"As for you, [in contrast to every popular trend] always be sober-minded" (v. 5). The Greek word Paul uses has all the same connotations as the English word sobriety. Its primary meaning has to do with abstinence from wine.
In this context, however, the admonition is not exclusively—and probably not even primarily—about the consumption of wine. Like our word sober, the Greek term here also speaks of alertness, serious thoughtfulness, dignity. The King James Version translates it as a reference to watchfulness: "But watch thou in all things." And that's certainly an important aspect of the idea.
Remember, all these imperatives expand and elaborate on the central idea, which is at the head of the list: "Preach the word." Paul is saying, handle it soberly. Treat it with the gravity and sobriety and circumspection your calling warrants. Don't be a clown or a trifler in the pulpit. Especially when people are demanding to have their ears tickled, you need to impress on them the full weight of the profound importance of God's unadulterated Word.
Then: "endure suffering." This is an inevitable and inescapable aspect of every minister's duty. Chapter 3, verse 12: "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted."
Paul's own sufferings bleed into the text of both his epistles to Timothy. Paul keeps telling Timothy he needs to be bold, to embrace suffering, to stand up against opposition and take the blows he would inevitably be dealt—to die for the truth if necessary. If you aren't willing to do that, you need to get out of ministry.
Next: "Do the work of an evangelist." It's easy in this context to know exactly what Paul was saying. It translates to this: preach the gospel. See, all of this is about preaching. "Preach the Word." Preach the whole counsel of God. And keep the gospel at the center of the message, which is to say keep Christ at the center of the message; and in other words, keep the story of redemption at the center of the message—because that is after all the only true and sound way to interpret Scripture. "Do the work of an evangelist." Proclaim the gospel, and never lose sight of it.
The final imperative wraps it all together: "Fulfill your ministry." How do you fulfill your ministry? By preaching the Word in the way described by all those imperatives combined. Paul has come full circle.
Conspicuously absent are all of the fad-words that fill the vocabularies of church planters and missional strategists today. Nothing about innovation; nothing about "cultural engagement"—except for engagement in warfare against the fads and innovations of a generation whose main features are itching ears and a lust for novelty. That is the chief kind of cultural engagement we're called to: to engage our culture in the sense David engaged Goliath.
And you know what? That is the proper medicine for itching ears.
The remedy for itching ears is not ear-tickling and story-telling. The true remedy is the faithful and forceful preaching of God's Word, which is "Living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart."
Paul wasn't commanding Timothy to do anything unique or extraordinary. Paul himself had done all those things, faithfully and consistently for years, despite every conceivable type of trial and opposition. The apostle gives testimony to that fact in verses 6-7: "For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
I fear the church today is dangerously low on men who will honestly be able to say that when the time comes.