God has always wanted to communicate His Word to people, and a major way He does that is through teachers. Teachers were necessary in the Old Testament and in the early Church, and they are still necessary today. Although every Christian can teach, there is (or should be) a difference between the teachings of a Christian with the gift ministry of a teacher and one who does not have that ministry. A person with the ministry of a teacher will teach in a way that differs in quality, quantity, and scope from others who teach in the Body of Christ.
Since anyone can take what they have learned and to some extent communicate that to others, it can be difficult to distinguish between someone with the ministry of a teacher and someone who simply has a command of his subject. The way we can tell if someone has the gift ministry of a teacher is the same way we can identify other ministries: see what comes forth from them over time. Let us consider the ministries of a prophet, evangelist, pastor, and artist and compare the ministry of a teacher to them.
Although every Christian can prophesy, the Lord Jesus will honor those to whom he has given the gift ministry of a prophet by working with them so that over time people will recognize their prophetic ministry by seeing that their prophecies differ in quality, quantity, and content from the prophecies of other Christians. When it comes to evangelism, every Christian is to evangelize to one degree or another, because we each have the ministry of reconciliation. Nevertheless, the Lord will especially energize the person with the gift ministry of an evangelist such that anyone who observes his ministry over time will see that his personal desire to see the unsaved won for the Lord, as well as his personal efforts to win the unsaved, are greater in depth, scope, and effectiveness than is true for Christians who do not have that ministry.
Concerning pastoral care, every Christian should love his brother as himself and try to help his fellowman. However, the person with the gift ministry of a pastor is energized and guided by the Lord Jesus in a way that over time people will see the wonderful effectiveness he has in shepherding people and healing the brokenhearted. When it comes to the area of art, every believer can pick up a pencil and draw something on paper, even if the result does not quite resemble the actual object. However, the Lord has gifted some people with a special ability that can be clearly seen by others. Ask gifted Christian artists and they will testify that the Lord works in them to give them ideas and mental pictures, and then works in them while they are painting to bring just the right look that will be a blessing.
In all the examples above, it is clear that every Christian can, to one degree or another, do what those with specific ministries can do. However, the Lord Jesus honors those he has called to a particular ministry by working in them and energizing them in a special way to bless the Body. For that reason, a person’s particular ministry will make itself known over time if that person first strives to walk a godly walk and then presses forward as the Lord leads him.
It is important to realize that no ministry shines forth from a believer unless he or she prepares themselves. Whatever one’s ministry is, it will function only as well as a person works to perfect what God has put inside of him or her. The first step in bringing forth any ministry is to walk in godliness and do the basics that every Christian is supposed to do, such as pray, give, read the Word, fellowship with others, etc. It is in doing the basics that the Lord Jesus can work in us to reveal what our ministry is. That is a major point of Romans 12:1-8, especially verses 1-3. The development of a ministry involves a special energizing from the Lord. He is faithful to bless, but each Christian must realize that when the Bible speaks of being holy, “useful to the Master,” and “prepared to do any good work” (2 Tim. 2:21), it is not kidding. We make ourselves useful, and we prepare ourselves to do good work. If we will not do that, then what does the Lord Jesus have to work within us? Why would he energize us? We would just end up making fools of ourselves and him.
When it comes to the gift ministry of a teacher, we should note that not all called teachers teach the Bible. Many people who have the calling of a teacher end up as teachers or instructors in other areas. However, this article will deal with the teacher of the Bible. The book of James shows the importance that God sets upon the teacher, and upon right doctrine.
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
The Bible specifically says that teachers will be judged more strictly than other Christians, by being held to a higher standard. It is sobering for those of us who teach that nothing like this is said of apostles, prophets, evangelists, or any other ministry. Why then is it stated for teachers? The answer lies in the importance God places upon right doctrine. In our ecumenical culture of “go along to get along,” the importance of truth, and even the fact that there is such a thing as truth, is often lost. However, Christians can be assured that the value of “right” and “truth” is never lost to God. Truth sets people free, but error enslaves. There is a truth, there is that which is “right,” and God wants us to know it (1 Tim. 2:4).
The Lord Jesus has set teachers in his Body with the assigned task of setting forth from God’s Word and from the wisdom therein what is true and right in order to bless and free all people. Of course, the Adversary has worked hard to keep truth out of the world, and anyone trying to boldly bring it forth will pay a price. Teachers are supposed to so honor God and His Word that they are willing to pay that price and be the ones through whom God can bring right doctrine to the world. Woe to the teacher that could press into the heart of God and get great revelations of truth for the Body, but for fear of ridicule or rejection teaches something he knows is less than the best God has for His people (1 Cor. 9:16).
To make full proof of their ministry, teachers must have a relentless desire to have and hold truth. Teachers cannot afford to have that desire quenched, or be swayed from the truth by people’s opinions or public pressure. They must echo the sentiments of Paul: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court” (1 Cor. 4:3a). That is not to say that teachers cannot be wrong or have no need to be meek to the instruction of others. On the contrary, teachers must be the meekest of people. They must be ready, willing, and even excited about learning more truth than they already know. If that knowledge comes through study and revelation, great. If it comes through reproof and correction, so be it. Truth is the goal. Why? Because truth originated in God, and it was He who decreed that it would set people free. We honor God by recognizing that fact, declaring that there is truth, and then diligently working to find it and teach it to others. The true teacher feels genuine pain at the thought of having communicated some form of error, and thus leading God’s precious people astray in some way.
One of the major failings among teachers in the Church is that they have given in to the pressure of being accepted and/or keeping their jobs. Many teachers teach things that they do not themselves really believe simply because they do not want to risk losing their friends, their position, or their salary. Having walked in my calling as a teacher for more than 30 years now, I firmly believe the Lord energizes teachers to “sniff out” truth. How could he ask them to teach truth to others if they cannot recognize it themselves? However, just as revelation is a still “small” voice, the sniffing process usually begins with a small scent. Maybe a verse does not fit into accepted theology, maybe a teaching does not sit right—the teacher is called to press into those areas and make sense of the Word. As he presses forward, more and more truth will be revealed. If he backs off for fear of what he will find, well, what can the Lord do?
The teacher is not satisfied unless he feels that his audience has “gotten” the message. To the teacher, teaching is not about presenting, it is about learning. Because of that, true teachers are tuned into their audience. Are they receiving? Are they bored? Have they had enough? If the people have not learned, then the teacher has not taught, and it makes no difference if the presentation was “perfect,” had music, illustrations, charts, PowerPoint, or whatever. If the student has not learned, the teacher is, and should be, left with a sad and empty feeling.
Ezra was “a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), and in the book of Nehemiah he and other Levites taught the people.
They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.
Ezra knew that if the people did not understand what the Law said, than all his teaching was pointless. Interestingly, Ezra’s work involved translation, just as the teacher’s work does today. The Law was written in Hebrew, but some of the people in Ezra’s audience, having just come back from 70 years in Babylon, spoke only Aramaic, so getting the people to understand involved translating the Hebrew into Aramaic. Today in the United States, teachers bring the essence of the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament into English, and enable people to understand.
As with any ministry, teachers must prepare themselves. Any teacher of the Word must, above all, be a reader of the Word. One cannot teach what he does not know. To Ezra’s credit, he was “well versed” in the Law. Acts 18:24 credits Apollos with a “thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.” A major problem with Christian teachers today is that they do not take the time to read and reread Scripture. They get caught up in the world of TV, video games, and other distractions, and do not get to the point that they have a thorough knowledge of the Bible. Make no mistake: the more Bible a teacher knows, the more the Lord can work in her to bring messages that meet whatever need is in the Body at the time. The Adversary knows what is at stake if a teacher is really on the mark for God, and he is quick to provide all kinds of distractions. The teacher should see these for what they are: Satanic ploys to derail God’s purposes. The teacher must remain disciplined to the work of God. She reads the Word, and also studies other subjects that enable her to explain it clearly.
Because teachers are often energized by God and the Lord Jesus as they are teaching, it is sometimes tempting for them to “coast” and not work hard to prepare themselves and their teachings. This is a mistake. Jesus will work with what he has in order to bless his people, and if an unprepared teacher is all he has, he will work with that. Feeling the energizing of the Lord as he teaches, the teacher can be led into the false conclusion that the Lord likes the “free,” “spontaneous,” teaching style. This is not always true. After 30 years of teaching, I can “go spontaneous” with the best of them, but I know in my heart that when I take the time to pray, think, study, and prepare beforehand, there is a greater energizing of my ministry and greater blessing to God’s people.
It is of the utmost importance for a teacher to lead a godly lifestyle. There are a number of reasons for this, the first and foremost being that the Lord honors those who honor him, and the teacher depends on his relationship with the Lord for direction and energy, both spiritual and mental. The second reason is that the teacher is always teaching. Sometimes the least important teaching we do is from the lectern. Remember the words of Edgar Guest: “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” I can say assuredly that nothing turns an audience off so quickly as knowing that the teacher is a hypocrite. Third, as humans, we find it hard to communicate clearly and honestly in areas where we ourselves are compromised. If a teacher looks at pornography, he will usually not be bold to teach that it is a sin. If a teacher uses obscenity, he will usually not be effective communicating the truth that using it dishonors God. If teachers have a clean and godly life, their teaching will have more power.
In that vein, something that every teacher of the Word wrestles with to one degree or another is the conflict created between what he clearly sees in the Word of God and his inability to perfectly model it before people. As teachers, the text of Scripture can be very clear, but the practice of it is as difficult for us as for others. How can I teach important truths such as having great faith in God when I sometimes wrestle with my own trust? The Lord recognizes the battle, and does not ask that teachers master the practice of a subject before they teach it. Rather he asks that we teach it in a way that sets forth his heart about the subject while revealing our personal struggles, thus empowering others in their own struggles. This brings up the point that teachers must be comfortable with others knowing about them: their past, their present, their struggles, and their victories. A good teacher realizes the value of communicating by example. Christ lived among the people; Paul started the Thessalonian church on his second missionary journey, and later he wrote to them, “You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:5b and 6a).
In this article, I do not want to delve very far into the techniques of teaching for a simple reason: techniques can become a crutch or formula that lead to stilted, dry teachings. There are techniques to teaching, and every good teacher learns some of them, but the true teacher is never fooled into believing that if a teaching has five Bible verses, four anecdotes, three personal incidents, two jokes, one opening quotation and a partridge in a pear tree, then it is a good teaching.
The very first “technique” to a good teaching is to let the Lord, who knows the heart and need of the audience, reveal the subject matter. In my life, this usually comes as a very dissatisfied feeling as I think and pray about what I am going to teach until I finally consider a subject that simultaneously or soon thereafter comes with an inner witness and a satisfied, peaceful feeling. Deciding on the subject is not a matter of blanking my mind until the Lord puts something in it. I have to do some work, considering and praying about different things. When I am teaching at someone else’s fellowship, I usually ask the leader or leaders what they would like me to share. They are the shepherds of their group, and the Lord has charged them with the care of their people. If they have nothing specific in mind, and just ask me to share what is on my heart, I am always willing to do that.
Second, I do the work of preparation, doing my best to understand what the Lord is trying to say in the text or subject I am presenting. I read different versions, look at what others have said about the subject, and use the tools and keys of Bible study and research to develop a fresh understanding of what I am going to teach. I may know the section well, but I still reread it.
Third, I select what will be in the teaching. Diligent preparation usually yields much more information than can be put into a teaching. I pray for an energizing of my wisdom and the ministry the Lord gave me to select what to present and how to present it so that it will be fresh (not necessarily “new”), powerful, life-changing, and to some extent entertaining. A country minister once said to me, “If it ain’t the freshness of the Spirit, why teach it?” Why indeed? The Word of the Lord is new every morning. If the teacher is walking his talk, the Lord will see to it that from life and the Word he will have an abundance of material that will keep the Word fresh to his audience even if they have heard the material before.
I remember a time when I was driving and listening to Christian radio that I heard a minister teach the record of the fall of Jericho. Although I have read and taught the record many times, he brought forth the Word of God with such a freshness in his presentation and such power in his words I almost could not drive. I laughed, I cried, and I found myself praying that I would be able to bring forth God’s words with such passion and clarity. That kind of power and passion comes from relationship and knowledge, not just technique.
If you are a teacher, and you are “running dry” on material, turn up the heat on your godliness and walk. Maybe that means getting up earlier to have time to think, pray, and read. Maybe that means eating lunch alone with your Bible for a while. Maybe it means swearing off TV for a month. Pray, study, go witnessing, read new versions of the Bible, read the works of other great men and women of God, and clear your life of unnecessary distractions. When we are dry, it usually means there is something in our life that the Lord wants us to deal with.
In closing, let me say that the teacher needs to keep his eyes on the Hope. This life is short, like a vapor, like the bloom of a flower. A famous sports personality once said that everyone has the will to win (sure, everyone wants to win) but not everyone has the will to prepare to win, i.e., the will to show up early, stay late, and do the real work it takes to be victorious. By focusing on the Hope, a teacher gets strength and energy to get up early, stay up late, memorize verses, read book after book, and teach to whomever will listen. Yes, there is a stricter judgment for those of us who teach, but there is also great reward for those who are willing to do what it takes to accurately and powerfully make known truth from the wonderful Word of God.