Category Archives: bible study

Bible colouring exercises..?!

You must go on steadily in those things that you have learned and which you know are true. Remember from what sort of people your knowledge has come, and how from early childhood your mind has been familiar with the holy scriptures, which can open the mind to the salvation which comes through believing in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for re-setting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living. The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God, and fit him fully for all branches of his work.

(2 Tim 3.14-17: JB Phillips, the New Testament in Modern English)

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness….Teach the older men…teach the older women..so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men…set them an example..so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us…Teach slaves…so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and wordly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

(Titus 1.1; from 2.1-10, 2.11-14)

I am part of a group of women in my community who meet together to study the bible regularly. We use DVD’s, books, and occasionally an approach which I find hugely enjoyable, called Inductive Bible Study. It requires us to print out the bible passage with plenty of space on the page to scribble on, get hold of coloured pencils and start… there are a few key questions, but no study guide and no formulaic answers.

What is so good about this technique is the way it builds confidence in the follower of Jesus, confidence in their own capacity to hear God speaking through his word without a preacher explaining it to them! I love to listen to sermons, it is my favourite way of learning about the bible and receiving the word. BUT I also know that I need to be able to read and learn from the scriptures on my own and in a small group, so this technique for bible study is very encouraging.

Perhaps you can guess from the texts quoted above that our study recently was the book of Titus – all three chapters in one session. It was fantastic fun! We traced the key ideas which cropped up all through the book, and all of a sudden, something which we had initially read rather mechanically, became enthralling and relevant to us here and now. If you are not familiar with Titus, and assume that since Paul wrote it, there must be some difficult arguments and hard concepts in it, please think again! The book is a delightful exposition of what it looks like to grow in the ‘knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness‘, basically a handbook of practical christian holiness.

In Titus, we are reminded over and over that God is trustworthy, his word is true and comes to us through the scriptures and the preaching and teaching of that word. In our culture where everything is relative and the devil would have us believe that there is no such thing as truth, how we need to remember and affirm the truth about Jesus, about God, holiness and judgement. We are warned to be on guard against those within the church as well as in our culture, whose beliefs and actions are deceitful and self-promoting. And we are reminded that our growth in godliness, in purity and the lovely qualities of Christ-likeness to which we aspire, should speak as loudly as our words in showing Jesus Christ and the gospel of salvation to those around us.

What a challenge Titus gives us: is my life self-controlled, upright and godly? Am I reverent, eager to do what is good, not a gossip or a glutton? Am I encouraging others to grow in their faith, and waiting in confident hope for the glory to come? None of these things are a means of earning the salvation which God’s grace gives; rather they are all manifestations of my response to that free gift.

May God stir up within me a spirit of thankfulness, dependence and eagerness to grow in godliness, so that I too might ‘make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive’.

 

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Never stop learning!

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

(Prov 9.9&10)

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart…Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I trust your commands…It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees…Your statutes are my heritage for ever; they are the joy of my heart. My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.

(Ps 119.33,34,66,71,111,112)

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

(Heb.4.12&13)

I was greatly blessed recently by the presence in our home of two of the brightest saints I know, whose company is always a joy and encouragement, and whose zest for life and the service of their Saviour is unquenchable. It was an honour, but also a very humbling experience, to see their strength in the Lord’s service, their zeal for his glory, and their vigour. They would claim no special talents, but only boast of the wonderful God who has enabled them for a lifetime of service – on the mission field in Africa, and here in Scotland – which continues in their “retirement”, with a schedule that would leave many of us gasping.

In the course of one of our many conversations, we touched on the importance of having a “teachable spirit”, and by that we did not mean being one who pursues learning for the sake of head-knowledge, but rather the one who is always aware that they are not yet what God desires them to be, and that there is always something to learn. The verse from Proverbs puts it beautifully, showing that wisdom can ALWAYS be added to, and that those who truly seek to grow in godliness will find God willing to teach them. Those who fear the Lord, will truly make it their aim to be life-long learners, pursuing to the very end of their days a deeper understanding of his word and of how he desires us to live.

There are perhaps two distinct kinds of wisdom in view here. Firstly, that which we direct ourselves, through our choices in reading, listening and watching. As followers of Christ, we can choose to engage with the bible in a way that helps us to understand deep truth, to wrestle with moral and ethical issues in the light of its teaching, so that our witness will be informed, humble and truthful. This is where conscious choice operates, perhaps based on events around us, or on topics which have arisen in conversation or in a sermon.

The other kind of wisdom is directed by our own circumstances, or those of our loved ones, where we have little or no control over events and cannot forsee where they are taking us. When the psalmist writes that it was “good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees”, he is touching on a mysterious truth. Human beings learn faith best under adverse circumstances; our pain and suffering drive us beyond our own resources to admit that we are not in control and to cling to God for strength and aid in our extremity of need.

My visitors have known both kinds of learning, and their lives testify that they continue to seek after God’s truth both in their deliberate study of his word and also as they experience trials of many kinds. It takes humility to admit that after decades of following Christ, one still has things to learn, and that is what we meant by that phrase a “teachable spirit”. Do I have it?…

When I find myself impatient with the failings of others….Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn your patience, because you have not given up on me;

When I find myself confident in a human being, trusting in an organisation and a structure……Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn that all men are as grass, frail and fallible and none may be truly relied upon save you alone;

When I find myself despairing of my own failings…..Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn to live in the light of your promises, resting on the assurance of your putting away of all my guilt through the death of Jesus for me;

When I become proud, and independent….Lord, forgive me, bring me back to utter dependence on you and grant that I might learn to walk ever more closely with you.

A prickly character….?

Now we ask you brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you , brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.

(1 Thessalonians 5.12-15)

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

(Romans 12.18)

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of  no advantage to you.

(Hebrew 13.17)

One of the most amazing signs of God’s love and grace is the continued existence of his church in the world. Think about it for a moment..Within a few short years of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the gospel had spread across the known world – all very good and encouraging – BUT the infant church was riddled with divisions, hostility and false teaching. The letters to the young churches in the New Testament address a depressingly familiar set of problems, and Paul, Peter and John must have wondered what on earth the future could possibly hold for the church as a whole!

Although I have referred to the problems as ‘depressingly familiar’, there is also a sense in which we can be profoundly encouraged..Why? because in spite of the chronic weakness and persistent failures of believers from the very beginning, the church still exists! God has preserved the witness of his people, has extended the reach of the gospel and continues to transform lives around the world through the power of the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross.

I have been struck afresh recently by just how very hard it must be for our leaders to maintain their energy, hope and vision for the work to which God has called them. Consider the gulf between the ideal church, as described in the extracts above, and the gruesome reality.

Instead of being respected, leaders are taken for granted, put upon and made to suffer unrealistic expectations. Instead of being a people on fire for the gospel, with hearts full of love and practical ways of reaching out, we are largely lukewarm, nominally committed, preoccupied with other parts of life, and indifferent to the call to pray and dig into the word that we might grow and share our faith. Instead of regarding ourselves as fellow labourers, we sit back and criticise when our favourite hymns are not sung, or a visit is not made, or someone sits in our seat. Instead of seeking to live lovingly and peaceably, we indulge our grudges and become touchy, prickly, hard to work with and dangerous to cross.

We are not a beautiful sight, we sheep of the great shepherd. We are lazy, ignorant, easily distracted and selfish. These are not pleasant words, but if we consider our own lives and look around us, we can see their truth. If all the people who – on paper – are members of our churches were living as the apostles describe, and living with a passion to see God glorified in their lives and communities, what a difference there would be. How our pastors and teachers would rejoice when they came to meet with their flocks, seeing the eagerness to learn, to praise, to seek God’s will and power at work in this world. How their labours would be lightened as they humbly wrestled with the word, preparing to share it with the people that we might all learn and grow.

Yes, of course, this side of heaven the church will always be full of sinners who have been saved, and who are being transformed – but is that an excuse for not trying to engage more enthusiastically with God as he seeks to change us? Does the love of God in Christ not call forth a stronger response in us than dutiful attendance, and occasional participation?

I don’t want to be a burden on my pastor, a drain on his enthusiasm, a quenching of his God-given vision for the work. I want to be one of those who encourages him, whose attitude and presence gives him hope that God is working and can make a difference, one in whom he can trust and find sympathy and love.

May God find me eager to submit to his transforming work in my life, so that I might be good for his church, good for my leaders, good for my community, and above all, might bring glory to him!

A cold shower?

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word..

(Ephesians 5.25&26)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

(Psalm 19. 7&8)

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

(Hebrews 4.12)

Sometimes, the things which are good for us, are not the easy or comfortable things…as fallen creatures, we lean constantly towards the quick fix, the path of least resistance, and the minimising of effort and discomfort. But in our hearts, we know that such traits are unhealthy – in the long run, we will pay the price for our current bad choices.

Healthy eating, appropriate exercise, moderation in our spending and generosity in our giving…we know that these are good for our bodies and minds, but what about the nurture of our spirits?

The bible is very clear that for the follower of Jesus, there is an obligation to pursue holiness – a lifelong quest to become like Christ, in obedient and loving response to his sacrificial death for us. It is also made clear that left to ourselves, we will twist and distort this noble quest into some travesty of God’s plan – we become bitterly judgemental like the Pharisees of Jesus day, and fall into the sin of pride in our own achievements.

Praise God, that in his mercy, he has not left us alone to pursue this quest. Instead, we read that it is Christ at work in us, the Spirit moving in power, who makes the changes. And the tool he has appointed is his word, the revelation contained in the bible, which is God’s inspired and infallible word to us his children.

We turn to the pages of the bible gladly enough for comfort, and for inspiration, but there is a danger that we will choose to ignore those passages which come too close to our bad habits and cherished sins! It is certainly true that God is working to sanctify – to make us clean and pure and whole – but we are called to work to cooperate with him in that process. Such co-operation requires our willingness to be open to rebuke, correction and the death of pride. When God grants us faith to believe that his love is perfect, and has only our good as its goal, then we find the will to trust that love in action, in convicting us of sin, bringing us to repentance, and re-shaping our minds and hearts so that sin’s stain is forever removed.

I believe that we must discipline ourselves to submit every part of our lives to God’s searching and transforming power, holding nothing back. It may be that there will be things we don’t even recognise as sins until the Spirit takes the word and cuts through to the heart, showing us the ugly realities of thought and deed. God is merciful, he knows how frail we are, and does not choose that we should be overwhelmed by understanding all at once just how deeply rooted our sinful nature is – we are not able to bear such self-knowledge. Instead, as we open ourselves up to the truth of the word, he opens our eyes, little by little, so that over the years, he washes us clean of stain after stain.

These words of an old hymn express a beautiful prayer for such steady, cleansing interaction with the word of God – an interaction which should be just as much part of our daily routine as eating, washing and brushing our teeth!

Make the book live to me, O Lord, show me Thyself within Thy word;

Show me myself, and show me my Saviour, and make the book live to me.

(R. Hudson Pope)

Sometimes, it will be a comforting encounter, sometimes as shocking and bracing as a cold shower, but every time we open the word, we invite God to do something in our lives. All praise to him, that in his mercy he is working patiently and lovingly to make us holy, and beautiful in his sight!

How shall they hear?

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got – all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols….”It is plain to see that you Athenians takeyour religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, TO THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.

(Acts17)

This is the core of our preaching. Say the welcoming word to God – “Jesus is my Master” – embracing, body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation…It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help….but how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if  nobody tells them?

(Romans 10)

Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.

(1Peter 3)

All from The Message – the New Testament in contemporary language

When Paul stood up in the Areopagus in Athens, to direct the attention of this diverse and intelligently curious people to the ‘unknown god’ whom they worshipped, he faced a major challenge. Which language should he use?

As a Pharisee – a teacher of the Jewish law – he was skilled in using all the technical language which grows up around faith and the literature on which that faith is built. The terminology was second nature to him, and he was adept in drawing on scripture for his arguments. In his new life as an apostle, and a church-planter and teacher, these skills were hugely significant, equipping him to articulate and elucidate all the implications of the coming of Jesus Christ as the long- awaited Messiah.

But as he moved further from Jerusalem, and as the Holy Spirit moved him further from Jewish populations, he had to articulate and teach faith to people who had no background in the books and culture of Judaism, and no family history of observance to inform their understanding. Paul had to learn new ways to communicate this world-changing faith, this good news about Jesus Christ, which would be understood by people of completely different religious backgrounds. His speech to the Athenians as recorded in Acts 17 is one such attempt, and is often cited as a model for evangelistic addresses in places where there is no history of christian faith (and he didn’t hesitate to call for repentance in light of coming judgement!)

In studying this passage with folk at church recently, we agreed that in order to effectively share our faith with our neighbours – a thing we agree is right – we need to purge our speech of all the technical jargon which followers of Jesus tend to adopt. We need to have thought clearly about what is meant by salvation, about the incarnation and the divinity of Jesus, about resurrection and sanctification – all these big words which we use so lightly!

It can be helpful to read regularly in versions of the bible such as the Message, because they use contemporary language for complex concepts, and we learn how to express ourselves in the words of daily life when sharing our faith. I was challenged by this study, to think how readily I talk in an almost coded ‘faith-speak’ which would be incomprehensible to a person without a long experience of the bible. In the same way that I lack the knowledge to ‘read’ ancient religious mosaics, so my hearers will fail to understand me. I may well be speaking truth, but the message isn’t getting through!

If I am serious about sharing the good news of a new start in life, a real healing for brokenness and hope for the future, then for the sake of my neighbours, I need to put in the work and learn to talk simply and courteously about Jesus.

How shall they come to faith in God, if no one tells them about him? And if the words I use, and the life I live is too remote from their experience of daily life, then they will not hear, no matter how earnestly I speak to them.

May I become in this more like Jesus, who lived among us, full of grace and truth, and in his words and actions, spoke directly to the hearts of his hearers.

Keep me hungry Lord..

I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, O Lord; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.

(Psalm 119.10-16)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man or woman of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 2.15 & 3.16)

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

(Colossians 3.15-16)

I was always taught that it was important for a follower of Jesus to set aside time daily to pray and read the bible – and I suspect most of us know that it is a good habit to acquire, although we may struggle to establish it! We know in our heads that God speaks to us through the words of the old and new testaments, and that through them, we grow in our understanding of God’s plan for redemption and above all in knowledge of Christ Jesus our saviour.

But how often as human beings do we put into practice things which we know to be good for us?! It is an ongoing struggle for me to find ways to engage with the bible which do not become a rushed, cursory skimming of the text, and perhaps a slightly less rushed perusal of the commentary provided by printed or online notes.. I am almost too familiar with the bible, taking it for granted and assuming that I know enough to get by without trying too hard to improve and continually refresh my knowledge.

I do not believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to this challenge, nor even that what suits at one time of life will be appropriate at another. The single mother, caring for children and holding down a full-time job  will find it hard to make time for in-depth daily study – and her Lord knows and understands. A short dose of scripture morning and night might prove as effective and nourishing to her faith as anything more ambitious, because the Holy spirit will use that to speak to her need. Someone who learns better by hearing and seeing than by reading, will find recorded talks and short video clips stimulate their understanding, and prompt their worship and praise just as effectively as prolonged meditation on the complexities of the book of Romans!

The point is, as Paul writes to the Colossians – that the word should “dwell richly” in us, a beautiful expression which I take to mean that it ought to be treasured, to be alive in us, like a welcome presence, influencing every part of our lives. The great 119th psalm is an incredible outpouring of praise for the word, for the treasure which we have in it, and a reminder that it is only as we live by the word that we are in fellowship with God.

Paul writes to encourage the young church leader, Timothy, to work diligently at his knowledge of scripture, so that he can bless others through his teaching and life. We too, have a responsibility to one another to be as skillful in handling scripture as we can be, so that the body of Christ – the church – nurtures and comforts and grows stronger in unity as we teach one another.

When I consider my daily time of bible reading in the light of these thoughts, it is a good deal easier to motivate myself to do it! I am helping others, not just myself, and fulfilling my calling as a member of the church. Through the bible, I see Christ, and he is the end, the purpose of all my studies – to see and know and grow more like him.

May God in his mercy increase my hunger and longing to see Christ, my desire to live with and for him, so that I never grow tired of reading his word and so that it will indeed dwell richly and bear fruit in my life, and be a blessing to those around me.

 

All so much rubbish..

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

(1 Corinthians 13.2)

If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.. BUT whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider EVERYTHING a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

(Philippians 3.4-7)

For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

(John 5.36-40)

I have spent my Christian life in churches where the preaching of God’s word was paramount, where it was a matter of deep conviction that the whole of scripture was for our instruction and blessing, and above all that God speaks through the word to his people. I have perhaps not benefitted as much from all the teaching as I ought, but I am  thankful for it, and for the breadth of understanding and confidence in reading the scriptures which it gives me.

I am aware however, that this heritage, this proper emphasis on the teaching of the whole of scripture, can take me down a dangerous path; one where I pride myself upon my knowledge, upon the number of sermons or bible studies I have heard, and to put my faith in that instead of in Jesus himself.

Jesus addressed this weakness directly in the Pharisees – the most passionate religious scholars and devotees of Judaism at that time, people who prided themselves on an intimate knowledge of their scripture (all the books of the Old Testament), and a rigorous application of those details to daily life. In their passion to see God’s law upheld, and their own personal devotion to it, they have much in common with those in the church today who revere scripture, and who long to see society governed in accordance with the law of God it contains. And yet Jesus is utterly scathing in his condemnation of them, accusing them of stealing the key to life from those who seek it, while failing to enter into that life themselves.

In this passage above, he explains that in spite of all their boasted proficiency in the law, they have completely missed the point of scripture’s revelation. They have neither heard God’s voice, nor recognised his hand at work, and have completely misunderstood his revelation…because if they had, they would have responded to Jesus by falling before him and worshipping him as Messiah, God’s anointed, the long-promised Saviour. They are so besotted with their own achievements in head knowledge and passion for details, that they have never encountered the living God in his word.

Later on, in his letter to the believers in Philippi, the apostle Paul details all the grounds that he might have had for believing his eternal hope secure – grounds of birth, training, and above all zeal for the law, the word. Then, writing to this church of Gentile believers, with no hope of claiming such heritage as their grounds of faith, he shockingly says that he accounts all his learning as nothing, just so much rubbish, because it is of no value beside the true experience of knowing Jesus.

In the same way, those who are raised in the church, who can boast extensive knowledge and proficiency in handling the bible must take care, lest they begin to put their faith in mere head knowledge and rule-keeping. Mere proficiency in the word is lifeless and useless. I must encounter the risen Christ, be filled with his spirit and walk with him daily as my companion, my Lord and Saviour, if I am to have forgiveness of my sins and hope for the future.

NOTHING is of any value unless I have Christ, not knowledge about him, but himself. Faith is not an argument which I can win by my cleverness, it is a sure hope in a trustworthy person – the Christ I meet when I read the bible with an open heart and mind, expecting to hear his voice, and willing to obey.

Praise God, who has made our salvation so freely available, so readily accessible, so utterly complete in Christ!