Teaching The Bible: still unpopular, still essential
A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
26th May 2010
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(From The Briefing, 1993)
Yoga is to Hinduism what Billy Graham is to Christianity. The way we practice our religion will depend very much upon our theology. If God is ‘the force’, then we will attune ourselves to that force; if God is personal, then we will enter into personal relationship with him; and if God speaks, we will live by listening to what he says.
And God said
At the very outset of the Bible, at creation, we begin to see the importance of the word of God. Throughout the Genesis account, we read the recurring phrase, “and God said”. Everything was made in accordance with the mind of God and at God’s expressed direction. The Psalmist tells us that the whole world was created by the Word of God (Ps 33:6). From the beginning of the Bible, we learn that God speaks and that his speech is creative and powerful and working in the universe.
There are more implications from this understanding of God’s nature than just his power and creativity. As God speaks to that part of his creation that is made in his image, it is clear that his words must be listened to, understood and obeyed. Thus humanity hears and responds to the Word of God and God speaks to his people. As the epistle of Hebrews puts it, in many and various ways, God spoke of old to our fathers through the prophets (Heb 1:1). One of the chief glories of the people of Israel is that they have the very oracles of God. And it is one of Israel’s greatest fears that there should be a famine of God’s words (Amos 8:11). In fact, God goes to great length to teach the people of Israel that they do not live except by his Word. We read in Deuteronomy 8:3:
He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
In this way, God’s word is active and powerful, achieving its goals and intentions (Is 55:11;Heb 4:12). When God reveals himself in the person of his Son, Jesus is described as the Word of God (Jn 1:1-18). Just as God has spoken in the past by the prophets, he now speaks by his Son (Heb 1:1-4). Jesus, therefore, comes to us as an evangelist, a prophet and a teacher (Mk1:14; Mt 21:11; Jn 3:2). His work is carried out through the preaching of the Gospel, the word of God that goes out into all the world. To this end, Christ gives to people gifts for the ministry of his Word and some people are appointed apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers for the ongoing work of building the body of Christ. Because of these responsibilities, as Peter says, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God” (1 Pet 4:11). Paul instructs Timothy to devote himself to “the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1Tim 4:11), for Scripture is “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus ”and is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” in order that “the man of God be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15-17).
In the ministry of the gospel, it is important that our agenda is established by the gospel itself, rather than by the world. When we spend all our time alleviating human suffering, or caring for the sick and widows, or in maintaining historical buildings, then the world will be pleased with us. But the last thing the world wants us to talk about is Christ and the last thing it wants to hear is Christian preaching. The preaching and teaching of the Word of God is always unpopular with those who are rebelling against God. It should not, therefore, surprise us that people ridicule sermonizing, pulpiteering, preaching and Bible-bashing.
But we have an important example to follow as we see Christ and the apostles consistently preaching and teaching God’s Word and making hard decisions about their priorities in favour of that ministry. We should pay attention to Paul’s injunction to Timothy to devote ourselves to the public reading, teaching and preaching of the Scriptures. On another occasion, in another context, we might consider the subtle differences between reading, teaching and preaching. However, suffice it to say that the ministry of the gospel is about the prominence of the Word of God.
But what is the aim of teaching the Bible? Much of secular learning today aims at becoming qualified for acceptance in society or acquiring knowledge as an end in itself. However, neither of these is a sufficient aim for teaching and learning from the Scriptures. The Scriptures are given for practical purposes, not as an end in themselves. Knowledge puffs up (1 Cor 8:1). The foolish man hears the words of Christ but does not obey them, whereas the wise man does (Mt 7:24-27). For only the man who does the word of God really understands the Word of God (Jas 1:22-25). It is the Word of God, implanted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which brings us new birth and works within us (Jas 1:18, 21; Heb 4:12).Therefore, we must not be using the Word of God in order to acquire academic credit, nor in order to gain knowledge alone. However, the aim of the Word of God is to make us wise unto salvation, to complete and equip us for every good work. As we understand God and his ways, purposes and plans, so we discover how to live in order to please him.
Teaching how to read
Just as it is inadequate to acquire information merely for titillation, so it is inadequate to turn to Scripture simply for rules and regulations about how to live. The Bible itself speaks against such legalism and yet Bible teaching can easily degenerate into a pursuit of moral guidance from the lives of the prophets, kings, apostles and early Christians. But the Bible gives us a library of books with different applications: history, prophecy, wisdom, poetry and law. The whole breadth of biblical understanding must be taught for somebody to be obedient to God.
In order to grasp the overall theme and thrust of the Bible, we need to be careful to read and understand it on its own terms, in its own context. Much has been written in recent years about understanding words in their sentences, sentences in paragraphs, paragraphs in chapters, chapters in books. The principles and procedures for understanding the written text are rightly being emphasized and taught today.
However, we must look not only at grammatical context, but also at historical and theological contexts. The historical context includes our background knowledge of the language, literature and events of the period in which the verse, chapter or book was written. Much of this historical knowledge comes from the Bible itself. It is important for Christians to understand something of the history of Israel and the early church as an aid to understanding the biblical message.
It is even more important to understand the theology of the Bible as a whole. Theology can be understood systematically under certain topics such as God, man, sin, the person of Jesus, the work of Jesus and so on. Or it can be understood within the unfolding pattern of the Bible itself (for example, the covenant of Abraham, Moses and David finding fulfillment in the new covenant brought in by Jesus).
At one level, this theological understanding of context makes Bible reading a very much longer and more difficult task to undertake. Each of the verses we read adds to a mosaic which helps us to comprehend the larger picture. However, at another level, our theological background simplifies Bible reading. When we understand that the central message of the Bible is the person and work of Jesus, which is expressed in the gospel of Jesus, our minds can comprehend the Scriptures both as a whole and in its component books, chapters and verses. In Luke 24:45-49, Jesus opens the minds of the disciples to understand the Scriptures. The key which did the opening was the knowledge that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead, and repentance and forgiveness would be proclaimed to the nations through him.
So how should the Bible be taught? In one sense, little has been said about the methods of Bible teaching since great flexibility in this area is to be encouraged. However, there are some important points to notice.
1. The Word of God is to be declared rather than debated. Certainly, we may use debate, discussion, dialogue and group dynamics in order to understand more clearly what the Bible is saying. But the Bible’s message is to be heard, received and obeyed rather than queried, questioned and altered.
2. The aim of Bible teaching will always be to preach Christ as Lord, with the preacher being the servant of the people for Christ’s sake (2 Cor 4:5). For Christ is the key element to understanding the whole Word of God and it is he, not the preacher, who must be promoted.
3. The preacher’s place must be one of thorough submission, not only to Christ but also to the congregation. The preacher’s authority is Christ himself. That is also the preacher’s message. Therefore, people are called to obey the Word of God, not the preacher. Even with prophetic preaching, such as is referred to in Deuteronomy 13:18 and 1 Corinthians 14, the hearers are to listen with discernment. The aim of hearing the Word of God will be to grow in our understanding so that we might be mature in our thinking, filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding and not easily swayed by the current winds of doctrine. The preacher’s role is one of submission and his authority over the people of God rests in his teaching, in order that they be ruled by the Word of God.
4. The preacher must exemplify the message that is being preached. Paul constantly points to himself as the model of the message that he speaks (e.g. 1 Thess 2). In the appointment of elders, he directs both Timothy (1Tim 3) and Titus (Tit 1) to look for people who exemplify the godliness that should come from hearing and obeying the Word of God.
5. Paul demonstrates for us the way we should relate to the people of God. He is not only their servant, but their loving servant. His concern for Christians is shown in his prayers, in his anxieties and in his letters. Jesus is also moved with compassion at the shepherdless sheep that he sees in front of him. We do not teach the Word of God in a vacuum, but to the people whom we are serving. The proper motivations of an elder are spelt out in 1 Peter 5:4. Church leaders will do well to test themselves against these verses.
6. The Bible must be taught with immense care, knowing that teachers are judged with great strictness (Jas 3:1ff).
7. We must continue, patiently enduring the consequences of teaching God’s Word. We mustn’t grow weary in well doing, for in due time we will reap as we have sown. However, ministry of the Word of God is fraught with difficulties and opposition. Frequently, the outcome of our scattering of seed is, in the short term, poor. But in the long term, to the glory of God, it is plentiful.