Imagine entering a university literature course and having the instructor offering his opinions on John Steinbeck's works, or John Barrymore's poetry without ever telling you anything about the authors, or having you read their works in context. Imagine if all he did was quote a line here and there, and then bounce off of it into his personal belief or explanation. Would that really be teaching Steinbeck or Barrymore? Not in my mind.
Unfortunately, that is happening to the Bible today. Churches and pastors claim to be teaching the Bible, but what they're really doing is teaching a topic of their choosing, filled with illustrations and principles they have collected or devised. And, to keep it "biblical" they start with a verse, and maybe use a few more scattered texts as "sides" to the entree they themselves have crafted.
But that's not teaching the Bible. Even worse, this kind of teaching and preaching leaves the audience thinking the whole sermon is God's truth. After all, it was clever, funny, engaging, and tied up with a biblical bow.
But that's certainly not teaching the Bible! You can't teach the Bible correctly if you're parachuting into a biblical book anymore than you can teach a song by pulling out a measure here or there.
Here's why. As shocking as it may seem, not one word in the Bible was written to anyone living today. Every word in the Bible was "breathed out" by God himself, to a real human author who was writing to a specific and real group of people. That means the beginning place of meaning in the Bible, as with every piece of written literature, is this: "What did the original author intend the original readers to understand from the words he used?" To figure that out, it is necessary to know something about the author, and the historical circumstances in which he wrote. It is also necessary to understand the flow of his story or argument, from beginning to end. To teach the Bible accurately you simply have to understand the entire context of the book, not just a few random verses.
Imagine taking a three sentence section out of Act 3 of Hamlet and boldly asserting what it meant! It wouldn't matter if you could string together a few other lines from various places, you still would never have the full understanding of the play you get reading it from beginning to end with Shakespeare's day and purpose in mind.
So it is with the Bible. It is a wonderful collection of divinely-inspired books, and must be studied with great respect, effort and wisdom. And we at least owe it to God and ourselves not to settle for clever little sermonettes designed to tickle ears and send people home giggling.
Unfortunately, sermonettes produce Christianettes unable to fend off the cascading torrents of trial and temptation. Gold isn't found on the surface, and neither is truth for the most part. It takes work, but every ounce of effort is worth the trouble when you realize you're attempting to hear the voice of God.
And why do people even say they're "teaching the Bible?" Why not just come out and say "today I'm sharing my opinions about leadership with a few embellishments from Scripture?" What's so great about the Bible? Just this. It is more than ink on the page. It is the powerful, heart-convicting, soul-comforting, gospel-heralding word of God. And it has power when taught well. It carries the power of God when God's meaning is sought, caught, and taught. Opinions may carry weight, but God's Word moves with divine power. Even those who don't use it well hope the random texts they throw in will increase the weight of their message.
God's word does have power when used as the original author intended. The writer of Hebrews put it this way: "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)
God's Word, correctly understood and declared is literally life-changing. Never forget: The Spirit of God uses the word of God to do the work of God in the lives of people. And when we truly teach the Bible, in the flow and context of the biblical story, the Spirit of God rides in on it and transforms lives.
That's why we must teach the Bible well, and do so with all the reverence, diligence, integrity, and courage God's noble word deserves. God gave it to us, and we can do no less if we intend to do his will, magnify his glory and strengthen his church.