Help for Reading the Bible

John 5:31-47

Let’s look at an overview of the message or story that God tells all people everywhere in his word, the Bible. It will focus on some of God’s ideas in his word about his word. Knowing these ideas will help shape and inform our approach to every book in the Book of books. I think this overview provides equipment needed for reading and learning and applying God’s word to our lives.

The Bible tells the story of God’s glory in Jesus Christ through salvation by judgment. God gives the written record of his word or message to people in what has proved to be an enduring and accessible resource that is better than merely hearing the spoken voice of God. The Sovereign God spoke this word through people he chose, and the Holy Spirit caused that message to be recorded by people in written form (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). For example, God spoke to Abram (Genesis 12:1-3), and the Spirit of God had Moses write down those words (John 5:46).

The Bible is primarily made up of God’s narrative or story about his purpose to save and of his commentary upon that narrative. In this way, we read about God’s actions in history to save a people he chose through Christ’s person, word, and redemptive accomplishments. In his commentary on salvation history, God explains the significance and meaning of all this to us. Together they form our world and life view. For example, in the Four Gospels, we read the story of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, while in the letters of the apostles we learn the significance and meaning of those gospel events for our lives.

The story the Bible makes known is the message about God’s glory. It is his surpassing value and significance as the supreme and ultimate Being and the shining brilliance and magnificence of all that he is and does. Since God is the first and best, his glory is the ultimate purpose of his creation. For example, think of Psalm 19:1.

As God tells the story of his glory in Christ, he invites people to enter into his story. We enter through regeneration and conversion (Acts 20:21). And then our lives become worship. How we live proclaims and enables the enjoyment of God’s excellence. Consider Romans 11:36; 16:27; 1 Corinthians 10:31. What is God’s plan? Read Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 6:3; Habakkuk 2:14; Psalm 72:19; Revelation 4:11. In fact, our destiny is the experience of God’s glory (Revelation 21:1-4, 9-11, 23).

The main character in God’s story is the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. I see this point made in two general ways in the Holy Writings. First, it is made by direct statements of Jesus the Messiah. He tells us that God’s story is about him. The Scriptures testify about Christ (John 5:39, 46). The Bible is only understood correctly as we hear it telling us the good news of Christ (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47). Compare how Paul’s testimony was formed by this idea (Acts 26:9-23). This is why our theology, what we believe the Bible teaches, must be Christ-structured. God does not tell his story by talking about one of his attributes (like sovereignty or love) or about the covenants or promise-fulfillment or Israel or the new creation. These are part of the story, but the main idea is God’s glory in Christ in salvation through judgment. For example, how can sinners be saved? It is because Jesus took God’s wrath or judgment when he died on the cross, and in that way he rescues or saves all who trust in him.

Second, it is made by the content of the story. When you study how the story unfolds, you see four ideas: creation, fall, redemption, and renewal. All point in some way to the Lord Jesus Christ. For example, read Colossians 1:15-20. When you study how the story is told by men chosen by God to tell it, you hear the story proclaim Christ (Colossians 1:28; cf. Acts 2:22-36; 3:12-26; 17:16-31; Romans 1:1-4; 3:21-26).

God’s story should be heard according to the way God told it. At this point I could say a lot about such matters as progressive revelation, key people in God’s story (cf. Matthew 1:1; Romans 5:12-21), and important ideas like the seed, the temple, the Biblical covenants, God’s worldwide mission, etc. Instead, I want to focus on how the Bible was put together, so that you can better understand the storyline.

Concerning the Old Testament Scriptures (OTS), we are used to the order of the books in our English Bibles, but Jesus had a different view (cf. Luke 24:27, 44; Matthew 23:35). He presented a three-fold division of the OTS: Torah (Law), Neviim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

  • Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • Neviim: The Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve)
  • Ketuvim: The Book of Truth (Psalms, Proverbs, Job), the Megilloth or Small Scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), and other sacred Writings (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles)

Notice in this arrangement there are 24 books but they have the same content as our English arrangement of 39 books. In both cases the Apocrypha are not considered part of the Bible. Notice also that the last book of the OTS in this arrangement is Chronicles.

When you read the OTS in this order, you see God’s narrative storyline, followed by his commentary, which is followed by narrative storyline.

  • First narrative storyline: the Torah and the Former Prophets
  • Poetic commentary: The Latter Prophets, the Book of Truth, and the Small Scrolls. For example, consider how Ruth functions as commentary about David’s kingship.
  • Second narrative storyline: the other sacred Writings.

The NTS are providentially put together in a similar way.

  • First narrative storyline: The Four Gospels and Acts
  • Commentary: The Letters (Romans through Jude)
  • Second narrative storyline: The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1)

Reading the Bible in this sequence will help you to grasp the storyline more easily, and to find God’s own commentary about Christ’s person, word, and redemptive accomplishments. Enjoy reading God’s word!

Grace and peace, David

Holy Desires (Part One)

Psalm 1:1-3

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers (NIV).

As I write, we are in the second week of preseason football. In our locality, that means the Philadelphia Eagles, and I’m sure that every Eagle’s fan has a great desire to see them win. There is certainly nothing wrong in becoming a little enthusiastic about a sporting event, provided that you don’t let that control your life! Hopefully, the Eagles will have a successful season, although they face determined opponents; if they do, we will celebrate their victory.

God has given us many desires. The desire for victory is just one of them. God has made us to enjoy many things—food, water, beauty, rest, and so on. Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17 NIV). Our problem is not that we want to enjoy what God has given us for our enjoyment, but it is that we have too narrow an interest in what we want to enjoy, and far too often, we want to enjoy forbidden pleasures—things and activities that distract from God’s glory and ruin us—what the Bible calls sin. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

In a few articles, I want to direct our attention to holy desires. I call them holy desires, not to give the impression that some good things and actions are sacred and others secular, but because this psalm presents a desire for what is good in contrast to what is wicked. The First Psalm provides a series of contrasts between those who follow the Lord by faith and those who reject him and live according to human wisdom. What we want to focus on is the contrast between the godly and the ungodly regarding counsel or advice.

God wants us to live happy lives. We need to give an important clarification. When I say that the Lord God wants us to live happy lives, I am far from suggesting that the worthiness of a thought, word, action, or thing is determined by whether or not it makes you and me happy. Worthiness and holiness is always determined by God’s holiness and glory, whether we happen to like something or not. We know what God’s glory and holiness is from the Bible, God’s message. I am sure that the apostles totally disliked the experience of being flogged, but they came to know a greater joy in suffering for the glory of Jesus Christ. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41 NIV).

The correct nature of this statement is revealed through the many times that God in the Scriptures marks out for us what a happy life is.

  • Many statements in the Psalms – 1:2; 2:12; 32:1-2; 34:8; 40:4; 41:1-2; 65:4; 84:4-5, 12; 89:15; 94:12; 106:3; 112:1; 119:1-2; 128:1
  • The teaching of Jesus – Mt 5:3-12; 16:17; Lk 6:20-23; 11:28

Do we have a correct understanding of God? He really wants what is for our good. God knows where human happiness can be found, since he knows everything, he designed us to rejoice in God’s glory, and he tells us how we can have happy lives. Will we believe God?

Grace and peace, David

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Part Ten)

John 3:6

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (ESV).

Our subject is the work of the Holy Spirit in our regeneration or new birth from above. In this great action, he acts to renew us, so that we have a close relationship or friendship with the Holy God. In regeneration, the Holy Spirit conveys an image or likeness of the Begetter to the begotten (Colossians 3:10). As the first Adam begat a son in his image (Genesis 5:3), so by the Spirit the last Adam begets sons for God that bear his image (1 Corinthians 15:49). This image or likeness to God lies in two things:

  • It is conformity of spirit to God’s, which means a radical break from the rule of sin to the government of holiness or being set apart to God (Romans 6:17-18; cf. 1 Peter 1:15-16). This involves love (Romans 13:9-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:9) at the core. This is what caught the attention of the world as they looked at the early church. They said, “Look how they love one another!” To participate in my college’s athletic program, every team member had to read Schaeffer’s The Mark of the Christian and then sign a statement that they had carefully read it. God’s love ought to permeate our interactions with fellow Christians and reach out to those we seek to see become Christ’s followers.
  • It is having God’s glory set up in our hearts as our ultimate purpose, and as the measure of all our attitudes, affections and actions.

This image or likeness to God is what is meant by Peter’s statement (2 Peter 1:3-4). The regenerated inner person of the heart now has a disposition to seek God and righteousness as the unregenerate person sought sin and darkness. Have you found an attitude in your heart to seek holiness and the glory of God?

How does the Holy Spirit do this? He directly acts on the inner person of the heart. Frankly, the Holy Spirit does not tell us much about exactly how he produces new spiritual life. There is mystery here. All we can say is that he is the efficient cause. He produces spiritual life in the heart of a person dead in sin. “The Spirit gives birth to spirit” (3:6). “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (3:8).

The Spirit of God uses the Holy Scriptures to create new life. The word functions like seed in the heart (1 Peter 1:23). The Spirit adds his power to the living word of God and produces life. This is a deliberate action of God. He gives new life through the word of God because he has chosen to so act (James 1:18).

What happens when the Holy Spirit causes us to be born again?

  • He gives a new heart (inner person) and life. Ezekiel 36:26-27; Jeremiah 24:7; Ephesians 2:5-10
  • He gives the gifts of repentance and faith (Acts 16:14). Repentance is a gift of God (Ac 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25-26) and so is faith (Acts 13:48; 18:27; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29; 1 Timothy 1:14; 2 Peter 1:1). As Spurgeon said, “No Christian can lay his hand on his heart and say, ‘I believed in Christ without the help of the Holy Spirit.’”
  • He breaks the power of sin (Deuteronomy 30:6; cf. 29:4; Colossians 2:11; Romans 8:9; 6:22; Acts 26:18).
  • He opens our hearts to Christ and his glory (Acts 16:14; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Matthew 16:16-17; Ephesians 4:20-21; cf. Philippians 3:3ff).

The good result is that former rebels against God become his submissive, humble, trusting children. We live in newness of life.

Grace and peace, David

The Desire to Worship and Praise Fulfilled

dscn15662 Chronicles 20:20-30

November is the month of Thanksgiving, although I must admit that in a store yesterday, November 1, I heard Christmas music. Other customers remarked that it was too early. I agree. Why not some Thanksgiving music? But apart from hymns, Thanksgiving songs are rare. I once bought an album of “99 Thanksgiving Classics” to have playing in the background on Thanksgiving Day. Almost all were classical pieces; none were hymns. I could not figure out the connection with Thanksgiving, except that they were nice songs.

This month we should think about the opportunity to express our worship and praise to God. Jehoshaphat and his people found it in an amazing act of deliverance for his people.

It sprang from the obedience of faith (20:20-21); prompt obedience. They did what the Lord told them to do “early in the morning”. In this way, they imitated the obedient faith of Abraham (Genesis 22:3) when he took Isaac to the mountain. The Lord responded to his faith by providing a lamb in place of Isaac. God sets forth the examples of believing men and women in his word, in order that we might learn from their walk of faith. For example, read and meditate on Hebrews 11; think about the difficulties they faced; observe how they believed and obeyed.

The point is that they did not delay or procrastinate to obey the Lord. They did not wait till they had finished their “to do” list. They did not allow anything to distract them from believing and acting in conformity with God’s message to them.

Jehoshaphat encouraged his people to believe (20:20). He urged them to have faith in the Lord. Jehoshaphat pointed them to God who is able to save or rescue people. Let us clearly understand that walking out to the wilderness without weapons to face a vast army was foolishness, unless God could save. God was not calling them to a leap of faith, but to total reliance on his mighty power. Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power (Ephesians 6:10 NIV).

Jehoshaphat also urged them to have faith in the Lord’s prophets. Jehoshaphat pointed them to God’s message given through his prophets like Jahaziel (20:14-17). I repeat. Let us clearly understand that walking out to the wilderness to face a vast army without a message to do so was foolishness, unless God had spoken. The Lord does not tell us to invent ways that we suppose will bring salvation. He wants us to trust his way. Paul acted on God’s way during a difficult time of physical persecution. Though he suffered, he learned that God saved people through the gospel. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith (Romans 1:16-17 NIV). We need to relearn his confidence in our times.

An army of praise formed. After encouraging the people, Jehoshaphat decided to make the most of God’s promise by appointing men to sing to the Lord at the head of his army. This was acting in faith on God’s promise of victory. While the exact translation for the phrase “for the splendor of his holiness” is unclear, what is clear is the recognition of God’s holiness. God is over all, doing what is right, pursuing his glory as God. When you know that the Holy God is with you, you can sing!

What did they sing? They gave thanks to the Lord for his unfailing, covenant love. We can trace this song back to the time of David (1 Chronicles 16:7-36, especially verses 8-11 and 34-36), and from there to two other psalms (Psalms 105:1; 136:1).

Why do people sing to the Lord? We sing to the Lord when we are convinced that his promises are true. God has made his promises of eternal salvation true to us in the Lord Jesus Christ. For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 1:20). Only when you know that your sins are forgiven and God has accepted you are you truly able to rejoice, give thanks, and sing! Can you rejoice in the Lord’s enduring love? Our goal is for you to become a person who rejoices in the Lord. Why should anyone rejoice in the Lord Jesus? We should rejoice because he has defeated our worst enemies: sin, Satan and death! How did this happen? It happened when he died on the cross for sinners and rose again the third day. Believe in him, and he will give you the free gift of eternal life.

Grace and peace, David

Greater Kindness

20150812_072954Ruth 3:10-18

As God reveals his greatness and plans in the Bible, Ruth is a book about kindness. It proclaims God’s kindness and how it works out through his people to others. The true story of God’s glory involves kindness at its core. How much we need to hear about kindness in our day! Sadly, our time is marked by selfishness. I do not think that I need to prove that to you, since every day we experience the cruelty of selfishness to some degree. How often we grieve about how people destroy their own lives and the lives of those around them by their selfishness. However, the living God calls us to imitate him in goodness, kindness and generosity. The “atmosphere” conveyed by those who follow Jesus should have the sweet fragrance of kindness, the Lord’s kindness. Others ought to sense this when with us.

Many parts of this section illustrate Christ’s kindness toward those who believe in him. Be alert for these illustrations.

Kindness produces acceptance of others (3:10-13). I’m not speaking of toleration, which is a poor substitute for kindness, reaching even into Christian circles. To speak pleasant words to someone’s face as they are welcomed to your church meeting turns into evil when the greeter rolls their eyes about that person when they have left and makes that person become a subject of laughter. “Did you see that visitor? They sure were weird.” That is toleration and not kindness.

Acceptance in turn produces blessing, meaning prayer for God’s kindness. Since Boaz was a godly man, he brought the Lord into the situation. To live godly means to live consciously in God’s presence. Before Boaz did anything, he prayed for God’s blessing on Ruth. A great goal of Christ’s work is to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). As we live in Christ in this world, we ought to pursue our Lord’s goals, too. This will mean bringing God into situations. Since people like to suppress the knowledge of God (Romans 1:18-19), this can be a difficult task. As such, it requires wisdom and skill gained through Christian experience. New followers of Jesus are filled with zeal, but they lack wisdom and skill, and so they get too pushy and turn people off. To make others more hostile is not the goal. For this reason, we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom in this matter. “Lord, teach me how to do this.”

Boaz commended Ruth for her kindness. He had noticed this earlier about Ruth (2:11-12), but now he sensed a greater kindness in the proposal she had just made (3:9). But what is kindness? Kindness is a very rich word that conveys the idea of love, kindness, compassion and loyalty combined. It is an active word, reaching out to help. Boaz especially thought of her willingness to marry him. She wasn’t after someone her age and peer group. (From the way he talked with her, he was clearly much older, though their ages are not given.) It is very natural to wish to marry someone your age, so that you have the same way of looking at things, and the same energy level to do stuff together. But Ruth wasn’t after that. She also wasn’t after someone with money (“whether rich”), or after someone for some kind of romantic love (“or poor”). She was doing it for kindness—for family love and loyalty. Ruth wasn’t under obligation to marry to provide her deceased husband with an heir, but she took that obligation upon herself. Ruth thought of others, thinking with the larger community in mind. Kindness motivated her. Sadly, our people have become far too individualistic. We must begin to think much more about “we” than about “me”. Since in Christ we are members of God’s family, we must think about the local gathering or assembly of Christ’s people more than we have. Church is not a place that you go to, but it is people with whom you share God’s love and kindness. Remember our Lord’s example. When Christ died for us, he wasn’t thinking about his needs, but about the Father’s glory and our good. His attitude should transform ours. His mission must become ours.

Grace and peace, David

It Seems Strange

IMG_1078Luke 5:17-26

It seems strange. Jesus had healed so many, and apparently had left the paralyzed man unhealed. Instead, he had simply told him that his sins were forgiven. Yet one thing we learn as we read the Gospels carefully is that Jesus acted in situations in the way that would maximize God’s glory. As he cared for people, he also focused on making the greatness of God known. For example, read Mark 9:14-29. Since he is Lord over all, he was not in a hurry to act. We are wise to learn this, instead of demanding that God answers us “immediately if not sooner”. This seems strange to us, until we learn and adopt Christ’s priorities as we follow him.

It seemed strange to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law for a far different reason. They correctly knew that only God could forgive sins, as Jesus had just claimed to do (Psalm 103:3; Isaiah 43:25; Micah 7:18). But Jesus had dared to say to the man in front of everyone that his sins were forgiven. To them this was blasphemy, because he slandered God by claiming to do what only God had the authority to do. This was a serious matter. If Jesus was only a man, they were right in what they were thinking about him, but it seemed too strange to them that Jesus could be more than a mere human.

It surely also seemed strange when Jesus revealed that he knew their thoughts. They assumed they had Jesus trapped, but suddenly the tables were turned and they were cornered. Over many years of preaching, I have wondered what people were thinking about during the message. It has always reassured me to know that I don’t need to know, because the Lord Christ knows exactly what everyone hearing a sermon is thinking about. By the way, when you hear the word preached or taught, what do you think about? But I digress. Jesus knew, and he was going to act so that they might know an important truth (5:24). Jesus, the Son of Man, has power to forgive sins. “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite name for himself. The roots of this term in the usage of Jesus come from Daniel 7:13-14. There it was written that the Son of Man was given authority, which is the issue in this event. Does Jesus have authority to forgive sins?

Jesus knew that it was one matter to tell someone that their sins were forgiven and another to demonstrate that he had the authority to do so. This was the reason that he had delayed to heal the paralyzed man. He met the man’s most crucial need first, which was his need of forgiveness of his sins. Now his delay does not seem so strange. So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God (Luke 5:24b-25 NIV). He acted in a way that everyone could know that he could forgive sins, for he gave an immediate and complete healing to the man. Not only was his paralysis gone, but he had strength and balance to go home, carrying his mat, and this without physical therapy. And not only could he walk home, he could return home with the confidence that he was right with God.

Now, it no longer seems strange, but amazing and praise producing. This ought to be our reaction when we read these accounts of the glory of God displayed in Jesus Christ. Praise God that we follow a leader who is devoted to honoring the Father in heaven. Praise God that he is wise to know the right time to act. Praise God that he has authority and power to forgive our sins and to heal us. Have you trusted in the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of sins? This gift of his grace may be yours today.

Grace and peace, David