Category Archives: bible study

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.

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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!

Can I help you?

So, friends, we can now – without hesitation – walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body.

So let’s do  it – full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word.

Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.

(Hebrews 10.19-25, The Message)

So I sometimes – often?! – get discouraged about life, about God’s work and the apparently impenetrable resistance of the people around me to any interest in the good news of the gospel.

I know that I am blessed beyond measure to be one of God’s children, to stand before him as beloved, cleansed, with hope and a future, purpose in life’s journey and glory to come. I know the power of that truth to lighten my dark days, strengthen my nerve in persevering service, and bring joy in every circumstance. I know that this is the best news anyone ever heard, that it is life-transforming and life-giving.

When I join with others in praise of Jesus, celebrating his character, his redeeming work and glorious triumph over sin, I am healed, my perspective on this world and all its trouble is restored. To be given fresh glimpses of the depths of love which are for me, reminded of the price that was paid, and the security of my hope.. all these things are precious beyond telling. And yet still, to my shame, I become discouraged.

It is surely good and right that we – as Jesus’ followers – long to see others responding to his love, so that his name might be made greater, and that their lives might share the blessings which are so abundantly ours! The writer to the Hebrew church reminds them of the truth about who they are in Christ – a blood-bought people, with free access to God’s throne; a people whom he delights in. These truths, combined with the promises of an utterly faithful God, are the basis for our life and witness. We have treasures to share, both with each other and with those who as yet do not believe.

I am relieved that the writer does not scold the readers for a lack of enthusiasm, but rather exhorts them on the basis of wonderful realities to find a new courage and energy for the work their Lord has given them. Some translations use words which imply a degree of reluctance on the part of the readers to be up and doing – one does not have to spur on a horse which is already galloping as fast as it can!! Perhaps the readers of the letter to the Hebrews were suffering from discouragement, even as we do, seeing the scale of the opposition and losing heart. It is fatally easy to see the task ahead in light of our own strength instead of God’s strength, and to assume that we can do nothing about it!

So how can we be ‘inventive’ in provoking one another into action, in stirring one another up to be loving and active for the sake of the gospel?

I believe that one of the most powerful ways we can do this for each other, is to share with one another the stories of God’s activities – in our lives, and those of others. I regularly attend a mission prayer meeting, and while there are plenty of needs to bring before God, we are always encouraged by the number of answers to prayer – often miraculous in our eyes, and always demonstrating that God is indeed powerful and wise. He knows and meets the needs of his people, and he can call men and women to himself in the most astonishing ways.

So my challenge for myself, is to be more conscious of God’s direct action in my life – what can I tell my friends of his goodness to me this week? How can I encourage them – not by boasting of special blessings, but by reminding them through my story that our God is good and great and faithful?

Lord, give us clear sight, to recognise your hand at work, your daily blessings and moment-by-moment grace. Let us take heart and encourage one another on our journey in faithful service of you, our almighty God.

Just kidding myself….

Joyful are people of integrity, who follow the instructions of the Lord.

Joyful are those who obey his laws and search for him with all their hearts.

They do not compromise with evil, and they walk only in his paths.

You have charged us to keep your commandments carefully.

Oh that my actions would consistently reflect your decrees!

Then I will not be ashamed when I compare my life with your commands.

As I learn your righteous regulations, I will thank you by living as I should!

I will obey your decrees….Please don’t give up on me!

(Ps 119.1-8, NLT) 

As I read these words this morning, I had to laugh. Such a perfect articulation of my thoughts this week and written, well, how long ago?! It is marvellous to receive God’s word so directly, to hear one’s own thoughts turned into prayers by a poet/musician who wrote in a completely different culture, and yet voiced the experience of God’s people down across the centuries.

We know that it is not our ability to keep God’s decrees which dictates our acceptance by him. It is all his grace, and what a relief that is! But obedience is our response to that grace, as the psalmist says – “I will thank you by living as I should!”As I go on following Jesus, my life should increasingly reflect his character, so that my thoughts, words and deeds are all in accord, so that I am a person of integrity.

The apostle Paul told his readers in the Roman church that this transformation comes about through our minds – it is by no means accidental or unwilled.:- “Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.“(Romans 12.2)

I have a responsibility as a professing Christian, to be actively growing in my knowledge of God, through his word, through prayerful living and sharing with my fellow believers. If I choose to sit back and drift, then I will not find myself growing in holiness, or humility, or self-control. The human default setting is still towards selfishness, laziness, and dependence on self rather than reliance on God. I find in myself a lack of discipline, a mental laziness when it comes to studying the bible, a casual attitude to intercession, and so many ready excuses for not being what I could be…

I have to tread carefully here, since the devil would love to cast me into a pit of despair over my failures, and bind me with a sense of futility about my efforts to change. That is not God’s will for me, and I reject such an attitude. I rejoice in the forgiveness which I have in Christ, in the fresh start which is given to me daily, and the many personal tokens of God’s love which I receive . But the grief of my failure to live up to the  love which is so lavishly bestowed upon me is real, and I will acknowledge it. Indeed, I think I can even be glad that I feel it, because it is a sign that my spirit is still desiring God, longing to know him better, to live more closely with him. If I did not care about my heavenly Father’s heart, I wouldn’t mind falling short of his perfect ways.

So here is the challenge.. to allow my sense of my shortcomings to be strong enough to drive me to seek God’s help in changing habits and thoughts, re-arranging my days if necessary to do so, while not falling into a trap of despair when the inevitable failures happen!

God is not fooled by my efforts to justify myself, and he is not deceived as others may be by my public behaviour. I am known, through and through, by the only one whose opinion really matters. I have a long way to go, but praise God, the work is still in progress, and the divine craftsman is not for giving up!

May God, the source of hope, fill us completely with joy and peace because we trust in him. Then we shall overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.(from Romans 15.13) Amen Lord, so let it be!

Glimpsing the big picture

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

(Psalm 1. 1-3)

Do you ever stop to think who the Bible is about? We are perhaps too familiar with it, too at home with the stories and teaching, and may miss this crucial point quite easily until someone points it out. At which point, if you are like me, you become astonished at your own foolishness!

At a recent midweek church meeting, we created a visual representation of the story of the bible – the whole big  picture, starting at creation and ending with judgement and the new heavens and earth. Along the way, we fitted in each book of the bible, and some of the principal characters who feature – such as Abraham, David, and of course, Jesus. And it was at this  point that our minister pointed out that the whole story is actually about God himself, and his dealings with people. He is the principal character, and it is the purpose of the entire book to teach us about Him, exalt and lift Him up – not any of the all too flawed human beings who feature.

The whole purpose of the collection of books which we call our bible is to reveal the heart of God, his relentless love and will to draw to himself those who will love and delight in him. It is a love story, but one written on such a large scale that sometimes we get too bogged down in the messy details to see it! The point of so many of the stories about folk like Abraham and David, is that they are flawed human beings who make stupid mistakes and refuse to trust the God who has promised to do great things for them. And still God is faithful to them! It is not their deserving that results in good things happening for them, but God’s goodness and persevering love. That is a lesson which I need to learn over and over again.

Jesus did not identify particular parts of the bible story as relevant to him and his ministry, but said that all of it spoke of him – the ultimate revelation of God to man, God made man, living in our messy and broken world. The books of the law spoke of God’s holiness and purity, and desire that his children should share that holiness – because our maker knows that this is the way to fullness of life, we are formed for perfection! Jesus came to live the perfect life, and show us what it could look like. The history books tell of God’s calling of a people to witness to his love and faithfulness, and of their betrayal of him as they turn over and again to other gods, to kings, to anyone at all rather than their God. Jesus witnessed to God’s love and faithfulness, demonstrating at every step of his ministry a profound trust in his Father and belief that God would be faithful to keep every promise made to him.

And running through the whole old testament – the scripture which Jesus knew – is the theme of redemption, of restoration and a final dealing with the rebellion which separates us from God. From the first sacrifices to the final promises by prophetic word of a coming Redeemer; the hope of a real and lasting transformation is demonstrated. In Jesus, it finally came to pass, and as the temple curtain was ripped apart on the day of Christ’s crucifixion, so the barrier which has kept us from God’s intimate presence was destroyed for ever.

While it is good to wrestle with individual passages and knotty theological questions, we must never lose sight of the overall story within which they sit. The details may entrap us into fruitless speculation and unhealthy ways of thinking about God, but the great epic theme restores our perspective, and puts the focus firmly back on God. This is the surest way to keep our souls humbly depending on him, trusting and returning to him over and over as we journey through life. This is the way to ensure that we thrive, like that psalmist’s tree planted by the flowing stream. And perhaps it is this thought which lies behind one of the sweetest, simplest of hymns with which I will close today.

Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,

Of Jesus and  His glory, of Jesus and his love.

Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon!

The early dew of morning has passed away at noon

Tell me the story always if you would really be,

In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.

(A. K. Hankey, 1834-1911)

May we each be willing to carry out this ministry for one another in the days ahead, it is the most loving thing we can do..

Lists, and more lists!

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.

Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me.

I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.

I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.

I have kept my feet from every evil path, so that I might obey your word.

I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.

(Ps119.97-104)

I have been privileged to sit all my life under the ministries of men who believed that the bible is the Word of God, a living and powerful means by which God speaks to and transforms people. Week by week, I have listened to sermons which present the words of these ancient texts as relevant to my life, full of meaning and to be taken seriously. I have been comforted, challenged and taught – and I pray that will continue, as I am by no means a finished piece of work!

In addition to believing that the bible must be preached in order to see lives transformed, my ministers have all practised what is called “systematic exposition”. This simply means that they have chosen not to avoid any part of the word of God on the basis that it is too hard, too embarassing, or in some way irrelevant. A book is preached through from beginning to end, and studies undertaken in the Old Testament as well as the new. Our current series in church is looking at the visions of the prophet Ezekiel – challenging for both minister and congregation! It is not a radical approach to preaching, but puts into practice what Paul said to Timothy in his second letter to the young pastor :-“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man(and woman) of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2Tim.16&17)

Naturally, different types of book require a different approach – the visions of Revelation and Daniel for example cannot be preached in the same way as the Gospel narratives; while the epic stories of the Exodus and early days in the Promised land are different again from the letters to the young churches in Asia. But the basic fact remains, that all of our bibles are there for a reason, for our good as we hear what God will teach us through them.

I think it is wonderful that every kind of literature is found in our bibles – and every aspect of life and feeling too! There is nothing about life on earth which is outwith the interest of God, and no area of our lives which is beneath his notice. He knows that some of us are moved more by great stories than by poetic images; that some respond better to direct instruction while others learn through narrative and example. That is not to say that it is good for us to only study those parts of the word which appeal to our own temperaments – that would be like basing our weekly family menu around everyone’s favourite holiday treats! I am grateful to my ministers over the years for making sure that I study the parts of the bible which I find harder to deal with, and for giving me the conviction that the struggle is worthwhile!

Recently I have been reading in Nehemiah, a book which contains many names of people long dead, and it is tempting to wonder why anyone recorded, let alone bother to read them. But have never found yourself scanning a long list for one particular name, perhaps a friend who is due to qualify in a particular course? Or perhaps you had a family member who engaged in past conflict overseas, and you search the records for their name, for proof that they were there and perhaps of some award for bravery or endurance? Sometimes, the presence of a name is of huge importance for us.

The book of Nehemiah records a significant time of national rebuilding, of re-commitment and return to faithful worship of God after exile. In the years after it was written, one can imagine the descendants of those first returnees listening eagerly as the story is retold, waiting for the name of their ancestor to hear again the confirmation that they played their part, and obeyed God’s call. I picture the children cheering when they hear that particular name, rejoicing that their family is recorded as being part of God’s great people, that they belong. I like to think that one day in glory I may meet these faithful servants, and rejoice with them that my name too has been included in the lists of those whom God has called to be His own for ever!