My granddaughter, Charlotte, got her first Easter basket a day early this morning. Among the jelly beans and chocolate bunnies was a new book. Just in time—because she loves to have others read to her and her current selection of books has become…well…BORING. I think I have the one about noses memorized by now.
If you’ve been around the Bible for any length of time, you may feel similarly about some of its more familiar stories. Oh, you wouldn’t dare call the Good Friday and Easter narratives boring—but you are so well acquainted with them that perhaps you’re no longer discovering fresh insights as you read them.
This week the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule parked us in John 18 and 19: the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Six days to cover just two chapters. Ample time to savor the details of Jesus’ passion. Did we? Did we read it slowly, reflectively, reverently? Did we bring new eyes to an old story?
This is why I find the COMA method of Bible study (Context–> Observations–> Message–>Application) so helpful. Especially the second step: Observations. There are four kinds of discoveries to be made in every Bible passage. I found several examples of these different kinds of insights in each day’s reading this past week—I hope that you did, too. I recall what four things to look for by rehearsing the acronym TRTS (“treats” from God’s Word). Here’s a sampling of what I saw in John 18 and 19.
Theme: Jesus is King! The most obvious theme of these two chapters in John’s gospel is the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. The section headings in my Bible reiterate that. But there are themes within this theme. One of these that I noted is the kingship of Jesus. I saw it in John 18 as Pilate interrogates Jesus. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus is asked (v. 33). Jesus replies by explaining, “My kingdom is not of this world” (p.36). “King” and “kingdom” pop up several more times in this passage.
Then, in John 19, the theme of Jesus as King resurfaces. Jesus’ antagonists accuse him of being a rival king to Caesar (v. 12). They claim that they, by way of contrast, are loyal to Rome’s emperor: Caesar is their king (v. 15). And then, as Jesus is crucified, a plaque is fastened to his cross that reads: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (v. 19).
This theme caused me to reflect on the kingship of Jesus in my own life. Do I honor him as kings deserve to be honored? Am I obedient to him as a loyal subject? Does my witness include a reference to his sovereign rule and an appeal for others to surrender to such?
Repeating words or ideas: Testify. There are numerous repeating words or ideas in John 18 and 19. I’ve just mentioned one of them: “king” or “kingdom”. Another obvious—and chilling—one is the reiterated cry, “Crucify!” But the one that I ruminated on is found in John 19:35: “The man who saw it (i.e. Jesus’ crucifixion) has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and testifies so that you may believe.”
You can probably guess where this took me by way of application. A very simple but bold way for me to testify to Jesus this week has been to invite friends to our Easter services.
Truths about God: Jesus’ was others-centered in the midst of his personal crisis. Having just read Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling book, Killing Jesus, I was particularly aware of the torturous nature of crucifixion as I read John’s account of Jesus’ death. So it was unbelievable to me that Jesus would be so intentional and compassionate on the cross as to make sure that his mother would be well-cared for. (See John 19:26, 27).
The implications for my own life are readily apparent. My bent toward self-absorption is embarrassing by way of contrast.
Something striking: What kind of king do I want? Returning to the theme of Jesus as King, I was particularly struck by the sort of king that the crowd wanted instead of God’s Son. When Pilate asked them, “Do you want me to release the king of the Jews?” they shouted back that they preferred Barabbas—a murdering insurrectionist (John 18:39, 40). And when Pilate later appealed to their sense of reason by probing incredulously, “Shall I crucify your king?” they screamed even louder, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15).
What sorts of “kings” do I frequently allow (even welcome) to rule my life in place of King Jesus? Do I really prefer the abuse of a Barabbas or a Caesar over King Jesus’ kindly reign?
Scripture Union is providing us with several days’ worth of reading on the resurrection this coming week. Such a familiar story. May we bring new eyes to it as we look for: theme; repeating words or ideas; truths about God; something striking (TRTS).
My apologies if you’ve heard me tell this story before—but it’s one with which I think you’ll resonate. Several years ago I was looking for a used pool table and came across a good deal in the newspaper. (I’m not a Craigslist shopper.) The seller was extremely amicable and volunteered to deliver the pool table in his pickup truck and help me set it up in my basement.
While we were assembling and chatting, my new friend discovered that I’m a pastor and I learned that he’s a Christ follower. So, as he was attaching a leg to the underside of the pool table he called out: “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” I immediately suspected that I was about to be pitched one of those theological curve balls that no Bible scholar has ever been able to hit. But I was surprised that his inquiry was much more basic.
“I lead a men’s small group,” he told me, “and we always close our gatherings in prayer. Most often we pray for each other’s needs. But the other day I suggested that we take a few minutes to praise God for who he is. And you know what happened?” I responded that I had no idea. “Nothing!” he continued. “The room got quiet and nobody had anything to say. Why do you suppose that we had such a hard time praising God?”
I run into this problem all the time with Christ followers. Even those who are growing in their ability to pray find it difficult to praise God. Other types of prayer—confession, thanksgiving, petition—come naturally to them. But what does a person say to God when it’s time to simply adore him? Are you tongue-tied when you try to lift your voice in praise?
Let me suggest that one of the best applications to take away from your daily Bible reading is to praise God along the lines of what you discover about him in that day’s text. Truths about God is one of four kinds of observations that I encourage you to look for in every passage. What do you do with these truths once you’ve spotted them? Turn them into praise prayers!
This simple and straightforward application of your reading is worth employing at least once or twice a week. Just bow your head and rehearse to God what his Word has revealed about him to you. This is exactly what I did after reading Isaiah 45 this past week.
Did you notice the various ways in which God is extolled as the Creator in this chapter? (Repeating words or ideas is a second kind of observation to look for.) “I form the light and create darkness” (v.7). “You heavens above, rain down my righteousness… Let the earth open wide… I, the LORD, have created it” (v.8). “It is I who made the earth and created mankind on it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts” (v.12). God also refers to himself as the “Maker” and the “Potter” in this passage (v.9), and uses words like “fashioned” and “formed” to describe his activities (v.18).
God is an awesome Creator. My application from Isaiah 45 was to stop, drop and praise him for such. What did I actually say to him? “God, you’re an awesome Creator” only takes about three seconds to declare. Then what? This is when I begin to stretch my imagination muscle. I express to God everything that pops into my mind that could be associated with his work of creation. I praise him for the Rocky Mountains, as well as for the microscopic organisms in the depth of the ocean that I’ll never see. I praise him for the wisdom it takes to make and sustain the universe. I praise him for what his creativity teaches me about his ability to craft a solution to any problem I might have. On and on I go.
And when I run out of my own ideas with which to praise God as Creator, I begin to recite the words of hymns that I’ve memorized along these lines: How Great Thou Art; I Sing the Mighty Power of God; Great Is Thy Faithfulness (the second verse); Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; This Is My Father’s World; Fairest Lord Jesus. You get the idea. These are all creation hymns.
Here’s a bonus suggestion. Our church uses mostly contemporary worship songs—and we’re careful to choose the best of these. But I’ve discovered that many of the old hymns (that aren’t so sing-able today) contain rich lyrics about God. So I’ve typed up the words of these classics and put them in a cheapo, plastic, 4 X 6” photo album. I frequently use them as prayers of praise during my devotions—as well as carry them with me when I’m walking through the woods and hanging out with God.
I would be remiss to close today’s blog without recognizing that this is Holy Week. Scripture Union has moved our reading to the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection. Give yourself plenty of time to savor these passages—and turn them, too, into prayers of praise for the truths they reveal about our Savior and King.
I’m a big fan of classical music. Once or twice a month I take the train into the city on my day off and enjoy a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Just this week I heard a super-talented, young violinist play Dvorak’s violin concerto—he crushed it, and the audience brought him back onto the stage four times with their applause.
But as much as I relish the symphony, I sometimes find myself a bit uncomfortable when surrounded by a crowd that ADORES the symphony. The CSO concert program proudly proclaims that our orchestra is “epic.” Really? I’m willing to concede that my city’s orchestra is one of the top-rated in the world. But does that make it “epic”? Not in my book.
Classical music is a good thing. But I don’t want it to become a God thing in my life. I don’t want it to become an idol—and so I take deliberate steps to keep that from happening. I am quite content, for example, to pay a fraction of what it costs me to see the Cubs at Wrigley for a CSO cheap-seat in the gallery (i.e. nose-bleed heaven). Whatever gets my money, I’ve noticed, tends to assert itself as an idol.
Were you struck by all the warnings against idolatry in this week’s Scripture Union Bible reading (Isaiah 43-45)? The most poignant passage was Isaiah 44:6-23, which is plainly titled The Lord, Not Idols in my Study Bible.
Timothy Keller, pastor and best-selling author, writes that good things (e.g. classical music) become idols in our lives when we allow them to become necessary, central or supreme things. Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods, is disturbingly convicting.
If we want to get the most out of Isaiah’s warning against idols, we’ll need to identify the potential rival gods in our own lives. It’s so easy to skim through a passage like Isaiah 44 without allowing it to speak to us. We read about an idol-maker who cuts down a tree and burns half of it as firewood and carves the other half into a god that he worships. How obviously foolish! How unlike anything we would ever do, right?
Not so fast. I am told that the Bible contains more warnings against idolatry than against any other sin. God is certainly wasting his admonitions on us if idolatry is actually rare in our contemporary culture. But before we write off every one of these warnings because we’ve never been tempted to literally bow down to statues of wood or stone, we would do well to consider Keller’s definition of idols. What good things in our lives have become necessary, central or supreme things (sports, job, travel, gardening, kids’ activities, Facebooking, etc.)? Maybe idolatry is more common among us than we have realized.
Keller goes on to say that the reason we make good things into idols is because they promise us satisfaction, significance or security. But when push comes to shove, they don’t deliver. Only God can—which is why it is foolish to divert so much of our time, money and affection away from God to idols.
Let me encourage you to give a second read to Isaiah 44—but only after you’ve identified the God-rivals in your life. This passage will become incredibly relevant to you once you have acknowledged your idols.
BTW: Back in October of 2011 we did a sermon series at Christ Community Church called, American Idols. The first message in that series, A God by Any Other Name, is worth a listen and can be downloaded from resources at ccclife.org.
My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s. When we visit her in the nursing home, she no longer greets us by name or is able to hold a conversation with us. She has forgotten everything. Well, almost everything. We usually sing a few hymns with her and she hums along, occasionally blurting out an entire line of a song that she memorized years ago.
I am concerned that many Christ followers today are not developing a spiritual memory. When it comes to our worship music, we tend to cast aside the old hymns in favor of the latest praise songs written by Chris Tomlin or Jared Anderson. I’ve nothing against new songs—in fact, the psalmist encourages us to include these in our worship. But the new songs have a way of becoming passé within a few years—at which time we replace them with newer songs. And so we’ve already forgotten the lyrics to a chorus like Indescribable, which we were singing from our heels less than a decade ago.
I’m not trying to make a case for hymns here—although I’m a huge fan of historic worship songs. I’m making a case for developing a spiritual memory. Yeah, I’m advocating that you learn Holy, Holy, Holy and Great Is Thy Faithfulness by heart. But more importantly, I’m encouraging you to tuck away God’s Word in your heart. When was the last time you memorized a Bible passage? Ever?
In the fourth and final chapter of my book, Foundation, I provide you with some great reasons for memorizing portions of the Bible and a few practical tips for getting started.
How important is this spiritual discipline? Consider the many colorful expressions the Bible uses to describe this habit. Moses tells us to bind God’s Word on our foreheads (Deuteronomy 6:8). The psalmist encourages us to hide God’s Word in our hearts (Psalm 119:11). The prophet Ezekiel says that he ate God’s Word and it was sweet to his taste (Ezekiel 3:3). Jesus asks us to allow his words to remain in us, like branches remain in a vine (John 15:7). The apostle Paul writes: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you”—that is, let it set up residency in your life (Colossians 3:16).
What does all of this have to do with the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule, which this blog usually follows and comments on? Well, this past week’s reading was in the book of Isaiah and we covered a number of passages that would be highly suitable for memorizing. Some of these wonderful texts are just a verse or two long. (For example, check out the “Do not fear” references in Isaiah 41:10, or 41:13, 14 or 43:1-3. Great Scriptures to know by heart!)
One of my favorite passages in Isaiah, however, is the entire 40th chapter. If these 31 verses seemed familiar to you as you read them, it could be because Handel used many of them in his famous musical composition, Messiah. Several years ago Sue and I decided to memorize this chapter during the month of December—31 verses in 31 days. I can’t begin to tell you how that enriched our experience of Christmas. In fact, we now review Isaiah 40 every December. (I actually have to re-memorize it each year, since I lose bits and pieces of it between January and November.)
Let me encourage you to develop a spiritual memory. Always have some Bible verses nearby that you’re working on. Write them out on a 3X5 card or put them on your phone and carry them with you. Your favorite psalm would be a good place to start—but wherever, just start.
Sue and I saw the movie, Son of God, last night with a few friends. Ordinarily, I’m not a big fan of Jesus movies. The dialogue is often cheesy and the lead actor never looks like the picture of Jesus I have in my mind. I could fault Son of God on both of these scores. But on the other hand, my friends and I all left the theatre with tears in our eyes having watched this dramatization of Christ’s great sacrifice for us. The power is in the story—not how well it’s portrayed.
Another reason why we were so moved, no doubt, has to do with the season. We are just two weeks away from Good Friday and Easter. Unfortunately, churches that don’t follow the liturgical calendar (e.g. Christ Community Church) frequently do a poor job of preparing their attenders for red letter dates such as Holy Week. And so the big event arrives out of the blue. It catches us by surprise. We suddenly realize on a Wednesday: “Oh, it’s Easter this weekend! Should we eat out or host the family at our house?”
Going to Son of God helped my friends and me avoid this trap and get oriented for the upcoming Holy Week. If you would like to do the same, allow me to make a few additional suggestions besides taking in this movie.
First, check out Christ Community Church’s The Lent Experience. Even though it launched a couple of weeks ago, it’s not too late to tap into the many resources it provides for those who want to spiritually ramp up to Good Friday and Easter. (I guess this means that CCC does occasionally give special attention to the liturgical calendar.)
Second, read Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing Jesus. Bill is a Fox News commentator, whose books, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy have been best-sellers. Killing Jesus is written from a strictly historical point of view—in other words, it’s not intended to promote Christianity. But it will give you a comprehensive picture of the historical context surrounding Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection. I’m two-thirds of the way through it and my anticipation of Holy Week is growing. (BTW: There are other devotional and theological books that would prepare you for Jesus’ death and resurrection recommended at The Lent Experience.)
Third, don’t miss a single day of the Scripture Union Bible reading schedule. It is taking us through those chapters in Isaiah that focus on God’s promise to send the world a Savior. The Savior is referred to as God’s servant in these chapters. (Note: Isaiah sometimes uses this title to refer to the nation of Israel, as well. You will probably be able to distinguish when this is the case, because God’s people fail in this role. So, if it seems that God’s servant is dropping the ball, you’ll know that the passage is making reference to Israel.)
In yesterday’s reading, I was especially struck by the gentleness of God’s coming servant. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3). Since truths about God is one of four kinds of observations that I make whenever reading the Bible, this truth about Jesus captured my attention. And it came back to my mind as I watched the portrayal of Jesus in Son of God last night.
I am so glad that Jesus deals gently with me. Sometimes I feel like a candle whose barely-burning wick could be easily extinguished by the slightest additional breeze of adversity. It’s good to know that Jesus cups his hands around my flame on those occasions and protects me from a gust that would snuff me out.
And as my leader and role model, Jesus’ example reminds me to deal gently with others. Do I see any “smoldering wicks” or “bruised reeds” about ready to break (Isaiah 42:3)? How might I strengthen them today?
Don’t let Good Friday and Easter catch you by surprise this year. As you read Isaiah this week, look especially for insights about Jesus. And don’t forget to make good use of the footnotes in your Study Bible. The better you understand the historical context of these passages, the better you’ll see their relevance to your life.
Taking a break from blogging, not from daily Bible reading. Our schedule bounces us from Acts to Isaiah at the beginning of next week. Look for my blog on Isaiah next Saturday. Have a great week!
I took my car in for transmission work today. I’ve been meaning to do that for a couple of months. Every time the transmission slips between second and third gears I tell myself that I better get it repaired before it breaks down completely and leaves me stranded somewhere. But you know how these things go—they’re important but not urgent, so we put them off and put them off.
What finally motivated me to take the car in this morning? I simply put it on the calendar. That’s it. I opened my Day Timer (yeah, I’m a dinosaur who doesn’t keep his schedule on a smartphone) and wrote on March 24, 20014: “Take car to tranz shop.” I’m living proof that the old cliché holds true: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. As long as I didn’t have a plan for fixing my car’s transmission (i.e. no date on the calendar), the job wasn’t getting done. But the minute I assigned a time and place to the task—presto—mission accomplished.
This approach seems to work in the spiritual realm as well. Take prayer, for example. The strongest pray-ers I know plan for it to happen in their lives. I saw this in today’s Bible reading (Scripture Union’s schedule). Dr. Luke, the author of Acts, begins a description of a day in the life of the apostle Paul and himself with these words: “Once when we were going to the place of prayer…” (Acts 16:16). I recalled that Luke had written something similar in the first half of this chapter, which I read yesterday. When he and Paul first arrived in Philippi, “we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer” (Acts 16:13).
These guys obviously carved out time in each day to pray—and they looked for a place where people might go to do that. This is not only a repeated idea in Acts 16 it’s also a theme of the entire book (i.e. Christ followers make prayer happen). Repeated ideas and themes are two kinds of observations I’ve trained myself to look for whenever I read the Bible. That’s why I noted the importance of planned prayer in Acts.
Do you have a daily time and place for praying? Most of us will burst out with a quick prayer when a crisis hits our lives or the lives of people we know. But what about the non-crisis stuff for which we ought to be interceding (e.g. a neighbor who needs Christ; our church’s mission partner in Sierra Leone; a friend’s marriage; our children’s character development)? And what about prayers of confession, praise, thanksgiving? The sort of extended praying that I’m describing here typically doesn’t happen unless we put it on our schedule.
If you’ve not yet read (or studied with your small group) my book, Prayer Coach, I would highly recommend it to you. You can order it online through Christ Community Church or pick it up at one of our campus’s re.source shops. It was written, as the subtitle suggests, for those who want to get off the bench and onto the praying field. One of the early chapters covers the importance of having a plan in order to become a stronger pray-er.
None of my emphasis on planned praying is meant to minimize the critical role that spontaneous praying also plays in our lives. Interestingly, we see that too illustrated in today’s Bible reading. After Paul and Silas are thrown into prison for preaching the gospel, we find them “praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25). Amazing—especially given the fact that they had just been “stripped…beaten with rods…severely flogged” and a jailer had “fastened their feet in the stocks” (Acts 16:22-24).
The spontaneous praying of these two guys led to both an earthquake and the conversion of the jailer’s entire family! May I learn to turn every situation and conversation into an opportunity to pray.
Because our ministry season at Christ Community Church tracks with the school year, this is the time of year when our leadership team starts goal-setting for the next season that will begin in September. Leading a multi-campus church with a budget in the millions of dollars requires that we plan far ahead.
These strategic meetings are times of lively debate. As each department of the church (e.g. creative arts, children, administration, outreach, etc.) lays out its proposed goals, the other leaders in the room ask tough questions and give critical feedback. As you can imagine, this sort of environment sometimes fosters heated arguments. We are usually able to disagree agreeably. But not always.
I took great comfort in reading this past week that even the apostle Paul and his buddy Barnabas couldn’t always hammer out their differences. The closing paragraph of Acts 15 (Scripture Union’s daily Bible reading schedule kept us in this chapter for most of the week) describes a sharp contention between these two friends and ministry partners. Did that surprise you?
I found it to be something striking in the text—which is one of four kinds of observations that I make whenever I’m reading the Bible. (The other three are: theme; repeating words or ideas; truths about God.) What struck me the most about this relational conflict was that it didn’t get resolved! There was no final determination as to who was right and who was wrong. Paul and Barnabas merely parted company and went their separate ways. Is that sort of non-resolution OK?
Let me back up for a moment and ask you a different question. Who do you think was right in this situation? Here’s a recap of the contention. P & B were about to take off on a second missionary journey. B wanted to take John Mark with them, but P objected that JM had bailed on them in the middle of their first missionary trip. Back and forth the argument went: take JM or leave him behind?
If you’re wired to be highly relational, you probably concluded while reading this story that B was right in wanting to give JM a second chance. And P was being a task-oriented jerk. But if you put a high value on accomplishing the mission, you probably agreed with P that JM’s previous abandonment of the cause disqualified him for the next trip.
So, who was right and who was wrong? Here’s what I found so surprising: the Bible doesn’t say! Dr. Luke (the author of Acts) just tells us that: “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord” (Acts 15:39, 40).
If Paul was being hard-headed and uncharitable in his behavior toward JM, I don’t think he would have received such a positive send-off from the church. So his decision to take a pass on JM must have been cool with everybody. On the other hand, Barnabas’ willingness to take JM under wing was hugely redemptive. We know, from other passages in the New Testament, that JM eventually came around—thanks to B’s mentoring—and later proved to be a valuable ministry partner even to the apostle Paul! (See II Timothy 4:11.)
What’s my point in rehashing this incident? What did God teach me from this contentious disagreement that never got resolved? Maybe I need to chill more in settings where important issues are being hotly debated. Maybe I need to let go of my bent to determine who’s right and who’s wrong. Maybe it’s OK (i.e. not a relational crisis) when everybody doesn’t end up on the same page. Just a thought…
The story of Dr. Agassiz and the fish is no doubt one you’ve heard before. But it makes such an important point about the power of observation that I’ll briefly recap it here. Agassiz was a biology professor who taught at Harvard in the 1800s. He would regularly begin a new semester by placing a dead fish in front of his students and asking them to make as many observations about it as possible. Then he would leave the classroom…for the rest of the period.
The next day Dr. Agassiz would do the same thing, with the same dead fish and the same group of students. In fact, he would repeat this exercise each class period for an entire week. Most students felt that they had seen all there was to see after the first five minutes of looking at the fish. But with nothing else to do but continue to observe it, they were surprised to discover more and more about it.
The goal of this blog—as the tagline reads—is to help you move from text to life. I encourage you to follow Scripture Union’s daily Bible reading schedule, to make as many observations from each passage as possible, and to craft an application from one of those observations that you could put into practice in your life. (This overall four-step Bible study method is called COMA and stands for: Context–> Observations–> Message–> Application. You’ll find it spelled out in my book, Walk.)
Perhaps the most important step in COMA is observations. If you don’t train yourself to see certain things in the text, you’ll never get something for your life from reading the Bible. That’s why I’m constantly illustrating this step of the COMA approach. And why I’m about to do so again.
This past week the SU schedule dropped us back into the New Testament book of Acts and we read chapters 13 and 14. What observations did you make? Let me roll out several of my own to remind you of the four kinds of observations always to be looking for. The acronym TRTS (“treats” from God’s Word) will help you to remember these four categories.
I’ll give you an example of each TRTS category from our reading in Acts. Although I won’t take the time to craft every observation into a message/application, I think you’ll catch a hint of how I might have put my observations into practice.
Theme: The headings in our Bibles, which are usually helpful in discovering the theme of each passage, were not as useful in Acts 13, 14. They merely told us the names of the cities that Paul visited on his first missionary journey. But I did notice a prevalent theme popping up as Paul moved from Cyprus to Pisidian Antioch to Iconium to Lystra and Derbe. And I’ll bet you noticed it too. Paul boldly presented the gospel—and some people embraced it, while others rejected it. That’s it in a nutshell.
Oh, I might add that those who rejected the gospel also rejected Paul—and occasionally expressed that rejection quite violently. How shallow of me to think that everyone with whom I share Christ will welcome my message (and to grow timid when they don’t). Oops! I was supposed to stick to observations—but I slipped in an application.
Repeating words or ideas: Did you pick up on how many times Paul referred to his mission as being focused on “the word of God” in the second half of Acts 13? I saw it in verses: 44, 46, 48 and 49. Is that what people hear from me when the conversation drifts to spiritual matters? Do I leak God’s Word? (Dang! I can’t keep those applications to myself.)
Truths about God: You can find these in any of the passages we read this past week. But check out the big clump of God-attributes in Acts 14:15-17.
Something striking: When Paul returned home from his first missionary journey, Luke (the author of Acts) records that they arrived back at the place “where they had been committed to the grace of God” (14:26). I was struck by the fact that their mission had been launched by—and was all about—God’s grace. It prompted me to ask myself (spoiler alert—incoming application): Are my conversations filled with grace? Do I treat people with grace? Is my pace of life reflective of grace? Etc.
Ask your personal Tutor, the Holy Spirit, to open your eyes to observations as you read God’s Word this week.
I got a good deal on a world map about twenty years ago. The Soviet Union had recently broken up, which resulted in the establishing of new borders for many freshly independent countries. As up-to-date maps were being drawn up, the old ones were being sold at a discount. I went to a school supply store and picked up a giant pull-down world map that would’ve been used in a classroom. After having it dry-mounted, I hung it on the wall in the entrance hallway of my home.
What a conversation piece! We often have large dinner parties in our house and people love to congregate around that map. They talk about places they’ve been or would like to visit. If my guests are not Christ followers, they’ll often point to major European capitals where they’ve stayed on vacation in five-star hotels.
My own experience has been considerably different, since most of my international traveling has been associated with mission trips. I point to Brazil, where I floated down the Amazon on a medical boat; or to India, where I visited the slums of a large city; or to Africa, where I met with Christian leaders in remote villages. Maps are intriguing.
If you’ve been following the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule, you’ve been traveling with the apostle Paul this past week on his first missionary journey. You’ve been to Cyprus, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (Acts 13, 14). Do you know where these places are? You can locate them on a map in the back of your Bible.
My guess is that most Bible readers rarely look at the map pages—unless the weekend preacher is a bit boring and they’re looking for a diversion. But I would encourage you to check out these maps. You’ll probably find one that: parallels the time of the patriarchs; traces the path of the Exodus from Egypt; shows the division of the Promised Land among the twelve tribes of Israel; highlights events from the life of Jesus. And the final map will outline Paul’s missionary journeys—all three of them.
Why is it important to trace Paul’s travels on a map as you read the book of Acts? Several reasons come to mind. First, the Christian faith—unlike most other world religions—is rooted in objective, historical events that took place in specific locations. (I would encourage you to read the first chapter of my book, Context, for a fuller explanation of why these facts matter.)
Second, it’s helpful to occasionally remind ourselves that Christianity is not just a western religion. It didn’t originate in Europe, after which it was exported to the United States. No, it was birthed in the Middle East and quickly took root in northern Africa. The incidents that we read about this past week in Acts took place in what is modern-day Turkey. Understanding this keeps us from adopting a strictly American version of the faith. And it gives us boldness in international missions to realize that we’re not imposing our religion on other cultures.
Third, by tracing the spread of the gospel on a world map we are struck by the importance of the Great Commission. Jesus gave his followers the mandate to: “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Someone has said that these words in Acts 1:8 serve as the table of contents for the rest of the book. As you watch the good news of Christ travel from city to city while following Paul’s journeys on your Bible map, take to heart that this is exactly what King Jesus wants you to do with the gospel. Maybe not from city to city—but from friend to friend.
Where will you go next with the message of salvation?