“They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
Nehemiah 8:8 ESV
Through the Bible: Nehemiah 8-10
My favorite class in seminary was Christian Teaching, taught by Dr. John Hendrix. Dr. Hendrix took a childlike delight in teaching, and he was nearly giddy whenever a student showed that he or she “got it.”
I don’t know if it was original with Dr. Hendrix or not, but I’ve always remembered one of his favorite sayings: “The difference between a teacher and a lecturer is that a teacher can make the complicated simple. A lecturer makes the simple complicated.”
This truth went hand in hand with what I learned from Dr. Kathryn Chapman, my children’s ministry professor. She said, “Share the gospel simply, so that people are able to understand, and kindly, so that people want to understand.”
When Ezra read the law in Nehemiah 8, “understanding” is highlighted over and over. Verses 2 and 3 note that “all who could understand” were gathered in the public square in front of the Water Gate. From morning until midday, “those who could understand” stood and were attentive as the Book of the Law was read.
Reflect on the fact that the capacity to understand the word of God comes from God. It isn’t a given that people will have the capability to understand. That is given by the Spirit (Job 32:8; Isaiah 11:2; John 14:26); and sometimes it is withheld by the Spirit (Isaiah 6:9-10; Romans 11:7-9; 1 Corinthians 2:14)
But possessing the Spirit-enabled capacity to understand doesn’t mean we don’t need gifted teachers. I love that there were priests scattered throughout the crowd on that day that “helped the people to understand the Law while the people remained in their places.” (Neh. 8:7). The Hebrew word translated “clearly” in 8:8 suggests that Ezra may have frequently stopped so that the priests and the Levites could “give the sense” to the people. Pastors, take note: if you think your sermon has more impact than small group Bible study, think again.
The end result was that the people understood the reading (Neh 8:8). And when they understood, they responded:
- They lifted their hands.
- They bowed their heads.
- They fell on their faces (Neh. 8:5-6).
- They wept (8:9).
- They celebrated with “great rejoicing.” Why? “Because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (8:13).
Pastors and teachers, preach and teach so that you can be understood! It is easy to blame a lack of understanding on the hearer. “They were checked out. They were already thinking about the Cowboys game that afternoon.” That’s possible, but it’s also possible that you haven’t prepared a coherent sermon.
Sometimes I try to spiritualize it: “Well, if they don’t understand, maybe the Holy Spirit has darkened their understanding.” Maybe. Or maybe I’m just a poor preacher.
Good teaching is marked by several things:
- A message that is worth understanding.
- Learners with the Spirit-enabled capacity to understand.
- Attentive learners who want to understand.
- An understandable teacher who makes the effort to be understood.
- Understanding that results in changed behavior.
That day in front of the Water Gate, all of these markers were in place. I pray that is true in my church this Sunday morning.