June 9, 2016
“If you can do anything besides preach, you should do it.”
I first heard that advice when I was a young man sensing the call of God to the ministry. It struck me then and it strikes me now as a wise admonition. Anyone who stands up to preach puts himself in a fearful position.
He claims to speak for God.
If that doesn’t give you pause, then you aren’t taking your job seriously. From time to time people ask me if I get nervous before I preach. Sometimes they seem surprised when I tell them I always get nervous. While it’s true that I don’t feel overwhelmed by the prospect of standing in front of an audience, it’s also true that the last few minutes before preaching are a kind of agony for me. It is a heavy thing to stand and speak for God. All things considered, I would rather be a preacher who feels the burden than one who takes it for granted. So yes, I always have a sense of nervous excitement before I preach. I hope I never lose it.
In many ways preaching has fallen on hard times. If you want to stop someone from talking to you, just tell them, “Don’t preach at me!” The thesaurus lists these synonyms for “preach”: moralize, lecture, harangue, and pontificate. That doesn’t sound very inviting. These days we would rather “share” or “dialogue” than preach or proclaim or declare the truth of God. To modern men and women, preaching sounds rather old-fashioned. Against all that, we have the clear command of 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the Word.”
“Don’t preach at me!”
That brings me to James 3:1. In the flow of the book, we have come to a major turning point. Through the first two chapters, James has been talking about how to respond to trials in a godly fashion. We must be “quick to hear” what God is saying about trials, about riches, about wisdom, about partiality, and about a faith that shows itself in good deeds. In chapter 3, James addresses the challenge of the tongue. If we take James 1:19-20 as a general outline for the epistle, chapter 3 comes under the heading “slow to speak.”
His first comment may surprise us: “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). The Greek word translated “teachers” is a very general word. It applied to the rabbis who spoke in the synagogues. It was also the most frequent title given to our Lord in the gospels. More than sixty times Jesus was called a teacher. He taught by the seashore, on the mountains, on the plains, in a boat, in the synagogue, and in the temple. He taught large crowds, small groups, and individuals who came with questions. He taught whenever he found anyone who would listen to him. Jesus himself used the term when he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13). When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, he said, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2). He never entered a classroom as we know a classroom. He never had a degree as we understand an educational degree, yet all the world was his classroom.
This verse applies to anyone who teaches the Bible
James is not just thinking about pastors who preach to their congregations. This verse applies to anyone who teaches the Bible. That would include Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, and those who teach specialized groups, such as men, women, young people, or children. In this sermon, I am especially speaking to those who preach to the whole congregation, but it applies to anyone who could be called a “teacher” in the church.
Our text breaks down into a command and a warning. Let’s look at both of them and then think about how we should apply this text today.
“Not many should become teachers” (James 3:1a). If you know the Bible, you will feel at once the oddity of this command. Teaching is a noble occupation, and faithful teachers are to be honored by all. Jesus’ favorite title was “rabbi,” which means “teacher.” The familiar words of the Great Commission in the King James Version read like this:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Jesus’ final command begins and ends with teaching.
Christianity has always been a teaching faith
Christianity has always been a teaching faith. Wherever the gospel has gone, Christians have planted churches and started schools. The great creeds of the church were early attempts to teach the doctrines of the Christian faith to new converts. The Protestant Reformation took root among the masses because the leaders wrote an explanation of the Christian faith in a question-and-answer format called a catechism. That word comes from a Greek word that means to teach.
Christianity is a teaching religion.
Jesus told us to teach the nations.
We are to teach others the truth of God.
If teaching lies at the very heart of our faith, why does James warn us that not many people should become teachers? Let me suggest three answers:
1. Teachers Speak for God.
When people come to church, they want to know, “Is there a word from the Lord?” No one cares about my opinions on sports or the weather or politics. They don’t want to hear me discuss the economy or foreign policy. They can find experts who know much more about that than I do. The Old Testament prophets spoke of having a “burden” from the Lord. Every preacher ought to feel the same burden to proclaim the truth of God. Thabiti Anyabwile puts it this way: “The best preachers are plagiarists. All they do is tell people what God has said.” I’m all for that kind of plagiarism.
Is there a word from the Lord?
When the pastor gives his text, the people expect him to explain what it means. Everything else is secondary to speaking the truth God has already spoken in the Bible. When the preacher does it well, when he is faithful to what God has said, then we can truly say that what the preacher says, God says.
That’s an awesome privilege and a heavy obligation.
2. Teachers Must Practice What They Preach.
No one wants to listen to a hypocrite. If a man says, “I can tell you how to fly an airplane,” we want to know he’s done it himself. If he says, “I can teach you how to invest,” we want to know how he’s done in the stock market. If he says, “I can teach you how to sing,” we want to know if he’s ever taught anyone else.
If a pastor preaches on prayer, we want to know if it’s all theory with him, or does he have a growing prayer life. If he talks about evangelism, we’ll listen more closely if he talks about how he shares Christ with others. If he asks us to give sacrificially, we want to know he is setting a good example.
We all stumble in many ways
We don’t expect our pastors to be perfect. That’s asking too much of even the godliest leaders. We all stumble in many ways. We know our pastors will disappoint us eventually. But personal integrity matters a great deal. When Paul listed 25 character qualities of godly leaders in 1 Timothy 1 and Titus 1, he covered temperament, self-control, how a leader deals with money, how he leads his family, and his reputation with those outside the church. Only one trait touches teaching directly. The godly leader must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:3). A leader’s life must back up what he says. Truth matters, but so does integrity.
Unbelievers expect us to live up to what we say
The world often understands this better than we do. That’s why the media gives so much coverage to pastors who fall into sexual sin or are revealed to be financial cheats or prove to be lawbreaking hypocrites. We may cry foul when a tweetstorm breaks out after a moral failure, and I’m sure the coverage is often one-sided and unfair. But the media coverage, fair or unfair, reinforces an important point. Unbelievers expect we us to live up to what we say we believe. If we claim Christ changes hearts today, unbelievers are right to expect our leaders to show forth that change in the way they live. And they are right to be disappointed when our leaders fail.
3. Teachers Talk a Lot!
This seems like an obvious point, but we need to think together about it. Proverbs 10:19 (GW) warns us about the dangers of talking too much: “Where there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is wise.” The Living Bible offers this colorful paraphrase: “Don’t talk so much. You keep putting your foot in your mouth. Be sensible and turn off the flow!” That’s wise advice for all of us, but preachers especially need to take it to heart. Pastors and teachers talk and talk and talk. They give sermons and lessons and devotionals. They write articles and blog posts. They answer email and text messages. In the old days (maybe 15 years ago) our messages were spread via cassette tapes and CDs. Nowadays our messages are streamed live and then posted on YouTube and Vimeo so people can listen to us 24/7. All things considered, technology is a great blessing because our words find a much wider audience.
The more we talk, the greater our danger
But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? The more we talk, the greater our danger. The more we talk, the more likely we’ll say something foolish or unkind. We’ll misquote a text or we’ll say something in the heat of the moment we wish we could take back later. Ecclesiastes 10:13 reminds us that “a fool starts out by talking foolishness and ends up saying crazy things that are dangerous.” Those of us who use words for a living need to take this to heart.
“We will receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1b).
What we say matters a great deal. What we say when we speak for God matters even more. Consider these words of Jesus in Matthew 12:36-37:
“I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
If that applies to everyone (and it does), how much greater will be the judgment for those men and women who stood up and said, “I am speaking for God?” If that doesn’t give you pause, then you haven’t taken Jesus seriously.
All my sermons will be “audited” by the Lord
We will all someday give an account to God. No one can escape that final judgment where we will have to answer for every single word we have ever said. Think about that:
Every casual comment.
Every critical word.
Every unkind statement.
Every caustic question.
Every subtle accusation.
Every bit of gossip we passed along.
Every “white lie” we told.
Every flattering compliment.
Every evil innuendo.
Every shouted insult.
Every whispered threat.
Every foolish word on Facebook.
Every dumb Tweet.
All of it!
That’s hard enough to think about. Now add every word we spoke on God’s behalf. Every message we gave, every sermon we preached, every class we taught, every question we answered, every email we sent, every word of counsel we gave to a hurting heart, every bit of advice we gave to a young person seeking guidance, and all the other words we spoke as Christians on behalf of Christ himself.
Every careless word!
What will that be like? James calls it a “stricter judgment.” Let me illustrate it this way. Each year we go through the agony of preparing our taxes. That involves many hours of going through records, adding up receipts, and trying to enter the right numbers in the right places. At some point you come to the bottom line. Today many people do their taxes online. So after you’ve done your best, and you either owe some money or you get some back, either way, at some point you finally have to hit the Submit button. Off it goes to the Internal Revenue Service. For most of us, that’s the end of it until next year. But for a small percentage of returns, the IRS decides to take a closer look. They call it an audit. They can look at anything you have submitted, they can ask questions, they can seek more documentation, and they can assess further taxes and penalties.
Here’s what I think James is saying. If you are a teacher of God’s Word, you will be “audited” someday by the Lord. Count on it. When I stand and preach, I’m pressing the “Submit” button and saying, “This is what the Lord says.” James wants me to know that someday I’m going to be “audited” by the Lord for every sermon I’ve ever preached.
I won’t be able to hire a lawyer to handle it for me when I stand before the Lord. I’ll have to answer for all of it. A while back I tried to figure out how many words I have written over the years. Between my books and my sermons, I think it comes in somewhere around three million words. That’s a lot to answer for. Just writing this paragraph made me stop and ask a few questions:
I have a lot to answer for
Have I been true to the Lord?
Have my words been his words?
Have I “rightly divided” the Word of Truth?
When Paul bid farewell to the elders at Ephesus, knowing he would never see them again, he summed up his ministry this way:
“I testify to you this day that I am innocent of everyone’s blood, for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God” (Acts 20:26-27).
No finer thing could be said about a minister. It takes courage (“I did not shrink back”), commitment (“declaring to you”), and continual effort (“the whole counsel of God”). Paul could say, “I am innocent of everyone’s blood” because he told the Ephesians the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
That’s a noble goal for any teacher of God’s Word.
Let me suggest three lines of application. If we take James 3:1 seriously, what should it mean for us?
First, we must not rush people into teaching positions. I know how it is in the local church. I know how desperate we sometimes are for Sunday School teachers, for youth workers, for children’s workers, for Awana workers, for small group leaders. But in our haste to do the Lord’s work, let’s make sure we don’t disregard the Lord’s command. Yes, we need teachers. We always need more teachers. We never have enough. But don’t let the need cause you to put someone in a teaching position who isn’t qualified.
We always need more teachers
Vet them first.
Check them out.
Get to know them.
Find out their doctrine.
Observe their life.
Watch how they treat others.
It’s a mistake to rush people into leadership. That includes putting people in a teaching position who held a similar position at another church. We shouldn’t do a “fast-track promotion” just because we have an empty spot in one of our adult classes.
Take your time.
A man’s gift will make room for him.
Godliness always shows itself eventually.
And so do worldliness, a critical spirit, a hot temper, and unbelief.
Second, we should approach our teaching with a watchful spirit. It is better to tremble than to jest when we stand to teach. My friend Bruce Fong often posts something like this on Facebook before he preaches:
“Studied up, prayed up, purged out, rested up, and ready to teach God’s Word.”
That combination of humility and excitement should mark everyone who stands to preach or teach. James tells us in the very next verse (3:2) that we all stumble in many ways. Those of us who teach stand in the greatest danger because the tongue so quickly gets us in trouble.
We need humility mixed with excitement when we teach
Third, we need a new dependence on the Lord. Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher of the late 1800s, had to ascend many steps to reach the preaching platform in the Metropolitan Tabernacle. It is said that as he ascended each step, he would repeat, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit,” reminding himself that he needed God’s help to preach God’s Word. For it is
“Not by might, nor by power,
but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).
There is no higher calling than to preach or teach God’s Word. God has willed that by preaching, the gospel is spread across the earth. When we preach or teach, we join hands with God himself in bringing his Word to the world. But high callings bring with them high responsibilities. Let no one take it lightly.
God bless all the teachers and all the preachers
God bless all the teachers and all the preachers.
You are doing the work of Jesus.
Take it seriously and do it well so that you will have no regrets when you stand before the Lord.
Lord Jesus, help us to teach others by our words and deeds. May the Spirit of Christ fill us so that whoever follows us will become more like you. Amen.