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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Methods of Scripture Meditation

Given the exhortation in Sunday’s message to be people of the Word, I thought it would be helpful to describe for you one of the best ways to feed on Scripture. While the mainstay of our spiritual diets consists of reading the Bible, the Bible most often exhorts us to meditate on Scripture. Scripture meditation is simply thinking deeply about a short portion of the Word.
Some folks don’t meditate because they don’t know how.  I’d like to give you several methods of meditation that could help you to begin incorporating this discipline into your regular devotional time. Dr. Don Whitney, a professor of Biblical Spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, teaches on this subject at conferences and churches all over the country.  Most of the methods I’ll share today are from his lectures. 
The first step, of course, is to decide what verse you’d like to use.  It could be from your devotional reading, from a sermon you’ve recently heard, from a passage that you have memorized, etc.  It is usually best to use Scripture that you know well.  Since meditation is thinking deeply about the meaning of a text, we really need to understand the text before we try to meditate on it.  If we have studied it ourselves or heard a message preached on it, we’ll be more likely to meditate based on an accurate interpretation of the passage. It may be a good idea to just take one verse at a time, so that you don’t rush through the job.  Some of these methods will require you to be sitting down with a pen and paper.  Others you will be able to do anywhere.
1. Write the verse in your own words. 
This will require you to take the time to think about what each word means and how it is contributing to the overall meaning of the verse.  You may find it beneficial to re-write it in your own words several different ways.  You can then take the best of the best and make one final paraphrase.  Remember, the objective is not to come up with our own translation.  You simply want to use this as a tool to help you think through the verse and what it means.
2. Look for applications of this text.
Here you can set out to come up with as many practical ways of living the verse as you can.  Again, this forces you to think through exactly what the verse is saying in its context.  Remember, just because you are only meditating on one verse doesn’t mean that you ignore the context.  If you don’t know the context and how the verse fits into the material around it, you might as well not meditate at all because you will end up with wrong conclusions.  That is why I prefer to meditate on verses from books I have studied or passages I have heard preached.
3. Read or recite the verse with emphasis on a different word each time.
not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
… not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
… not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
… not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
… not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
… not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:9).
Here also, the idea is to think through each word and find how that word is contributing to the meaning of the verse as a whole.
4. Discover a minimum number of insights in the text.
You simply set a number and make that many observations of the verse.  Taking Eph 2:9 above as an example (with the context in mind), I could list the following insights:
            - there is a right way and a wrong way to be saved
            - works will not bring me to salvation
            - God saves by grace so that I may not boast of myself in my salvation
            - I can place no hope in my own works
            - no one has a right to boast before God
5. Ask the “Joseph Hall” questions.
Click the link and you’ll find a pdf of these questions.  They are simply thought provoking questions to ask of a text to generate insights. 
6. Ask the Phil 4:8 questions.
Phil 4:8 reads, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
With this method, you just take your verse and pose questions based on Phil 4:8.  What is true about this, or what truth does it exemplify?  What is honorable about this?  What is right about this?  What is pure about this or how does it exemplify purity? etc.
This method is particularly useful with narrative portions of Scripture.
7. Finally, pray through the text.
Again, using Eph 2:9 as my text, I could pray, “Lord, I humbly recognize that my salvation is all of grace and has nothing to do with any works done by me.  Please convict me of any boasting in my heart related to my salvation.  Help me to despair of fleshly works, knowing that I am saved by grace alone, and yet help me to be conscious that works should result from your work in my life.”
You don’t need to do all of these each time you meditate.  Just choose one or two.  Try them all eventually and you will find the methods you like best.  It’s important to remember that this isn’t for super Christians only.  We are all called to meditate on Scripture.  If we do, we will be well-equipped to persevere in faithful discipleship.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Wednesday Night Series: 2 Peter

On Wednesday evening, February 5, we will begin a new series on the book of 2 Peter.  This book shows how the grace of God transforms us into the image of Christ and empowers us to live faithful lives, even in the midst of difficulty. It exhorts us to grow spiritually, to beware of false teachers, and to be diligent in our preparation for the Lord’s return.
Our main objective for this study will be to understand the message of 2 Peter and to apply it to our lives.  A secondary objective will be to become more familiar with the discipline of studying the bible.  Ideally, we will each study the same passage each week and come together to discuss it.  However, for some it may not be possible to do much study outside of class.  If that is true of you, don’t let it prevent you from joining us.  You will still be able to glean much from our discussions.
Each week, in each passage we study, we will have four objectives:
1.     Observe the text.  “What does the text say?”
2.     Interpret the text.  “What does the text mean by what it says?”
3.     Apply the text.  “What does the text require of me?”
4.     Obey the text.  “What practical steps do I need to take to be obedient to the text?”
Our first order of business in the series will be to do a thorough overview of 2 Peter.  In my opinion, the overview is the most important component of studying the Bible, and yet, it is the most often neglected component.  It is natural to want to start digging into the first verse right way.  However, when we do that without getting a feel for the book as a whole, we can make serious errors in interpretation.
Context is king, so we must understand the context before we look closely at the particulars.  If you have been with us for long in our Sunday morning study of Matthew, you know that we often take a step back from our weekly text to be reminded of the larger context.  Without doing that, we are in danger of completely misunderstanding the message of any given passage.  For that reason, we’ll spend a week or two gaining a familiarity with the whole book of 2 Peter.  The first step in doing an overview is to simply read the book in its entirety repetitively.  There are only 3 chapters in 2 Peter, so this is very manageable.  I would encourage you to try to read through the book several times between now and the beginning of the series on Feb 5.
After reading through the text a few times, you can start reading it looking for specific things.  Here are the main things we want to discover when we do an overview:
1. Author – What can we learn about the author?  Of course, we know that Peter wrote the book, but does he say anything about himself? (Look for 1st person pronouns – I, me, my.)  Can we glean anything from the text about his circumstances or why he is writing the book?
2. Recipients – Who are they?  Where are they?  What are their circumstances?  The circumstances of the author and recipients of an epistle will be valuable clues to the purpose and themes of the book.  What do you learn about them?
3. Occasion – What is the issue or situation that has prompted the writing of the book? Peter is writing for a reason.  He is addressing a specific need or issue.  We call that issue or situation “the occasion.” Finding the occasion is like listening to one side of a phone conversation.  By paying attention to what Peter writes, we need to try to determine what is being said on the other line, so to speak.  Why is Peter writing what he is writing?
3. Key words – After reading the text a few times, you will start to notice words that are used repeatedly in the book.  What are they?  Make a list of these.  You can even mark them in a distinctive way in your Bible, if you like.  Write down everything you learn about these key words.  The reason we look for key words is because words represent subject matter.  These subjects lead us to the main themes.
4. Themes – What seems to be the key content in the book?  What issues are addressed?  What exhortations are made?  What rebukes?  You can make a list of these as well.
Our goal at the end of the overview is to be able to answer in one short sentence what the book is about.  It is time-consuming work, but what a treasure to become more familiar with the text of God’s Word and to be changed by it.  May the Lord bless the fruit of this our study together.
Again, the new study begins Wednesday, Feb 5 at 6:30 next door at Partners in Prime.  I hope to see you there!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Secret of Contentment

Are you discontented?  Is there some kind of tension in your life right now that if it were only resolved you would be able to be happy?  It is a good and godly thing to desire contentment, but the problem is that we frequently misunderstand where it comes from.
Most people assume that contentment is tied to circumstances.  The reason I am not content right now is because I don’t have enough money or my boss is a tyrant or my spouse is hurting me or I’m plagued with health problems.  And so if my discontentment is due to my circumstances then the way to contentment must be through changing my circumstances.  So I try to acquire more or I find a different job or I leave my spouse or get healthy.  But the uncanny, unavoidable result is that discontentment finds me in those new circumstances, too.
So how do we find contentment?  A good place to look is in the example and writings of the apostle Paul.  If you and I think we have cornered the market on bad circumstances, we need to reacquaint ourselves with his story.  In 2 Cor 11, he shared his experiences of great labors, many imprisonments, countless beatings and brushes with death:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea;
on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;
in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:24-29a)
We could read that passage and use it to console ourselves by thinking, “at least I don’t have it as bad as Paul did!”  But that is not the appropriate way to handle discontentment and it is not the reason I want to draw your attention to this passage.  This passage is helpful in that it helps us to see the depth of meaning in Phil 4:11-13, where Paul claims to have learned the secret of contentment.  If Paul, who so consistently encountered such horrible circumstances, was able to learn the secret of contentment, then certainly we can learn it, too.  Here is his claim regarding the secret of contentment:
…for 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 4:11b-13)
Most of us are well familiar with v13 – I can do all things through him who strengthens me – but I would dare to say that most of us do not know the context from which it comes.  Some people believe that Phil 4:13 is a reach-for-the-stars, be-all-you-can-be, anything-is-possible-if-you-just-believe kind of verse, as if even an NBA career is not out of the question for me as long as I have Jesus.  But this verse was never intended to encourage me to have ridiculous dreams.  Rather, the context indicates that it was intended to communicate the secret of contentment.
Paul learned through his many trials that the secret to contentment in all circumstances comes through looking to Jesus.  …I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content… I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  Whether in safety or danger, abundance or need, Paul found contentment knowing that Christ was with him, strengthening him through it all.
Traces of this attitude are found throughout his letter to the Philippians.  For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (1:21).  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…(3:8).  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14).  The reason Paul is content is because he wants Christ more than anything and he has Christ no matter what his circumstances are.
The truth is that discontentment comes from looking for contentment in something other than Jesus, whether that is more material comforts, a better work situation, an adoring spouse, or better health.  There is nothing wrong with desiring those things, but when they become ultimate things, discontentment will soon follow.  The psalmist writes in Psalm 16 that the only good worth finding is in the Lord:  You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you… You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psa 16:2,11).  If this is true, it is no wonder that we find ourselves discontented when we are pursuing something other than Him.  For this reason, discontentment is a good sign that we are not pursuing Him as we should. 
When we find ourselves in a place of discontentment, we should repent of whatever pursuit has taken our eyes off of Him and once again look to Him for our everything.  We should return to the Word, return to prayer, and return to fellowship with His body, the church.  We should trust Him for the strength to endure whatever unpleasant circumstances we are experiencing, knowing that we have no good apart from Him. 
Contentment is not merely is unavoidable if Christ is our highest good.  If we pursue Christ the way Paul did, we too will be able to say, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
Posted by Greg Birdwell