Observations on life; particularly spiritual

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Prepare your messages

For preachers and teachers

gps 1 resizedWhen we were travelling to Cornwall in southern England, we got in a hire car at Heathrow airport and followed a map to a roundabout. But we didn’t know which was the right exit! The signs weren’t obvious and it was raining, so we couldn’t tell which direction was south by the position of the sun in the sky. So we went around the roundabout a couple of times and then took an exit and pulled over as soon as possible. Then we got out a GPS and followed it to Cornwall. It helps to know where you are going! You key in the beginning and the end and the GPS works out the route between the two.

Giving a message is like a journey. You are taking people on a journey from the start to the end. Your job is to get them there safely. You don’t want to get lost along the way! And you don’t want them to leave before getting to the destination! As a GPS helps our journey, preparation helps our message.

Near the end of his life, Paul’s gave this command to Timothy. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:1-4NIV).

So a preacher or teacher is to “be prepared” (v.2). We need to allocate time to prepare our messages. We also need to explain Scripture – we do it with “careful instruction” because it needs to be understood clearly (v.2). Furthermore, we need to apply it to the listeners (“correct, rebuke and encourage”). They need to know what to do.

So let’s go on a journey looking at three main components of a message:

  • Explanation – What is God telling us?
  • Illustration – How can we remember it?
  • Application – What is our response?

Explain

Because they involve God, preaching and teaching messages are not just ordinary human speeches. Whether it is based on a passage from the Bible or on a topic, we want to know what God says and what it means. That’s what gives authority to our message. That’s why the listener needs to understand and apply the message.

In order to include God’s viewpoint, in our message we need to explain something from the Bible. Otherwise it’s just a subjective human opinion. The Bible is God’s message to us. So selecting the main Bible passage or the Bible verses used is very important. It should follow much prayer and Bible study.

We have two main tools to explain a Bible passage. These are the written text and the context. Read the text many times to understand it yourself. Summarize it. Does it divide into a few sections or aspects that can be the sections of the message? I use subheadings to divide a message into sections. In each section I include explanation, illustration and application. It’s like a sandwich.

What is the main point? (In this case it was to always be ready to “preach the word” or “proclaim the message”). What did it mean to the original readers? In view of subsequent Scripture and our place in history, what does it mean to us now? I mention the main point in the introduction and the conclusion of the message. That’s what I want people to remember. So it is repeated. Don’t clutter the message with lots of other detail or too many Scripture references.

Are there figures of speech in the text? Explain these.

The context helps us understand the text. Here’s the context of 2 Tim. 4:2

  • Paul is in a dungeon in Rome when Emperor Nero is persecuting Christians.
  • Paul had trained Timothy. He was his mentor. They went on many missionary trips together.
  • Timothy was in Ephesus where evil and sexual immorality were prevalent. Christians were in the minority and Christian faith was denounced and ridiculed.
  • What happens before and after the passage? In our example, after describing the evil of the last days, and because God was watching and the coming reward (v.1), Timothy was to “preach the word”. This is followed by the reason for preaching – because people are rejecting the truth for myths (v.3-4).

Have you ever viewed a video that explains something? I have seen ones that explain more about word processing. It’s not enough to see the buttons and icons on a screen; we need to know how to use them. “Explain Everything” is an app that helps teachers record lessons and demonstrations. It’s used to make these videos. Explaining a Bible passage is like one of these instructional videos.

We explain so our listeners can understand the message. How well are we explaining? It’s good to aim your message at teenagers. Can they understand it? Can they get the message? If not, then I suggest that many of our listeners will miss it as well. Use simple language so people can understand. And don’t be too technical.

Like the route of a journey on a GPS, a message needs a beginning and an ending. So after determining the main point and the subheadings, I write the Introduction and the Conclusion. These give the framework to the message and stop us going off the topic.

Now that the people understand our message, we need to help them remember it.

Illustrate

We use illustrations to catch attention and help people remember our message. A picture (or image) is worth a thousand words. That’s why images are powerful in Facebook, Instagram, and advertising. Facebook uploads six billion photos per month and YouTube uploads 72 hours of video every minute.

The Bible teems with illustrations. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are visualizations of great spiritual truths. I use an illustration to catch attention at the beginning of a message and try to illustrate each section of the message.

The main point in our example was to always be ready to “preach the word” or “proclaim the message”. Imagine in ancient times when a town crier brought a message from the king. He gathers a group of people and says, “Here ye, hear ye, by royal order of his highness, the king, this town has been granted 100 soldiers to protect you from the rebel bands who plunder the king’s subjects”. Everyone cheers. And he continues, “Furthermore the cost for this protection shall be born not by taxation but by the king from his royal treasury!” More cheers! “Moreover, the king would have you know that he loves you, his loyal subjects, and will use all his royal counsel and power to defend you and supply your wants”. More cheers. “And lastly he sends his royal blessing. Blessed be the people who trust the king!” (Adapted from John Piper). That crier was always ready to proclaim the king’s message!

We illustrate our messages so people stay alert and remember them. How well are we illustrating? Are we using visual images from the Bible, or current events, history, personal experience, nature, science, or the arts? Drama or video is another form of illustration.

Now that the people understand and remember the message, we need to help them respond to it.

Apply

Even though it was written thousands of years ago, we can always learn something about how to live for God today from the Bible. These applications can be divided into three categories.

First, what is necessary? What applies to us all? In our example, all believers should be ready to explain their Christian faith to someone else.

Second, what is possible? What applies to some people sometimes? In our example, if you are giving messages at church, you need to put enough time into preparing these.

Third, what is impossible? How the passage cannot be applied? In our example, it doesn’t mean that everyone at church should be preaching and teaching to the rest of us.

apps 1 resizedComputers have hardware (which are the physical components) and software (which are the instructions programmed into the memory). An application is a kind of computer software that helps us perform activities. For example, a word processer helps us produce documents and a spreadsheet helps us manipulate data. Applications on smartphones and tablets are called apps. A message without application is like a computer without these programs or a smartphone without apps. It’s not much use.

We apply our messages so people know what to do and can respond. How well are we applying? Are we applying to unbelievers? Are we applying to Christians whether they are backsliding or fruitful? Are we applying to youth, middle aged and the elderly? Are we applying to singles, marrieds, and families? Are we applying to the lonely, the disappointed, and those struggling? What should these people stop doing, start doing or continue doing?

Conclusion

We have looked briefly at the use of explanation, illustration and application in the preparation of a message. Let’s use these to proclaim God’s truth effectively. As a GPS helps our journey, preparation helps our message.

Written, August 2014

See other articles in this series:
- How I prepare a message
- Target your messages
- Illustrate your messages

Jesus is greater than …

sergio romero  - Jul 2014Did you watch the recent soccer World Cup? One of the close games was the semi-final between the Netherlands and Argentina which went to a penalty shoot-out. There was a great cheer when Sergio Romero stopped the first Dutch shot. Even more when he did it again. He was a hero for the Argentinians.

We all have heroes. We all admire someone and have desires that can influence our behavior. Today we are looking at the highlights of the first 10 chapters of the book of Hebrews where we see that, because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the one to follow and live for.

Context

We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews, but we do know that it was written to Jews. That’s why it’s called Hebrews. These Jewish Christians were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13). Other Jews usually persecute those who convert to Christianity. In this instance, Jewish Christians were being tempted to go back to their Jewish customs and maybe force Gentiles to follow them as well (Gal. 2:14). The book answers the question, while the Jews have their heroes and customs, what do Christians have?

Who were the heroes of a devout first century Jew? Their earliest ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (who was also named Israel) and Joseph (Acts 7:2-16; Heb. 11:8-22). Their leaders such as Moses (Acts 7:20-41; Heb. 11:24-28 and Joshua were also heroes. Their kings such as David and Solomon. Their priests, particularly the High Priest. And their prophets who conveyed messages from God.

They also revered the Mosaic Law given at Mt Sinai which governed their life and the temple in Jerusalem because that was where God lived on earth (Acts 7:44-47).

Hebrews shows that Jesus is better than all their heroes. It’s a bit like a song by Rod Boucher that went:

God is better than football
God is better than beer
God is better than cricket
God’s there all the year!

Greater than the prophets

prophetsThe writer of Hebrews jumps straight into his topic: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2).

The Old Testament was written by the prophets and the New by the apostles and their associates. The revelation of God’s truth is added progressively as we move from Genesis through to Revelation. What Jesus taught is summarized in the gospels. His teachings supersede those of the Old Testament prophets. While the prophets predicted the Messiah (Acts 10:43), Jesus was the Messiah. So of course He is greater than the prophets.

Seven more reasons are given for Christ being superior to the prophets, including Jesus made the universe and sustains it. He is the divine God. Through His death, our sins can be forgiven. And after His resurrection and ascension, He now sits on a place of honor and privilege at God’s right hand. None of these apply to the prophets.

Who are equivalent to prophets today? I think that scientists could be because they speak with authority. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the scientists”.

A British geneticist has published a book titled, “The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science”. He claims the Bible is out of date and that science is a better way to understand the universe than through its doctrine. So he gives the scientific version of parts of the Bible.

What do we do when experts and scientists ridicule the Bible? What about when they make statements that conflict with the Bible? Do we always believe them? Or are we skeptical?

Not only is Jesus greater than the prophets and scientists, He is also greater than the angels.

Greater than the angels

ark of covenantStraight after this, Hebrews says that Jesus is superior to the angels (Heb. 1:4). The Mosaic Law was given by angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). In the Old Testament, angels brought messages from God (Zech. 1:14-17) and protected God’s people (Dan. 6:22). Angels also told Mary and Joseph about Christ’s birth (Mt. 1:20-25; Lk. 2:26-38). That’s why the Jews revered angels.

The Jews thought that Jesus was only a man and therefore He was inferior to the angels (Ps. 8:5; Heb. 2:7). But Hebrews says that Jesus is superior to angels in two ways: as Son of God (Heb. 1:4-14) and as Son of Man (Heb. 2:5-18).

As Son of God, Jesus has a close relationship with God the Father. That’s what this metaphor means. But God never addressed an angel as His Son. The angels praised God at His birth (Lk. 2:13-14) and will worship Christ when He returns to rule over the earth (Heb. 1:6). Another contrast is that Jesus rules while angels serve. Jesus is in a position of honor and power at God’s right hand, while angels serve God’s people (Heb. 11:13-14).

Hebrews stresses “It is not to angels He has subject the world to come” (Heb. 2:5). According to Psalm 8, mankind was to have dominion over the earth, not the angels (Ps. 8:6-8). But this dominion was lost when Adam sinned. Hebrews reminds us “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them” (Heb. 2:8). This is illustrated by the fact that some people are still killed by animals. But there is hope because he writes, “But we do see Jesus … now crowned with glory and honor”. As Son of Man, in a coming day, Jesus will rule over the earth and restore mankind’s dominion over the rest of God’s creation on earth.

Then Hebrews describes how the effects of the fall into sin are reversed. Jesus became a human being and offered His perfect life as a sacrifice for our sin. It notes that Jesus became a man, not an angel and Jesus saved people, not angels (Heb. 2:16-17). So even as a man, Jesus was greater than the angels. He did what they couldn’t do.

Who are equivalent to angels today? I think that those into dreams and visions, meditation and the new age could be because they involve spiritual experiences and the mystical. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than those promoting spiritual experiences”.

How do we respond when someone claims that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah? Or if they blame demons for all their ailments and misfortunes? What if they always seek to know God’s will through dreams and visions?

Not only is Jesus greater than the angels and those promoting spiritual experiences, He is also greater than Moses and Joshua.

Greater than Moses and Joshua

mosesMoses was one of Israel’s greatest national heroes. He led them out of slavery in Egypt and received their law at Mt Sinai.

Next we are told. “Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Heb. 3:1). He is our Apostle and High Priest. These are figures of speech. An apostle is sent – Jesus was sent to earth by God the Father. Whereas a high priest entered God’s presence to make atonement for the people of God (Heb. 2:17). So Jesus represents God to us and also represents us before God. He is a mediator or go-between.

Then there is another figure of speech – “God’s house” means God’s people – it is explained later as “we are His house” (Heb. 3:6). Moses was a faithful servant in all God’s house, which means that he served the Israelites (Heb. 3:5). But Jesus Christ was the builder of the house and He was God (Heb. 3:3-4. He was also faithful as the Son over God’s house (Heb. 3:6). Being a Son means that He is equal with God. So Jesus is greater than Moses.

Joshua took over from Moses and led the Israelites into Canaan, which was to be a land of rest for them. But most of them died before they reached Canaan and those that entered didn’t find that rest (Heb. 3:1-19). Instead there was conflict in Canaan, and sin, sickness, sorrow, suffering and death. While Joshua was unable to provide rest, it is available through Jesus Christ – “we who believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3). So Jesus is greater than Joshua.

Who are equivalent to Moses and Joshua today? I think that Presidents, Prime Ministers, kings and queens could be because they lead nations. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the leaders of nations”.

What if someone believes that a certain politician is superhuman and can solve all our problems? If they praise them and put them on a pedestal?

Not only is Jesus greater than Moses and Joshua and the leaders of nations, He is also greater than the Jewish high priests.

Greater than the Jewish high priests

high priest 2Next Jesus is called “a great high priest” (Heb. 4:14). We have already said that He represents us to God like a high priest did for the Jews. His priesthood was greater than the Jewish one because it was like that of Melchizedek in the Old Testament (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb. 7:1-3). Melchizedek was king of Salem (now called Jerusalem) in the time of Abraham. His priesthood was similar to Jesus’ priesthood because it didn’t depend on his genealogy (he was not a descendant of Aaron like in the Jewish priesthood) and his priesthood continues forever (it didn’t end when he died like in the Jewish priesthood).

Three reasons are given to show that the priesthood of Melchizedek and Jesus is greater than that of Aaron:

  • The first involves tithes and blessings (Heb. 7:4-10). Abraham paid Melchizedek a tithe of 10%. The one who collects a tithe has a greater position than the one who pays it. Melchizedek blessed Abraham. The one who blesses has a greater position than the one who is blessed.
  • Second, there has been a change in the priesthood (Heb. 7:11-19). The eternal priesthood of Jesus has replaced the temporary priesthood of Aaron. But the Jewish priesthood was established by the Mosaic Law. This means that the law has also changed. Because of Jesus, both the Jewish priesthood and their law have been replaced. When Jesus died this was signified by the tearing apart from top to bottom of the curtain to the Most Holy Place in the temple. (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45).
  • Third, the priesthood of Melchizedek and Jesus is perpetual and permanent (Heb. 7:23-28). Jesus lives forever, whereas the Jewish high priests were replaced when they died. Also Jesus is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens”. He didn’t need to offer sacrifices for His own sins because he was sinless. Also, “He offered Himself”, not an animal.

So the Jewish priesthood was superseded by a divine eternal priesthood.

Who are equivalent to the high priests today? I think that archbishops and popes could be because they are religious leaders. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the religious leaders”.

What if someone believes that a certain religious leader is always right and can solve all our problems? If they put them on a pedestal?

Not only is Jesus greater than the Jewish high priests and the religious leaders, He also offered a greater sacrifice.

His sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices

We now come to the writer’s main point – “Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 8:1). Here’s his answer to the Jews who say ‘We have the temple, the priests, the offerings, and the ceremonies; but you Christians have nothing like this’. His response is ‘We have such a high priest’ who sits at the right hand of God in heaven! Our high priest is in heaven close to God! He is greater than all your Jewish high priests. We have Jesus Christ. What you have is “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5). You have the model, we have the full-scale. You have a photo or illustration or copy or shadow or silhouette, we have the real thing (Heb. 8:3; 9:23).

Christ’s ministry as a high priest was superior to that of a Jewish high priest because He worked under a superior covenant (Heb. 8:6). The new covenant, which superseded the old Mosaic covenant has “better promises” because they are unconditional, not conditional on obedience like the old covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6b-13). “God found fault with the people” because they were unable to obey the Law of Moses. So it was replaced with the new covenant which depended on God alone. He said:

  • “I will put my laws in their minds”
  • “I will be their God, and they will be my people”
  • “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”

This makes the old covenant and its priests and animal sacrifices obsolete (Heb. 8:13).

Since the writer is going to contrast the offerings of Christ and Judaism, he selects the most important offering – the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur; Lev. 16) (Heb. 9:7). This is the most important day in the Jewish calendar. On this day the high priest sacrificed an animal to pay for his sins and the sins of the people. He entered the Most Holy place of the temple and sprinkled blood on the mercy seat of the ark. But Jesus put away sins, not merely covered them. And He gave believers a clear conscience, not an annual reminder of sins (Heb. 9:14, 26, 28; 10:3). This shows that Christ’s ministry is greater than that of the Jewish high priest on the Day of Atonement.

But Jesus was not only the high priest, He was also the sacrifice. He was a “better sacrifice” (Heb. 9:23) because He offered Himself as a sacrifice, instead of animals (Heb. 9:25-26). One sacrifice was sufficient – it was “once for all” (Heb. 7:27; 10:10), not again and again (Heb. 9:25). It gave “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Fortunately the Old Testament system of sacrifices has now been superseded by Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 10:8-10).

The New Covenant is an unconditional agreement of grace which God will make with the Israelites when the Lord Jesus sets up His kingdom on earth (Jer. 31:33-34). Today Christians enjoy some of the blessings of the New Covenant but its complete fulfilment waits until Israel is restored and redeemed nationally.

What is equivalent to Jewish sacrifices today? I think that good works could be because that is how people generally think they will get to heaven. So an updated principle is that “Jesus’ sacrifice is greater that our good works”.

We get requests to support charities and the needy. Some do volunteer community service. How do we rate such good works against spreading the good news about Christ’s sacrifice?

Lessons for us

Are we tempted like the Jewish Christians to go back to our old heroes? To those who occupied us before we changed to follow the Lord. Those which are popular and followed by the majority.

We have seen that Jesus is greater than all the Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses and Joshua, and the priests. He is also greater than all our heroes whoever they may be including scientists, those promoting spiritual experiences, and the leaders of nations and religions. Likewise Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices and our good works.

What about our desires for money and what it can buy? Our desires for recognition, success and popularity? And our desires for recreation, entertainment, leisure and pleasure? Are we placing these temptations above living for Jesus? How do we use our time? How do we spend our money?

Because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the greatest of all. So let’s follow and live for Him.

Written, July 2014

What about unconfessed trespasses?

trespassing 2Someone asked a question about unconfessed trespasses.

Trespasses

Have you seen a sign on a property saying “No trespassing” or “Trespasses will be prosecuted”? This means that unauthorized people are prohibited from being on the property without the owner’s permission. In this case trespassing is disobeying a prohibition.

The Greek word “paraptoma” (Strongs #3900, which is translated “trespass”, is used in Romans 5:15-20 with regard to “the trespass of the one man” (v.15, 17) and “one trespass” (v.18). It is also described as “the disobedience of the one man” (v.19). Obviously the “one man” was Adam who disobeyed the following command, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:16-17NIV). So disobeying a command is trespassing.

The Bible says that “all wrongdoing is sin” (1 Jn. 5:17). “Wrongdoing” or sin means anything that we think, say or do that the Bible says is wrong.

So trespassing is disobeying a known command, law or rule. Because trespasses are a particular type, kind or subset of sins, all trespasses are sins. So whatever is true for sins as a whole is also true for all trespasses. Therefore the conclusions in my post about unconfessed sins also apply to unconfessed transgressions.

Parental forgiveness

Jesus told His disciples, “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Mt. 6:14-15). This refers to parental (conditional or practical) forgiveness that is necessary to maintain fellowship with God the Father. If Christians are unwilling to forgive someone who has wronged them, how can they expect to be in fellowship with their Father who has forgiven all their wrong-doings? Jesus expects His followers to forgive others (Mt. 6:12).

In this case their eternal salvation is not affected because that is based on the judicial (unconditional or positional) forgiveness from the penalty of sin that is obtained by trusting in Christ as their Savior. Before this time we are spiritually dead because of our sins. This means we are unresponsive to God, separated from God and His enemies (Eph. 2:1, 5; 5:10). But after this time our sins and trespasses are forgiven. So judicial forgiveness has eternal consequences.

It is important to distinguish between judicial and parental forgiveness. Because we can’t have fellowship with God as a Father until we become His child, parental forgiveness is impossible without judicial forgiveness. Judicial forgiveness must precede parental forgiveness.

We are to confess to those we have sinned against and to forgive those who confess to us (Lk. 17:3-4; Jas. 5:16). What about those who have not yet confessed to us? In all cases we are to forgive “just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). This means having a forgiving attitude even if they have not confessed.

How do murder victims’ families ever forgive the murderer? After her husband and two sons were killed in India in 1999, Gladys Stains said, “God enabled me to forgive the killers. Forgiveness allowed the healing to start flowing in my life. Being unwilling to forgive the person who has wronged us in any way, allows bitterness to come into our relationships and we are the ones affected. Forgiveness does not mean that we are free of the consequences of what has happened. Forgiving the murderers of my family has not brought them back, but has given me peace in the midst of sorrow. God gave me the strength to forgive. It was His strength, not mine” (Know your Bible – Celebrate God! Bible Soc. of Australia, 2007).

If forgiving another person takes years, then one’s fellowship with God is broken for those years. This is could be caused by bitterness, hate, a victim mentality or vengeance instead of obeying the Biblical command to imitate Christ’s forgiveness. God can give us the power to bear our trials and can provide a way out of them (1 Cor. 10:13).

If a Christian dies with an unresolved trespass this is no longer important because they are forever with the Lord. None of our sins are taken to heaven because “the old (sinful) order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). We are not rejected from heaven for not forgiving someone else.

Conclusion

So unforgiven trespasses are not a barrier to heaven, but they do destroy our relationship with God. It’s our attitude that is important because that is what we are responsible for.

Written, July 2014

Understanding the Bible

Bonjour!

When we visited Europe recently, we were exposed to other languages and cultures. In order to communicate it helps to know some words in the local language. The Bible was written thousands of years ago when there were different languages and different customs and circumstances to today. Fortunately it has been translated into modern English, but how can we understand it? It’s more remote than Europe, coming from not only another place, but another time in history.

When Timothy was dealing with false teachers, Paul urged him to “correctly handle” the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). So there is a correct way to understand and explain and apply the Bible. God wants us to understand His message in the Bible and to use it for godly living. Let’s look at how we can do that.

A divine message

The Bible is often called “God’s word” (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pt. 1:25) because it is a divine message from God written by chosen people in their language and time. Firstly, it was a message to their generation.

Secondly it was a message to later generations. Ezra lived about 1,000 years after Moses. When he read to the people what Moses had written, the Levites made it clear “giving the meaning so that the people understood” (Neh. 8:8). The reason for this was that after their exile in Babylon, the Jews spoke Aramaic whereas the Scriptures were written in Hebrew. So the Levites explained the text by translating the language from Hebrew into Aramaic.

It is also a message to us who live thousands of years afterwards – John wrote his gospel so that his readers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:31NIV). That includes us today. Also, after Thomas saw Jesus, he believed that He had risen from the dead. Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). Here He is referring to people like us who didn’t see Jesus after His resurrection, but who would believe in His resurrection based on the Scriptural account.

We want to understand the meaning that God intended. There is a promise for doing this – we read “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). In this instance it is a blessing for those who understand from reading the Bible that Jesus rose from the dead.

The Bible was written in ancient times. To read it is like visiting those ancient times. We are like tourists travelling to a different place where there is a different language, culture, situation, time in history and maybe a different covenant in God’s dealing with humanity.

Understanding the Bible 2We also need to know that the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end. So we should also read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation.

The method

The steps involved in understanding a passage in the Bible are as follows:

  • What was the meaning when it was written? This is the original meaning.
  • What were the original principles behind this meaning?
  • What has changed since then?
  • What are the universal principles for us today? Here we update the principles.
  • What is the meaning for us today? How should we apply these universal principles? Here we update the applications or practices of the principles.

 

Understanding the Bible 1Understanding and obeying (or applying) the Bible helps us to live in a godly way – “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Let’s look at an example to see how this method works. In the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, the Israelites were told, “If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt; … they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin” (Lev. 5:2, 5-6).

The original meaning

When each passage was written it had only one meaning. That’s what we are looking for. What did the people need to know and do? What is the core meaning of the passage? To do this we need to study the text (including any figures of speech), the historical-cultural context, and the literary context. Also, if the passage is obscure, we can use a clearer one to explain it.

The text. When they realized they had touched something that was ceremonially unclean, they were to confess their sin and bring a female lamb or goat to be killed at the tabernacle by the priest and they will be forgiven (Lev. 5:13).

The Bible has lots of figures of speech like metaphors and similes, but there are none in this passage.

The historical-cultural context. This was when the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan. They lived in tents, amongst tribes and kept animals. It was after the times of Abraham, but before the times of the Israelite judges and kings.

The literary context.
What genre or type is it? In the Old Testament there is narrative (story), law, poetry, prophecy, and wisdom. The book of Leviticus gives laws that were given to Moses when they were camped at Mt Sinai. So it is law that is set in the narrative of the journey to Canaan.
Is it a command, a model to follow or just a report of events?

  • It is a command. It says “they must” confess and they “must bring” an offering (Lev. 4:5-6). It is mandatory (not optional) and prescriptive (not descriptive) because the Israelites were to keep the laws given to Moses.
  • It’s not just a model to follow like the practice of Christians meeting together on the first day of the week or of deacons serving in the church (1 Tim. 3:8-13).
  • It’s not a report of events and descriptive like David’s adultery (2 Sam. 11:1-17), Solomon’s wives and concubines (1 Ki. 11:1-3) and the fact that Judas hanged himself (Mt. 27:5).

The surrounding context. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.
With regard to our passage in Leviticus – In Exodus God makes a covenant with Israel as His special people and lives with them in a royal tent, the tabernacle. In Leviticus He describes how they are to be holy by being separate from sin and living for God instead. “Holy” is a key word, occurring about 80 times in Leviticus. The verses are in a passage describing how they could become pure after unintentional sin (Lev. 4:1 – 5:13). First it deals with the leaders and then with individuals. Lev. 5:2 says they are defiled if they touch any unclean thing such as dead animals or unclean animals. This means they are unable to approach God and worship Him. In chapters 11-15 they are told what is ritually unclean – what stopped them participating in the rituals God gave them. Here we see that spiritual holiness is symbolized by physical perfection. In order to be purified and forgiven after they are defiled they must confess their sin and bring the priest a lamb or goat for a sacrifice (Lev. 5:5-6). The priest would sacrifice the animal on their behalf and they will be clean again and able to approach and worship God once again. The verses afterwards say the poor could offer pigeons or flour instead of a lamb or goat.

Now we know the original meaning of the passage, what are the principles behind it?

The original principles

A principle is a general truth applicable in a variety of situations. For example, “love your neighbor as yourself” is a biblical principle (Lev. 19:18). Here we look at what did it teach them about God and humanity? What does it teach about God’s program of salvation?

The principle is that God is holy and when He lives with His people they must keep separate from sin and unclean things. If they fail and become unclean, they must be purified by the sacrifice of an animal offered by a priest.

Now we know the ancient principle behind the passage. But what about us today living a few thousand years later? We need to update the principle.

What has changed since then?

Here we compare between then and now by considering the culture, situation, and time in history. Were God’s people living under a different covenant? Was their situation unique? We also take into account all the scriptures written after the passage because God’s revelation is progressive. Fortunately we see that God and people don’t change throughout history: He is always divine and people are always sinful.

Our time in history, situation, and culture are different to then. We live in a city, not in the wilderness. We are under a different covenant and no longer under the OT law. We haven’t been given these commands to follow. We are not Israelites travelling to Canaan with God living in a tent; we are Christians with God living in us as the Holy Spirit. We don’t approach God through the sacrifice of animals, but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Also through Christ we have direct access to God and no longer need priests as mediators. The book of Hebrews describes how the old Jewish system was superseded by the unique priesthood of Christ.

We are not defiled by touching dead animals but by impure thoughts and sinful actions – Jesus said “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather it is what comes out of a person that defiles them … For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mk. 7:15, 21-23).

Now we know what’s changed since then, what are the principles behind the passage for us today?

The modern principles

What does it teach us about God and humanity? The principle for Christians today is to be holy because the holy God lives within us. This means staying away from sinful actions and impure thoughts. If we fail, then confess the sin and receive forgiveness through the death of Christ.

As God’s people we have accepted that Christ’s sacrificial death was for our sins, and so the penalty for these has already been paid. But sin breaks our fellowship with God. This can only be restored by confessing the sin to God – “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

If you haven’t accepted that Christ died for your sins, then you are spiritually dead and lack the power of God, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to engage with God. You miss out on our reason for existence. You are not part of God’s people and this passage doesn’t apply to you.

Now we know the modern principle, how can we put it into practice today?

The modern applications

How should we apply these universal principles? Each principle has many applications according to the different situations people can be in. What do we need to know and do? Let’s think of some real life situations for four areas mentioned previously in Mark 7:21-22: sexual immorality, greed, envy and slander.

Sexual immorality. What about internet pornography? Viewing this is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from pornography because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent of the sin and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

Greed. The writer of Hebrews commanded, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5). Are we content with what we have or do we always want more? Always wanting more is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from greed because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

Envy. What about when we jealously compare ourselves against others and wish that our life could be more like theirs? Envy is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from it because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

Slander. What about when we put someone else down or spoil their reputation? Slander and gossip is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from it because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

We have applied this passage to sexual immorality, greed, envy and slander. What are the sins in your life that defile you and hinder your prayer and worship and fellowship with God? Let’s apply this principle to them as well.

What are the Lessons for us?

The Bible was written for common people like us. It is not difficult to understand. It doesn’t have hidden or secret meanings.

Understanding the Bible 1The Bible is not an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress where the more significant meaning is not the literal one but is hidden and you need to understand the symbols to decode the allegorical meaning. In the few passages where there is allegory, this is explained in the text. For example, Paul said that Hagar represented the old Jewish covenant made at Mount Sinai and Sarah the new covenant (Gal. 4:24-26). So don’t spiritualise everything in the Bible.
Instead, let’s use the principles behind the biblical text to understand the Bible. See in the diagram how they help us move from the ancient meaning to the modern applications.

So let’s understand God’s message in the Bible by finding the original meaning, and then the principles behind this, and updating them according to what has changed since then, and applying these modern principles in our daily lives. This is important because God wants us to understand His message and to use it for godly living.

Au revoir!

Reference: J S Duvall & J D Hays (2012) “Grasping God’s word”, Zondervan.

Written, June 2014

Who are we following?

followingHave you noticed how many media commentators ridicule God, Christians and the Bible? Their biased comments stir up controversy and attract attention. They promote atheism and ungodly lifestyles. But we can choose to either accept their views or reject them.

When Jesus was on earth people (the Jews) also had a choice between their religious leaders (who He called thieves) and Jesus. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10NIV). But what is life to the full? After looking at what this verse means we will see that following Jesus turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful one.

Context

The book of John is a selective biography of Jesus Christ. In the previous chapter Jesus heals a man who was born blind. As this miracle was done on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees used it to criticize Jesus saying that He was “not from God” and was a sinner (Jn. 9:16, 31). Jesus replied with a figure of speech saying that they were spiritually blind (Jn. 9:39-41). Chapter 10 is a continuation of this conversation as Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you Pharisees …” (Jn. 10:1).

In John 10:1-18 Jesus uses metaphors (v.6). He is the Good Shepherd and the gate. The Pharisees are thieves, robbers and hired hands. The Jewish people are sheep. In the Old Testament kings and leaders were often called shepherds (Ezek. 34:1-10) and God is said to be like a shepherd (Ps. 23:1; Is. 40:10-11; Ezek. 34:11-16). As shepherds lead sheep, leaders lead people. So this imagery should have been familiar to the Jews.

The main point is the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees. They are selfish and damaging like thieves and robbers and like hired hands they don’t care about the sheep (people) (v.12-13); whereas He sacrificially lays down His life for people (v.11, 15, 17-18) and saves and sustains them (v.9).

The Jews who heard this conversation were divided (Jn. 10:19-39). Some opposed Jesus saying He was demon-passed, raving mad, guilty of blasphemy and tried to seize Him and to kill Him by stoning (v. 20, 31-33, 39). They didn’t believe His words (v.25-26). Others disagreed (v.21).

Contrast

John 10:10 is an example of contrastive parallelism where the second line contrasts with the first line:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
The contrast is between the purpose of the thief and of the Shepherd. One destroys life and the other gives an abundant life. But what does “life” mean, is it physical or spiritual?

The Greek word “zoe” (Strongs #2222) means life, both physical (present) and spiritual (particularly future). It occurs 36 times in the book of John and each time seems to refer to eternal spiritual life. For example:
• Later in the same chapter, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28), where “life” means God’s gift of spiritual life.
• Other examples of spiritual life in John are, “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
• And, “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (Jn. 14:6).
This life is given by God upon trust in Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39-40; 1 Jn. 5:11-12).

So the contrast in John 10:10 is between the presence and absence of spiritual life.

Steal, kill and destroy

John 10:10 says the thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. These words graphically describe the impact of the lack of spiritual life in the Pharisees. The Greek word “apollumi” (Strongs #622) means permanent destruction or loss. It is translated “perish” in John 10:28 (in the same chapter) and John 3:16. It is eternal death, which is the opposite of eternal life.

If we ignore Jesus, we:
• Are following the thieves, robbers and hired hands of this world that don’t care about people.
• Have an empty spiritual life that leads to eternal punishment.
• Miss out on a bountiful spiritual life that leads to eternal joy.

However, Jesus said with regard to those who follow Him, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28). Note the contrast, they get eternal life and miss perishing.

Life to the full

John 10:10 says that Jesus gives life to the full. The Greek word “perissos” (Strongs #4053) is an adjective that means over and above, more than is necessary, abundant, and greater. This is the only instance of this word in John’s writings, but he uses the verb, “perisseuo” (Strongs #4052) to describe leftover food after people had eaten (Jn. 6:12-13).

If we follow Jesus, we:
• Are following the One who sacrificially laid down His life for people and saves and sustains them.
• Have a bountiful spiritual life that leads to eternal joy.
• Avoid an empty spiritual life that leads to eternal punishment.

So the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees in John 10:10 is:
• They are spiritually dead and influence others to remain in this state.
• Jesus offers people spiritual life that is so abundant that it is more than people need.
The people had a choice to follow either Jesus or the Pharisees.

Lessons for us

In view of humanity’s sinfulness, John 10:10 teaches us that God is gracious, loving and merciful. From the context, we see that there is conflict when some people believe this and some don’t. As Jesus was opposed strongly, we shouldn’t be surprised when there is opposition to God, Christians and the Bible.

Some use John 10:10 to teach that Christians will be blessed abundantly in their physical lives. But we know from Scripture that this is not the case. For example, Stephen was a godly man who witnessed faithfully to the Jewish Sanhedrin, but he was martyred (Acts 6:8 – 7:60).

Jesus is not on earth today, but the Bible contains a record of His teachings. The Pharisees are not opposing Christ today, but others are, including atheistic commentators who don’t believe the words of Scripture. As there was a contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees, so there is a contrast between Christ’s teachings and those who reject Christianity. Who will you follow?

Jesus cares for our eternal welfare and has provided an abundant spiritual life for those who follow Him. Following Jesus turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful one.

Written, May 2014

Who is a saint?

IMG_4293 400pxMany places in France are named after saints. Recently I visited the city of Saint-Étienne, which is named after Stephen the first Christian martyr (Acts 6:8 – 7:60).

According to the dictionary, today a saint is:

  • A person who after death is officially recognized because of holy deeds or behavior, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding to God for people on earth, or
  • A person of exceptional kindness, goodness or holiness.

The word “saint” comes from the Latin word “sānctus” that means holy and was used in the Vulgate version of the Bible (which was used in western Europe, AD 400–1530). In the middle ages saints were often depicted with halos, a symbol of holiness. “Saint” is also the French word for holy.

Bible usage

The English word “saint” dates from the 13th century and was first used in a Scripture translation in the Geneva Bible version of 1587. It was carried over into the King James Version in 1611 and continues today in the New King James Version and other versions as a translation of the Greek word “hagios” (Strongs #40) in the New Testament. The Greek word means set apart by (or for) God, holy, and sacred. It is an adjective used to describe God, things connected with God, or people connected with God. The Hebrew word “qaddish” (Strongs #6922) has a similar meaning in the Old Testament (Dan. 7:18-21, 25, 27).

Six of Paul’s letters to churches are addressed to these people (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians). Paul also said that before he became a Christian, “I put many of the Lord’s people in prison” (Acts 26:10NIV). These people were Christ’s disciples and followers (Acts 9:1-2; 13-14). They were Christians who were living at that time. So the in the Bible, the word “hagios” means a follower of Jesus Christ, a Christian.

The Biblical meaning of “hagios” differs from the most common meanings of “saint”, because:

  • A Christian is not “a person of exceptional kindness, goodness or holiness or goodness”. They can disagree with one another (Acts 15:39) and they can sin (Gal. 2:11-14). But they are holy in God’s sight as they received Christ’s righteousness when He took their sin – a marvellous exchange.
  • A Christian is not “a person who after death is officially recognized because of holy deeds or behaviour, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth”. The Christian’s in the New Testament were on earth, not in heaven – they were alive, not dead. They were saved by Christ’s death and resurrection, not by good works. They weren’t venerated – in the Bible, Peter is not called Saint Peter, Paul is not called Saint Paul and Stephen was not called Saint Stephen after he was martyred (Acts 11:19; 22:20). God alone was to be venerated. Although they could pray when alive, there is no mention in the Bible of them praying after they died.

Because the Biblical meaning of the Greek word “hagios” differs from the common meaning of the English word “saint”, Bibles translated into everyday spoken English don’t use the word “saint”. Consequently, the NIV Bible mainly uses “the Lord’s (holy) people” or “God’s (holy) people” instead of “the saints”

The frequency of occurrence of the English word “saint(s)” in various translations of the Bible is given below:

  • 98 times – NKJV
  • 82 times – ESV
  • 63 times – HCSB
  • 62 times – NET
  • 0 times – NIV
  • 0 times – NLT

As indicated above, in the versions that include the word “saint”, this word has a meaning that differs from common usage. A reader should be told this technical (jargon) meaning in order to correctly understand these Bibles.

This is one of the reasons why I prefer the NIV translation of the Bible.

Who is accountable to God?

What's your excuse illustration design over whiteChildren grow up from infancy, to childhood, to adolescence and then to adulthood. At the beginning they are totally dependent on their parents and are not held accountable for their behavior. But as they grow up, they are trained to be responsible and accountable. The Bible teaches that everyone is answerable to God (Mt. 12:36-37; Rom. 3:19; Heb. 9:27). But when are children accountable to God?

The Bible says that both Christians and non-Christians are accountable to God. At the end of their lives, Christians “must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10NIV) when “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Rom. 14:12). This is used to determine their rewards in heaven (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Non-Christians are “judged according to what they had done” at the “great white throne” (Rev. 20:11-15). This is used to determine their punishment in hell.

Is this fair? God has revealed Himself to everyone in at least two ways. First the natural world demands a Creator – complicated things, like animals and plants and people, don’t make themselves (Rom. 1:19-20). Second, we all have a conscience and so can know instinctively what is right and wrong and feel guilty when we do wrong (Rom. 2:14-15). If someone hasn’t heard about how God revealed Himself in history (in the Bible), then they are judged according to their response to these more general revelations of God. So God is fair and “people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

Non-accountable

The Bible teaches that we are sinful from birth (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 51:5; 58:3). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death leads to eternal separation from God (Jn. 3:16; Rom 6:23).

The Bible also teaches that because they do not yet know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil, infants are not accountable for their sin (Dt. 1:39; Num. 14:31; Isa. 7:14-16; Jon. 4:11). They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.

So very young children are not accountable for their sin. Their minds are not developed well enough to understand that things don’t make themselves or to feel guilty when they do wrong. But what about when they grow past this stage of life?

Accountable

The Bible makes two types of statements about the sins of parents and children. First, with regard to the commandment given to the Israelites against idolatry, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Dt. 5:9). As they lived in households that extended to three or four generations, this means that the temporal judgment for their rebellion against God was on themselves and their households. The Bible gives examples of households that experienced the consequence of God’s judgment of the sins of their patriarch (Num. 16:31-35; Josh. 7:24-25). Likewise, today the consequences of a parent’s behaviour can impact others in their household.

When the Jews used this statement to say that they were suffering for their ancestors’ sins, Ezekiel corrected them writing “The one who sins is the one who will die (Ezek. 18:4, 20). This is an example of the second type of statement, which relates to the death penalty. “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin” (Dt. 24:16; 2 Ki. 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4). So in the Israelite legal system, a penalty was to be imposed only on those who committed the crime, and not on those who were innocent. This meant that after children reached the age when they knew the difference between right and wrong, they were accountable for their behavior. Likewise, today when children are old enough to respond to their conscience they are responsible to God for their own behaviour.

Conclusion

So the statement that everyone is accountable to God doesn’t apply to young children or those whose minds are not developed well enough to understand that things don’t make themselves or to feel guilty when they do wrong.

But those who have grown past this stage of life and can understand these things are accountable to God. They have no excuse. That’s why it’s important to know that our sinful ways separate us from God, but Jesus died to take the punishment that we deserve (which is hell) and reconcile us to God. We need to take responsibility for our behavior and confess our sins, because God cannot forgive our sin until it is confessed.

Written, May 2014

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