Have you heard the story about a man trapped on the top of his house during a flood? The water is swiftly rising. As this man sits on his roof, fearful of being swept away by the current, he cries out to God, “Please deliver me”.
A few moments later, a farmer friend arrives with his boat. “Hey, want a ride to safety?” he asks. “No”, replies the man on top of his house. “God is going to deliver me.”
An hour later, the water is up to the gutters. A voluntary rescue person comes by on his yellow raft. “Hey, I’m here to help get you off there and on to safety,” he yells. But the man on top of his house refuses to go. “God is going to deliver me.”
Another hour passes and now the water is halfway up the roof. The man is now on top of his chimney, nervously looking down at certain death and destruction. Fortunately, a Red Cross volunteer comes along in a canoe and offers him a ride to safety. But the man refuses. “No, God is going to deliver me.”
A couple of hours pass by and the water sweeps over the top of his house and he is carried away by the current and drowns. When he gets to heaven, he meets Jesus and says, “I thought you were going to deliver me”. Jesus replies, “I sent a boat, an inflatable raft, and a canoe; but you refused each one”. Don’t be like this man!
In the previous post we saw why it is important to know God’s will. Now we will look at how we can find God’s will for us. How does God guide us? We will see that God has given us several ways to find his plan, purpose and will for us.
First, we need to be aware of the conditions for finding God’s will.
Conditions for finding God’s will
Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own” (Jn. 7:17NLT). If we want to find God’s will, we must be willing to do it even before we know what it is. So, there must be a desire and a willingness to follow God’s guidance. If we are walking closely with the Lord and truly desiring His will for our lives, God will place His desires in our hearts. The key is wanting God’s will, not our own. A godly person’s desires are in line with what God wants them to do (Ps. 37:4, 23, 31).
Solomon answered the question, “How can I know God’s will in my life?” with a proverb, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and He will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5-6NIV). This means to trust in the Lord and not in ourselves. So we are to believe that God will reveal His will to us. And be willing to submit to Him in every area of life.
James says, “when you ask (for wisdom), you must believe and not doubt” (Jas. 1:6). We must believe that God cares for us and not doubt His goodness and power.
Daily fellowship with the Lord
Romans 12:1-2 has three keys for knowing God’s will. And they all rely on daily fellowship with the Lord. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:1-2).
The first key is commitment.
a) Commitment. Like the life of a sacrificial animal was offered to God, God wants us to be totally committed to Him. We are to place our lives before God as an offering. It’s to be an exclusive relationship, like marriage. Our goal is to please God (2 Cor. 5:14-15). And give up our will so we can follow God’s plan for us.
The second key is a renewed mind.
b) A renewed mind. Our thinking is to be according to a biblical worldview. Godly thinking. Paul had the mind of Christ and didn’t think about people from a worldly point of view (1 Cor. 2:16; 2 Cor. 5:16). It’s like marriage. Because they spend so much time together, a husband and wife get to know each other’s mind and ways. Daily prayer and mediation on Scripture can help us to learn God’s mind and ways.
Are spiritual factors included in our decision making? Do we have the glory of God and the extension of His Kingdom in mind? Do we desire what He desires?
The third key is a godly lifestyle.
c) A godly lifestyle. Not following the pattern of the sinful world. This comes from a godly mind directing obedience to Scripture. What controls our lives? Outside influences or inner convictions? Do we live as if this world is all that there is? Have we lost the eternal point of view on our lives? Are we always thinking about ourselves and disregarding the things of God? These come from the world system, which hates God (Jn. 15:9-19).
The final condition for finding God’s will is confession and repentance of sin.
Confession and repentance of sin
Unconfessed sin keeps us from closeness to God. We are to deal with sin by confessing it and repenting (turning back to follow God). “If we confess our sins, He (God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
If we have disobeyed God in some matter, let’s turn to Him in repentance now, before it is too late. Like Jonah, we may be able to come back into the mainstream of God’s plan for our lives.
Times of uncertainty are used by God to sift our motives too. When unsure of God’s will, we should examine ourselves to see whether we have fulfilled the prerequisites for His guidance.
Before you get a driving licence in Australia there are some pre-requisites. You need to pass:
– The driver knowledge test.
– The Hazard Perception Test.
– 120 hours of driving, including 20 hours of night driving.
– The driving practical test.
Likewise, we have seen that there are some pre-requisites for finding God’s will.
Inner guidance via the Holy Spirit is the chief means by which God guides His people today.
The Holy Spirit
God guided Israel in the wilderness by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, but that method ceased when they entered Canaan. In Acts there are a few examples of God using angels and visions to guide people, but these are rare. In this post we will look at the normal means of guidance.
Finding God’s will was easier in Old Testament (OT) times because God used external ways to indicate it. The Holy Spirit now lives in a believer as a Guide, and He replaces all the external means of guidance that existed in the OT. Jesus told the disciples, “He (the Holy Spirit) will guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 16:13). They wrote this down and we now have it in the New Testament (NT).
Early in His ministry, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Lk. 4:1). Jesus and the Apostles were led by the Spirit because they were said to be full of the Holy Spirit. And Christians are commanded to be full of the Spirit (Eph. 5:17).
The Holy Spirit urges us inwardly either to take or not to take a certain course of action. Normally, this is the result of much time spent in prayer, and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed course of action. We can work through decisions with the wisdom God gives us through the Spirit. We can distinguish the voice of the Holy Spirit by the growing peace He gives to our minds, as we pray over the matter (Rom. 8:6; Col. 3:15). And the Holy Spirit will never lead us contrary to the teaching of the Bible.
Athletes and sporting teams have coaches to prepare them to perform at their peak. Mal Meninga coaches the Australian Rugby League team, Bert Van Marwijk has just started to coach the Australian Soccer team and Darren Lehmann has just resigned from coaching the Australian Cricket team. Fortunately, we have a coach who doesn’t retire, the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit also guides us through the following external means. The chief external means by which God guides His people today is the Bible.
Paul says, “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). The authors of the Bible were given the words to use by the Holy Spirit. Through it believers can be equipped for life, including leaning about God’s plan, purpose and will.
John Piper says there are three stages of finding God’s will.
– Using our renewed minds to understand and apply what God commands in the Scripture.
– The application of the Scriptures to new situations in life that are not addressed in the Bible.
– The development of godly character. Most of our thoughts, attitudes, and actions are spontaneous.
They are just spill-over from what’s inside.
When we look at the commands in the Bible we need to realize who they were written for. This is summarized in a schematic diagram where time increases from left to right. Christianity started on the day of Pentecost after Jesus, died, rose back to life and ascended back to heaven. So the commands in Acts to Revelation (after the day of Pentecost) were written to Christians. This means that they usually can be applied directly to us. The OT was written to Jews who lived under the laws of Moses (the Old Covenant). So these commands don’t apply directly to us. For example, they were required to offer animal sacrifices. Instead these laws need to be interpreted though the NT. Some are repeated in the NT, like 9 of the 10 commandments. And others are not repeated in the NT, like the command to keep the Sabbath day and the commands to offer animal sacrifices. So be careful when applying the OT to today. It has many good principles and provides the background to Christianity, but it wasn’t written to us. Jesus lived under the laws of Moses and the gospels include the teachings of His to Jews. But much of His teaching carries over into Christianity (where it relates to the new covenant). The gospels were written to give Christians an account of the life of Jesus.
When interpreting a passage of the Bible we need to take the text and the context into account. Questions about the text include:
– Who was it written to?
– What did it mean to them?
– What’s changed since then? Are we living under a different covenant?
And questions about the context include:
– What happened before and afterwards?
– What is the situation?
Context is king because it reduces the possible meanings of a text to its most probable meaning.
For example, “By his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5;1 Pt. 2:24) could refer to either physical or spiritual healing. The context in Isaiah is “our transgressions”, “our iniquities”, “each of us has turned to our own way”, and “the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6). And the context in 1 Peter is “our sins”, and “die to sins and live for righteousness”. There is no mention in either passage of illness or injury. So, in these verses “healed” means forgiveness of their sins (spiritual healing), not physical healing.
The contents of the Bible can be divided into commands, models to follow and reports of events. A command is mandatory (not optional) and prescriptive (not descriptive). A model to follow is a practice that is described that is worth following today. Whereas, a report is a description of events (like in the news media) that is not worth following today.
Biblical commands to Christians are clear to follow. They are God’s revealed will for us. Are we faithfully seeking Him on a daily basis through Bible study and prayer? Are we active in ministry at a Bible-believing church? Are we sharing our faith? Are we doing our best to live apart from sin? Are we faithful to our spouse? Are we seeking satisfaction in Christ instead of the world?
Biblical models are examples to follow. Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Models are also clear to follow.
But what about topics not mentioned in the Bible? First, we can ask does it contradict the Bible? Nothing can be the will of God that is contrary to the Word of God. Although the Bible doesn’t give specific answers to many problems we face, it does give us general principles. We can apply these principles to the issues we face day by day. Spiritual wisdom is the practical application of the Bible to everyday situations.
Paul urged the Ephesians to “understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph. 5:17). We understand the will of the Lord by reflective thinking on how principles of Scripture apply to our circumstances. We find the general will of God in the Bible; we find the specific will for an individual believer through the application of principles of the Bible. We do not find this will through experiences, visions, or coincidences. We find His will through the correct use of our understanding.
For example, what about a debatable matter like tattoos? This is a secondary matter that is not essential to the Christian faith. And Christians may have different opinions and convictions about it. Some biblical principles we can consider are: God’s honor, the welfare of others (like acting in love, acceptance, harmony, don’t quarrel, don’t judge, don’t stumble a weaker believer, and don’t hinder spiritual growth), and order in the church. Also, what is the motive behind the tattoo?
On rare occasions, God may confirm His guidance to us through some specific passage in our daily Bible reading. But care is needed for we are often likely to read into a passage what is not there. God may lead us through a verse taken out of context, but this is the exception rather than the rule. God may confirm His guidance through a passage in our daily Bible-reading. But this should never be made the sole basis for guidance in any matter.
Have you ever bought some furniture from Ikea? It comes as a flat-pack and the components need to be assembled before they can be used. It’s best to follow the instructions. Otherwise, you might have to go back to the beginning in order to assemble the components in the correct order. The Bible is like God’s instruction manual for living our lives.
Prayer is another external means of guidance.
Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7). Prayer is the way to alleviate worry and experience God’s peace. God wants to know about our requests. There is peace in knowing that God is sovereign and loving.
James 1:5 says we don’t have wisdom because we don’t ask for it—so prayer is critical in seeking and living the will of God. He can use answered prayer to guide us through life.
Did you know that there is an Ikea flat-pack furniture assembly service for difficult projects? And what if we could phone up and get help with difficult Ikea projects? Prayer is like that – we get to speak with the author of the instructions.
Circumstances and opportunities are other external means of guidance.
Circumstances and opportunities
God is sovereign. He is in charge of this world. And the events that He allows are all part of His sovereign will. Nothing happens by chance. What happens to us is part of God’s sovereign will. He can control our circumstances and thereby indicate His will. God may use events in our life to point us in a certain direction. God can use circumstances either to confirm the guidance we have received or to prevent our taking a wrong step.
There are a number of cases of circumstantial guidance in the book of Acts. God used persecution to scatter the church from Jerusalem to spread the gospel (Acts 8:1). During Paul’s first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas moved from one place to another when they had to flee from persecution. And after Paul was arrested, he was given opportunities to preach in Jerusalem to the crowd and to the Sanhedrin. At his trial, he preached to the governor and the king. And when he was taken as a prisoner to Rome, he preached to the sailors, to people at Malta and to people at Rome (Acts 21-28).
God may prevent us from going into paths He has not chosen for us by putting us on a sick bed or by making us miss a train, an appointment or an interview. Disappointments can be His appointments for us, if we live under His Lordship. When we do not obtain something we greatly longed for and prayed for, we can be sure that God has something better in store for us.
God may also lead us contrary to circumstances. So circumstances are not always an indication of God’s will. They must be considered only in conjunction with the inner witness of the Holy Spirit and His witness through the Bible.
Is it right to ask God to indicate His will by a sign? After the advent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there is not a single recorded case in the NT of believers seeking to find God’s will through a sign. This seems to indicate that it is no longer God’s normal method of guidance. It served a purpose in OT times, when the Holy Spirit did not indwell people – but not now. Don’t ask God for a miracle as a sign, and don’t ask God for something so common that it is not really a sign at all. And don’t ask God for a verse as a sign. It’s probably best to not ask God to indicate His will by a sign at all.
God also works through open doors and opportunities. To steer a ship or vehicle, it needs to be moving. If we are active in responding to the opportunities before us, God will direct us.
The advice of godly believers is another external means of guidance.
The advice of godly believers
Christians are urged to encourage each other in the local church (Heb. 10:24-25). Wisdom is available from others with more experience in the Christian life. It’s good to have a mentor or a spiritual counselor or a small group who can provide guidance and support.
However, there are two extremes to avoid. One is to be completely independent of the advice of godly people. The other is to be so completely dependent on their advice as to accept it without question as God’s will for us.
There are some occasions when we should pay attention to the advice of godly people, and some occasions when we may have to go against the advice of those same people, and yet other occasions when we do not have to consult anyone at all. In any case whether we accept or reject or do not seek the advice of others, the ultimate decision must always be our own, for we are personally answerable to God for our decisions.
How do you build a house? One brick at a time. Or one part at a time. How do we build a life? One decision at a time. There is an old saying, “Sow a thought and you reap an act; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny”. The decisions we make about God’s plan purpose and will for us shape our lives.
God may sometimes show us His will only just before we have to make a decision, and may keep us waiting a long time prior to that. In any case, He will show us only the next step at each stage. He leads us step by step because He wants us to depend on Him day by day, and to walk by faith and not by sight. For example, the Bereans “examined the Scriptures every day” (Acts 17:11). When He shows us only one step at a time, we are compelled to depend on Him. Moreover, if God showed us the whole future, it is quite likely that we would not want to obey Him fully. And so, He shows us just one step at a time and gradually makes us willing to fulfil all His will. To find God’s will for our life, therefore, all we need to do at any time is to take the next step that God shows us. As we do so, we will find God’s plan unfolding gradually. He does not expect us to find out the details of His plan before we get there.
In the smaller details of daily life, guidance is not necessarily a question of making a conscious decision. It is a matter of walking in the Spirit. A right relationship with the Lord will lead to right action.
God’s will is not static. It is dynamic! It is not always an issue of choosing A or B. In fact, many times you can choose from A to Z, and any of them will be OK. It’s our choice. Why would God give us a brain and not expect us to use it? He lets us make choices, and he gives us second chances.
We have seen that there are seven conditions for finding God’s will, plan or purpose for us. These are desire, faith, daily fellowship with the Lord, commitment, a renewed mind, a godly lifestyle, and confession and repentance of sin.
Inner guidance via the Holy Spirit is the chief means by which God guides His people today. The Holy Spirit also uses Scripture, prayer, circumstances and the advice of godly believers. So God has given us several ways to find his plan, purpose and will for us. Let’s use these so that we will know, understand and follow His will for our lives.
Written, April 2018
Heavy rain, strong winds and high tides battered the eastern coast of Australia recently. Sections of some seaside homes in Sydney were washed into the ocean during huge swell. And floods caused extensive damage in Tasmania.
This reminds me of the story that Jesus told about two builders (Mt. 7:24-27; Lk. 6:47-49). The wise one built their house on a strong rock foundation, while the foolish one built their house on a weak sandy foundation. When a storm came, the house on the strong foundation wasn’t damaged, but the one on the weak foundation collapsed and was destroyed.
This blogpost looks and our spiritual foundations and how these can be strong or weak.
Types of spiritual foundations
An awareness of the spiritual aspect of life can help us get through tough times. This can give us a different perspective on life and help us see the big picture. But what sort of foundation is our spirituality based on? Obviously, strong robust and reliable foundations are better that weak fragile and unreliable foundations. As a building’s foundations affect the building, so our spiritual foundations affect our spiritual life and thereby our physical life.
In many ways our spirituality and our interpretation of doctrine and theology is based on what we believe is the source or foundation of our spiritual authority. This authority or foundation depends on our assumption about God’s revelation to humanity. There are two main viewpoints or paradigms. The first is that God has revealed Himself only in the Christian Bible. And the second is that God continues to reveal Himself by means outside the Bible.
The Bible also says that God is revealed in a general sense in His physical creation (Rom. 1:20) and in the human conscience (Rom. 2:15). But these types of general revelation aren’t addressed in this post.
Only Biblical revelation
The first main viewpoint about how God reveals himself to us is based on the historical record in the Bible, which was written between 1430 BC and AD 95. There are two main sections in the Bible. The Old Testament is God’s revelation before the birth of Christ, when the Israelites were God’s people. It was written by prophets who received the message from God “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:20-21NIV). The New Testament is God’s revelation in the first century AD. It has two subsections: the gospels describe the final years of the old Jewish covenant, while the remainder describes the early church, when Christians were God’s people. The Bible teaches that together the Old and New Testaments provide all we need to know about God and His interaction with humanity.
Although the Bible wasn’t written to us, it contains information and principles that are still relevant today. When we apply a Bible passage to our lives we need to discern who it was written to, the era being described and the universal principle being taught. In particular, we need to be careful interpreting and applying passages written about the Jewish era because we live in the Christian era, not the Jewish one. We will now look at some Bible passages that support this viewpoint.
In the context of persecution of Christians and dealing with false teachers, Paul told Timothy, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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. 3:15-17). So the words of the Bible are the words of God Himself. Also, the Bible is both necessary and sufficient to show us the way of salvation and to equip us for Christian living. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, not via any of the teachings given below under “Continual revelation”. The gospel of Jesus Christ described in the New Testament is the only strong spiritual foundation (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20).
In the context of disunity within a local church, Paul quoted the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written” (2 Cor. 4:6). He wanted the believers in Corinth to evaluate everything and everyone by the Scriptures. He didn’t want them to put other teachers or other teachings above Scripture. Their authority was to be Scripture and nothing else or no-one else.
The last commandment in the Bible is a warning, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll” (Rev. 22:18-19). There are similar warnings in the Old Testament (Dt. 4:2; Prov. 30:5-6). As the subjects of the book of Revelation are woven throughout the Bible, this passage condemns any tampering with Scripture. Since the book of Revelation was completed, no new written or verbal prophecy has ever been universally recognized by Christians as divine truth from God. The Scriptures are final and complete.
Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would “teach you all things” and “guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 14:26; 16:13). We have this truth recorded by the apostles and their associates in the New Testament. Today the Holy Spirit can use Scripture to guide us into all the truth. Paul told the Ephesians “the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27), which was “revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” and written down in Scripture (Eph. 3:4-5).
Jude said that the Christian faith documented by the apostles was “once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3). This means it’s complete and not subject to change. So the Bible is a closed system of truth, with no new revelation being given through inspired prophets or apostles. It’s God’s complete revelation, containing all the spiritual truth that God wants us to know. Through it, God has revealed everything He wants us to know about spiritual matters. And nothing has been lost from God’s revelation.
In April 2010, a 26-year-old woman was driving a go-kart at Port Stephens, when part of her clothing became entangled in the drive axle of her vehicle, strangling her and resulting in her death. The operator was fined $32,000 with costs of $18,000 for failing to comply with two Australian Standards for amusement rides and devices. The standard says go-kart riders were required to “not wear loose fitting clothing that could become entangled in any part of the kart” and the moving parts of the go-kart must be covered. Failing to follow this safety standard was physically dangerous. Likewise, failing to follow the Bible is spiritually dangerous because the Bible is God’s spiritual standard for us.
The second main viewpoint is that God continues to reveal Himself by means outside the Bible. These extra-biblical revelations may include religious teachings, religious books, traditions, or ongoing revelation via dreams, visions or prophecies.
In this case it is assumed that Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to “guide you into all the truth” implies that new truth will continue to be revealed after the Bible was complete (Jn. 16:13). However, this promise was written to people who attended a Jewish synagogue, so it wasn’t written directly to us today (Jn. 16:2). Instead the new truth was revealed after the day of Pentecost and written in the New Testament for us to learn about today.
Other religious teachings
Some religious teachings aren’t consistent with the teachings of the Bible. For example, the teachings: that salvation is by grace plus works, that salvation can be obtained after death, that Jesus isn’t God, that God isn’t a trinity, that baptism is necessary for salvation, that infants should be baptized, that hell isn’t eternal punishment, that Sabbath worship is for the churches today, that Revelation 6-22 is not about the future, that God has finished with Israel and the church has replaced Israel, that Mary was sinless, that the Pope is infallible, that prophets are infallible, and that God decides who will be saved and who will be condemned.
Because they differ from what the Bible teaches, these beliefs should be rejected. To accept such teachings as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. In the previous section we saw that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to these other religious teachings, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.
As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all religious teachings should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.
Other religious books
Religious books like the Book of Mormon, the Muslim Koran, the Hindu Shruti, the Buddhist Tripitaka, “Science and health with key to the Scriptures” of Christian Science, Education in the New Age, and the Scientology Handbook, claim to be the word of God. And the evolutionary ideas of Darwin’s “On the Origin of species” are used to promote atheism. But these books always contradict the Bible in some way. For example, the Koran teaches that Jesus was just another prophet, whereas the Bible teaches that He was the divine Son of God -– the way, the truth and the life. Only one of these can be right. They can’t both be right! If you try to combine the two, then you must disregard some of the teachings of the Bible. So to accept another religious book as a spiritual authority or foundation, means giving it more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to the other religious books, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.
None of these sacred books can meet even one of the standards on which the canon of the Bible was established. For example, their authors don’t satisfy the biblical definition of a prophet or an apostle or have a direct link to such a person (like Mark, Luke and James).
As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all religious books should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.
Other human traditions
After the Jewish religious leaders asked “why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders” … Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Mt. 15:1-6). So Jesus placed Scripture above tradition. In this case, a tradition had been developed to avoid supporting aged parents.
Paul warned, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8). Here he writes against religious teachings that aren’t based on the Bible. These human speculations become traditions when they are adopted as customs.
To accept such traditions as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to other traditions, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.
As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all traditions should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.
Paul warns those in Colossae: “a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind” (Col. 2:18-19). They loved talking on and on about their spiritual experiences (which probably included visions of angels), but in reality these were only coming out of their own mind. Dreams and visions are subjective experiences. In those days, the Gnostics entered into ecstatic experiences which had no basis in biblical revelation. Since the canon of Scripture (the list of books that belong in the Bible) has closed, there is no further need for more revelation from God.
In contrast to the written word of God, spiritual experiences and feelings are also subjective and can’t be verified. And when interpreting Scripture, we need to ensure our experiences and biases don’t distort the process. Instead, we should test our experience against the Bible.
To accept dreams, visions and spiritual experiences as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to dreams, visions and experiences, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.
As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all dreams, visions, and experiences should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.
The Bible says that prophecy is a direct message from God (Dt. 18:18). In the chapter on love, Paul wrote “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease … For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (1 Cor. 13:8-10). The Corinthians had been occupied with spiritual gifts like prophecy but Paul says love is more important because it lasts longer than prophecy.
So, before the completion of the New Testament, God gave messages to the church by prophecies, but sometime after that the prophecies would cease and disappear. When is that time? The Bible says it’s “when completeness comes”. There are two main views about this.
– When there is perfection, which occurs when we go to heaven.
– Or when the New Testament was complete, which was about 40 years after Paul wrote this letter.
The second view is the best explanation. Two situations are being compared in this passage, the “partial” and the “complete”; the “now” and the “then” (v.9-10, 12). The gift of prophecy in the New Testament church was God’s partial revelation before His full revelation was available when the Bible was completed. Paul gives two illustrations of this (v.11-12). The first compares childhood to adulthood (or immaturity to maturity). The second compares seeing something in a dim mirror to seeing it in a clear mirror (or limited sight to full sight, or indistinct to distinct). Then he says, “now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (v.12). As the “know in part” was individual prophecies, the “know fully” was the complete collection of prophecies. So at a future time this knowledge changes from being partial to being complete. The complete revelation in the New Testament gives us all we need to know from a divine viewpoint.
Then he says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (v.13). So, after prophecy has “ceased”, faith hope and love “remain”. They last longer than prophecy. How long? Faith and hope last in our lifetime; that is until we get to heaven, which means when we die or when Christ returns at the rapture. That’s when our faith will be replaced by sight and our hope will be realized (Rom. 8:24; Heb. 11:1). But love is the greatest because it goes on for eternity when we will be with God, who is love.
Why is this a better explanation than saying that prophecy continues until the rapture? First, it’s obvious that all physical activities such as spiritual gifts finish when we die. That’s a no-brainer! So if this was the meaning, why mention it all? Second, the text implies that prophecy ceases before faith and hope. They don’t cease at the same time. Third, it’s consistent with the canon of the Bible being complete. Because new revelations (or prophecies) would be adding to what’s in the Bible. Fourth, the context is revelation from God, not fellowship with God. Fifth, “complete” (or “whole”) is a better match for “partial” (they are both quantitative words), whereas “perfect” (or “unblemished”) doesn’t match “partial” (one is quantitative and the other is qualitative). Sixth, the Greek word translated “complete” (teleios Strongs #5046) is also used in James 1:25 to describe Scripture.
So the spiritual gift of prophecy was temporary for when the apostles were writing the New Testament. During this period divine guidance was provided through gifts such as prophecy. Each prophecy provided only a part of the complete revelation given in the New Testament. For example, Paul didn’t have the writings of John. In the Bible, the Old Testament is called a “prophetic message” and the New Testament “prophetic writings” (Rom. 16:26; 2 Pet. 1:19-20).
Going back to the builders mentioned at the beginning of this message. The wise builder is like those who obey Scripture, while the foolish builder is like those who disobey Scripture (Mt. 7:24, 26). In the same passage, Jesus also said that true and false prophets are distinguished by their fruit, where good fruit symbolizes those who obey Scripture and bad fruit symbolizes those who disobey Scripture (Mt. 7:15-20). So Jesus taught the Jews to use Scripture to test prophecies. Likewise, we should use Scripture to test prophecies.
As the Scriptures are final and complete, there is no need for new prophecy (direct revelation from God) today. The revelation God has given in Scripture is totally adequate to instruct us in the things of God now. As Scripture is complete, any teaching or revelation that’s not consistent with the Bible is not God-given. There’s no ongoing new revelation.
To accept new prophecies as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to these prophecies, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.
As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all prophecies should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.
Lessons for us
In the age of the internet and the credit card, we are warned about financial scams. Recently one of our credit cards was cancelled because of a rouge transaction of $970. But what about spiritual scams? Are we spiritually intelligent to distinguish the true from the false? Or are we gullible? Do we reject error?
We have seen that the only strong, robust and reliable spiritual foundation is the Christian Bible. Do we base our spiritual life on Scripture? Do we trust objective Scripture more than we trust our subjective feelings? This is the only spiritual foundation that can help us survive the storms of life. It’s important because our view of Scripture can affect our eternal destiny.
Other spiritual foundations which rely on religious teachings, religious books, traditions, dreams, visions, experiences or modern prophecies and are inconsistent with Scripture are weak, fragile and unreliable. Are we confused with all the foundations available in the spiritual supermarket? Do we test everything against Scripture? Do we only accept what is consistent with the Bible? Or in the spirit of tolerance (which is the spirit of our age), do we accept these weak foundations and risk our lives collapsing in the storms of life?
Let’s take the safe option of a strong spiritual foundation (Eph. 2:20).
Written, June 2016
How the Bible came to us
I recently read about five alleged myths and shortcomings of the Bible: the creation story, the morality of the Jews destroying the Canaanites, Noah’s flood, the virgin birth and inconsistencies between different parts of the Bible. So can we trust our Bibles or are they the unreliable product of a more primitive era? To answer this question we will look at how the Bible came to us.
The word Bible comes from biblion, the Greek word for book and the word Scripture comes from scriptura, the Latin word for something written. The Bible is a collection of 66 books from more than 40 authors. It has two main parts, the Old Testament (OT), written before Christ and the New Testament (NT), written after Christ. They were both written in the everyday language of their time. The OT was written in Hebrew, except for portions in Aramaic after the Jewish exile in Babylon, while the New Testament was written in Greek.
Paul said that the OT was “the very words of God” (Rom. 3:2). This also applies to the NT as Peter equates Paul’s letters with Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). So how did the words of God get to be written on earth? Well, the apostle John reported, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: …’” (Rev. 1:10-11NIV). In this case John was given a vision and he was to write down what he saw. In Jeremiah’s case, he dictated God-given words to his secretary Baruch (Jer. 36:1-4).
In Hebrews we learn, “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). This means that in the OT God communicated to people via the prophets and in the NT He communicated via Jesus and the apostles, who recorded the life of Jesus and the early church.
Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Peter wrote, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable … Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things (own mind). For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:19-21). Clearly the Bible message came from God via the prophets and apostles. The Holy Spirit influenced them like a wind moves a sailing boat: see Acts 27:15 where the same word is used. So the Holy Spirit helped the authors write the words. But it wasn’t just dictated mechanically, because each author used their own style.
So God created the books of the Bible via human authors. It’s God’s words (in the original text). That’s why it is also referred to as God’s Word. Each word of the entire Bible was “God-breathed” as originally written. This means it was recorded accurately without error. So it’s trustworthy and reliable in all the matters it addresses.
Paul communicated “things God has revealed to us by His Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:10), “not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13). So the words used by the apostles were especially chosen by the Holy Spirit. Paul and the other writers “had the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). This passage is about new truths revealed in the NT, not about heaven.
What about the Apocrypha which is comprised of 13 Jewish writings from the period between the OT and the NT (430 BC to 50 AD) that are included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles? The word Apocrypha comes from a Greek word meaning hidden. However:
- They were never accepted by the Jews as part of their God-given Scriptures
- None are quoted or referred to in the NT or accepted by Jesus and the apostles as God-given Scripture
- None were written by the OT prophets
- They were only recognised by Roman Catholics as part of their Scriptures in the 1540s (1,500 years after they were written)
So the Apocrypha are Jewish religious books written between the times of the OT and the NT, but they are not God-breathed Scripture.
By 400 BC the OT was complete and written on scrolls and by 100 AD the NT was complete and written on scrolls. However, because scrolls don’t last for thousands of years, we don’t have any of the original Biblical texts today. Does this mean our Bibles are unreliable? No! Many copies have been made and early manuscripts have been preserved.
Photocopiers have been used since 1959 and the printing press since the 1450s. Gutenberg printed the first Bible in 1456. Copies of the books of the Bible were handwritten before the printing press. A handwritten copy is called a manuscript, which comes from the Latin words manu (hand) and scriptum (written). An amazing number of Bible manuscripts have been preserved for us to examine today. These comprise ancient fragments, scrolls and books.
The characteristics of these documents changed over the centuries between when they were first composed and the advent of the printing press. The media they were written on changed from stones (like the Ten Commandments), to clay tablets (Moses), to papyrus (paper made from a reed plant that grew along the Nile River – that’s where our word paper comes from), to parchment (also called vellum; made from animal skins), and to paper. Paper as we know it was invented in China, but wasn’t used in Europe until the 1200s. Books replaced scrolls in about the second century AD. In about the eleventh century AD, the Greek text changed from modified capitals to lower case. In about the fifth century AD, the quill replaced the reed as the “pen” used by copyists. Scholars examine these characteristics when dating manuscripts.
Old Testament manuscripts
The OT was written between 1500 BC and 400 BC. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were the most important archaeological discovery in the last century. They were found in clay jays in caves near the north-western shore of the Dead Sea. Scholars believe that the DSS were hidden about 70 AD when Roman legions invaded Israel.
Before this time, the oldest Hebrew manuscript of the whole OT was Codex Leningradensis (1008 AD). Codex means book. In the DSS there was a copy of Isaiah dated 150 BC, which was about 550 years after the original text was written. The Hebrew text of this copy was virtually the same as the copy made over 1,000 years later. So the Jewish scribes did a good job! They were diligent and developed many practices to protect copies of their scriptures from error. For example, the Masoretes numbered the letters, words, and paragraphs of each book and the middle paragraph, middle word and middle letter had to correspond to those of the original document. Earlier Jewish scribes were just as meticulous in their transcription. After all, they were instructed not to add to or take away from the word of God (Dt. 4:2; Prov. 30:6).
Most of the DSS predate the time of Christ (they were written 150 BC to 70 AD). Parts of all the books of the Old Testament were found except Esther. They closely follow the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible (the tanakh), copied by a group of Jews about the 10th century AD, but there are a few exceptions. For example, Psalm 145 is an alphabetical psalm. Each verse begins with the next letter in the alphabet, but “N” verse is missing in the Masoretic Text and King James Bible.
Between the third century BC and 130 BC, the OT was translated into Greek and this version of the OT is known as the Septuagint. Fragments of Septuagint manuscripts date from the first and second centuries BC. Relatively complete manuscripts of the Septuagint include the Codex Vaticanus from the 4th century AD and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century. These are the oldest surviving nearly complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language; the oldest existing complete Hebrew texts date some 600 years later, from the 10th century.
New Testament manuscripts
The NT was written between 50 AD and 100 AD. The oldest NT manuscript is a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, which is dated about 125 AD about 30 years after the book was first written! The earliest manuscripts of each book in the NT are usually papyrus fragments which are dated from 125 AD (for John) to 350 AD for 1&2 Timothy and 3 John, with a median date of 200 AD.
Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript of the Bible written about 350 AD, contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. It was discovered at a monastery on Mount Sinai in the 1850s. The hand-written text is in Greek. On the other hand, the earliest manuscripts of the works of the Jewish historian Josephus in their original language are dated 900-1000 AD, at least 800 years after they were written.
As there are earlier, better and more manuscripts of Scripture, the manuscript evidence of the Bible is superior to that for any other ancient book. However, none of these Biblical manuscripts is perfectly accurate, they all contain copy errors. Does this mean our Bibles are unreliable? No! Scholars have reconstructed the original text.
The study of biblical manuscripts is important because handwritten copies of books usually contain errors. Textural scholars reconstruct the original text from the manuscripts available. Generally earlier versions are closer to the original as they have fewer copy errors.
Scholars have grouped the NT manuscripts into families: Alexandrian (200s-400s AD), Caesarean (200s AD onwards), Western (300s-500s AD) and Byzantine (500s onwards). There have been three major attempts to reconstruct the original New Testament text from ancient Greek manuscripts:
The Received Text (“Textus Receptus” in Latin) was based on some Byzantine (eastern portion of the Roman Empire) manuscripts (dated from 1000 AD). It was first published in 1516. This text lacks the input of many early Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered since this time.
The Eclectic Text (selected from the best of a variety of sources) was based on an analysis of all the manuscripts, with a preference for the earliest ones (mainly Alexandrian, Caesarean and Western manuscripts). It was first published in the 1880s. This text tends to be shorter than the others.
The Majority Text was based on the majority of existing Greek manuscripts and first published in the 1982. As fewer ancient texts have survived and the Byzantine church was quite wealthy and produced many manuscripts, the Majority Text is largely based on the Byzantine family of manuscripts (dated the 9th to the 13th centuries AD) and has some similarities to the Received Text. However, no major Bible translations are based on the Majority Text.
The differences between the reconstructed New Testament texts mentioned above are mainly technical and not doctrinal. They don’t affect any Christian doctrine because the Bible is a robust document. It has a great deal of redundancy and repetition with multiple accounts of important events. For example, there two accounts of Israel’s history (Samuel & Kings; Chronicles), three genealogies from Adam to Abraham (Genesis 5&11; 1 Chronicles; Luke 3) and four accounts of the life of Jesus (the gospels). All major doctrines are taught in several places in the Bible. They don’t rely on a single verse.
So scholars have reconstructed the original Biblical texts. However, as these reconstructed original texts are in Hebrew and Greek, which most of us can’t read, does that mean that our Bibles, which are not in Hebrew and Greek are unreliable? No! These languages have been translated accurately.
Translators transfer the message from a source language to a receptor language. These Biblical texts have been translated into most of the languages in the world. In fact, the Bible has been translated and retranslated more than any other book in history. New translations are needed from time to time because all languages are constantly changing.
Some ancient translations are:
• The Septuagint – a Greek translation of the OT dated about 200 BC, which was quoted by Christ and the apostles. This shows that God approves of translations. Jesus viewed this translation of the Old Testament as reliable and trustworthy (Mt. 5:17-18; Jn. 10:35).
• The Vulgate – a Latin translation of the Bible dated about 400 AD, which was used for over 1,000 years including the Middle Ages.
If you look at an Interlinear Bible you will realise that a word-for-word translation is impossible. This is because each language has a different vocabulary (we may need more than one word to describe a word in another language or vice-versa) and a different grammar (or sentence structure). Also, languages are flexible and there is often more than one way to correctly translate a text. The same information can be communicated in different ways.
What’s the difference between different translations of the Bible?
Two types of reconstructed source have mainly been used:
- Received Text – This was used by the 1611 KJV and has been maintained by subsequent editions of the KJV and for the NKJV.
- Eclectic Text – This is used by most other translations of the Bible where some verses are omitted because it is believed that they were added by copyists.
Some translations try to follow the pattern of the source language (but are not as readable), others follow the pattern of the receptor language (but are not as close literally). For example:
- Most literal includes: NASB (11), KJV (12), NKJV (9) and ESV (9)
- Most readable includes: CEV (4), NLT (6)
- Intermediate: NIV (8), HCSB (8)
The number is the grade level required to read the text. Note: interlinear Bibles are most literal, but they are not readable at all, and The Message is a paraphrase not a translation. Different translations have different purposes, which are indicated in the front of the Bible. They usually have a particular readership in mind. Most of the translations are trustworthy. Rarely does a doctrinal matter hinge on the translation of the text.
Lessons for us
We can be thankful for the Bible’s preservation over thousands of years.
Our Bibles are very close to the original because early manuscripts have been preserved, scholars have reconstructed the original text and languages have been translated accurately. So we can trust our Bibles.
Paul told Timothy, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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. 3:15-17). Each of our Bibles contains all we need to know about salvation, spiritual growth and Christian living, by making us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and thoroughly equipping us for every good work.
Which is the best Bible? The one you read! Read it regularly and memorise key verses.
Written, March 2012
The Bible is a collection of books which were written over a period of over 1,500 years with unique origin and content.
We will look at three statements about the source of the Bible. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16NIV). When written in ~67AD by Paul, this statement mainly applied to the Old Testament as not all the New Testament books had been written. But when Paul quoted from the book of Luke, he called it Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18) and Peter referred to Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). So today we can apply the statement to the whole Bible. This means that God is the source of every verse in the Bible.
“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things (mind). For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The men who were given the message were called prophets. This passage emphasises that the words of Scripture were given by God via the Holy Spirit; and they didn’t originate from the prophet’s mind.
“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words” (1 Cor. 2:13). Once again, the Bible contains God’s wisdom, not human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:6-15). It’s “the thoughts of God” and the amazing things that “God has prepared for those who love Him”, which can only be understood with the help of the Holy Spirit.
As the Bible is the only book with God as the author, it is unique. The Bible is God’s message to us. The supreme God who created the universe and continues to sustain it has communicated with us. This also means that:
- The Bible has authority – coming from the ruler of the visible and invisible universe.
- The Bible is infallible. It is “completely reliable” as the source of truth, being absolutely true (2 Pet.1:19). The original text was without error and only minor copyist errors have occurred over the passage of time. When interpreted correctly, it never deceives us, never contradicts itself and can be trusted.
- The Bible is profitable. God has told us what we need to know. It’s like our instruction manual for life.
The Bible tells us the history of the universe from beginning to end. It begins with the creation of the universe and contains a history of mankind from Adam and Eve to the end of history. It describes the global flood that has shaped the earth and gives a detailed history of the Jewish nation, which is confirmed by archaeology. There is also a history of God’s dealing with mankind, a history of human failures, an accurate record of human behaviour and information about heaven and hell.
The Bible answers difficult questions, such as the following. Why do we exist? Why does anything exist? What can we hope for in the future? What is our destiny? Where has humanity come from? Why are we male and female? Where does marriage come from? Why is there suffering?
The Bible deals with our greatest problem (being God’s enemy instead of His friend) and our greatest need (to be reconciled with God) and how that was addressed by Jesus. God’s plan of salvation through Jesus is the theme of Scripture. We learn the way of salvation through the Bible (2 Tim. 3:15). It also provides assurance of salvation.
The Bible tells us what to know about the unseen world, including: God, angels, Satan, and demons. It describes the interaction between the unseen and seen parts of our world. It reveals what is God like; what has God done; God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It also reveals that humans are comprised of spirit, soul and body.
As the Bible is the only reliable source of this information, it is unique (Eccl. 3:11).
The Bible uses the following powerful images to describe itself:
- A sharp sword that penetrates and judges our thoughts and attitudes (Heb. 4:12-13). It is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).
- A light that shines in darkness (Ps. 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19). It illuminates the way ahead and guides us.
- A mirror that shows our true condition (Jas. 1:22-25).
- Food (milk and solid food) that sustains us (1 Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:12-14).
- Water that purifies us as we obey Scripture (Eph. 5:25).
- More precious than gold (Ps. 19:10).
- Sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:10).
So, the Bible is not just another book, it’s God’s unique powerful message to us. Let’s read it, study it, memorise it and obey it.
Written, September 2011
Also see: Read the Bible in one year
God’s Word is the Key
In Old Testament times the Jews were God’s special people. He promised them many things, but some of these were conditional on their obedience (Ex. 15:25-26; 23:25-26; Dt. 7:12-16). If they worshipped idols, they were told: “The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you” (Deut. 4:27NIV). Because the Jews were unfaithful and followed idols instead of the true God, they were overrun by the Assyrians and Babylonians and Jerusalem was plundered and destroyed.
However, after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, some returned to their homeland. This journey of about 1500 km took them 4 months to travel (Ezra 7:8). They returned in three phases: Zerabbabel rebuilt the temple, 80 years later Ezra led a spiritual revival, and 13 years later Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Although there was opposition from the surrounding nations, they persisted and there was a spiritual revival when they turned back to worshipping the only true God. Let’s look at the key steps in their revival.
The main character is Ezra, who was a devoted student and a teacher of the Scriptures (Ezra 7:10). He was instrumental in a spiritual revival after Nehemiah rebuilt the city walls. One day all the Israelite men and women gathered together and Ezra “read it (the books of Moses) aloud from daybreak till noon” (Neh. 8:3). The people listened for 5-6 hours! That’s a long time! Thirteen Levites helped by “making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:8). As Aramaic was the language at the time, they probably translated it from Hebrew into Aramaic. On the next day Ezra taught the leaders, priests and Levites from the Scripture (Neh. 8:13). When they discovered that they had not been celebrating the Festival of Shelters, they celebrated it with joy. On every day of this 7-day festival, Ezra read from the Scripture (Neh. 8:18).
Three days later the people gathered together to confess their sinful ways. They “read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for 3 hours, and spent another 3 hours in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God” (Ezra 9:3). They prayed one of the longest prayers in the Bible, which traces God’s faithfulness across history despite the Jews unfaithfulness (Neh. 9:6-37). After this they wrote a binding agreement that they would obey the Lord and follow the Scriptures (Neh. 9:38 – 10:39). So the sequence of events was: they read the Bible (Neh. 8), they confessed their sins (Neh. 9), and they obeyed the Lord (Neh. 10).
This pattern is similar to the Jewish revival under king Josiah. After he was informed of God’s message in Scripture, “he tore his robes” and wept in anger and sorrow acknowledging their disobedience, and then promised “to follow the LORD and keep His commands” and acted to remove all the idols in the land of Israel (2 Ki. 22:8 – 23:20; 2 Chr. 34:14-33).
Read the Bible
What can we learn from this? Revival begins with God’s word. Did you notice how often they read the Scripture? The Bible showed them how they had failed. The bible is our spiritual food: “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). It helps us learn God’s perspective on our world including what is right and what is wrong (“teaching”); where we are on the wrong track (“rebuking”); how to get back onto the right track (“correcting”); and how to live a godly life (“training in righteousness”).
Confess our sins
After they read the Bible, they felt guilt and shame. This led to confession of sin in prayer to the Lord; they were honest with God. After God speaks to us in Scripture, we need to respond in prayer. This is necessary to keep in touch with 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). Although the penalty of our sins has already been paid, they affect our relationships in the family of God. If we confess our sins to the Lord, He promises to forgive them and enable these relationships to be restored. If the sin is against another person, we should confess to them so that they in turn can forgive us (Lk. 17: 3-4; Jas. 5:16).
Follow the Lord
After they confessed their sin, there was repentance and obedience; they acted to get back on track. Signs of being in fellowship with the Lord and with believers in the family of God are that we “keep His commands”, obey “His word”, and “live as Jesus did” (1 Jn. 2:3-6). This means obeying Christ’s teachings, doing what pleases Him, and letting Him live His life through us. Paul said, “I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Christ left an example for us to follow, and said “learn from me” and “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 11:29; 16:24; 1 Pt. 2:21).
Lessons for us
So let’s read and meditate on the Bible and apply it to our lives. This is the key to the three steps of spiritual revival: read the Bible, confess our sins, and follow the Lord.
Written, June 2011