December 23, 2009

"Peace, be still" - Psalm 131

This application of Psalm 131 by David Powlison cut right to my heart, exposing the pride that lies at the root much of the inner "noisiness" that I often experience and provided some helpful guidance for addressing it. Here's an excerpt:
A pool of water in the stillness of dawn is highly sensitive to vibration. Watch the surface carefully. You detect the approach of the slightest breeze or a slight tremor in the ground. You locate the wriggling of a fish you cannot see or a minute waterbug skating over the surface. In the same way, this quiet psalm can make you highly sensitive to “noise.” It is an instrument with which to detect gusts, temblors, thrashing, and insects in the soul. What makes us so noisy inside? Turn the psalm into its opposite, the anti-psalm:

Self,
 my heart is proud (I’m absorbed in myself),
 and my eyes are haughty (I look down on other people),
 and I chase after things too great and too difficult for me.
So of course I’m noisy and restless inside, it comes naturally,
 like a hungry infant fussing on his mother’s lap,
 like a hungry infant, I’m restless with my demands and worries.
I scatter my hopes onto anything and everybody all the time.

Noisiness makes perfect sense. You can identify exactly where the rattling noises come from.

Do you remember Alice in Wonderland, how Alice was either too big or too small? Because she was never quite the right size, she was continually disoriented. We all have that problem. We are the wrong size. We imagine ourselves to be independent and autonomous: proud hearts. We become engrossed in monstrous trivialities of our own devising. We pursue grandiosities and glories. We become afraid of our own shadows. One of the symptoms of the disease is that we become noisy inside. Seventeenth-century English had a great word for how we stir up much ado about nothing: vainglory. Or, in Macbeth’s bitter word: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (V:5).

Of course, this doesn’t seem like much of a problem while we busily telemarket our pride both to ourselves and to others. “I just want a little respect and appreciation. Of course I want the home appliances to work and the car mechanic to be honest. That’s pretty normal. I want approval and understanding, to be included. Is that too much to ask? I want the church to thrive, my sermon to go well, the worship to be biblical. It’s for God, after all. I want satisfaction and compensation for the ways others did me wrong. If others would just own up, and then treat me right. I don’t want much. If only I had better health, a little more money, a more meaningful job, nicer clothes, and a restful vacation, then I’d be satisfied. I want a measure of success—just a bit of recognition—as an athlete, a beauty, an intellectual, a musician, a leader, a mother. I want control. Who doesn’t? Comfort, ease, convenience. Why not? I want to feel good. Doesn’t God want me to feel good? I want to feel good about myself, to have more self-confidence, to believe in myself. I want…well, I want MY WAY. I WANT THE GOODIES. I WANT GLORY. I WANT GOD TO DO MY WILL. I WANT TO BE GOD…Doesn’t everybody?” Our slavery to the corruption that is in the world by lust (2 Pet. 1:4) seems so plausible. Our restless disorientation seems so natural. So desirable. But it’s noisy. The noise tips us off to what’s going on. The static of anxiety, irritation, despondency, or ambition makes sense from within the logic of a proud heart. If you are not proud, then quietness and composure make sense.

Read the whole thing here.

December 20, 2009

The homeless ministering to the "homefull"

This is an amazing video. This guy is shooting a video for his new album in a park, and a homeless man named Danny walks up, kneels down, and begins to worship with him. Check it out:



Listen carefully to the conversation at the end. Carlos says, “Keep trying to make it man.”
Danny looked him square in the eye…cocked his head sideways with a confused look on his face…and said,
“Trying to make it? No man. I ain’t trying to make it…I’m making it. Jah puts His soldiers everywhere. Jah says, Yea though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death… So He places some of us, in that valley.”

(HT)

November 15, 2009

How sin entered the world…

Without a biblical understanding of sin, we have no basis from which to judge the external world, and the apparent brokenness and futility of life. We will have no real answers to the world’s dilemmas because we won’t have an adequate grasp of the true problem. Furthermore, without a correct view of sin, we’re bound to misunderstand who God is. C.S. Lewis points out that a belief in God without an understanding of sin would result in monism, where God is both good and evil, or dualism, where there are two opposing gods, one good and one evil (see The Problem of Pain). Perhaps most importantly, sin is the problem for which the gospel provides the solution. Without an adequate understanding of the problem, we cannot truly appreciate the solution. In other words, without doctrine of sin, there is no Christianity. The root of this Christian understanding is found in the first three chapters of Genesis.

The way things were

We live in a culture with a predominantly naturalistic view of world. In the words of Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.” The idea is that the universe is on a trajectory that has essentially continued unchanged since its origins. You don’t have to be an atheist or an unbeliever to have this perspective influence your view of life. There are many Christians who hold very naturalistic views of certain aspects of life. If you’ve ever heard someone excuse a fault with, “God made me this way,” or “I’m only being human,” or “it’s perfectly natural,” then you’ve see a bit of this philosophy in action. Underlying this is the idea that “The way things are by nature is the way things ought to be.”

However, the Bible paints quite a different picture. The way things are by nature is not the way it was, nor the way it ought to be, and it is not the way it always will be. In many respects, this is the story of the Bible – what was, what happened, what is, and what God is doing to bring about what will be. Genesis 1-2 describes an original creation untainted by sin. God created humans in His own image, made to reflect Him to the world. He gave them dominion over all of creation, to act as His deputies in cultivating and subduing the earth. God’s assessment of His original creation is that it was “very good” (Gen 1:31). The world is as it should be; there is real peace, real shalom. The picture is of husband and wife in communion with God, in communion with each other, and in communion with God’s creation. They are secure in themselves, undefiled by sin and immorality, naked and unashamed.

God gives the couple one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Old Testament Theology, Bruce Waltke comments: “The command assumes that as God’s image bearers, humans should think, plan, speak, and act as their Creator intends. The command is also for their good. The prohibition protects them from assuming self-serving autonomy in sin and death and to live instead under the Creator’s loving and trustworthy rule and protection.” (259)

Something happens, and shalom is broken…

In Genesis 3, the crafty serpent enters the scene, and questions the trustworthiness of God’s word, and the goodness of His instruction. He begins by questioning Eve’s interpretation and attempts to create doubt (“Did God really say…?). His focus is on the forbidden thing rather than God’s true blessings (“…you must not eat from any tree in the garden?”). He tempts her to discount God’s word and the stern warning (“You will not surely die…”). The core of the temptation is the prospect that Eve could become as God, tempting her to leave her status as creature, gain independence from God, and define her own existence apart from God (“You shall be as God, knowing good and evil…”). (Waltke, 261-263)

At this point, all of Eve’s defenses are down and she begins to doubt God. She examines the fruit and see that it’s good for food (it doesn’t look harmful at all), it’s a delight to the eyes (how could something so beautiful be wrong or bad?), and it’s desirable to make one wise (I’m just seeking to grow and improve myself). She gives in and eats the fruit, giving some to Adam as well. Sin has entered the human race. Based on this account, Waltke offer this definition of sin: “Sin is the perversion at the core of our being that causes us to disobey. Sin is the desire, the imagination, ‘to be like God’- the refusal to be human, to be creature – that causes us to disobey. Correlatively, sin is an inward, spiritual breach of trust in God’s character and his word that results in active disobedience.” (Waltke, 263)

Something does happen to them, just as the serpent said, but it’s not what they were expecting. “Their eyes were opened” and they realize they’re naked and they’re ashamed of it. There is a breach in the communion they shared with other, attempting to cover themselves and hide their shame. There is also a breach in the communion they shared with God, as they themselves from Him. When God confronts them about their disobedience they both pass the buck and refuse responsibility. Adam blames Eve, and ultimately blames God Himself for making her, and Eve blames the serpent. This simple narrative provides us with a profound description of human sin and our behavior, from the stages of temptation, to the guilt and desire to hide, and our tendency to pass the blame for our actions on to someone else.

God’s judgment

Something has already gone horribly wrong. The fellowship between God and humanity has been broken. The covenant in Paradise has been broken, and the blessings forfeited. God pronounces judgment as he had promised.

  • First, God pronounces a curse on the serpent: God speaks not only to the animal, but to the true tempter behind the animal (Revelation 12:9 tells us that the serpent was Satan himself). In the curse against the serpent, there is a glimmer of hope – Adam and Eve have made their allegiance with rebellion, disobeyed God, and then passed the blame rather than repenting. However, God promises that He will put hostility between the woman and the serpent, and between their respective seeds, with the anticipation of the serpent’s defeat. This promise of the seed provides the seed for the story of redemption which is the overarching theme of the Bible’s narrative.
  • Next, God addresses the woman: she will face pain in childbearing and conflict with her husband. Eve will have an inordinate desire to control her husband, and he will “rule” over here (as opposed to leading, guarding, and caring for her). This conflict destroys the bond of peace and fulfillment that was once present.
  • Finally, God addresses the man: The ground is cursed, and work will be difficult. The whole creation suffers because of this sin and the world as it was becomes the world as it now is (cf. Romans 8:20-22). The futility of life, describes so poignantly in Ecclesiastes 1-3, is a direct result of humanity’s fall into sin. In Reason for God, Tim Keller writes, “We are told that as soon as we determined to serve ourselves instead of God - as soon as we abandoned living for and enjoying God as our highest good – the entire created world became broken…Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, againg, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence. We have lost God’s shalom – physically, spiritually, socially, psychologically, and culturally.” (170)

God’s final act of judgment in the account of the fall is also an act of mercy. Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, so that they might not eat from the tree of life and live forever. God cleanses the garden of sin, and at the same time prevents Adam and Eve, in their fallen, corrupted, and sinful state to eat from the tree and remain forever in that state. He has better things in store for them beyond death.

Bruce Waltke provides some additional theological reflection on this text:

“God plants an idyllic garden as the setting for humanity on probation. The failure of Adam and Eve in this paradise has profound theological significance. Since Adam is the only human being who could have resisted the Serpent’s temptation, his failure implies that humanity that is not spiritually empowered by God does not match the Serpent’s power and so keep covenant with God. In contrast to much sociological thinking that holds that the way to improve humans is to better their environment, this text shows that humanity at its best, when tested, rebels even in the perfect environment.
“This theological understanding is found at the outset of Genesis. Each of the subsequent covenants – Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic – must be read with this presupposition: unassisted human faithfulness is an impossibility; any aspect of the covenant that is contingent upon human will alone is doomed for failure. The argument is simple: If Adam falls in the perfect setting of garden paradise without inherited guilt and a depraved nature, how can stiff-hearted Israel keep the Lord’s teachings in Canaan, a land known for its debauchery (cf. Deut 31:26; 32:1-43; Josh 24:19,17). And how can Judean kings in their own spiritual strength satisfy the conditional aspects of the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:14)? Indeed, the failure of these later covenants is preordained by the failure of Adam and Eve in the garden. This failure, right at the start, implicitly anticipates a different sort of covenant relationship, one that does not depend on human faithfulness, but entirely on the grace of God through the second Adam.” (256)

October 23, 2009

Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”

This insightful article by David Powlison discusses how the biblical concept of idolatry is relevant when counseling others, as well as for addressing our own problems. I highly recommend reading it. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion:

People are idolmakers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers. We wander through a busy town filled with other idol-makers, idolbuyers, and idol-sellers. We variously buy and sell, woo, agree, intimidate, manipulate, borrow, impose, attack, or flee. But there is a bigger Gospel. At the gates of Vanity Fair, Christian met a man who entreated him and his companion:

Let the Kingdom be always before you; and believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible. Let nothing that is on this side of the other world get within you; and, above all, look well to your own hearts, and to the lusts thereof, for they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Set your faces like a flint; you have all power in heaven and earth on your side.

Christian passed through Vanity Fair bloodied but purer in heart. He remembered, amid hard combat with world, flesh, and Devil, the Celestial City which was his destination, and the Lord Jesus who beckoned him to life. The biblical Gospel delivers from both personal sin and situational tyrannies. The biblical notion of inner idolatries allows people to see their need for Christ as a merciful savior from large sins of both heart and behavior. The notion of socio-cultural-familial-ethnic idolatries allows people to see Christ as a powerful deliverer from false masters and false value systems which we tend to absorb automatically. Christ-ian counseling is counseling which exposes our motives—our hearts and our world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel is the only possible answer.

You can read the whole thing online here.

HT: Justin Taylor

September 13, 2009

Applying the Bible – Part 2: How to apply the Bible

There are many factors involved in applying the message of the Bible to your own life and community. It’s not possible to treat all of the nuances of application in such a short space, but a broad outline and a few examples should create a framework which will allow you to pursue your own study and begin applying the Bible to your life. With time, you’ll begin to see that the richness of biblical application extends well beyond what is presented below.

Applying a Bible passage in 3 steps
1. Determine what the passage means in its context – As stated in Part 1, this is crucial for proper application. Study the passage, consult any necessary resources, and seek to understand what the passage meant to its original audience and how it applied to them. Attempt to place yourself within the historical and cultural situation. How would I have received this message? What would I have thought or done? If I were conversing with the author, what would I have asked, or how would I have answered? This understanding serves as a necessary control on interpretation to keep us from reading our own ideas into a text, and to keep us from applying a passage in ways that are not consistent with the inspired author’s message.

2. Extract the continuing truth from the passage – What is the theological truth or underlying principle that drives the original application? What does this passage tell us about God? What does it tell us about humans? These truths may be right on the surface of the text, or they may be a little deeper, underneath a culturally specific command or a narrative account.

3. Apply that truth to contemporary reality – Your application may be general or specific or both. Look for situations today that parallel those of the original audience. Does this truth have any relevance to my life? Is there anything in my life and thought that is contrary to this truth? What changes would bring my life into conformity with this truth? Start a discussion with friends and family. They might see a relevant application that you haven’t thought. Prayer and humility are especially important in this area, as we are vulnerable to being found in error or sin, as well as being required to do something uncomfortable. Our natural inclination will be to subconsciously (or consciously) refuse to acknowledge those things. Ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten and convict you to see and obey what you’ve learned.

Example 1: Old Testament Law
If you build a new house, you must construct a guard rail around your roof to avoid being culpable in the event someone should fall from it. Deut 22:8 (NET)

Original Meaning – During this period, the roof was flat and regularly used as a living space, whether for socializing or as sleeping quarters (see 1 Sam 9:25; 2 Sam 11:2). The requirement for a guard rail (or “parapet”) served to protect people on the roof from falling and being injured or killed.

Continuing Truth – Clearly, the intent of this law is to be concerned for your neighbor’s well-being. This can be considered an extension of the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mk. 12:31; Gal 5:14). This command serves to curb our natural inclination to dismiss our part in another person’s well-being under the guise that they need to take responsibility for themselves (“am I my brother’s keeper?”). Specifically, this speaks of taking care to create a safe environment under your domain of responsibility to prevent an accident, even if it is a result of negligence on the part of the other person (such as falling off the side of a house).

Contemporary Application – While most homes don’t use the roof as a living space, any potentially unsafe condition in a home could be considered a parallel situation (stairs without banisters, exposed wiring, dead batteries in a smoke alarm, etc) and care should be taken to avoid them.

Example 2: Teaching of Jesus
He also said to them, “You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to set up your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you would have received from me is corban’ (that is, a gift for God), then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this.” Mark 7:2 (NET)

Note: This passage provides an example of one of the additional factors involved in biblical application. When asking how the message would be received by the original audience it is possible to consider the passage above from the perspective of two audiences. The first would be the Pharisees as the original recipients of Jesus’ words, and the second would be the early Christians as the original recipients of the gospel of Mark. This might or might not have any effect on your interpretation/application, but it should be taken into consideration either way. This example will focus on the Pharisees as the recipients of Jesus’ words.

Original Meaning – The Pharisees noticed that the disciples do not perform ritual washings before eating their meals and inquire of Jesus why his disciples do not follow the traditions of the elders. These washings were not part of the OT law, but had developed into a religious custom over time. It’s possible that the tradition grew out of an application of the priestly washings (see Lev. 7:19-21; 22:3-9) to all of life, perhaps using the concept that all of Israel is a Kingdom of Priests (see Ex 19:6). Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being hypocrites, honoring God with religious customs while setting aside His commandments in the process. The specific example given is that of “Corban.” The Jews has a custom whereby one could make a financial pledge to the temple and would be absolved of obligations that they might have had with the money (such as caring for one’s parents). As a result, this religious tradition had taken precedence over God’s command to honor father and mother.

Continuing Truth – Religious practices, however pious and honorable they might be, can become a hindrance to true worship and obedience of God. It is possible to have an external appearance of devotion and holiness, while our hearts are far removed from a love for God and a desire to obey Him. This hypocrisy may not even be evident to us. The Pharisees truly believed they were being devoted and obedient, but Jesus points out that this is not really the case as they had managed to disregard a clear command of God in observance of religion. This is a continuing theme throughout the Bible (See 1 Sam 15:20-23; Prov 21:3; Isa 1:11-17; Mic 6:6-8; Matt 23:23, etc). God desires our hearts, and he desires for us to obey Him.

Contemporary Application – The danger of falling into the hypocrisy of the Pharisees is just as real today as it was then, particularly in the area of Christian ministry. Do we have an equivalent to Corban? Consider the stories that abound of missionaries and pastors who have dedicated their lives to work of ministry, but who have neglected their families in the process. If I offer my life on the altar of Christian service, does that absolve me from the biblical command to provide for my family (both physically and spiritually)? If I give 10% of my income to the local church, am I then free from any other responsibility to provide for the poor and needy? If I attend a church service and a weekly Bible study, I am living out the biblical mandate for Christians to be a community marked by love and care for one another? Do any of our religious practices, however pious and devotional they may be, leave us setting aside a clear command of God, either explicitly or in practice?

September 10, 2009

Applying the Bible – Part 1: What is application?

While the Bible has immense value as a piece of literature, and can give great insight into certain aspects of ancient history and culture, this is not the reason most Christians read it. Ultimately, most Christians read the Bible because we believe that it is God’s word, not only to a people in a time and culture far removed from our own, but that it is God’s word to us in our time and in our culture. We believe that through the Bible we may come to a true knowledge of God and of ourselves, and may come to discern His will, including what He would have us believe and how He would have us live.

The process by which we go from understanding the Bible in its literary and historical context to bringing the message of the Bible to bear on our contemporary situation is called application. It should the next to last step in Bible study, following the proper study of a text to determine its meaning, and it should result in the conforming of your life and thought to the word of God. After all, why would we go through the process of understanding and applying the Bible if we’re not going to obey it (see Matt 7:24-27, 1 John 2:3, etc)?

Before discussing how to apply the Bible, it will be helpful to understand what to expect from application, and some barriers that often hinder proper application.

What to Expect

1. How should I live? (or “Practical” Application) – Much of the Bible deals with the questions of what God expects from His people. Whether the command is to “make a parapet around your roof” (Deut. 22:8) or to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (Eph. 4:32), there is an expectation that living in obedience to God will involve conformity to His standards. For the original hearers, this would mean that not making a parapet or not forgiving each other would be an act of disobedience to God. When we seek to apply the passage today, our desire is for the same obedience to God, though proper application may result in quite different actions for us then it did for them (see Part 2 for examples). Beyond specific commands, application can give us the wisdom needed to make decisions in life.

2. How should I think? (or Theology/Worldview Formation) – Oftentimes, properly applying a passage will have a more direct result on the way you think and believe, rather than what you do (although your thoughts and beliefs will inevitably impact your actions). This is an underappreciated aspect of biblical application, but is quite important. While the Bible speaks directly to many areas of life, there are also many areas which the Bible does not directly address. Does this mean that the Bible has no relevance or that we cannot know the will of God in these areas? That’s not the case at all. By allowing the Bible to shape our view of life and reality, our values and actions will be less conformed to our surrounding culture, an instead transformed into that which is consistent with the revealed will of God. This type of application goes beyond a superficial application of a specific verse to complex social, economic, political, and scientific issues. Instead it allows you to use your renewed and biblically-informed mind to think through these issues in a faithful manner. Understanding what the Bible teaches about God, humanity, creation, fall, redemption, restoration, judgment, good, evil, suffering, etc., will form the lens with which you view reality and will help you see clearly as you think through the issues we face today. There are two topics under this category that deserve special attention:

a. Who is God? – Answering this question should be your primary goal when studying the Bible. Not just knowing who God is in name, but knowing Him. Knowing His character, His story, His works, His likes and His dislikes. As your knowledge of Him increases, so also will your love and fear of Him. This knowledge of God is the foundation of a biblical view of life. After all, this is eternal life (John 17:3) and the source of all true wisdom for living (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). The application of every passage of the Bible should begin with the question, “What does this tell me about God?”

b. Who am I? – Along with a proper understanding of God, the Bible will shed light on who we are (both individually and collectively). Throughout the Bible, we gain insight into the glory of a humanity which was created in the image of God, and the marring of that image through human sin. We come to understand ourselves in relation to God, and see the depths of our own sin exposed by the light of Scripture. Finally, in Jesus Christ, we see the true image of God, unmarred by sin, and the promise that by His grace we also will be restored to the true image God in Christ. So the second question to ask when applying every passage should be, “What does this tell me about sinful humanity?”

Barriers to Proper Application

1. Failure to pray – We must seek out God in prayer every time we engage His word. Our sin and prejudice leaves us prone to error, misunderstanding, and willful ignorance regarding what the Bible would teach us. Our prayer to God is that by His Spirit these barriers would be overcome and that we would be enlightened to see and acknowledge the truth, even when it is convicting or inconvenient.

2. Failure to study the context (both Historical and Literary) – It can sometimes be very tempting to jump from reading a passage to applying it, without taking the context into consideration. This is particularly true for certain parts of the New Testament. It may be true that certain passages will have a direct application for 21st-century Christians, but unless you study the context first, you can’t be sure that you’re not reading your own presuppositions back into the text.

3. Failure to acknowledge your presuppositions – No one reads the Bible in a vacuum. We all bring to the text a lifetime of experiences, beliefs, and assumptions. Additionally, each of our perspectives has been shaped by the various traditions with which we’ve been associated (whether Catholic, or Baptist, or Pentecostal, or Lutheran, or non-denominational, or Atheist, or Buddhist, etc). This is an unavoidable reality, and it’s impossible for anyone to come to a text from a completely neutral perspective. This is true not only for the Bible, but for all communication. The good news is that we are able to communicate and impart information to one another, and we can expect the same to be true with the Bible. The important thing is to recognize what those presuppositions are and to be willing to challenge them as we read, understand, and apply the Bible.

August 24, 2009

Understanding the Historical Context of Scripture

One of the key components in properly understanding a verse, section, or book of the Bible is to understand the historical context in which it was written. The Bible is God’s Word for all people and for all time, but much of the Bible is occasional in nature. That is, it was written at a particular point in history, by a particular inspired author, addressing a particular audience which faced a particular situation. With this in mind, proper interpretation involves finding out what the text says, understanding how it applied to the original audience and situation, determining the underlying principles which guided that application, and then applying those principles to parallel situations today. The historical context is the means by which we can gain clearer understanding of how the text would have been understood by the original audience.

What should we look for when trying to understand the historical context? Three types of contextual information are fundamental and will go a long way in bringing the original context to light.

1. Old Testament Background – The New Testament makes extensive quotations and allusions to the Old Testament, and in many passages it is assumed that the audience understands the Old Testament context. For example, the NT concept that Jesus is the Lamb of God is properly understood only in the context of the OT sacrificial system (in particular, the Passover of Exodus). This is not only true for the NT, but also much of the OT. The historical books, wisdom literature, and prophets all make reference to or assume understanding of the Pentateuch. When examining a passage, look for quotations and allusions to the OT, or for concepts that might be explained elsewhere in the Bible. When you see a quotation, it’s a good idea to read it in its original OT context because many times the author will assume understanding of the whole context though only quoting a small portion. A Bible with a good cross-reference system can be very helpful for identifying quotations and allusions. See the recommend resources below for additional useful tools.

2. Specific Historical Situation – Understanding the occasion or the specific historical situation in which the book was written will help to guide your interpretation. Often times it will not be possible to know the full situation with certainty, but a partial understanding and knowledge of the range of possibilities can go a long way. For example, understanding that 1 and 2 Chronicles was written after the Jews began to return from exile and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem will help you to understand why the author focuses on certain themes over others. Understanding that 1 Corinthians was written to address specific problems with the church in Corinth will help you to follow Paul’s flow of thought as he touches on the various issues and will help prevent some possible misunderstandings or misinterpretations. The best sources for information on the specific historical situation would be clues from the book itself and introductions to books such as can be found in Bible dictionaries or at the start of a book in many study Bibles. See the recommend resources below for additional useful tools.

3. General Background (e.g. Cultural, Political, Religious, Economic, and Geographic) - Understanding the general background and cultural aspects of life during the time in which the book was written will help clarify the meaning behind concepts that may be foreign to our culture or provide other insight that may be missed due to cultural distance. Additionally, it may help us more appropriately apply a passage that has a cultural aspect to it. For example, if we attempt to directly apply Paul’s command to “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” this could result in some awkward social engagements in certain cultures. However, when we understand that the kisses were a common way to give someone a warm, affectionate greeting, then we can take the principle and apply it all cultures (Christians should greet one another with an affectionate greeting). Bible dictionaries and commentaries are often helpful sources of background information. See the recommend resources below for some useful tools.

Example:
One of the earliest Christian creeds was the phrase “Jesus is Lord.” When a 21st century Christian reads those words today, the most common way that this is understood is in the sense of “Jesus is the boss” or “Jesus is in charge.” While this concept is certainly present in the phrase, an understanding of the historical context can provide additional insight into how significant this phrase was in the early church (and is for us today).

· Old Testament Context – The most common form of Scripture available to the Greek-speaking world was the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint (often abbrev. LXX). This is significant when we learn that the LXX translates the Divine name ‘Yahweh’ as ‘Lord’ (the Greek word kyrios) and that this is the same Greek word used in the statement “Jesus is Lord”. For a Greek-speaking Jew who was well-versed in the OT, there would be an instinctive connection between “the Lord” and Israel’s God, Yahweh. This subtle connection is made explicit when we study the Old Testament context of the “Jesus is Lord” passages. Compare the following NT passages and their corresponding OT quotations/allusions (Note: Most English translations translate Yahweh as LORD in all caps):

  • Romans 10:9-13 with Joel 2:32
  • Philippians 2:10-11 with Isaiah 45:23-25
  • 1 Peter 3:14-15 with Isaiah 8:12-13

(For further examples – Jn. 12:40-41/Isa. 6:1-10; Heb.1:10-12/Psa. 102:25-27; 1 Cor. 2:8/Psa. 24)

· Political Context – In Roman society, it would not be uncommon for people to profess their allegiance to Caesar using the phrase “Caesar is Lord.” By this they would be declaring that Caesar is the supreme ruler and king over all. In fact, as the emperor cult grew in prominence towards the end of the 1st century and into the 2nd century, refusing to confess “Caesar is Lord” and offer incense to his image would be punishable by death. For Christians in this environment, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” rather than Caesar was no glib concession to Christ, but was a profession of allegiance on which they would often have to stake their lives.

Within the historical context above, the simple statement “Jesus is Lord” carries a lot of weight and could be understood in the sense of:”In the person of Jesus, Yahweh has visited His people and has taken His rightful place upon the throne as King over all creation, and to Him belongs all glory, all honor, and all praise.”

Recommended Resources for Historical Context:
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
New Bible Dictionary
Dictionary of New Testament Background
Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

August 21, 2009

Choosing a Bible Translation

Why are there so many different Bible versions? What’s the difference between them? How do I know which one to choose? If you’ve ever stood in the Bible section of a bookstore, I’m sure these questions have come to mind. While choosing a Bible is ultimately a matter of personal preference, a little information about the different versions available can go a long way in helping you to make an informed decision.

The goal of every English Bible is to accurately convey the meaning of the original languages (Hebrew for the OT, Greek for the NT) into English. Unfortunately, since no two languages share all of the same characteristics, a translation is never exact. There is a continuous need for revision because of gradual changes in the English language, advancements in Greek and Hebrew language studies, new manuscript evidence, and a desire to improve upon the accuracy of an existing translation. Add to this competing translation philosophies and sufficient funds and ‘Voila,’ we have a plethora of English translations at our disposal.

So what’s the difference between them? Are they all essentially the same? One of the best ways to understand how two translations differ is to know the principles that guided the way each was translated. There are three broad styles of translation will help us distinguish the various translations (though 3 categories are presented below, the reality is much more like a sliding scale than neatly fitting categories).

1. Formal (or Direct) Equivalence This style seeks a literal reproduction of the original text, including sentence structure and word order. This usually involves an attempt to translate each word in the original language with an equivalent word in English whenever possible. Sometimes called “word for word.”
Example translations: KJV (1769), NRSV (1989), NASB (1995), ESV (2001)
Pro: By maintaining the structure of the original, logical connections and subordinate clauses will often come through clearer than in a dynamic translation where the tendency is to shorten sentences for smoother reading. In the example below, we see that v7 is a dependent clause to v6, suggesting that the manner in which we humble ourselves is by casting our anxieties on Him.
1 Peter 5:6-7 (ESV) - Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:6-7 (NLT) - So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.
Con: By seeking a “word for word” rendering, certain phrases may not be easily understood by the English reader.
Matthew 3:15 (ESV) - But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
Matthew 3:15 (NLT) - But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.

2. Dynamic (or Functional) Equivalence – This style attempts to translate the meaning of the text as it would have been understood by the original readers in a way that results in the same understanding for the readers of the translation. Sometimes called “though for thought.”
Example translations: NIV (1978), HCSB (2004), NLT (2004), TNIV (2005)
Pro: By seeking an equivalent phrase in English to convey the message of the original, it often reads more smoothly than a formal translation, thereby aiding comprehension.
Ephesians 4:20-24 (NASB) - But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit
Ephesians 4:20-24 (NLT) - But that isn’t what you learned about Christ. Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception.
Con: In a dynamic translation, the translator is often required to make interpretive decisions that may or may not be the correct one. This decision would be left up to the reader in a formal translation.
1 Corinthians 5:5 (ESV) - you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 5:5 (NLT) - Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.

3. Free Translation (or Paraphrase) – When translating from the original languages, this style could be considered a stronger form of dynamic equivalence, with an emphasis on conveying the ideas of the original with less concern for the words and the form used. Some versions in this category are not translations from the original, but a paraphrase of an existing English translation.
Example translations: TEV (1976), TLB (1971), NCV (1991), The Message (2002)
Pro: Since the paraphrase is not as tied to the words and form of the original as the other translations, they are capable of producing much more vivid pictures for the reader.
Psalm 73:11-14 (ESV) - And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.
Psalm 73:11-14 (The Message) - What's going on here? Is God out to lunch? Nobody's tending the store. The wicked get by with everything; they have it made, piling up riches. I've been stupid to play by the rules; what has it gotten me? A long run of bad luck, that's what— a slap in the face every time I walk out the door.
Con: Interpretive decisions must be made similar to the dynamic equivalent translations, though more frequent in number (see dynamic example above).

So which do you choose: formal, dynamic, or paraphrase? The best answer is, “Yes!” There are benefits to each type, and it’s a good idea to consult multiple translations during your study of a passage. Oftentimes, the differences between them will give you insight into the different ways a specific verse could be (and probably has been) interpreted.

This discussion has not touched on every area in which translations can differ, but you should be more equipped to wade through the many options the next time you purchase a new Bible. The good news in all this is that most newer translations (such as the TNIV, NLT, ESV, and HCSB) have attempted to incorporate the best features of both the dynamic and formal methods, attempting to achieve optimum accuracy and readability even if they lean more towards one end of the spectrum. Ultimately, the best translation will be the one that you will actually read. Find a translation that you are comfortable with and use it as your primary Bible, then have an alternate translation available to consult during deeper study of a passage.

August 15, 2009

Recommended Resources

I was asked to compile a list of sermons and other resources that I have found to be beneficial. Below is a list of speakers, books, and classes that have had a big influence on my spiritual development. I generally don’t spend time listening to sermons when I could and should be doing other things, but I have found it extremely rewarding to hear God’s word preached and taught during times that I would otherwise be listening to the radio or doing nothing (for example, the two most frequent times that I listen are on my commute to/from work and while working out on the treadmill). However, I do make an effort to read when I can, even if that means sacrificing time normally spent watching television, playing video games, or golfing (not to imply that those things are inherently bad – we just all have limited free time and must choose how to spend it). That decision has had a huge impact on my spiritual development.

It should go without saying that I do not endorse everything that you will find in the links below and that there is no substitute for your own prayer-filled Bible study and wrestling with the scripture to know and believe things for yourself. It is frightfully easy to think someone else’s thoughts without ever having to think for yourself. What you should expect from proper use of these resources is to have your soul fed by the preaching of the Word, your mind stimulated by profound and sometimes controversial discussion, and your heart moved by the Holy Spirit to greater devotion to Christ.

Sermons and Conference Messages
Desiring God – Tons of Christ-centered sermons, seminars, and conference messages. Plus almost every book that John Piper has written is available in pdf form for free.
Cornerstone Church, Simi Valley, CA – Francis Chan has become one of my favorite preachers, and you can find his sermons here along with other solid preaching from Cornerstone.
Village Church, Highland Village, TX – Dynamic and convicting sermons by Matt Chandler, etc.
HeartCry Missionary Society (links on the left side) – Sermons, conferences, and seminars from the preacher of HeartCry. Expect to be stirred.
Additional Paul Washer – In addition to the links at HeartCry, this site has many other messages by Paul Washer.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones – Perhaps one of the most influential preachers of the 20th Century, God is still using the late Dr. Lloyd-Jones to turn hearts to Himself.
Truth for Life – Solid, biblical preaching from Alistair Begg.
Grace To You – John MacArthur just recently made the past 30 years of his sermons available for free online.
Mars Hill Church, Seattle, WA – Mark Driscoll is somewhat controversial and has a tendency to cross the line sometimes in his sermons, but he does not shy away from preaching hard truth.
Terry Virgo – Excellent Spirit-filled preaching from the UK
Tim Keller – Several conference messages and sermons, with a lot of good stuff about doing ministry in the cities.
David Wells – Engaging the postmodern world with a Christian worldview. This guy should make you think.
Bryan Chapell – Sermons from the president of Covenant Theological Seminary
Don Carson – D.A. Carson is always stimulating to read or listen to and he will teach you a lot about the message of the Bible.

Online Classes for Biblical and Theological Studies
Biblical Training (free registration required) – This is a great site with tons of classes from the very new believer’s level to seminary level classes. You will find teachers from a broad range of Evangelical traditions.
Worldwide Classroom (free registration required) – These are class lectures from Covenant Theology Seminary, including the course syllabi and handouts. Quite a variety of classes offered.
Reformed Theological Seminary (iTunes Podcast) – Podcasts of courses from RTS.

Books
I do quite a bit of reading and make ready use of the library in order to avoid spending all of my money on books. The below suggestions are books that I feel are either good enough to warrant buying so that you can mark it all up or simply worth having around for reference or another reading.
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) – There have been several excellent English translations of the Bible in recent years (some of the most recent being the ESV, TNIV, and the HCSB). Having read significant amounts from all of these, I am comfortable with saying that if your primary reading Bible is an NIV, NKJV, KJV, NASB, or anything else earlier than the 1990, then getting one of these Bible translations could rejuvenate your Bible reading, giving you a fresh look at a passage that you may have simply read over 100’s of times before. Of the choices above, my opinion is that the HCSB is the best all-round translation, especially for a primary reading Bible. It’s very readable and accurate to the original languages. It is also a new translation rather than an update of an earlier one, so while some of the readings are less familiar, they have a freshness to them.

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem – This is a very accessible introduction to Biblical Doctrine that still manages to be fairly thorough. It is especially useful for those who are new to theology as well as those looking for a broad view of reformed evangelical doctrine. Each chapter cross-references relevant sections in Systematic Theologies from a number of traditions, which allows you to pursue more perspectives on a particular topic.
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan – Written in 1678, this parable of the Christian life is probably the most widely circulated English book in history next to the Bible. It is just as relevant now as it was 300 years ago. If you haven’t ever read it, read it. If you have, it’s worth reading again periodically. If the older language is a stumbling block for you, you have also the Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English.
The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther – This Reformation classic from its most prominent figure will give you a glimpse into Luther’s wit, an introduction to some of the controversies of the Reformation, and an appreciation for the sovereignty of God.
The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader – This will give you an taste of Jonathan Edwards’ phenomenal presentation of the Gospel of Christ. Follow this up with The Religious Affections, which is not the easiest read, but is an important and relevant book by one of the greatest minds in American history.
Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen – This is an excellent book from a great puritan scholar on fighting against sin with the power of the Gospel. It is a difficult book to read, but if you have the patience, it’s well worth the time invested.
Confessions by Augustine of Hippo - This classic is stirring to read and will make you think.
Knowing God by J.I. Packer – Mind and heart meet in this classic.
Desiring God by John Piper – Ditto.

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan and Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper – These two books may change your life.
Grasping God's Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall – This book will give you solid guidance on reading, understanding, interpreting and applying the Bible to your life. The Bible is not just a collection of verses to be pulled out and used as needed, but is a God-breathed book with a specific and coherent message.
Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin – This is an amazing work of theology and a classic of western literature. Contrary to what is commonly thought, this is no dry academic work, but is devotional and pastoral through and through. You probably won’t agree with everything that’s written in here, but if you’re a protestant Christian (or even if your not), it’s worth working through just to see how pervasive an influence this work has had on your own beliefs and traditions. Be sure to get the McNeill-Battles translation.


There are so many more books that could go on this list, but the above is a good start…

June 19, 2009

The Church: Living Together When Christ is All in All

I commend to you this series of sermons by John Piper on the body of Christ. Listening to them the past two weeks has really served to underscore for me the significance of the community of believers in God's plan, and how that plays out in the lives of individual Christians and in the Church as a whole. Check them out here:


The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God

Have you ever wondered how to reconcile the love of God with the depictions of His wrath in the Bible, or how God's love relates to His sovereignty, or just what it means to say that "God is love?" D.A. Carson has a short (90 pages) book called The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God that attempts to address these questions. It's a pretty easy read and worth the time.

May 26, 2009

Death is Not Dying - A Faith That Saves

If you haven't already heard this, then take an hour out of your day and watch the video below, or download the audio and listen on your mp3 player as you go. It is worth your time, and you won't regret listening. Rachel Barkey is dying, but she speaks words of life.



(HT: James White / DG)

May 21, 2009

The New Birth

John Piper recently gave a conference message on what it means to be "born again." I often feel that this is one of the most important, yet least discussed/understood doctrines in Christianity today. This message should give you a good idea of what it's all about:



May 17, 2009

Hope against Hope – Part 3 – When Hope Seems to Fail

The Response of Job – Worship and Honest Supplication

Job was an extremely wealthy man - one who feared God and turned away from evil. He had ten children and was clearly blessed beyond measure. However, within the course of a day, Job receives news that all of his oxen and donkeys have been stolen and his servants murdered, all of his sheep and their shepherds have been consumed by a fire from the sky, and all of his children have been killed in a tornado.

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:20-21

What is Job’s response? He is devastated and distraught. He mourns as any human being would in the face of such tragedy. It’s important to note this part, lest you read the following sentence as some kind of platitude denying the reality of the situation. As if he had said, “Oh well, praise God anyway.” Job is worshipping in the midst of his intense mourning, acknowledging the God who created him, who blessed him with all that he has ever had, and who has now, in his sovereign will, taken those blessings away.

It does not end here…

Job is struck with a horrible skin disease from his head to his toe (Job 2:7-8; Job 7:5). He finds himself sitting in ashes scraping off dead skin with a broken piece of pottery. He has reached rock bottom at this point.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” Job 2:9-10

Job’s wife has seen enough and she tells him to curse God and die, yet Job refuses. There are roots that go much deeper than Job’s possessions, family, and even his own health. God is not a compartment of Job’s life, but is the very foundation of it. Though he doesn’t know what God is doing, he refuses to lose faith and he knows that there is no one else to turn to in this situation but God himself. You can hear the echoes of Psalm 73:25-26 and Psalm 63:3 throughout the book.

It’s worth noting here that the book reveals more to us about what was going on than Job himself knew at the time. We see the scene in heaven, where Satan comes before God and challenges the Job’s faith. Satan says that Job only fears God because he has been blessed with so much, and later that he only fears God because he has his health. God permits Satan to take away everything Job has, and then later to take his health, only requiring that his life be spared. So the actual agent in Job’s calamity was Satan. However, both times Job credits God with what has happened. Was Job wrong? Did he falsely accuse God for his circumstances when it was actually Satan who harmed him? Job 1:22 and Job 2:10 seem to indicate that this was not the case. Instead, Job knows that God is sovereign, and though there may be other agents involved, nothing comes to pass without his consent. Therefore, he goes to the source, the only one whose will must be done, and acknowledges that God is ultimately the source of everything that he receives, both good and bad.

Though he slay me, I will hope in him;
yet I will argue my ways to his face.
Job 13:15

So in the midst of this suffering, Job worships God and demonstrates that God is more precious to him than everything that he has lost. His hope is in God himself, and not simply in the gifts that God gives. However, the book of Job is not advocating an attitude of stoicism here. Facing immense pain and suffering, Job takes his case to God, to plead with him. The next 35 chapters consist of the back and forth between Job and his friends, and Job’s appeals to God.

Eliphaz: God does not punish the innocent, so clearly you are being disciplined. Hold in there and he will restore you.
Job: I have no strength to wait and I wish that God would just finish me off. Show me where I have done wrong!
Bildad: God is not unjust. Your children sinned and were delivered up. Plead to God for mercy and he will restore you.
Job: I know that God is all-wise and no one can contend with him and say, “What are you doing?” I am blameless, yet I suffer like this. I see that the blameless and the wicked are both destroyed in calamity. God, why am I suffering like this though I am innocent?
Zophar: You cannot speak that way about God. Remove iniquity and injustice from you and he will restore you.
Job: I know all these things. I know that God is all-wise and powerful, yet that is not helping me. Why do you guys stick up for God and show partiality? God will judge you. God, withdraw your hand from me and let me speak to you. Show me my sin.
Eliphaz: How dare you speak about God like that! The wicked suffer because of their wickedness.
Job: You all are miserable comforters. I am ready to die.
Bildad: God punishes the wicked and they are brought low.
Job: Your words are torture. All my friends have forsaken me and I am despised of men. I know that my Vindicator lives and that he will vindicate me. Though I am going to die, I will see God.
Zophar: Don’t you know that the wicked will suffer greatly in the earth?
Job: Look at me, and what do you see?! Yet look at the world. The wicked become great kings and prosper, though they say, “We have no need of God.” I see the wicked succeed at every turn. Clearly, your words are of no comfort.
Eliphaz: Clearly you are full of sin! You’ve stolen from your brothers. You’ve refused water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. You’ve despised widows and orphans. Repent and return to God.
Job: I want to speak with God and plead my case before him. Where is he? Where is his justice?
Bildad: No man can be in the right before God!
Job: God is all powerful and who can understand his ways. I refuse to accept all of your accusations against me. Until I day, I will confess my innocence in this matter. Where is wisdom to be found but in God? The fear of the LORD is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding.
Zophar: Silence
Job: I wish that things were like they used to be, when everything was pleasant, and I acted righteously to those who were suffering. But now I am scorned and abhorred and my afflictions have overwhelmed me. If I have been sinful, then let my judgment come upon me, but I insist that this is not so.

At this point, a new speaker emerges. Elihu, who has been listening up to this point, can no longer remain silent. When considering his words, take two things into account: 1. Unlike his other friends, Job does not counter Elihu and seek to defend himself. 2. When God declares Job’s friends in the wrong, he does not include Elihu in his judgment.

“Man is also rebuked with pain on his bed
and with continual strife in his bones,
so that his life loathes bread,
and his appetite the choicest food.
His flesh is so wasted away that it cannot be seen,
and his bones that were not seen stick out.
His soul draws near the pit,
and his life to those who bring death.
If there be for him an angel,
a mediator, one of the thousand,
to declare to man what is right for him,
and he is merciful to him, and says,
‘Deliver him from going down into the pit;
I have found a ransom;
let his flesh become fresh with youth;
let him return to the days of his youthful vigor’;
then man prays to God, and he accepts him;
he sees his face with a shout of joy,
and he restores to man his righteousness.
He sings before men and says:
‘I sinned and perverted what was right,
and it was not repaid to me.
He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit,
and my life shall look upon the light.’
“Behold, God does all these things,
twice, three times, with a man,
to bring back his soul from the pit,
that he may be lighted with the light of life.
Job 33:19-30

“The godless in heart cherish anger;
they do not cry for help when he binds them.
They die in youth,
and their life ends among the cult prostitutes.
He delivers the afflicted by their affliction
and opens their ear by adversity.
He also allured you out of distress
into a broad place where there was no cramping,
and what was set on your table was full of fatness. “
Job 36:13-16

The insight that Elihu’s speech provides is that both the righteous and the wicked do indeed suffer affliction, but that God is not punishing the righteous. Instead, he is saving them by means of their affliction, bringing them into a place of blessedness. He is purifying them of sin, and bringing them into a greater knowledge of himself.

The book of Job often leaves one with more questions than answers, but it is a book worth dwelling on. God does not explain to Job why he has suffered, nor does he offer a defense to Job. Yet it appears that Job’s interpretation of his own suffering has changed, and he no longer desires vindication from God. Ironically, Job is vindicated after all and God declares that he spoke what is right, unlike Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. I’ll leave it to you to ponder the mysteries and the questions of Job, but consider:

- The righteous do suffer, and God has allowed it
- Satan is often the immediate agent of this, even acting through natural disasters, but he must be permitted by God to do so
- In worshipping through suffering, the righteous display that they treasure God above all else
- The intent of suffering for the righteous is not punitive, but salvific
- There are times when it is clear that someone’s suffering is the result of a specific sin of which they are in denial or unrepentant (e.g. David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:7-14) and the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:27-34)) and the proper response is confrontation on the part of their brothers, and repentance on the part of the one who sinned. However, other times (as in Job’s case) this is not clear, and the proper response of the comforters is to weep with those who weep, and comfort them in the knowledge that God is sovereign and that he does not afflict his children with retribution as a judge, but with the hands of a loving Father he brings them up in righteousness and is conforming them to the image of his Son. The proper response of the one suffering is to seek after God with a humble honesty, laying their hearts bare before God, prepared with the knowledge that they may not receive an explanation, but may instead have an encounter with the living God.

Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
1 Peter 4:19

Hope against Hope – Part 2 – What if it doesn’t happen?

We know that God is faithful and that we can stand in hope against the wave of faithlessness and slander which cries out, “Your God is not trustworthy!” But what do you do if something unexpected happens? When the deliverance hasn’t come as you anticipated? When the thing that you had hoped for did not come to pass? When it seems as if the cry of the faithless is right? How do you respond when it happens? Is it unbelief to even consider such things?

The Response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego - Obedience

Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Dan 3:12-18

Nebuchadnezzar has commanded that the people worship the golden image that he has setup. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse, preferring to obey the God of Israel rather than be spared the penalty of death in a fiery furnace. This is actually an account of a miraculous act of deliverance by the Almighty, and is well worth reading and savoring. However, for the purposes at hand, three little words in their answer to the king are critical:

But if not…

After declaring their faith that God is able to deliver them and their confidence that he will do so, they follow it by saying, “But if not…” How can this be? Did they doubt? Why even consider a scenario in which God doesn’t deliver them? Is this a point of weakness in their faith?

On the contrary, rather than being a point of weakness, this demonstrates the deep roots of their faith. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego put all their hope in God, and trust in him to deliver them from Nebuchadnezzar. However, their “but if not” demonstrates that their hope is founded upon a trust in God himself and his sovereign wisdom, not simply in the fact that God will bring about the outcome that they desire. That is, they hope in God for deliverance, but even if it does not come as they expect, they will still obey him because they know he is trustworthy, and that if he does not keep them from the fire, then he has greater plans. They could secure their own deliverance by disobeying God and obeying Nebuchadnezzar, but they trust God when he promises that the only wise path is that of obedience to him. If you continue reading Daniel 3, you will see that they were not saved from the fire, but preserved through it, encountering God in the process, and his name was glorified throughout Babylon…

May 6, 2009

Can you read 12-pages a day?

If so, you could read the entire Bible in about 90 days. Sounds crazy, but isn't that just how we read through other books? How often do you read through a good book 2-pages at a time? One of the reasons it's so easy to get off track in the typical reading plan is that it takes so long and there is no sense of continuity. By taking 3 weeks to read through Genesis, you miss many of the overarching themes and patterns that emerge when taking in the whole book at once. Additionally, if you actually make it 3/4 of the way through, you've forgotten much of what you read earlier and may miss the import of many allusions or quotations. This has been my experience, at least. 

If you want to try it out, here is a 90-day plan that's broken down by week:


Here is a post explaining some of the benefits of such a read-through and how taking on the challenge with a partner can be edifying for both of you.


Here are some additional suggestions:

1. Find a good translation that has the right balance of accuracy and readability. There are a number of excellent translations out there and I use several different ones depending on the type of studying I am doing. For this type of reading, there is no better translation (in my opinion, of course!) than the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). It's a fairly recent and poorly marketed translation, but the English is supremely readable and quite faithful to the original languages. Other good options would be the ESV or TNIV.

2. Don't get discouraged if you miss a day (or week). If you fall behind a day or two, so what? Just keep going. If you can make it up, great. If not, then it's a 95 day plan. No big deal. Just make sure you keep going.

3. Ask yourself questions as you read. What message is the author trying to get across? Why did they phrase it in this way? Why did they include this detail, or exclude that one? What does this tell me about God? What does this tell me about the humans? If you read something that doesn't make sense, is intriguing, or speaks to you in some other way, jot it down and come back to it later for further study.  

4. Pray, Pray, Pray. Before you start reading, pray for God to guide your heart and mind so that you will be receptive to His words and that you will be able to fellowship with Him. Pray as you are reading - when you're struck by God's power, His mercy, His justice, His love, His holiness, etc, just take a moment to praise Him. When you're confronted with you're own sin, take a moment to repent and thank Him. When you're finished, pray that He would implant the word in your heart so that it might take root and produce much fruit.

April 18, 2009

Trial: 8 Witnesses

Mark Driscoll, a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, is currently preaching through 1 & 2 Peter. Laura and I have been listening through the series, and it is quite good so far.

Check out the sermons here (you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes:

They've also put together a great study guide full of information and resources for small groups and families:


Paul and His Letters - Session 1

Here is my outline of notes from the 1st session of Paul and His Letters, a class I am co-teaching at our church:


April 14, 2009

Sufficiency of Scripture

From the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
Does this accord with your view of the usefulness and relevance of the Bible in regards to daily life? When you need advice on various subjects, such as parenting, marriage, success, self-esteem, relationships, church growth, philosophy, etc., does the Bible come to mind as the primary source of instruction and guidance in these matters?

The law of the LORD is perfect,
   reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
   making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
   rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
   enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
   enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true,
   and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
   even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
   and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
   in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:7-10

April 6, 2009

Who are the ministers? (Or, Why do you go to church?)

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Eph 4:11-15

A common perception in churches today is that the pastors and church staff do the work of ministry, with the "lay person" in the congregation being the recipient. While it is certainly true that the pastors, teachers, and church staff are engaging in a vital and necessary work, they are not the only (or even the main) ministers as far as the New Testament is concerned. Their job is to equip the saints (that is you, Christian), for the work of the ministry. 

Through preaching, teaching, exhortation, bible study, etc, these pastors and leaders should be seeking to prepare you to engage in the primary ministry of bringing every aspect of your life under the reign of King Jesus. By growing in the knowledge of the Jesus Christ and the truth of the gospel, you will be equipped to recognize and combat sin in every area of your own life, and to stand against injustice and immorality in the the world around you. By knowing the truth, you will be able to engage and counter false ideas that abound in the workplace, at social gatherings, and everywhere else in the world. Rather than unwittingly being lead astray, you will stand as a beacon of truth. By growing in your understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit and the fellowship of believers, your love for the children of God will grow to new heights and you will be equipped to minister with love to fellow believers, and to go out together ministering with love to unbelievers. The Church is not built up and ministered to by the pastoral staff, it is a self-building and self-ministering body, having been equipped to do so by those pastors, teachers, etc. 

So while it is the job of the pastors and teachers is to do the equipping, it is the job of the "lay person" to come to be equipped, for they too are ministers of Christ. Do not go to a church to passively receive a message that can somehow cheer you up or improve your life. Go seeking to be trained and equipped for the work of the ministry.

In his book Being the Body, Chuck Colson lists eight examples of areas in which churches should seek to equip their saints:

1. To know and defend their faith and to apply it in the world 
2. To lead exemplary lives in the marketplace 
3. To build strong marriages and families 
4. To "train up children in the way they should go" 
5. To fulfill their various vocations to the glory of God  
6. To be good stewards of financial resources 
7. To identify their own evangelistic gifts and use them effectively in the marketplace 
8. To give specialized training which enables people to reach out to those in particular types of physical and spiritual need

March 30, 2009

Hope against Hope - Part 1 - The God of hope

Hope against hope – that is the call of every Christian sojourning in this world. We have the promise of persecution and trial (2 Tim 3:12; John 16:33), and in the face of that, the promise of hope. The persecution of the world in America is not torture, imprisonment, or political exile (as some of our brothers and sisters face this very hour). It is a much more subtle, much more deadly assault. You may not be persecuted in this sense for claiming the name of Christ, but slowly we are being persuaded to lose hope in God. Is he trustworthy? Is he reliable? For today’s persecutors, the answer is “No!” The evidence is all around you. The misery of the whole world demonstrates that he is not helping (they say). At the same time, abundance and wealth lull us into a sense of satisfaction and contentment – not in God, but in the things themselves – to the point that we are tempted to rely on and put our confidence in them. “God may not be there for me at retirement, but I sure hope my investments are.”

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world— our faith. 1 John 5:4

Jesus said that He has given us his words that we may have peace, though in the world we will have tribulation. “Be of good cheer,” he says, “for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The trial of our faith is to believe and trust him in the face of a whirlwind of opposition – that we may have peace. Left to ourselves, we may be facing a pretty bleak future, but he knows this, and he has sent the Holy Spirit, our Comforter. We take comfort in knowing that by letting our requests be known to God, the peace that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phi 4:6-7). And having this peace, we rest assured that God will supply all of our needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Phi 4:19).

Are any of you anxious? Are any concerned about an uncertain future in a cold and scary world? Ask God for peace, and he will supply it. This is our prayer:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Rom 15:13

Rest assured that the source of your joy and peace is the power of the infinite and eternal God, and more specifically we realize this power by believing in him.

The question may be asked, “Well that’s great for my spiritual development, but how does that help me pay the bills tomorrow? How does that help me in the face of all the horrors of the world?” Jesus said:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Matt 6:25-33

We’re all familiar with these comforting words – but do you believe them? Do you realize that part of believing Jesus is believing in words like the above? If we cannot trust him when he says things like that, how can we trust him when he says things like this:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. John 5:24

We are Christians, and by the power of the Holy Spirit believe that Jesus’ words about eternal life are true. Let us pray for the power to believe that his words elsewhere are also true. Let us lean wholly on the faithfulness of God, who has shown himself to be faithful in all things, and trust in him for every situation and circumstance in life.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Luke 12:32

How valuable and precious is this kingdom? It may not be readily apparent, because it is a hidden treasure. However, in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have been given a glimpse into this treasure, and it is infinitely valuable.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. Matt 13:44-45

March 2, 2009

The Glory of God

Below is a powerful sermon series by Paul Washer on the Glory of God. The whole series is good, but by the end of #3 you may find yourself lost in worship before the throne of the risen Lord. Enjoy!