We Need to Talk (Part One)

Ephesians 5:22-33

This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church (5:32 NIV).

The Biblical passage from which we begin this series is often used to talk about the marital relationship between a husband and a wife. Clearly, it does provide crucial teaching on the sharing of life between the two partners in the marriage covenant. But there is more to these words than the relationship of two humans. Their union is a picture of the greater union of the Lord Jesus Christ and his people. Christ is the husband and the church is his bride. As a man and a woman share life in their marital union, so Christ and his people share life. Marriage is about knowing a person and being known by that same person. Our eternal life with God is about personal knowledge (John 17:3) And knowledge involves communication. So, in this series think of Christ saying to his dearly loved bride, “We need to talk.”

Now on the human side of things, when a man or a woman says to their spouse, “We need to talk,” it is because there is a problem of some kind. Some might be small and others very serious. When one says this phrase, the other might begin to think, “Now what have I done,” and “how can I defend myself?” To ease into this, imagine that a married couple is a party. The husband tells a joke of some sort, that he assumes is simply funny and harmless. But the next thing he knows, his wife comes up to his side and whispers in his ear, “Dear, we need to talk.” Immediately, by her tone, the husband knows he is in trouble! And he is ignorant, and thinking, “Oh no, what did I do or say now?”

In that situation, the husband is probably guilty of some social faux pas. However, we the church are united to the Lord of glory, who is all-wise and never makes mistakes, even when we fail to comprehend his ways. On the other hand, we commit many sins and errors, which require our repentance and faith in his grace to restore our fellowship with him.

For our constant benefit, the Lord Jesus talks to his church through the living Word of God. We don’t need to find a time to talk with him in a busy schedule, which can be difficult for married couples in the busyness of our fast-paced lives. His words are always available, and we can always talk with him (prayer).

This series does not directly speak to the issue of reading the Bible and prayer. A discussion about the latter usually turns into a guilt trip (hardly anyone prays like we all know we should), an excessive concentration on the physical and financial needs of others (who prays for spiritual matters?), or a mystical quest (there are many forms of mysticism in prayer that have little or no connection with the Bible). Dare I even mention attempting to get “Bible believing” Christians involved in reading the Bible regularly? I think it would be easier to encourage believers to wade waist deep through a horrifically smelling swamp for a year than to read the Bible daily for three months! We have a serious problem with distraction or disinterest or disillusionment when it comes to reading God’s word in a consistent manner. Do you think I’m joking? All right… Read First Thessalonians every day for a month. The Spirit might use it to change your life.

Instead, I want to think with you about teachings of the Scriptures that the Lord wants us to pay attention to, as he talks with his dearly loved bride, the church. Christ says to us, “We need to talk;” that is, we need to listen to him about our relationship with him, our worship, our fears, our pride, our lack of passion, our brotherly love, and our need for wisdom. May God our Father give us hearts to listen and grace to change!

Grace and peace, David

Thoughts on Leviticus (Part One)

dscn4087Leviticus 1-8

Each year about this time, I think about how Christians (those who truly follow Jesus Christ) read the Bible. I think about their strategy for listening to God in his word. On January one, many will start on a program of reading through the Bible in one year. It is a cause for spiritual concern about how many of those will still be following their chosen program on March first. I have written previously about the challenges of such programs and will not repeat them here, except to say that any program must be doable for you. In order to read through the Bible in one year, you must commit to reading three to four chapters a day. Can you sustain that pace? Can you read that number of chapters and really listen to God speak? Or will you be reading with a lack of attention?

As I have also said many times, every follower of Jesus ought to read through the Bible. It might be better to do that over two or three years. As you do, you will read familiar books, such as Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, the Four Gospels, Acts, and a few others. Most are unfamiliar with books like Ezekiel, Obadiah, Ezra, and Zechariah… and Leviticus. Many get “bogged down” in its opening section about sacrifices, and then are perplexed about “all those laws” in chapters eleven through twenty-five. Their minds wander as they wonder about their significance, especially to the believer in our time. In this article, I suggest a few thoughts on the opening chapters of Leviticus that will hopefully stimulate you to read them attentively.

  • The first seven chapters present five offerings for the law covenant worshiper to bring to the Lord. The offerings are called (according to the ESV translation) burnt, grain, peace, sin, and guilt offerings. As you read about them, a few ideas are repeated. Much is written about sin, blood, and the exact manner in which the offerings were to be offered. “Sin” points to our basic problem before God. We have rejected him, refused to love him, and rebelled against him. We need an offering that he will accept in order to be received by him. “Blood” is significant, because as the writer of Hebrews says, According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).
  • A few times we read the phrase a pleasing aroma to the Lord (or something similar). The Holy Spirit tells us God’s acceptance of the offerings that he required from the old covenant people. When his people came to him by faith with those offerings, they could know that God welcomed their worship. We no longer bring the sacrifices of the law, because we have a better sacrifice than the blood of bulls and goats. But here, we want to focus on the concept that the Lord wills to be pleased in the worship of his people. God invites us to draw near to him, as we keep the covenant during which time we live. (New covenant people keep the covenant through faith in Jesus Christ.)
  • In these chapters, we encounter the concept of “holy”. Most believers use “holy” and related words like “sanctify” with little idea of what they mean. It is too easy to like the “religious tingle” of using religious words like “holiness” or “sanctification” to impress other believers or to feel like you are worshiping. But God wants us to love him with all our minds. There should be understanding. To be “holy” is to be “set apart” to God or “consecrated” to him. Who we are and how we live are to be set apart unto the Lord. In this we see a personal relationship. Holiness is not a matter of devotion to rules or rituals, but consecration to the Lord of glory.

I hope this will help you as you start to read Leviticus. If you have questions regarding other books, please contact me at our email address.

Grace and peace, David

Reading with Fresh Eyes

IMG_0694In our Sunday morning gathering, we aim to read through a passage of Scripture together each week. For example, we have read through Colossians five times in a week and the book of Hebrews once. Last week and this, our goal is to read through the Gospel of Matthew together. Although I don’t have a text of Scripture to back up this method, I think it is wise for groups of Christ learners (disciples) to be reading together. It draws our thinking to the same portions of the Scriptures and provides material for discussion or reference.

So then, as I was reading Matthew earlier this week, I came across a paragraph in my “Notemakers” Bible (it has wide margins that are perfect for making notes) that I had not made many notes on. It was in the middle of a well-marked chapter. The paragraph is Matthew 15:29-31. (By the way, do not feel inadequate or a failure, etc if you don’t make notes in your Bible. We are all different, and I find this a useful method for me. There is nothing spiritual about making notes in your Bible.)

Back to our topic. As I read, I began to think about how I had never meditated on this paragraph. I feel no need to analyze myself about the reasons. We all have heard someone say in a Bible study or small group, “Wow, I never read that before!” The more likely explanation is that we weren’t paying attention in our previous times of reading that passage. As I wrote at the end of last year, we might need to slow down as we read the Word, so that we can absorb what were reading. And we should not view some passages as extra material that happens to be in the way of our desire to read our favorite passages.

On a fresh reading, what do I see? First, this event follows his “secret mission” to Gentile territory, where he healed the daughter of a woman who begged Jesus to heal her. Back in Galilee, the large crowds of people bring many to him that had a variety of physical difficulties. This gathering with many in misery must have touched Jesus’ compassionate heart.  He acted with the power of the Spirit and healed them. I thought about the need to show mercy to people with physical and mental difficulties. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7 NIV). Evaluate yourself about how often you show mercy.

Second, Jesus produced a at change in those who were healed. Can you imagine the change in their attitudes when Jesus had restored them to health. Recently, I was at a men’s retreat that my dad had attended almost every year for nearly forty plus years. The retreat center is built on very hilly landscape. You can see it on the above picture. I wondered how he could have walked from the bunkhouse to the dining area. But he did. While there, I saw other older men struggling with the terrain also. Yet they were there. It is easy to talk about one’s pain and weariness in such circumstances. For this reason, imagine the change in attitude after Jesus healed them: from despair to victory.

Third, the people praised the true and living God, the God of Israel. They had great reasons to praise. They could talk and walk and see! Those with arthritis and other crippling diseases were cured! Certainly, it was time to magnify the greatness of God. There are are couple of lessons here:

  • Contrast the concerns and reaction of the healed people and those who brought them with those of the Pharisees and the teachers of religious law (Matthew 15:1-14). One group was intent on religious traditions and looking good before people; the other worshiped God and cared about other people.
  • If we understand what Jesus did, we ought to be amazed, even two thousand years later. Something is wrong with us if we read these words carefully and fail to be amazed. This is true history about real people. To nod your head and move on points out a troubled area in your soul.
  • Who are we trying to bring to Jesus? How are we involved with other people? Our goal in living must be for far more than personal comfort.

Grace and peace, David

Healthy Hearts (Part Two)

Proverbs 15:13-17

How do you maintain a healthy heart (15:14)? To have a healthy heart you must avoid spiritual “junk food”. You must not “feed on foolishness” [NKJV]. Foolishness is to live without regard for God and his ways; it delights in the wisdom of the world and pride in one’s own insights. Mental relaxation is necessary to maintain proper mental health. We should not keep the mental gears turning endlessly, or we will wear ourselves out. But we can relax our hearts in godly and wise ways, such as enjoying restful evenings at home with our family or friends, talking walks in the park, reading good books, attending concerts, sunning oneself on the beach, and so on.

However, there are mental activities that are detrimental to a healthy spiritual heart. Here are three to avoid:

  • Listening to the empty speculations of people (Acts 17:21); never go to sleep with error on your mind. Replace it with the truth (Philippians 4:8).
  • Filling one’s heart with visual and verbal images that are unholy (Ephesians 5:3-7)
  • Chasing fantasies (Prov 28:19)

In order to have a healthy heart you must feed on what will build it up in the Lord. Above all this means the knowledge of the Lord (2 Peter 3:18; Philippians 3:10; Colossians 2:3). This needs clarification. Seeking knowledge of the Lord ought not to develop out of a desire to exalt oneself intellectually. Study of the Scriptures can easily deteriorate into a vain, intellectual activity.

Some do this to increase one’s reputation or to refute an argument by someone or to feel more spiritual. Such a person might think he or she is building up the heart, while actually weakening it. Our aims should be love for the Lord and a desire to mature—to become like him.

We need to know where to find proper food for the heart. We must begin with the Bible, and then use other means like proven books that exalt the Lord and value godliness, and sound preaching and teaching to aid our knowledge of the Lord’s message.

When you start to eat properly in a spiritual sense, you might find your heart offering objections. All of us struggle with various types of spiritual weakness. For example, “I don’t have enough time” or “I don’t have sufficient ability.” Seek God’s help in managing your time according to God’s purposes. Everyone has the same amount of time everyday—twenty-four hours. It all depends on how you “slice your pie”. I know that some of you have a very tight schedule. Every moment of your day already seems to be scheduled and you do need time to relax. But it may simply be a matter of better time management to place spiritual matters higher in your value system. Write out your daily activities on a piece of paper. Keep track of how much time you invest in each one. Evaluate which ones you can eliminate or devote less time to. Ask yourself, “How do my activities support the fulfillment God’s purposes for my life?” Then make a new daily schedule and give priority to your relationship with God and his other purposes for you.

In faith use the abilities that God has given you. God has made us all different—praise the Lord! He does not give each of us the same intellectual abilities, and he only expects you to use what he has given you. We used to tell our children, “If God has only given you a ‘C brain’ when it comes to math, then use your ‘C math brain’ and earn a C grade. But if he has given you an ‘A brain’ in English, then you should seek to bring home an ‘A grade’ on your report card.” God never expects you to act beyond your abilities. It is far, far better to read one chapter or a part of a chapter in the Bible and to profit from it than to exert effort simply to do a task. Listening to God’s voice written in his word is a privilege and should be a pleasure (Psalm 19:10). But it is also an activity that you must value. You make time to eat physical food, and hopefully you enjoy what you eat. It takes time to exercise, but it can provide a sense of well-being. It is also true that you must schedule time for the word, prayer, and meeting with other followers of Christ. May the Spirit of God lead you into some new spiritual pleasures that will strengthen your heart!

Grace and peace, David

Reading the word, part 2

We continue with thoughts about about reading the word of God clearly. Part of the fogginess in our reading comes from a lack of not using tools that enable us to read more clearly. Our cars come with wipers and defoggers to clear the glass so that we can see, but they only work if we use them. Here are some more suggestions about reading the word. Read it:
With others – We are much too individualistic in our Christian experience. Yes, we can affirm “The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). But the Lord has also placed us in his body to share life with one another. Yet we seldom think about reading God’s word together. We ought to read the Bible at our gatherings. This assists us in focusing our attention toward God. It is also worthwhile to be reading together as a group throughout the week. In FifteenFive, we do this by announcing a passage that everyone is to read; for example, “let’s read First Thessalonians five times this week”. This helps to develop unity of ideas as we all listen to what God is saying to us from the same passage. It also provides material for spiritual conversations when we meet. To illustrate: Someone might say, “This week as we read First Thessalonians, I noticed how Paul talked about encouraging one another.” And a discussion might branch off from that comment. This way God’s word can affect our thinking as a group of his people.
With faith – Reading the word is an activity for your whole soul, not only your mind (cf. Hebrews 4:2). As we read and listen to God’s words, God expects us to believe and obey. Do we think about believing what we hear, so that it deepens our trust in the Lord? Do we encounter something that we want to draw back from? (This is different than having difficulty understanding what we read.) We are to receive God’s message with a personal and group commitment to or reliance upon it. Some in the group may be struggling with fear issues. Think about how a joint reading of Hebrews 10 or 1 Peter might provide counsel to help one another. What insights can Matthew 10 give the group for spreading the good news? We can believe together what the Lord teaches all of us.
To see Christ – Since the Lord Jesus Christ is the theme of the Bible (John 5:39; etc), we ought to read to see him. Is he on our thoughts as we read? We ought to read to learn more of him, not merely in a gathering of facts, but in knowledge of him personally. Surely, the Holy Spirit makes this happen (Ephesians 3:16-19). However, we should seek to learn of him, since we are learners (disciples) of Jesus. We can easily miss opportunities to meet with the Lord simply because we are not looking to meet him.
To be changed – A clear reading of the word will enable us to see the necessity of ongoing change or growth in grace (2 Timothy 3:16-17; James 1:22-25). Our lives are to demonstrate continual repentance (change of mind that produces a change of our behavior). So then, we are not to read as detached observers or critics of the people we meet in the Bible. Instead, we come to be instructed and rebuked and transformed (Romans 12:1-2). Reading chapters five and six of Ephesians ought to bring about change in our family relationships. The good news of Jesus should work through our hearts and out to our actions. But again, this requires us to sit under God’s authority in the word to gain insight into the places he wants us to change. If we do not want to change, we will miss many things that our Lord wants us to see clearly.

Lord, give us grace to read clearly,

David

Reading the word

The other day, I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to see him. He is a specialist and his appointments had stacked up and I was next to last in line. As I talked to myself about waiting calmly, I decided to think about my next article for this blog. I had noticed a picture on the wall of a flower with raindrops on it. They were very clear, and my thoughts turned to listening to God’s word clearly. So, here are some thoughts about how we should read the word.
Intentionally – We will not profit from God’s word as we ought unless we really want to listen to him. It is too easy to get sidetracked, because we fail to realize what we do when we read. The scriptures are God talking to his people at all times. In them we hear his voice. This can be of great spiritual benefit, if we desire to hear him. But we can get distracted. For example, we might read as an assignment, or as a means of spirituality, or to receive therapy. (Perhaps we might not need “therapy” but change!) This means we should approach our reading as the time to listen to our Father communicate with us. We come to hear his wisdom and to reorder our way of life in conformity with it.
Purposefully  – By this I mean reading with a goal instead of reading randomly. This goes along with the first point.  While we can benefit from reading the Bible with any method, others things being equal, I think it is helpful to be reading according to some plan. Many have found it beneficial to read through the whole Bible in a year. This requires reading about three to four chapters a day, which is very doable, if we are willing to prefer the Bible over personal entertainment. While we ought to read all the Bible, it is also helpful to read it in depth, like reading through Matthew twelve times in one year, which is about a chapter a day. Or read through Philippians every day of one month. By the end of this course, we will have a better awareness of what that book says.
Worshipfully – This also is related to the first point. Since the Word is God the Father telling us the story of his glory in his Son, by the Holy Spirit, we ought to read with reverence and joy. The goal is not merely to read to gain information, though that will happen. We ought to read as dearly loved children of the Father. Every part of the story proclaims God’s glory and what is for our good. Since we are in his family, it is our family history. It is the Lord telling us the good news for our encouragement and transformation. Our response ought to be praise and worship to God for making the story, telling us the story, and putting us into the story.
Carefully – This should be a happy outcome from the previous three, but there is another point to be made. While it is often said that people learn in different ways, I think it is wise to ready with paper and pencil or pen nearby. Our minds are bombarded with information and images. It is very easy to forget what we have heard the living God say to us. It can also help us visually connect ideas as we write them down. We can write down questions we have or insights we have gained to share with others.

With prayers for clearer Bible reading,

David