We’re here! We’ve made it to the How-To part of the series! We’ve been working hard to get here, deliberately laying the foundation of making sure the motivations of our hearts are right with God. But now, we press forward to the practical outworking of the Four Core Christian Disciplines. Can you remember what they are? Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance and Serving Others. Right!
Why Study Prayer?
Some of you might be thinking, “Great! Finally! I’ve been struggling with this for a long time now and I can finally get some tips on how to strengthen these parts of my spiritual life.” Others here might be ready to tune-out thinking, “Why on earth would we need to learn how to do this? It comes naturally to me. I’ve been doing it all my life!” And there might be some here that are thinking, “How dare Pastor Al even think of telling someone how to do this. This is personal. There’s no right way to pray or read the bible. There’s no right way to attend church. It’s arrogant to think that one person’s way is going to work for everyone.”
Let me explain quickly why we are going through this how-to section:
While I agree that each of these Core Christian Disciplines are very personal, there really are practical ways that we can improve how we do them, and ways that we can get them wrong. Think of Luke 11 where the disciples had been watching Jesus at prayer. They saw something that He had been doing, an effect or some kind of power they didn’t have. They saw a lack in their own prayer and so they went to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” They wanted a distinctively Jesus-style, a Christian prayer, that would set them apart from others and would let them access God the way Jesus did. They had to be taught how to pray, and I believe so do we.
There are a lot of people who don’t know how to do these things because they didn’t grow up in the church. For them prayer is mysterious and difficult, bible study is boring and confusing, they don’t know how to get the most out of attending church (which is probably why attendance is in such decline across North America), and while many desire to serve others, they don’t know what their spiritual gifts are, they have a packed schedule, and have so many personal needs that stepping into someone else’s problems sounds like a terrible idea! I know with absolute certainty that many people here desire to have a better prayer life, to know more about God, to have powerful corporate worship experiences, and to share the love of Jesus with others in practical ways – and I believe part of the way to get there is through training.
What Is Prayer?
What is Prayer? So many people have defined prayer in so many different ways. Some with complex theological language, other’s very simplistically. The famous Dutch pastor and theologian Hendrikus Berkhof wrote a great book introducing people to the Christian faith. But, when he came to the subject of prayer he found that he didn’t know where to put it in the book! He said,
“The nature of prayer happens to be such that its place in the study of faith is uncertain and therefore varying. The reflection on prayer would fit in with the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man, preservation, the covenant, the Spirit, the Church or man’s personal life.”
That tells us something important. It tells us that prayer is not just something a Christian does, but is the root of all Christian theology and practice. It’s overarching. It’s not just a part of the Christian faith; it is the very essence of it. Prayer is part of many other religions, but Christian prayer is the expression of a specific relationship with Jesus Christ, and is a response to His work in us, for us and through us.
I’ve read a lot of definitions of prayer:
- John Ortburg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted said, “Prayer… is the concrete expression of the fact that we are invited into a relationship with God.”
- Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy said, “Prayer is talking to God about what we are doing together.”
- Patrick Morley in his book A Man’s Guide to the Spiritual Disciplines said, “Prayer is the conversation that turns salvation into a closer, personal relationship with God.”
So in light of all of this, I’ve come up with my own definition that we can use today.
Prayer is multifaceted, perpetual communication with God through Jesus Christ with the intention of seeking a closer relationship with Him through confession, worship, thanksgiving and supplication.
So let’s take this apart piece by piece to help us define prayer.
First, is the word “multifaceted”. There is no one kind or formula of prayer just as there is no one kind of marriage, friendship, or partnership. Our relationship with God is multifaceted. In the Bible He’s called our Saviour, King, Commander, Brother, Father, Priest, Prophet, and so much more. And we relate to Him on multiple levels in multiple ways.
This is good news because it means that the guilt you are feeling for not measuring up to someone else’s prayer life doesn’t need to be there. Sometimes you look at someone else who spends a lot of time on their knees, with their eyes closed, at five o’clock in the morning, and say, “Wow, that person has a way better prayer life than me.” And you feel guilty because every time you’ve tried closing your eyes at 5 AM to pray, you end up waking up at 7AM wondering what happened.
Perhaps for you, a focused prayer time happens with your eyes open, walking around, at 9 PM. Maybe you’re perfect prayer place is outside, or inside, or sitting, or standing, or lying down on your face. Sometimes it changes depending on the content of your prayer. If you are crying out to God after a car accident, your posture will be different than when you have just done something sinful and you are repenting before Him.
Someone may have told you that you need to always be quiet, and gentle, and sweet, or talk to God politely, like He’s your boss or He’ll fire you. That’s not the kinds of prayers we read about in the Bible. Prayers are “multifaceted” because people have a wide range of emotions.
This leads us to our next word. Prayer is multifaceted because prayer is “perpetual”. Ephesians 6:18 says we should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” It’s not a one time shot we do in the morning to check in with HQ and then walk out the door on our own. Prayer is intended to be an ongoing communication with God. And because a lot happens to us in the course of a day, we are going to change our tone. We wake up in the morning, and it’s a good day. We have warm water in the shower. We look in the mirror and like what we see, get to work early, and the boss gives us a coupon for a free lunch at our favourite restaurant. “Thanks God! What a great start to the day!”
Or, we wake up in the morning, and our alarm didn’t go off. So we jump in the shower to find that there’s no more hot water left. We look in the mirror and it looks like we fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. And when we finally do get to work the boss chews us out for being late and asks us to work through lunch. That’s going to be a different prayer! But God is there through it all, and desires to have us talk to Him all the way through it.
This is a very difficult thing to do, and I don’t think that any of us will achieve this kind of relationship with God on this side of eternity. But the that is set for us is to be naturally talking to God about everything that’s going on in life.
Which leads us to our next phrase, “communication with God through Jesus Christ.” This is key.
God wants to talk to you, and for you to talk to Him, and He’s done everything possible to make that happen because He loves you very much. Love requires communication. To build any relationship – marriage, friendships, family –requires honest, ongoing, open, long-term, intentional communication. If I told you I loved someone but never talk to them except occasionally when there’s a problem and I need something from them, you would question my loyalty and love for that person. Right? That’s the relationship I have with my mechanic, not my wife, kids or God.
I hope you realize that God wants to be in a relationship with you. We gloss over this so many times that it has become part of the background noise of our faith. We take this for granted, but we shouldn’t. God knows your every deed, every thought, and every word you’ve ever said… and He still wants to have you around Him!
We shouldn’t be allowed to pray. According to the bible, if it wasn’t for God sending Jesus to die on the cross in our place, we would still be dead in our sins, and totally committed to living by our sinful natures (Ephesians 2:1-4, Colossians 2:13-14) . James 4:4 says that before we are saved we are an “enemy of God”.
But God loves you very much, and wants to be in relationship with you. He desires to communicate with you, and for you to talk to Him. The Bible says in Romans 8:34 that Jesus is continually “interceding for us.” That means that Jesus is talking to God on our behalf and making the case for why we should be forgiven and ushered into His presence and allowed to speak. The Devil, the accuser, stands there saying, “This person is a sinner that turned his back on you, and He should be sent to Hell and punished forever. That’s your rule God and you need to stand by it!”
But Jesus defends us saying, “Father, you chose that person to be saved. They called out to me and believed in me, and I took their punishment. Their debt has been paid because I paid it. They’re one of mine. That person has been washed clean and has been given the gift of purity because I took all of His shame and have washed them myself. Father, allow this one to come before just I come before you.”
And this leads us to our next phrase, “with the intention of seeking a closer relationship with Him.” That’s what prayer is all about. God has opened up His heart to us and has made a relationship with Him possible. He bought us back from Satan, death and eternal damnation in Hell. He loved us so much that He sent His one and only Son to die in our place because no one else could. And therefore, when we become a Christian, we live with that in the forefront of our minds, and we make the intention of our lives to grow closer to the one who loves us so much. Why do we pray? We pray in response to God’s love for us! 1 John 3:1 says:
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”
We pray to build a relationship with our Father whom we love and who loves us.
Have you ever walked into your home and smelled an apple pie baking in the oven? Or went into someone’s house in December and it just smelled like Christmas? Or you smell the scent of the person that you love when you are near them? Then you understand the feelings of pleasure associated with a wonderful smell. That’s what we are told our prayers are like to God. Throughout the Bible it says that our prayers are like a fragrant incense offering to God, something pleasing to Him. They are like a gift we give Him.
The Four Components of Prayer
And the final part of our definition gives us the Four Components of Prayer, “confession, worship, thanksgiving and supplication.” How do we express our love for God? How do we build our relationship with Him? There are things we do in prayer that will build up this relationship. At different times and in different ways all of these should be a part of our communication with God.
People sometimes struggle with what to say to God. These Four Components of Prayer will give you good guidelines on where to start your prayers, and what to say.
The first of the four is Confession which is a key part of building our relationship with God. In one sense, it is the beginning of our relationship with Him… though not exactly, since He created us and knows us before we ever acknowledge Him. But when we finally do acknowledge Him, the first thing we must do is confess our sin and need for His Lordship, presence and salvation to Him. We talked about that over the past couple weeks.
Confession and Repentance are the first things we do when we come to God, but they is also something we do throughout our lives to show our desire to walk away from sin and towards Jesus every day.
Next, as a result of our confession, repentance and forgiveness… we are naturally lead into Worship. If you struggle with worshipping God in your prayer life, then you probably struggle with confession, repentance and understanding your forgiveness. The songs on Sunday morning are actually prayer because singing is one of the many facets on the diamond of communication that we have between us and God. We are speaking words to God in song, and we are calling back to Him is attributes.
Worship is simply talking to God about who He is. It is telling God His attributes the same way that we do for someone we care about or are impressed by. We tell them about themselves as a way that we show love and devotion to them, or awe and fear of them. “You are special.” “You are beautiful.” “You are overwhelming!” “You are strong.” “You are skilful.” “You are so creative.” .” “You are powerful!” Worship is a natural response when we get a glimpse of God. We do this with each other naturally, and that’s what good worship music, and worshipful prayer is.
In Revelation 4:8 the angels worship God by saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” Holiness is one of God’s attributes.
Next comes Thanksgiving. Worship is talking to God about who He is, thanksgiving is talking to God about what He has done. The blessings and mercies that He has given, especially those we so often take for granted like sleep, food, health, family and the like, but most importantly, for salvation through Jesus Christ.
Listen to how the Psalmist gives thanksgiving to God:
Psalm 66:5, “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!”
Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
When we read about the worship in heaven in Revelation 4:6-11 we read them saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
Finally, the fourth aspect of prayer is Supplication – asking God for what we need. This is a huge stumbling block for some people because they don’t understand why their prayers aren’t being answered. They have asked God for things, made requests, and it’s not happening. So they get discouraged.
This is why I prefer the word “supplicate” to “request”. Supplicate is made up of two words: “supple” and “placate”. When something that is “supple” it is able to bend. To “placate” means to “please” someone. So literally, when we come to God and ask for something, we come humbly, bending our will to His, so we may do that which pleases Him. This is as much about bringing our requests to God as it is about Him teaching us to be humble before Him.
The key to understanding supplication is found in John 15:5-8. Jesus is talking to His disciples about how we relate to Him uses the picture of a grape vine and the branches that connect to that vine and bear the fruit.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
When we come to God in supplication… when we ask God for things… Jesus says there is a qualification to all our requests: we need to be connected to the Vine. If we expect to have any grapes, then we’d better be getting food and nutrients from the Vine. If we disconnect ourselves from our source of life and think our little branch is going to do anything apart from the Vine, then we’re crazy.
What does it mean to be connected to the vine? Are you ready to come full circle? It means we are faithful to the Four Core Christian Disciplines. Jesus says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” The opposite of that is to say, “If you ignore me, push me aside, do your own thing, and don’t bother listening to or studying my words, distance yourself from my people, refuse to listen to me as Lord, serve only yourself… no matter what you ask for, it won’t be given to you.”
Why? Because if we ask for things without listening to God, we’ll be asking with selfish desires and destructive motives! We will want things that glorify me, comfort me, meet my wants, fill my desires, make me feel better, make my life easier, punish those that I don’t like. We won’t be concerned about praising God, learning more about Him, building our character to become more like Christ, or serving and taking care of anyone else. When we stop pursuing Jesus through the Four Core Christian Disciplines, it’s becomes all about us.
James 4:1-3 says:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
If you have been praying for something for a long time and it’s not happening, check your motives. Why do you want that to happen? Do you trust God enough to believe that He already knows what you need before you even need it? Do you trust that God knows what He’s doing? He will answer every prayer you bring to Him. Sometimes “yes”, sometimes “no”, sometimes “later”. God is gracious enough not to give us those things which will harm us, or will not lead to His glory. Can you imagine what would happen if God said yes to everything everyone asked for? What a world we would live in! Praise God that sometimes He doesn’t give us what we ask for.
Let me close today with a few final, practical point about how to do this. We’ve talked about what prayer is, and the importance of it. We’ve discussed the motives of our hearts, and our need to humble ourselves before Him when we ask for something. I want to close answering a few practical questions about prayer that you may have:
What do I need to do to get started? (Or… How can I be more consistent?)
The simple answer is the one you have probably already heard, and is good advice for a lot of things. If you want to be a better writer, find a time and a place and show up and write. If you want a healthy marriage, set consistent and regular times to be together. If you want a strong family, consistently be together at meal times and at other times too.
The best thing you can do is find a time (morning, afternoon, evening, coffee break, lunch-time, before bed, before anyone gets up) and then set an alarm, put it in your calendar, and make that time sacred.
Then find a spot. A place were you know you can be alone, quiet and uninterrupted for a period of time. It may take some practice. You may have to get up earlier, stay up later, leave the house, or go sit in the car. Find a time, find a spot and be there.
I start praying but I don’t know what to say. What should I say?
You’re not alone in this struggle, a lot of people struggle with the words of their prayers. Some have been to prayer meetings with old saints who can pray for 15 minutes straight, in King James English, without even pausing to think or repeating themselves – and that’s a daunting thing to try to keep up with.
A lot of people struggle with what to say so they just keep saying the same word over and over hoping something will pop-out. “Lord Jesus, thank you Jesus for being my Lord, Jesus. I just want to, Lord Jesus, thank you, Jesus and just want you, Lord, give you my thanks, Lord Jesus just for being my Lord.” That can get very discouraging.
Here’s my suggestions. First, start with the Four Components of Prayer: Confession, Worship, Thanksgiving and Supplication. What do you need to confess to God today? What have you learned about God’s attributes in the past while? What has God been doing for you lately that you can thank Him for? What are your needs?
Second, if you struggle with what to say, bring your Bible with you. You’re already committed to studying it, now use it as the jumping off point for your prayers. There are lots of prayers you can pray – the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 are two famous ones. Use their words as a starting point for talking to God.
“Our Father in Heaven” – “God you are my Father, and that means a lot to me because I need a father right now. I need advice, and help, resources, and someone to discipline me..”
Third, bring a prayer book with you. I highly recommend “The Valley of Vision” which is a collection of puritan prayers and devotions. It has helped me for years to find to express what was inside my spirit. There are lots of prayer books, and prayers online that can help to give you a starting point.
How long do I need to be there for?
I’ve already said that the hope is that we would pray without ceasing, but the question of how long we need to be in prayer during our quiet times is a valid one.
Here’s my answer: God is pleased with whatever short time we give him, even if it’s a few minutes of prayer. However, God will always ask for more time, and no matter how much time we spend during that set-aside quiet time, if our hearts are connecting to God, it will never feel like enough. His intention isn’t that we have hour long quiet times – it’s that we would eventually be so used to talking to Him that our whole life, when we are at work, talking to someone else, resting, playing, or whatever, is spent in constant communication with Him.
Start with a short quiet-time – 10 minutes of Bible Reading and Prayer, and as you do that consistently, you will need it to lengthen and it should naturally happen. As you mature, you will need more time, and then you will learn to pray more often, wherever you are, and be mindful of the presence of God in every situation.
Do I stand, sit, kneel? What should my posture be?
Why do we fold our hands and close our eyes? It’s more tradition than anything. I teach my kids to bow their heads out of respect for God, to close their eyes to keep from being distracted, and fold their hands so they’re not doing anything else with them!
In the bible we see people Bowing (Ex 4:31), Kneeling (Psalm 95:6), Sitting (Judges 20:26), Face to the Ground, (Matt 26:39), Standing (Mark 11:25), Lifting up Hands (1 Timothy 2:8), Looking upward (John 17:1), Heads between their Knees (1 Kings 18:42), Pounding on their Chest (Luke 18:13), and Looking out a Window (Daniel 6:10).
John MacArthur says something very important about the question of prayer posture. He says, “Rather than external positioning, the Bible emphasizes the posture of the heart. Whether you are standing, sitting, or lying down, the important thing is that your heart is bowed in submission to the lordship of Christ. False religion places a premium on external behaviour, while true Christianity is concerned with the heart. And true prayer is characterized by an attitude of humility before God-not the physical posture of the person praying.”
Practically speaking: be in a position where you will be comfortable, but not so comfortable you’re going to fall asleep. Change your posture based on what kinds of prayer you are praying. If you are requesting, open your hands to show you are receptive. If you are repenting, place your hands palms down as though you are putting something down. Our mind naturally follows our body, so we can change how we are relating to God just by changing our posture.
Why aren’t my prayers being answered?
We’ve already addressed this when I talked about the motives of our supplication, but here’s a list of scriptural reasons why God wouldn’t be listening to our prayers and answering them. Essentially, these are ways that we separate ourselves from the Vine:
Unrepentant Sin, Secret Sins or Sinful Motives – Sin is like cotton in the mouth of our prayer life. God will stop listening if we have sin in our lives that He wants us to get rid of. We also can’t fool God into giving us something that we’re just going to use to further our own destruction or sinful wants. You may be able to convince me to give you 50 bucks to buy something you say you need … and then go turn around and buy alcohol, or drugs, or porn, or something else… but we can’t fool God. He knows what we want to do with it.
Stubbornness and Pride – This is the prayer that goes, “God, I know what I’m doing… and I’m not really asking your advice… but I could use some supernatural help to get it going. If you could just bless what I’m doing… instead of messing with the why’s and how’s… then that’d be good.” God says that people who won’t ask God what He wants, but just want Him to bless their own plans will “eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.” That’s bible talk for “they’ll get what they’re asking for.” Which isn’t good.
Half-Heartedness – God’s not a big fan of half-hearted people. We talked about luke-warm believers before. He spits them out (Rev 3:16). James 1:8 talks about the double-minded man who is “unstable” because he’s not seeking God, or himself, or anything else with his whole heart. He’s half in the world and half out.
I’m often convicted by the story in 2 Kings 13:18-19 where Elijah tells the king of Israel to take his arrows and strike the ground with them to show that the Lord will bring victor over his enemies. The king took the arrows, struck the ground three times and stopped. Elijah gets furious with him and says, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only cthree times.” The problem? The King’s lack of enthusiasm, his half-heartedness about being obedient and seeing God work. God doesn’t desire half-hearted prayers.
How can I pray for others?
I really appreciate the person who asked this question because it reminds me that our prayer life isn’t just about us and our own spiritual development, but is one of the key ways God has decided to work in this world. He has decided that He will work in this world in response to our prayer life. He desires us to pray, and He wants us to pray for others, so that we can see His hand working in our lives and theirs, and then give Him glory for what He does.
My favourite method of praying for others is what I call Praying in Concentric Circles. This all happens during the “supplication” part of your prayers. Here’s how it works: Start with yourself and your own needs. Then pray for the needs, comfort, salvation, and challenges for the people who are closest to you – your significant other, your kids, your family. Then work your way out a little farther – your friends, your church, your coworkers. Then a little farther – your community, your neighbourhood, your city, province, nation. Then pray globally for world missionaries, for the world events you know about on the news. If you pray in concentric circles, then it’s a little easier to frame your prayers.
(Here’s the link to the Sermon Video)
We’ve been working long and hard to be able to get to the practical aspects of the Four Core Christian Disciplines: Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance and Serving Others – and we’re close, but we’re not there yet.
Don’t Be An Ephesian
I agree that we need to talk about the “how-tos”, but as I said last week God convicted me that it’s important that we not begin with the practical side but by preparing our hearts. If you remember, I likened it to the qualifying lap of a car race – the warming of the tires which makes us stick to the road and not spin off when the race starts. The last thing I want you to do is begin working through these disciplines without an understanding of why you are doing them and who they are focused on. You’ll spin out in your faith and hit a wall by doing them for yourself and miss out on why you’re really supposed to be doing them.
You could fall into the same mistake as the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:2-4 – which is a very big deal. Jesus looks at these busy, busy believers who were doing all sorts of good things in and for their church and says,
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
His solution was the same one I gave you before – verse 5:
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
Do you hear what Jesus says to busy, religious people? Repent from your sin and get right before God. Then, get back to the basics of the faith (what I call the Four Core Christian Disciplines). Get your heart right, pray though Psalm 51, mean it with your entire being, and then start doing “the works” you need to do.
Repentance → Commitment
We read Psalm 51 last week and ended in verses 11-12 which say:
“Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
Now look at the next word:
Do you see it there again? Repentance first, and then commit to obedience. David’s heart is broken before God and he desires to restore the relationship he once had with God. He wants to be a “man after God’s own heart” again and so spends a good deal of the psalm dealing with repentance, but doesn’t end there!
“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and [then] my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and [then] my mouth will declare your praise.”
David, over and over, says, “God, I’m a sinner and I need you to forgive me, restore me and fill me with Your presence – and then out of that strength I will obey you.” We talked about this last week from Ezekiel 36. Remember verse 27?
“I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” God does the work and then causes us to move forward in obedience.
Think of the words of Isaiah 64:6 which talks about a group of people (the Israelites) who were once obedient and then fell into sin and disobedience. He says:
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
In Isaiah 57:12-13 the prophet says this:
“I will declare your righteousness and your deeds, but they will not profit you. When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you!”
There is no point in doing any of these good, religous things if you have not repented of your sin first.
And as if to drive that point home, David takes a moment out of the psalm to remind himself about the very heart of God when it comes to repentance. He says in verses 16-17:
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Notice that in verse 13 David says, “I will repent and then I will teach and share the gospel.” and in verse 14-15, “I will repent and then I will sing worship songs.” Our relationship with God is not primarily built upon our obedience to what He says – that is important, but that comes later. Our relationship with God is primarily built upon our understanding of our total depravity in sin, our desperate need for a Saviour, and our ultimate need for grace and deliverance through the blood of Jesus. It is not about our acts of worship, church attendance, how much time we spend in prayer, how many committees we are on, how many people we have shared the gospel with, how many verses we have memorized, or any other religious thing – it is about having a “broken and contrite heart” before God. But what does that mean?
Listen to the Amplified Bible’s version of verse 17:
“My sacrifice [the sacrifice acceptable] to God is a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart [broken down with sorrow for sin and humbly and thoroughly penitent], such, O God, You will not despise.”
The Good News translation says it this way:
“My sacrifice is a humble spirit, O God; you will not reject a humble and repentant heart.”
I really like the way Eugene Peterson puts verses 16-17 in the Message Bible:
“Going through the motions doesn’t please you, a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.”
We start at Repentance, then go to Commitment. We commit our lives to Jesus and to His Service forever. We switch allegiances from the Kingdom of Darkness (which serves self and Satan), pick up our sword, put on our armour and begin fighting for the Kingdom of God (which serves Jesus Christ our Lord).
Once we have repented, the rest of our lives will be spent drawing our strength and joy from Jesus. We give everything up to follow Him.
I said this a couple weeks ago – “If I am to love and follow Jesus, I must know Him.”
How do we get to know Him? The Four Core Christian Disciplines! These are a matter of life and death – spiritual life and spiritual death. If your heart is attuned to Christ and you are practicing these disciplines, you will grow in maturity and in love for Him and others. If you begin in repentance and then neglect these disciplines, you will grow distant in your relationship with Him and you will find your love growing cold, your spirit growing weak, your heart hardening, temptation more difficult to flee, and sin more attractive.
Two Sides of Commitment
I believe this is why scripture balances out the motives behind our commitment. Forgiveness of sin and eternity with Jesus is a wonderful incentive to repent and believe, but God gives us even more reasons why we need to practice these Four Core Christian Disciplines. They are so critically important that God gives us every reason we could possibly need for why we must practice them. In scripture we read both “Incentives” and the “Commands” for the Four Christian Disciplines. God gives us positive, feel-good reasons for doing them… and then commands us to do them even when we don’t feel like it.
I want to talk about this before we get into the practical side of things. Again, this is tied to our motives, the preparation of our heart, and the attitude from which we approach our relationship with Jesus before we ever get down on our knees, open our bibles, get in the car to go to church, or serve someone. I hope you can follow along with my logic here:
Consider Prayer. Jesus sometimes uses enticing, encouraging language to give us a desire to pray to Him – the soft-sell for why we should pray.
- “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)
- “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
- “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
- “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” (Jeremiah 33:3)
- “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
It’s like for all the Core Disciplines.
There are wonderful fruits given to those who will practice Bible Study.
- “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
- “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11)
- “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)
- “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 competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
There are promises for those who will be faithful in Church Attendance:
- “…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
- “…confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
- “…in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5)
- “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32)
There are promises for those who are faithful in Service:
- “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
- “Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” (Proverbs 11:25)
- “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)
- “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
- “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38)
These are all wonderful promises from God that when we are obedient to the Four Core Christian Disciplines that we will see amazing fruit in our lives. If we listen to our Lord Jesus Christ, and give control of our lives to the Holy Spirit, then good things will happen! We will see miracles, our needs will be met, we will have heavenly rewards, we will see forgiveness and healing, we will know the great and hidden things of God, we will live in peace and dignity. Hearing the Word will bring blessing and training in righteousness. When we are together with other believers, God promises to be here in a special way, the support we gain from others will bring us healing, we have a place to belong. Those are wonderful promises and are what some people need in order to get on board with these disciplines. They need to know it’s going to work, that He will hear, that Jesus will act, that our obedience to Him and communication with Him is the way that we are going to see His power in our lives. They need to hear that God will make changes in our world when they are obedient to Him. And that’s ok! We all need to hear the enticements, the soft-sell, and grab on to those promises.
Other times the incentives don’t seem like enough. We need to be commanded to obey. Consider these commandment verses on Prayer in contrast to the ones we read before:
- “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
- “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
- “…praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…” (Ephesians 6:18)
- “And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Luke 18:1)
Sometimes we need to hear those kinds of verses that simply tell us that we must pray, we should never stop, we are commanded to, we are implored to (Paul uses the word “urge” in 1 Timothy 2:1). Sometimes that’s the only reason that we pray – because we must. It is then that our resolve is tested, our relationship with Jesus becomes real, and our faith is strengthened.
Listen to these Commands for Bible Study:
- “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21)
- “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.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
- “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
- “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 119:15-16)
There are times the only reason we come to the bible is because of our commitment to do so, and our willingness to follow our Lord. It’s not about wanting to – it’s about obedience.
And for Church Attendance:
- “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
There are seasons where we just don’t want to go to church, we don’t want to sing, we don’t want to hear another sermon, we don’t want to be around people. It is during these times that the commands of scripture compel us to go – for our own good.
And to Serve:
- “And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:44-45)
- “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace…” (1 Peter 4:10)
- “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)
- “…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6:27-31)
There are times when we absolutely need to be commanded to do these things, because otherwise we simply won’t.
Sometimes, when things are going well, we don’t feel desperation for God and we don’t feel like we need to tap into the resources Jesus has for us. We don’t need Him because we’ve got it under control! We have enough money, we have a decent marriage, we are enjoying our work, our kids are happy, we are healthy. It’s easy to get complacent in our prayer lives when things are positive and happy.
On the other hand we sometimes don’t feel like praying, reading scripture, going to church, or serving others because things are not going well. God isn’t doing the things we expect (and want) Him to do. It can be easy to give up when we don’t see results: when we are not seeing the fruit, the good things, the rewards, the healing… when we are still confused and in the dark, when we have no peace. It is then that we need to have a different reason to pray.
There are times when God will bring us through a time of refinement, a time where we are going through the fires that are meant to purify us. There are times where we go through a “dark night of the soul”, where we walk “through the valley of the shadow of death”. At those times it is very normal to think He has abandoned us and to then start turning to other sources of strength – ourselves, our words, our anger, our reputations, our money, seeking salvation from other people, distraction from substances or entertainment. It is human for us to have a crisis of faith and want to stop praying when we are hurt.
I believe that’s why God has these commands – because we need them. We want all of our obedience to bring immediate blessing. We want it to work like our jobs – we put in 40 hours, at the end of the week we get 40 hours pay. But God doesn’t work like that.
We want Him to say, “If you are obedient, then I’ll immediately bring blessing.” But at times (more often than we wish) God plays the long-game where the blessings come later… sometimes much later. During those times it’s hard to grab onto the promises because they are hard to hear. It doesn’t matter how many times you read, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (Jn 15:17) because you’ve been abiding, and asking, and it’s not being “done”… at least not done the time and way you want it. You don’t want to hear the words of Romans 8:28 any more, (“…and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”) because you’re just not seeing any “good”.
It is during those times when the commands of scripture are what we need to grab onto. It is during the times of peace and rest, and of darkness and doubt, that we really build endurance, obedience, and when our relationship with Jesus can really grow.
Do don’t give up. Don’t quit. Listen to the promises of God and the commands of God and participate in the Four Core Christian Disciplines deliberately and passionately. Remember to begin with repentance, get your heart right with God, and then, for whatever reason is working for you that day – whether it’s because you are leaning on the promises of God, or simply because you are commanded to – practice those disciplines and see what God will do.
Meditation is a multifaceted and religiously loaded term. There are many Christians today who shy away from practicing meditation because they aren’t sure that it’s “allowed”. Let me assure you it is, and it is the key to developing a deep life and focus on God’s priorities for you.
Christian meditation only has two components: Stopping and Listening. Other religions have meditation as a religious practice, particularly eastern religions, but for them, meditation is designed to purge all thought, desire and will – it is to empty themselves. Christian meditation is not an emptying … but a filling of ourselves with God. In Christian meditation we focus on our obedience and faithfulness to God and the person of Jesus Christ.
First, let’s talk about Stopping.
For some of you that period of silence we just had before I came up was refreshing, for others it was annoying, and maybe even agonizing. Take a second and think: What was going through your mind? Godly thoughts? What was your body doing? Were you at peace, or were you keyed up? Some of you are so tired that if there is no sound or activity, you will just fall asleep. For those of you who are staying awake with me, let me ask you about your feelings about “stopping”. How do you see stopping? Is it a sin? Are stopped people, lazy people? What emotion does the word “stop” conjure up?
Christian Psychologist Carl Jung said,
“Hurry is not of the devil; it is the devil.”
Why? Because when we don’t stop, we cannot listen to God, love our neighbour, serve the church, or worship properly. We must make the time to stop. It is the first step in meditation.
John Ortburg, in his book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted” talks about “Hurry Sickness”, and he gives a few symptoms of people who are “hurry sick.” Let me ask you to identify any of these in your own life, because if you have “hurry sickness”, then you will not stop. And if you will not stop, you cannot meditate. And if you cannot meditate, you will not deepen yourself, or hear the voice of God.
The First symptom is “Constantly Speeding up Daily Activities”. Do you find that everything in your life is a race because you are plagued by the fear that there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done? Do you read fast, talk fast, and keep nodding so the other person will speed up their talking? Do you find yourself being anxious about which line to stand in at the store, or what lane to be in when driving? Do you ever find yourself rushing around, even when there’s no need to? You’re just so used to going at 110% that you can’t stop. Do you find yourself making up pretend races with your kids or loved ones so that you can get them out of the way at the end of the day? People do this. They tell their kids to race through brushing their teeth, and taking a bath, and then race through reading them a book… because they need to get them to bed. Married couples race through dates and even sex so they can get through it so they can do something else. Are you always speeding things up?
The Second symptom Hurry Sickness is “Relentless Multi-Tasking”. Do you find yourself unsatisfied, or even feel guilty, if you are only doing one thing at a time? Some people do. They can’t just read. They have to read with music, and the news on, with the computer on in the background, while sitting next to someone having a conversation. Some people can’t just sit outside and have a coffee… they have to bring a crossword puzzle, or a grocery list, or something else… because somehow just sitting there with a coffee is somehow a sin. Some people can’t let the phone ring… they have to answer it. Do you always have to multi-task?
Third, “Clutter”. A hurry sick person cannot fathom simplicity. They have every time-saving gadget in the world, and ten things strapped to their belt, and in their backpack. Their closets and bedrooms are stuffed to the brim with things they never use or wear, but will “get to later when they have time.” Do you lead a cluttered existence?
Fourth, “Superficiality”. Richard Foster calls it “the curse of our age.” Relationships are superficial because time is not given to deepen them. Marriages break down because the depths of love are not plunged. Spiritual life is superficial and unsatisfying, so people go to all kinds of sins and idols to fill their spiritual hunger. So many people live their life on the surface, and have no idea that there is a depth to existence they will never see unless they stop, wait and listen.
The end result of hurry sickness becomes an inability to love. This is the most serious danger of hurry sickness. We race and run and live a superficial lives and we become jaded to love, and unable to love. Why? Because love and time are indelibly tied. We cannot hurry and love. Love takes time.
When we hurry, we lose our sense of gratitude, and our sense of wonder. Carleton Place, and the Ottawa Valley are truly beautiful, but you won’t really experience its beauty if you whiz by in a plane or a car. To really appreciate it you have to get out of the car and take a walk, go on one of the bike-paths, or sit in a park. You’re spouse is wonderful, but you won’t fully experience that sense of wonder or gratitude to God for them unless you stop and truly experience them for a concentrated period of time.
Jesus knew how to stop.
And He did it often. He had the most important mission in the history of the universe, and yet He took time to stop.
When Jesus heard about the beheading of His cousin John the Baptist he was in the middle of an itinerant preaching journey. But he stopped. Matthew 14:13, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” But the crowds were relentlessly following him. So Jesus teaches them for a time, miraculously feeds them and then dismisses them. Now many of us would have went for a nap, or went with our friends somewhere, but Jesus sends His disciples away in a boat, and then stops again. Verse 23 says, “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” Why didn’t Jesus get swept up in all the things we get swept into? Because He stopped regularly to listen to God.
Before Jesus chose the disciples He stopped to listen to what God had to say. Luke 6:12-13, “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” We get the impression from the Gospels that despite Jesus’ popularity, people coming to Him day and night, dealing with family matters, having to train the disciples, teaching, preaching, miracles, traveling, the Pharisees chasing him down, and all the rest, Jesus took time away to be with God. If Jesus needed to do this… how much more do we?
Second, let’s talk about Listening
Not many people are good at this. And it is certainly not something that is encouraged in our culture. Richard Foster says,
“What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary of the heart.”
Think of your inner life like a building that you have been working on for some time. God started you with some materials to work with, your parents gave you pieces and tools to build more, hardships and life events added to the design, and so did your schooling and friends. You have this inner house built up that represents every part of you. But when you ask Jesus to take over your life, what you are doing is asking Him to rebuild your house.
When we stop and listen, what we are doing is giving God the time and focus to rebuild our house. During our meditation time, God opens doors that we had locked and stuffed full of anger, bitterness, and pain. He takes our favourite trophies down off of our shelves. He points out the structural problems and weak designs we have incorporated into our house. And He starts the process of rebuilding us. And in our listening we have time to ask Him, “God, does that have to go?” And we listen to when He says, “Yes.” And we ask Him, “What parts of me need to be added? What needs to be torn out? What should be kept?” And in our listening time God begins that work.
So often we love to go to others for this advice. And there is certainly a place for that. But if we really believe that we live in a universe created by a personal God who loves us and still speaks to this day, then we must listen to Him.
How to Listen to God
There are many ways that we can listen to God, but let me tell you the two most helpful that I’ve found.
First is listening to scripture. Open the bible and read it as though it was written to you. Now, I don’t mean bible study. I mean just take a bible, without study notes, and meditate on one part. Maybe one section, or one verse, or even one word, and let God speak to you about it. Use your imagination to put yourself in the place of Elijah by the stream, or Paul on the road, or become one of the throngs of people listening to Jesus on the mountainside. What do you hear, see, sense, feel? Meditate on scripture and let God speak to you through it.
Next, just get quiet. Take a period of time and just turn everything off and listen. Indoors, outdoors, wherever. Don’t pray, or talk, or read, or listen to music, or bring a friend… just listen. If you’ve never done this, it’s going to be really hard. Try it for 1 minute. Then 5 minutes. Then 15 minutes. Then half an hour. Don’t feel guilty if your mind is racing and you can’t focus.
Once you get to the 10 or 15 minute mark, grab a piece of paper and a pen, and then go find someplace to just listen. If something comes to mind that you need to do… write it down. I have to do laundry… write it down. I have to talk to someone… write it down. I should pick up frozen corn next time I go to the grocery store… write it down. Get it all out on paper and just listen. If you don’t write it down then you’re going to keep hearing the same thing over and over. Eventually your brain will stop coming up with distractions and you will be able to listen for God’s voice. If and when He speaks… write it down.
And then go check out what you’ve been listening to with the Bible and another Christian friend/Pastor. Simply say, “This is what I’ve been hearing from God and what I believe He’s saying… what do you think?” That will help you from being deceived, and will keep you accountable.
What do you need to do this week to get started?
1. Ask for the desire to listen. The ability and desire to meditate is a gift from God. Begin by asking Him for the want to and gumption to actually do it. This is certainly a prayer He will answer. God loves to give us gifts that bring us closer to Him.
2. Slow Down and Stop. Deliberately do things that make you practice waiting. Drive in the slow lane for a month. Get in the long line at the grocery store. And then find ways to stop. Declare an electronics free day, or week. No ipod, no tv, no cell phone after work, no computer after work.
3. Make Space. Set a time in your calendar that will be a meditation day for you. A couple of hours, or a whole day where you will just go and be alone and listen. Tell people that you’re going, and set the date. Then find a spot to be alone. Not the mall, or the coffee shop, or the gym. How about the park, or a place by the Ottawa river, or alone in your room? And don’t take anything! Nothing. Nothing. Nope, not that either! Ortburg says,
“Solitude is the one place where we can gain freedom from the forces of society that will otherwise relentlessly mould us.”
Who do you want to mould you, society, or God?
Don’t get worked up if this is hard for a while. No one can do this perfectly. But God honours those who seek Him… He promises we will find Him.
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.
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.
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.