In the church’s mission against the gates of hell, one of our main weapons is the familiar, often unremarkable, easily underestimated act of teaching.
Jesus taught (Matthew 4:23; 9:35), and he called his apostles to teach (Matthew 28:19–20). The apostles taught (Acts 5:28; 28:31), and they equipped local pastors to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 4:13). Now, pastors teach (2 Timothy 4:2), and they raise up faithful men (2 Timothy 2:2), as well as all the saints (Colossians 3:16), to continue the teaching task. Through teaching, God lights up the darkness and lifts up his Christ, he frees Satan’s captives and makes them his sons, he hammers hell’s gates and wins back the world.
But not just through any teaching. Thoroughly Christian teaching is a bigger, broader task than many assume, especially in an age of abundant online content. Throughout the New Testament, the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, and then the church, assumes a certain context, flows from a certain character, comes with a certain content, and aims toward a certain completion.
And perhaps nowhere do we see these features more clearly than in Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:18–35). How did Paul teach the Ephesians so as to “open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18)? And how might pastors, missionaries, and other teachers model him today?
Context: All of Life
The word teaching, for us, likely evokes images of academia: classrooms and desks, lectures and note-taking. Paul certainly had a category for formal public teaching, as when he taught in the Ephesian synagogue or reasoned in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8–10). But for the apostle, teaching was also woven into all of life.
Paul “lived among” the Ephesians for three years; his “students” were those “among whom I have gone about” (Acts 20:18, 25). Paul knew the Ephesians deeply, and the Ephesians likewise knew Paul. He had taught not only in public but “from house to house” (Acts 20:20); they had seen not only his talk but his tears (Acts 20:31). In his teaching, Paul clothed abstract principles with his own lived example. He had not only told them the words of the Lord Jesus, that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” but he had “shown” them (Acts 20:35).
Andrew Clarke, in a review of Claire Smith’s study Pauline Communities as ‘Scholastic Communities’, describes Paul’s teaching method this way: “Close, authoritative relationships invited the imitation of modeled lives, and not merely attendance at formal discourse.” Discipleship, Paul knew, is less like learning physics and more like learning carpentry, and disciples are less like students and more like apprentices. And so, Paul spoke to all of the church’s life with all of his life, joining doctrine and devotion, precept and pattern.
“Paul spoke to all of the church’s life with all of his life, joining doctrine and devotion, precept and pattern.”
Understandably, then, Paul was not content with distant, disembodied teaching — at least, not as his primary mode of teaching. Even when Paul wrote letters, he longed to turn pen and ink into flesh and blood (Galatians 4:20; 1 Thessalonians 2:17–18; 2 Timothy 1:4), and he often sent his written teaching with those who could model “my ways in Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:17).
Today, we rightly leverage our digital technologies for teaching (as I am now). But as we turn away from the Internet and toward our real-life churches (ideally our primary teaching context), can we say with Paul, “You yourselves know how I lived among you” (Acts 20:25) — because, indeed, we have enfleshed our teaching in everyday life?
Character: All of Christ
Given this all-of-life context, Paul’s teaching required a certain character. If teaching included imitation and not just information, the teacher needed more than true ideas; he needed a holy life. So, as Paul reminds the Ephesian elders of his ministry among them, he says as much about his manner as he does about his message.
Paul had served with humility, taught with tears, suffered with patience (Acts 20:19). He preached Christ as altogether worthy and then showed his willingness to die for his name (Acts 20:24). He taught the whole counsel of God with courage (Acts 20:27). And he displayed a manifest freedom from greed and laziness as he commended the Servant Savior (Acts 20:33–35). As he taught in all of life, he modeled — as much as an imperfect saint can — all of Christ.
Words and works could not be separated in the apostle’s mind. Faithful teaching called for faithful living — not only because a faithful life would illustrate and embody the teaching, but also because it would guard the truth in a teacher’s heart. “Pay careful attention to yourselves,” Paul told the church’s elders. And why? Because “from your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28, 30). Before a teacher speaks “twisted things,” the desire to draw others after himself captures his heart. Twisted teaching comes from a twisted soul, a twisted life.
The church father Gregory Nazianzen once said of his friend Basil that “his speech was like thunder because his life was like lightning” (Pia Desideria, 104). Likewise with Paul. So, when the apostle instructs Timothy to raise up more teachers, he tells him to look not merely for “able” men — men who can and want to teach — but for “faithful men” (2 Timothy 2:2), men whose words thunder because their lives blaze.
Content: All of Scripture
If the context of Paul’s teaching was all of life, and the character was all of Christ, then the content was all of Scripture, with a special focus on Jesus’s person and work. He taught the whole Christ from the whole counsel of God.
Twice, Paul mentions his refusal to pick and choose from God’s word:
- “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20).
- “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
How tempting to “shrink” before some uncomfortable word from God rather than, like Paul, “declaring” it. How tempting to minimize, sidestep, muffle, ignore, or twist the toughest texts. Yet Paul knew that all God’s words were “profitable,” no matter how painful they landed at first, and that he as God’s steward would be judged by how faithfully he taught his Master’s message (Acts 20:26–27). And so, he didn’t shrink from proclaiming every promise, telling every story, witnessing to every warning, and declaring every command.
At the same time, he spoke especially “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21), or what he calls “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) — or most succinctly, “the word of his grace” (Acts 20:32). Of all that was profitable, the gospel was most profitable; among the whole counsel of God, Christ was the climax. Every promise pointed to his person and work, and every command flowed from his cross.
Completion: All He Commanded
Finally, as Paul taught, he aimed toward the grand ambition of the Great Commission: “. . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). The end of Christian teaching is not understanding but obedience — what Paul elsewhere calls “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5).
“Oh, how good it would be if our own teaching were washed in the tears of holy love.”
Paul yearned to see the word of God’s grace “build . . . up” believers into Christ-loving, word-obeying, devil-shaming disciples (Acts 20:32). So, he not only explained and applied God’s word, but even “admonish[ed] everyone with tears” (Acts 20:31). Oh, how good it would be if our own teaching were washed in the tears of holy love. With Paul, such leaders live and weep and teach to kill anger and birth gentleness, to clothe the proud with humility and the sorrowful with praise, to take people curved toward themselves and open them up to a broad new world, to heal fractured relationships and create communities so satisfied in Christ they confound the devil’s kingdom.
Such a mission, of course, is impossible apart from God. Who can open the eyes of the blind, or break the iron chains wrapped around the will, or deliver those enslaved to the ancient lie? Only the Spirit of the living God. Paul knew it, and so we read, “When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all” (Acts 20:36).
Teaching may be the church’s sword, but it cuts only when wielded by the Spirit. Without him, our best words are a dull and broken blade. So, before we teach, and after we teach, and perhaps even as we teach, we pray, “Father, take these feeble words, this little teaching, and win back more of your world.”