teaching the bible

Teaching the Bible – How can I do it better?

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Teaching the Bible can be taunting. I remember the first time I taught the Bible, I did not know what I was doing or saying.

Since then, I’ve come to divide my efforts into the three things a Bible teaching needs, at minimum. When I focused on these three things, I would be able to teach clearly and touch my audience. That would get me through any difficult message, and set up a framework I could build on in the future, to do even better next time.

This process looks simple, but it saved me much time and heartache. Here goes:

Study: What did the Word mean to its original audience when teaching the Bible?

The words of the Bible are both human and divine words. Christian theologians tell us that Scripture is the Word of God, communicating His eternal laws and commands. At the same time, these are also the words and styles of human writers inspired by the Holy Spirit.

This means that the authors wrote to specific audiences, addressing real people in real situations. Before we can truly reach their intent, we need to consider the historical and literary contexts. What genre did the biblical writer employ, and what was the general situation he was addressing? (For instance, the prophetic books were written for different reasons from say, the Gospels and Paul’s letters.)

Consider a simple book like Philemon. Paul was asking for the safe return and forgiveness of Philemon’s former slave, Onesimus. It’s no less part of God’s divinely inspired Word. So I asked the same questions of it as I would have of another, more substantial letter like Romans.

Why did Paul write in the first place? How did he go about accomplishing that goal?

To my amazement, Paul used so many nuances to convince Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother-in-Christ, forgiving him for all that he had done. Paul did all this without once using the word “forgive” in the letter!

This short book, when we truly unpack its message, has much to teach us on the theology and practice of godly forgiveness. This includes how Christians are to forgive each other and put love, concord and unity above personal slights.

The Bible rewards those who study it! If we’re serious about teaching it to others, Bible study is a command, not an option. As John Stott has said: “The higher our view of the Bible, the more painstaking and conscientious our study of it should be.”[1]

If we do not study the Bible, we risk reading our own world into the biblical text when it is not warranted. Even worse—we reveal our lack of respect for the Scriptures, and perhaps our motivations to further our own interests instead of God’s.

Meditation: What does the Word mean to me today when teaching the Bible?

A friend once said to me, “You study theology; that’s theoretical. I’m more practical and just apply what the Bible says.”

I wouldn’t agree with that, but he held a common sentiment in the pew today—that preachers and Bible teachers are only imparting head knowledge with no real-world use. This should not be the case! And I have explained some of it here.

We can only give of what we have. And we need to know the Bible’s touch before we can truly share them convincingly with others. It’s one thing to hear Isaiah 58 being proclaimed in a comfortable sanctuary by a Bible scholar, and quite another to hear it preached by a veteran social worker who has seen and endured a great deal of suffering and brokenness.

In other words, the Bible should have made a tangible difference in our lives. For most of us, we can open ourselves to the Bible through spending time to meditate on it. There’s nothing mystical about meditation; it’s about turning the words over and over in our heads, which I do throughout the week as I ask God how it applies to my own life.

Doing this has one more practical advantage. As we ask God what the passage really means to us, we learn to personalize our message. Practical examples and applications from our own lives surface, which we can readily use.

For example, I was once tasked to preach on Joseph’s reunion with his brothers after their long separation (Genesis 45), and highlight God’s sovereignty over all aspects of our lives. That’s an amazing passage. I began to gather points from the text, commentaries and other sources. I started to tease out my own thoughts on it… but something didn’t sit well with me.

I sensed I was not truly obeying that message myself, and until I was, I knew I could not reach the congregation with it.

I asked myself which area of my life I still needed to let God take control over. Shortly thereafter, God cause my wedding preparation process to surface. My fiancée and I were frenzied and struggling to make sense of it. And I decided to let God deal with it as He chose.

That brought the connection I needed with my listeners, and became a key example I used to bridge the gap between the ancient passage and a modern audience.

Bridging: What does the Word mean to my audience today when teaching the Bible?

To truly learn and grasp the Bible, it has to mean something to its audience. While the biblical authors wrote to a particular audience during their own time, the truths behind these messages remain timeless and relevant to audiences today.

In the end, teaching the Bible is about helping audiences understand and live out the Bible. So as I prepare a teaching, I put myself in my audience’s shoes. I ask myself, “What might my audience be facing at this moment in their lives?”

So do a mental walkthrough of the possible issues. Understand your audience deeply enough to shine the light of Scripture where it is needed. Whatever your teaching, ask God how the truth can change their perspectives and make sense of their problems.

We can’t possibly cover everything, especially not when we are just starting, or when we aren’t close enough with our audience to understand all their issues. But why don’t we let the Holy Spirit to tell us what they are?

That’s why I consciously seek the Spirit’s guidance. There is only so much I can do, so I ask Him to guide not only my preparation and delivery, but the hearts of my hearers—so they will truly know and live the Word for themselves.

I have found that following these three broad steps has helped me to frame any message in a relevant, engaging way. What are the other ways that you use to aid you in preparing your own teachings? Share them with me. I read all of your comments and replies.

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[1] John R.W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 182.

(Adapted from an email article I wrote for Simply Proclaim, an email newsletter under Eagles Communications)