Growing In Godliness Blog
Two Ways to Read the Bible
I would suggest that there are two basic ways in which people read the Bible. There are those who read the Bible superficially, and there are those who read it more accurately. Now the alarming news is that sometimes it is sincerely religious people who make the mistake of reading the Bible superficially. Think of the difference between the way the Jews of Jesus’ day handled the Scriptures (take Matt 19.18-20 or Matt 15.3-6 as an example), and the way Jesus approached it (compare Matt 22.31-32). The Jews of Jesus’ day are a good example of highly religious people who had read the Scriptures superficially.
What is this superficial kind of reading? It is, among other things, often a self-centered and a this-worldly reading. In other words, people who take this approach often believe that the Bible is about some earthly condition or situation that will come about for them if they can understand how to get it from God. The condition may be the hope of an earthly kingdom, or it may be the prospect of getting rich, or it may be some nebulous sense of intellectual enlightenment, but whatever form it takes this approach to the Bible says that the Bible is about me and what good things God will do for me in my present life if I can just manage to please God. This is, generally speaking, the approach to religion of most pagans in the ancient world, and it is the approach to the Bible that is commonly found among the television evangelists today (especially those who preach the “Health and Wealth Gospel”). The tragic thing about this approach to the Bible is that it actually prevents the Bible from communicating its message. When we read the Bible through the lens of our own hopes and aspirations, the result is that we convince ourselves that the Bible really is talking about such things when in fact it is otherwise. In the end we only become self-deceived as we read the Bible in this way.
What about the other way of reading the Bible? How can we make sure we are reading it correctly and accurately?
Getting It Right
The answer is that we need to let the Bible itself show us the way. What we need to do is adopt the perspective of the Bible authors themselves (if we indeed believe that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit), and learn to read the Scriptures like they did. Then we will be reading the Bible as God meant it to be read; then the Bible will be communicating its message more clearly to us.
Now I realize that things are not always black-and-white. The fact is that some people manage to understand some parts of the Bible accurately while reading other parts superficially. Some parts of the Bible are “naturally” easy to understand correctly (although some people manage to misunderstand even the easy parts), and others are more difficult. Yet it is not a matter of percentages, as if the person who reads 51% of the Bible more accurately is the better Bible reader than the person who only gets 27% of it correctly. Furthermore, the Bible does not begin with a list of hermeneutical rules. Instead, God expects us to pick up the Bible and simply “listen.” He wants us to learn His view of things and see the story from His point of view. When we let the Bible simply tell its story on its own terms, then we are reading it correctly. When we bring our own self-seeking agendas to it, then we end up preventing the Bible from communicating to us, and the result is that we read it superficially.
We are talking here about first getting the right orientation, the right perspective. The orientation determines, in a large measure, the destination.
So what does the Bible tell us about this? Does the Bible reveal a particular perspective through which we are to understand the Biblical story? Is there a particular orientation which the Bible itself presents to us, for us to adopt as the way we look at things? I believe the answer to these questions is “yes,” and in the following installments on this topic I hope to help you see it.
Before we do that, however, a fundamental starting-point needs to be established. If we truly believe that the Bible is the word of God, then it would be best to begin reading the Bible with the understanding that it is God’s revelation of Himself to us. In other words, the Bible is primarily about God. That is to say, it is not primarily about us. Oh, we are involved to be sure, and God makes some wonderful offers and invitations to us in His word. But the Bible is not about satisfying our self-centered personal ambitions and worldly dreams. It is not some kind of code for getting rich or for dominating the world (like a political nation-state would). It is the revelation of God about Himself. It is the story, told by God Himself, of what God has done, is doing, and will do, a story that invites us to share the benefits of God’s wonderful activity.
God of Wonders
Habakkuk decries the evil running amuck among the Lord’s people and asks God to act. He could not have anticipated God’s reply, “Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days—you would not believe if you were told” (Habakkuk 1:5). God further reveals that the Babylonians would serve as God’s instrument to judge His wayward people. Habakkuk was not particularly excited about the news and it only raised more questions in his mind.
The last statement of verse 5 is worthy of much meditation as it summarizes the ways and activity of God. Our God is a God of Wonders! “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways” (Romans 11:33). While we may greatly struggle to fully process the depths of this statement about God, such lofty thoughts of Him should be often frequented in our minds.
Three important thoughts flow out of God’s words to Habakkuk: 1) God’s activity astonishes. 2) God’s activity is not thwarted by powerful men. 3) This same God is still active today.
The whole Bible story continually reveals the grandiose nature of God’s doings. Anticipating the role of a suffering Savior in man’s redemption, the inspired psalmist writes, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:22-24).
Extraordinary signs demonstrate God’s limitless ability. He makes an axe head float. Jesus walks on water. He feeds thousands with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread while the leftover fragments exceed the original amount of food. While astonishing, such acts are easily consistent with a God whose “understanding is infinite” and One who is “abundant in strength.” After all, “He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them” (Psalm 147:4, 5).
Particularly impressive to me is the day of which it is said, “And there was no day like that before it or after it, when the Lord listened to the voice of a man; for the Lord fought for Israel” (Joshua 10:14). Following the dramatic victory at Jericho and ultimate victory at Ai, the Amorite kings and a quite formidable army unite to attack Gibeon, who had made a life-saving alliance with Israel. God informs Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands, not one of them shall stand before you” (Joshua 10:8). Joshua and his army march all night and suddenly fall upon their foes. The Lord confounds the Amorites and pummels them with hailstones as they flee. Joshua needs more daylight to finish them off and pleads, “O, sun stand still at Gibeon, and O moon in the valley of Aijalon” (Joshua 10:12). Both the sun and moon stop, “And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” (Joshua 10:13).
Some claim, “Impossible!” We know what Joshua did not. It’s not the sun moving around the earth but the earth’s rotation that gives the appearance of the sun moving from the east to west. We are told by skeptics, if the sun stood still for “about a whole day,” the effects would be cataclysmic. But remember, this is the Creator we’re talking about. Nothing is too difficult for Him.
When God speaks to Habakkuk of His wonder He is about to perform, nothing miraculous is under consideration. Assyria, the present world power, is going to eventually relinquish world dominance to the Babylonians and God is going to use them to judge and teach His people in Judah as He had used the Assyrians — “the rod of My anger” — to punish Israel (Isaiah 10:5).
A careful reading of the last several chapters in Daniel causes one to marvel at the activity in the spiritual realm that is behind what is playing out in the kingdoms of men. Government leaders rarely see themselves for what they really are, nothing more than God’s pawns to accomplish His purposes (cf. Isaiah 40:12-25). Even the Babylonians did not see it, “…they whose strength is their god” (Habakkuk 1:11).
No elected official or government in this whole world is capable of overthrowing what God has done or is planning to do. Certain freedoms might be restricted that we might presently enjoy but God’s salvation will still be provided to those who seek it. His spiritual kingdom will continue on (cf. Daniel 2:44). History will culminate the way God intends and at the time He decides. Only due to God’s patience does the world still exist to this time (2 Peter 3:9, 15).
The appropriate reaction to the God of wonders is to fully submit to His purposes. Find your purpose in His great purposes. No greater purpose for our lives can be pursued. If you think about it, how do most people spend their days? They work, accumulate things, improve their circumstances, enjoy family, seek fun and then ultimately someone else ends up with all of their stuff and their position. Eventually, they become just a footnote in history and most are forgotten. How much do you know about your great great grandparents?
While our deeds in human history may not be remembered by future generations, involvement in God’s things contains far-reaching and eternal implications…the destiny of souls! Can anything in this world exceed being “a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21)? People get excited about a lot of different things that have a temporal purpose and a temporal reward. We stack those things back to back to back and they become the stuff of life. But those things must be secondary to our greater spiritual purpose and pursued in light of it or they become a snare to our souls. Ultimately, only one thing matters, “…rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 17:20). And God will not forget the things we have done to promote His cause in the world (Hebrews 6:10).
Christians find liberation from the anxieties that plague so many. God equips us to face and endure the crippling pain and troubles associated with life in this world. We trust in the God of wonders! We know “Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think…to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20, 21).
Peace With All Men
“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18).
Paul implies peace may not always be possible, but it is an object of desire. “As much as lieth in you,” that is, do your best to preserve peace. Don’t begin or originate a quarrel. Don’t stir up trouble over things of no vital importance. So far as we are concerned, we are to seek peace, but it doesn’t always depend on us. We may be attacked one day by snarling, biting dogs. We may be called upon to defend truth. Ours is to live peaceably. We start no strife, or contention.
It was not possible for Paul to live peaceable with all men. He will reference many times how he was among those who sought to do him harm (2Cor. 11:24-26). Paul referred to the wild beast in Ephesus. He said that “Alexander did me much harm” (2 Tim 4:14). Even our Lord did not find it possible to live peaceably with all men. He overthrew the table of the money changers on two separate occasions. He warned His own disciples, “If the world hates me they will hate you” (John 15:18). The Jews were determined to kill Him. Caiaphas said, “This man has got to die for the nation” (John 11:51-52). However, Jesus nor Paul went about looking to start a fight or stir up trouble. When they faced the difficulty of living peaceably with others they made sure it was others who stirred the strife.
We ought to be a peace loving people. In fact, we are commanded to “seek peace” (1Pet. 3:11). Peace is something we must pursue (2Tim. 2:22). Peace is to be a present characteristic of our life. We also need to pursue peace so that our lives may be tranquil and live at peace before God in the same way we live righteously before God. Peace is as foundational as faith, love and righteousness. It is not optional! Yet, at times we find ourselves embroiled with others who just will not live peaceably and so we are left to contend for what is right or what is truth. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peace makers…” (Mt 5). That is an interesting concept. He did not say, Blessed are those who enjoy peace, nor, those that want peace, or even, maintain peace. But, instead, make peace. Making peace means there is a situation where peace does not exist. The Lord had in mind, first and foremost, peace with God.
So here is the real question. How do we do live peaceably? Well, first we will not be able to live in peace with others until we live in peace with God (Romans 5:1). If we find ourselves enemies of the Creator we are not at peace. Peace is found in salvation. Salvation is found in the Savior. The Savior brings peace. Enemies are reconciled to Him by His blood (Eph. 2: 13-14). There is no peace with God apart from Jesus. He is the Prince of Peace.
So for us, peace can be attained in this manner: “to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility” (Tit. 3:2). See the family of words? They all form a unit. Get the point! We live peaceable with all men when we do not speak evil, when we are gentle and show all humility. Notice right before peaceable is to speaking evil of no one. How many times is peace interrupted because someone has a poorly thought out word? It only takes one word to do it. Then notice what follows. What would be the impact on peace if we put gentle into the equation? Not a harsh word or action. What if everybody were gentle? Would that contribute a lot to peace? Would that make it possible to live peaceably with all men? Then see, “showing all humility.” Man is at the apex of all God created. Man is made in God’s own image. To depreciate man is to depreciate God. Humility is a chosen place in which one chooses to take second place to others. We let someone go before us. We give our self second place. We do that not because the other is better than us but because we think they deserve to be first. We show humility because that makes us like God (Matthew 5:45). Did the Lord ask the impossible of us?
Sadly, in spite of all this it is still not possible to live peaceable with all men. But, when it is not possible I need to make sure I am not the reason why. Sometimes we may have to fight a war to have peace. However, I need to make sure I am not just wanting to make war. We have confused those who contend for the faith and those who are contentious. Contentious people like to fight. They do not care what the fight is about. Fighting for the faith is just a convenient excuse to fight. Some just like to stir the pot. They destroy unity, set everyone on edge, and make people suspicious of others. Controversy for the sake of controversy is not seeking peace. Ephesians 4:1-3 sets the tone and attitudes necessary for brethren to get along. Patience, forebearing, humility are the necessary ingredients. True enough we may have to be at war. The call to peace is a not a figure. It is a factual matter. We have been called to be peaceable people. The angels declared at the birth of Jesus that He would bring “Peace on Earth.” The prophets called Him the “Prince of Peace.” The people of Jesus follow that model. That does not mean peace over right or heresy. It means we have been called in a high priority matter to be peaceable, as much as we can, in all circumstances, and with all people. That is built into the peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7). It only takes one to disturb the peace. I can only control me and what I am pursuing. I need to make sure I am pursuing peace. I need to make sure I am fighting only when the fight is necessary. Can we carry grudges? Can we be a grouch to those around us? Can we be obstinate and obnoxious so that we do not get along with anybody? Yes. And, we cannot say, “Well, that is just the way I am.” There are consequences if we behave that way. “Pursue peace with all men,” not just brethren. That is our call.
Peace is not the absence of trouble. It is hard work. It deals with our spirit, our heart. It is attainable. The Lord expects it. We are to pursue it. Here is a novel idea, “Let’s give it a try and see how it works.” The fruit is better (Jas. 3:17). The church will be better. Our homes will be better. Society will be better. I will be better. The path to heaven is through Christ. He provides peace. Give His way a try.
The gospel of Mark describes for us a story about a man who was paralyzed. Jesus has just re-entered Capernaum and word has spread all over that He was in the house (Mk. 2:1). Immediately there was a gathering of people so that the house was full. As Jesus was preaching to the full house this paralyzed man was brought to Jesus by his four friends. The house being full they were unable to enter. So they went up on the roof top and began tearing off the roof so that they could let their helpless friend down to see Jesus. This story provides us with a wonderful analogy for today. We have a cross section of humanity. This reminds us of the practical nature of God’s word.
First of all there are the helpless. A paralytic was one who had lost all power of motion. Not only was he helpless, but he was an object of pity as well. He was completely dependent on his friends to move him from place to place. More than that, he was a sinner. Sin paralyzes men today and blinds us to our true need of Christ (Jn. 5:40). Sin is a disease that paralyzes noble effort. Sin is progressive, one evil after another (Jas. 1:14-15). While paralysis makes one dependent on others for help, recognition of sin makes us dependent on Christ for remission of sins.
Many people are helpless, but there is only one Healer (Mt. 8:9-13). Jesus, the Great Physician, was sympathetic with this man. He did not turn him away. In fact, He never turned away anyone who came to Him for help. Even so today He pleads, “Come unto me…” (Mt. 11:28-30). Jesus understands the nature of sickness (Heb. 4:15). He has authority from heaven; He has the life-saving remedy – the Gospel (Rom. 1:16). But in order for a person to come to the Great Physician he must first see himself as being sick.
That brings us to another important group: the helpers. The helpers were the four friends of the paralyzed man. They went to a lot of trouble and inconvenience to get their friend to Christ (Mk. 2:4). They realized they could not heal their friend themselves but they could bring him to the Healer who could. Today, we cannot save sinners but it is in our power to bring them to the Savior who can. Notice the characteristics of these helpers. They had faith in the Healer: “When Jesus saw their faith…” (Mk. 2:5). These helpers loved the sick man. They also had a spirit of cooperation and determination: “And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd they uncovered the roof where He was” (Mk. 2:4). They removed the roof; overcame obstacles. They were not turned away from their primary objective of bringing their friend to Christ. These four worked together. We also need to cooperate and work with one another (1 Cor. 3:6, 9). Love motivates our working together (Gal. 5:6). Notice, by bringing their paralyzed friend to Jesus these four were also in His presence. There can be no greater cooperation than working together to bring a sin sick soul to Christ. No person is nearer the Lord than the soul winner. In fact, to become like Christ we must be trying to save souls (Lk. 19:10).
The final group in the story are the hinderers. These were divided into two groups. First, there were the unintentional hinderers. They didn’t realize they were blocking the way. They simply stood in the door-way meaning no harm, but they hindered a good work. They represent a self-seeking, self-serving group who are unmindful of the needs of the lost or those in need. The second group were the intentional hinderers. These were the cold carping critics sitting in the seat of the scornful looking for flaws in others. They were malicious individuals with no constructive purpose but to hinder. If we are not careful, we can become like them. We can so easily become critical of work being done but never ready to work ourselves. We may find the easier way to be the way of less activity. But notice, neither one of these groups is desirable. Both hindered the Lord from His work and the men who were trying to bring their friend to the Lord.
Which one of these are you? We cannot be the Healer. But, if we are helpless, we must seek the Healer. Maybe we need a few friends, helpers, to bring us to Him. If we are the hinderers, we should stop it right now! Be sure not to allow yourself or one saved individual to hinder any who are helpless from being helped to Christ.
In about 840 B.C. Jehu violently ended the rule of wicked Ahab’s family and instituted political and religious reform in the Northern Kingdom. Taking part in that reformation was a man named Jehonadab, the son of Rechab, a Kenite (2 Kings 10:15-17, 23). Sadly, Jehu’s reforms were incomplete; he rid Israel of Baal worship, but he failed to fully separate Israel from their idolatry. 2 Kings makes no other mention of Jehonadab, but Jeremiah 35 introduces us to his family, the Rechabites, around two hundred and forty years after Jehu’s reforms.
Jehonadab (or, Jonadab, as he is called in Jer. 35) had commanded his family to distinguish themselves from the Israelites in whose land they lived. He commanded the Rechabites to live in tents, to not farm the land, and to abstain from wine. The family had obeyed their patriarch for over two hundred years.
In about 600 B.C., God told Jeremiah to bring the Rechabites into the temple chambers and serve them wine. Jeremiah obeyed, but the Rechabites refused to imbibe, saying, “We will drink no wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, saying, ‘You shall drink no wine, you nor your sons, forever’” (Jer. 35:1-6).
The point of all this is seen in Jer. 35:12-17. God asks Israel, “Will you not receive instruction to obey My words?” He declares to them, “But although I have spoken to you, rising early and speaking, you did not obey Me.” He adds that His many prophets had warned them to turn from their evil ways and quit their idolatry, but Israel had refused to hear and obey. He states in contrast, “Surely the sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab have performed the commandment of their father, which he commanded them.” The children of Jonadab served as an example of the kind of loyalty and faithfulness God wanted, but was not getting, from His own children.
What can the Rechabites teach us, God’s children, today? Let me suggest three things:
1. They teach us that it is possible to be in the world without being of the world. The Rechabites were doing what many say cannot be done – they were living in the world without living like the world. That is what Jesus prayed for His apostles in John 17:14-16, and that is what John later reinforced as God’s will for us in 1 John 5:18-19.
How did the Rechabites pull it off? Through determination! They made up their minds to be faithful to their father’s charge. Paul wrote in Rom. 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Obedience begins in the mind. If we get our minds right – focused on what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God – our eyes, our ears, our feet, and our hands will follow along.
The moment our minds tell us that it is impossible to be moral in an immoral world, to dress modestly in an immodest world, to tell the truth in a lying world, or to be kind in an angry world, that is the moment we will begin to conform ourselves to a disobedient world. Can we be obedient to our Father in a disobedient world? If the Rechabites could, we can!
2. They teach us how to say “no.” In the Reagan years our society learned that our youth must be educated in how to “just say no” to drugs. The point of the “Just Say No” campaign was that it is not easy to say “no” when everyone else is saying “yes.”
So, how did the Rechabites “just say no” when Jeremiah said, “Yes”? Note that they made up their minds well beforehand that they would not defile themselves. They did not have to call an emergency meeting to decide what they would do. If we wait until the world’s temptation is upon us before we decide what we will do, we are likely to make the wrong decision.
They knew why, and told why, they were obligated to turn down Jeremiah’s request. If someone offered you a glass of wine today, would you know why you ought not to accept it?
And they appealed to what everyone knew to be righteous – the command of their father. I learned at an early age that when someone asked me to do something that I knew was forbidden and all arguments of logic failed, “My father said I couldn’t” was the ultimate answer. Who can argue with that? And when I became an adult, I learned that if I substituted the little “f” in father with a capital “F”, it is still the ultimate answer.
3.They teach us that time does not dull what is commanded, and need not dull our conviction and determination to obey. Two hundred and forty years? “Chronological snobbery” (C.S. Lewis) would have suggested that Jonadab had attained “old fogey” status well before then, and that more enlightened minds were now in play. But Rechabite determination to obey had not been dulled by time. “Thus we have obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, in all that he charged us” (Jer. 35:8).
Do we really think that New Testament truth has an expiration date? Do we really believe that two thousand years has given us some kind of increased sense of awareness, that we can see what Peter, Paul, James, John, and even Jesus missed? Has the world really become a more sophisticated place, so that ancient truths have no relevance in our lives?
John wrote of “the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 2). Sorry, but the Father’s commands to us do not spoil with age and neither should our determination to be true to those commands. “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God; on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you will be cut off” (Rom. 11:22; see also 1 Cor. 15:2 and Heb. 3:14).
Our influence is important. God has always expected the righteous to see themselves as examples to the world. That is why Jesus referred to us as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are the Lord’s Rechabites today. May He give us the strength and courage to remain true to the Father’s commands.