My Favorite Teacher
Romans 12:7; I Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11
April 22, 1990
It’s not hard for me to remember my favorite teacher. I first met her on a bright September morning in 1962. Her name was Mrs. Witt. We were her new fifth-grade class. She was a big, strong woman, which meant she could take care of us without any trouble. To me she looked like she had been teaching for a hundred years. But there was a smile, too, and a friendly voice.
Until that day, school had just been school for me and teachers were people who kept you busy while you waited to go to recess. I didn’t hate school, but it didn’t excite me either. All that changed when I entered Mrs. Witt’s class.
After all these years it is hard to say what made the difference. Maybe it was the week she let David Neal and me spend hours putting mud on old cigar boxes. We were supposed to be making adobe haciendas. Maybe it was when we divided up the class for a big debate on the topic—”Which is better: Corn or Wheat?” I took the side of wheat and have never eaten corn since that day. Maybe it was when I had my very first public speaking assignment—a five minute speech before the student body on the history of the Franklin County Courthouse. Maybe it was when we performed “The Wizard of Oz.” I was the Tin Woodman, my buddy Tommy Thompson was the Scarecrow, David Neal was the Cowardly Lion and Judy Guin was Dorothy. It was a great moment in American theater.
Maybe it wasn’t anything special like that. Maybe she just made a tall, skinny, awkward boy with glasses feel important. And for the first time in my life I began to dream. School was no longer school but a doorway into the future.
Mrs. Witt was so good and we loved her so much, that when the year was over, the administration did some-thing unprecedented. They let her be our teacher the next year. Those two years changed my life in ways I probably still don’t understand. My greatest tribute to Mrs. Witt is this: I hadn’t thought of her for years. But when I started to think of my favorite teacher this week, it didn’t take two seconds for her name to come to mind. Nobody else even comes close.
A Teacher Affects Eternity
It was Henry Brooks Adams who said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends.” All of us have memories of certain teachers who made a difference to us. Some were in elementary school, some in junior high, some in high school, and some in college. They differ in a thousand ways, but they have this in common: They cared about us, they made a difference, and we are better people because we knew them.
It will not surprise you that the Bible has a lot to say about teachers and teaching. The Old Testament is filled with commands that parents should teach their children what God has said. As the centuries passed, certain men rose up who were teachers of the law. They would study the Torah in minute detail and teach its precepts to the people of Israel. To them was committed the great heritage of Judaism. From these men came the scribes and eventually the Pharisees. In those days, to be a teacher of the law was a high honor. The men who did it were called rabbis.
A Rabbi Named Jesus
As you pass into the New Testament, immediately you are confronted with the fact that Jesus was a teacher. We don’t think of him that way. To us he is Savior and Lord. But over 40 times in the Gospels, Jesus is called a teacher. It is said that he taught by the seashore, on the mountains, on the plain, in a boat, in the synagogue, and in the Temple. We don’t think of Jesus as a rabbi, but that’s what people called him—”Rabbi” or “Teacher.” When Dr. Luke comes to sum up his life, he says in Acts 1:1 that the Gospel of Luke is a “record of all that Jesus began to do and teach.” That was the whole life of Christ—what he did and what he taught.
As you read further you find that teaching is mentioned over and over again. It is one of the spiritual gifts. And gifted teachers played a crucial role in the foundation of the Christian church.
Two Crucial Points
As a place to begin this morning, I would like to lay down two simple—but crucial—points.
First, there is a sense in which all Christians are to be teachers. In the Great Com-mission Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples of every nation. Part of that commission was “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20) Paul picked up on that idea in Colossians 3:16 when he said, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” Then the writer to the Hebrews gave that same idea a different twist. Writing to believers who had not progressed past spiritual infancy, he said, “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Hebrews 5:12)
What a rebuke and what a challenge to all of us. Where are you along the spectrum of Christian growth? Are you still drinking from the bottle and trying to learn your spiritual ABCs? Or have you moved on to solid food? If the answer to the last question is yes, then you ought to be a teacher.
I take it that every believer ought to be involved in teaching on at least two different levels. First, we are all to be involved in teaching new converts the basic principles of the Christian faith. That’s what the Great Commission implies and what Hebrews 5 clearly says. To put it another way, every Christian ought to be either learning his ABCs or teaching them to someone else. Here it is in concrete terms: You ought to be able to teach a new believer how to find assurance of salvation, what the gospel is all about, how to pray, how to read the Bible, how to have a quiet time, how to handle temptation, how to be filled with the Spirit and how to lead someone else to Christ. Those are just the basic facts of the spiritual life. You ought to be able to explain those things to someone else. Second, we are all to teach each other the things we have learned from the Word.
Now those two things hold true whether or not you ever teach behind a pulpit or in a classroom. What we learn we are to share with others. And that sharing—whether one-on-one or in a small group or in a large group—is teaching in the truest sense. You don’t need the gift of teaching to do that.
Second, there is a spiritual gift of teaching which some Christians possess. This gift was obviously very important to God because it is mentioned in three different passages of Scripture. Romans 12:7 says, “If it (your spiritual gift) is teaching, let him teach.” That’s plain and simple. Teachers are to teach. That’s to be their specialty and they shouldn’t get bogged down in other ministries. Find the teachers, turn them loose, and let them teach God’s word to the congregation.
I Corinthians 12:28 says, “And in the church God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.” Did you notice the divine priority? Teaching comes third on the list. That surprises many people, I am sure. In God’s economy, which is more important—teaching or miracles? Teaching. Which is more important—Teaching or healing? Teaching. Which is more important—Teaching or tongues? Teaching. Amazing as it seems, God puts teaching ahead of those spectacular gifts this generation prizes so highly.
Finally, Ephesians 4:11 says, “It was he (the ascended Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” There is another priority list here, the only change being that the evangelist is listed ahead of the pastor-teacher. He comes first because the evangelist spreads the gospel while the pastor-teacher comes afterward to teach the new converts.
Ladies and gentlemen, the meaning is crystal-clear. The gift of teaching is one of the most important gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is far more important than any of the so-called sign gifts. People with sign gifts may attract a lot of attention, but they don’t do as much good as those gifted teachers who simply go about their work day after day, week after week, explaining the truths of the Bible to little children, teenagers and adults. In God’s economy, the teachers come far ahead of the miracle-workers.
An Underrated Gift
What, then, is the spiritual gift of teaching? Here is a working definition: The gift of teaching is the special ability to study the Bible and readily communicate its contents in a clear and accurate fashion so that others may understand what the Bible says and how to apply it to life. Is that long enough for you? If 40 words is too much, you can boil down to 6 key words. The gifted teacher knows how to study and communicate the Bible clearly and accurately so that others can understand and apply its message.
Unfortunately, this gift is underrated today. Whenever we talk about spiritual gifts, we tend to focus on the spectacular and controversial. May I say to you that churches built on the controversial and spectacular will not stand the test of time. They may grow very large very fast. They may attract an enormous amount of attention. They may appear to far outstrip the rest of us. But without good teaching those churches will crumble and fall. There’s no solid foundation to build upon.
In a real sense, sound teaching is the practical foundation of any local church. When you have sound teaching—not only in the pulpit but in the Sunday School and in every other part of the church—the church will be strong and virile. In medical terms, the teachers are like the skeletal system of the body. They give shape to every-thing else.
A Religion Built Upon Teaching
I say that because Christianity, at its heart, is a teaching religion. Unlike the eastern religions and the various New Age cults which bypass the mind, Christianity is built upon certain intellectual content. That’s why the Bible says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” And that’s why Romans 12:2 calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Anyone who takes away the intellectual content of the Christian faith has in reality taken away Christianity itself.
As I said, we tend to downplay the importance of teaching today. The anti-intellectual spirit of the day has even infected the church. The me-generation stresses feelings and emotions over facts and ideas. And even when we come to church, we judge the effectiveness of the service by how it makes us feel. If we feel good, the service was good; if we don’t, it wasn’t. Experience is in and doctrine is out. How-to sermons are in; expository preaching is out.
We have zeal without knowledge, faith without facts, emotion without understanding, and consequently, big programs and small doctrine. We would rather feel good than study hard.
The inevitable result is an empty faith which must constantly be whipped up by an appeal to the emotions. Such a faith will not stand the test of time. As John Stott observed, “Experience without truth is the menace of a mindless Christianity.”
Ours is a reasoning faith. It cannot survive apart from a body of truth. And in that sense, teaching is what the Christian faith is all about.
Teaching In The New Testament
Have you ever taken a survey of what the New Testament says about teaching? I did, and I was amazed at how many times it comes up. For instance:
1. The ability to teach is one requirement for elders. (I Timothy 3:2)
2. Training men who will be able to teach others is the goal of discipleship. (II Timothy 2:2)
3. Older women are to teach younger women. (Titus 2:3-4)
4. Young men are to devote themselves to preaching and teaching. (I Timothy 4:13)
5. The ability to teach is a mark of spiritual maturity. (James 3:1)
6. The result of good teaching is that the student becomes like his teacher. (Luke 6:40)
7. Teachers will incur a stricter judgment. (James 3:1)
8. The early church grew because the leaders taught the Word of God. (Acts 6:2)
9. We are not to allow the teaching of false doctrine in the church. (I Timothy 1:3)
10. Elders who work hard at teaching are accorded double honor. (I Timothy 5:17)
There is one problem which seems to be peculiar to strongly-conservative evangelical churches. Whenever we talk about the gift of teaching we subconsciously assume it mainly refers to seminary students or professors or graduates. And we assume it doesn’t really apply to the rest of us. That’s simply not true. There are many, many men and women who are highly gifted teachers who never go to seminary. Thank God for those dedicated volunteers who staff our Sunday School week after week. A great many of them do indeed have the gift of teaching.
To go a step further, it has been my observation that many laypeople have this gift in the local church. In fact, I think more women than men usually have this gift (Or at least more women seem willing to use it). Can teenagers have this gift? Yes. And they may use it in discipleship, on the Allied Force Ministry Team, working with children, and teaching Vacation Bible School. (Some of our teenagers will be doing that exact thing this summer in Haiti. That’s the gift of teaching at work!)
Five Quick Ones
There are an unlimited number of ways this gift might be used. Let me suggest five unusual ways:
1. In a ministry of writing to prisoners. You could work with Prison Fellowship or with Chaplain Ray or with Write-Way Prison Ministries or any of the other good prison ministries. They need people who will write letters of Christian encouragement to prisoners all over America. It is a ministry of encouragement plus evangelism plus discipleship plus teaching.
2. As a public school teacher. We often think the public schools are totally closed to the gospel, but it isn’t necessarily so. The law clearly permits the teaching of the Bible as history and literature and as part of Western culture. You can’t preach or pray out loud, but you can find ways to show how the truth of the Bible is relevant to all of life.
3. In a ministry to engaged couples. This is something many churches stress. Not just pre-marital counseling, but a pre-marital class for couples looking forward to marriage. It’s almost always taught by one or two older couples in the church. We have a pressing need for this ministry right now.
4. By teaching persons with handicaps. I am more and more convinced that God wants us to move into this area. There are things we could do, people we could reach, lives we could touch for the Savior, if only someone would step forward willing to spearhead a ministry to men and women with disabilities.
5. By teaching overseas. This is one of the most exciting opportunities available today. I remember listening to Dr. Ryrie tell us in seminary about a fourth-year student who asked if Dr. Ryrie knew of any teaching opportunities. When he said yes, the young man asked where. When Dr. Ryrie said they were overseas, the young man said he wasn’t interested. But the gift of teaching is not the gift of teaching Americans. You can use it anywhere.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can use this gift to teach children, teenagers, singles, young couples, and older adults. You can teach one-on-one, in small groups, in big groups, or in huge gatherings. It can be used at home, at church, at school, on the mission field, in music, in drama, on TV, on radio, and in a million other ways that are limited only to your imagination, your initiative and your willingness to serve the Lord.
And of course you can use this gift to teach Sunday School. I suppose that would be the most common use of all.
I first started attending Sunday School when I was about 3 years old. And in the 34 years since then, I haven’t missed very many Sundays. Over the years I have had dozens of teachers. Each one was gifted and godly and each one made an impact for good in my life.
But I will tell you a strange fact. In all my years of growing up, I must have sat through hundreds and hundreds of Sunday School lessons. I’m sure I did because I remember going to Sunday School and I even remember getting my quarterly. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember a single lesson from those years. Not a one comes to mind. I know I was there and I know the teachers taught but the lessons are gone from memory.
Here’s the strange part. I can’t remember my lessons, but I can’t forget my teachers. I remember them even now—Mrs. Ponder, Mrs. Atkins, Mr. Whitfield, Coach Ray (We loved his class because all we did was talk about football for the whole hour), Alvin and Ruth Johnson, Mr. Courington and Hal Kirby, Sr.
And I remember Dr. Cotton. He was a local veterinarian and a deacon at the First Baptist Church of Russell-ville, Alabama. He taught a class of ninth-grade boys. Each week we met in a corner classroom overlooking the Hayes Malone Oldsmobile dealership. We would sit in a circle and read a lesson from the quarterly. If you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you what those lessons were about.
But I can tell you this: Dr. Cotton was a man of principle. I learned that one Sunday when he told us about an unusual phone call he received. It was fairly well known that Dr. Cotton was a private pilot and one night a friend called on behalf of some businessmen in another state. Would he be interested in using his plane to fly in alcoholic beverages to be sold in Franklin County?
Back then, that part of Alabama did not allow the sale of alcoholic beverages which meant if you wanted a drink, you had to A. Buy moonshine or B. Go across the Tennessee state line or C. Buy liquor from a bootlegger. Since buying from a bootlegger was the easiest thing to do, there was a booming black market for wine, beer, and liquor.
Consequently there was a lot of money to be made. Cash money. Tax-free money. Easy money for a man with an airplane. If Dr. Cotton said yes, he would be putting thousands and thousands of dollars into his own pocket. And no one would ever know.
It was a moment I will never forget. Dr. Cotton told us the story and then looked out at our wondering faces. The question hung in the air … “Would you be interested in flying in some liquor?” Then he simply said, “I told them I wasn’t interested.” They never called back.
End of story. But, oh, what an impact it made on me. Here was a man of principle who had a chance to make some easy money if only he would lower his standards. He just said no. That’s all. No sermon. No moral. Just the awesome power of saying no.
It’s been more than twenty years but the story is still with me. I can’t remember anything else Dr. Cotton said that day and very little else from that whole year in his class. But that story—and it’s impact on my life—is as fresh and real to me as if I had heard it for the first time yesterday.
I take from that episode one crucial conclusion. The real impact of a teacher is not in his lesson; the real impact is in his life. Your students will soon forget your words; they will never forget your life.
That, I think, is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40) When we teach, we impart much more than information. We impart our deepest life values to our students. The lessons will be forgotten, but the values will remain.
Sowing, Watering, Reaping
Sometimes it’s hard to measure your effectiveness by what you are doing today. Sometimes you are just sowing seeds, sometimes you are watering, and it can seem like the harvest will never come. Teaching is like that. You plant a lot of seeds, you water, you pray a lot, and you sit back and wait. Not all the seeds will come up, but some will.
Why teach? Because it is so rewarding. There are rewards in the changed lives of boys and girls and men and women. There are rewards in the growth that comes in your own life. There are rewards in the benefits that good teaching brings to the church. There are rewards in the changed moral atmosphere of the world. And there are rewards in eternity when the full harvest finally comes in and we look around and see people who are in heaven because we taught them on earth.
And here’s the good news. You don’t have to be famous or brilliant to teach. You don’t have to be highly educated. You don’t have to be clever or witty or unusually attractive. You don’t have to be anything but willing. It won’t cost you anything but your life. If you don’t mind being a sower, you can be a teacher. There are hungry minds and open hearts all around us. The door of opportunity is wide open.
Most of us in this church know so much. The lack of knowledge is not our problem. If anything, we know too much. We are biblically well-educated. The question is not, “What do you know?” but rather “What are you doing with what you know?” Look at all that seed God has given you. Enough for you. Enough for your family, and plenty left over. Isn’t it about time you planted some of it?
Teacher And Savior
They called him Rabbi—”Teacher”—and meant it as a great compliment, for he was indeed the Master Teacher. But no one goes to Heaven simply by calling him Teacher. It is true, but it isn’t enough. For he is more than a teacher; he is also Savior and Lord. He is more than a teacher of moral precepts; he is also the Savior of the world.
Part of what it means to be saved is admitting that you need salvation, that you can’t save yourself, and that Jesus Christ is the Savior you need. As long as you cling to your own good works as your hope for Heaven, Jesus is not your Savior. To be saved by Jesus means to stop trying to save yourself. When you finally give up on yourself and say, “Lord, I’m a sinner and I know it,” in that moment you have become an excellent candidate for salvation.
So it comes down to this. Is Jesus your Savior? Have you ever turned away from all your good works to trust Jesus Christ and him alone for your salvation? The good news is that Jesus died for you. He paid the price so that by trusting in him alone you could be saved. I invite you to open your heart right now and place your trust in him. In the moment that you do, he will become—not just your Teacher—but your Savior, too.