Our God Is a Teacher at Heart

Imagine it’s the first day of class. Likely you know the feeling. The uncertainty. The anxiety. For some, the excitement. You arrive early, claim a seat, and wait for the teacher to emerge. Five minutes feels like twenty.

Finally, he walks in, briefly greets the class, and introduces himself. Then, to your surprise, he directs everyone to clear off their desk, except for a pencil, and prepare for the final exam. Heads around you turn. You hear a few mumbles, more of confusion than complaint. Is this some sort of joke? You don’t yet know the content of the course — you haven’t been taught — how can you be judged on the final exam?

If made to endure such a scenario, our various temperaments would surely produce a range of responses. But we all could agree that such a “teacher” would not be a good one. He might be an expert in his field, and a good judge of whether others know the subject or not. But he’s a bad teacher. In fact, this guy didn’t even attempt to teach at all. He just jumped straight to the final exam.

Complete Patience and Teaching

Contrast that with the apostle Paul as he came to the end of his life. His own judgment day was fast approaching (2 Timothy 4:8), but his repeated emphasis for his protégé Timothy is to patience and teaching. In this letter (nowhere else in the Bible is quite like this) patience and teaching are inextricably linked.

In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul follows his famous “preach the word” command with these charges: “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” This last phrase might be the most surprising in the whole letter. Complete patience. Not a little patience, or even a sizeable amount. But “complete patience.” And teaching.

Take a Deep Breath

Good preaching requires teaching. And good teaching requires patience. Good teachers don’t issue the final exam on the first day of class. They begin where the students are, and don’t reject them, or demean them, or write them off for their ignorance of a subject they are yet to learn. Rather, they seek to inform them, and change them — to improve and move and advance them — through the work of teaching.

“Good teachers don’t issue the final exam on the first day of class. They begin where the students are.”

The mentality of a teacher is like that of Priscilla and Aquilla in Ephesus when they discerned an oversight, and error, in the teaching of Apollos. Even though Apollos was already becoming a recognized and celebrated teacher of the faith, they didn’t start by issuing a public judgment on him. Rather, they “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). They took a deep breath, took him aside, and taught him. They demonstrated the heart of a teacher to this up-and-coming teacher. Their patience gave them space to do the work of teaching, rather than rushing to judgment.

Able to Teach

Elsewhere in Paul’s final letter, he gives Timothy this remarkable instruction about being “the Lord’s servant” as a pastor-teacher in the midst of church conflict:

The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:24–25)

“Able to teach” is a single word in Greek: didaktikos. The only other place it appears in the New Testament is the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:2. With respect to pastor-elders, what does it mean for them to be “able to teach”?

Is it able in terms of serviceable? As in, if he must teach, he can — he’s willing and able (though he might prefer not). Or is it able in terms of effectiveness as a teacher? We might talk of an able teacher — a good teacher, a skilled teacher. I think the best indicators are that it is the latter, and the connection with patience in 2:24 adds an important dimension beyond mere outward skill or ability or theological equipping (as in Titus 1:9). In this passage, didaktikos indicates an inward, temperamental aspect to complement the external effectiveness and doctrinal soundness. Here the ability belongs with kindness, gentleness, and patience.

It’s one thing to be a teacher in practice, and another to be a teacher at heart. Good teachers see possibilities in people. They are hopeful that others can learn and grow. They don’t assume people are what they are and will never change. Rather, teachers want to influence, to shape, to guide. They want to inform, and present facts, and provide motivation. They want to teach and through words change people, not simply judge them for where they are.

And Paul says that kind of temperament is essential in the pastor-elders, that they be didaktikos, not only sound in theology and skillful at teaching, but teachers at heart. Not only do they rebuke and reprove and correct. They also encourage and envision, with complete patience and teaching.

Our Didaktikos with Others

One lesson for all of us, and especially church leaders, in the divisive and conflicted times in which we’ve lived in recent months, is the call to be didaktikos with others. There is a sense in which all Christians, as recipients of true teaching in Christ, will come to teach others in some measure (Hebrews 5:12), older women teaching younger (Titus 2:3), fathers teaching children (Ephesians 6:4), all of us teaching and admonishing each other in the life of the church and as we sing in corporate worship (Colossians 3:16). And of course, pastors and elders, all the more. This is indeed a fitting qualification for the teaching office in the church (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9).

Christianity is a teaching movement. We are people of a Book — and what’s in the Book? Teaching. Content to be learned, welcomed, and taught. Which means that, as we’re called to teach others in whatever forms, we’re called together to a kind of patience — the patience that doesn’t hear someone say one wrong or suspect word and give up on them. Rather, we take a deep breath, pray for patience, and begin the hard work of teaching. We cite verses. We make our case. Without being patronizing, we teach. And keep teaching. The time for settled judgment will come, but we need not snap to it before the time.

In the confusion of these world-shaking days, well-meaning brothers and sisters are making all sorts of missteps, on all sides. Here I’m mainly speaking to our local church contexts, not public teaching, though note that even for Apollos, a celebrated public teacher, Aquilla and Priscilla patiently took him aside and taught him, instead of lambasting him in public. Let’s take a deep breath and ask God for the patience we need for these days. Patience not to write someone off too quickly because they used a certain phrase or retweeted someone we’re fearful of — or didn’t disavow our latest boogeyman term we want everyone to renounce to be orthodox.

“We have the Book we do because our God is inclined to teach.”

Let’s cultivate the heart and approach of a teacher — and all the more for pastors, who are to do their vital work of preaching “with complete patience and teaching.” Let’s give the space, and provide the gracious teaching, that patience makes possible. Let’s hope for change, and pray for change. And under God, let’s seek to change people through careful, patient teaching.

God’s Didaktikos with Us

Yet perhaps the more important truth to reflect on is how God has been didaktikos with us. We have a God who loves to teach. Aren’t you glad that God has handled you as the consummate teacher would? Oh, the patience, and teaching, of our God! We have the Book we do because he is inclined to teach. Over centuries. What patience. We have the lives we do, the faith we do, and the shared calling we do, because our God is patient, with such a proneness and proclivity to teach. Our God is a teacher at heart.

He taught Adam in the garden, and taught Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Through Moses, he taught the people. Torah, the name for the first five books of the Old Testament, means instruction or teaching. Through prophets and kings and sages as his mouthpieces, God taught his people, and is still teaching.

And when he came and lived among us in the person of his Son, he taught. His miraculous works made the people marvel, but he never identified as a healer. His healings were “signs.” They served his teaching. They pointed to his person, and his words of instruction — his parables, his Sermon on the Mount, his Olivet Discourse. Jesus is the single greatest teacher the world has ever known, and it is no accident. Because our God loves to teach. He is a teacher at heart.

Make no mistake, the final exam is coming. Our lives here will end, if Christ doesn’t first return as Judge. But in the meantime, he continues to teach. Through the teachings of his apostles. Through the faithful, patient, careful teaching of his word through pastor-teachers in the church.

How different is our world and history, and our own lives, and our hope for days to come, because our God is a teacher at heart.