra 7:9–10: “The good hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” Your calling is not simply to study and teach. It’s also to do or practice or live out what God says.
I should qualify my exhortation to work hard because my exhortation will land differently on pastors and pastors-in-training. I can envision two extremes:
- On one extreme is a man who is as hard-working as they come. He has a wife and four young children, and he is trying to support them by working 30+ hours a week. And he’s doing all that while he’s a full-time seminary student. He is not wasting any time. He doesn’t have any time to waste. He barely gets enough sleep. He is tired and weary. And he’s doing the best he can with God’s help. My exhortations here could land on that man the wrong way. If you are that man, I want my exhortations to be wind in your sails. I want to encourage you as I exhort you to press on with God’s help. As Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
- On the other extreme is a man who is coasting and cutting corners. He is being lazy. He is slacking off. He could be working much harder. He is capable of excelling more than he is. He may be a full-time student, but he doesn’t have many other responsibilities. Maybe he is single. Maybe he is married with no children yet. Maybe someone else is paying for his tuition and housing. And instead of leveraging all that extra time to work diligently, he is frittering away time on social media and other forms of entertainment. He isn’t excelling in his classwork. He isn’t fully applying himself to his studies. He’s doing the bare minimum—just enough to pass his classes and get the degree. If you are that man, I want my exhortations to be a kick in the pants—a friendly wake-up call. I want to warn you as I exhort you to work hard for God’s approval so that you won’t be ashamed before God. Don’t be shameful. Don’t be disgraceful.
Here’s the bottom line: You want the Master to commend you for working hard. You want the Master to say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21). You don’t want the Master to say, “You wicked and slothful servant!” (Matt 25:26).
So, brothers, work hard; don’t be lazy. The work of pastors and pastors-in-training is hard. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it was easy, then many more people would be doing it. Your short time in seminary is like the training period for a Navy SEAL. It’s hard because you are training for something great: you are training to be a faithful shepherd for the Master. You are training for God to deploy you in Christ’s church as a faithful shepherd. This is no small task. When your life is hard, you will be tempted to have sinful self-pity. Don’t do it. With God’s help, press on.
Andy Naselli, Ph.D.
Professor of Systematic Theology and New Testament
- Pray that God would give our pastors and pastor-in-training grace to obey what God commands in 2 Timothy 2:15—that we would faithfully work hard to present ourselves to God as one approved, as workers who have no need to be ashamed, by rightly handling the word of truth.
- Pray for those presenting at and attending Serious Joy: The Bethlehem Conference for Pastors.
- Pray for our school’s Board of Trustees as they carefully consider whom to call to serve as our next president.
- Pray that we would live like Christian hedonists—that we would hope in God and that like Paul we would be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10).
- Pray for the full funding of Serious Joy Scholarships for this year.