Posts Tagged With: Old Testament

 
 

Special Revelation: God Reveals Himself!

Recently, I shared some observations about how God reveals Himself through nature. We saw that the created world actually points us to the existence of a Creator.

Yet, some will point out that there is a problem. Many people come to believe that there is a Higher Power or Supreme Being by looking at the world, yet draw very different conclusions about what this entity is like. Is God a brilliant mathematician, as proposed by physicist Michio Kaku? Is His greatest attribute love? Does He delight in chaos and violence to achieve His ends? Is there only one God, or are there multiple equally-powerful Higher Beings battling each other in the cosmos? The questions are numerous, and these are only a few of the notions about the nature of deity that have been proposed throughout the ages.

The Christian faith offers an answer, which we will examine over the next few weeks. We are not left to our own devices. Yes, many begin by “groping for God” hoping to find Him. Speaking to the people of philosophy-frenzied Athens, St. Paul said:

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:26–28; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless indicated otherwise).

God does not leave us alone, groping in the dark. He revealed Himself throughout the ages to different people at different times, and this self-revelation is recorded for us in His Word, the Bible. The Bible is not primarily a theology textbook, science text, philosophical treatise, or rule book. At its foundation, it is God’s inspired written record of His testimony to mankind. He calls us to encounter Him through His Son Jesus Christ, whom the Written Word of God reveals as the Living Word of God. This is the nature and focus of divine revelation.

Biblical authors like King David, who wrote Psalm 19 and many other psalms in the Bible, shared their testimony about how God revealed Himself to them. Painting by Gerard van Honthorst [1592-1656; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

A recent post headlined Psalm 19, which describes how God reveals Himself in the created order. That psalm proceeds to describe God’s self-revelation through His Law (which, at the time of the psalmist, was pretty much the only group of books recognized as “the written Word of God” or Bible):

“The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalms 19:7–14)

God’s power and glory can be seen in creation, including the apparent motion of the sun across the sky. Other Old Testament authors would see God’s power and glory in other parts of nature: the wonders of the night sky; the awesome power of a turbulent storm; the gentle rain that allows life to spring forth upon the earth; the diversity of animals and plants that inhabited the land; and so on. Yet, Psalm 19 reminds us to move on. God has spoken. He has given us His Law. He has shown us how to live. His words and wisdom revive the soul, give wisdom, rejoice the heart, and enlighten the eyes. His Word abides forever. It is priceless. It protects us from the consequences of folly. He has given us His Word to preserve and direct us and to draw us to Himself.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Revelation and Scripture | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

How to Read and Study the Bible

Countless sermons and articles emphasize the Christian’s need to read and study the Bible and the blessings one can receive from God’s Word. Unfortunately, though, many Christians fail to receive such blessings because they do not know how to read the Bible. Some try to read through the entire Bible and began reading at Genesis 1, but give up within a few weeks because it takes too long.

As we approach Bible study, we would be wise to remember the profound counsel of this corny quip: “How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” Reading the Bible should be a lifelong project for the Christian. Disciplined avid readers will be able to read through the entire Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, in about a year. Extremely ambitious ones will do it in a shorter amount of time: When I was new to the faith, I read through the Bible in about seven months. Since then, I have taken a more deliberate approach. Having read through the entire Bible on a few occasions, I now focus on shorter passages; my goal in Bible reading is quality of insight and personal application, instead of quantity of chapters.

This article will offer guidance and suggestions for reading and understanding God’s Word and applying its truths to everyday life. These guidelines will apply almost exclusively to the study of individual passages of Scripture. I do not specifically discuss topical studies, in which a reader examines verses from different parts of the Bible which are related via a common theme. However, my advice about interpreting Scripture and applying it to your life will still be helpful in a topical Bible study, which is really a series of interrelated “passage studies.”

First, you must have a good translation of the Bible to read. It must accurately translate the thoughts and ideas of God’s Word (which was originally given in Greek and Hebrew) into easy-to-understand English. I strongly recommend either the English Standard Version or the New American Standard Bible. The New International Version is also a reputable, reliable translation. The translators of these versions painstakingly examined ancient manuscripts of biblical books to discern what the author actually wrote and to express it in modern English, so that the average American can understand it.

Some Christians prefer older translations, like the King James Version. However, many readers (especially those who are new to the faith or to Bible reading) have trouble understanding its seventeenth-century vernacular; we are not accustomed to saying “thee,” “thou,” “whithersoever,” or other terms which have disappeared from our language. Make certain that you can understand your Bible; it is more important that you can understand and apply the Bible to your life, than that you sound “holy.”

Now that you have an accurate and understandable Bible in hand, you should have a plan for reading and study. Although we should allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in all things, especially study of His Word, He usually does not give us immediate clear direction to a specific Bible passage. Some Christians like to open their Bible at random and just start reading; or, they will read the first passage that jumps into their heads. Although this might be helpful from time to time (the Holy Spirit may direct us to a specific passage in a moment of crisis), it will not ensure that you will gain a thorough knowledge of Scripture. Many Christians who rely on these approaches tend to read a few favorite passages over and over again. You should seek a Bible reading plan that will direct you to diverse segments of the Bible, ideally one that will lead you to eventually read the entire Bible.

As I mention elsewhere in relation to prayer, you should set aside several times every day for Bible reading. Psalm 1:2 encourages us to meditate on God’s Word day and night. My “three spiritual meals” philosophy applies here as well. Just as we eat food at least three times per day, we would be blessed by spiritually “eating” God’s Word three or more times per day. See my article on “Finding Time for God,” where I mention the three spiritual meals concept.

Combine readings from different books of the Bible. Several churches, organizations, and ministries have devised Bible reading plans that will guide you from Genesis to Revelation within one year. However, many of these plans lead you directly from beginning to end, so you do not enter the New Testament until September. This is not conducive to a healthy spiritual diet.

A good Bible reading plan will effectively intersperse the Old and New Testaments. The Daily Office lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer provides, for most days, an Old Testament lesson, several Psalms (you essentially read through the psalms every few weeks!), a New Testament reading, and a reading from one of the four Gospels. Although it skips over a few passages (it avoids a number of the lengthy genealogies in the Old Testament, for example), it does offer a balanced mixture of Bible passages. It is also at times “season-sensitive”: the readings during Lent, the weeks between Easter and Pentecost, Advent, and the weeks following Christmas all relate to themes appropriate to the season. You read about the birth of Christ around Christmas, and about His death and resurrection around Easter.

Likewise, The One Year Bible divides the Bible into readings for each day of the year; each day’s reading includes passages from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. While it covers the entire Bible (no passages are missed), it lacks the season-sensitive quality of the Book of Common Prayer. Instead of reading about the birth of Christ on December 25, you will probably read a passage from the Book of Revelation.

Halley’s Bible Handbook contains a chapter that assigns books of the Bible to each week of the year. One week you will read from the Old Testament; the next week you will read from the New Testament. Like The One Year Bible, it guides you through the entire Bible within one year, without forcing you to go eight or nine months without cracking the New Testament. This plan also assigns a book (or set of books, or large part of one of the longer books) to a week; it is the individual’s responsibility to decide how many chapters to read each day to meet his goal. As a result, Halley’s approach to reading through the Bible requires some extra planning on your part.

Devotional guides, such as Our Daily Bread or The Upper Room, offer more aid for Bible reading. These booklet-sized magazines (usually published quarterly) provide a short Scripture passage for each day, along with a one-page meditation or application about each passage. Some such devotional guides close with a suggested “starter” for prayer.

Select a plan, or combination of plans, that will suit your personal needs. If your church or ministry has a Bible reading plan, make sure to include it in your devotions. As a member of the Brotherhood of St. Joseph, I have taken vows to follow the Daily Office of Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, I supplement my reading with passages from the BCP’s Sunday-worship lectionary and from other sources.

Pray for guidance and insight as you read. The Word of God requires spiritual discernment (First Corinthians 2:14–15). Therefore, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to teach us through His Word.

You should seek spiritual growth as you read. Do not read merely for entertainment, to learn facts, or to reinforce favorite doctrines. As you read, tell yourself, “God wants to speak to me through His Word. I need to hear what He wants to say to me.” Likewise, pray as the psalmist said, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and See if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23–24).

Read the passage thoughtfully, and repeatedly if necessary. If it is a short passage, perhaps 10 verses or less, you might read it two or three times. If you are reading the Bible with a devotional guide, or a study Bible with notes and commentary at the bottom of the page, you might follow this order: read the passage from the Bible; read the devotional, notes, or commentary; and reread the passage. You may find it necessary to read the passage only once if it is lengthy. If you are reading a few chapters, pay close attention to the “big picture,” such as the flow of thought, context, and so on. Read deliberately. I generally try to look for perhaps one key idea to bring away from a passage each time I read it.

Interpret the Bible wisely. Many Christians go to one of two extremes when reading the Bible. Some people “spiritualize” everything they read in Scripture, without first seeking out the most natural meaning intended by the writer. They might focus so heavily on a possible symbolic meaning of a number, or how a color might symbolize an attribute of God, that they ignore the plain meaning of the text. Still others insist on interpreting every passage as literally as possible, even if the writer used a literary genre that relied heavily on symbolic language. For example, the Psalms are song lyrics or poems, and therefore use words in a way that would be unacceptable in prose. Some of the prophetic books, especially Revelation, used a literary genre known as “apocalyptic,” which demands a less literal interpretation. “Prophecy experts” who overlook this fact, and ignore the way that Revelation very often quotes or alludes to the Old Testament, have been guilty of some of the most embarrassing attempts at theology in our time.

Peter wrote, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (Second Peter 1:20–21). Therefore, we must not try to read a message into a passage of Scripture. Instead, we should first try to draw out of it the natural meaning that the human author intended to convey (i.e., the most obvious meaning of the words, in light of their context in Scripture and in the writer’s time and culture). God has chosen to speak through people, and to express Himself within the confines of human language and communication. As a result, we should expect that He has chosen to follow the basic rules of language and communication. Some people interpret Scripture without considering the natural meaning of the human author; this is little more than a demonic or egotistical attempt to create a false god of one’s own making, twisted out of the words of the One True God.

This natural meaning can be discerned by considering questions such as the following:

  • What is the immediate context? What precedes this passage of Scripture? What follows it?
  • What is the time period and cultural context of the writer, and of the people in a Bible story? What was going on in the world at that time?
  • What is the situation? If it is a story, how did this come about? To whom is Jesus speaking? If it is a prophecy or one of Paul’s letters, what led the author to mention this?
  • What is the literary form or genre of this passage? As mentioned before, historical stories should be read differently from songs, poems, apocalyptic literature, and letters. When we read a Sunday newspaper, we read the comics from a different perspective than we read the main news stories and the editorials. In the same way, we should keep in mind that history, poetry, letters, and prophetic visions all serve different functions of communication.

Any “spiritual” meaning that is not grounded in this natural meaning could be inspired by the wrong spirit.

A resourceful reader might invest in good reference materials that will provide background information to help you study God’s Word. A good study Bible, Bible handbook, Bible dictionary, and commentary will give information about the culture, language, history, and other factors related to passages of the Bible. You should look for recent publications. Bible scholars have published many excellent reference materials throughout the centuries. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948, and other archaeological finds since then, have multiplied our knowledge about Jewish culture and world events during the times of the Bible. While some nineteenth-century commentators had profound insight into Scripture, they did not have access to some of the background information we have now.

A few good study Bibles fulfill the roles of multiple reference materials. The NIV Study Bible and the Full Life Study Bible are two excellent resources that help explain the meaning and background of the Bible. They contain the Word of God at the top of the page, with explanatory notes and background information at the bottom. Cross-references are provided to direct the reader to related passages in the Bible. Both of these study Bibles, and many others that have come out in recent years, are very readable, so you do not need to be a Bible college graduate to understand them.

Having read and interpreted God’s Word, it might be helpful to write a one-sentence summary of the passage in your spiritual journal. What is God saying through this passage? Having figured out the meaning of the passage, personalize it. Ask God how this truth affects you individually. How does it affect your job? What does it say about your relationships with family, friends, and co-workers? Does it mention any sinful actions and attitudes that you must confess and repent of? Does it mention anything you should do more often? Develop a strategy for incorporating this passage’s guidance into your life. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you seek to apply the principles of God’s Word to your everyday life.

Categories: Spiritual disciplines, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Finding Time for God

One of the greatest challenges for Christians in our busy society is finding quiet time alone with the Lord. More distractions scream for our attention with each passing day. As I started writing this article, I received a Facebook alert as one of my online friends declared his love for his Blackberry. Ten years ago, “blackberry” was a fruit, not a cell phone with gazillions of “apps” to keep one occupied wherever he went. Social networking sites were likewise nonexistent. These days, such technology gives us the illusion of being connected to one another, but at the same time, they create the reality of relational distance from God.

High-tech wireless devices and websites are not the only things demanding our attention like never before. Many companies expect their employees to work in a state of non-stop multitasking, thereby eliminating even the opportunity to pray a silent one-minute petition to God between tasks. Many employees work overtime—sometimes without pay—to accomplish their tasks and keep their jobs. Parents of school-aged children chauffeur them to all sorts of sports-team practices and games, leaving few quiet afternoons or evenings at home. Many churches fill their calendars with so many events that the most committed members find it difficult to set time alone to meet with the Lord. In this article, I will offer some advice to help believers find time for God.

Recognize Prayer as a Priority

In the Gospel of Luke, we read the story of two sisters. Both of them loved Jesus, but he commended the way one showed her love for him over how the other one did so.

“Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her'” (Luke 10:38–42, NASB).

How easy it is for Christians to be like Martha! Those who have ministry responsibilities in the church can relate to her. The church tends to glorify the “Marthas” in its midst. It seems as if some Christians measure one another’s spirituality not so much by how much time they spend praying and reading God’s word, but by how busy they are “doing things for the Lord.” Mary had chosen the most important way to relate to Jesus; she was the one who had chosen the “good part.”

The lesson is clear: Prayer and hearing from the Lord (especially study of his word) should take priority over ministry and other activity, no matter how urgent it may seem. If you are not meeting your deadlines, the solution is not neglecting prayer. If you are not able to keep up with your various responsibilities, time with God is not the area where you should make sacrifices. At times like this, the solution is not less prayer, but more prayer. As a matter of fact, if you are active in any ministry, prayer is the most important job you have in the church. Pastors must pray for the members of their congregations. Sunday school teachers must pray for their students. Church musicians should worship God throughout the week, so that it flows naturally during the church service. No matter what role you serve in the church, God calls you to pray. In fact, some of the most effective ministries seek prayer supporters even more zealously than they seek financial donors! That is how important prayer is to them.

Set Aside Time

Jesus in Pray

Jesus in prayer. Image via Wikipedia

Many mature Christians suggest that you should pray at least one hour per day. They cite Matthew 26:40, where Jesus asked his disciples why they could not tarry in prayer with him for one hour, shortly before he was betrayed and arrested. Many will cite the morning as the best time to pray. Personally, I make an effort to get up at 5:30 AM every weekday morning, so that I can spend at least 30 minutes praying before I leave for work. I will usually add one to three more prayer sessions throughout the day. Many great men of God, including Jesus himself, would pray in the morning.

There is no passage in the Bible that gives a strict command to pray first thing in the morning. Quite a few passages testify to the importance of praying in the morning, but many of those passages will mention other times of day for prayer. Perhaps the strongest command specifying when we should pray is First Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.” So, if morning prayers are a fantasy for you, do not lose heart. While many Christians are especially blessed during early-morning prayer, God will honor your prayers whenever you say them.

More important than the exact time is the priority we place on prayer. The biblical principle of first fruits is very helpful when making decisions about any area of spiritual stewardship, whether it be our treasures (money), talents, or time. The principle is known as “first fruits” because, for several Old Testament sacrifices, God commanded the Israelites to bring some of the first crops received during the harvest (Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 18:4). In fact, they were not supposed to eat any of the harvest until they had presented the first fruits as an offering (Leviticus 23:9–14).

Many Christians think the principle of first fruits applies only to their finances. They might say, “First I write my tithe check to the church; then I pay my bills and buy groceries.” However, first fruits is not just a financial budgeting guideline. It is a principle of giving God our highest-quality resources, including our time. Genesis 4:3–4 tells us that “Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” God rejected Cain’s offering but accepted Abel’s. Many Bible teachers claim that God rejected Cain’s offering because it was not a blood sacrifice. They cite Hebrews 9:22, which says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” However, that would assume that Cain and Abel were offering a sacrifice for sin, which Genesis does not specify. The Old Testament mandated several different kinds of offerings, and some had nothing to do with sin. In several kinds of sacrifices, plants would have been an acceptable offering.

The source of God’s displeasure is more obvious in the Hebrew than it is in many English translations, but if   we look closely, we can still see the major distinction between the sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. In other words, he chose the best and healthiest animals he could offer. He gave God the best he could. Cain, however, offered some of the fruits of the soil. Nothing special here: he probably grabbed some stuff at random. Maybe he gave God the things he did not want (like many people who donate to a thrift store or food pantry). Even if he did not give God his junk, he made no real effort to give his best.

When it comes to giving God your time, do you give him your best or just whatever you can find? Do you give God the best of your time, or do you pray whenever you get around to it? If you wait until you have “nothing better to do” before you pray, you will never develop a regular habit of prayer. You will never know the joy and blessedness of an intimate, growing relationship with Christ. There will always be another television show to watch, another ball game, or another gathering with friends that will keep you from praying.

Since first fruits is our best, morning may not necessarily be the ideal time for you to pray. While I am blessed by my morning prayers, sometimes my best times are at night. Over the last year or so, my morning prayer time has evolved into “marching orders from God”; I do not lift up too many of my petitions at that time, but I get my day off on a spiritual angle, and the Lord speaks to me through his Word and his Spirit in a way that sets the tone for my day. Nights, though, can be times for really deep prayer for me. Unhurried prayer, after the day’s duties have been fulfilled, can allow me to spend relaxed time meditating on God’s word, getting to know him better, and devoting ample time to prayer for the needs which burden me most.

What is most important, though, is that you treat your prayer time as a priority. Don’t wait to “find time” for prayer. Make time for prayer, and then guard it as if it matters. If you plan to pray when you get home from work in the evening, don’t sit down and turn on the television. Find your place of prayer and get started.

Several passages, including First Peter 2:2, compare prayer and Bible reading with food. Our souls need spiritual nourishment, just like our bodies do. A good goal would be to seek three spiritual meals per day, just like we eat three meals of food per day. This will reduce the risk of getting “run down” spiritually. The Book of Common Prayer provides prayers for four different times of the day: morning, noon, evening, and “Compline” (bedtime prayers). In addition, it is helpful to set aside “spiritual snack” prayer times: praying or meditating on scripture during times when we are not otherwise mentally preoccupied. Sometimes, I will spend a few minutes with God while driving, or during a coffee break at work, and so on.

Your primary prayer time should be treated with the same urgency you would ascribe to other high-priority aspects of your schedule. Think about it this way: Do you skip work just because your favorite television show is on, or because you would rather go shopping? Probably not. Well then, why should we show more respect to a human boss, than to the Creator and Lord of the entire universe?

Set aside a time and place where you will not be easily distracted. Many people prefer morning prayers because there are fewer distractions in the morning: very rarely will someone call me on the phone at 7:00 AM! A place of prayer is important too. Usually, I like to say my morning prayers in a spare room in my apartment (at one time it was my son’s bedroom, but now that he is grown up and starting a family, it has become my “prayer closet”). Find a place where you can spend some time alone with God, with few distractions.

Come Prepared

Finally, come ready to both talk to and hear from God. I keep a prayer list handy, specifying people and circumstances that I am praying for. I also keep my Day-Timer handy. It provides two purposes. First, I keep a list of Bible readings for each day in it. Second, if I start thinking of things I need to do, I can scribble them down very quickly and move along. Before I started doing that, one of Satan’s most effective distractions was to make me obsess about things I need to do. Now if, during my prayer time, I think of something I need to do, it is usually God’s directive for addressing one of the needs I have prayed about! The power of demonic distraction is gone.

Most importantly, bring your Bible. Prayer is not just a time to tell God what you want. It is a time to ask God what he wants to tell you. Usually, he will speak through his word before he speaks in any other way. Prayer is a dialogue with God, not a monologue with the air.

Conclusion

Most of the guidelines above are really basic principles of time management. Many people allow time to become their master. They surrender to temporal passivity, and allow circumstances to dictate how they spend their time. Good time managers recognize the need to set priorities. You must choose to allocate time for the things that are most important to you. The Bible tells us that a wise disciple of Jesus will “redeem the time,” making the most of it (Ephesians 5:16). This begins by setting aside time to commune with God. Then, you need to allocate time for the important responsibilities of your life. When you manage your time properly, you can enjoy your leisure time with peace of mind, knowing that you have not squandered an irreplaceable commodity.

Categories: Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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