Christianity

Mega-Churches & Jealous Prayers

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I watched this video again (more here) and it reminded me of my struggle with jealousy. I am a writer and a pastor, so this video hits me on both sides.  Jon Acuff, who is a successful Christian author, is talking to Ed Stetzer talks about his struggles with envying other authors, and Stetzer talks about “Ministry Pornography”, which is a way of describing a pastor/minister’s struggle with being content in their own church in a world of mega-churches and rock-star preachers. I know I have struggled with both of those. And without even noticing, it effected my prayer life.

My prayers used to sound like this:

“Lord, I’m okay where I am, and thank you for the church I serve… but if you want to grow the church to 6000 that’d be okay too. I love writing, and I’m happy if you help just one person with what I’ve written… but if you want to give me a million readers, a national best seller, and have me speak at conferences, that’ll be okay too.  Actually Lord, what’s wrong with the way I’m doing things? It’s all for your name! Father, send revival! Reveal to me the secret of having this kind of influence and success so more people can be saved. In your name, Amen.”

Have you ever prayed that way? I really believed I was being sincere, but in truth I was saying “Lord, I want influence, and I’m not satisfied with where you put me. I want a big church because I want to feel successful. I doubt myself, my call to ministry, and even your love for me sometimes, but I wouldn’t have those doubts if the church was bigger. I don’t like the way you define success, I want you to define it my way. Actually, I don’t really want revival for your name, I just want people to know my name.”

God doesn’t answer prayers like that.

Praise God that he has been working on my heart, and recently my prayers sound more like this:

“Lord, thank you for these amazing authors, pastors and churches who do so much for your kingdom! They are impacting their community, country, and even the world for your sake. They make great resources that I could never come up with myself. They answer questions on video and in books far better than I ever could, and I learn from them all the time. They make so many tools that make my life and ministry easier. Thank you for them!  In truth, I have no idea what they are going through in their private life, but I’m sure that with that kind of influence comes some incredible spiritual attacks — Lord, protect them. They tell stories of the kind of heartache they get to see on a regular basis — things I have never seen, and don’t even know if I could deal with — Lord, grant them grace and wisdom. Every word they speak seems to come under criticism from somewhere — Lord, encourage them. I’ve watched some of them burn-out because of their passion and crazy schedule–Lord, touch them. In Jesus name, Amen.”

Maybe you’re not a pastor, but I would imagine that you know how it feels to envy someone for their possessions or influence. Ask God to change your prayers from selfish to thankful? I have found that the more I thank God, the less envy I feel.

The Speed-Dial Principle

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While writing this article I was reminded about this song by Casting Crowns called “Does Anybody Hear Her” which seems to hit the nail on the head.

Do Churches Still Help?

I had a conversation recently where we were discussing the place of “para-church ministries” within the realm of global and local missions and it dawned on me that North American churches (and many para-church ministries) are lagging way behind the secular world when it comes to having the reputation of being helpful people.

Back in “the day”… [you know “the day” when your granddad had to walk back and forth from school, up-hill both ways, in 6 feet of snow (and he was only 4 feet tall), in only his socks, dragging a 300 pound bag of books, and only ate dirt for lunch… and LIKED IT!]… it used to be that the church was the premier place to come for help, protection, comfort, healing and peace. We were the first call for education, healthcare, protection from tyrants, help for the poor, the lonely, the bereaved, the lost, etc.

But now, honestly ask yourself: Why would anyone call the average North American Church for help?  Or for that matter, the average North American Christian?  If they are sick, they go to the hospital.  If they’re poor, call the government.  Hurt, lonely or afraid? Call a 1-800 help line.  If they’re addicted to drugs, they can get into a secular program.  Protection from tyrants? Go to the police.  If they feel bad or need to make a life change, call a psychologist.  If they are unhappy, call a psychiatrist.  It seems that the church has lost (or given up) almost everything it once did to help people.

Individual Christians have a hard time with this too.  We have lots of excuses why we don’t stop to help someone in need. “I have to protect my family.” “I could get hurt.” “I don’t know anything about medicine or cars.” “I’m too busy.”  Lots of excuses… most of which stink.

 

The Speed Dial Principle

So, here’s a challenge for all Christians to get back to their roots of being people full of grace and mercy. I’m going to call it the “Speed Dial Principle”.

Here’s how it goes:

I propose that we do everything we can to be the first call on everyone’s speed-dial. It is my hope that those around us, without a shadow of a doubt, know that we can be counted on to help NO MATTER WHAT is going on in their life!!!

Quick quiz:

  • How many phones do you have with speed-dial?
  • Who are the top 3 people and why are they there?
  • Are you on the top of anyone’s speed-dial list?
  • Using your position on other people’s speed-dial as your reference, how good is your reputation as a helper? [First call, second call, last choice, not even thought of]?

I propose we try to live our lives as someone trying to make themselves the number one person on everyone’s speed-dial.  We want to be their #1 button because they know we are a great friend will never let them down, we have resources to help, and will be there full of joy and without condemnation.  Whether it’s helping carry in the groceries, driving someone to another province, helping a kid with homework, cleaning someone else’ house, making a meal or picking up your drunk friend after too much partying… what can you do to be the first person they call.

What about you? What do you think of the “Speed-Dial Principle”? Is it realistic? How can we help our local churches reclaim their ministries of grace and mercy?

De-Trivializing Our World

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A Trivial Pursuit playing piece, with all six ...Did you know…

… a cluster of bananas is called a hand and consists of 10 to 20 bananas, which are known as fingers.
… C3P0 is the first character to speak in Star Wars.
… the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust is aluminum.
… there are 1189 chapters in the Bible: 929 chapters in the Old Testament and 260 chapters in the New Testament.

I’m good at trivia. Actually, I’m really good at trivia. There’s a standing rule in my house that we don’t buy or play board games that trivia questions because it’s just not fair. [Of course there’s also a standing rule that we’re not allowed to play ‘Go Fish’ any more either, but that’s a different story… “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T HAVE ANY THREES??? LET’S TAKE THIS OUTSIDE, SUCKA!!!”]

As much as I love trivia, I’m worried that the important things in the world are losing their meaning and becoming an amalgamation of mere trivia and statistics. Conversations about the most critical issues on the planet seem to carry a parallel importance with the most inane.  I know men who are as passionate about sports as they are about their faith, women who are as committed to their “stories” as they are to their daily Bible reading, students who are more interested in the score on their last test than they are about how minority groups are treated in their school, others who know more about pop-culture icons than they do about their next door neighbor, world history or current events.
I think this may be happening because we are becoming a culture driven by trivia.  The media and culture around us puts as much energy into telling us what celebrity couple is divorcing as they do about genocide and starvation in Africa.  We are so bombarded by numbers and statistics that we don’t even process what they mean any more. We can look at how many murders, rapes, car crashes, abortions and hate-crimes were committed in a certain month, in a certain city… and we don’t even bat an eyelash.

So what I’ve been trying to do is that when someone burps trivia out at me, I don’t let it pass by. I evaluate it’s importance to me, my neighbor, my country and the world.  This helps me two ways.  First, I check to see if someone is feeding me garbage information, and second, it lets me break it down into a manageable, meaningful data.

For example… If I hear a statistic like “1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.”, I think of the families and children that I know and am surrounded by in church, at the park, or at the swimming pool.  I count them by 4’s and 6’s.  I consider that every fourth girl and every sixth boy may be carrying around a deep and permanent scar, and it drives me to be emotionally effected by the statistic and to pray for them.

I encourage you to open your eyes and give flesh to the numbers.  Perhaps then we will begin to de-trivialize the world around us and see it as God sees it.

Common & Special Grace

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English: Page 53 in Olney Hymns, the verses th...I’ve seen some wonderful miracles throughout my life, and this past year has been even more amazing.  Sometimes I get miracle and coincidence confused, but not this year — it’s been pretty obvious.  I’ve been unemployed or underemployed for almost a whole year now, and even though it’s been financially tough, we have seen God show up and miraculously provide for us time and again.

He has been teaching me the paradox of being dependent on Him, while at the same time practicing wisdom and diligence.  He’s been teaching me how important it is for me to back off and let Him act, provide, defend, etc. instead of stressing out, panicking, and doing something because I’m afraid and want to take control.

I’ve learned to sit back and say, “I wonder how God is going to solve this problem, because I’ll just make a mess of it if I try to fix it.”  In other words, I’ve learned to trust in God’s Common and Special Grace.

Sometimes, with all the bad news floating around us, it’s hard to remember that His grace and provision is truly abundant.  Theologians (who love to embrangle simple ideas in complicated language) talk about the good things that happen to humanity in two categories: Common Grace and Special Grace.

 

 

 

Common Grace

 

 

 

Common Grace (click here for a very embrangled definition) encapsulates all the good things that happen to everyone.  As Jesus says in Matthew 5:45, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  Or, as John Murry of Westminster Seminary defines it: “Every favor of whatever kind or degree, failing short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.”  It is the Common Grace that allows us to be alive, even experience joy and love, while in a condemned state (2 Peter 3:9).  It is his Common Grace that provides for all humanity, even when we are completely undeserving.

 

 

 

Special Grace

 

 

 

John Newton, slave trader, abolitionist, minis...

 

Special Grace (click here for more embranglement) is that wonderful, amazing gift where God changes our hearts so that we may see our sin, turn from it, and accept Jesus as our Saviour.  Without His Special Grace we would never see our sin for what it is, never hate our sin, and would therefore never turn from it.  It is His Special Grace by which we are saved.

 

 

 

Take some time today to thank God for His Common and Special Graces. First, for the salvation of our souls in Jesus, but also for rain, sun, food, teachers, medicine, books, plants, cold water, smiles, loved ones, cotton… and any other good thing.

 

 

 

What about you?  What did it miss?  What Common Graces are you thankful for?

 

 

 

Why Life Sometimes Sucks

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Matthew 6:19-34,  John 15:5-8 are key verses to read and know if we are to understand life as a Christian.  They are encouraging, reassuring and powerful.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read them or referenced them in sermons.   Life with Jesus is meant to be a life where our worries are minimized, our joy is maximized, and where we effective and joyful and “bear much fruit”.  So how come most of us feel the exact opposite of that?

We love to quote the words of Jesus in John 10:10 to each other,

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Really?  Some of us say “my life is full”… but it ain’t full of the things that Jesus was promising.  It’s full of problems, frustrating situations, difficult people, money issues, time crunches and fatigue — full to the brim with problems.

Romans 8:31-32 says

“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

If God was so loving and gracious to send His Son to die for us, and is willing to forgive our sins through His blood… then He’s already proven that there is no limit to what He will do for us out of His love.

So how come our life doesn’t look like that?  Why does our existence, at times, seem so meagre?

The Apostle Paul had to deal with this paradox all the time.  How did he reconcile his knowledge of the love of God and the painful life he was living?  A few verses later, in Romans 8:35-36, he says,

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.””

First he tells us of his unshakeable faith in the love and protection of God, and then proceeds to tell us about his life… trouble, famine, nakedness, danger, swords, and death all day long.  Was he crazy?  How can “if God is for us, who can be against us” be in the same breath as “we face death all day long”?  Do those things really go together in this “abundant”, “fruitful” Christian life we’re supposed to have?

His answer to this conundrum comes in verse 37,

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

“Conquerers”?  That doesn’t sound like the life of a conqueror!  But there’s a very important word stuck in the middle there.  A naughty little word that we don’t want to hear, but is in there anyway.   The word “in”.  “In all these things…”.  Check out what John Piper says about this section:

“What I think “more than conquerors” means for your happiness is that a conqueror has his enemies lying subdued at his feet. You’ve got distress, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, persecution, and there they are, conquered at my feet. ‘More than conquerors’ means they’re not just at my feet. They are serving me. They’re not just in chained in prison. They are serving me. My persecution, my famine, my nakedness, my loss—as painful and as tearful as they are—are my servants. God works them all together for my good.
Now, that good that he works in and through them is the foundation of my happiness. It isn’t the circumstance. There’s plenty of tears. Jesus was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Paul says, “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”… So yes, God wants you happy. But he doesn’t do it with circumstance. He does it with himself. He does it with the gospel. And he does it in and through circumstances.”

That’s how to untie this knot.  That’s the balance.   Therein lies our hope and our perseverance.

Tomorrow I want to show you a picture of how I believe this works.  It took me about 3 months to develop this picture, and I’m not saying it’s perfect (it’s more likely that I’m just slow), but it really helps me to remember how life works, and how to keep my priorities straight.  I call it “Minding my buckets” and it has everything to do with being happy with God… not with circumstance, but being happy and filled with God himself.  Seeking first His kingdom, and his righteousness, and having everything else come after.  Connecting to the Vine who is Jesus, trusting the Gardener who is God, and living a life that abides in the source of our life.

Check it out tomorrow.

The Basics of Bible Study

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I recently began a sermon series called Plug In: The Spiritual Disciplines, where I plan on going through 10 weeks of study on different ways we can meet God, know more about Him, understand our faith, and grow closer to Jesus.  This was given as the first sermon in the series.  I realized after the service that it was too much to take in all at once (especially after a few people came up to me, breathing heavily, and told me so!).  Many people requested a copy, so what I’m going to do over the next few days is chop it up into more bite size pieces so folks can review it and, hopefully, learn more.

What is Bible Study?

I came up with my own definition that we can take apart.

Bible Study is “making the choice, under God’s direction, to methodologically spend time, energy and concentration to better understand God’s Word.”

“Making the choice”

Getting to know the bible better is a choice.  Anything we do that is challenging requires us to make a choice.  It does not happen merely by chance, or by osmosis.  Sitting through sermon after sermon, and going to various 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.”

“Under God’s direction”

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.

“Methodologically”

Like any other study, Bible study requires a plan.  This is a huge stumbling block to some people.  They don’t like being told what to do, or that they need someone else to teach them about the bible, so they try to make it up all by themselves.  But we need a guide to help us, a plan to complete the task, and a system by which we gather the knowledge.  If we come to the bible 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 than time.  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, but it will require some dedicated energy.  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.

“to better understand God’s Word.”

Our goal is to understand it, not to read into it, manipulate it or use it for our own purpose.  This is the Word of God that He has given to us.  Our agenda is to have God speak to us through it, and to bring us to an understanding of what God has said, and is saying, through it.

“Why is Bible Study important?”

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.  As a sleeping pill that you read to cure insomnia.  Or, as an insurance policy where you may not have read the fine print but are hoping that by owning one you can get some help in the event of trouble.  Some see it as a holy book reserved for monks and gurus.  Or, as a story book filled with fables and fairytales.  Some perhaps see the Bible as ancient wisdom literature pertinent to a bygone culture, but not relevant for today.

What is your view of the bible?  Write down on your sheet… “The Bible is…what?  Now let’s ask a second question:   How do you treat the bible?   Do you treat the bible in the same way that you view it?  Does your use of the Bible… how much time you spend in it, the effort you make to understand it, and the authority level you give the words… correspond to your view of it?

Why is it important that we know this book, and become a people grounded in this book?   The answer is because 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.  If you believe that, then you need to study it that way.  It’s a very important book.  Now, if you don’t believe that, then you should study this book and determine for yourself whether these claims are true or not.  It’s still a very important book.

I came up with 5 reasons why Christians need to study the bible, but I’m sure that there are many more.

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.  We need these kind of reminders often.  And it’s amazing how when we are going through a devotional guide, or a bible study, how often God will use the content to remind us of His goodness, greatness, love for us, and tell us what we need to hear that day.

Second, we become an easy target for the devil’s schemes.

When the banks, or tellers, or the RCMP study counterfeit money, they don’t spend time memorizing all the ways that a 20 dollar bill can be counterfeited, they spend their time memorizing what the real thinglooks like.  That way anything that differs from the authentic note, must be a counterfeit.

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.  And Eve fell for the trap of dialoguing with Him.  Then she modifies what God says, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”  She changes the word of God ever so slightly…

And then Satan says, “You will not surely die… For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.””

The whole conversation 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 the same temptations in the desert, He didn’t even speak His own words, or dialogue with the tempter at all.  He merely quoted the truth of the bible and shut down the conversation.  Most of us don’t know our bibles enough to shut down the conversation, and so we get drawn into the dialogue, and ultimately fall.  If we don’t know our bibles… if we don’t know the truth… then we are open to being deceived.

Third, we become closed-minded.

We get stuck on one or two verses or ideas that define how we conduct our lives, our church, our families, and our friendships.  Some people learn Matthew 7:1, “judge not lest ye be judged”, and never get past it.  And therefore never speak to anyone about anything they are doing wrong.  They never pull aside a brother or sister in Christ and tell them to get right with God.

And that’s because they’ve never gotten as far as Hebrews 10:24 which says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”  The words “spur on” literally mean “irritate, provoke and incite”.  Or what about Proverbs 27:17 which says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”   Or, Matthew15:15where Jesus says, “If your brother sins go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”  We are commanded in scripture to figure out how we can lovingly challenge and confront one another until we are caring for each other properly and doing the right thing.

We need the whole counsel of scripture to have a greater 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, we won’t be able to, as 1 Peter3:15 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.  It’s because at some point they were told the truth, and they believed it, but they never locked away 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 the conversation at all.  But if we are good students of the bible, then we will have the answers to many (not all, but many) of those questions, and have more confidence when we tell the story of what Jesus has been doing in our lives, and in this world.

And  fifth, without diligent study we can be led, and lead others into heresy. 

The word heresy literally means, “to choose other beliefs.”  It is the opposite of the word “orthodoxy” which means “same thinking”.  If God’s word is a revealed word, then it was revealed for a purpose, with a meaning in mind.  There is a right way to read it.

2 Peter talks about the importance of reading what the Bible says and taking meaning from it, rather than putting meaning into it.  Turn to, and listen to the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.  And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.  Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Peter says, “Listen, we didn’t make this stuff up.  And the prophets of the Old Testament didn’t make it up either.  They weren’t interpreting things the way they saw them, or putting down their own ideas.  They were simply writing what God told them to write.”  That’s makes the bible a very special book.

We can’t say that these people wrote and taught this stuff to be popular or to make money.  Most of the people who wrote the books of the bible lived difficult lives and were brutally murdered for what they believed.

And because of this, we need to remember that when we read the bible, we are not reading opinion, but we are reading the words of God, and we let them speak to us.  If we stop reading the bible, or 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.

 So let’s get practical.

What are some methods we can use to study the bible to make sure we get it right?  We need two things: Techniques and Tools.  I only have time here to talk about the techniques.  I brought some tools this week for you to see later.

 There are 4 basic kinds of bible study that we can do: Topical, Exegetical, Biographical, Favourites.

 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 topical helps that talk about that subject.

 Exegetical study means that we go verse by verse through the bible.  We pick a book and study it chapter by chapter, verse by verse, word by word.  This is generally how I preach when I go through a book.  We go verse by verse, finding the key ideas, seeking out the context, and learning what the individual words meant then, and what they mean today.

A Biographical study is the study of a person.  Moses, Ruth, Nehemiah, David, Solomon, Jesus, Paul.  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 – just picking and choosing a favourite passage.  This would be studying the Lord’s Prayer, or Psalm 23 or 51, or all the definitions of love from 1 Corinthians 13.  It’s mostly exegetical, and a little bit topical, and a little bit biographical.

How To Do A Bible Study

But what do you need to do?  No matter what kind of study you’ve chosen, whether it’s topical, exegetical, biographical or a favourite, you’re going to come at it in the same way.   Rick Warren has a great book called “Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods” and it has lots of different ways to go about doing a bible study.  But it all boils down to three things you need to do:

Observe, Interpret, Apply.

First we Observe.

Cross References in the NLT Study Bible

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.  Let’s grab a difficult verse like John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  First impressions.  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 a human… but then became 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.  What did the word mean back then and what does it mean today?  Well, a few obvious words we need to understand are “Word”, “Flesh” and “Dwelling”.   Let’s pick the word “Dwelling”.   I went to www.blueletterbible.org 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 remember that the Old Testament had a “Tabernacle”… I wonder if there’s a connection…

3.  What’s the literal context?

What words are surrounding it?  Who’s talking?  Who is being spoken to?  Well, we’d have to read the whole chapter and find out.  What is the main idea that 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.  Why did He choose that word, and what did that word, and sentence, and paragraph mean to the people then?

And what kind of literature is this?   Knowing what kind of literature this is will help me interpret it.  If you’re reading a poem, and you treat it like an encyclopaedia, you’re going to mess up the meaning.  In the bible there are 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.

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 it being written to a church in a rich city, or a person who was a slave owner, or is this a chronicle of events to be kept in a library for reference?  Cultural context is critically important for understanding the bible.  What did it mean then?

My study bible says that John was a Jewish man, who wrote his book to both Jews and Gentiles.  So he must have used the word “Tabernacle” to bring up something important in the minds of the Jewish and gentile readers, who understood about the tent that moved around with the people of God in the wilderness as they searched out the Promised Land.

And John uses that word to describe what Jesus did for us!  The presence of God, in a fleshly tent, just like in the days of Moses.

5. What cross references apply?

Now we leave the verse we are studying and look around the bible for other verses or ideas like the one we are looking at.  We always study difficult to understand verses in the light of verses that are easier to understand.  If we can’t get it, then find another place in the bible that is more clear.  The Bible will never contradict itself, but will always interpret itself rightly.  Now, if we have learned that “the Word”, which we understand to be referring to Jesus, “became Flesh”… then does that mean that He was no longer God?  Does that mean that he was sinful like other humans?  We need to look at other passages to see.

  • 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.”
  • 1 John 3:5, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”

Ok, now we’ve covered that part a bit.  Cross references are very necessary in figuring out what’s going on, and a good study bible will help you find these cross references.

Now it’s time to Interpret.

In other words, ask the question,  “What does it mean?”  Based on your observation and all that you know about the context, meaning, words, cross-references, author and the rest:  What did it mean then, and what does it mean now?  What’s the main point God is getting across?

 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 verse training me to do something like help someone, fix something, serve someone, or encourage someone?  What does it mean?

Well, the main point of our verse seems to be that Jesus is God 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.

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 “Words” of God with the power of creation.  Calling Jesus “the Word” represents Him as having the full power and majesty of God, the very power to create the universe.

We would also learn that in Greek culture “The Word” was considered to be an abstract, impersonal force, like the principle of reason or knowledge that gave order to the universe… but Jesus was not an impersonal “Word”, but was a very personal God who had the power to give order to all things through His very words.  It is by His hand all things are sustained.  That’s a powerful truth.

Now, interpreters have been studying this passage for 2000 years, so we’ve only just scratched the surface of what it means.  But already we’ve learned something powerful. But so what?

Now we Apply what we’ve learned.

This is why we don’t end with Observation and Interpretation.  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.  I’ll leave this part up to you today.  What does God want you to do with this?

Observe, Interpret, Apply.

Bible Study is a rich and wonderful exercise, and I want each of us to be a person of the word.  We need to work alone on this, and together in our groups.

Busyness is Killing The Church

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I wrote this article a while back for ChristianWeek and it feels like it’s time to resurrect it.

Pastor: “How you doin’ Bob?”
Bob: “I’m so busy I can’t catch my breath!”
Pastor: “How are the kids, Bob?”
Bob: “They’re busy! I can’t find them most days.”
Pastor: “How’s your wife, Bob?”
Bob: “Really busy…I think…I haven’t talked with her in a while.”
Pastor: “How’s your ministry doing, Bob?”
Bob: “Uh, I’m too busy to get around to it.”
Pastor: “How’s your time with Jesus been, Bob?”
Bob: “Ummm…”
Pastor: “Bob, I think we need talk.”
Bob: “Sorry Pastor, I can’t…I’m busy.”

I’m worried about you Bob, and all the believers that follow in your footsteps. I’m worried about your marriage, kids, ministries and your relationship with Jesus. I’m worried that your body will crumble beneath you, that your church misses you and that you are seeing your faith as time-consuming rather than life-producing.

The unholy trinity of stress, overwork and despair, which travel under the more polite pseudonym of “busyness,” is killing the Christian Church one believer at a time.

The Lord Jesus has made me an under-shepherd to His sheep, but for some reason many have started to run in circles at breakneck speeds, and I can’t stop them! But, what about you, Bob?

I want to talk to you. Perhaps God has granted you a moment of solace, most likely forcing you to stop as a result of “nature calling,” and you have brought this article with you. Can you just pause there for a moment? I want to say a few things.

First, I want you to embrace this minute. Yes, this one. I want you to thank God that you have been given a minute to stop and listen. I think you’ve been fooled into believing that you need to be busy to be significant. You don’t. Right now you have stopped and are not being “productive,” but you are still significant. God loves you right now. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Implicit in that statement is that God is not as interested in your production value as you think He is.

Second, I want to tell you that your body has a message for you. You’ve been putting it on hold for some time now, but it keeps calling back and asking to speak to the manager. Here’s the message: “I’m tired!”

When Jesus said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” He was talking to you.

Bob, your adrenal gland was designed to be used in case of emergency, but you’ve been living off of it! In fact, you’re addicted to it. According to Dr. Archibald Hart, adrenaline is not only energizing, but it provides a sense of elation and exhilaration. And you’re addicted.

Have you noticed that you’re grumpy, tired (which is why you drink so much coffee), and afraid to stop or you may not get started again? Your body is asking you to take a Sabbath. And Bob, one of these days it’s going to force you to take one whether you want to or not.

Finally Bob, before you go, ask yourself something: Are you passionately pursuing things that really matter—things that God has created you to do? Or are you building sandcastles on the beach that will wash away with the tide of time?

I’m afraid that when you look back you will have so many regrets, and I don’t want that for you. I love you and God loves you. So Bob, make time to talk to me this week and let me help you get things straight, okay?