The Expository Files

How To Prepare For a Bible Class

If you are preparing to teach an adult Bible class based on some book of the Bible, take at least these steps in your preparation.

1. Ignore everything you have previously prepared. This is especially critical counsel for preachers who have files, binders and computer media loaded with their previous work, and often the work of others. If you are getting ready to teach the book of Matthew, for example, resist the temptation to pull out work you’ve done before. (a) If you have any sense of expository excellence, you’ll find your old material stale and lacking. (b) Anything worthwhile you discovered in previous studies will not require physical retrieval to remember. The significant and sound conclusions you drew the last time you taught Matthew, will re-emerge in your mind as you read through the book in a fresh setting. In the interests of time, convenience and laziness, there is the powerful temptation for a preacher to prepare a set of notes on Matthew (for example) back in 1971. Then every time he teaches Matthew, He pulls those old notes out and but with few marginal supplements, teaches from those old notes. I am suggesting this is not the best approach. It is like warmed over toast. To the person being served it looks like toast, but upon first bite, you know it has a history. Load the old notes into a paper shredder and start over. Your work will be more satisfying, will reflect your current level of growth and ability and will better serve the needs of your students. {And you wife will have more space in the house for her doll collection.}

2. For several weeks before you begin your assignment, read through the book several times. Try to arrange times when you can read the whole book through at once. The first readings can be rapid reading, primarily to survey the contents, identify movement and become familiar with thematic  content. After a few initial quick reads, start slowing down. Always read to the end. Each time new discoveries will surface. You are learning the book you have been assigned to teach. {Let all Bible reading be accompanied by prayer.}

3. Once you are familiar with the book you are going to teach, based on these early readings – begin reading the book from several translations. Most likely, this will not change your mind about content, but may help you link ideas and better express the content. If something can legitimately be said in four different ways in English, being away of those alternatives can help you learn the content and be prepared to talk to others about it. {In this process, you may also find translation differences that need to be brought to the attention of your students. Remember that in modern adult class audiences, there may be as many as five translations open.}

4. You are ready to begin outlining the book. Do not just modify an old outline, or use someone else’s outline. Construct your own outline, a product of your recent reading through the book. This is a first draft outline you will revise as you continue your initial preparation. If you resist the habit to revise and modify your old notes, you will always find your latest work superior to the former. If you do all the reading recommended above, you will not be content with anything but your own current outline of the book.

5. Look through the book you are to teach, this time to identify key words and phrases. List them, compare them, consider how they fit into your initial outline. Refer to other passages and other contexts outside the book you are to teach, to see how these words and phrases are used by the Holy Spirit through other writers and on other occasions. Prepare a glossary of words and phrases, complete with definitions, context and references to other passages. Be sure to emphasize in your teaching – each word and phrase must be defined as governed by the context.

6. Write (or takes notes) of your exposition, beginning with 1:1. Individual style plays the greatest role in how you do this. Some write notes in the margin of their Bible and depend largely upon memory, offering extemporaneous leadership through the book. Others follow a more scripted, lecture format, relying closely on their detailed notes. Today, some teach with the passages visually displayed on PowerPoint. Whatever your method, your purpose is – to get your students into the words and phrases of the text; to take them through the process of reading, thinking and eventually examining themselves according to the text presented.

When you have followed these steps, you are ready to teach the adult Bible class. But where do commentaries fit into the process. They are not essential. If we believe the Word of God is sufficient, we cannot insist that commentaries be consulted. Neither can we deny their use as help from other students. In my judgment, commentaries should be at the end of the process of preparation, not at the beginning! Read Matthew before you read Chumbley. First Corinthians before you read Willis, and Romans before you read Whiteside. {I was in an adult Bible class many years ago where Whiteside was quoted more than Paul.}

Don’t begin your study of a New Testament book by reading a commentary on it. Read the book! Read it again; do all the work you can do with it, before you ever open a commentary. I wrote on this subject not long ago:

Commentaries are works of men. When you read a commentary, you are simply reading what some man said about the text. If you forget that, you suffer the risk of confusion, error and lack of independence. “Second only to the fault of not doing adequate study is that of introducing into one’s preparation too soon the secondary resources. When used at the proper time they are indispensable, but if too early opened, they take over. They suppress and intimidate the preacher. After all, who is going to venture a thought or an interpretation when at the very same desk are six internationally known Bible scholars?” (p.#106, Preaching, Fred B. Craddock).

Commentaries may help you find the best words and phrases to express what you have found in the text. You should not let commentators dictate to you what the text means. While commentators may help you see the text in accurate perspective, it is your task to conclude what the text is saying. Once you do that, the rhetoric of the commentator may help you find the right words and phrases to express what you have decided the text means. For example, 1 John 4:1 – “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” After you have studied this verse in the context of First John and in keeping with everything else the Bible says, you can know what it means before consulting any commentary. Then, if you consult Barnes’ commentary to help you find the words to emphasize what the text means, you may find his comments helpful: “He [John] cautions them against trusting to every kind of spirit, or supposing that every spirit which animated even the professed friends of religion was the Spirit of God…” Thus the value of the commentary is not to convince you as to the meaning of the verse, only help you express the meaning.

In our time, there is another word of caution: When preparing to teach a Bible class, don’t begin on the Internet! Eventually, you may find it helpful to gather some resources from the Internet, but I cannot recommend this as your first step. My fear is, some are quickly downloading someone else’s material and present it – completely cutting out the step of personal reading and study! One evidence that this may be happening in large numbers is, site statistics on websites with sermons outlines and class notes show highest visit and download rates on Fridays and Saturdays. This would seem to tell us, some are scrambling to find material others have already prepared, late in the week!

As a teacher of the Bible, you are missing great personal riches when you take the shortcuts. And you are not giving your students a full meal. There is something wholly basic that needs to be said – you cannot teach what you have not studied!

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 11.2, February, 2004