We are preaching through James at the moment, and I was reminded again of the observation that the Bible teaches us how to teach the Bible. Take these famous words from James 1:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)
This, remember, is from a letter that discourages us from being teachers because of our increased responsibility and culpability. So presumably this is a masterclass in how to be a good teacher. He says that good Bible handing requires us to engage in three actions:
Look That’s the common link between the person using a mirror and the person using the Bible – they both look.
Remember James puts it in the negative, ‘not forgetting’, but the thrust is in the positive.
Do That is, we are supposed to put the lesson we have learnt into practice in our daily walk
And the rest will be that we are blessed by God.
Now, think about the standard evangelical sermons we hear, or (in my case) we preach.
We probably do OK on the ‘Looking’ element. Phrases like, “Look at v4” run through our sermons. Or should.
But ‘Remembering’? Hmmm. Now I don’t want to go overboard on this – the old saw is that I can’t remember anything but a handful of the meals I have eaten, but I’m glad I ate them; similarly, I can only remember a handful of sermons, but they all did me good. And that’s a true observation, and keeps preachers like me both in business and in perspective.
Nevertheless, if I am an accountable teacher, I must realise that I can either help people by making the teaching memorable, or hinder them by making it hard to grasp. And time spent on that element of communication is not wasted.
Let’s be straight – three points beginning with P are not inherently memorable. If you’re a halfway decent preacher you can take the building blocks of ‘the Purpose of Prayer, The Power of Prayer, and the P_______ of Prayer’ (insert your own third word – use a thesaurus like you usually do) and construct something that looks like a sermon. But it is unmemorable in reality.
So let’s think hard about how to help people to get the truth into their heads. How will that guide the construction of your message this week?
And then into their lives, because I don’t think we do terribly well at the ‘Doing’ element either. Go back to the Puritans, or Edwards, and you’ll see how much time was spent guiding people to see the implications of what was being taught. Yes, in the realm of biblical doctrine, but in the reality of Christian life as well.
Is there a danger of legalism or moralism here? Yes, always. That’s why the foundation of good application is always grace. It would be awful if the result of taking this issue seriously was a generation of Pharisees – but I don’t think that was James’ intent. His concern lay more in another direction, which is that people might be well read in the scriptures, but the moment they saw a physical need, lost their temper or met someone famous they forgot everything they knew.
As you sharpen your pencils to begin this week’s prep, ask yourself: What do I want people to look at, how can I help them to remember, and what do I want them to do s a result?