Teaching the Bible can be a joyful task or a daunting task. I find I go through seasons of being able to get into a Bible passage really easily, and then find myself a few weeks later stuck in the mud of my own preparation. No matter whether my preparation has gone well or really badly (and some have been truly shocking!), there are a few things that I simply cannot do without if I want to faithfully fulfil my role as a Bible teacher.
#1 An open Bible
It sounds silly and straightforward, doesn’t it. The number one thing I need to teach the Bible faithfully is… the Bible. The number of times I have had to check myself (make that ‘rebuke myself’) because I have made a start on preparing to teach a passage without actually opening my Bible and spending time reading, listening and hearing what it says.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you know a passage, even if it is one that you have preached countless times before. God’s word is living, active and by the Spirit speaks to us today (Hebrews 4:12, Psalm 95:7-8) which means that it is highly likely that God will reveal something new to us. Plus, we mustn’t elevate ourselves above Scripture and assume that we are infallible and without error. We are not. Indeed, our residual sinful nature supresses truth (Romans 1:18-19). We need to open our Bible to make sure that what we think it says is actually what it does say.
Additionally, the best and only reliable commentary we have for the Bible is the Bible itself (I am indebted to Chris Green, one of my tutors while at Oak Hill, for this insight which has spared me from making quite a number of biblical-theological boo-boos). Not only do I need to make sure that I have understood the passage in the light of its immediate, canonical and Scriptural context, but I also need to make sure I have found out if other parts of the Bible quote, explain or link to the passage I am preparing to teach.
#2 Time and space in my diary
If I am to do a passage justice and teach it faithfully, then I need to spend time in it. This means Three things. First, I need to know how long it usually takes me to prepare. This insight is typically something that you gain over time as you become familiar with your own preparation process. It is also something that varies from person to person. The pastor I work with takes 10-15 hours. I know others who typically take less time to prepare (without suffering any loss of quality) and others who need more time to prepare. For what it is worth, it typically takes me about two days or 15 hours to prepare to teach a passage – more if I am teaching it to children, as I not only have to understand it the same as I do when teaching it to adults, but I need to spend more time making sure I am communicating effectively whilst still teaching the passage faithfully.
If you have a church or ministry team that understand this need for significant investment of your time, then you shouldn’t find it hard to block out the time you need to prepare. Indeed, the only real struggle you’re going to have is the internal one when you need to stay focussed on what matters and not get distracted by other things that you’d (wrongly) rather be doing.
But if your church or ministry team don’t understand or don’t appreciate the time you need to prepare, then you have a difficult situation on your hands. You will need to walk a fine line between submitting to those in authority over you (Hebrews 13:17) and honouring your charge to preach the Word in accord with sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:1-2, Titus 2:1). Ultimately, I would suggest that you talk it through with your church leaders and/or ministry team and to come to an agreement where you feel you can prepare adequately (although not as thoroughly as you’d prefer) and they allow you that time to do so (which may mean taking some other lesser responsibility of your shoulders).
#3 Focus on content and communication
Rightly, we want to place a great deal of importance on making sure that we teach the content of the Bible faithfully. We’ve already noted our charge to preach the Word in accordance with sound doctrine, and acknowledged that this takes time. But preparing to teach the Bible faithfully does not stop at preparing what to say – it necessarily includes preparing how we are going to say it.
I’m sure we have all sat through sermons, Bible studies or children’s talks that said all the right things and covered all the right ground… but were just plain boring. I call this ‘space food’ Bible teaching – it has all the right nutritional goodness we need, but is encased in a tasteless capsule or reduced to a bland icky paste (think the processed food in The Matrix). At the other end of the spectrum is the sort of teaching that is engaging, dynamic and easy to listen to… but is lacking in any actual Gospel biblical content. I call this ‘fast food’ Bible teaching – it tastes good and leaves you wanting more, but it is missing any actual nutritional goodness.
What we need to aim for is roast dinner Bible teaching – teaching that is faithful in its content and full of the goodness of biblical doctrine, but is no less appealing and tasty in how it is communicated. After all, this is the kind of communication wise Bible teachers engage in, searching out just the right words to say (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10). This kind of Bible teaching means that you need to spend just as much time on preparing your communication as you do on preparing your content. In some cases you may need to spend more time on communication than you do on content. Please hear me right: I am not saying that you spend less time on content (far from it!). I am saying that when we are talking to children, or people with learning difficulties, or people from a significantly different cultural context to ours (both nationally and internationally), we need to make sure that we are communicating a way that not only our hearers can understand but also in a way that our hearers are happy to spend time and energy listening to us in the first place.
#4 Input from others
I have already mentioned that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible. This is not to say that input from other sources is a waste of time. Indeed, I would say the opposite. Taking our Bible preparation to other people and asking them ‘what do you think’ should be a key component of our preparation.
This can happen in a number of different ways. You could post key points online and ask for comments and feedback. You could go to trusted commentaries and compare their insights with yours. If you are part of a ministry team, you could ask your colleagues for their thoughts on a point or illustration. You could even do this in retrospect and spend time with other Bible teachers going through each other’s talks and giving feedback for future development. However you do this, it is vital that we don’t assume that growing in faithfulness to the Word of God happens in isolation from other believers (Colossians 3:16).
It is also important that we get our preparation and seeking input from others the right way round. It is all too easy to pick up a Bible commentary or go to our favourite Bible teacher’s YouTube channel and simply recycle their hard work. But not only is this blatant plagiarism (I would say ‘theft’), it also negates the final key aspect of our preparation…
#5 Head, heart or hands that have been affected by what I am about to teach
We must, must, must make sure that the Bible passage we are preparing has impacted us before we can expect it to impact others. Consider Ezekiel taking God’s words to heart before speaking them to Israel in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 3:10-11) and Jesus opening the minds and Spirit-filling the hearts of his disciples so that they can teach others in the New Testament (Luke 24:44-49, Acts 1:8).
Again, this all takes time (now can you see why our preparation time needs to be so long?!). You need to allow the passage to permeate your thinking. You need to humble your heart and allow yourself to feel the encouragement or rebuke the passage brings. You need to repent of wrong actions and seek the Spirit’s help in doing rightly what the passage asks us to do.
Preparation that fuels our Bible teaching
Ultimately, we need to depend on Jesus, his Gospel and the means of grace he has given us. Only then will we be in a position to enjoy teaching the Bible in a way that is fuelled by faithful preparation.