Tag Archives: Bible Study

Difficult Passages? 3 Questions to Ask

Can we agree that the Bible has some weird stories? Is that fair to say? I mean really… there is a story of an ax head that falls into a river and the prophet of God makes it float by throwing a stick into the water (2 Kings 6:1-7). There is another about a patriarch who refuses to give his youngest son in marriage to his widowed daughter-in-law… she pretends to be a prostitute and the patriarch impregnates her (Genesis 38). Yet another, the prophet Elisha is mocked by some teenagers because he is bald… so he calls bears from the wilderness to EAT THEM (2 Kings 2:23-25). There are tons more weird stories in the Bible. Each story bears its own unique difficulties. Sometimes theological, sometimes pragmatic, always frustrating.

As I grew in the Lord and began to read my Bible with greater regularity I began to ask the question, “Why is this in the Bible?” I would find myself reading a story like the aforementioned ax head story and laugh saying to myself, “well, that’s interesting?” I’d struggle to answer the question of, “why does this story matter?” I know that every story has a purpose. God preserved these particular stories to tell us something. Indeed, in the words of the Storybook Bible, I read to my kids, “Every story whispers His name.” Sometimes those are obvious and sometimes they are not so obvious.

Embracing this struggle to understand is the first step in grasping the text of Scripture. Sometimes God lays the answer before us in “bull-horn moments” and sometimes understanding takes a little work on our behalf. As a simple man who strives to hear the voice of God in the pages of Scripture, I’ve developed some questions that help me to hear Him. Maybe you struggle too? If you do, maybe these will help:

  1. What does God do in this story?

Shortly after graduating from seminary, I remember reading a particular passage and asking this question. I sought the insight of some of my former professors on the matter and found their answers helpful. Though all the professors offered insights that I had missed, the best answer came in the form of a question – “What does God do in this story?” On the surface, this question seems simple and easy to answer. But what about the stories where He is not mentioned or does not speak? Genesis 34? The book of Esther? Multiple Judges? But, the Bible’s main character is God. So, He is the chief actor in the story of the Bible. We must seek to see what God is doing. Even in His silence, He is present and active.

  1. What does this passage tell me about the character of God?

In Sunday school as a child, I was taught to think about the Bible in moral terms. What was the Bible saying that I should or shouldn’t do? Now don’t get me wrong, the Bible has something to say about morality and does guide you to what you should do and should not do. Yet, when we moralize the stories of Scripture before asking this question, we inadvertently neglect the primary purpose of the text. The purpose is to teach us about God and His character. It is not a list of right and wrongs, but a guide to knowing God. So, a good question to ask is, “What does this passage say about God?” Your answer should never be, “nothing.” You may have to think heavy and hard about it but the fruit of that labor will be magnificent.

  1. What do other passages say about this one?

“Scripture interprets Scripture!” the professor almost yelled in fervor. His jaw clenched as he decried people who would interpret Scripture by their own experience. If Jesus says a passage in the Old Testament means something, then that is what it means. If Paul applies a text to the church, then that text is to be applied to the church. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it. It says what it says. If the Gospels say that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, then Israel is NOT the suffering servant, that title is claimed by the Messiah! This question takes some digging. Get yourself a good cross-reference Bible and dig in. Put in the work, you won’t regret it.

Brief Thoughts: Galatians 2:18-21 pt 1

18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.  

When a believer comes to Christ, he comes to a death. The law that he once held in such high esteem and presented as a home in which to reside, is demolished and destroyed. It is destroyed in favor of freedom from it. As Paul has already asserted, the law cannot bring salvation. So, if you desire to be saved, you must trust in Jesus’ righteousness to cover you. It stands to reason, then, that a person who places restrictions upon themselves after having been freed from those restrictions is merely imposing upon themselves new shackles.

Shackles and walls are not designed to embrace freedom. Shackles are designed to restrict the individual from breaking the law. Walls are designed to protect the individual from other people’s freedom. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is antithetical to shackles and walls. When one trusts in Christ, they surrender their need to be protected from other people’s freedom in order to follow Christ, trusting in Him for deliverance and cover. In trusting Jesus, the Christian is set free from the bondage of the law and has submitted to the law of the Spirit voluntarily (Romans 8:2). A voluntary submission that he/she cannot deny. In this, the Christian has exchanged the restrictive walls that once demanded perfection and the subsequent shackles of unrighteousness for the gracious leading of the Spirit and His cleansing presence.

Paul is rightly confused as to why the Galatians would strive to subject themselves to a law again once having been freed. Paul explains the result of adding laws to the Gospel is condemnation. As one attempts to be righteous according to the law, the law serves to show that they are a “transgressor.” Thus Paul explains that those who have trusted in Christ have “died to the law.” The law no longer has anything to condemn because that life which was bound to the law has ended and a new life has begun. In Romans 7:1-6 Paul illustrates this point with the picture of a marriage in which one party is only freed from the contract upon their death. He further explains that the Christian is the one who died and that they are freed from the legal contract of marriage to the law because that former life no longer exists. Having died to the law, it is absurd that any man would rebuild the law in effort to embrace freedom.

When someone trusts in Jesus for salvation, they end the contractual obligation to the law by sharing in the death of Christ (c.f. Romans 6:1-11). In Jesus’ death, the old man has died. Christians are set free from sin and death and are raised to walk a new life. Therefore, submitting again to a law is incongruent with the freedom of Christ. To raise up a new law and insist that righteousness can only be achieved by Jesus AND the law is to nullify grace. Indeed, adding anything to trusting Jesus as a necessary requirement for salvation is nullifying that trust and is returning yet again to a yoke of slavery.

A necessary pause must be taken for a moment to consider the difference between submitting to a law and pursuing holiness. Christians ought to be marked by a pursuit of holiness. Yet, many modern Christians do not understand that holiness is a pursuit. Christians strive to be righteous because we can. We strive to be holy because joy is found in holiness. The things the law says to do are good and are a delight to the Christian. But, they are not a requirement for salvation. Christians do not follow the holiness of Christ because it will save them. They follow the holiness of Christ because He HAS saved them. Christians are free to participate in righteousness and they do out of a desire for joy!

Oh Christian, pursuing holiness is a joy! Striving to delight in the work and life of Christ is more powerful than you can imagine. Once set free from sin, we pursue becoming more like Christ and there we find our joy. Do not be deceived into thinking adding laws and regulations are the same as following Christ. When we add laws in an effort to secure salvation, we nullify grace. When we pursue holiness in delight, recognizing freedom, we empower grace.

Galatians 1:1-2; Brief Thoughts

Paul, an apostle – not from me nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead – 2and all the brothers who are with me.

All the goodness and efforts of man cannot compare with the holiness of God and God’s own work. No amount of human strength can rescue the sinful man from their own disposition. No about of effort can redeem a man’s heart or rescue a man’s soul from death. Yet, the very word of God brings life. The Lord created the world with a word and brings life to the dead through very same means. God speaks, we breathe – that’s how it works.

Confronted by a leagalistic heresy, a mass of well-intentioned church people, and a culture that demanded religious observance and public piety, Paul wrote the church in Galatia about the miraculous and profound nature of salvation. There is no power that can free a man, no law that can restore a man to right relationship with God, only the gospel of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross can rescue mankind. One must trust Him for salvation. Thus, Paul begins his message to the Galatians by asserting his authority and message are from Jesus, not man nor any work of man.

Paul is an apostle. The word apostle means one who is sent. Paul has been sent by God with a message from God. He does not simply commend a message from God or reference a message from God. Rather, he brings the message from God. The words that proceed from the pen of Paul are words of tremendous conviction and are of a confrontational nature. Paul establishes, before engaging in the nuances of the Christian life, that this message comes from Jesus. He brings the word of the Lord to bare on the conscience of the reader.

Further, Paul’s apostleship did not come from his own ambition or from the urging of other men. Indeed, Paul’s original ambition was to remove every semblance of Christianity from the earth (Acts. 7:58-8:3). His own ambition was no longer a viable part of his life. He had surrendered his rights to promotion and self-exaltation in effort to see the gospel advance. Likewise, there were not many who believed that Paul should be in ministry. His history of persecution over the church was not lauded with tremendous zeal for him to begin Christian ministry. Indeed, it is much more likely that many were wary of his ministry given his history. Ananias, the first Christian to reach out to Paul even objected to the Lord’s command to go to Paul saying, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much even he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:13) Yet, the Lord saw fit to redeem and call Paul an apostle. No committee or vote was held, no church ordination, no seminary degree was required, only God’s calling an commission were present. Paul’s apostleship was unique from all the others. He was commissioned by Christ on a road and the Holy Spirit in the desert (c.f. Acts 9).

Paul was made an apostle through Jesus Christ. He did not merit the apostleship. He did not earn it through years of study. He was made an apostle through the work and effort of Jesus Christ and Christ alone. Note the name by which Paul calls Jesus – Jesus Christ. He is the Christ. The one whom the law points all mankind. The Savior. The bringer of freedom. The righteousness of God and salvation for all who believe. The Christ! The anointed one in whom freedom and Sabbath is found! Paul’s apostleship comes from this Lord. This King who rules over all with the word of grace and life. Further, it is not simply through Jesus, but also with the authority of God, the one who brings resurrection and life. Paul’s apostleship comes from the very seat of life and creation. The very hand that wrote the law on tablets of stone and lead the Israelites through the wilderness into the promised land is the same One who gave Paul the commission of “apostle!”

Consider the power of such an authority. Is there a greater authority available? Is there a power stronger than the one who can defy death? Is there a strength greater? No… no there is not. The mission and authority by which Paul writes is unparalleled.

Finally, Paul does not write in a vacuum. He writes with the witness  of the community of grace. He calls to a community within the context of a community of faith that loves him well. Consider the focus of this letter – the law verses grace. Where law is overcome by grace, community thrives. In a community of grace, the apostleship of all Christians is recognized and self-inflated piety dissipates into nothingness because Christ has covered all who trust in Him.

This letter to the Galatians is much more than just a commentary on the Law. It is about living in grace. Christ has freed us from the Law. He has freed us from sin and death and enabled us to live in right relationship with Him and also with each other. This repaired relationship is the context by which Paul writes.

Thinking Through Ephesians! A free pdf sample

About 16 years ago I was asked to teach the college class at Highland Baptist Church in Waco, TX on a Sunday morning. It was a large crowd of roughly 1,000 students. My brother was the college pastor associate and had recommended me to teach. I had preached and led small group Bible studies before. I had spoken to moderately large churches, but never a crowd of such significant size and never without a strategic outline or material to follow. I called my brother and asked his advice. He said, “pick a passage of Scripture and teach what it says. No more, no less. Just study what it says and teach it.”

b7a26-bible-on-a-pulpitI taught on Ephesians 5:15-20. Teaching that passage began a mountain-top journey through Ephesians for me. It fast became my favorite book of the Bible. I began to trudge through the text verse by verse, line by line, phrase by phrase until I grasped everything I could. Sometimes I’d get stuck on one verse and write page after page. Sometimes I’d sit on the concepts of the book for a month before I penned a word. All the time, I sought to know Jesus deeply and engage His word and work in my heart and life.

 

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For roughly 14 years I would return to Ephesians every few months and write a little more. Then, a little more than two years ago I was challenged to blog more often. I decided that I would blog every day of the week save Sunday. I started to blog each day through the book of Ephesians, taking the notes I had collected and put them into bite-sized chunks for anyone interested. Somewhere within chapter two, my brother Jeff (who happens to be a great author! you can check out his stuff here: Jeff’s stuff), told me I should consider compiling them into a book.

Cover smallSo, for the last year and a half, my wife and I have edited this work for your joy. This book is the result of a 16-year devotional walk through Ephesians. It has been a delight and joy to write. I hope it is a joy to read as well.

For a free sample of a few chapters and the intro, click here.

To purchase through Amazon: https://goo.gl/fwKDxN

To purchase through Lulu.com:  https://goo.gl/yCoQJk

Colossians 4:9-11; Brief Thoughts

and with [Tychicus], Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here.

10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), 11 and Jesus who is called Justus.[1] These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.

Who are these people with Paul?

Onesimus – (Philemon 8-22).

Onesimus was a runaway slave who became a believer in Jesus and connected with Paul. In his letter to Philemon, Paul explains that Onesimus had become useful to the gospel witness and he pleads with Philemon to take Onesimus back as a brother and not a servant. Paul calls Onesimus “faithful and beloved,” the very same descriptors of Tychicus. These brothers are entrusted to deliver the message of God to the Colossians.

Consider for a moment that a former slave who has been transformed by the gospel  is delivering the message of Colossians. This letter is been focused on discovering the Christian’s new identity as it is in Christ. It is quite appropriate that a man who has had such a dramatic shift from slavery to freedom is responsible for delivering a message that speaks of a dramatic shift from slavery in sin to freedom in Christ. Onesimus is a living analogy for salvation.

Aristarchus (Acts 19:29, 20:4, 27:2, and Philemon 1:24)

A Macedonian believer, Aristarchus was one of Paul’s “companions in travel” (Acts 19:29). He was present at the riot in Ephesus and spent significant time with Paul in Ephesus. In the midst of extreme danger, Aristarchus remained faithful to stand by Paul. Further, exemplifying the Macedonian spirit, Aristarchus has given all of himself to the mission of God. He has sacrificed his own comfort and position by following the Lord even to prison. This man is a bold follower of Christ who stands by Paul in some of the most difficult circumstances. Even in this letter, he is a “fellow prisoner.” What a great encouragement to have brothers such as Aristarchus who will serve even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Mark (Acts 12:12, 12:25, 15:37-39, 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24, 1 Peter 5:13)

John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, was greatly involved in the ministry of the early church. He was a member of Paul’s missionary cohort early on, until he fell sick and had to return home. He and Barnabas worked to advance the Gospel apart from Paul for a time before they were evidently reunited at Paul’s request in 2 Timothy. Mark’s own journey was one of transformation. He went from being a nuisance to being a valuable part of the mission of God. In his first attempt to live on mission, he was overcome with sickness and then rejected by the leader of the mission. Yet, he persisted and grew as a disciple, faithfully proclaiming the gospel when given the opportunity. So, over time, he is transformed from the sickly and annoying boy that Paul does not want to bother with to being one whose presence is requested because he is “useful” (2 Tim. 4:11).

So it is with many Christians. As we grow in the Lord we often find the journey to becoming useful to be a long and rather slow process. Most Christians are more akin to John Mark than Paul. We seldom have a Damascus road experience that changes us overnight. Most of us must walk through failures and successes and learn slowly. Although we have been changed in a moment, we still must grow into that change as Mark grew.

Jesus called Justice (Only mentioned in Colossians.)

This brother was among the faithful cohort of Paul. We know little about him because he is only mentioned in this one verse of Colossians. We know that he is with Paul as he writes Colossians. We know that he was Jewish (that is what “among the circumcision” means). And we know that he was involved enough to deserve mention in the letter. Beyond that, we can only know Justus through his relationship to the others.

Identifying these men as “among the circumcision” draws the mind of the hearer to the hostile circumcision party that is mentioned throughout Acts. The church at Colossae would have been well aware of the adversarial nature of the Jews. They would have noticed how Paul was frequently followed by wealthy Jewish leaders who wanted to push the gospel message out of the cities of Asia Minor. In his identification of these brothers as “among the circumcision” Paul is sharing a victory with the church! The gospel has converted and transformed even those who were adversarial to it!  The transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ transcends all boundaries. Even the most antagonistic can be transformed to become an encouragement and a fellow worker in the Kingdom of God!

[1] There are some other “Justus” mentioned in Acts. They are not the same as the Justus mentioned here. Both the names Jesus and Justus were common names among Jewish people in the first century and as a result it is easy to conflate the various men with each other.