The importance of Bible teaching

Very often church leaders hear people express some frustration about the length and depth of sermons. At one level they should be very keen indeed to hear those concerns so that they can improve their preaching and so that, in the image of Hebrews 5v11-14, they are not feeding solid food to those who actually need milk. On another hand, they may well have concerns about these concerns that are shared with the writer of Hebrews.

He felt that his readers should have actually progressed to solid food but were reluctant to do so. And so he moved them onto it nevertheless. In similar vein, whereas the minister trusts that these comments generally come from a sincere desire to learn and grow, experience suggests that for a few, they may actually stem from a lack of conviction about the importance of the sermon, a concern to keep service times short, or a lack of willingness to work hard at loving God with all our minds.

Either way, I felt it might be useful to outline something of how scripture views bible teaching, its place within the church, as well as some tips on how to get the most out of sermons.

The Bible’s view of Bible teaching
In John 6 Jesus was faced with a crisis over his teaching. We read that “Many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’” and then no longer followed him (v60, 66). Jesus’ response was to explain why his teaching is so important: “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life.” (v63). His point is that his words are not like other truths. They are actually the means God’s Spirit uses to give us spiritual life. And the consequences of turning from them are therefore serious.

In John 16, Jesus seems to view the future teaching of his apostles in a similar way: “When he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” (v13-14) In other words, the apostles’ teaching is from the Spirit and so is truth from Jesus. In short, it is God’s word. This is why Jesus can say so boldly that his apostles will be guided into “all truth.”

With all this in mind, it is no surprise to see the apostles affirm that their teaching gives (and protects) spiritual life too. So Peter writes that the Christian is “born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1v23). Likewise Paul writes of how Christians reach maturity: “We proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” (Colossians 1v28). Most significantly, Timothy is charged in the light of judgement to: “Preach the Word in season and out of season” in order to keep people from turning to false teaching and teachers (2 Timothy 4v1-5).

All of us wonder at times what the key to Christian growth is; how we might deepen in our faith; how we might love God more; how we can be kept faithful. At one level, the answer of Jesus and the apostles is simple: Through their teaching, and through that of the Old Testament read in the light of it.

The Bible’s expectations of Bible teaching
This high view of Bible teaching is an undeniably central thread throughout scripture. So God declares through Isaiah what he looks for in his people: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66v2). We see this expressed in the fact that every one of the 176 verses that make up the longest Psalm of the Bible are given to revering God’s word (Psalm 119). In the light of this, no-one can doubt that meditation on and study of the Bible should be central to Christian spirituality. And this is just what we see displayed in the life of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” and “everyone was filled with awe.” (Acts 2v42-43).

What did this reverence for and devotion to God’s word look like? Well, during the revival under Nehemiah, Israel are commended for listening to the book of the law being read and taught “from daybreak until noon” – for half a day. (Nehemiah 8v3, 8). Similarly, the gospels suggest that Jesus was happy to spend up to three days teaching and ministering to the people (Matthew 15v32). And it is easy to forget that the sermons on the mount and plain, which we cope with by splitting up over numerous weeks, were each single sermons.

Paul provides a humorous example. In Acts 20 we read of how devoted the church in Troas was to his teaching. Because Paul was to leave the next day, he talked until midnight; and so much so, that Eutychus fell asleep, fell out of the window and died. One would have thought after Paul raised him from the dead that the church would have called it a day. But we read that Paul then went upstairs and talked “until daylight” (v7-12)!

Other examples abound. My point is not to persuade people that these examples should be the norm for us. But it certainly is to demonstrate that the low expectations of many churches with respect to Bible teaching would shock the apostles and must sadden Jesus. Their expectation was that every Christian and church should be highly ambitious in terms of their Christian learning, and willing to work hard to understand and live by what they read or hear.

Tips for making the most of Bible teaching
I hope the above has sufficiently wet your appetite that you feel keen to rise to the challenge with respect to sermons. As you do, the following may help you better benefit from them:

(1) Be expectant. To the extent that the preacher explains and applies the Bible correctly, you are actually hearing God’s word. Reflecting on this before sermons should certainly cause us to sit up. And we should therefore come expecting to be encouraged, stretched, challenged, strengthened or even rebuked, just as the disciples were by Jesus.

(2) Perhaps the most helpful and important tip, is to actually open the Bible and follow what is said. This keeps your mind interacting. It also enables you to remember what you’ve heard when you later re-read the passage. In Acts 17v11 we read: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Their eagerness and studiousness is clearly intended as a “noble” model for the reader. And note the assumption that the Bible was the determiner of whether what was said was actually true.

(3) Pray through what you hear as you hear it. Arrow prayers such as: “Lord help me remember that” or “help us do that” or “I praise you for that,” acknowledge that listening to a sermon is a spiritual activity, but also apply the sermon on the spot and aid attentiveness.

(4) Memorise the main points. I do want to be clear that I do not expect everyone to understand everything in every sermon. The preacher hopes that the most knowledgeable and mature will grasp everything, but assumes others will just get the main gist and be left with questions to think about further, and others may just take the primary point away. This is the inevitable consequence of teaching a mixed group. And it is surely unwise to pitch the sermon at the level of the newest in faith, because it then leaves the more mature bereft. At the very least, repeating the main points to yourself as the sermon progresses helps to ensure you grasp and apply the general gist. And those who study memory tell us that when recalling those main points, much of the content that went with them will come to mind too.

(5) Take notes. This is an obvious point and is the norm in some churches. I was deeply encouraged a few months ago when an 11 year old girl had stayed in the main service and took notes on a twenty minute sermon on Psalm 55. Her Mum gave them to me, and the girl had got the sense of every major point made.

(6) Re-read and pray through the passage. This is a good discipline to get into, and could be done just before bed on Sunday night. As you do it, you will normally find points from the sermon coming to mind again and becoming more a part of your general understanding. It is also a great way of ensuring we are “not just hearers of the word, but doers also” (James 1v22).

(7) Ask the preacher your questions. We have noted this was often part of first century teaching. The preacher expects people to be left with uncertainties as not everything can be covered, and no preacher is every crystal clear! So please please do ask your questions over coffee, or by way of a phone call or email. The onus is certainly on the preacher to try to be make things understandable, but it is also on the hearer to ensure they have rightly understood.

A note on attention spans
It is noteworthy that we see no concern in the Bible for attention spans. A number of reasons might be suggested why:

(1) Although attention spans are usually limited to twenty minutes, those who study these things say that as little as a two to three minute activity then resets the attention span sufficiently for another fifteen to twenty minutes. The Rabbinic teaching model that included dialogue with one’s hearers probably acted in just this sort of way. In an ideal world, longer services that give time for this sort of interaction would be useful. At the very least, interspersing a longer sermon with a hymn would help and should perhaps be something for us to think about.

(2) The experiments on attention spans are often carried out with pupils or students who may not be fully interested in their subject. There seems to be a certain assumption by Jesus and the apostles of sufficient interest for people to keep themselves attentive. In this, I have to say that I have often found enquiring non-Christians more ready to stick with longer talks than I have long-term Christians.

(3) The greatest difference however, is that Bible teaching presumes the work of the Holy Spirit in keeping those who are keen to learn interested and attentive. Here it has been a delight to see uneducated (and even fairly illiterate) new Christians stay with and grasp even forty minute sermons, because of their Spirit-induced hunger for God’s word.