Welcome to the first week of our series on 1st Corinthians! I’ve been really excited to start this series for two reasons. First, I really enjoy teaching books of the bible, and second, because I believe that the content of this series is going to be not only extremely interesting, but also very helpful.
As we go through this book and study its context and background you are going to see a lot of echoes of the present. Some people accuse the Bible of being an old, complicated, out of touch book for super-religious people and theologians locked in monastic towers, unable to speak to the issues and trials of modern life — but that’s an impossible conclusion to come to when we take the time to read and study it. And that truth is exemplified in 1st Corinthians.
The society that the church in Corinth was living in and the issues it was facing are the same issues we face today. The world in which they lived in is eerily similar to our world today. Sometimes, as a preacher, I have to dig a little deeper to find the application for our life today – but that won’t be the case for 1st Corinthians. It’s blatantly obvious in every chapter.
But before we get into our study of the book itself, it’s really important that we get some context.
The Apostle Paul
The first think you need to know about 1st Corinthians is that it is a letter written from the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth around 55 AD, about 25 years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and 20 years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity. Here’s a quick bio on the author:
Paul, who was also known as Saul of Tarsus, was a Jewish man born in the city of Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman Province of Cilicia. He was a Jewish man, but he had Roman citizenship, which explains why he went by two names (Acts 22:3). He was born as the Hebrew Saul (SHAAL) and then later when he became a missionary to the gentiles, he dropped the Jewish name and went by his Roman name PAULUS.
Saul had the best of both worlds education-wise. His parents allowed him to be trained in the Greek education system, but at home he was also taught the importance of his Jewish heritage and the Torah. He was even taught how to work with his hands, sewing animal skins together to make tents. He describes himself in Philippians 3:5-6 as “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
At some point in Saul’s life he had embraced his Jewish heritage and found that he had a deep love for the Law of Moses, and found his way into being trained as a Pharisee – the keepers of the Law. Saul quickly rose to the top of the class and was taken for training under the very well respected teacher, Gamaliel – the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important scholars in Jewish history. He is closely associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud – the foundational commentaries on Jewish Law and History. These werethe guiding documents for the Pharisees, a group dedicated to obedience not only to the Law of Moses, but also the Oral Laws and commentaries written in the Mishnah and Talmud. The Pharisees were the most trained, most hard-core religious people in the Jewish world – and young Saul was thriving under their training, setting himself apart as a man of extremely zealous passion for keeping God’s Word.
When Jesus was being born in Bethlehem, Saul wasn’t even a glimmer in his father’s eye yet, and was about 25 years old when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus would have been teaching in Galilee while Saul was growing up and being trained by Gamaliel and the school for Pharisees in Jerusalem.
With all the confrontations that Jesus had with the Pharisees, especially during Passion Week, there is no doubt that Saul knew about Jesus’ teaching – and had learned to hate Him as much as the rest of the Pharisees did. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Saul was in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus was, possibly even in attendance with the Sanhedrin crowd that condemned Him to death.
As the Christian church started to grow after the resurrection of Jesus, Saul’s hatred of the church was growing as well. The leaders of this break-away group, called the Apostles, were following in the footsteps of their leader and stirring up all kinds of trouble, winning converts away from the Pharisees and teaching that this Galilean carpenter from Nazareth was the Son of God and Messiah, the Christ! Saul, an expert in the Law and Prophets, a Pharisee of Pharisees, hated these people who called themselves “The Way”. There was only one way, his way!
Paul the Hunter of Christians
The first introduction we get to the young man Saul comes in Acts 7 at the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. After Stephen had spoken about Jesus and accused this group of being stubborn and blind to the truth, it says in verse 54,
“Now when they [The Pharisees and the rest of the Sanhedrin] heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
The stoning of Stephen was the dam-bursting event that allowed all the pent-up hatred against Christians to finally be let loose. It was open season on the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and the man they wanted in charge of rounding them up for imprisonment, trial and death was Saul, their brightest, most popular, and most zealous member.
Saul spent about a year actively hunting, imprisoning, condemning and probably even killing Christians. He also expanded his hunt far beyond the city of Jerusalem. We read the next chapter of Saul’s story in Acts 9:1-6, and find Saul travelling hundreds of kilometers in his pursuit of the followers of Jesus:
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”
In that single moment Jesus sends Saul’s whole world crashing down around him. Jesus literally stops Saul in his tracks and confronts him with his hatred, pride and sins. Saul gets up, blinded, and spends three days without eating or drinking, trying to absorb this new reality.
Then God sends a Christian named Ananias to help him, teach him, heal his blindness, bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to baptize him into the Christin faith. Ananias calls him “Brother Saul” and gently ushers him into this new world of faith in Jesus Christ.
After that meeting Saul spent some time telling the Jews in the synagogues of Damascus what had happened to him, but wasn’t well received by anyone. He left Damascus and spent a few years in solitude, away from the Pharisees, away from Christians, away from everyone, wandering Arabia in an extended time of reflection, prayer, study, and meditation on all that had happened. He was forced to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the Christians he had been hunting, and it took a long while. He needed to humble himself before Jesus, ask forgiveness and do some learning. He was no longer the darling of Jerusalem, the biggest man on campus, but simply a new follower of Jesus Christ, the one who saved him even though he had been the greatest enemy of His followers.
Fast-forward the story a little: After his time away Saul went to Jerusalem to talk to the Apostles and tell them that Jesus had chosen him to be an apostle too. The apostles were wary at first, but willing to listen. The Jews, however, were angry that their greatest weapon had turned on them and tried to kill Saul.
The Apostles decided send him back to Tarsus to lay low for a while. He stayed in Tarsus teaching about Jesus for about 10 years before the apostles sent Barnabas came and got him so they could work together on a mission trip to spread the gospel to new places while collecting funds to help people during a time of great famine.
Saul’s time with Barnabas would set the pattern for the rest of his life. His whole world had been changed by meeting Jesus Christ and He wanted everyone in the world to know about it. His Christian life would be lived on the road as a missionary to the gentiles. Yes, he still loved the Jews, and spent time telling them about Jesus too, but his upbringing, education, training, and passions made him a perfect missionary to non-Jewish people.
His first missionary journey would take three years, from 46-49 AD. His second missionary journey would take two years, from 50-52 AD. It was on this second journey that Saul, who was now going by Paul, would visit Corinth for the first time and stay for 1 and a half years.
These missions cost Paul much. His love for Jesus, the Gospel and His church gave Paul much heartache as he watched partners desert him and the churches he planted get attacked and fall into believing lies about him and Jesus. It took a toll on his body as well as he faced beatings, imprisonment, stoning, lashes, shipwrecks, starvation, and more. But nothing would stop him from telling everyone he could about the love and forgiveness he’d found in the resurrected Jesus Christ.
It was during his third journey, as he was staying in Ephesus for two years, that he wrote his letters to the Corinthians after receiving some news about their troubles.
The City of Corinth
Ok, so that’s some backstory for the man who wrote the letter, now let’s work on a little of the backstory for the city of Corinth. I told you before that the world the church in Corinth was living in and the issues it was facing are very similar to the issues we face today; let me explain what I mean.
To live in the city of Corinth was to live in the coolest city in the world. This was the newest, trendiest, most modern, exciting and wealthiest town around. It had been destroyed a couple hundred years before, but was rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 46BC and quickly regained its prominence. By 27 BC (only 80 years before Paul got there) it had been named the capital of the province and by the first century had cemented its place as the most influential commercial centre, and an important manufacturing centre in Greece.
Their success came from their location. The city was a harbour town, located on a little strip of land that connected mainland Greece and Achaia. The weather often made it too dangerous to go around the whole of the rest of the land, so the Corinthians had a system where they would place ships on large wooden platforms and drag them across a stone road to drop them on the other side. Today they’ve simplified the process by digging a huge canal.
Corinth was a brand new (or rather refurbished) city with lots of money, people and things to do. Scholars estimate that the population of Corinth during the time of the apostles was somewhere between 500,000-700,000 people including Roman citizens, Greeks, foreigners and slaves. People would come from all around the world to witness the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics in their prominence.
When you think of Corinth, think of a twenty-first century “inner city” like downtown Toronto; an overcrowded, ethnically diverse, materialistic, urban concentration of people, bursting with upper-class professionals and down-and-out street dwellers. And just like our inner cities today, it was full of opportunities to sin.
Unlike today, however, all their activities were masked it all with a veneer of religion. Corinth had as many temples and places of worship as downtown Toronto has Tim Hortons’! There was a god and a temple for everyone. As a strong commercial centre they drew people from everywhere. You could worship the gods of Egypt, Rome, and Greece all at once – or even head to the Jewish Synagogue.
Corinth was a religious, hedonistic, self-indulgent, decedent city, full to the brim with people, money, commercialism and moral decadence, but they had one overriding obsession: sex. It was such a part of the culture that Plato used the term “Corinthian girl” as shorthand to refer to prostitution and the rest of the ancient world would describe sex-obsessed, promiscuous people as “living like Corinthians”.
One place that everybody went (except the Jews of course) was one of the most famous temples in the ancient world: the Temple of Aphrodite, which stood high near the rim of the mountains so everyone could see it from the harbour. Whether you lived there, was a visiting tourist, or simply a sailor waiting for his ship to make the journey across the road, everyone – regardless of their personal, religious convictions worshipped at the Temple of Aphrodite.
When you think of Corinth, think of it as all the worst parts of the internet coming to life – and the Temple of Aphrodite was pornography central. This cult was dedicated to the glorification of sex. Some scholars believe they had as many as thousand girls kept there as consecrated priestesses, or sacred sex workers, who would come in great, ritualistic processions, dressed in fine clothes and crowns on their heads, to excite the crowds of men so they could make their choice, throw money into the collection or not, and take the temple priestess to have sex as an act of worship to the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and fertility, Aphrodite. Some scholars believe that it was law in the land that every woman who lived in the city had to take their turn as priestesses in the temple, whether they wanted to or not. (Herodotus)
In the centre of town, for the even more perverse, stood the Temple of Apollo which also glorified sex, but this time it wasn’t with women, but with men and boys. Corinth was a monument to immorality of every kind. Slavery, greed, the pursuit of power, paganism and sexual immorality drove the economy and lifestyle of all the lived there.
Another internet-like thing was the proliferation of teachings, opinions and pseudo-intellectual nonsense that streamed through town. Throughout Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read about four things that the Corinthian church wanted more than anything: “Spirituality”, “Wisdom”, “Knowledge” and “Power”, and though Paul taught that all these things were found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, God wasn’t working fast enough – or in the way they wanted Him to – and they were falling into their old habits to find it.
The celebrated Greek philosophers and teachers that everyone in town flocked to listen to, called Sophists, told everyone in town that to obtain super-spirituality, and great wisdom, knowledge and power, what they must do is separate their mind from their body by seeking out the biggest, wildest, most ecstatic experiences that they could. The crazier they got, the greater the physical pain or pleasure, the more insane the experimentation, the wilder the experience, the closer they would be to the gods.
This was the mindset in Corinth when Paul came to town in 51 AD. (Acts 18)
Parallels of Today
Can you see any parallels to today? It’s not too hard is it? When Paul walked into Corinth 2000 years ago he may as well have been walking into any modern day city in North America. The society around us is just as obsessed with money, power, trendiness, and sexual experiences as they were then. And our church, and the church in North America, is faced with the same temptations as they were.
The Corinthians needed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were utterly lost in their sin and were desperate to hear what Paul was saying about a new way of salvation. We’ll cover the story next week, but while the Jews argued with Paul, the gentiles of the city flocked to hear the message of Jesus Christ. Their hearts were full of guilt and shame, and hearing about salvation through Jesus must have been like getting a breath of fresh air or a clean drink of water while living in a garbage dump.
But even though they readily embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that didn’t mean their troubles were over. They were still very new Christians and were constantly surrounded by opportunities to compromise their faith and morality. They were bombarded by temptations to try to be cool, to follow the latest trends, to seek out spiritual experiences, to give in to physical pleasures, and to live for themselves rather than others.
There were Jewish and pagan teachers who came into their church and made a lot of sense to them, but were trying to pull them away from faith in Jesus and into pagan or Jewish worship practices instead. They were told that they either needed to follow the Law of Moses completely, or that since they were saved by Jesus and that they were new, spiritual creatures, they could do whatever they want with their bodies. They’d either be forgiven or it didn’t matter to God anyway. This was extremely confusing and very tempting to them!
That’s where Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians comes in (1 Cor 1:1-2). This church that Paul had spent a year and a half planting and caring for was falling apart. As he was staying in Ephesus, he started to receive news that things were going badly. First came a delegation of men sent to bring Paul a list of questions and to talk him into coming to Corinth to fix things. Then came some people from a woman named Chloe’s house who came to tell him even more problems.
And all of these various thoughts, teachings and temptations were causing a huge division in the church. Some people wanted to go with what Paul had said, others wanted to listen to the new teachings, some wanted to go back to the Law of Moses, while others wanted to incorporate some of the things from the temples of Aphrodite and Apollos into the church. No one knew what was best anymore, everyone wanted their own way, and no one was getting along.
Paul was stuck in Ephesus, but to help in the meantime, he wrote some letters – four in fact. We don’t have the first or the third letter – they were lost, but we do have the second and fourth – we call them first and second Corinthians in our Bibles.
These letters are written to a confused church who wants to obey God and love each other, but are living in morally chaotic land full of voices that are telling them a thousand different things. They need some truth and so they write to their Apostle for answers.
So that’s the first part of the introduction to Corinthians and we’ll leave it there for this week. What I want you to do before we come back next week is to read 1st Corinthians all the way through. It’s only 16 chapters, so that’s only a little over two chapters per day. As you read, I want you to keep what we’ve talked about today in mind – Paul’s passion for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the context in which the Corinthian church was living.
You’ll notice as you read that Paul keeps coming back to that: the truth of the Gospel, the importance of living in the love of Jesus, and all the implications that has for our daily life.
Same Truth, Different Problems
Today, again, for the third week in a row, we are going to be talking about the need for Christians to study, understand and fight for the truth. When I decided to preach the shortest books in the New Testament back to back, I didn’t realize how pervasive this theme would be during this series — though I probably should have considering it‘s a mega theme in scripture. It’s been interesting to see how, even at the beginning of the church, within only 30-40 years after Jesus left the Apostles, that false teachers had made their way into the church.
One would think that while the Apostles were alive that it would have been impossible to mess with the Gospel of Jesus, the understanding of how people are saved, who Jesus really is… all those big, important questions, and yet throughout their ministries the leaders in the church had to spend a lot of time teaching, contending, fighting and explaining the truth of Jesus to people. It’s not just today that people have a hard time understanding what the Bible says about Jesus. It’s not just today that people are making up things about Him. It’s not just today that false teachers are traveling from place to place, misusing the name of Jesus and promoting a false gospel so they can manipulate people for profit. Paul, Peter, James, Jude and the rest of the church leadership had to deal with this too.
Another thing that has been interesting are the differences we‘ve seen in these letters. They have similar themes, but important differences too. 2nd John warned us to watch out for the false teachers who aren’t part of our local body, but travel place to place spreading their poisonous teachings to many different churches. Then 3rd John warned us to watch out for the false teachers who rise to leadership positions local churches, but disqualify themselves by their ungodly lifestyles. And now, as we study the book of Jude, we see another warning. In today’s letter, Jude is going to talk about false teachers who are not public figures, not local leaders, but part of the congregation. Agents of Satan, who purposefully sneak into churches unnoticed so they can spread their toxic teaching from the shadows. Each one of these false teachers is deadly, but they all work in different ways.
Sickness and False Teachers
These different kinds of attacks on the truth remind me of different kinds of illnesses that attack our human body.
I see the travelling false teachers are kind of like having a fractured bone. Their presence isn’t as noticeable as a broken bone, but quite obvious for those who know what they’re looking for. The person limps around in pain, but can still hobble along. So they go to the doctor who sticks their foot in an x-ray machine to look inside and it’s pretty easy to see what’s wrong. They have a fractured bone.
It’s the same with these travelling false teachers. If we look a little more deeply at what they are saying, examine them using good tools, and they stick out pretty easy. It’s just that most people don’t bother to look too deeply, which is why they get away with it.
Having a corrupt local teacher or elder is more like getting cancer. It’s slow. It takes a while to grow big enough to become noticeable. It starts as a headache, a stomach ache, weight loss or fatigue. You say things like, “I think I’m getting the flu, or maybe I’m just tired, or maybe it’s my diet.” because you’re not totally sure what’s going on… but you know something’s not right. Eventually you get sick enough to go to the doctor and they start to do their tests. At first they can’t really figure it out, but after more and more searching, they come to the conclusion that, yep, things are really wrong with your body: it’s cancer.
A local false teacher is like that. They seem ok for a while after they take their position, but then things start to get weird. People are fighting more, divisions are happening between people that normally got along, volunteers are quitting, there’s more gossip floating around, meetings become more difficult, the elders deal with more and more distractions, and people start to leave. It’s hard to put your finger on it, because the symptoms are subtle, but you know something’s wrong.
By God’s grace that person finally sticks out, or someone with discernment comes in and points them out, but the trouble is the damage they’ve done at that point. A healthy church will do biblical church discipline and deal with the cancer, but sometimes churches don’t and the damage continues.
Now, the people Jude talks about, corrupting influence from within the congregation, are even more sneaky. Finding them is more like diagnosing Dementia or Migraines or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. You don’t know it’s happening, how long it will last, how to deal with it, what to take, what to blame, and no one seems to know how to fix it. It’s just there and it sucks.
That’s what these people are to the church. They sneak in, make friends, volunteer, show up, and seem like generally nice folks. They are so subtle in their destructive work that it’s almost unnoticeable. They don’t rise to positions of authority because that would mean having to go through a process that exposes their agenda. They just sit in the background, making the body sicker and sicker. Their presence becomes normal. The church isn’t healthy, but no one can put a finger on why.
The analogy breaks down because there is something we can do about it. The Bible gives some very clear instructions about making sure that we keep our eyes open for these kinds of people, that our spirits are soft towards the Holy Spirit, because, unlike the causes of a Migraine, these people can be found out and dealt with. That’s what we’re talking about today.
Let’s read Jude together:
“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, to those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you. Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.
It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.
But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude ESV)
Who Was Jude?
The author of this letter identifies himself as Jude, another form of the Hebrew name Judah. Jude was another son of Mary and Joseph, and the brother of Jesus. He calls himself a “brother of James”, but a “servant of Jesus”, recognizing that his oldest brother wasn’t a special teacher, but was, in fact, the Son of God. This was a big step for him considering that at one point during Jesus’ earthly ministry His family considered Jesus to be crazy. Jude went from thinking His brother was crazy, to worshipping Him as Lord and Saviour, Creator of the universe. That’s a big step. He’s the “brother of James”, but the “servant”, or “bondservant” or “slave of Jesus Christ.”
That probably explains some of the passion we find in this letter. Jude had to work through a lot of things in his mind to get to that point, but once He did, He was rock solid. He helped those who believed in Jesus Christ to understand the truth about it, suffered under persecution for it, traveled for miles to plant churches dedicated to worshipping, serving and teaching about Jesus.
But now he’s getting reports back from some of these churches that they are no longer teaching the truth about Jesus. Their faith and practice are being contaminated in many ways. It’s theorized that Peter had read this letter from Jude when he wrote 2nd Peter because He deals with the same issues as Jude does — corrupting influences who have snuck into the church — which tells me that these guys were working hard against this wide-spread problem.
So who is Jude sending this letter to? This letter doesn’t have a specific address, but was meant to be circulated among the churches. It was like an e-mail that gets Ccd to the whole company. He wanted everyone to read this, because he had some extremely important things to say about these corrupting influences to everyone, because this problem is so widespread.
I find it very interesting that Jude writes this letter with language specifically for a church full of people who have a really good grasp of theology and the Bible. He is writing to people who now their stuff — and yet haven’t had the wisdom to be able to discover the people that are destroying them from within. I find that very ironic.
This was a church that knew their stuff. He used biblical and extra-biblical examples (meaning outside the canon of scripture), not even pausing to explain some of them because it would have been obvious. The church would either know the stories and the warnings right away, or they would have knowledgeable teachers who could explain it to everyone.
Look at verses 3-5. He seems disappointed and exasperated. It’s like he was saying, “C’mon you guys! You know this! I wanted to write to you a nice happy note about our shared salvation and how great it is to be saved by Jesus — but now I‘m worried that we don‘t even have that in common anymore. Now I have to write a totally different note urging you to turn back to the true Gospel!”
He feels this way because the core of the Gospel was being corrupted and there were two main problems. The first problem we can see in verses 3, 4 and 5. In verse 3 we read “Although I was very eager to right to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith…” In verse 4 we see that the “ungodly people“ are denying “our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ“. And in verse 5 we read, “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people…”.
This church had forgotten something important about Jesus. Their Christology, their understanding of Jesus, who He was and how He saves us was getting messed up. That’s the first indictment against these guys, that they were messing with the story of salvation, telling people that there were either other ways to be saved, or that they needed to do more things than believe in Jesus to be saved.
But it wasn’t t not only that — as if that wasn’t bad enough — these sneaky snakes were causing another, big problem. This issue didn’t stop at beliefs, but affected people’s behaviour. What you believe about Jesus will invariably come out in your lifestyle. In verse 4 Jude says these people “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality.”
It’s going to take more than one week to address these two issues, so I just want to introduce them this week.
How to Corrupt a Church in Four Easy Steps
Once the story of salvation is messed up, it’s not that hard to convince people that they can lead whatever lifestyle they want. Once you can corrupt a person’s theology, you can corrupt their life. How? Look at verse 8. After laying down some serious warnings about what happens to people who deny Jesus as Saviour, Jude says,
“Yet, in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.”
There’s your recipe for how to corrupt a church from the inside, and it’s what Jude is going to talk about for the whole letter. So to close today, I’m going to give you a step by step how-to for corrupting a church from the inside. Remember, we’re not talking about what’s coming from the pulpit, from the Sunday School teachers, the elders or the deacons. I’m talking about influences from people that attend the church, the congregation.
Step One: Get people to “rely on their dreams”.
Put differently, get people to put down their Bibles and start following subjective experiences instead. Get them to rely on personal visions, gut feelings, and dream interpretations. Then when someone argues with you, even from scripture, all you have to do is say, “I’ve received a new revelation from God” or “My spirit is telling me differently.”
Dream interpretation is a highly difficult and speculative thing. It’s not that it’s impossible for God to speak in dreams and impressions upon our spirit — He’s done so in the past — so these people rely on that to be their trump card, which they play all the time to great effect on some people.
- Should I cheat on my spouse or get divorced? Well, my gut-feeling says I should, and I just had a dream where I cheated and was pretty happy.
- Should I go into missions, or tithe, or serve, or visit, or… a million other things? Well, my feelings are mixed about that, and I haven’t really heard directly from God about it. I’ll keep praying until my feelings tell me what to do.
- Should I confess my sin to my friend, spouse, pastor? Well, I’m pretty uncomfortable about it, so I’ll wait for a sign from God before I do that.
- Hey, I woke up at 7:37 this morning! That must be a sign that I’m supposed to go on a missions trip.
- I saw this person three times in a week, that must mean I need to talk to them.
- I just feel that there is no way that the God I know would ever send anyone to hell. I know that He’s good and He love everyone, and I love everyone, and everyone should love everyone — so that means there’s no hell. And anyone who says differently is wrong because I feel it so strongly that it must be God who is telling me.
- I went into the church and there was foul smell, and then I saw a bat fly around and out the door. That must mean that we have demons in our church. Time to light incense and walk in a circle twelve times one way and seven times the other way while reciting the “Footprints in the Sand” poem over and over. That’s what I feel we need to do at our church.
Following our feelings, and trying to live out our Christian faith by subjective experience is very, very dangerous. God has given us His revealed word for a reason, and it covers all the ground we need to cover when it comes to what we are supposed to be doing.
Step Two: Encourage people to “defile the flesh”.
Put another way: convince people that being a Christian is about what happens in our hearts. It’s about a private relationship with God. It doesn’t have anything to do with how we live our lives. Or even better, convince them that since they are saved they don’t have to worry about their sin anymore. They can do whatever they want because God will forgive them over and over and over. They’ve already got their ticket to heaven, and they can’t lose it, so that means that they can live however they want! The can have their cake and eat it too.
It sounds terrible when you say “defile the flesh”, but what if we say it, “live in Christian liberty”? What if we say, God doesn’t think that porn is a big deal as long as you’re working on it? Or, God doesn’t care about same-sex marriage as long as we’re making sure they know we love them. Or, God is more concerned about your spiritual life than what you eat and drink and smoke and who you sleep with? Or, God doesn’t care if you cheat on your spouse because He’ll always forgive you? God doesn’t care about what you do when you’re by yourself?
If you want to corrupt the church, then first, get them to stop reading the Bible and second, teach them that their feelings — especially their strong sexual urges — are God given and natural, and therefore need to be expressed. Call anyone who disagrees judgmental, and then tell them that you have a new interpretation of scripture after having a dream. After all, God was the One who gave you those urges, right? Then everything you do with them must be ok.
That’s dangerous thinking, but it pervades our culture right now, doesn’t it? Sexual sin (in all its forms) is the norm for most men, and more and more women. And more and more churches are acquiescing to their congregations desire to be told it’s ok. “If you don’t go along with us, then we’ll just get a new teacher, new pastor, new denomination, that tells us we can do that.” That leads us to the next step.
Step Three: Get them to “reject authority“.
Once you have them listening to feelings and dreams instead of the Bible, and trapped in sexual sin, some people in authority might come in to try to put things back in order. Don’t let that happen.
For a long time churches had denominational leaders, bishops, and presbyters that had the authority to come into local churches when things started to go sideways. Even Baptist churches, known for their independence and congregationalist mindset were wise enough to set up associations with wise, seasoned regional representatives that would support the pastors and churches, and could be called upon to come in during times of crisis.
Today, that system is falling apart. New churches are being planted by men and women who don’t believe in structural accountability. Congregations are leaving their longstanding denominations left and right. They reject anyone who wants to tell them differently than they think. They arrogantly disregard any form of governance that tries to point them back to scripture or hold them accountable to their creeds, confessions and historical beliefs.
Not only do they deny the Lordship of the Lord Jesus and the authority of scripture, but they won’t allow anyone to come in — no matter how wise, experienced, or loving that person is. They don’t want to hear it.
I’ve experience this first hand, and I know a lot of other pastors that have to. They watch corrupting influences steer the church away from scripture, away from the gospel, and towards destruction, but it’s not an elder or a deacon — though sometimes that happens — it’s someone in the congregation who has come from a different church and has started to spread their poison.
The pastor tries to preach, but it doesn’t work. The Elders try to talk to them, but they won’t even come to a meeting. The Leadership Team gets together to talk it over, but what can they do? This person isn’t even a member. So they try to appeal to a higher authority — the bishop, the regional minister — but when they come in, the congregation doesn’t want to listen. They won’t hear it. How dare an outsider try to tell them what’s best for their church. How dare someone come in and try to tell them how they are supposed to worship God and read the Bible.
And so they get rid of the authorities above them. First they kick out the pastor because clearly they don’t know how to handle this situation. Then they re-elect new elders and deacons because the other ones supported the pastor and the denomination. Then the new pastor and leadership team decides that they should leave their old denomination and associations and go on their own.
One of them stands up and gives a passionate plea about a dream they have, about the feelings that have been hurt, and how the leadership team all agrees that they don’t want to be in a denomination full of churches that hate people. We‘re all about love after all. And the church splits, many leave, and the congregation goes it alone.
I’ve seen and read about this over and over and over. And it’s generated first by people in the congregation, not by corrupt pastors or traveling teachers. Which leads us to step four.
Step Four: Get the church to “blaspheme the glorious ones”.
There are some different interpretations on this passage.
Some think it means that they blaspheme, or mock, the good messengers of God, everyone from good teachers to God’s angels, thinking that they are wiser and more knowledgeable than all of them. They don’t just kick out the deacons, elders, pastors and denominational leaders — they mock them. They sit back and laugh at all the fools who, for generations, believed one way — until they came along and figured out the best way. How foolish those simple, backward, old-school people were.They do what the Pharisees did and attribute the work of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel of Christ as the work of the Devil. They demonize and attack the good churches and Gospel teachers, and encourage and support the bad ones.
Some think it means that they laugh in the face of Satan, believing that they are untouchable by any evil influence. They’re so holy, so right, so totally on God’s team that no evil force can touch them. Like Romans 1 says, they are so deceived that they believe that their evil is good. They completely misunderstand and underestimate the power of demonic temptation and never consider for even a second that they might be wrong.
Others think that this means that they show a total disrespect for the angels that are said to come during the time of the judgment at the end of the world. They are only worried about what happens today, how they feel today, what today’s interpretation is, what their body wants right now, and they have no thought to their future judgment.
I don’t think we have to necessarily choose any of these three interpretations because they all point to the same end. The church becomes so backward, so full of false teaching, that black is white, up is down, good is evil, evil is good, and demons are angels.
Congratulations, You’ve Corrupted a Church
If you follow these steps, then congratulations, you’ve corrupted a church. And the best part is that they’ll thank you for it! They’ll tell you how much more loved they feel, how much more free they are, how great it is to finally be accepted, how open their arms are, how there are no more arguments, and how much better they are than all the other churches. You’ll be their hero!
That’s why Jude wrote this letter. He was watching a church go down this slide. They’d already forgotten about Jesus, had lost their way theologically, and were on the way towards full-fledged heresy and damnation. And that broke his heart.
For the rest of the letter he begs them to fight for the truth. He warns them about God’s wrath against false teachers and sinners. He pronounces woes. He calls them names. He calls them dirty. He preaches scripture. He shouts to the faithful that are left to stand up and not be silent. And He calls upon God to work a miracle in this church so they can be spared.
I ask you to ask yourself some hard questions today:
- How seriously do you take the spiritual health of your church?
- How seriously do you take your personal faith and theology?
- How seriously do you take those who tell you to compromise in your battle with sin?
- How seriously do you take the truth about the Gospel Jesus?
This isn’t about opinions and options and side-issues. This is about the core of our beliefs. It’s about eternal life and hell. We need to take this seriously.
How Do You Devo?
Devos, Daily Devotionals, Quiet Time, Private Meditation, Time with God, 1-on-1 with Jesus, Daily Prayers — there are lots of names for it and likely as many ways to do it. And I want to know yours!
I recently filled my very first prayer journal and got a shiny new one to celebrate (pictured above). God has been doing amazing things during these times with Him. Every day God answers my concerns, points out new insights, convicts me of sin, reveals my heart, and gives me comfort. My time with God is very important to me and I want to spread the joy by sharing what I do.
But not only that, I want to know what you do! I searched for years to find a personal way to connect with God. I tried dozens of guides, systems, studies and techniques, but none captured my heart. Eventually I came up with my own and it has been truly incredible.
I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with this. Many Christians struggle to have a consistent, daily time with God, and one repeated reason is that they “don’t know how”. The mission of this blog is to “give you the tools and inspiration you need to pursue a deeper, consistent and more meaningful relationship with God” and I believe that sharing how we do our personal devotions is a way to help accomplish that mission. Once I gather some I intend to put together a special training night on “How to Journal Using Scripture as Your Guide” using insights from those who share! Then, for those who can’t be trained in person, I’ll post it on my blog.
Will you join me in helping others to spend more time with God?
My Devo Setup
I’ve made a commitment that the first thing I do when I sit at my desk is to take away the wireless keyboard, put on the isolation headphones (playing classical and jazz music), and open my prayer journal. I begin by writing out the prayers on my heart, asking forgiveness for sin and sharing the troubles that are on my mind. Then, I open up the Bible. I have 5 bookmarks in my tattered NIV and I journal a reflection after each chapter. As I read and pray I search for what God is saying to me for that day. I believe He will speak through His word, and He does!
Sharing Your Setup?
So, what’s your setup?
To share, follow these steps:
- Write a brief synopsis sharing where you are and what tools and methods you use.
- Take a picture of your environment and tools.
- Use the comment section below and link to your picture OR Send the comment and picture to my email (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Pass this post along to your Christian friends so they can contribute too!
Thanks in advance to all who participate.
I’m so proud of our Sunday school kids, and the teachers, for taking the time to memorize the Romans Road to Salvation over the past few months. Memorizing of scripture takes time, concentration, and energy – and it is a way to worship God. That time is never wasted and these kids will be amazed at how many times in their life God will keep bringing these verses up in their minds during times of crisis and trouble. When they are in a tough spot, or need encouragement, God will bring these verses to mind because they have stored them where no one can get them – in their hearts.
In doing this they have echoed the praises of Psalm 119:9-16. Let’s turn there and talk for a moment about what happens when we study, memorize and meditate on scripture.
A Pure Path
An old German version of the Bible has a great title for Psalm 119. It calls it “The Christian’s Golden ABC of the Praise and Love of the Power and Profit of the Word of God.” That’s exactly what Psalm 119 is. The author of the psalm uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to create an intricate, acrostic poem in thanks and praise for – and commitment to –the Word of God. Each section has its own theme and takes apart that theme in 8 lines – and each line starts with the same letter. It’s a beautiful piece of poetry about the “vital ministry of the Word of God in the inner spiritual life of God’s children.” (Warren Wiersbe – Be Exultant)
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.” (Psalm 119:9-16 ESV)
Notice it starts with a question. “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The two key words there are “way” and “pure.” The word “way” can also be translated “path”, “highway”, or even “caravan”. The word “pure” can also be “clean” or “clear” or “blameless”.
How can someone without experience, keep their path clean, their highway clear?
The picture the psalmist is painting for us is a young man setting off on the journey of his life, starting out from his door and looking ahead at the horizon to the endless expanse in front of him. He looks back at his parents, knowing he is now too old to be under their full-time guidance and it is time for him to make his way in the world.
He steps forward, opens the gate, and looks up to God and says, “God, how can I make sure the path I’m walking on is the right one? How can I keep from stumbling? How do I keep from getting lost? How can I keep my life pure so that I can hear your voice and know I’m heading the right way? How can I be confident in the way I’m going? How can I live a life where all the problems come from outside me – not from a bunch of dumb things I bring on myself? Lord, how can a young man keep his way pure?”
And the rest of the section – in fact the whole of Psalm 119 – is an answer to that question. See what his answers are.
Setting up Guardrails
First, as we look at verse 9, he says that he needs to guard his way according to God’s word. In other words, for a person to walk in a straight line, not get lost, and be assured of his destination, he must set up safe-guards on the sides of the road; guardrails all the way along, so that when things start to go wobbly in life, there is something there to bounce off of so one’s life doesn’t careen over the edge.
I’ve driven on some fairly precarious mountain roads, and I’ve been very thankful for the guardrails along the sides. They give me a sense of security that if I blew a tire, or lost control that I wouldn’t go over the cliff, but would bounce off the guard rail. Sure there would be some damage, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic. That’s the first benefit of studying, memorizing and meditating on scripture – it tells us where to set the guardrails in our life.
People in this world believe that what really want is “freedom”. They say that in a perfect world there would be no rules and everyone would be able to do whatever they wanted free from oppression and outside influence – and the world would thrive. You’ve probably heard that a lot.
Think of the words to John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. “Imagine there’s no heaven, no hell, no countries, no religion… imagine all the people living life in peace.” That’s the definition of freedom for a lot of people: no God, no government, no rules. But that’s not freedom, that’s anarchy. The human heart is not able to deal with that kind of world – it’s simply impossible. Every nation that has eliminated God didn’t find a time of peace and freedom, but instead saw the rise of oppressive leaders who devastated and oppressed the people. Think Joseph Stalin, Mau Zedong, Pol Pot, or Che Guevera. Their atheism didn’t spawn a life of “peace”, but chaos.
The Broad Road
Jesus would call the kind of “freedom” that Lennon sang about “the broad road”. A life, without walls, without guardrails, without rules. And he says this: “…wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV)
The “broad road” “leads to destruction”, not life and peace and flourishing. It is the heart that seeks God, which is guarded on both sides by the Word of God that finds life.
Even as I write that I realize how difficult it is to understand, much less apply. To agree with Jesus about choosing the narrow road requires a movement of the Spirit of God. And often, it requires that a person travels the broad road for a while, has their life spin out of control, and then careens of the edge and explodes. That’s the testimony of so many men and women I know.
“I was on the broad road. I was living for myself and I didn’t care what people thought of me. I did what I wanted. And it lead me to sin, and sin more and more, darker and darker, and then I realized what I thought was freedom was actually a trap. I wasn’t controlling my life, it was controlling me. My addictions, my desires, my appetites, my way of life was controlling me. I was captive to my ‘freedom’ and I couldn’t get free. And then things really started to spin out of control. I lost my closest relationships, my friends turned out to be enemies, everything I thought was secure fell apart – and I hit rock bottom. It was only there that I finally looked up and saw Jesus offering me forgiveness and life.”
And their testimony almost always ends the same way: “I’m telling you all of this horrible stuff that I went though because I don’t want you to go through it! Don’t make the mistakes I did. I’m trying to teach my kids not to do what I did. Not to even start down that path. I want them to walk the straight and narrow – to flee the broad road to destruction that I went down.” (Go to “I am Second” for a long list of inspiring testimonies)
In fact, much of the wisdom literature in scripture (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and more scattered throughout the other books) is written to try to warn people away from taking the broad road that leads to destruction. Look at the beginning of the book of Proverbs.
“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck. My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. … my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths, for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.” (Proverbs 1:8-10, 15-16)
Can you hear the pleading of the parents to their son to stay on the straight and narrow? The rest of the book of Proverbs is a series of sayings meant to help an immature person find maturity the easy way – without having to crash and burn to learn it. How many of us wish that we would have learned the lessons from our parents and not had to repeat their mistakes?
The very beginning of the Psalms starts the same way, right from the first verse: talking about choosing the right path to walk on in this life.
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2)
All through the Bible you can read the voice of the Prophets, and the voice of God, saying “Here’s how life is meant to be lived. Follow these rules and you will have peace, and flourishing, and joy, and righteousness and purity, and know the heart of God! You will avoid much suffering and pain if you just follow this path.” And chapter after chapter is stories of people looking at the narrow path and saying, “I want to go my own way.” And then walking down the broad road – which leads to their destruction.
The prayer of the Psalmist is:
“With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:10-11)
The first benefit of studying, memorizing and meditating on scripture is that it gives us the guidelines for how to thrive in this life. Having it in our minds keeps it ready for us. Here is how I’m supposed to deal with anger. Here is how I find the will of God. Here is how I flee temptation. Here is what I say when Satan shows up. Here is how I should pray. Here is the kind of friends to have. Here is how I should spend my time. Here is how I should treat my money.
Learning and Teaching
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.” (Psalm 119:12-13)
The second benefit of memorizing scripture is that as we study and learn and remember, the Holy Spirit uses that time to teach us, and then gives us the words to teach others.
When Jesus was about to be crucified His followers were quite worried about losing their teacher and connection to God. But Jesus looks at them and says something very important. Turn to John 16:4-14.
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:4-14)
This is what happens when we spend time reading, studying and memorizing scripture. The Holy Spirit of God comes in and teaches us about sin and righteousness. He gives us insight into the ways that Satan works. He expands our minds so that we can tell truth from falsehood. He teaches us how to glorify God and what true worship looks like. And then gives us the words to speak when we are sharing the gospel or in a spiritual battle.
God Breathed Answers
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Some people are afraid to share their faith because they might get questions they don’t have answers to. Others think that there is no real way to know God and they speak as though He is some great mystery. But Scripture, the Bible, has been “breathed out by God” and given to us “for teaching”, so that we can be taught the ways of God, the thoughts of God, the plan of God, the will of God. Between the Bible and Holy Spirit is inside of us, we can have a pretty good idea of who God is. And when we are sharing our faith with others, the Holy Spirit promises to remind us of what God has said about Himself and His plan of salvation.
Some people say they aren’t sure what God thinks about certain things – they can’t really know what is good or bad. Scripture has been given to us “for reproof”, or “for conviction”, or “for rebuking”. That means that within the Bible is everything we need to be able to expose false teachers and expose personal sin. Right and wrong, good and evil, wisdom and foolishness isn’t a grand mystery. Scripture has the power to point out mistakes and clarify how we can make it right.
Some say that they aren’t sure if they can ever know they are truly saved. But the scriptures were given “for correction” which is a word that means it tells us “how to restore ourselves to a right place before God.” In other words – the Bible tells us how to correct this problem of sin and death. It’s only the Bible that gives us the good news of hope in salvation through Jesus.
Some say they don’t know what to do with their life. What should I do? Where should I work? How should I parent? What should I do with an empty nest? What should I buy? The scriptures were given “for training in righteousness” so that we can know how to live a holy life. The Bible is an instruction book for life. I’m convinced that 99% of everything we need to know about how to live in this world is captured within this book – and the Holy Spirit will give us special knowledge about the other 1% when we need it.
That’s why the Psalmist says to God in Psalm 119, “Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!” He knows that the only way he can live well is if God is his instructor.
Delighting in God’s Word
The third benefit of memorizing, studying and meditating on scripture is that it brings delight! Let’s read Psalm 119:14-16:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
This is something that a lot of people simply don’t agree with. Using words like “memorizing”, “studying” and “meditating” in the same sentence as “delight” makes no sense to them because it all sounds like work. And it is work.
But once you have experienced the Spirit of God entering into your life in a new way, guiding you in life, protecting your spirit, battling for your purity, teaching you new things about yourself and God, reminding you about the love you have in Jesus Christ – you can start to see how the psalmist feels.
Psalm 119:97-104 says it this way:
“Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts. I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”
I like learning – but there’s something special about my time with God. It’s more than learning – it’s experiencing the presence of God. I understand what the psalmist is talking about! The Word of God comes alive for me when I read it in the mornings. There are times when I’m studying for a sermon and insights that I never had considered start flowing into my mind. I start welling with emotion, getting excited, or sometimes it hits me and I feel a terrible sense of conviction, sadness or anger. Reading, studying and meditating on scripture is an experience for me.
There are times where I walk away from a time with God, and I’m literally breathless because of what I’ve just learned from Him. There are times when God brings to mind a scripture and it protects from doing something harmful, and I am so thankful that he did that for me – because I watch others around me crash and burn because of that same error. There are times that reading the Bible depresses me because I start to feel God’s heart on a particular subject – and He shares His grief with me.
It breaks my heart how distracted most of us are – me included. The cares of the world, finances, fears, entertainment, and so much more, draw us away from the Word of God. We go to so many other things for life, knowledge, peace, joy, hope, help, guidance, and peace. But it all comes up short. Why do we keep going back?
When we lose sight of the word of God, the temptations start to grow, fears start to creep in, unrighteous anger fills our stomach, jealousy and bitterness take root – and a time of meditating on God’s word, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, wipes so much of that away!
Examples of Delight
Consider what the children recited today, and think of the hope, the joy and the wonder that they will have in their hearts for the rest of their lives as the Holy Spirit brings that back to them.
They start to think, “I’m a good person. I don’t need Jesus and all this religion. I don’t need a saviour. I can save myself. God saves everybody because we are basically good and God loves everyone, right?” And the Holy Spirit says,
“Remember Romans 3:23, ‘For all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. and Romans 6:23, ‘For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’’”
Satan comes in and says, “God doesn’t love you because you sinned. You need to earn your salvation! You haven’t done enough to impress God. You need to be better! God’s disappointed in you! You don’t have enough faith. You need to be a better person and clean up your life before you come to God.”
And the Holy Spirit says, “Remember Romans 5:8, ‘But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’”
Satan tells them to keep quiet. “Don’t share your faith. Keep it to yourself. It’s between you and God. Religion is personal. You don’t have to be uncomfortable. Just keep it to yourself.” And the Holy Spirit says,
“Remember Romans 10:10, ‘For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.’”
And then, when they eventually fall into sin, the backslide, and Satan turns up the heat and starts to condemn them. “God hates you now. You’re dirty. God says He loves you and then you turn around and do that? You let him down over and over! He’s done with you. He’s not listening to your prayers anymore. There’s no point in reading your bible. He’s heard you confess that sin so many times that He’s sick of it! Maybe you were saved before, but you just lost it. And you’ll never get it back.”
And, the end of the Romans road comes from Romans 8:1 and 38-39.
The Holy Spirit says, “Remember, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’”
That’s where delight comes from. That’s the power of memorizing and studying scripture. I hope you know that delight.
Valuing the Bible
Do you value having a Bible? How much do you value having study guides and thousands of hours of sermons and books to read about the bible? Can you imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if you didn’t have a copy of the Bible? If you knew Jesus, and were saved, loved the one true God, but you couldn’t read about him every day, how different would your life be? What would your life be like if there was no bible in the English language? Would it be different? I hope so.
We are so fortunate. So blessed. Let’s close by watching a short video, but let me set it up first.
True Christianity is “illegal” in China, but it is spreading like a wild-fire there. Some estimates are that there are 20,000 conversions per day. Police will search homes, confiscate CD’s, bibles, song books and calendars, and then arrest people who have “illegal religious gatherings” (The Empty Cross Pg 14) . I read this week that “In China, believers often share one copy of the Bible. Each person receives a page, and when they have memorized it, they get back together to exchange their portion of the Bible.” (Bible Smuggling) What you are about to see is a group of Chinese Christians receiving a bible in their own language for the first time.
I promised in my previous post that we would get very practical today, so let’s get going. Today I want to introduce you to the Tools and Techniques you can use to study the bible to make sure we get it right. We need two things: Tools and Techniques – let’s start with tools.
The Tools of Bible Study
There are a zillion good tools to use for Bible Study and it can get quite overwhelming when picking them, so let me give you some basics to get you started (I got some hep from this great article by Chuck Swindoll). Remember, you don’t need to buy all of these at first. To do so would be overwhelming. But as you grow and learn and practice Bible Study, as with any discipline and skill, you will develop the need for more and better tools to do it. So here’s an overview of the kinds of tools you can use to study the Bible:
First and most important is a Study Bible. A good study Bible is your best friend and most helpful resource. Every Christian should have a good study Bible. They are the toolbox you keep in your truck or in your furnace room with the hammer, crescent wrench, tape measure, box knife, a level, a flashlight and pair of pliers. Your toolbox doesn’t have every tool, and some of the tools aren’t perfect for the job, but you can get almost anything done with the basic supplies inside.
There are lots and lots of study bibles out there. Some are for specific kinds of studies – like topical studies or word studies. Some are by famous authors like John MacArthur or Eugene Peterson. Some have different themes like Leadership, Addiction Recovery, Apologetics or Stewardship. Others are geared for different age groups. Depending on which one you take you will gain or lose something.
If I had to pick one that covers the most bases for your average Christian adult, I would highly recommend the ESV Study Bible because it has the most (and best) tools I’ve ever found in any study bible. It has a readable, critically acclaimed and accurate translation. It has concordances to help you find individual words. It has theological articles to help you understand important doctrines. It has notes on many of the verses and cross references to help you see where the same concept is found in different parts of scripture. It has maps to help you ground your study in geography and history. It has diagrams based on the most recent historical and archaeological research. And special charts to show the various themes throughout scriptures.
If you are a young person or have no background on the Christian faith and want something with a few more notes for beginners, then they also have an ESV Student Study Bible which has special features for your needs. A study bible is an invaluable tool.
The second tool is called a Concordance which contains an alphabetical listing of every word in the Bible and cross-references them with the verses in which they appear. A Study Bible has a basic concordance of many of the most common words, but a full Concordance will have eeeevery word! This is important for Bible Study because when we want to follow God’s thinking on a certain topic all the way through scripture, the Concordance gives us a great place to start. If you want to learn about “Joy”, look up the word “joy” and read all the verses about it. A good Concordance will even give alternative words and break down their uses for you.
Third are Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias. Christians believe that every word that we read in the Bible was specially chosen by God. God didn’t merely inspire the concepts in scripture, but every single word. The Bible was originally written in a few different languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, which means that when we translate it into English, we can lose something in translation. A Bible Dictionary is designed to give us the background on what the words meant in their original language and help us understand some of the nuances that are lost in the English word. For example, the Greeks had at least 4 different words for “Love” – it’s helpful to know which one they are using.
One special tool is called a “Strong’s Concordance” which is a numbered list of every original-root-word in the Bible. So if you are doing a word study, you can look up the exact word in the Strong’s Concordance and then find the exact definition of that root word in a Bible Dictionary. A lot of these resources can be found online – my favourite place is blueletterbible.org which links all these resources together easily.
The fourth tool are Commentaries which are like a longer version of a study Bible. Instead of small notes about individual verses, a commentary will give whole paragraphs and pages about individual verses and chapters, introduce themes, backgrounds, world history, give a biography of the author, the recipient, and much much more. They are most helpful when doing a book study – like if you wanted to learn lots more about Romans or Genesis.
I recommend starting with a commentary set of the whole bible first. My favourite right now is the “Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary” because it has lots of pictures! As a side note, remember that if you are going to study a book of the bible, it’s best to read different commentaries from different authors so you get a more complete picture. They all have their biases. It’s also best to use them after you had done your own personal study so that you have some idea of what you’ve already read. If you want a good website to find the best commentaries – because there are many, and some of them are no good – go to www.bestcommentaries.com.
Fifth are Doctrines and Systematic Theologies. These are a lot more involved than a Commentary or Study Bible and are most helpful for learning about big bible themes like salvation, hell, heaven, the characteristics of God, the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, the Church, etc. You won’t want to start with one of these, but as you study you’ll find yourself coming up to some big questions, and these types of books give you a biblical answer to those big questions.
Sixth are Bible Study Computer Programs like Logos or BibleWorks. They are really expensive, but they take everything we have been talking about and make it easy to click through and jump back and forth. These two companies do really good work and add lots and lots of new titles regularly, all linked together in a bazillion different ways. I would love to get into the Logos program, but the starting price for the Base package is around $300!
Seventh are Bible Study Websites. I’ve already mentioned a couple, but some of these websites are great. They keep track of your notes, give you daily devotionals, links to study guides, commentaries, concordances and more resources, have blogs to read more, can be interactive and use social networking, and make simple study a lot quicker. The downside is that there are some real garbage sites, sometimes they are hard to manoeuvre around, and a person can get very distracted by their computer if they aren’t careful. My favourite sites are: BibleStudyTools.com, BibleGateway.com and BiblePlaces.com.
The Techniques of Bible Study
So there’s some tools. Let’s talk about techniques. Once we have our toolbox full of tools, what are we supposed to do with them?
Types of Study
There are 4 basic kinds of bible study that we can do: Topical, Exegetical, Biographical and what we can call Favourites. One of these might be more interesting to you than the others, and that’s ok. Start with one that resonates with you and then try another one.
Topical basically means that we pick a subject like salvation, heaven, hell, joy, judgement, prophecy, love, sacrifice, or grace and we see what the bible says about that topic. We find verses about that topic, and look up those words in a concordance to see what comes up, we read doctrines and systematic theologies about them. This series I’ve been preaching has been a topical series, as was Resolving Everyday Conflict and the Spiritual Disciplines series.
Exegetical study means that we study systematically, going verse by verse. We pick a book and study it chapter by chapter, verse by verse, word by word. This is usually how I preach, like when we went through Mark or Psalm 15. Start at the beginning and go verse by verse finding the key concepts, studying the context of each part, learning what the individual words meant then, and what they mean today.
A Biographical study is the study of a person like Moses, Ruth, Nehemiah, David, Solomon, Jesus, Paul. I preached biographically when we went through the Hall of Faith together a while back. Pick a person and read all the books, verses and topics about them. Identify with them in your own life. Read their ups and downs. Study where they lived, and what their life was like. How did they live? How did they die?
And the fourth is a junk-drawer word I’m just calling Favourites. This would be where we grab a well known passage that we are curious about – like the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 or 51, or all the definitions of love from 1 Corinthians 13 – and just learn all we can about them. It’s partly exegetical, and a little bit topical, and a little bit biographical.
Observe → Interpret → Apply
So that’s the 4 basic kinds of bible study. But what do you need to do? No matter what kind of study you’ve chosen, whether it’s topical, exegetical, or biographical, you’re going to come at it in the same way: Observe, Interpret, Apply.
Let’s go through this together so you can see it done, using John 1:14,
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
First we Observe. This is where we build our foundation of understanding the content. This is where we ask the “5W’s and an H” – Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.
Here are some questions you can ask when looking and observing a passage:
1. What does it say? What is the most obvious thing that this verse says. First impressions. Most basic, obvious observation. Well, the NIV has the word “Word” capitalized, so it must be a proper name. And that proper name is probably a person who… wasn’t made of flesh yet, so probably wasn’t human… but then became flesh — a human… and then lived among other humans. Ok.
2. What are some key words that I need to understand? This requires a word study which means you break out your Concordance and Dictionary. What did the word mean back then to the people who first read it? What does that tell us today?
Well, a few obvious words in our passage might be the words “Word”, “Flesh” and “Dwelling”. Let’s pick the word “Dwelling”. I went online to BlueLetterBible and found the original text and learned that it is the Greek word SKENOO which means “Tabernacle” or “Tent”, and occurs 5 times in the bible. Once in John and 4 times in Revelation. I also seem to recall that the Israelites in the Old Testament had a “Tabernacle”. I wonder if there’s a connection.
3. What’s the literal context? What words are surrounding the passage you’re looking at? Who’s speaking? Who is it being spoken to? What is the main idea the author is trying to get across in this book, and in this paragraph, and in this sentence? And if God inspired the writing, then each word is important, so why did God choose that word, and what did that word, and sentence, and paragraph mean to the people then?
And what genre of literature is this? Knowing what kind of literature this is will help us interpret it. If you’re reading a poem and you treat it like an encyclopaedia, you’re going to mess up the meaning. If you think a fictional parable is a true-story, then you’re missing something. The Bible contains many kinds of literature. There are teaching sections, legal writing, narrative stories, allegorical stories, poetry and prophecy. It’s important to figure out what kind of style you are reading before you interpret it.
What we’re looking at right now is the introduction to a Gospel (which is a genre of letter intended to teach people about history) where the author is using metaphor to describe something historical. He’s using a word picture to talk about something historical, but it was so incredible that he can’t describe it without using a word picture. That’s important to know and will colour how we read the passage.
4. What is the cultural context? Where was the person when he wrote this? Who was he writing to? What were the political, social, economic, religious conditions during that time? Was there persecution? Famine? Was the author in prison like Paul? Or the leader of a country like Nehemiah? Or on the run like David? Was the recipient a church in a rich city, a slave owner, or is this a chronicle of events meant to be kept in a library for reference? Cultural context is critically important for understanding the bible.
My study bible says that John, the author of the Gospel, was a Jewish man who wrote his book to both Jews and Gentiles. So he must have used the word “Tabernacle” on purpose to bring up something important in the minds of the Jewish and Gentile readers. Those readers would have known about the tent – which was called a Tabernacle – that moved around with the people of God in the wilderness, after the exodus from Egypt, as they journeyed to the Promised Land. So when John uses that word, He’s describing something – He’s using it on purpose to describe what Jesus did for us! Jesus is the presence of God, in a fleshly tent, journeying with us in this world, just like in the days of Moses.
5. What cross references apply? This is where we leave the verse we are studying and look around the Bible for other verses that contain the same words, concepts and ideas as the one we are studying. When we come across a difficult verse, we always go to verses that are easier to understand to get clarity. If what we are looking at isn’t clear, then we go to where God is clear to help us interpret.
The Bible never contradicts itself, but often gives various sides of something so we can learn about it in different ways. The Bible will always interpret itself rightly.
So when it says, “the Word” which we understand to be referring to Jesus, “became Flesh”, then that causes us to ask some important questions. Does that mean that He was no longer God? Does that mean that he was sinful like other humans? What are the implications of God becoming human? We need to look at other passages to understand that. For example, Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” That helps.
Cross references are an important part of figuring out what’s going on in a passage we are studying.
So now we’ve observed what we are studying. Now it’s time to Interpret it. In other words, ask the question, “What is the main point (the plain meaning) passage?” Based on your observation and all that you know about the context, meaning, words, cross-references, author and the rest: What’s the big-idea God is getting across to us? What was the author trying to tell those who read it the first time? What is God sharing with us today?
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Is this passage teaching me doctrine? Is this passage rebuking me and telling me of a sin I have in my life, or that is in the world, that needs to be avoided and repented of? Is this verse correcting me and straightening out something that I’ve gotten wrong, or that others have gotten wrong? Or is this training me to do something like help someone, fix something, serve someone, or encourage someone? Why was this written and what does it mean?
Remember: the main point of every study, every chapter and verse, is to teach us about Jesus, so we must ask the question: What does this teach me about Jesus? Is it teaching me about His mission, His character, His plan, His nature, His Gospel? The whole book is about Jesus, so what does my study teach me about Jesus? If we Observe and Interpret without asking this question, we have missed the whole point of our Bible Study!
Well, the main point of our verse seems to be that Jesus is God (the Creator) in the flesh, and chose to become one of us. Jesus, “The Word”, became human, and took on a tent of “flesh”, and decided and chose to live among us – in an even greater fashion than He did in the Old Testament to the Israelites. It is the continuation of the great story of salvation and the presence of God with His people.
If we kept studying this we’d discover things like Jesus existed from eternity past, and was never created, but chose in love to become a human, for our sake, to take our penalty, because only a human could take the punishment for another human. And only a perfect human could take on Himself the wrath of God against sin for all humanity. And we would learn to identify the importance of the word “Word” and associate it with the power of God in Creation – That calling Jesus “the Word” tells us that he has the full power and majesty of God, the same power that spoke the universe into being.
We would also learn that in Greek culture the word “Word” was considered to be exactly the opposite. Words were an abstract, impersonal force – like the principles of reason or knowledge that gave order to the universe. This would speak volumes to the Gentile listeners as they learned that God was not an impersonal creator who used words, but was very personal. It is by His hand all things are sustained. That’s an important truth for us today too.
Of course interpreters have been studying this passage for 2000 years, so we’ve only just scratched the surface of what it means, but we’re already learning something powerful.
But so what? This is why we don’t end with Observation and Interpretation, we must Apply what we have learned. It’s great to know what it says and what it means, but… what does it mean to me? This is God’s book. It is not written just to others, but to you and me as well. We need to ask “What does this passage really mean?” and then follow it up with, “And now what must I do?”
What do I need to change? What encouragement can I take from this? Who do I need to tell this to? What plan can I make to learn this lesson, and open my heart to God helping me to live more like Jesus. How can this truth manifest itself and become real in my life? How does the Holy Spirit want to use this to change my heart, my behaviour, my outlook on life, my relationship with Jesus, my relationship with others? We cannot end with knowledge, we must bring that knowledge to action.
I’m going to leave that to you to figure out this week. Talk about it with your family, your study group, your friends.
What does it mean to you:
That the person and force which created the universe, the person who spoke all things into being, who said “let there be light”, came into the His creation and walked among us.
That the same God who guided the children of Israel with a pillar of fire and smoke, who dwelt in the holy of holies, was present in the person of Jesus Christ?
That the omnipotent became flesh.
That the ultimate source of glory humbled himself to become nothing.
That the Author of the universe entered into His own story.
What does that mean to you?
I invite you to spend some time meditating on that idea. Pray through it. Think about it. Talk about it. And then take when you get from God and apply it. Let that truth change your life and your behaviour and affect your day-to-day living.
We’re studying the Four Core Christian Disciplines right now. Can you remember what they are? Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance and Serving Others. Last week we talked about “How to Pray” which brings us to this week’s topic: “Why and How to Study the Bible”. Lets begin with “Why” and start with this question:
How You See It Affects How You Treat It
What is the Bible to you?
There are people in every corner in the world who know how they should answer that question… but they don’t really treat the Bible the way they talk about it.
People see the Bible in different ways. Some see it as an emotional antacid that you read only when your life has your stomach tied in knots. Or a sleeping pill that you read to cure insomnia. Some see it as an insurance policy where you may not have read all the fine print but you hope that owning one will get you out of some kind of trouble some day. Some see it as a holy book reserved for monks and gurus but not really something normal people would ever want to read. Others see it as a story book filled with fables and fairytales. Others wouldn’t say it’s fiction, but is interesting, but useless – an ancient book pertinent to a bygone culture, but not relevant for today.
How you treat the bible is directly connected to how you see it. The time you spend in it, the effort you make to understand it, and the authority level you give the words within it will directly correspond to your view of it – even if you would never say so.
Why Study the Bible?
So, before we begin talking about Bible Study let me give a bit of a plug for why this is such a big deal. You may cringe at the word “study” because it conjures up bad memories of math-quizzes, long classes with a boring teacher going through boring material, dusty books without any pictures full of useless facts that need to be regurgitated for some test. I can completely understand why you’d tune out if that’s what comes to mind when you think of studying. But let me assure you: this kind of study is different.
Listen to the words of Hebrews 4:12-13:
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
This book contains the very words of God, given through human agents, to all of humanity, to guide us in this world, and ultimately lead us to salvation from hell and into eternal life. It is the greatest source of moral authority and perfect truth in this world, contains the very words of our Creator, and teaches us about the most important figure in the history of the world – Jesus Christ. It helps us understand the very core of what it means to be human, and speaks to us so individually that at times it feels like it was written to us alone. It shows us our sin, our desperation, our damnation, and the deep and abiding love God has for us, showing us the cost of what it took to come and save us from our sin so we could be with Him.
If you believe that, then you need to read it that way. If you don’t believe that, then you should study this book anyways to see if these claims are true or not. You can’t afford to be wrong about this one. This is a very important book.
5 Reasons to Study the Bible
I came up with 5 reasons why Christians need to study the Bible, and why you should probably pay attention to this sermon.
First, without bible study we soon forget God’s promises. If we are not in the word regularly, we can forget what God has done for us, and is doing through us. We can get bitter, afraid, confused, or prideful if we are not reminding ourselves of the presence and promises of God regularly. It’s amazing how often God will use the Bible to remind us of His goodness, greatness, love for us, and tell us what we need to hear that day.
Second, if we are not studying the Bible we become an easy target for the devil’s schemes.
Think of the Garden of Eden. What was Satan’s opening line there? The first line he ever spoke to humanity in Genesis 3:1 “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” He challenged God’s word. The whole conversation between Satan and Eve was based on God’s Word. Can you trust God’s word? What did God really say? Can God’s word be modified for this situation? When Jesus was facing His temptation in the desert He didn’t dialogue with the Tempter at all, but quoted the Bible and shut down the conversation. Most of us don’t know our Bibles well enough to shut down temptation so Satan sucks us unto into a dialogue with him, and then we fall. If we don’t know our Bibles… if we don’t know the truth… then we are open to being deceived.
Third, without consisting bible study habits, we become closed-minded. Some people learn one or two verses and use them as the rule for their whole lives, their church, their families, and relationships. For example, think of the person who knows Matthew 7:1, “judge not lest ye be judged” but doesn’t know the rest. They never get to Matthew 18:15 where Jesus says, “If your brother sins go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” They never confront anyone about their sin because they think that they “aren’t supposed to judge people”. When in actual fact the Bible tells us to lovingly challenge one another to make sure we are all doing the right thing and growing our obedience to God. We need the whole counsel of scripture to have the right picture of what it means to be a Christian, not just picking and choosing a few favourites that fit with what we want to believe.
Fourth, if we don’t have good bible study habits then we won’t be able to, as 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” I’m convinced that this is a big reason why people don’t share their faith. A some point they were told the truth, believed it, but never locked that truth inside of them to share with others. They are afraid that questions will come up that they won’t have answers for so they don’t start conversations about faith at all. But if we are good students of the Bible, then we will have the answers to many (not all, but many) questions and have more confidence when we tell the story of what Jesus has been doing in our lives and in this world.
Fifth and finally, and most seriously, without diligent study we can be led, and lead others into heresy. The word heresy literally means, “to choose other beliefs.” If God’s word is a revealed word – meaning God gave it to us for a purpose, with a meaning in mind – then there is a right way to read it.
When we read the bible, we are not reading opinion, but the words of God, and we let them speak to us. If we stop reading the bible and start reading into the bible, we will begin to introduce heresies… or “other beliefs”, that can lead us and others away from the truth.
Listen to how serious God takes heresy as I continue to read 2 Peter 2:1-3:
“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.”
We need to have good bible study habits and consistent accountability or we run the risk of promoting heresy, and what we think about a subject, rather than what God thinks.
What is Bible Study?
Like last week, I wrote a definition that we can take apart:
Bible Study is “making the choice, under God’s direction, to methodologically spend time, energy and concentration to deepen our faith in Jesus through His Word.”
“Making the choice” – Getting to know the bible better is a choice. Anything we do that doesn’t come naturally or will require effort requires us to make a choice. Becoming healthier in mind, body or spirit doesn’t happen to us, by chance or through osmosis or proximity to healthy people. Bible Study is no different.
Sitting through sermon after sermon and attending various bible-based groups does not make you a student of the bible. You need to make the choice to engage your mind, heart and hands in the process. One must say, “I see value in knowing the scriptures, and therefore I choose to invest my time and energy into studying them.” I know many Christians who have attended church functions for a loooong time but don’t know any more about the bible than they did after their first few years of salvation.
In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul says to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Another translation says “Be diligent…” Bible Study requires us to decide to do our best and be diligent to make the effort to learn.
“Under God’s direction”. Listen to the words of 1 Corinthians 2:9-13:
“But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”
We cannot really understand the bible without God’s help. Yes, we can learn about the people and places the Bible speaks about, but we cannot truly be impacted by the full worth of God’s Word unless He works within us to help us understand it. It is His letter to us, and when He is not involved in the reading of it, it becomes stale and fruitless. If we don’t come to God before we study it, the bible will be foolishness to our ears, and produce nothing but guilt, showing us all the ways we don’t measure up. But if we seek God when we come to His world, then inside of it we will not only find conviction, but also wisdom and freedom.
That’s why I started with prayer last week. In a previous incarnation of this study I started with Bible Study, but realized that really wasn’t where we need to start. We need to start in prayer, and then come to study.
“Methodologically” – That’s just a fancy word meaning that we need to have a plan.
Let me say this: I strongly believe that God speaks to individuals all the time as they faithfully read their bibles. I have often counselled people to read their bibles as though God is speaking directly to them and has a message for them from the verses they are reading that day. I believe that with all my heart, and I know many people who have met God in powerful ways during their daily Bible reading.
I also believe that the Bible was written to be understood. The message of scripture is simple to grasp and God can speak to people of all levels of experience, intelligence and education through His word. It is not merely a book for scholars and linguists – it is a book written for every person in every place at every time. I have no doubt in my mind that if you grab a Bible and start faithfully reading it that God will teach you something about Himself and dramatically change your life.
However, like anything else we learn, be it cars, sports, quilting, cooking or cheese-making, a good student of the Bible requires a plan. Reading the bible “Devotionally” – by which I mean simply reading the words of God and asking God to speak through them – is of great benefit. However, we also need to “Study” our bible – meaning that we need to have a plan to go deeper than devotional reading.
This is a huge stumbling block to some people. They don’t like being told what to do. They don’t want to admit that they need someone else to teach them about the bible. That’s called pride. When a prideful person comes to the Bible they will often make one of three mistakes: They will assume they know it all and don’t need anyone’s help. Or, they will ignore anything they don’t understand and assume it’s not important. Or, they will just start making things up try to make it up all by themselves. That’s a great path to ignorance and heresy.
God has raised people up (Eph 4:11, 1 Peter 5:1-2) who He has specially gifted with the ability to teach us things about the Bible. It is our responsibility to make sure they are good teachers who are following Jesus and submitting to the Holy Spirit (Romans 16:17-18; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 1:10-11), and then it is our responsibility to humbly and attentively to them (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thess 5:12) – through their sermons, books, study guides, or one on one. They are a gift from God to us.
Reading the Bible is wonderful, but when we study the Bible, we need a good guide to help us, a plan to complete the task, and a system by which we gather the knowledge. If we come to Bible Study without techniques and tools, then we cannot say we are studying it, any more than a scientist can say they are studying something if they have no equipment, system, process, reports, or methodology.
“Time, Energy and Concentration” Bible study will take your time. This is probably the greatest expense to us, because our time is very valuable. It seems that we would much rather spend any other resource we have other than time. Devotional reading will take less time, but Study will require more.
Bible study will also take energy. It’s not something we can do very well when we are tired at the end of the day. I’m sure you’ve realized that if you are to learn anything that it will require some dedicated energy – not leftovers.
And it will require concentration. We have to choose… there’s that word again… to put our concentration into the study. Anyone who has ever taken a class knows that you can sit through class, take notes, and even do the assignments, and not learn a thing because you’re just going through the motions to get the grade! To get anything out of Bible Study you will be required to concentrate and invest some brain-power.
“to deepen our faith in Jesus through His Word.” At the end of the Gospel of John in 20:31 we read:
“…but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The goal of Bible Study is not merely to understand the Bible, but to understand our salvation from God through Jesus Christ as it is revealed in scripture. The Bible helps us know our Creator, Lord, and Saviour. The whole story is about Jesus, from beginning to end, and it is He whom we are learning about in every verse.
We are not there to figure out ways to manipulate and bend the words of the Bible for our own purposes. We are not there to become “bible-thumpers” who use the word of God to make others feel guilty or stupid. Our goal when coming to Bible Study is to have God speak to us through it, to bring us to an understanding of what God has revealed about Jesus, and to connect to Him for our daily hope.
Tomorrow we will go through the How-To’s of Bible Study — the Tools and Techniques — but my hope today is that you take our first question (“What is the Bible to you?”) and spend some time thinking about it. How do you see the Bible? What do you believe about it? Does how you see the Bible line up with how you treat it? If someone were to see how much time you spend reading it, the effort you put into understanding it, and the authority level it has for you – would they say that it’s the most important book in your life because it points to the most important person in your life? If they would, then praise God and keep up the good work! I’m not trying to put a guilt trip on you – ok, maybe a little – but it is my deep desire for you to love the scriptures and be built up in them so you can be a strong Christian.
So if you feel convicted today that you might say that the Bible is important to you, but you don’t spend much time in it, today is the day to change that. Today is the day you can recommit yourself to learning about Jesus in scripture.