A blog about everything about teaching the Bible. "And still I will show you a more excellent way..." (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Learning through Failure

Success can mean different things to different people, but no matter what success looks like to you or me, we both want it. On the other hand, failure is a word that represents what none of us want, and the degree of our fear of it determines how we respond to life’s opportunities. Many people never start something they’ve always wanted to do, because they fear failure. The reasoning goes something like: “It’s better to be able to say, ‘I could have been…,’ or ‘I could have done…,’ than to have to say, ‘I can’t,’ or ‘I couldn’t.’” Pride is our problem, and the truth is that it is never better to take the coward’s course through life. The old proverb, “A coward dies a thousand deaths,” is as true as can be. Another one, “It is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all,” is also true. To fail to live up to one’s own expectations out of the fear of failing is a path to certain misery.

The truth is that the most successful people in the world find their paths to success through the wreckage of their failures. I recently saw a program about some of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs and was fascinated by the number and magnitude of the business failures of those intrepid people. Some lost life savings and homes, others amassed huge debts, some went hungry for brief periods, but all succeeded due to the willingness to try, and try again. I was also enlightened to hear each one say that they learned far more through experiencing failure than they ever did through their successes, and that it was the failures that created strong character within them, not the successes. There is no doubt that success is sweet, and we all do and should want to experience it again and again, but if ever there has been someone who never failed at anything, I think he really missed something important.

Now, I want to clarify my point, and make a couple of (what I pray will be) useful suggestions. The point in life is not to fail, but to succeed. God’s will for man is that we reign over everything in this world (Gen 1:26), including adversity and temptation (Gen 4:7), and that through succeeding in this life (spiritually) we should reign with him in eternity (2 Tim 2:12). The point is to overcome the obstacles of life—to succeed in the final analysis. However, since we are only human, we all must expect a few bumps along the way. We cannot expect to make it though life without being thrown a few curve balls, and it wouldn’t be very interesting if we did. By genuinely living out the life of Christ according to the Royal Law (James 2:8) and seeking God’s kingdom before any and everything else (Matt 6:33) we can have the comfort of knowing that our failures will be fewer than those of the ungodly and unbelieving, and more importantly, we will have the hope of final and permanent success. So let us all set our sights on the goal and march always towards it, and when we fail, let us learn and grow from it, and through failure gain the wisdom and character to finally succeed.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Becoming a Bible Scholar, Part Two: The Second Step

Last I wrote about the first step into becoming a Bible scholar: reading it with an open mind. This week I want to write about a (not necessarily the) second step: gaining a basic grasp of the layout of the book. I hope these writings will be helpful and informative both to believers and others interested in the Bible, and that they will not be too “dry.”

To develop a well-informed understanding of a novel requires first reading it, then re-reading it, and familiarizing oneself with the overall theme of the book; its major characters, plot events, and other characteristics. Literature students learn to dissect books like this in High School (or earlier). While the Bible is not a novel (though it can be just as entertaining to read as one), it is a work of literature (and so much more). It has a central theme. It has a beginning and an end. It has a timeline. It has diverse sections containing literature of a variety of genres. It has a central plot with rising action events. So much more could be said, but suffice it to say that a general familiarity with all of these characteristics of the Bible is essential to having an accurate understanding of it as a whole.

So, a few notes are in order. The Bible is a book of sixty-six books organized into two Covenants or Testaments. Probably the most accurate description would be to say that there is the Old Covenant first, with its 39 books, and the New Testament second, with its 27, but most Bibles use either covenant or testament for both. Flowing throughout all sixty-six books is a single theme. Someone has summarized it as “the glorification of God and the redemption of mankind in Christ Jesus.” That is a good way to word it—every book in the Bible is directly related to that theme, but address it in different ways.

There are four sections of the Old Testament (which was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic to God’s people among the pre-Christian Israelites). The Books of Law, also called the Pentateuch or Torah, come first (Genesis – Deuteronomy), which are the beginning of God’s revelation to mankind and record his work among men until the establishment of the Mosaic theocracy. Then the Historical Books follow (Joshua – Esther), which record the dealings of God with his theocracy from the death of Moses until the period of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple after the Babylonian exile. Following those are the books of Poetry, or Wisdom Literature (Job – Song of Solomon), which were written during various periods in the history of Israel. Finally, the Prophets (Isaiah – Malachi) are the writings of the men who preached to Israel throughout her history—reminders, promises, warnings—urging, sometimes goading the people into faithful observance of the Law of Moses. Notable among each of these sections are scattered more than 300 specific prophecies about the Messiah that was to come, the youngest of which were written hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.

The New Testament, originally written in Greek on papyrus scrolls, likewise has four sections. The Four Gospels (Matthew – John) relate the ministry of Jesus Christ (which means Jesus the Messiah or Anointed One) who came to fulfill God’s promises to Israel and create hope for the Gentiles, effectively creating of the two peoples one new kingdom of faithful ones, the church. The Gospels each present a testimony of the death of Christ and his resurrection, which events are the foundation of the glorification of God in human redemption. Following the Gospels is the Book of Acts, which is actually part 2 of the Gospel of Luke and contains the record of the work of the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus to direct his chosen apostles in the establishment of the church. Then comes the Epistles (Letters) which are actual letters written by apostles and other early Christian leaders to churches and individuals to help them to better understand their faith in Christ. Finally, the Book of Revelation is an apocalypse, which is a prophetic writing utilizing vivid imagery to symbolize grand unfolding events in God’s dealings with the world. It symbolized God’s victory over ancient persecutors of Christianity and assures the reader of God’s final victory over the forces of evil and promises a return to the paradise in which man’s history began.

And so the plot of the Bible begins with the Creation of paradise and ends with the restoration of it. God made man and gave him a paradise in which to live forever with him. But, sin marred creation, and so God began his great plan that theologians call the Scheme of Redemption. This scheme climaxed in the work of Jesus and has as its goal the redemption of fallen mankind and a return to pure, holy fellowship between God and man in a new paradise (heaven). In short, that is what the Bible is all about.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Becoming a Bible Scholar, Part One: The First Step


Certainly every Christian is interested in the Bible and either is studying it diligently and with love, or plans to get around to it—eventually. Many people who do not consider themselves Christians and others who consider themselves “Christian,” but remain “unchurched” also nurse a curiosity about the Bible that they would love to indulge—if only they knew how. Anyone and everyone would profit by studying the Bible, but experience has taught this writer that most people are a bit intimidated by it. It is a big book! What most people “know” about the Bible is what they have heard. Suffice it to say, one cannot trust in everything he hears.

While a fair number of people will mumble something in passing about having read the Bible, precious few have actually read the whole thing, much less progress beyond reading it into studying it, and fewer still become Bible scholars. Studying within “ivied halls” is not a requirement to becoming a great student of the Holy Scriptures. While formal education is one path to knowledge, a college degree is not required. Some of the greatest minds in history were “self-taught” men and women. Becoming a Bible scholar is simple, really, if one will start by reading it, and then muster the love and determination to read it again and again seeking to understand it. Some study of Biblical languages, history, and other disciplines will be necessary in the long run, but as they say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The first step along the journey to understanding the Bible well enough to profit from it, discuss its teachings intelligently, and even critically weigh the ideas of those scholars who do reside within “ivied halls,” is to read it with interest and an open mind.

A few words of advice about quality reading in general are in order. First, reading with understanding requires concentration. The reader who would truly profit from the endeavor must make both time and space for it. One needs a comfortable place to read away from excessive noise or bustle; supplied with enough light (and a good cup of coffee or hot chocolate does not hurt). Some readers like to play some music low in the background to intensify focus and drown out any background noise. It is wise to set aside a scheduled half-hour or hour for Bible reading each day and stick to it with discipline. Second, reading can be grueling for those who are not used to it. The patience of slow readers is tested each time they crack open the cover of a book. Slow (or otherwise challenged) readers should remember that, with anything, practice makes perfect. The more one reads the better reader he becomes. Finally, one who intends to understand what he reads should keep a dictionary close by for looking up unfamiliar words. The temptation to guess at the meaning of a word can be strong, but in the long run, taking the time to look up new words will increase one’s vocabulary, and that will have a dramatic impact both on one’s comfort with reading and understanding of what he reads. Go ahead and take the first step to becoming a Bible scholar: read it! You may well find more between those dusty covers than you expected. You may find faith!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Peace

Peace is a word that invokes wholesome feelings. Peace is the absence of contention, strife, rivalries and war. Being at peace means one is free to rest without fear or anxiety. We all love a good night’s sleep. Recently I attended a dinner where the keynote speaker was a World War II veteran; one of the American soldiers that liberated Dachau concentration camp. He spoke of what it was like to fight the Germans in the ruined streets of bombed out cities. He said that at one time he went three days without sleeping, because enemies were all around him. There is a reason why the lack of peace is called unrest. Peace is what enables people to enjoy one another’s company with leisure, to dream up ways to show love to others, to pursue self-expression in a positive way, and to better oneself through study and contemplation of the Scriptures. Peace is wonderful and greatly to be desired. We should pray earnestly for peace at every level (1 Tim 2:1-2).

With my limited understanding I recognize three levels of peace. Two of them may be enjoyed by anyone at any time despite circumstances in the world. I want to write a bit about these two, and then I’ll write something about the third level of peace.

The first and most important level of peace for one to have is peace with God. James wrote, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4 ESV). In this passage “the world” does not mean the planet Earth, but rather refers to the majority of the people in the world who do not worship and obey God. The apostle John teaches us that “all that is in the world--the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions--is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16 ESV). Those who live by and for their lusts and pride either never come to faith in Jesus, or else will turn away from him. They are God’s enemies, for their hearts are set against his desire for the good of all mankind. Unfortunately, everyone who grows out of the innocence of childhood will eventually strike out against God by sinning (Rom 3:23). Thankfully, God is forgiving and desires to be reconciled with those among his children who will come to him in faith. That is why Paul was able to write these beautiful words about Christians: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1 ESV). If one is at war with God, he cannot be at peace on any level for very long, but to be at peace with God is to have hope of one day entering into a state of eternal peace, and also supplies the foundation for enjoying the second level of peace.

The second level of peace (as I understand it) is peace with oneself, inner peace, or peace of mind. The Gospel of John records these words from Jesus: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27 ESV). Having inner peace is to be free from anxiety—neither troubled, nor afraid. Being in covenant relationship with Christ is the key to having peace of mind. God has promised never to leave his children or forsake us (Heb 13:5). Paul said, “If God is for us who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Then we have the following promise: “[Do] not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7 ESV). The implication of that passage is that we can give all our worries and problems to God in prayer with the assurance that he is going to take care of it in the best way possible. When all our worries are being taken care of by the one who loves us and has all power to cause “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28 NAS), we have every reason to have peace of mind—if we abide faithfully in our calling as Christians.

Peace with God and peace of mind are levels of peace that every Christian has been empowered to enjoy anywhere at any time, because God is always willing to reconcile with his fallen children who will come back to him, and there is no one who can hinder your having inner peace, but you. However, the third level of peace can be a bit more difficult at times, because having it requires a level of understanding and agreement between two humans. While I know God wants to be at peace with me, and I can certainly control myself, no one can control anyone else. This is why Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18 NAS). So, how does one promote peace between man and man?

One of the beloved beatitudes says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9 NAS). Since God is a peacemaker (Eph 2:16), those who seek peace, and make peace are his children. Romans 14:19 reads: “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (ESV). From this scripture we learn that peace between men requires pursuit (it takes effort, it does not just happen by accident), and must be done out of a heart that truly wants what is best for others. Selfish desires, pride and greed are the causes of unrest. Lasting peace cannot exist when people are seeking their own betterment first, with little or no regard for others. If Jesus had sought his own comfort and dignity first, he would never have allowed himself to be humiliated and tortured on the cross. However, since he did what was best for others, we now not only have the hope of salvation which is peace with God, but we also have a model of what a peacemaker is like. Let us imitate him.

Peace at any level requires loving fellowship and the willingness to sacrifice one’s own will for the sake of another. Peace with God is built upon his willingness to allow Jesus to die for us, and Jesus’ willingness to do it. It also requires our being willing to become living sacrifices through faith (Rom 12:1). Those who are willing to obey the Gospel are reconciled to God through the blood of Christ which we contact in the washing of Christian baptism (Eph 2:13; Rom 6:3; Tit 3:5). To abide with God throughout life as a faithful Christian is to be continually bathed in that holy blood ensuring that we are continually at peace with God (1 John 1:7). Peace with oneself requires that one become his own friend, willing to sacrifice the pleasure of illicitly fulfilling his lusts in order to maintain a clean conscience. Peace with our fellow man requires a dedication to making peace through expressing godly love toward him, being willing to compromise and forgive, while maintaining a meekly assertive stand for righteousness. Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6). At his birth the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14 ESV). His disciples have peace with God and the option of having inner peace, and seek to promote peace in the entire world. May peace on earth become a reality, and sooner rather than later. Amen.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Respect

Recently I watched a news program about some of the problems with children in local school systems. A juvenile court judge was featured in the program lamenting that the children standing before her are getting ever younger. She commented about the violent nature of the crimes committed by children as young as eight, and noted that they exhibited a complete lack of respect and a deep sense of entitlement. I am sad to say that I have made similar observations of the children that roam my neighborhood. I still shake my head in disbelief when I think about the crowds of children who do not even bother to get out of the street when I am driving toward and past them (and even flash arrogant and challenging glares toward me as I pass). I am very happy to say that there are a lot of good children out there (two real good ones in my own house), but there are also an awful lot of them that are seriously misguided and headed for trouble; some even from faithful, church-going families.

It is absolutely essential that children learn respect. First they must be taught to respect God and their parents. Then they must be taught to respect their elders. Then they must learn to respect themselves and their peers. Without respect, order will only be possible through martial strength, and righteousness will be absent. Solomon wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” (1:7). The word is translated “fear” in most instances, but it is translated “respect” five times in the KJV, and some have defined it as “reverential fear.” Children must be taught to fear the Lord first, and then they will have the capacity to learn to respect others. Parents have to instill this in their children. If children do not get it at home, they will have a hard road ahead of them in life and I shudder to think of the outcome if they come before God’s throne with the disrespect with which some of them approach the benches of human judges.

I want to conclude this brief admonition with what is one of the greatest examples of respect ever. It is the Rechabites spoken about in the Book of Jeremiah. Please read Jeremiah 35. Jonadab the son of Rechab commanded his children never to drink wine or plant crops, and never to build houses, but to always live in tents. They obeyed their father for generations and became an example to all Israel. Jonadab gave his children a hard command to obey, but they obeyed it, because of respect. All children should have that much respect for their parents and for God! Jonadab did something right in raising his children. Let all of us try to do the same. By letting our children whine and get their way, or throw tantrums and disobey us, we create sinful people without respect or restraint. We condemn them and society. Set boundaries, enforce them, and teach your children to have respect.