Subscribe to the Gospel Reformation blog by Email

resources

The Bible May Be Deep -- But We Have To Get In The Water

The Bible is too hard to understand.

Sound familiar? Even if you’ve never said it, chances are, you’ve heard it. And the truth is, the Bible can be a hard book to understand. It’s really a compilation of sixty-six books, all telling different parts of the same story. Some of the books are history, telling us what happened in the past; some of the books are prophecy, telling us what will happen in the future. Some of the books are poetry, some are letters written to churches 2,000 years ago. No wonder people say it’s hard to understand!

Most importantly, though, the Bible is the word of God. It was inspired by God himself, and the Holy Spirit guided its writing, compilation, and preservation. The Bible is also sufficient to teach us everything we need to know about God, about our relationship to him, and what we can do about it (which is really what God did about it).

But along with the inspiration and sufficiency of the Bible, we have a lesser known belief in the perspicuity (understandability) of the Bible. Because we believe the Bible was inspired by God and tells us everything that’s essential to our spiritual condition, the Bible can be clearly understood by any person of average intelligence. In other words, you don't need any special training to grasp the essential truths of the Bible.

But since the Bible is inspired, sufficient, and understandable — we have to get in the water.

Think of the ocean. A child can play in the shallowest parts on the beach, while any adult can swim out and play and surf and swim and enjoy the waves. Still farther out, with the right equipment an experienced diver can descend to parts unseen by most people, while the deepest parts will likely never be reached. Just because we’re not trained or prepared for deep sea diving doesn’t mean we can’t play in the water.

Likewise, just because there are deep parts of the Bible doesn’t mean we can’t still read and understand and grow. We may have to ease into it. We may have to work hard. We may need the right equipment to go deeper. But since the Bible is inspired, sufficient, and understandable — we have to get in the water. 

If you’re not a good swimmer, you need practice and some training. If you’re not a good Bible reader, or the Bible is hard to understand, maybe you simply need some direction and the right equipment. Several years ago I stumbled onto a strategy for Bible reading that has helped me wring out passages like never before. Coined by Matt Rogers, these Seven Arrows for Bible Reading* could help you better understand your Bible.

seven arrows.jpg

Answer a few, or answer them all. Either way, you will get more out of your reading when you read with a purpose. In order, the arrows ask you to look for seven things when you read the Bible:

  • What does the passage say? Try to summarize the main idea of the passage in one sentence.
  • What does the passage mean to its original audience? Try to figure out the author’s intent based on context and culture. (This question will likely require the help of a study Bible or other tools.)
  • What does this passage teach me about God? Try to discern what the text reveals about the nature and character of God.
  • What does this passage teach me about man? Try to recognize what the passage teaches about humanity (and man’s need for the gospel).
  • What does this passage demand of me? This question begins to apply the reading. Try to observe the ways the text calls you to action.
  • How does the passage change the way I relate to other people? This question applies the reading to relationships. Try to determine how the text shapes your daily interactions with those around you.
  • How does the passage prompt me to pray? Try to pick out specific ways to pray based on what you’ve read.

If you don't read the Bible regularly—or even if you do!—see if these questions don’t help you understand more of what you’re reading. The word of God is meant to be understood; God wants you to know him. So try it out! Wade out into the ocean. Start playing in the waves. Before you know it, you’ll be deeper than you ever expected!

For further reflection, try out the arrows on 2 Timothy 3:12-17.

 

*For more information, check out Seven Arrows, by Matt Rogers, available on Amazon.

The Power of Parables

Whatever most people make of Jesus, there is one thing he is often not accused of -- being a bad teacher. It's widely accepted that Jesus is one of the greatest teachers that ever lived, even among people who reject him as the Son of God. Many who deny his divinity still acknowledge that he was a great teacher. No footnotes or citations even needed. So what was it that made this penniless preacher from Nazareth really capture people's attention--even people today who may or may not even follow him as the Teacher? 

The long answer is that he was (is), indeed, the Son of God. He was (is) the source of all knowledge, truth, and wisdom. He taught with all the authority of heaven--oh, and when you can do miracles, that helps. Trying to unpack his divinity as the source of his teaching skills is beyond the scope of this short attempt. So let's tackle the short answer instead.

Jesus knew how to tell a good story.

Jesus was able to take that for which we had no frame of reference, and make it clearly understandable.

He was an unparalleled teacher because he knew the power of a short story. The way it connects with people. The way it simply communicates. Jesus knew the power of parables, and he knew they were the perfect medium for making spiritual truth accessible. By casting the mysteries of the kingdom alongside everyday situations, Jesus was able to take that for which we had no frame of reference, and make it clearly understandable.

Since Jesus did this so often (he told 30-60 parables depending on how strictly one defines "parable"), it's important for his followers to know how to interact with the parables. Whether it's a one-sentence story like the parable of the hidden treasure in Matthew 13, or the story takes up almost an entire chapter, like the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15--it helps to know why parables are such a good teaching tool. And it helps to read them with a few guidelines in the back of our minds.

WHAT AND WHY?

Without getting into Jesus's motivation for teaching in parables ("seeing, they would not see, and hearing, they would not hear"), let's consider the parables and their usefulness as a teaching tool. A parable is simply a story that reveals a parallel truth. It starts out with something familiar, and moves the hearer toward the unfamiliar with a frame of reference--the perfect method for preaching the kingdom of heaven to a bunch of fisherman, farmers, carpenters, and the like. Try describing "beauty." Not beautiful things, but the essence of beauty, itself. It's easier to just point to something beautiful and say, "it's like that." It's easier to give an example, a reference. That's what parables do. That's why parables are great for describing the kingdom of heaven. "The kingdom of heaven is like...."

We know Jesus is not only talking about fishing nets and treasure; he’s talking about something bigger, something spiritual.

Not only do they communicate through the familiar, but precisely because they begin in the realm of the common, parables often hold our attention because we get it. Most of Jesus' parables are simple, and he uses elements we can identify with (soil and seeds, fishing nets, treasure). He doesn't lose us because we don't know what he's talking about. We get it, so we pay attention. But more importantly, we know he's not only talking about fishing nets and treasure; he's talking about something bigger, something spiritual. And thus we have one of the biggest benefits of teaching in parables -- the hearer discovers the truth of the teaching for himself! And which do you remember more: information that you were taught or truth that you discovered?

HOW AND WHY?

How then should we read Jesus' parables? Is there a right way and a wrong way? Is it possible to misread them or miss their meaning? Again, there's a long answer, but the short answer is 'yes.' That's one of the other benefits to teaching in parables -- Jesus was able to conceal truth from people too lazy, prejudiced, or hard-hearted to think about their meaning. So it is possible to read them wrongly, but if you'll seek the truth and let a few simple principles guide you, you'll find the parables to be rich and rewarding. 

  1. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Parables are not allegories. There's a difference, and the biggest is that in a parable, every detail doesn't mean something or stand for something else. In most (not all, but most) of the parables, there is one main truth, and the details are insignificant. Remember, parables were heard once, in many cases -- so they needed a simple meaning that could be easily understood and make an immediate impact upon hearing.
  2. WHEN POSSIBLE, LEARN ABOUT THE SETTING (geography, social circumstances, etc.). Many times, this one takes some research or a good commentary, but it often adds to the meaning if you know something about the setting or elements in the story. For example, how much more impactful is the story of the good samaritan when you know Jews and Samaritans hated each other? Jesus wasn't simply teaching that we should help our neighbors, but that our neighbor is even our worst enemy.
  3. PUT YOURSELF IN THE STORY. There are different kinds of parables: true parables and story parables. True parables are based on a truth that can't be argued with. When Jesus said the kingdom is like a mustard seed, no one will object to the properties of a mustard seed, that even though it's a small seed, it grows into a large plant or tree. Story parables have characters and actions, and the force of the parable comes not from whether the story is true or not, but from the characters and actions in the story. When you're reading a story parable, figure out which character you are, and which character Jesus says you should be. This helps make the next one easier.
  4. MAKE THE TEACHING PERSONAL AND ACTIONABLE. Now that you know what Jesus is teaching, what are you going to do about it? Because it doesn't mean much if you don't put it into action.

And finally, check the teaching against the rest of the Scriptures. If you walk away with something different that what's taught elsewhere in the Word -- reread the parable and start over.

What would you add? As you've read and studied the parables, what guidelines have you used to help discern their meaning?

Rooted: Not Deep Enough For Me

Imagine I told you this is a review about the forthcoming book Rooted, by Banning Liebscher (founder and pastor of Jesus Culture)--then I wrote a lot about other books, only casually mentioning Rooted, coming back to it occasionally to make a point or use an illustration. Say I spoke in generalities, told you a lot about myself, and interacted very little with much of the book. How would you feel?

You'd feel like I did actually reading Rooted.

The promise of what to expect comes on pages 12-13:

The purpose of this book is to look at Scripture and learn what to expect as God works to establish deep roots in you.... As we journey together through this book, we are going to study the life of David and look at the different elements God developed in his root system during nearly two decades of process and preparation.

Those elements were to be summed up in three different soils: intimacy, service, and community--so I was excited. With the life of David as the backdrop, the words of Colossians 2:6-7 were on my mind: "Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving."

My excitement dwindled rapidly though, as Rooted became a test of managing unmet expectations. I expected a book about discipleship, about the way God grows a person, as he did David. I expected a book about faithfulness, spiritual disciplines, serving, and being in community with others--and the way God uses those to grow a person's maturity in Christ.

What I got was a book about how God prepares us to bear the weight of our destiny, position ourselves for God to release grace to us, and root us in these different ways so we can have a vision for making a lasting impact in the world. Maybe it's because I don't speak Charismatic, but I had a hard time tracking on these parts. Interestingly, on page 88-89, the author says,

Truth is not rooted in our feelings or opinions, but in Scripture.... I don't want to know what you think God would or wouldn't do. I want to know what Scripture says."

A few times in the book, he affirms the Bible as our authority and rejects opinions and feelings as authoritative, but in other places--against his own admonition--makes statements about what God does or how he works, with no biblical proof, using language and expressions not found in the Bible. One such is on pages 107-108:

There are certain things God wants to release to you that He will only give you in the secret place.... There is an anointing that is found only in one place. You can go to as many conferences as you want, but you will not find it there. God reserves certain things to be found only in the secret place alone with Him.

To which I simply responded, show me; what does Scripture say?

As with any book, there were morsels of goodness such as the section titled, "The Test of Sacrifice," which was about the manner in which we serve others, and how to test if our serving is about us or about the glory of God in meeting others' needs. But the morsels were small and far between. I would not recommend this book to many people, especially others like myself, unfamiliar with Jesus Culture, and their own culture and vocabulary. There are simply too many other books comparable in size that set out to accomplish the same goal, namely preparing a person to be rooted, built up in the Word, and prepared for a life that glorifies God--and accomplish that goal with much more clarity and depth.

I received a complimentary advance copy of this book from Blogging For Books, in exchange for an honest review.

Does The Heaven Promise Deliver?

Heaven is no easy topic to write about--yet there is no lack of people who've taken up the task. As Scot McKnight points out in his new book The Heaven Promise, a browse through the local Christian bookstore or a quick Google search reveals that heaven is an "intense human interest story." And how much more now with the recent surge of heaven tourism books...well, at least the ones that aren't rescinded because the author admits to making up the story.

So who better than a seminary professor who teaches New Testament to write a book about heaven with the subtitle, Engaging the Bible's Truth About Life to Come? Except for the Bible obviously, that's the only book about heaven I'm interested in--one that engages what the Bible says about it! And The Heaven Promise promised to be that book:
"In what follows I want to sketch the most important ideas about heaven that come from the Bible." (page 8)
"God gave us our imaginations, but the surest place for understanding Heaven is not our imaginations or stories of afterlife experiences, but the Bible itself." (page 135)
"At the heart of my own argument is the belief that Christians need to form their beliefs about Heaven on the basis of the Bible." (page 165)

Unfortunately though, The Heaven Promise didn't deliver--which is unfortunate, because I liked much of the book. Well, I liked much of the first half. It's basically divided into two halves; the first to look at the promises of heaven, and the second to answer some FAQ's about heaven. Especially interesting to me in the first half are discussions of:
The two dominant views of heaven--theocentric and kingdom-centric (pages 11-14);
The difference between lowercase-h heaven, and uppercase-H Heaven (page 45);
Heaven as a place of deep, ecstatic joy and pleasure (pages 76-79).

To be fair, I agreed with much of what the author said, but I disagreed with much, too. And it's where I disagreed that I have the problem--not because I disagreed per se, but because I expected to be persuaded; I expected to engage the Bible's truth about Heaven. However, the second half of the book, especially, interacts very little with Scripture--at least in any meaningful way. In the section of the book with the potential to be the only part a casual reader may look at, this was where Scripture really needed to dominate the discussion. The FAQ's. The questions about pets. And people who've never heard of Jesus. And purgatory. And children who die. The questions people are asking. The questions were supposed to be answered by "engaging the Bible's truth."

Instead, many of the questions were answered with "it gets speculative at this point," "we don't know how God," "I cannot see how," "I am not confident the Bible allows us to answer this question with absolute confidence," and there was one especially entertaining string of if-then statements about marriage and families in Heaven.

Despite its challenges and failing to actually interact with much of the Bible on the topic of Heaven, I would recommend this book for the purpose of light study. For the person studying Heaven and wanting some interesting (and even encouraging) popular-level thoughts about it, this book would work. For the person searching for biblical answers about Heaven, I wouldn't recommend it--which is not fun to say since that was the author's aim.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.

Enculturation Through Memorization

“Every family ought to be a little church, consecrated to Christ and wholly governed and influenced by his rules.”
-Jonathan Edwards

This week we began by considering the command to bring up our children "in the discipline and instruction of the Lord"--or in Paul's words, in the "paideia" of the Lord. Paideia is the Greek word we've translated "discipline and instruction," but paideia has a much deeper, richer, and all-encompassing meaning than simply formal education. In fact, the best way to describe paideia might be "enculturation"!

Reminiscent of Deuteronomy 6 (think back to last week), Paul's instruction is to teach the things of God in a totally immersive way. Teach it. Talk about it. Talk about it when you get up, when you lie down, when you're driving, when you're shopping, write it on things, do whatever it takes. Because enculturation cannot happen in one hour a week at church and in prayers before bed. It's simply not enough!

 “Just a few generations ago a man was considered spiritually responsible if he led his family before the throne of God in prayer, read and taught the Scriptures at home, and led family devotions (among other things). Today parents are considered responsible if they find the church with the best-staffed nursery and the most up-to-date youth ministry.” (Family Driven Faith, 95)

Many years ago when we got serious about discipleship in our family, it was overwhelming--intimidating even! What if I mess up? How can I teach them when there's so much I don't know, myself? What am I supposed to do? How will we know they're learning anything? It made me sick to think about messing up something as profound as the spiritual climate of my family--but the truth was, that's what I was doing by not doing anything! But God knows what he's doing, and we were reminded of a few things: that there are great resources out there (I recommend a couple here), and that children learn in different stages. Knowing those learning stages took off a lot of pressure and introduced us to something that's been done for a long time....

The Trivium (of Classical Learning)

1. Grammar: The fundamental rules of each subject.
2. Logic: The ordered relationship of particulars in each subject.
3. Rhetoric: How the grammar and logic of each subject may be clearly expressed.

All human learning happens in a form of these three stages, but children are naturally much more adept at soaking in everything because their minds are still being formed. They're memory machines in the elementary years (grammar), so they're just learning the basic building blocks, vocabulary, etc. At the jr high age (logic) they begin to make connections, find meaning, and see how the parts fit. At the high school age (rhetoric) they are mastering the subject and beginning to be able to discuss and express it.

So how can this help us disciple our kids?

Knowing how they learn, we can give them what they need when they need it.
Remember the earlier warning in Ephesians 6 not to provoke our children to anger? One way to make life harder is to frustrate everyone by trying to teach too much too fast. Keep it at a level they can handle. At an early age, they can't filter out the bad yet, so make sure you put in lots of good!

Give them the blocks, and that's what they'll use to build.
Catechisms are a time-tested, systematic, question-and-answer method designed to teach kids (or any believer, new or old) the basics of Christian doctrine. Even at an early age, kids can memorize the questions and answers. They may not understand what they're memorizing, but they'll put the pieces together later--and when they're ready, they'll have the foundation. Over time, this information can shape an entire worldview, and pay off as children begin to master the information, own it, and express it themselves. This is the one we use; it's a catechism and devotional all in one. Makes it pretty easy!

Oh, and guess who else learns it while they're teaching the kids to memorize it?