What marks a Sunday School teacher? Personality and communication skills appear on the surface, of course, but what supremely stands out in a Christ-like educator? In this connection I cannot think of a greater recognition that that affirmed by Nicodemus when he said to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God” (
Three identifying characteristics especially come out in the context of the statement. The first is an obvious zeal for the honor of God, a passion for holiness seen in the way Jesus acted. Recall that this recognition came after his visit to the temple during Passover in Jerusalem (
Seeing his fearless stand for the values of the kingdom, his disciples remembered that it was written: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (
The miracles alluded to are not mentioned, suggesting that the important thing to note here is Christ’s denunciation of those who had corrupted the place of worship. Reference to “signs,” however, indicates more than a wonder. It points to the character of the one working. What Jesus did witnessed to the convictions by which he lived. That is the quality seen in a teacher who has come from God.
I saw this spiritual authenticity in one of my Sunday School teachers at a time when I was very impressionable during my high school years. My class was called the “Anderson Athletes,” taking its name from the teacher, and the interests which occupied most of her listless students. Despite our rather worldly concerns, Mrs. Anderson taught the Bible with keen insight to the moral issues we were facing, and never let us forget the expectations of an infinitely holy God.
The Andersons had no children of their own, but in a real sense, the class was their family. Mrs. Anderson cared for us with much the same affection as a mother. Her husband, though not a gifted communicator like his wife, also took a great interest in her boys. I remember how he came to watch the basketball games some of us were playing. This dear couple, then in their fifties, lived in a small, four-room bungalow in one of the more modest areas of Dallas. Their income was very limited. However, in their later years, oil was discovered on a small property they owned in East Texas, and they began to receive generous royalties. Mr. Anderson told his wife one day that he wanted to buy her a nice house, now that he could afford it. For several weeks they looked at places around the city. In the end, though, they decided not to buy but to build. Not long after they built their dream house. But it was not built in Dallas. Their new home was built 90 miles away in another city. It is there today – a beautiful home for boys at the Methodist Orphanage in Waco, Texas.
Mr. & Mrs. Anderson continued to reside in their small bungalow until their death. They lived for eternal values, as their deeds still testify.
When I went away to college Mrs. Anderson gave me a small, folded plaque, which now for more than fifty years has been on my desk. On one side is a picture of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and on the other side are the words “Prayer Changes Things.” Underneath is an inscription in her own hand which is still legible. It reads simply: “Love, Mrs. Anderson.”
She was a teacher who had come from God.
There is a second quality which can be seen in such a teacher, as was evident in the way Jesus gave meaning to the Word of God. His explanation for cleansing the temple brought powerfully into focus what the prophets had said about trading in the house of the Lord (
The worldly-minded antagonists were enraged, interpreting his words as referring to the material Jerusalem temple. In their self-imposed spiritual blindness, of course, they could not recognize the allusion to his death and resurrection (
We can be somewhat understanding of their confusion, for his own disciples at this point were mystified by the teaching (
Interestingly, following the signs of Christ’s authority, John tells us that “many people . . . believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men” (
Nicodemus, though, was not content just to watch from the crowd. He wanted to learn more from this amazing man who understood so clearly the ways of God. That night he privately sought out Jesus (
Jesus accepts the Pharisee’s discernment by quickly coming to the issue. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (
I can never forget a dear widow lady who reflected this quality so graciously in a church I once pastured. Her name was Tillie Mallice. For years she had taught the Sunday School class of the young people. What gave this position special honor was the custom of the people each year electing their teachers. Though she was well into her sixties, the youth chose her year after year.
She accepted their trust with great seriousness. Tillie lived for that class. Every day she would work on her lesson, so that when Sunday came, she always was prepared with some fresh truths from God’s Word.
I can remember more than once stopping by her home in the afternoon, finding her in the living room, sitting in an old over-stuffed chair, soaking her swollen arthritic ankles in a wash tub. She was studying the quarterly, with her well-worn Bible beside her.
A very quiet woman, she seldom volunteered any advice. But anytime when an important matter would come up at church, someone would ask, “Well, what does Tillie think about it?” When her opinion became known – however reluctant she may have been to voice it – the issue was settled. Everyone so respected her insight to spiritual things that her words had the authority of a Papal edict.
Some years later, when her health failed, Tillie went to live in a nursing home in Wellman, Iowa. Meantime I had moved to another state. While traveling with my family one summer, I decided to go by and visit her. Friends told me that she may not recognize me, as her sight was gone, and, also, her mind would wander. But they said, you can ask her to sing a song, for that is how she expresses herself most easily.
It happened that this was one of her good days. She was alert, and, oh, how we enjoyed talking about those times at the church, and especially her Sunday School class. Before we left, I asked if she would sing us a song. Without any hesitation, as she sat in her wheel chair, her sweet voice broke forth in an old hymn of Zion. Then she sang another -and another – some songs which I had never heard before. I wiped the tears out of my eyes, for I knew that this would be the last time we would be together on earth. I was so glad that my dear wife and children could be with me to experience the joy that filled that room. It almost seemed like Tillie was singing with the angels.
She was a teacher who had come from God.
One final distinction of such a person comes out of the incident at the Passover – teaching marked by a burden for lost souls. Jesus lived with the knowledge that people are made to worship God – to experience the joy of eternal fellowship; and though we have all turned to our own way, his love never let us go. Concern for the salvation of a lost world always could be seen in what he did and said.
This became particularly obvious as the way of salvation is made clear to Nicodemus (
Jesus had taught about a God who so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son to die for us. And like the brazen serpent lifted up, whoever believes on Him will not perish but have everlasting life. As Nicodemus held the lifeless body of Christ, those words must have come to mind. If he had not embraced them before, surely he experienced them now. With a certainty confirmed by the witness of the Holy Spirit, in his soul, he knew Jesus was a teacher who had come from God.
Such persons with that authenticity have changed the course of history. One such man was Edward Kimball, a middle-aged Sunday School teacher at the Mount Vernon Congregational Church in Boston. On Saturday morning, April 21, 1855, as he bent over his Bible preparing a lesson for the next day, he felt a strong impression to go and call on an 18 year old boy who had visited his class, and inquire about the condition of his soul. The teacher rose and obediently headed to the Holton Shoe Store where the young man worked. On the way he had second thoughts about the appropriateness of talking to the boy at this time, and reaching the store, he walked past the door. But checked by the Holy Spirit, he went back, as he later said, “to have it over at once.”
Mr. Kimball found the young man in the back of the store wrapping shoes. “I went up to him and put my hand on his shoulder,” he said, “and as I leaned over . . . I made a plea, and I feel it was really a weak one . . . I simply told him of Christ’s love for him and the love Christ wanted in return.”1
There in the back of the store Dwight L. Moody received the Savior. Recalling the day years later, the great evangelist said, “I had not felt like I had a soul till then. I said to myself . . . here is a man who never saw me till lately, and he is weeping over my sins . . . I understand it now, and know what it is to have a passion for men’s souls . . . I don’t remember what he said, but I can feel the power of that man’s hand on my shoulder tonight.”2
Not surprisingly Moody became a champion of the Sunday School throughout his ministry. Even before he became famous as a preacher, he had become well known as a Sunday School teacher and superintendent. When he moved to Chicago in 1857, one of the first things he did was to start a Sunday School for the poor children who lived in the slums. Under his leadership, the school grew to an attendance of 1200 persons, becoming the largest in the city.
An insight into the growth of the school can be seen in the burden of a man who taught a class of girls. One day the teacher told Moody that he would have to give up the class, for he had a hemorrhage of the lungs, and was going to live with his widowed mother and die. The man said he was not fearful of death, but he grieved over the souls of the girls in his class, for to his knowledge, none of them were saved.
Moody suggested that the man tell them how he felt, and offered to get a carriage and go with him to call on the girls. When they arrived at the house, the pale and weakened teacher would explain why he had come, present the gospel, then ask if they would like to become a Christian.
Over the course of ten days every one of the girls prayed to receive Christ. The evening before the teacher was to depart, the whole class gathered to give thanks to God and to pray for their teacher. The next day they all came to the depot to say goodbye. What a meeting that was. They tried to sing, but everyone broke down. The last they saw of that dying teacher, he was standing on the near platform of the train as it pulled out of the station. Tears were streaming down his face, his hand pointed to the sky, as he called to the girls, saying that he would meet them in heaven.
Those of us who in different ways have known persons with that kind of devotion can never be the same. Their passion for holiness, their fidelity to scriptural truth, their concern that people come to Christ, has left an indelible impression on our life. Indeed, in no small measure, what we are today reflects their teaching. There are simply no mathematics by which we can reckon the ultimate influence of a wholly sanctified, Bible-believing, soul-winning Sunday School teacher.
Let this be our aspiration – to so live in the power of the Spirit that our deeds and words will cause people to look to Jesus whose ministry we share, even as they realize that any marks of his life in ours evidence only his grace, and to his glory alone may it be said, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.”
Robert Coleman is Distinguished Professor of Discipleship and Evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA.
1 Quoted from Kimball’s, “Reminiscences of Moody,” in Lyle W. Dorsett, A Passion for Souls (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997), p.47.