All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible 1995 Ed. (NASB95) published by The Lockman Foundation
Have you ever listened in person to a “pastor” or Bible teacher, and through most of the message or lesson, you were bothered by the teacher’s apparent lack of ability to explain and apply Scripture in its right context? If you’re honest, and you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, I think you can say “yes.” Did you ever find out why the teacher was so ineffective and inaccurate? There are many possible reasons for this, but three of the biggest from the New Testament are failures to take seriously three fundamental characteristics about pastoral teaching:
- Teaching Scripture is a sobering work.
- Teaching Scripture is a strict work.
- Teaching Scripture is a straining work.
In this article, we’ll examine the most important things that the apostles’ had to say about the soberness, strictness, and straining nature of teaching Scripture.
Pastoral Teaching Should Be Done Soberly
The first truth that should be recognized by every man who engages in the pastoral work of teaching Scripture is that he will be judged for every word that comes out of his mouth during his teaching. James, the elder, offers this stern warning to the Christians under his oversight in his letter:
“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” (Jas. 3:1-2)
James clearly cautions his audience – and us today – that not many Christians should become “teachers.” By “teachers,” he doesn’t just mean anyone who teaches, but the office of what Paul calls “shepherds and teachers” in Ephesians 4:11. The reason we can conclude this is because the author of Hebrews, in chapter 5, says to a whole congregation that they ought to be teachers. Secondly, James is saying that as those whose main work is teaching the truth, shepherds will “incur a stricter judgment.” Why? Because they’re responsible for explaining and applying the truth of Scripture to other Christians. That is, they’re not to explain what they think the truth is, but what they know the truth to be conveying through meticulous study and application.
The overseer goes on to highlight the difficulty of teaching accurately by saying that if a person “does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man” (v. 2). By “perfect,” he doesn’t mean a sinless man, but a mature man, who’s able to carefully control his speech. Therefore, if a man is to be a worthy teacher of God’s Word, he must be spiritually mature. Furthermore, he needs to always be aware that he’s going to be evaluated by the Lord at the end of his life, including everything that he’s claimed Scripture to be teaching and implying. Although this won’t determine his eternal destination, it will determine his enjoyment or reward on the new earth. If he doesn’t want to miss out on what he could potentially receive at the judgment, he should make sure that his understanding, teaching, and communication is being guided by the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the truth of Scripture. If he fails to teach Scripture accurately, he’ll misrepresent God’s Word, grieve the Holy Spirit, displease the Lord, and possibly miss out on a potential benefit of reward in eternity. Teachers ought to be sober-minded.
Teaching Scripture Requires Extreme Strictness
The second truth that must be recognized and applied for all pastoral teachers is that such teaching must be done according to the strictness required by the apostles’ teaching, especially Paul’s. Paul gave this charge of strictness to his pastoral representative, Timothy, in 2 Timothy 2:15:
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
Much like James does in his letter, here Paul first calls Timothy to remember his accountability to God. It’s not to his congregation that he’s to present himself, nor to his fellow-overseers, and not even to Paul, but to God. The primary person that Timothy is serving as a Christian teacher is God Himself. And what kind of man is he to view himself as? As a “workman,” or a skilled laborer. As God’s servant, he needs to see himself as God’s workman who has no reason to be ashamed.
What is the required amount of effort in this presentation to God? Paul commands him to “be diligent,” or to be supremely focused, resolved, and laborious in being an unashamed workman for God. At the end of this instruction, Paul comes to the specific strictness of teaching God’s Word. He does this by describing Timothy’s diligence in acting as a workman for God as resulting in him “accurately handling the word of truth.” The Greek word translated “accurately handling” is a masonry term that literally means “cutting straight,” so this command is demanding that Timothy precisely, carefully, and clearly explain and apply “the word of truth.” What is the “word of truth?” The whole “message” of Scripture, especially the gospel and its implications.
To apply this to elders today, it’s their responsibility to present themselves to God as unashamed workman who are accurately handling Scripture and its truths. They are primarily to read Scripture, to explain Scripture, and to apply Scripture to the lives of their flock. And all such teaching must be an accurate representation of Scripture’s content, context, message, and applications. Scripture must be taught with due recognition of its contexts, its character, and its applicability. There’s no room for ripping Scripture passages out of their context, and using them to attempt to support a man’s own point, which such passages can’t support. Scripture and its truths are to be honored the most by letting them speak for themselves, and by explaining what they originally meant first to the author, and secondly to the apostles. Only when Scripture is understood in its original context can it then be applied to the lives of Christians today. All Bible teachers must be diligent to accurately explain God’s Word.
A second major passage in which Paul emphasizes the strictness of pastoral teaching is found in 1 Timothy 4:15-16. Here, he urges Timothy to,
“Take pains with these things [of commanding, teaching, example-setting, reading Scripture, and encouraging]; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”
In these instructions, the apostle again stresses the strictness of teaching God’s Word. He first tells Timothy to pain himself with his work; then, he’s to press into it; next, to peer into it; finally, to persevere in it. To begin, Paul commands his disciple to hurt himself with his pastoral work. That is, he must work so hard at teaching and exhorting that it drains him to the point of exhaustion. Second, he’s not only to exhaust himself in teaching, but to literally “be in” his work. In other words, he ought to live in his work, “so that [his] progress will be evident to all” (v. 15). So, there’s a significant benefit to toil and diligence in pastoral teaching – it results in improvement. Third, Paul calls Timothy to watch “yourself and . . . your teaching” carefully. Note the order – he must first know himself, and then his teaching. But he’s to regularly and carefully evaluate his character and his communication of truth. And finally, Paul caps these instructions off by encouraging Timothy to persevere in toil, diligence, and watchfulness in his pastoral work. If he does this, Paul promises that he’ll literally “save both [him]self and those who hear [him]” (v. 16). From what? All the possible spiritual dangers that threaten to deceive, tempt, distract, weaken, twist, and destroy both him and the assembly under his care.
Now that we’ve seen that pastoral teaching is strict work, we’ll finally focus in on the strain that it brings on elders and Bible teachers.
Teaching Scripture is a Huge Strain on the Teacher
The final point that I want to highlight is that Christian teaching of the truth puts tremendous strain on those who are faithful to be sober and strict teachers. The first support for this reality is Paul’s commendation of the best teaching elders in 1 Timothy 5:17, where he says,
“The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching [literally, “word”] and teaching.”
Much like Paul told Timothy earlier in this letter, here he describes elders who “work hard at preaching and teaching.” But the similarity is obscured by the weak translation of “work hard.” The Greek behind this phrase literally means “work to the point of exhaustion or fatigue,” so a better word to use would be “toil.” These elders are not only working hard at teaching, but are exhausting themselves in the work. As such, they’re worthy of double honor from their assembly. If a “pastor” wants to be worthy of financial support, then he’d better work as hard as possible in his teaching.
Lastly, Paul’s solemn charge to Timothy in his last known letter shows us how straining teaching God’s Word ought to be to gifted and called teachers, in which he commands,
“. . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” (2 Ti. 4:2)
Given the context of this verse, it ought to be understood as a charge – not for preaching to saints – but for preaching to sinners. However, its demands can still be applied to the teaching service of elders for their assemblies. Note its comprehensive nature. First, it’s the “word,” or the message of the gospel, that’s to be preached. Second, the teacher is to be ready to preach God’s Word at any time – “in season and out of season.” That is, he’s to be ready and willing to teach even when teaching seems useless or hopeless. Third, the teacher must use any means possible to explain and apply God’s Word – whether it be correction, chastisement, or urging. Fourth, teaching requires great patience – not a little, but a lot. Sometimes, teaching, encouraging, warning, correcting, and rebuking demands many efforts before they persuade one’s students. As the excellent Bible teacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “the key to effective teaching is repetition.” Finally, effective teaching not only requires great patience, but also great instruction. That is, sometimes it takes a lot of instruction. And such teaching can’t be shallow, half-hearted, rushed, or thoughtless. Good Christian teaching demands diligent prayer, study, understanding, articulation, and application.
So, Christian teachers be warned: faithful teaching of truth or Christianity is mentally, emotionally, spiritually and sometimes even physically straining.
Is the Teaching of Your Assembly Sober, Strict, and Straining?
Brother or sister, please consider these questions:
- Do the elders and Bible teachers of your assembly display a sober attitude about their teaching, or do they treat it flippantly or casually?
- Are the Christian Bible teachers that you know strict in their preparation, explanation, communication, and delivery of their lessons? Are they strict in how they interpret Scripture, and in how they apply it to their students?
- Is it demonstrable that the official Bible teachers that you know in any capacity in your everyday life strain themselves to understand, apply, practice, and teach the truths of Scripture? Finally, are they not only straining themselves in formal teaching of Scripture, but also in informal, and personal, discussions? Does the truth flow out of their mouths like water?
- If these people (or you) lack soberness, strictness, and strain in teaching God’s Word, then how can you prayerfully warn and encourage them of the tremendous sacredness of their service, and of its dire consequences?
Teaching Scripture accurately is a matter of eternal consequence, since misrepresenting Scripture can result in deception, sin, and sometimes physical harm. Let us all strive to be faithful students, doers, and teachers of Scripture as the Lord has given us ability and opportunity.