Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/11/2016 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 3:1-7
“Able to Teach”
Today we continue going through the list of elder qualifications. We are at the end of verse 2 with the qualification of being “able to teach.” What is nice about this qualification is that it queues us in on a key function of an elder. They are teachers in the church. That is why they need to be able to teach, because they are to be having opportunities to teach in the church. Now to clarify that, we see in 1 Timothy 5:17 that not all elders teach the same amount. In other words, 1 Timothy 5:17 speaks of certain elders who specifically labor in the Word and doctrine. That’s why we distinguish between ruling elders and ministers. As a minister, I’m a full time elder who labors in the Word and doctrine. Of all the elders, I especially need to be able to teach. And yet it is nonetheless a qualification for all the elders because it is part of their job to teach the Word and to make sure sound doctrine is being held to in the church. The other elders especially are to watch over my preaching and teaching and make sure I am staying faithful to the Bible.
So, I’d like to begin today’s message by saying that, at least in general, the ability to teach is a gift and not a fruit of the Holy Spirit. What do I mean by that? I mean that in the Bible, we see that all Christians have the fruit of the Holy Spirit which cultivates certain virtues within us. Galatians 5:22 is a verse that describes these qualities and includes qualities such as love, patience, and kindness. And so the fruit of the spirit are these virtues that every Christian should have and should seek to grow in by the grace of God. But when the Bible talks of gifts of the Holy Spirit, we see that not everyone has the same gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:4 says that there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit. That passage goes on to talk about how the Spirit gives to some Christians one gift, and to other Christians another gift and so on. These gifts are different special abilities that the church needs for its work and growth. But the idea is that not every Christian has every gift. And so, that’s the difference between fruit and gifts of the Spirit. Every Christian should seek to have the fruit, but not every Christian needs to seek to have each and every gift of the Spirit. And so, when talking about the ability to teach, we are saying that this is a gift, not a fruit. In other words, this is not something that every Christian has to possess.
I think that is helpful to notice when we compare this with the other qualifications for being an elder in this passage. Generally speaking, these other qualities are fruit that we each should strive for. For example, being temperate, sober-minded, and hospitable are qualities not only for elders. All Christians should strive for such things. But when we come to the quality of being able to teach, we recognize that there are passages of Scripture that put that in the category of a special gift that only some will have. 1 Peter 4:10-11 is one such passage that says this teaching ability is a gift only some will have.
And so generally speaking, the ability to teach is something that is a specific gift to only certain Christians. That being said, you’ll notice I said “generally speaking.” I add that qualification because there are passages like Colossians 3:16 that speak to all Christians and call us to teach and admonish one another with all wisdom. That doesn’t have in mind the public teaching ministry, but it reminds us that all of us are to share the Word with each other in our various conversations. That’s just simply a matter of Christian fellowship.
Well, as we are talking about the idea that the ability to teach is a gift, let me add one further clarification. Just because you don’t have the gift, or maybe you have the gift in the raw, in some undeveloped sense, doesn’t mean you can’t seek after it. What we know from common sense is also found in the Bible: that the ability to teach is at least to a certain degree something you must learn. Acts 4:13 shows that the Jewish religious leaders were surprised how well Peter and John knew and communicated the Word. They were surprised, it says, because they knew that Peter and John were uneducated and untrained men. But then they realized that Peter and John had been with Jesus. That passage acknowledges the fact that normally somone grows in their ability to teach with education and training. In Peter and John’s case they didn’t have the typical rabbinical training and education, but they got something better: Jesus himself trained them! Similarly, in 2 Timothy 2:2, we see Paul commanding Timothy to train faithful men in the word and doctrine who can in turn teach others. So, there again, we see the obvious, that the ability to teach is something to cultivate through training and education. This is why when someone is nominated to be an elder in the church, we are going to put that brother through an extensive amount of training. We can recognize some ability to teach, but that needs to be cultivated and grown. In the same way, if someone aspires to the office of elder, they should be looking to grow in their ability to teach through education and by seeking opportunities to practice such, under the oversight of the session, of course.
That’s a little bit about the notion that the ability to teach is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but also something to seek to grow and cultivate if you believe you are called into the ministry. What I’d like to do now is to further define the ability to teach and discuss its importance. Starting with a definition, let’s discuss what it looks like to be apt to teach. I’ll highlight three things. First, and most importantly by far, you need to have sound content. You can’t be apt in your teaching if you have the wrong content. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us what our content must be for our church teaching: the Bible. If someone is wanting to teach in the church but they want to teach from some other source, then they are not qualified in their teaching. But to say we must teach the Bible is not enough. The Bible must be rightly taught. 2 Timothy 2:15 says that we must rightly divide the Word of truth. In other words, if someone can’t rightly interpret the Bible then they are not going to be apt in their teaching.
While we are talking about the content of teaching let me get more specific. Our content needs to include the “whole counsel of God” per Acts 20:27. In other words, if someone wants to only pick and choose certain things from the Bible to teach, then they are not capable in their teaching. We must give the people of God a full, steady diet of Scripture. We can’t let our hobby horses rob the people of a complete diet of Scripture. Likewise, we can’t ignore doctrines from Scripture if we don’t like what they say. That all being said, even though we are to teach the whole Bible, we must remember that Christian teachers must especially teach Christ and the gospel. In other words, our teaching the whole counsel of God must not lose focus on the most important message of the Bible. Think of how Paul describes his preaching ministry. In 1 Corinthians 1:23 he says he preaches Christ! In Colossians 1:28, speaking of Jesus, he says “Him we proclaim!” In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul says that he had been sent by Christ to preach the gospel. And so as much as we must bring the whole Bible and all its doctrines in the teaching ministry of the church, we must especially focus on Christ and the gospel. That means that Christ and the gospel must regularly be a part of our teaching. Christ and the gospel must be the ultimate focus of our teaching. If someone cannot keep that focus in their teaching, then they do not have the ability to teach.
A second aspect of being able to teach involves the practical aspects of delivery and communication. Arguably this is implied simply in this word of being “able to teach.” Being able to teach is not just that you know the Bible backwards and forwards and that you can pass a doctrine test with flying colors. No, being able to teach means you can take that material and communicate it to others in a way that they can learn. Listen to what Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” In that verse we see that preaching and teaching is more than just information transfer. There is a way to teach well and not teach well. Teaching well will involve being ready to teach when the moment comes. Teaching well will involve communicating in a way that is convincing to others. Teaching well involves rebuke and exhortation when needed, pressing home the doctrines of the Word to someone’s individual circumstances. There is this practical side of communication that is involved in being able to teach well. The point is what we see spelled out nicely in Nehemiah 8. There the people of God were going through the entire Law of God when they came back to Jerusalem after exile. The sense you get is that this had been neglected and now they were going through it all together. And there in Nehemiah 8 the priests and the Levites not only read the law, but they help the people to understand it. It says in Nehemiah 8:12 how excited the people became because this resulted in them understanding what was being read. So, you see, that is the point. It is not enough to just convey information. Proper teaching means that you are communicating the information in a way that helps people to understand what you are teaching. If someone’s delivery and communication skills hinder understanding, then they are not able to teach.
A third aspect of being able to teach is to understand the audience and its needs. I remember when Jesus miraculously fed the five thousand, he first taught them. And it says why he stopped to teach them is because he saw that they were like sheep without a shepherd. In other words, he recognized the needs of the people, had a heart of compassion for them, and so he taught them. Capable teaching must have the hearers in mind and be looking to help them where they are at. We can see this very specifically worked out like when Jesus knew his disciples were arguing about which of them would be the greatest, Jesus showed them a child and taught them to become the least if they wanted to be the greatest. Or when Jesus was at the home of Simon the Pharisee’s house and was anointed there by a sinful woman, he perceived that Simon looked down upon this; that Simon thought Jesus should have rebuked the woman or not let her touch him. So, Jesus responded by teaching him the parable on the moneylender who had two debtors, and how the one who had been forgiven the most debt was the most grateful. Jesus then applied that to the sinful woman and said she was more grateful than Simon as she had many sins which Jesus forgave. In other words, I’m using these as examples to show how Jesus took time to have teaching that addressed specific needs of his audience. This is part of capable teaching. Capable teaching will include application that is relevant to the hearers. Though the Christian teacher will ultimately be serving God and teaching God’s Word, he does so with a constant concern for the audience and their specific needs.
So, these are three aspects of what it looks like to be able to teach. You need to teach the right content, you need to have helpful delivery and communication skills, and you need to be concerned for the audience, understanding their needs and applying the teaching to them. Let’s consider know why this is important. Why is it important to have such capable teaching in the church? I’ll mention four things briefly. One, because of the threat of false teachers and false doctrines. Elders are to shepherd the people, and shepherding means protecting them from the wolves who would come and lead them astray. They must be capable to not only recognize false doctrine, but to teach and speak against it, and to convey the right doctrine instead. Two, it is important to have capable teachers because of the temptation for itchy ears. I refer now to the passage in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 that says there is a temptation to the church that we will want to turn away from sound doctrine and fill the pulpits with teachers who only tell us what we want to hear. But of course, such teachers are not “able to teach” and thus are not qualified to be elders or pastors. We need qualified teachers that can challenge us even with the things we don’t want to hear. Three, it is important to have capable teachers for the sake of evangelism. People become Christians through the teaching and preaching of the gospel. The teaching ministry of the church through its pastors and elders are a primary venue for bring people to faith in Jesus Christ. We need capable teachers in those roles! Four, it is important to have capable teachers for the growth of believers. Remember that the Great Commission is not just about making new disciples of Christ. No, once they become a disciple, then you must disciple them! Disciples are students, people who are learning and growing. That happens through the teaching ministry of the church. So, we need capable teachers for the growth of believers!
So, there we’ve gone through quite a bit in terms of defining what it means to be able to teach, and talking about its importance. In our last point for today, I would like to drive home this topic in regard to our Lord Jesus. I could start by pointing out a passage like Mark 10:17 that calls Jesus a Good Teacher, but that would be to only scratch the surface. Instead I want us to reflect on how we see John’s gospel really develop this notion with regard to Jesus. I think first of how John 1:1 refers to Jesus himself as the Word. In the beginning was the Word. He was with the Father in the beginning as the Eternal Word of God. And then that Eternal Word came to this world. John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Word came to this world and gave us truth! Well, Jesus as the Word told us more about where he got that truth. He taught in John 14:24 that the Word that he taught were not his words, but the Father who sent him. He taught that point many times in John’s gospel. God the Father sent to this world the Eternal Word with a Word for us.
And make no mistake. The Word that the Word brought is of utmost importance. Jesus said in John 5:24, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” This is again a point he made many times in John’s gospel. Again, John 12:47-50, “If anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him — the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day. For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak.”
Jesus taught us that God sent him as the Word with a Word. And Jesus taught us how important this Word was. It has eternal consequences. If you believe in the Word, you shall be saved from sins and have eternal life. If you reject the Word, you will spend eternity under the condemnation of God’s wrath in the unquenchable fire of hell.
This is the Word Jesus gave his disciples and they believed and were saved. They in turn gave it to the next generation. That’s what Jesus prays about in John 17. Jesus said of his disciples in John 17:14, “I have given them Your word.” Then he goes on to say to the Father, “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. Jesus then goes on to pray for those who would “believe in” him “through their word.” So, hopefully you connect the dots there. God the Father sent the Eternal Word into this world to give the people at that time his Word. Those original disciples were then sent by the Eternal Word with his Word to tell the next generation of believers. That next generation of believers in turn passed it down to the next generation and the next generation and so on. And so now we stand today in this long succession of people bringing God’s Word to the next generation. We will need people able to teach to do this. We will need to pick elders who have these qualities. We must resist the temptation to have itchy ears and only pick the teachers who teach us what we want to hear. No, we must see our role in the church for our generation to pass on the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
And so be encouraged saints at the help that we have for this. Yes, Jesus gave the Word to that first generation and then went back up to heaven for now. But again, in John’s Gospel, in John 14:26 Jesus taught us of the help that we would have in this teaching ministry. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” And so, as our teachers go forward, and all of us in this gospel ministry, we have the help of the Helper, the Holy Spirit, who will aid us in knowing the Word of God. Let us be encouraged today. What we have talked about today is so important. We need to the teaching ministry to go forward. We are carrying on the very work of Jesus when we do that. And the Spirit which Christ has sent will help us in this ministry. And it is that Spirit which will gift and equip elders in their ability to teach. Praise the Lord!
In closing, I leave us with a final warning by way of application. When selecting new elders, I see two possible temptations regarding this. Temptation #1: We could pick an elder who has all the other qualities of godliness and Christian virtue, but is just not gifted in teaching. But because he is such a godly man we make him an elder. Beware this temptation. We need to value this qualification of being able to teach. Just because someone is a mature brother in the Lord, if he doesn’t have this ability to teach, then we must not make him an elder. He could serve in many other roles, but we must not make him an elder.
Temptation #2 is the opposite however. Sometimes, especially in the OPC I believe, we can so value this quality of being able to teach, that we can neglect the other virtues. It can be hard to find someone who is well equipped to teach the Word. We understandably set high standards for the ability to teach in the OPC. The temptation is that when we find someone who meets those high standards for teaching that we make him an elder even if he is lacking in the other Christian virtues. But if he doesn’t have these other qualities of godliness, we must not make him elder. He could serve in many other roles, and certainly should focus on his own growth and maturity, but he is not ready yet to be an elder.
As it says in chapter 5, verse 22, we must not be too hasty in the laying on of hands. It is a wonderful thing to ordain qualified men to the ordained offices. But let us submit to God’s will in only ordaining those who meet the qualifications that Jesus teaches us in his Word. Let us pray for us as we seek to discern qualified leaders that we exercise biblical wisdom and even biblical patience in the process, that God would be greatly glorified through the process because we honored him and his Word in the process. Amen.
Copyright © 2016 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.