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.
We 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 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 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.
The 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.
Reference: J S Duvall & J D Hays (2012) “Grasping God’s word”, Zondervan.
Written, June 2014
Recently the world received messages from the planet Mars that came in the form of photographs taken by Curiosity, the NASA Mars Rover. Psalm 19 contains two messages from God, about His power and His love.
In the first, the songwriter, David, personifies (gives human attributes to) the universe: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4aNIV). When David was a shepherd, he lived outdoors and would have seen God’s creation power in the sun, moon and stars (Ps. 8:3; 19:4b-6).
What message does the universe “declare”, “proclaim”, “reveal” and “voice” to us? That all of it is “the work of His hands” alone. God created the universe. Great knowledge and power would be required to provide the countless stars, the immense distances and the warmth of the sun. By looking at the universe, we see abundant evidence that God is a very powerful Creator.
When the songwriter David turns to describe Scripture (which at that time comprised portions of the Old Testament written before 1000BC), he changes the title of God from “El”, which means the powerful One behind creation (Strong’s #410), to “Yahweh”, which means the personal loving One who cares for His chosen people (#3068). Scripture is a written message from God to us: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
David’s Scripture message largely contained God’s dealings with the Jews and their ancestors. He said that His words were “refreshing” and “wise”, “giving joy” and “light” and “great reward” (Ps. 19: 7-11). In particular, God made covenants with the children of Israel in the days of Abraham, Moses and David (Gen. 12:2-3; Ex. 19-24; Lev.; 2 Sam. 7:5-16). In these He showed His love for them. Although they would reject Him, He would not reject them (Lev. 26:43-44). When we read the Old Testament, it becomes evident that God lovingly cares for His people, the descendants of Abraham. When we read the New Testament we discover this same care is ours as Christians.
Lessons for us
Today we still have the visible message of the created universe and the written message of the Bible. We have no excuse for not knowing what God has done for us: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
In the New Testament Paul quoted Psalm 19:4 when he wrote that people had heard the message of God’s power and love as shown by Jesus: “Did they not hear? Of course they did: ‘Their voice [of the heavens, declaring the glory of God] has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Rom. 10:18; Ps. 19:4).
Seeing God’s power and love in Psalm 19 should bring us to say with the psalmist, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care” (Ps. 95:6-7)?
Written, August 2012
Sometimes when I want to remember something I write it on the palm of my left hand. Of course, this message only remains until it is washed off.
When the Jews were being attacked by their enemies they thought God had forgotten them. But they were told, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me” (Isa. 49:15-16 NIV). This was a permanent message, like a tattoo. Jerusalem, was surrounded by walls. Although they were destroyed in the Babylonian conquest, God knew the situation. So, whatever the circumstances, God always remembered them.
David knew that God knows all about us and watches us constantly: “O Lord, You have searched me and You know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; You are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue You know it completely, O Lord” (Ps. 139:1-4).
After His death and resurrection, Jesus had the marks of the crucifixion in His hands. Body piercing is a fashion statement today, but these were evidence of cruel mistreatment and great suffering. Thomas would not believe it was Jesus unless he saw the nail marks in His hands and put his finger where the nails were (Jn. 20:25-28). But he believed when he saw the marks. Jesus still bears the marks of crucifixion in His resurrected body – they are permanent. This means He will always remember us as those He suffered for. We will never be forgotten and shouldn’t fear the dangers around us. As His wounds are visible to all who will see Him, His great act of salvation will be remembered for eternity.
A different kind of Christmas message
A Climate Extreme
Eastern Australia experiences periodic droughts usually associated with El Niño, an extreme of the Southern Oscillation climate phenomenon, which was named by fishermen in Peru, South America. Usually they catch plenty of anchovy fish, because cold water from deeper in the ocean brings nutrients to the surface. These nutrients support lots of plankton – small animals and plants that are food for the fish.
But sometimes a warmer ocean current arrives near Christmas, devastating the fishing industry. It is like a famine in the ocean with few nutrients, few plankton and few fish. The Peruvian fishermen called it El Niño, – Spanish for “the boy child” – because it came at Christmas, the time they remembered “the Christ child.” The name El Niño is now used to describe this extreme in the climatic cycle across the whole Pacific region.
El Niño events occur every four to seven years and typically last for 12-18 months. A measure of this climatic event is the Southern Oscillation Index, which is calculated from the difference between the monthly average atmospheric pressure at Darwin in Australia and Tahiti in the mid-Pacific. The 1982-83 El Niño was the strongest in the last 100 years.
El Niño can have a dramatic influence on the weather and the economy in different parts of our world. It can lead to heavy rain, flooding, landslides and mosquito plagues, and can ruin the fishing industry in the west coast of Central and South America. On the opposite side of the Pacific it results in drought, water shortages, wildfires and poor crops in eastern Australia. The other extreme in the Pacific climatic cycle, a cooling of the eastern Pacific ocean, is known as La Niña, which is Spanish for “the girl child.” La Niña can lead to droughts in South America and floods in eastern Australia. So the same climatic event can lead to different types of weather in different parts of the world.
The Christ Child
The real Christ child came to earth about 2,000 years ago and there were also different responses to this event. Some welcomed it and some hated it. The shepherds were joyful at the birth of the promised Messiah, and they praised God (Lk. 2:8-20). Simeon and Anna also praised God as they had waited a lifetime to see the Messiah (Lk. 2:25-38). Wise men came a long distance to worship the king of the Jews (Mt. 2:1-2). But king Herod was so disturbed when he heard of the Christ child’s birth that he gave orders to kill all boys under two years old (Mt. 2:3,16). The Christ child was protected from this tragedy when His family fled to Egypt (Mt. 2:13).
The Christ Man
Of course, a boy child grows up to be a man. There were also different responses when the Christ child grew up to be a man and revealed that He was the Messiah. Some welcomed it and some hated it. Large crowds followed to listen to His words and to see His miracles (Mt. 5:25). When He healed people they praised God because they had never seen anything like this before (Mt. 9:8; Lk. 17:15). They thought He taught with much more authority than their religious teachers, and were delighted when He criticized them (Mt. 7:29; Mk. 2:12; Lk. 13:17). He was welcomed into Jerusalem as the Messiah, riding on a donkey (Mt. 21:1-11). A woman even poured expensive perfume over Him in an act of adoration (Mt. 26:7).
To some He was a prophet, while His followers thought He was going to free their nation from Roman dominion (Mt. 16:13-14, Lk. 24:21). The disciples considered Him to be the Son of God, as did the soldiers who were terrified at His death (Mt. 14:33; 16:16; 27:54).
However, those of His home town took offense at Him and tried to throw Him over a cliff (Mt. 13:57; Lk. 4:29). The religious leaders opposed Him fiercely and said He was satanic and demon-possessed, and plotted how to kill Him (Mt. 9:34; 12:14, 24; 26:4; Lk. 11:53). They asked questions to trap Him (Mt. 22:15). He was betrayed by Judas Iscariot (Mt. 26:48-49). Finally, He was falsely accused, mocked, spit on, struck repeatedly and executed by the religious leaders (Mt. 27:30-31; Mk. 14:58; Acts 7:52).
There were also different responses when the good news of forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ was preached. Some welcomed it and some hated it. When Paul preached in Athens that Jesus was raised from the dead, some sneered, some accepted it, others were apathetic (Acts 17:32-34).
Jesus recognized this when He said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’” (Mt. 10:34-36 NIV). He also said, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Lk. 12:51-53).
This is figurative language; the results of His coming are stated as the apparent purpose of His coming. Jesus really came to bring peace and to rescue people from the coming judgment (Jn. 3:17; Eph. 2:14-17). But there are different responses to this – some accept it, while others ridicule and oppose it or are apathetic.
So families can be divided; some members being Christians while others are not. Jesus warned that when people became Christians, their families might persecute them. If family members oppose us, remember that faithfulness to Christ with a submissive spirit is what’s important. Our testimony can lead to their salvation (1 Pet. 3:1; 1 Cor. 7:14).
What is your response to the Christ child who grew up to be the man Christ? The Bible says that He came to give us an abundant new life (Jn. 10:10; 2 Cor. 5:17). I hope El Niño (the boy child) reminds you of the Christ child and the reason He came.
In part one we considered how God reveals Himself as the Creator and how two civilizations rejected this. In part two, the conclusion, we will look at the consequences of this rejection, and what we should do.
Paul described those who reject God’s revelation of Himself in the universe He made: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles … They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:21-25).
If we reject the concept of a Creator, we choose something else to be our god. We worship a part of creation such as something in the physical world, a human idea or a philosophy. We live for this and act as though there is no Creator. Such people become foolish and ignorant – their mind is affected. They follow false philosophies and speculations and choose to believe lies. An idol is a lie, a false representation of God. Meanwhile, they claim to be wise. What arrogance!
Idolatry is linked with demons: “The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God” (Dt. 32:17; Ps. 106:37; 1 Cor. 10:19-21; Rev. 9:20). Remember that Eve was deceived by Satan and thereby disobeyed God. Likewise, it seems as though people are deceived by demons to reject the Creator and follow idols instead.
God lets them go their own way
Next Paul described God’s response: “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another … Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done” (Rom. 1:24-28).
Note that the phrase “God gave them over” is mentioned three times in this passage (vv. 24, 26, 28). God let these people go their own way into sexual immorality (fornication, adultery, prostitution, and pornography), homosexuality, and a life of depravity driven by their evil minds. The latter includes wickedness and evil such as: greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice; being gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, boastful; disobedient to parents; senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless (vv. 29-32). This kind of behavior suppresses the truth (v. 18).
This describes a loss of law and order and knowing what is right and wrong. The Bible gives an example: when Israel had no king, everyone did what they thought was right (Jud. 21:25). You see, it destroys the foundation of society and of morality. Without a Creator there is no stable basis for right and wrong. If we reject the concept of a Creator, we also reject the possibility of being accountable for our behavior, and we reject the Bible as a guide on how to live. This means that each person decides for him/herself what is right and wrong. As we live in a “cause and effect” universe, such actions have consequences – the Bible says we harvest what we plant (Gal. 6:7-9).
So what happens if we reject the Creator? We turn to idolatry and indulge in sinful behavior that deserves God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18; 2 Ki. 22:17). Now let’s look at what we should do with this information.
Remember your Creator
The first thing we can do is “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come” (Eccl. 12:1). Here King Solomon reminded us that life is brief, and we need to do the important things before we get old and it’s too late. Don’t think you can reject the Creator now, and then change your mind later. That’s rare, because those who follow this way don’t even think about God (Rom. 1:28).
If we know that God is the great Creator, then like Paul, we should tell others about Him. This is important for all ages, particularly the young, as they are more receptive to the message. Local churches should support youth evangelism because that’s where many are added to God’s Kingdom.
History repeats itself, because people seldom learn from other people’s experience. We live in a society that is becoming more pagan, like Canaan and Athens was. We need to see the dangers of idolatry, sexual immorality and wickedness in society. We need to distinguish between the Creator and the creation.
For example, John worshiped an angel who gave him a message, but was told to “worship God” instead (Rev. 19:9-10). Even though the angel said “These are the true words of God,” John confused the messenger with the source of the message. He had to be reminded to worship God and not angels. Likewise, we need to worship the Creator and not created things.
Jesus said, “Remember Lot’s wife!” She became attracted to the evil in Sodom (Lk. 17:32). We should not become attracted to the evil of the world. Instead, we should remember Jesus Christ who was raised from the dead (2 Tim. 2:8). After all, He is the Creator even though “the world did not recognize Him” (Jn. 1:10). We can do this by reading the Bible, by prayer and by participating in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11: 24-25). Of course, we can also admire the beauty of God’s creation in a garden, a sunset, the night sky, at the beach, in the mountains and on the plains.
Start at the beginning
The second thing we can do is make sure that we use the story of creation when speaking to those who are not familiar with the Bible. If they need to be introduced to the Bible, start at the beginning with the creation of the world and the origin of sin. Actually there were three beginnings: Adam and Eve’s, Noah’s, and Jesus’, who brings a new creation: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17). Tell them about the first beginning before you tell them about the third. Otherwise, it’s like starting midway through a story.
People nowadays are not familiar with the Bible or the concept of a Creator. They have lost the knowledge of the Creator. If we want to bring them to trust Christ as their Savior, we need to go back to the beginning of the Bible and help them realize that God created the universe and that Adam and Eve rebelled against Him. Since that time, we have all inherited a rebellious nature. It is important to deal with this, as it is impossible to accept the Savior while rejecting the Creator.
The message for today
What would Paul say if he could speak to us today? He might say something like this: “Surely humanity has advanced significantly in the past 2,000 years. Yes, knowledge has increased and technology has advanced. But unfortunately, the Creator is still an ‘unknown God’ to many people. Many today are devoted to the products of our increased knowledge, and believe that there is no need for a Creator. Unfortunately, although we have gained knowledge, we have lost wisdom, and the Bible calls this ignorance and foolishness. So my message given at Athens (Acts 17:16-34) is still relevant today.”
What happens if we reject the Creator? We follow idols and wicked ways. This leads to God’s judgment. Let’s turn this around by remembering the Creator and starting at the beginning when we bring God’s message in the Bible to others.
Published: June 2004
See part 1 of this series:
- What happens if we reject the Creator?: Part 1
“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars … and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” Revelation 1:19-20
Chapters two and three of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, contain a set of letters written in geographical sequence to churches in seven cities which were located in what is now western Turkey.
The first letter is to the church in Ephesus, the most important city in the province. The other six letters are ordered according to the location of each city, progressing in a counter-clockwise direction.
Each letter contains messages from Jesus Christ, the one who said, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!” (Rev. 1:18 NIV). Let’s look at some of the common features at the beginning and the end of these messages.
God Knows All About Us
Near the beginning of each letter, the Lord says either, “I know your deeds” (Rev. 2:2,19; 3:1,8,15); or “I know your afflictions and your poverty” (Rev. 2:9); or “I know where you live” (Rev. 2:13).
Our God is omniscient: “He knows everything” (1 Jn. 3:20). He knew their surroundings. He knew their problems. He knew everything these churches had done. So, God knew all the circumstances of life for each of them.
This is not surprising, as Jesus is described as being “among” the churches (Rev. 1:13). He also knows all our circumstances as individuals: “He knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for He knew what was in a man” (Jn. 2:24-25).
As God knew all about life in the churches of the first century, He also knows all about life in all the churches of today. We need to realize this. Whatever our corporate or individual situation may be, it is known by the Head of the Church (Col. 1:18-19). This should be reassuring in a world where trouble is inevitable (Jn. 16:33).
Listen To His Messages
After the main message has been delivered by the Lord to each church, He then challenges them: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22).
In the letter to each church, this command – to listen to the Spirit’s voice and hear what He has to say – is closely associated with a promise to the overcomer. An overcomer – according to John, the writer of Revelation – is one “who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:4-5).
God responds to each of these church situations through the Holy Spirit, who indwells each believer (Rom. 8:11). Likewise today, He responds to our collective and individual situations through the Holy Spirit. God sends us messages like He did to each of the seven churches.
These messages may come to us in various ways. But the Bible is God’s clearest message to us, with statements that are appropriate for our various circumstances. You may also receive messages through prayer, from another believer or through peace of mind regarding a certain course of action.
It would be a good New Year’s resolution to always be ready to listen to God’s messages – and to act on them.
A look at the letter to the Philippian church
Before Jesus ascended to heaven, He gave instructions to His followers: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NIV). They were to be witnesses who told people everywhere about Jesus. This should also be our mission today.
Paul used another illustration: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). As an ambassador represents his country in a foreign land, believers are to represent Jesus in our world. We are ambassadors for Christ, sent on a mission to speak on His behalf and carry out the business of the gospel.
The message to be brought to unbelievers is, “Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God … now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 5:20-21; 6:2). This is a dangerous activity because it is often strongly opposed: when Paul preached this message he was placed in jail (Mt. 10:17-23; Lk. 10:3; Eph. 6:19-20). What was Paul’s motivation to continue in such a hazardous occupation? It was Christ’s love for us that compelled him to live for the Lord instead of pleasing himself (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
Jesus prayed to the Father for His disciples, “As You sent Me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:18). That Jesus was sent to the world is mentioned six times in John 17. God sent Jesus to reveal His love to man. Similarly, Jesus has sent His followers to reveal God’s love to man. We are to be God’s ambassadors. In the Incarnation, God left heaven and came to where the people were. Similarly, His witnesses today should go from the local church to where the people are, because the gospel is spread primarily through relationships. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15).
Evangelists are those who share Jesus with others more easily; it is a God-given gift (Eph. 4:8,11). We need to acknowledge them and let them use their gifts where the people are. Let them “do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5). Some evangelists are: Peter and John, who took the gospel to many Samaritan villages (Acts 8:25); Paul and Barnabas, who preached the good news in Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:7); and Paul, who preached to those who had never heard of Christ (Rom. 15:20; 1 Cor. 1:17).
Partners In The Gospel
Paul’s Philippian letter illustrates the relationship between a local church and a missionary. It describes the partnership between Paul and the church at Philippi: “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:4-5). They shared a common interest. Paul called them co-workers, which illustrates that evangelists and missionaries can’t work alone – they need the local church (Phil. 4:3). This partnership was fostered by communication, visitation, prayer, and practical support.
Paul wrote this letter while he was under house arrest in Rome (Phil. 1:13; 4:22). The Philippians had heard that he was in prison, so they sent him money. Epaphroditus took the gift to Paul and stayed to help him. While there, he became very ill. When he was ready to go back to the church in Philippi, Paul sent this letter with him to thank the Philippians for their gift, to encourage them, and to warn them about false teachers.
Paul and the Philippian church communicated with each other. His letter gave them news about his work in the gospel – how God enabled him to witness to the Roman soldiers in prison (Phil. 1:12-18). He also expressed appreciation for the work of Timothy and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:19-30). He shared his passion with them; “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” and “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (Phil. 1:21; 4:13). His life was centered on Christ; he lived by faith.
Paul was aware of their struggles. He knew about the disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3). He knew enough about their situation to warn them against false teachers. He looked forward to hearing from them. He and Timothy had a genuine interest in their welfare (Phil. 2:1-20; 3:1-3). So local churches, evangelists and missionaries need to communicate regularly by letters, phone and e-mail.
Face-to-face communication is most effective, and relationships grow when people spend time together. Epaphroditus was sent from Philippi to take care of Paul’s needs; he risked his life to help Paul (Phil. 4:18; 2:25-30). He was willing to sacrifice his own interests and health for the gospel.
We read that Paul sent Tychicus to Ephesus and Colossae. “Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose … that he may encourage you” (Eph. 6:21-22). “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me … I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts … They will tell you everything that is happening here” (Col. 4:7-9). Paul also wanted to visit the believers at Thessalonica, but when he couldn’t, he sent Timothy to visit and bring back news from them (1 Th. 2:17; 3:6). Local churches, evangelists and missionaries need to visit one another to share news personally.
Paul knew that the church at Philippi was praying for him and he prayed for them (1:4,19). He knew the power of prayer, and was confident that through their prayers he would be delivered from prison (Phil. 1:19). He also urged them to pray for everything and not be anxious (Phil. 4:6). To the church in Thessalonica he wrote: “Pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (2 Th. 3:1-2).
Christians should pray for evangelists and missionaries. First, we should pray that God would raise up more of them. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest field” (Mt. 9:36-38). Jesus is the one to ask that more evangelists and missionaries would be identified and sent. Second, we should pray for their success. Paul asked for prayer to help him preach the gospel in prison: “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains” (Eph. 6:19-20). Local churches, evangelists and missionaries need to share prayer needs and pray for each other.
Paul thanked the Philippians for their financial help. At one stage they were Paul’s only means of support, and they met his needs more than once in Thessalonica. Because they financed evangelism and missionary work, they were promised that God would meet their needs (Phil. 4:14-19).
We are to give because: it helps to meet a need (Phil. 4:14,16); it is an investment in the future – like storing up treasure in heaven (Lk. 12:33; Phil. 4:17); it pleases God, being an act of worship (Phil. 4:18). The church at Corinth was reminded to give generously to those in need (2 Cor. 8-9). This was viewed as being a service to the saints. Local churches need to be aware of the financial needs of evangelists and missionaries and endeavor to meet those needs.
Unity And Christ-Likeness
The church in Philippi is a good model for any local church to support evangelists and missionaries. What are the characteristics of such a church, besides communication, visitation, prayer, and practical support? Their partnership in the gospel endured; it was “from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:5); they remained loyal to the faith (Phil. 1:6-7); it was evident that God was at work in this church (Phil. 1:6).
Of course, like all humans they were not perfect, and Paul told them how to deal with one of their problems, a difference of opinion between two women. He tells them it was a problem of selfishness: “Everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:21). The solution was to “consider others better than yourselves,” to care about them as much as you care for yourselves, and be willing to serve them (Phil. 2:3-7). They were told to solve the problem, realizing that God was helping to make them willing and able to obey Him (Phil. 2:12-13). In this case a third party, possibly Epaphroditus, was asked to assist (Phil. 4:3).
Paul stressed that unity, being like-minded, loving one another, and working together with a common purpose was important (Phil. 1:27; 2:1-8). Do we pull together? Are we looking for ways to work together even though we might disagree? Do we think the best or the worst of people? Do people have to bend over backwards to please us? Do we disregard the opinions of others? Local churches need a shared vision and common goals.
Paul mentions five things that can help us come together in unity: remember what you have received; resolve to pull together; resist selfish attitudes and actions; regard others as more important than yourself; and consider the needs of others (Phil. 2:1-4). They were to have the same attitude as Christ, who left heaven and became the perfect servant on earth.
The local church should encourage Christians to be witnesses and ambassadors for Christ wherever they live, wherever they go. We should pray that God would raise up more evangelists and missionaries, and give them success in spreading the good news. And we should partner with them in the gospel by: communicating with them; exchanging personal visits; praying for them; and supporting them.
We see from the letter to the Philippians that the key is unity and Christ-likeness. We should encourage these characteristics in one another. As Paul wrote, “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus.”
For the New Year
At the end of a year we tend to look back and review what is now history. And at the beginning of a new year we often look forward to what lies ahead. Peter wrote his second letter just before his death, so he could look back over his lifetime and look forward as a help to the next generation (Jn. 21:18-19; 2 Pet. 1:14). Let’s look at an important reminder that Peter left for all believers.
Remember And Obey
He wrote in the first and last chapters of this letter (2 Pet. 1:12; 3:1) that he wanted to rouse them by way of a reminder. The two Greek words used in these verses are “diegeiro” – which can mean “to wake” or “to stir up from sleep” but is used metaphorically to mean to rouse their minds – and “hupomnesis” – which means “remembrance that is prompted by another.” Peter’s objective has also been expressed as to “refresh your memory” and to “stimulate you to wholesome thinking.” It is important because our actions and behavior flow from the attitudes in our mind.
We are forgetful and can easily become preoccupied with aspects of life. Like the battery of a mobile or cell phone, we need to be recharged from time to time. Peter knew this and his goal was to continually recharge and refresh their memories by reminding the Christians of that time how they should live (2 Pet. 1:12-15). In fact, he wrote this down so that we can be reminded of these things today.
Of course, today we can refresh our memories through reading the Scriptures and putting them into practice by remembering what they say and by obeying them.
A Message From God
People refresh their minds in many ways: rest, recreation, meditation and holidays. As batteries need to be recharged with electrical energy, Christians need to be recharged and refreshed with God’s spiritual “energy.” Our minds should be occupied with God’s message, which is reliable since it was written by eyewitnesses, such as Peter, and directed by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:16-18, 21). The Bible is sometimes called the Word of God, because it is God’s message to us. In fact, its words in the original language were given by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13; Heb. 4:12).
The message of the Bible is like a “light shining in a dark place” – it can illuminate and enlighten our thinking and help to keep us alert. And Peter exhorts us to pay close attention to its message (2 Pet. 1:19; 1 Th. 5:5-6). It can only be understood by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit who indwells all believers (1 Cor. 2:14-16).
We are to pay close attention to this message until the end of the Church age, which is illustrated as the dawning of day (Rom. 13:12; Heb. 10:25). This is until Christ comes to take all believers to be with Him in heaven, which is illustrated by the rising of the morning star – Christ being the morning star (1 Cor. 15:51-57; 1 Th. 4:16-18; Rev. 22:16).
Are you reading and meditating daily on God’s message in the Bible?
A Renewed Mind
Our mind is controlled by either the sinful nature or the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:5-8). Christians have a new attitude in their minds (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23). This renewed mind is linked with eternal life and peace – it thinks according to God’s perspective (Col. 3:1-2; Rom. 8:6). But if Christians do not refresh their memories, they have unfruitful minds (1 Cor. 14:14). As those who spent time with Christ had their minds opened so they could understand the Scriptures, this is also possible for those controlled by the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:45).
On the other hand, the unbeliever has a foolish and depraved mind; and foolish thinking leads to foolish behavior (Rom. 1:21-32). A sinful mind is hostile towards God and cannot please Him (Rom. 8:8). It is blinded because it can’t see the light that comes through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). Such a mind is only occupied with earthly things; it is totally sinful and corrupt (Phil. 3:19; Col. 2:18; 1 Tim. 6:5).
Do You Remember?
As the disciples were to remember the words that Christ spoke to them, we should remember the words that God caused to be written for us (Jn. 15:20; Jude 17). Do you remember “what you have received and heard” (Rev. 3:3) from the Scriptures? God promises to help us remember His words when we need them (Lk. 12:11-12; Jn. 16:4). The Bible has many examples and principles that can help us in our journey of life (Lk. 17:32). Most of all we need to “remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead” (2 Tim. 2:8).
So let’s endeavor to love and serve the Lord with our minds over the year ahead, and continually remind each other of these things (Mt. 22:37; Rom. 7:25)