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What does Paul mean when he says "be ready whether it is convenient or not" or "Be ready in season and out of season" according to the translation in 2 Timothy 4:2?

2 Timothy 4:2 (NET)
Preach the message, be ready whether it is convenient or not, reprove, rebuke, exhort with complete patience and instruction.

2 Timothy 4:2 (NKJV)
Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.

What is Paul talking about? How does this affect the preaching?

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This text consists of five imperatives:

  1. κήρυξον τὸν λόγον, | kēryxon ton logon | (Preach the Word)
  2. ἐπίστηθι εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως, | epistēthi eukairōs akairōs | (be ready in season [and] out of season)
  3. ἔλεγξον, | elenxon | (reprove)
  4. ἐπιτίμησον, | epitimēson | (rebuke)
  5. παρακάλεσον, | parakaleson | (exhort)

ἐν πάσῃ μακροθυμίᾳ καὶ διδαχῇ. | en pasē makrothymia kai didachē | (in all patience and teaching).

The first imperative guides the others. The primary misunderstanding is with the second imperative clause. To better understand it, two questions must be raised:

  • How is the 2nd-person-singular aorist-active-imperative verb ἐπίστηθι best translated?
  • Are the double adverbs (εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως) subjective (concerning Timothy) or objective (concerning his hearers)?

Literally, ἐπίστηθι (from ἐφίστημι) can be translated "stand by [it]", which carries the sense of "keep at it." BDAG (2000) agrees that the use in this passage is literally to "stand by", and suggests that this conveys the idea "be ready, be on hand, be persistent", giving an overarching definition for this use (#5) of "to be present in readiness to discharge a task, fix one’s mind on, be attentive to."

Chrysostom understood the double adverbs (εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως) in this passage to be subjective (relating to Timothy), meaning that Timothy should stand by (persist) in the task whether or not it is convenient, which is the sense brought out in the NET translation cited. From Chrysostom's Ninth Homily on 2 Timothy:

What means “in season, out of season”? That is, have not any limited season: let it always be thy season, not only in peace and security, and when sitting in the Church. Whether thou be in danger, in prison, in chains, or going to thy death, at that very time reprove. Withhold not rebuke, for reproof is then most seasonable, when thy rebuke will be most successful, when the reality is proved. “Exhort,” he says. After the manner of physicians, having shown the wound, he gives the incision, he applies the plaster. For if you omit either of these, the other becomes useless. If you rebuke without convicting, you will seem to be rash, and no one will tolerate it, but after the matter is proved, he will submit to rebuke: before, he will be headstrong. And if you convict and rebuke, but vehemently, and do not apply exhortation, all your labor will be lost. For conviction is intolerable in itself if consolation be not mingled with it. As if incision, though salutary in itself, have not plenty of lenitives to assuage the pain, the patient cannot endure cutting and hacking, so it is in this matter.

Gordon Fee argues for an objective reading of the double adverbs (pertaining to his hearers) in 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, 2011), meaning that Timothy should stand by the task "whether or not the preaching comes at a convenient time for the hearers." Fee finds support for the objective reading in both "Timothy's reticence" (inferred from 2 Timothy 1:6-7) and because of the context immediately following (linked to this idea by the post-positive conjunction γὰρ in verse 3).

So the answer depends on whether you understand "εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως" as subjective or objective. Here is a proposed (dynamic-equivalent/amplified) translation for each:

  • Subjective: "Preach the Word: be ready whether or not it is convenient [for you], reprove, rebuke, [and] exhort, with complete patience and instruction."
  • Objective: "Preach the Word: be ready whether or not [the preaching comes] at a convenient time [for them], reprove, rebuke, [and] exhort, with complete patience and instruction."
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