Friday, January 30, 2009

Worried?

The economy is in a shambles. The country is at war. The powers that be are headed in the wrong direction. Money is tight. Jobs are disappearing. Many of us or our loved ones are sick or dying. Workload stress is increasing. The walls are closing in.

What is a believer to do? Our natural instinct is to worry. We become consumed with every problem, contemplating each worst-case scenario, wondering when things will get better, dreading the possibility that they won’t. Am I going to lose my job? Will she ever be healed? How are we going to pay the bills? Why can’t they just leave me alone? We look for the easiest and quickest way out. We become filled with anxiety. Just like the world.

But God has called us to be set apart from the world in every heart issue that confronts us, and anxiety certainly is a heart issue. How a believer deals with adversity should look very different from the way an unbeliever deals with adversity. The church of Christ should not plunge into worry and despair the way the world does.

Jesus tells us plainly in Matthew 6:25, “do not be anxious about your life.” I’m not going to read the entire passage from which this comes – you can read it here. But this is similar to the things we’ve looked at in Ephesians regarding sanctification. And although Jesus doesn’t use the same terminology, we can find in this passage something to put off, the reason for putting it off, and something to put on.

Obviously, Jesus intends for us to put off anxiety or worry. It may seem strange to think about, but we must come to terms with the fact that it is a sin to worry. Worrying is one of those “respectable sins” that many people joke about. We say things like, “I’m just a worrier,” as if it’s just like any other innocuous trait we have. But Christ commands us not to worry, as does Paul in Philippians 4:6. Therefore, if we do so, we are disobeying. We are sinning.

What is it that is so offensive to God about anxiety? Jesus tells us in Matthew 6. He gives two examples from nature that demonstrate the Father’s providential care. God feeds the birds and God clothes the flowers. He then says in v26, “Are you not of more value than they?” And in v30, “If God so clothes the grass of the field…will He not much more clothe you, o you of little faith?”

God is offended by our anxiety because it is a denial of or doubt about God’s love for us and His providential care for us. No matter what our concern, God knows all our needs (v32). He has withheld nothing from us, as is clear from the cross of Jesus Christ. He has already provided for the most profound need we will ever have, that is, our need for a Savior. Paul writes in Romans 8:32, He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? The God who provided the perfect sacrifice for our sins is surely able to provide for all our other needs.

Jesus gives another reason to put off worry: it doesn’t help. In v27 He says, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Worry accomplishes nothing. It only makes us focus on ourselves and it expresses our lack of faith in the God who saved us.

What then should we put on in its place? He tells us in v33: But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. We replace worry with the work of the Kingdom and the desire for righteousness. What does that look like? If you are terminally ill or have a loved one who is, put off worrying about it and seek to find where in that situation there is kingdom work to be done. Ask the Lord, “How can I further your kingdom here?” Also, focus on how this crisis could be making you more like Christ that you might bear His righteousness.

If you’re financial situation is bleak, search for the opportunity to honor the Lord there. Ask the Lord to help you grow through that crisis so that when you come out on the other side, you will look more like Him.

Crises are opportunities. We get to choose what to make of them. We can either allow them to consume us, and fill us with anxiety and doubt about God’s provision, or we can see them as moments in which we can make much of Him and become a reflection of who He is.

This idea of crises as opportunities for the kingdom is reflected in Phil 4:6: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Not worrying doesn’t mean that we don’t pray about it. Rather, we make our requests known to Him, trusting Him to do what only He can do. But the key is that we do it with thanksgiving! What a dramatically different way to think about the troubles that face us. We are to thank the Lord for our trials, knowing that in them His kingdom can be served and our lives can be sanctified.

But what if God doesn’t answer the way we want? What if He delays in meeting our needs? What if things get worse before they get better? All the more reason to cling to Jesus words, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” When His kingdom and your sanctification become the focus of your life, you may be surprised how much smaller all those trouble will seem.

If your sickness is not healed, a heart in you that is seeking the kingdom and His righteousness will be able proclaim with Paul, For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil 1:21). If you have to live without some physical need, a heart in you that is seeking the kingdom and His righteousness will also be able to say, I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Phil 4:11-13).

Don’t worry. Christ is sufficient. Rest in Him. Seek His Kingdom and His righteousness. God is faithful. He will take care of His children.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Historical Narrative

Yes! Interpretation! This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Interpretation is what most people envision when they think of what it means to study the bible – that is, answering the question, “what does it mean?”

But hopefully I’ve made it clear that this cannot be the place where responsible bible study starts. First, we did an overview of the book. We needed to get that bird’s eye view road map so that we could see the big picture of the author’s purpose and main theme or message. Without that, bible study will begin to look much like my trip into any metropolitan area – you’ll have no clue where you are no matter how confident you may be that the opposite is true! You must have that map.

Second, we did our detailed observation of the book, where we focused in on the details. And actually, I mentioned that it is better to take one chapter at a time, doing all your observation on that one chapter, then immediately doing the interpretation phase on that chapter. Then you can move to the second chapter, doing observation and then interpretation there. So if you haven’t done your observation on the whole book, yet, that’s a good thing. Hopefully, you’ve observed that first chapter in detail and are ready to move on to interpretation.

One key idea that we must keep in mind when interpreting the bible is that we cannot use the same rules of interpretation on every page of Scripture. Why? Because although the Bible is one unified document, it consists of 66 different books. Those 66 books employ several different genres of literature: historical narrative, law, parables, poetry, proverbs, prophecy, apocalypse, epistles, etc. The type of literature we are studying will determine which principles of interpretation we use. For example, we wouldn’t use the same rules to interpret historical narrative that we use to interpret poetry. Historical narrative will employ little, if any, figurative language, as opposed to poetry, which will be filled with figurative language.

Because there are a number of different genres in the bible, it will probably take several posts for me to address the interpretive principles for each.

We’ll start with historical narrative. Over 40% of the Old Testament and 60% of the New Testament consist of this genre, so it is very important to be familiar with how to treat these types of the texts. And although the Bible consists largely of historical narrative, this genre is one of the more easily misinterpreted types of literature. This may be because unlike epistles or legal writings, the meaning of narrative is taught implicitly, rather than explicitly. Proper interpretation therefore requires a very, very clear understanding of the overview.

Robert H. Stein writes in his hermeneutics textbook, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, “The meaning of a biblical narrative is to be found in what the author willed to teach his reader by recalling this incident.” Stein goes on to say that the meaning of a narrative text can be found by filling in the following sentence, “I, Mark, have told you how one day Jesus was crossing the Sea of Galilee with his disciples when a great storm arose…because______________.” You can’t answer this question just by reciting the story of Mark 4:35-41. You have to find out what he wanted to teach us by telling this story.

Here are several principles that will help us to arrive at the place where we can fill in that statement from the previous paragraph.

1. An author's meaning is always consistent with the CONTEXT.
Contest is king!! That is why our overview was so crucial. Any individual narrative should be interpreted in light of the whole account. The whole account should also be interpreted in light of the individual narrative. It is a constant process of looking at the big picture then zooming in on the details then back out to the big picture, etc. In assessing the context of a particular narrative, we want to discern how that passage fits into the overall structure of the book. What does it accomplish in the flow of the book? When you believe you have arrived at the author's intended meaning, go back and ask the question, "Does that makes sense in the context?"

2. The author gives us clues about his meaning via AUTHORIAL/ EDITORIAL/ NARRATOR COMMENTS.
The author or narrator gives clues to his reader of how to interpret a text. Sometimes these are almost parenthetical, but very important. These comments do nothing to move the narrative along. In other words, they don’t usually tell what happened next. Rather, they give information, sometimes in the form of a summary, about the significance of what happened. One good example is in the creation account in Gen 1:31, And God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.

3. The author may use REPETITION to make his point.
Anytime an author uses a phrase or theme over and over, it is important and must be taken seriously. For example in the book of Judges, we see a phrase used repeatedly, And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. In conjunction with this phrase, we see over and over that when the Israelites disobeyed, God brought judgment upon them. Each time they repented, God sent a deliverer. It should be obvious that the author of Judges wants to teach us that sin brings judgment, but repentance brings salvation.

4. Careful attention should be paid to AUTHORITATIVE SPEAKERS.
The author places important interpretive clues in the mouths of various speakers. Authoritative speakers can be good or evil. In Mark, the demons know what they are talking about when they identify Jesus as the Son of God - thus what they say about him is important.

5. DIALOGUE OR DIRECT DISCOURSE often centers on the author's intended meaning.
When indirect discourse turns to direct discourse this is a clue that careful attention should be paid to what is being said. In other words, pay close attention to the words found between quotation marks. In John chapter 4, we find the Samaritans saying to the woman at the well, “It is no longer because of what you said that we have believed. For we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.” This is a huge clue as to why John included this account in his gospel.

6. OT QUOTATIONS are significant.
These are not always used to prove a point but to add emotive punch. One thing is certain - they are not there for no reason. Pay close attention to them. There are a number of Old Testament citations in Matthew 2. Each of them are used to show how Jesus fulfilled OT prophecy. That is a huge reason why Matthew wrote what he wrote in his second chapter.

Remember, we want to be able to complete the statement, “I, (author), wrote this account about _________________, because ______________.” Pay close attention to the 6 things above. It will also help to read and reread the text and to go over your observation notes and overview notes. Also, don’t forget to pray before you study. It will make all the difference.

Next time: interpreting parables.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Have Mercy

In the United States alone there are…
35.9 million people who live below the poverty level,
33 million people who do not have an adequate supply of food,
6 million people who are homeless at any one time,
1.1 million people who are living with the AIDS virus, and
500,000 orphans.

People are hungry, hurting, poor, struggling, and are in desperate need of help and they are in need of Christ. Why do we as Reformed believers, at times, seem hesitant to engage in the ministry of mercy? Where is the heart of Christ, towards those who suffer, demonstrated in our lives? What better opportunity do we have to tangibly obey our Father’s commands and to demonstrate His love towards them?

Unfortunately there seems to be a preoccupation with loving God with our minds and not with our hearts. We must be intentional in our love for others. As Reformed believers we are often intentional in our study, in our quest for more knowledge, and in our quickness to point out the importance of doctrine. But our intentional demonstration of compassion towards others could use a little work.

Fellow believers our aim should be to bring the ministry of mercy alongside the ministry of the Word. I John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth”.
Our desire should be to demonstrate mercy and compassion to a hurting and suffering world. It is through our acts of mercy that biblical truth is also spread.

Jesus, our example, was “mighty in deed and word” (emphasis mine), Luke 24:19. He “came not to be served but to serve”, Matthew 20:28. Jesus was intentional and active in His service to others. So should we also be.

A part of the vision statement for Bethlehem Baptist Church North Campus articulates this idea well, “to spread a passion for the supremacy of God happens by words of truth and deeds of mercy, as we make ourselves the servants of other people’s joy.” Our service to others comes from our devotion to God and through that service may He receive all the more glory.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

God of Our Many Understandings?

No doubt many of you heard Bishop Gene Robinson’s prayer at the inauguration on Tuesday. “O god of our many understandings…” Whoever that is, one thing is certain – it is not the God of the Bible.

Honestly, we expect such things from people like Robinson. When it was announced that he would pray at the inauguration, I doubt any conservative evangelicals held out hope that he would pray in the name of Jesus. But what is more troubling is how widespread this notion of one common god has become. Among those who would have no problem with Robinson’s prayer are Billy Graham and George W. Bush. It is now the popular and tolerant thing to consider that there is one god served by many religions, with many roads to this god and his heaven.

But is it true that all religions serve the same god? Is Allah the same god as Yahweh? Is it true that there are many roads that lead to heaven, that lead to God? If we let the God of the Bible speak for Himself, we have to conclude that there is no such thing as a god of many understandings. There is only one God…the God of the Christian Bible.

In Exodus 15, after the God of Israel defeated the Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites sang a song to the Lord, saying in v3, “The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.” Whenever we see “LORD” in all caps in the Bible, it is the rendering of the Hebrew name for God, YHWH, or Yahweh. The Jews have always believed the name to be so holy that they refuse to speak it. Instead, as they read the Hebrew text, when they come to the word YHWH, they say in its place, “Adonai,” the Hebrew word for Lord. God has made known His name. It is Yahweh. It is not Allah or anything else.

And some may say, “The Bible uses many names for God.” That is true. But they are all found in the Bible. "Allah" is not found in the Bible. "Buddha" is not found in the Bible.

The notion that there are many valid religions with many modes of worship all serving a common god is abhorrent to the God of the Bible. Indeed, in the Old Testament, God was very particular about how He was to be worshiped. In the books of Exodus and Leviticus, He outlines in painstaking detail precisely how the Israelites were to approach Him. In Leviticus 10, we find out just how particular God is. When two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, approached to worship in an unauthorized manner, they were immediately consumed with fire from the LORD. Can we really think that this God is served by all modes of worship in all the religions of the world?

If we accept Robinson’s god of many understandings, we would have to agree that there is no such thing as a false god. But the God of the Bible holds no such conviction. According to the Word, not only are there false gods, but they are dangerous because they lead people away from the One True God. He wanted all worship of false gods to be obliterated. In Deut 12, the Israelites were given orders about what they were to do when they came into the promised land: 2 You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place.

Talk about intolerant! But that’s not all. According to Deuteronomy 7, the Israelites were commanded to utterly destroy not only the places of pagan worship the pagan nations themselves, lest the Israelites be tempted to serve their false gods.

No doubt someone will say to me, "You are only looking at the God of the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament is a God of love and non-condemnation." Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the New Testament is even more exclusive than the Old. The God of the New Testament is indeed a God of love, but He is also a God who condemns to hell all who do not believe in His Son, Jesus Christ. And in that way, He is as intolerant and exclusive a Being as you will ever find. The exclusivity of Christ is precisely what removes the possibility of the God of the Bible being but one facet of this god of many understandings embraced by Gene Robinson.

Do all roads lead to God? Consider these words:

John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through me.”

John 3:18, “Whoever believes in him [Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

John 1:12 But to all who did receive him [Christ], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

Acts 4:12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

If I cited every such verse in the New Testament, we would be here quite a while. But the message is clear: anyone who does not embrace Jesus Christ as God, does not embrace the One True God. By today’s standards, Jesus would be considered the most intolerant person on the planet. Indeed, if He came today making the same exclusive statements that you read above, I have no doubt He would be crucified all over again.

So the question is this: can a God who demands that He alone be honored as the One True God be considered just one manifestation of Robinson’s god of many understandings? As God defines Himself, there is but one legitimate understanding of who He is. He is the God of the Christian Bible and there is salvation in no one other than His only Son, Jesus Christ. He is by His own words a profoundly exclusive God.

So to whom was Gene Robinson praying? According to 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 and 1 Timothy 4:1, if it wasn't to the God of the Bible, it was to demons.

In his attempt to be inclusive, Robinson excluded the only God who could have heard and answered his prayer. His implicit denial that there is one legitimate understanding of God is at the same time a denial that Jesus is God. Robinson’s love for the approval of men brings to my mind Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:32-33, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

On the day of judgment, neither Gene Robinson nor anyone else will be confronted with a god of many understandings. There will only be the One True God. And only those who belong to His Son, who have embraced Him alone as Lord, will be welcomed into paradise.

And it may seem foolish, ironic, and intolerant to the world, but that is the most loving message there is.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Studying the Bible: Observation

Our next phase in studying the bible is another stage that is frequently skipped. There is the temptation once again to go straight to interpretation. But interpretation asks the question, “What does it mean?” Trying to answer that question before asking the observation question – “What does it say?” – can lead to serious errors. We can’t know what it means before we know what it says.

So in the observation stage, all we are doing is working our way through the text finding the cold hard facts. Since we already have determined the main theme and the purpose, and we have charted the book paragraph by paragraph, much of our observation has been done. We know the big idea behind the writing of the book. Now we want to take a closer look, verse by verse, to see how each verse relates to the main theme.

I recommend doing this by the major sections that you identified in your overview, so that you do all the steps of observation on the first section before moving on to the second.

The first step of observation is asking questions of the text. Work your way through the first section asking who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. Focus just on the obvious. The obscure will become clearer later on. As you go through the text, write down the answers to these questions. You can do this on another piece of paper, or you might find it helpful to print the chapter off of the internet and take your notes in the margin directly beside the verses. Bible Gateway is a great site where you can find most translations.

Who? Who is writing? Who is the recipient? If it is a narrative portion of Scripture, who is present? Who has dialogue? To whom are they speaking? Who is mentioned?

What? What is happening? If there is dialogue, what is said? What are the main events? What are the major ideas? What key words or phrases are used? (This one is huge. You may find as you take a closer look at a major section that it has key words unique to that section, which you didn’t notice during your overview. These words will always be significant. Write them down for later steps in your observation.) What kind of sentences are used – commands, questions, exclamations, statements, exhortations, rebukes, prayers, Scripture quotations, etc?

When? When are the events taking place? When will they take place? Are there time reference words indicating past, present, or future? Words like first, then, after, until? What is the sequence of events?

Where? Where did this take place? Where is the author? Where is the recipient? Where will it take place?

Why? Why is so much being said about this issue? Why is so little being said about this issue? Why should we do this? Why should we not do this? Why is that detail mentioned? Are there any clues about why things are being said or done? If there are key words in this section that are not in other sections, why is that?

How? Is there an explanation about how things are done? How is this truth illustrated?

The only question we do not want to try to answer yet is “what does this mean?” It’s fine to have that question in your mind about a certain detail or statement in the text, but it is too early to be answering that question. If you develop interpretation questions as you do your observation, write them down on another piece of paper, noting the verse or verses to which the questions pertain. You can return to those later when we get to the interpretation stage.

The second step of observation is marking key words and phrases. This may be another good reason to print the text off of the internet, although some people don’t have any problem marking the words directly in their bible. Key words are words the author uses repeatedly or words that are so important that removing them would leave the text without meaning. I always consider references (including pronouns) to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to be key words. It is helpful to mark each key word in a distinctive way. You may want to use unique symbols and colors.

It is a good idea to read through the text marking only one key word at a time. So if you have eight key words, you will read the section eight times. Again, repetitive reading pays dividends. One huge benefit of doing this, is that without knowing it, you will begin to memorize large chunks of Scripture.

Be sure that you don’t go into autopilot, mindlessly marking words and phrases. Prayerfully engage the text as you read it.

The third step of observation is to make lists of what you learn from the text about each key word. This is a concrete representation of what the text says, so that later we can answer the question, “what does it mean?” If we were to make a list of the things we learn about the key words in Ephesians chapter one, we would find that the list about God and the list about Christ would be very long lists. This gives a big hint as to what Paul’s main point is.

The fourth step is to mark words of conclusion, comparison, and contrast. Words of conclusion are words like then, therefore, meanwhile, for this reason, for, as a result. It is important to mark these words and try to follow the pattern of thought that connects the paragraphs or sentences on either side of the word of conclusion. We have seen numerous instances of these words in Ephesians. For example, Ephesians 2:8 says, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. This word marks the main point Paul has tried to communicate in the previous 7 verses. It is the conclusion he wants us to draw from that passage.

Words of comparison refer to things that are similar or alike, or in some cases, should be similar or alike. Frequently, the words like or as show a comparison. Make note of the things that are compared. We saw one major word of comparison in Ephesians 4:32: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. This verse holds up the ultimate standard against which we should compare our compassion for other people.

Words of contrast are words like but, however, on the contrary, on the other hand, or nevertheless. When you see these words, determine if two things are being contrasted. If they are, write down what is being contrasted. One great example in Ephesians is in 5:8: For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light. A huge point being made in the entire second half of Ephesians is that our lives after Christ should look nothing like our lives before Christ. This word of contrast highlights that for us.

Again, this is a lot of hard work. Hang in there and keep digging. Once you have finished these steps, then you will be ready for the next stage, interpretation.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Selected Psalms: Psalm 15

I was reading the psalms of the day this morning and found something beautiful. (I may have mentioned “the psalms of the day” before. It’s a reading plan that I got from Dr. Donald Whitney. There are five psalms for each day. The first psalm of the day corresponds to the date. Today is the 15th, so Psalm 15 was the first psalm of the day. You then add 30 to that to get the second psalm. So, the second psalm today was Psalm 45. To get the 3rd, add 30 to that. To get the 4th, add 30 to that. To get the 4th, add 30 to that. Since Psalm 119 is so long, you read it alone on the 31st of the month. With this plan, you can read through all the psalms in one month.) I found a wonderful picture of “already-not yet” sanctification in the psalms.

We’ve spent the last several Sunday mornings dealing with the issue of sanctification, which is the process whereby I become less like the old self and more like Christ. More than once, we approached the concept of “already, not yet.” There are elements of the kingdom of God that in one sense have already been accomplished or fulfilled. And those same elements in another sense have not yet been accomplished or fulfilled. Sanctification is one of those elements.

There is evidence in the New Testament that believers are already sanctified. In 1 Cor 1:2, Paul addresses the recipients of his letter: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…” If you are familiar with the book of 1 Corinthians, you know that the church there could be characterized as anything but sanctified in their conduct. They were divided, they were sexually immoral, they tolerated sin in the body, their times of communion looked more like an eating and drinking contest…they had a long way to go on their journey toward holiness. And yet, Paul refers to them as those sanctified in Christ Jesus. It’s the prepositional phrase that makes the point. Their position in Christ is the sense in which their sanctification had already been accomplished. Galatians 3:27 says, For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. When God looked on the Corinthian church, He saw only the righteousness of Christ clothing them. Therefore, He counted them already sanctified, though in their conduct, they were not yet sanctified.

Now, Psalm 15 is a daunting read.

15:1 O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?

Who can be in the presence of the Lord? What kind of person can stand in His presence? The answer the psalmist gives to that question is both challenging and disheartening at the same time.

2 He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart;
3 who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
4 in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD; who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
5 who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.

I don’t know about you, but as I read through those verses, I find myself missing the mark on several counts. I tend to do a little better the further I get in the Psalm. I’m okay on v5 – I’ve never charged anyone interest and I’ve never taken a bribe against the innocent.

v4 is tougher. When he says, who swears to his own hurt and does not change, he means that he keeps his promises even if it ends up being very costly to him. I know I’ve broken promises. I’m guessing you probably have, too. v3 really hurts – who does not slander with his tongue. We talked about that last Sunday. Who hasn’t spoken evil against someone? Who hasn’t done evil against a neighbor? I suppose v3 counts everyone out.

But v2 is devastating. He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart. He who walks blamelessly. The word translated “blamelessly” means complete. It carries the idea of moral perfection. So who can be in the presence of the Lord? The one who lives a perfectly moral life.

It’s devastating, but at the same time it creates in me the desire to get there. I know I’m nowhere close to that standard, but I want to be in the presence of the Lord. I want to please Him. I want to be like Him. Reading Psalm 15 leaves me profoundly aware of how far short I am of being worthy of God’s love and attention and it leaves me hungering for holiness. I am not yet sanctified.

But the second psalm today was Psalm 45. It is a messianic psalm, which means that it speaks of Christ. We know that beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is a messianic psalm because Hebrews 1:8-9 quotes Psalm 45:6-7, applying it to Jesus.

Psalm 45:6-7 Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness;
7 you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.


When he refers to the scepter of uprightness, it means that the one who holds the scepter is upright. Uprightness and blamelessness (in Ps 15:2) are used synonymously in the Old Testament. v7a - you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness – echoes the same idea as v4 in Psalm 15 – in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD.

So, we can ask again the questions in Psalm 15:1: O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? The answer is that there is only One who is worthy: Jesus Christ. He is the only One who in Himself meets the standard of righteousness described in Psalm 15. I, in my own strength, in my own righteousness, in my own conduct, in my own merit can never meet that standard in this life. I am not yet sanctified.

But praise God for the truth of Galatians 3:27:

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

By grace through faith, I have been baptized into Christ. I have clothed myself with Christ. I am already sanctified. I may dwell in His holy hill.

Praise God for Jesus Christ, the righteous (1 John 2:1). For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).

May we strive toward a righteousness in our conduct that matches our righteousness in Christ, desiring more than all else to please the God in whose tent we dwell by His grace.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Studying the Bible: The Overview, Part 2

First of all, remember not to look at commentaries, yet. And I forgot to mention last time, that if you have a study bible with footnotes, like the MacArthur Study Bible or the ESV Study Bible, try not to read those either. We want to allow the text to speak first.

We also want to remember to pray before studying, recognizing that without the Holy Spirit’s guidance, our effort is pointless.

Today we want to look at the huge task of discerning the main theme of the book. What is the main idea? We also want to discern the purpose of the book. The purpose and the main theme are not the same thing. The purpose is why it was written. The main theme is the what of what was written. They always work together; they never contradict each other.

For example, in the book of 1 John, John tells explicitly in 5:13 why he wrote the book: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. If we then closely read the book of 1 John in light of that purpose, we quickly find that each chapter is playing a role in the accomplishment of that purpose, which leads us to the main theme of the book.

So the questions that must be answered are: what is the purpose? And, what is the main theme? Generally, the purpose will be easier to find, and it will then help you discern the theme. The book you are studying may tell you very explicit the purpose for its being written.

If you are studying 2 Timothy, there is a great hint in chapter one. Paul doesn’t explicitly say, “I am writing to you to…”, but he does write something very close. If you can pick that out of chapter 1, you’ve got your purpose. Then if you read the rest of the book in light of it, you’ll be well on your way to discerning the theme.

If the book doesn’t explicitly tell you the purpose, review the list of things you observed about the author and the recipients. Frequently, these things will point you in the right direction. If you are studying Philippians, you’ll find that Paul doesn’t give an explicit reason for writing, but he does say something about himself in chapter 1 and his understanding of the purpose for his staying alive. That is huge and has everything to do with why he would be writing the book.

That next step is charting the book. When we chart a book, all we are doing is going through the book summarizing each paragraph in eight or fewer words. If you have a modern study bible that breaks the text down into paragraphs, that is great. You’ll be able at a glance to see where the paragraphs are broken. This is far more reliable than chapter divisions and verse divisions. The chapter and verse divisions were added by editors a few hundred years ago and occasionally come in awkward places. So read by paragraphs, not chapters and verses. One word of caution, though – if your study bible already has section titles giving the main idea of the section, do your best to ignore those. We want to discover things on our own before checking our work against the work of others.

As you take each paragraph, try to summarize the whole paragraph not just the first sentence or two. We want just the bird’s eye view. Don’t get bogged down in the details or tripped up by something that you don’t fully understand. We’ll deal with the nuts and bolts later. At this point, don’t read much slower than a skim.

One method for doing this, outlined in Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral – a method that I have adopted – is to take a sheet of paper, turn it side ways, and make a column for each chapter of the book. Under the chapter 1 column, write the verse numbers contained in the first paragraph (ex. 1-3) and then your short summary of the first paragraph. Then do the same for the second paragraph, and so on through the whole book. If you find summarizing a whole paragraph too difficult, summarize each sentence, and then try to summarize the paragraph.

Once you’ve summarized all the paragraphs, go through your chart and try to follow the writer’s progression of thought. As you do that, you’ll notice where he transitions from one subject or thought to the next, and you’ll be able to begin grouping related paragraphs into sections. Frequently, new sections are introduced with transitional conjunctions like then, therefore, wherefore, but, nevertheless, for this reason. Draw a horizontal line between each section. Do that for the whole book.

Then you can group those sections into your larger main sections. This may take some time, but hopefully you’ll have read the book so many times that you will have a good feel for where these major breaks are.

When I complete a book chart, I like to go through and give a summary title for each major section. This is very helpful in crystallizing the main theme of the book, because the main theme of the book will be a summary of all the sections together. And you should find that the theme lines up with the author’s purpose for writing the book. If there were no clear indications what that purpose was before you charted the book, the chart will help you with discerning that purpose. (If you click this link, you can download my book chart for Ephesians. It might be helpful to see an example.)

Finally, read through the book one more time, searching for a verse or phrase that most accurately conveys the theme of the whole book.

And that’s the overview. Now you know the author, the recipients, the purpose for writing, the key words and ideas, how the book is structured, the author’s progression of thought, and the main theme. It’s tons of work, but it will pay huge dividends in accurate interpretation. The overview will be your road map as you begin to take a closer look at the details of the text.

Again, feel free to contact me with any questions: greg@providencebiblefellowship.com.

Next week we’ll look at the second phase of a book study, Observation.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sanctifying Our Speech

In light of the very convicting passage that we looked at last Sunday, I’d like to encourage all of us to continue to strive for obedience in the area of our speech. Remember our text:

Ephesians 4:29-30 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

Whenever we decide to pursue Christlikeness, we can count on the fact that we will encounter strong temptation in the area we are trying to address. You may have found the last few days to be particularly difficult as you’ve tried to honor the Lord with your speech. It is important to remember that our ability to resist temptation is found in the power of the Holy Spirit through His Word.

One person in our church family recently shared with me that he quotes a couple of Scripture verses every morning to prepare for his day. I think they represent a great two-pronged strategy to resist temptation and live in a way that pleases the Lord.

The first verse is Proverbs 119:11, I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
Again, God’s Word has been given to us to train us for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, so that we will be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). It is a tool for sanctification. Jesus prayed in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” If we want to kill sin in our lives, we must understand the importance of spending time in the Word.

The second verse is Galatians 5:16, But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Not only must we saturate ourselves in the Word, but we must live in constant communion with the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? Romans 8:5 gives us a good idea: For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

To live according to the Spirit, or to walk by the Spirit, is to set your mind on the things of the Spirit, rather than on the things of the flesh. How do we do that? By setting our minds on the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. We must prayerfully submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit and actively fill our minds with His Word through reading, memorization, and meditation.

If you have found yourself engaging in corrupting speech this week, have you been spending time in the Word? Have you been walking by the Spirit? Have you been filling your mind with the things of the flesh or the things of the Spirit?

Sanctification is a difficult, lifelong process. We will never achieve sinlessness in this life. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:57). He has defeated the power of sin and death. Though we will struggle in this life and we will often fail, if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1John 1:9). If you have failed this week, confess it, get up, and move on with the resolve to continue to put sin to death through the power of the Spirit through His Word.

Our passage for this Sunday is another very convicting one:

Ephesians 4:31-32 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Begin to prepare yourself now by examining your heart for any traces of malice or unforgiveness that you may be harboring. God is calling us to graciousness.

See you Sunday.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Studying the Bible: The Overview, Part 1

At PBF, we talk frequently about the importance of feeding on the Word of God: reading it, memorizing it, meditating on it, studying it, and praying it. It is only by the intake of Scripture that our minds, hearts, and actions are transformed into the likeness of Christ. If we are going to be a congregation pursuing Christ, we must be a people of the Word.

That all sounds good, but the reality is that of the modes of biblical intake that I mentioned above, there is probably only one that most people would feel competent doing. Reading Scripture is something anyone can do. But memorizing, meditating, studying, and praying the Word can be very intimidating.

I’ve already suggested a great resource for memorizing the Word, An Approach to the Extended Memorization of Scripture by Dr. Andrew Davis. Prior to finding this tool, Scripture memorization had been quite a chore for me. I have been doing this plan for a couple of years now, and I can tell you that it has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. I challenge you to just read the plan and consider making Scripture memorization a priority in your life.

For the next several weeks (maybe months), I’d like to try to take some of the intimidation and mystery out of meditating, studying, and praying the Word. We’ll start with study, since meditating and praying Scripture will be far more effective if you know what the verses mean.
Bible study is more than just reading. It is digging into a portion of Scripture to learn what it says, what it means, and how it applies to everyday life. It’s quite possible to read the Bible and come away with almost no idea of the significance of the text. However, if we do it consistently and correctly, it is almost impossible to study the Bible without understanding far more than we did before.

There are several stages that we want to make sure that we include in our study of the Bible. These stages are: overview, observation, interpretation, and application. The elimination of any one of these will hamper our ability to accurately handle the Word of Truth (2 Tim 2:15). It is unfortunate that many people approach the Bible with the idea that Bible study is simply interpretation. The sad irony is that if we study that way, 99 times out of 100 we will end up with a wrong interpretation. Patience is key. Studying the Bible is hard, time-consuming work. It cannot be rushed.

Let me warn you against a common temptation. Because study is time-consuming, it is very easy to skip the hard work and go straight to bible study tools, such as dictionaries, word study tools, concordances, and commentaries. These tools do have their place. In fact, I would consider it reckless to complete my study without them. But to start with them, is to rob myself of the joy of wrestling with the text and discovering its truth on my own. So if you have some of those tools, don’t touch them until I tell you! :)

Before you can start to study, you must pick a book. There are 66 books in the Bible and all of them hold a valuable place in the canon. You may be drawn to what seem like the most interesting books, like Revelation or Exodus. My recommendation is that you choose a smaller book like 2 Timothy or Philippians. These are great to use to learn how to study because they are brief and relatively simple, not to mention very convicting.

Today, I’d like to talk about the first stage of study, the overview. One of the cardinal rules of Bible study is this: context is king. Memorize this rule. Love it. Don’t ever forget it. This rule is what separates truth from error. The context includes the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs surrounding any given word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph being studies that colors the meaning of that word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph.

Without an understanding of the context of a passage, not only will I miss the forest for the trees, but it is possible to come up with an infinite number of very colorful, but very wrong interpretations of Scripture. Any interpretation of a passage that does not make sense with its context is a wrong interpretation. If I ignore the context, I can support from Scripture the notions that there is no God (Psalm 14:1) and that Jesus was a glutton and drunkard (Matt 11:19). But if take the context into account, I will find that these interpretations couldn’t be further from the truth.

The overview of a book of the Bible is like a nice aerial photograph. You don’t see tons of detail, but you have a pretty good idea of the overall nature of what you’re looking at. You know the shape, color, and contour of the landscape and that information will be invaluable as you try to make sense of the details.

The first step in doing an overview of a book is to pray. Jesus told His disciples in John 16:13, But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth… It is essential to humble yourself before the Lord, acknowledging that without the guidance of His Holy Spirit, the Word will forever remain an enigma to you. Ask Him to guide you into all the truth.

The next step is reading. Read the book. Read it again. Read it again. And then…read it again. If you are studying a large book it may take a day or two to read it once, but don’t cut corners. (This is why I suggest a smaller book for you first study.) At first, the book may seem like a random collection of unrelated material, but the more you read it, the more you will begin to see the train of thought. Don’t take the time to try to figure out what is in the details, yet. All you want is the big picture.

After you have read the text multiple times, you can then read while looking for specific information. First, identify the obvious names. Read through the text, noting all the things that you learn about the author and his circumstances. You might want to make a list of these things. Read through again, noting all the things you learn about the recipients. If there are any other people mentioned prominently, make a list of the things you learn about those individuals. One of the major objectives of the overview is to determine the purpose of the book. Frequently, especially in the epistles, what you find about the author and recipients will provide a good idea of why the book has been written.

Next, you will want to mark keywords or phrases. Mark each word with a distinctive way or color. Having read through the text so many times, you will have noticed certain words that are used repeatedly throughout the book. In the book of Ephesians, various forms of the word “give” are used 12 times. Various forms of the word “grace” are also found 12 times. Keywords are important because they lead to key subjects, which lead to the theme. God’s gracious gifts to the church figure prominently in Ephesians. Marking these keywords help us to make that discovery.

Next time, we’ll look at how to discover the main theme of the book. This whole thing may seem like a whole lot of work…and it is. But what else could we spend our time on that will be more rewarding? I encourage you to dig in. Pick a book. Read it over and over this week. If possible, start to notice facts about the author and recipients and begin to mark those keywords.
Feel free to contact me if you have questions. greg@providencebiblefellowship.com

Remember, don't read commentaries or dictionaries, yet!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Year's Resolution?

I’ve gained a few pounds over the holidays. My face is a bit fuller and my clothes are a bit tighter. It’s time to take action.

So what is the popular thing to do? Make a New Year’s resolution. Whether you have ever made one or not, everyone knows someone who has. We resolve to stop procrastinating. We resolve to get out of debt. We resolve to eat right/lose weight/exercise. We resolve to read our bible and pray everyday. We resolve to do something designed to help us better ourselves by creating good habits or overcoming bad ones.

As I pondered my resolve to start exercising and eating right, I was convicted about how I had framed the situation in my mind. There were two problems. First, I had an unbiblical view of the problem. Second, I had an unbiblical motive for fixing it. As I explain what I mean, I encourage you to look at your own life to see if you have made the same errors I did.

My unbiblical view of my problem is tied to the human tendency to downgrade the seriousness of sin. Rather than seeing my overeating as disobedience and sin, I downgraded it to the status of a bad habit. We do this all the time. We take things that the bible calls sin and we sanctify them and pretty them up so that they look more like a simple nuisance.

One major problem with this is that we view our bad habit primarily as something that is holding us back rather than something that is an offense against the holiness of God. With that view comes a certain lack of urgency in addressing the problem. That is why so many people convince themselves that they can wait until January 1 to break the “habit.” But if we viewed the situation as sin, then there is a sense of urgency because to wait until January 1 is to compound the offense against God.

My sin, gluttony, has become what some might call an acceptable sin. “Everybody does it,” especially during the holidays. We joke about it. We look forward to it. We don’t confront it in ourselves and we certainly don’t confront it in others.

But what does the word have to say? In Deut 21:18-20, the rebellious son is referred as a glutton and a drunkard. Proverbs 23:20-21 tells us, Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.

Ezekiel 16:49 describes the sin of Sodom: Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Gluttony is no bad habit. It is sin. Is there something in your life that you have downgraded to the status of a bad habit, but that God has declared to be sin? If so, we shouldn’t think of a New Year’s resolution as an adequate solution. Rather we should address the sin with repentance and obedience.

So my first mistake was having an unbiblical view of the problem. My second mistake was having an unbiblical motive for fixing it. What was my motive for resolving to exercise and eat right? To look better. In other words, my own pride was what moved me to do something about my weight. I wanted to better myself.

This, of course, is the natural motive when I have first convinced myself that my problem was a bad habit rather than a sin. If what I am doing is not regarded as an offense to God, then I am free to see my breaking this bad habit as doing something to better myself. It is completely self-centered. The gluttony was self-centered in that it was born out of a desire to please my own flesh, and the solution to that problem was self-centered because it was born out of a desire to please my own pride. When I have an unbiblical view of my problem and an unbiblical motive for fixing it, I am sinning in the first place and the second. Both the problem and the solution are sin.

So what is the appropriate motive for addressing the issue? A desire to glorify God. God saved us so that we would be holy and blameless before Him for His glory (Eph 1:3-14.) My motive for addressing sin in my life should be so that I will be sanctified in my behavior, becoming holy and blameless so as to glorify God. The concept of bettering myself is nowhere in the picture.

Many Christians will resolve to improve their devotional life this year. They should understand that to not spend time in the word and in prayer is sin since we are commanded to do both (Eph 6:17-18; Phil 2:14-16; Col 3:16; 1 Thess 5:17; Heb 5:11-14). The proper motive, rather than being a desire to feel good about ourselves, is the desire to be obedient and glorify God by enjoying communion with Him.

Any New Year’s resolution intended to address something that the Bible calls sin should be discarded and replaced with a biblical view of the problem and biblical motive for change. It is not an issue of bettering oneself. It is an issue of obedience. Whether your sin is literal gluttony or spiritual anorexia (no devotional life) or anything else, there should be a sense of urgency that will not allow us to wait until January 1 to act, and there should be a conviction that will not allow us to stop on January 2.

Let’s not downgrade our sin and let’s not make our own benefit the highest reason to address our sin. May the glory of God be our supreme motive for all that we do.

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