Mistake #1 in Teaching the Bible: Killing the Characters

I didn’t go to seminary. I don’t have a Bible degree either. Yet most months, there are several times that I stand before a group of women with my Bible open, and offer a message of truth. It would be wonderful to enroll in a seminary class, but where would I find the time? My ministry calendar is bulging full. Can you relate? 

Now, I’m not saying I’m completely ill-equipped. I have been taught to study God’s Word, and I regularly experience the Spirit’s empowerment and guidance. I know I wouldn’t have any insight apart from Him. But sometimes when I prepare a message or stand up to share it, I have a vague sense that I’m making mistakes which could be avoided. 

And you know what? Recently, I found out I was right.

Three Common Mistakes

My pastor, Jeff Manion, has faithfully taught the Bible at our church for over thirty years. We are a congregation of over eight thousand, meeting at four campuses, and we benefit weekly from Jeff’s gifted teaching and skilled message prep. But Jeff often tells—with a grin—about when, in his twenties, he successfully took our church from one hundred members down to fifty. He’s learned a lot over the years, and he’s willing to invest in others who are learning. 

I attended a recent workshop where Jeff shared three of the most common mistakes Bible teachers make. And as my page filled with notes, I realized I was making all three! Yet I didn’t leave discouraged. I was excited! It was like having new tools in my hands, as I got back to work studying God’s Word and teaching it to others. 

I’ve already been amazed at the difference it makes to know about these pitfalls so that I can avoid them. And my gracious pastor agreed to let me share these three common mistakes with you in a three-part series. 

Mistake #1: We Kill the Characters

Perhaps it’s because we know that the Bible is inspired by God that we sometimes feel the freedom to wipe away the background stories of the Bible’s characters. For instance, we might teach a psalm without telling the backstory of the psalmist. Or we quote from Isaiah without mentioning the prophet, the people he spoke to, or their time in history. Or we teach the logical flow of a chapter in an epistle, but we fail to mention that this chapter is part of a letter, written by someone to a group of someones.

I do this all the time. I’ll say: “In Philippians it says . . . ” Or, “God tells us in Romans 6 . . .” I would never do this when quoting from other books. I always mention the author and a little background, saying something like, “Here’s a quote from Jim Elliot, who was a missionary martyred by the Aucas . . . ” Or, “Listen to the words penned by hymnist Horatio Spafford after losing his daughters in a shipwreck . . . ”

I think that maybe we kill the characters because we’re in too much of a rush. We see little overlap between the here-and-now lives of our women and the there-and-then lives of Bible people, so we rush ahead to the application. We want our women to hear directly from God—that’s the important part, so we put these characters from a different era and culture on mute. But in doing so, we vacuum away much of the richness and meaning packed around the words of the text.

Yes, it’s true that God’s breath on these Bible words is what gives them living power! But God was pleased to use real people in real situations to unfold these truths. And if we’ll look carefully, we have far more in common with Bible people than we might expect. By allowing Bible characters to “live” and by inviting them to be part of the message we share, we provide our women with more depth of understanding and greater implications for their lives, not less. Here are a few examples. 

Example 1: To the Pastor of a Wealthy Church

I’m pretty sure I’ve used this verse in every article, chapter, or message I’ve ever shared on the topic of generosity: 

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. (1 Tim. 6:17, emphasis mine)

But here’s the part I left out. I never mentioned that this verse was part of a letter written to Timothy, the young pastor at a church in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3). I also never mentioned anything about Ephesus being a trade city. Anything you wanted to buy, you could get it in Ephesus. Its excavated terrace houses were elaborately decorated with mosaic floors, ornate columns, and marble structures. And its Square Agora, which was surrounded on all four sides with double-colonnaded stoas, housed nearly one hundred shops.

Since the Jesus-followers of Timothy’s church were definitely affected by the wealth of Ephesus, Paul was mentoring this young pastor on how to give guidance. For those of us who lead or mentor wealthy women, Paul is mentoring us also. 

Look back at 1 Timothy 6:17 and notice how Paul offers balance in the two words I put in bold. We’re to train our women to enjoy what God has blessed them with, but not put their hope in what they have.

Example 2: The Song of a Grieved Parent

I have quoted this verse many times, in my writing and teaching:

You, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. (Ps. 3:3)

But here’s the part I left out. This is a song written by King David, when he fled from his son Absalom. David deserted the palace in Jerusalem; He was away from home. His son had betrayed him, and his life was in danger. Imagine the devastation and shame David felt as Absalom publicly undermined and sought to kill his own father to get his position and possessions. 

As we serve our women, imagine how much richer the application becomes for the woman who has experienced her own child’s betrayal. Perhaps one woman’s daughter has left the faith and is living in a way that doesn’t even remotely reflect the way she was raised. Or perhaps another woman’s son only remembers the mistakes she has made. He refuses to forgive her and holds her in constant contempt, which he has gradually made more public. Or perhaps still another woman has lost custody of her children. Her ex-husband has deceitfully stacked the evidence against her, and she’s trying to find her way through the fog of shame of what her neighbors think, now that the kids don’t live there anymore. 

Each of these women is wondering, “How am I to respond? What should I do with this grief and pain?” And here is the Bible’s response: a song, lifted by a parent whose eyes were filled with tears of grief and shame and fear. King David was at one of the lowest points in life, yet who was his shield? The Lord. Who was the lifter of his head? The Lord. This same Lord is the shield and lifter of the heads of our precious women as well. 

Keeping the Characters Alive

In both of these examples, we could lift the words off the page and offer them to our women. They would still be the inspired words of God, and they could still offer guidance and hope. But by allowing the characters to speak, we give the verses the richness of context. 

Here are a few more tips for you, as you work to include Bible characters in your message prep:

  • With the epistles, repeatedly draw your women back to the context. This is a letter with a writer and recipients. If you teach a series on the book of Philippians, then invite Paul and the church in Philippi to be part of every lesson—not just the introductory one. 
  • In Psalms, be sure to read the ascriptions at the beginning of the individual psalms. Find who wrote the song and when they wrote it. Study that part of the Bible’s history to understand it better. 
  • Suppose you’re teaching in the Old Testament, and you want to reference a verse from the New Testament. Spend a moment to add a little bit of context. You could say:
    • I want you to hear from an inmate on this subject of contentment (then read from Philippians) 
    • Listen to what a man who spent three years with Jesus had to say about Him (then read from First or Second Peter) 
    • Here is what a man who had supernatural wisdom had to say (then read from Proverbs) 
    • Here is part of a song written by a brokenhearted father (then read from Psalm 3
    • I want you to hear a mentor’s advice to a young pastor (then read from First or Second Timothy) 

So are you ready to go open your Bible and get back to work? Whatever chapter you open to, remember not to kill the characters! We’d love to hear from you, with examples on how you’re putting this in practice. 

And check in next time for a second post on common mistakes we make when teaching the Bible. 

About the Author

Shannon Popkin

Shannon Popkin is happy to be sharing life with her husband, Ken, and together they have the joy of watching their three young-adult kids become the amazing people God created them to be. From the platform, page, and podcast mic, Shannon invites women to drink deeply of God’s story and live like it’s true. Her books include Comparison Girl and Control Girl, and she hosts the Live Like It’s True Bible podcast.