I’m taking a break from my Bible Savvy blog. But I’ll be back in the fall—with lots of exciting improvements!
When Moody Publishers came out with my four-volume Bible Savvy series 12 months ago, they encouraged me to reinforce what I teach in these books by blogging for a year. I was eager to do so because I love to launch people into reading the Bible and applying it to their lives.
Now that my year of blogging is up I’ve been wrestling with the worthwhileness of continuing this pursuit. To quote a favorite expression of one of my ministry partners: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” The squeeze in this case, quite frankly, is a lot of work. But I am more than willing to keep squeezing if there is obvious juice for my efforts.
Two compelling factors have convinced me to continue Bible Savvy. The first is the result of a survey that was conducted among 1,000 churches by former Willow Creek executive pastor, Greg Hawkins. In his book, Move, Greg reveals that the #1 contributor to the spiritual growth of Christ followers is reading and reflecting on God’s Word. This activity is more important than attendance at church worship services, serving in some area of ministry, participating in a small group, etc.
So the major aim of Bible Savvy just happens to be the #1 spiritual growth booster for Christ followers! That’s encouraging information. And I believe that Bible Savvy is unique in this regard. My blog is not intended to provide you with another devotional guide—there are already plenty of those out there. They will give you a fish for the day. But my goal is to teach you how to fish—how to get your own insights and applications from the Bible as you read it on a daily basis.
The second compelling factor that has convinced me to continue Bible Savvy is the brainstorming results of a think tank of experts that I pulled together to consider how to improve the blog’s effectiveness. This group included a discipleship pastor, a web designer and a communications expert. We wrestled with: how might Bible Savvy do a better job of providing the most help to the most people?
I am really pumped about the plans that resulted from this discussion. Here are some of the improvements that are in the works:
1) A redesigned Becoming Bible Savvy website. My current blog was set up by Moody Publishers—and so it’s actually designed to promote my books, with the blog being a tag-on. But that is going to change. Becoming Bible Savvy will become its own website and will focus on helping people read, interpret and apply the Bible. Rather than having a blog feel to it (which is not appealing to the great majority of people who don’t read blogs), it will have the feel of a very resourceful website.
2) Guest contributors. I will continue writing once a week as a Bible coach. These postings will be very similar to what you’ve been reading in Bible Savvy for the past year. I’ll still be promoting the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule. I’ll still be coaching you through the COMA Bible study method. I’ll still be helping you make observations from the text that you can put into practice in your everyday life.
But the second posting each week will come from a guest contributor. These guests will illustrate and reinforce the COMA Bible study method with their own insights from the Scripture Union readings. Some of these guests (I hope) will be Christian leaders whose names you’ll recognize. Others will be “regular Joe” Christ Followers just like you.
3) Instructional videos. Every time we begin a new book of the Bible on the Scripture Union schedule, I encourage you to read the Introduction to that book in a good Study Bible. But what if you could get the historical background to that book from a Bible scholar (i.e. with a PhD in Old or New Testament) in a 3-5 minute video? That’s what Becoming Bible Savvy will be providing.
4) Small Group discussion guide. As helpful as the COMA Bible study approach is, I know that it doesn’t give small groups enough direction for their weekly gatherings. So many individuals follow the Scripture Union schedule, but few groups use it as their curriculum. We hope to do something about that. With the help of the Adult Ministries Team of Christ Community Church, we plan to write a study guide that will provide group discussion questions for one or two of the week’s Bible passages. Imagine your personal Bible reading and small group study reinforcing each other!
5) Pics, links, topical index and more. I’ve confessed to you that I don’t have the technical know-how to make my blog as attractive and useful as I’d like it to be. But Becoming Bible Savvy will have the support of an expert in that regard. He will take what I write and add colorful pics and links that will lead you to additional info on the topic at hand.
6) A Becoming Bible Savvy app for your smartphone.
It will take some time and considerable effort, of course, to ramp up to these improvements. So I am going to use the summer months to prepare for the fall re-launch of Becoming Bible Savvy. That means that THIS WILL BE MY LAST BLOG for the next three months. But please don’t take a vacation from the Scripture Union Bible reading schedule. Hundreds of people at CCC are currently using it (hard-copy and electronic versions)—and I hope this will continue June-August.
What can you do to make sure that you get Becoming Bible Savvy when it comes back better-than-ever in the fall? The best way to do this is by signing up now for the current Bible Savvy blog by email. If you’ll do this, Becoming Bible Savvy’s first posting will automatically be sent to you (some time in September, God-willing). Look for the “subscribe by email” box in the right-hand margin of this blog, enter your email address, and you’re all set to go. (BTW: If you subscribe to RSS feeds, there is an option to do that as well in the right-hand margin.)
Please get your friends to sign up for the Becoming Bible Savvy email notice as well. The Scripture Union Bible reading schedule is being used by Christ followers in over 20 countries. My hope and prayer is the Becoming Bible Savvy will become a companion tool for Bible readers across the U.S. and around the world.
When you read the title to today’s blog it may have seemed as if I was inquiring about your personal appearance. Something like: “On a scale of 1-10 how good-looking are you?” But I’m not wondering if people mistake you for Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. (Fill in the names of some other hot-looking stars if my examples don’t work for you.) It’s your persona that I’m asking about. Is there something about you that attracts other people—that makes them want to hang out with you?
Sue and I had dinner with new friends on Saturday night. We’ve known this couple from a distance—they serve on the staff of a vibrant local church nearby. But we’ve never spent time with them. Two hours of conversation and huge helpings of Chinese food later we were best buds. We connected on so many levels: kids at the same stage of life; love for music; common friends; a deep interest in what God is doing around the world.
But I think what we found most attractive about this couple was their passion for reaching spiritually lost people. Especially neighbors. These guys recently participated in a Billy Graham outreach project called “My Hope.” Dr. Graham made a video that included the conversion testimonies of several people along with his own brief presentation of the gospel. All around the country Christ followers have been encouraged to invite their neighbors over to view this video together. Our new friends jumped on board and experienced some remarkable results.
Sue and I left our dinner pumped up to be bolder in sharing Christ on our block. Maybe that’s why something along these lines leaped off the page as I read Isaiah 60 today. (BTW: I am totally mystified as to why the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule occasionally skips big chunks of Scripture! We went from Isaiah 55 on Saturday to Isaiah 60 today. What happened to Isaiah 56-59? Feel free—even compelled—to read the leap-frogged chapters.)
As I was reading Isaiah 60, I was making the four kinds of observations which I’ve encouraged you to look for in every text: theme; repeating words or ideas; truths about God; something striking (TRTS/ “treats” from God’s Word). And I landed on something that fit three out of those four categories! If you have a Bible handy, let me show you what I’m talking about in Isaiah 60.
First, my observation was prompted by the theme of the chapter. This is spelled out in the title that my NIV Study Bible gives to this passage: “The Glory of Zion.” As I explained in my last blog, the glory of Zion refers to the restoration of God’s people at three different levels. There was the literal return to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon in 539 B.C. There will also be a future restoration for all believers in the form of a new heaven and new earth over which King Jesus rules. And, finally, there is a metaphorical restoration going on right now as spiritually lost people are being drawn into God’s Kingdom through the sharing of the gospel.
The observation that I made in Isaiah 60 fits with this last expression of the restoration—people coming to Christ today. And that, to repeat myself, happens to be the theme of this chapter.
My observation is also a repeating word or idea in this passage. (I hope you’re starting to get curious about what I discovered.) Notice the italicized phrase in each of the following verses: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (v.3); “The glory of Lebanon will come to you” (v.13); “The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you” (v.14).
This repeating expression—come to—reminds me that people are regularly entering the Kingdom of God today through faith in Christ. And we, as Christ followers, are responsible for attracting them to our Savior and his Kingdom.
Finally, my observation is something striking in that it coincided with what God’s Spirit was already stirring in my heart due to the dinner conversation with my new friends. I want to be an attractive person. I want to draw my neighbors to Jesus.
So the message that took shape from this observation was to be attractive for Christ. And my application is to put together some next steps for connecting with the people on my block.
Although I’m a classical music lover, I’m not a huge fan of opera. It’s a bit over-the-top for my tastes. But when I saw an advertisement for Chicago’s latest Lyric Opera production, I knew I had to get tickets. They’re currently doing The Sound of Music—Sue’s favorite musical. So last night I told her that I was taking her into the city for dinner. What I didn’t tell her was that we would also be connecting with friends and enjoying her best-loved story on stage.
And what a story! Maria, a nun-in-training, becomes the governess for seven precocious kids. Along the way, she falls in love with the widowed dad, who also happens to be an Austrian military hero whose leadership Hitler wants for his navy. The dad is pro-Maria but anti-Nazi, so he is left with no choice but to smuggle his true love and children out of his homeland. (Their escape requires them to Climb Every Mountain—and now I’ve got you humming the song.)
As moving as this story is, I didn’t leave the opera house last night wrestling with how to apply its lessons to my life. I wasn’t wondering how to develop some of Maria’s winsome character traits, or how to battle Nazi-like adversities that I face. The story was strictly for entertainment.
But the stories in God’s Word are intended to make a difference in our lives. The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that “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” (II Timothy 3:15, 16).
This means that the story of “The Future Glory of Zion”, which you read in Isaiah 54 this past week (if you’re following the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule), is for you! Did you see yourself in this description of Israel’s restoration from captivity? If you didn’t, you probably had a difficult time coming up with a personal application from this passage.
Here’s a quick recap of the story. Isaiah, writing around 700 B.C., warns God’s disobedient people that one day a new superpower on the block—Babylon—would whisk them off into exile. However, their captivity would eventually come to an end and they would be permitted to return to their homeland. Isaiah 54 describes this joyful restoration.
If this were the only level at which the restoration would take place, we would have a nice story but one in which we couldn’t see ourselves. It would be like watching The Sound of Music—and enjoying it for its entertainment value—but not making any connection to our own lives. After all, the return from Babylonian exile took place in 539 B.C. Good for God’s Old Testament people! But what does this story have to do with God’s people in 2014?
This is where it’s helpful to know some basic rules for interpreting the Bible’s prophetic literature. (I cover these rules in my book, Context. They’re fairly easy to learn.) One of these rules is to distinguish between prophecies that have already been fulfilled and those that are yet to be fulfilled. In the case of Isaiah 54, it is apparent that there has only been a partial fulfillment of the restoration described here. Israel’s return from exile in 539 B.C. didn’t begin to look like the grandiose restoration that’s depicted in this chapter. It’s obvious that there must be more restoration to come!
That future restoration arrives in two forms. And this is where it’s helpful to have an NIV Study Bible with good footnotes. The footnotes for verses 11 and 12 explain that Isaiah’s description of a post-exile, rebuilt Jerusalem sounds a lot like the Apostle John’s description of the New Jerusalem—the capital city of the future New Heaven and New Earth (see Revelation 21, 22). This means that you and I—if we’re followers of King Jesus—can read Isaiah 54 as if it’s a preview of a place where we’re going to live forever!
But there’s another sense in which Isaiah’s prophecy of restoration gets fulfilled. See the footnote on Isaiah 49:19, 20 for a hint at this one. The exiles who return from Babylonian captivity are a picture of those who would be redeemed from spiritual bondage to sin. This liberation would eventually come through Christ. Try reading Isaiah 54 as a depiction of lost people (yourself included) being set free from their sins and being welcomed as citizens—now—of Christ’s kingdom.
As you continue in Isaiah this next week, keep in mind that “glory of Zion” you read about is your story, too.
I’ll always remember my first date with Sue. We were students at a Christian college and had done a fair amount of hanging out with each other. Even taken a few study-break walks around campus at night. But we hadn’t officially dated until I invited her to the Lamb concert. Lamb consisted of two Messianic Jews and their backup band. Their music had a Hebraic flavor to it, their guitar-playing was amazing, and they harmonized like a Christian version of Seals and Crofts. (If you were born after 1980, you may skip the comparison.)
Two things I’ll never forget about that concert. First, the arm that I put around Sue’s shoulder went to sleep and I didn’t dare retrieve it. I was afraid that I’d whack her on the head with my numb appendage. (Remember the hilarious scene from Princess Bride where the hero loses the use of his arms? That was me!) Second, many of Lamb’s lyrics came from the book of Isaiah and exalted Jesus Christ as God’s coming Servant. I’ve found myself drawn back to their albums this past week as our Scripture Union schedule had us reading this Old Testament prophet.
Did you savor any Jesus sightings in Isaiah 49? When I met with the leaders of the men’s community groups that I coach this past week, one of the guys had made a list of all the truths about God (especially about Jesus, God’s Son) that he had noticed in this week’s Bible reading. Not only did his insights about Christ pump me up—so did the fact that he had been practicing one of the observation skills that I coach: always look for truths about God in every text you read.
Jesus, of course, is not mentioned by name in Isaiah. But he’s revealed to us by his title, “Servant of the Lord.” In fact, that’s the heading in my NIV Study Bible at the top of chapter 49. The footnotes helpfully explain that “servant” in Isaiah occasionally refers to the nation of Israel—God’s chosen people. But due to the fact that this servant had failed to carry out God’s mission in the world, another Servant was on the way—one who would be utterly obedient and hugely successful.
There are many descriptions of this Servant-par-excellence worth noting in Isaiah 49. But I’ll tell you my favorite—which Lamb used as lyrics in a song that plays in my mind every time I read this text: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15, 16a).
I have engraved you on the palms of my hands! An explanatory footnote in my NIV Study Bible likened this to the names of the tribes of Israel that were engraved on stones and fastened to the ephod of the high priest as a reminder to intercede for God’s people while he served in the temple. When I pulled a scholarly commentary on Isaiah off my shelf and read its explanation of this word picture (i.e. engraved on the palms), the author pointed out that this may also be an allusion to the fact that in Old Testament times a servant would have his master’s name stamped on his hand. But in Isaiah 49, it’s the master who bears his servants’ names on his hand! Cool!
However, there is one more possible interpretation of this metaphor—and this is the one I like best. These words in Isaiah, penned over 700 years before Christ came to earth, point to my Savior’s nailed-pierced hands. Jesus carries these scars today. They are a constant reminder (not to him, since he needs no reminder, but to me) of his great and sacrificial love for me. My name is engraved on Jesus’ hands.
Charles Wesley also wrote a song that was based upon this passage:
Arise, my soul, arise, shake off thy guilty fears,
The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears.
Before the throne my Surety stands;
My name is written on his hands.
You may be finding that Isaiah’s book is not the easiest portion of Scripture from which to draw applications for your life. But I encourage you to hang in there (17 chapters to go), to look for insights in the footnotes of your Study Bible, and to turn the truths about God that you glean from these pages into prayers of praise.
Once a year the senior staff leaders of Christ Community Church travel to a city in the U.S. where we meet with our counterparts at three thriving churches. These are invigorating learning experiences as we exchange best practices with one another. This past February our trip took us to the southeast, where I had the opportunity to huddle up with a few dynamic senior pastors.
It really rocked me to hear, just a month after this getaway, that one of the guys I’d met with had just confessed to a serious moral fall—several affairs and a pornography addiction. His church is one of the largest in the country, he speaks all over the world, he travels in the company of super-successful Christian leaders. His confession of serious sin devastated many people.
Whenever something like this hits church-world news, I bring it up for discussion with the forty or so ministry staff at CCC. It’s a teachable moment. The point of the exercise is not simply to conclude, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but to evaluate how we can avoid similar pitfalls in our own lives and ministries. Sometimes a bad example teaches more memorable lessons than a good one.
That’s something to keep in mind when approaching a passage like Isaiah 47. (This week’s Scripture Union reading covered Isaiah 46-49.) The theme of this chapter (one of four kinds of observations to make whenever reading the Bible) is stated at the top of the passage: “The Fall of Babylon.” On the one hand, this is an amazing prophecy—because it foretells the eventual demise of a superpower that had not yet ascended to greatness in Isaiah’s day. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how a chapter about Babylon’s fall is going to have any relevance to our personal lives, right?
This won’t be the last time you read accounts like this one of nations or individuals who are punished by God due to their wickedness. And while it’s important to see what these texts contribute to the Bible’s overall storyline and what they teach us about God’s sovereign purposes, they can also serve as a mirror and give us an opportunity to take a hard look at ourselves. Do we see, in the case of Isaiah 47, any traces of ancient Babylon’s character in our own lives?
There are a number of sins, illustrated by Babylon in this chapter, to be noted and avoided at all costs. One jumped off the page at me because it is repeated—and repeating words or ideas are the second of four kinds of observations to make in every text. Isaiah quotes Babylon as saying to herself: “I am, and there is none besides me” (vv.8, 10). What does this mean?
Babylon was called upon by God to punish wicked Israel—but she took things too far. She became guilty of brutal violence. This didn’t result, however, in Babylon losing any sleep at night. She had no sense of accountability to God for how she behaved. “I am, and there is none besides me,” summed up her smug attitude. “No one sees me” (v.10) is another way she expressed this same demeanor.
Once I noticed this in Babylon, I started looking for signs of it in me. I began asking myself the question: “In what ways am I behaving as if I have no accountability to God? What misconduct am I erroneously assuming God doesn’t see in my life?” I’m not going to share with you any of the details which came to mind from my soul-searching. I’ll let you practice this exercise for your own life.
Don’t waste a bad example. Look for traces of yourself in it that stand in need of correction.
I love Sunday afternoon walks. And yesterday’s was especially enjoyable because I was accompanied by grandbaby Charlotte in her stroller. The river path was springtime beautiful. And when we got to Island Park, I had my first experience of pushing Charlie in a swing.
On the way home, however, this 20-some pound baby got tired of her stroller and wanted to be carried. How do young moms do it? It starts off so easy—just tuck the little cutie under your arm and kiss the top of her head repeatedly as you stroll. But in no time at all it feels like you’re carrying a bag of cement. A wiggling, fussing, wet bag of cement.
Did you start back into Isaiah today? The Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule has returned us to this Old Testament prophet. And Isaiah has something to say to us about what we’re carrying. Did you notice that repeating idea? As with my grandbaby, Charlotte, the act of carrying begins with delight but quickly becomes burdensome.
Let me back up for a moment. Since we’ve just begun a new Bible book (even though we’re picking up Isaiah at chapter 46), it’s important to identify the historical context of what we’re reading. (This is the first step in the COMA Bible study method.) If we don’t identify the context, we’ll be lost from the get-go. Verse 1 says that “Bel bows down” and “Nebo stoops low.” Who the heck are Bel and Nebo? The rest of the chapter won’t make sense if we don’t know who these guys are.
If you read this blog regularly, you know what I’m going to suggest next: Check out the footnotes in your NIV Study Bible. Bel, according to the historical insights at the bottom of the page, was “another name for Marduk, the chief deity of Babylon.” And Nebo was “the son of Marduk.” What was so amazing about Isaiah’s mention of the gods of Babylon was that he was writing long before Babylon took center-stage as the world’s superpower. Nobody was paying any attention to Babylon.
But in a little over a hundred years after Isaiah’s ministry, an invading Babylonian army would destroy Judah (i.e. southern Israel) and carry its people off into captivity. Babylon’s gods would become very well known. However, notice the way in which God (through Isaiah) mocks these false deities. In the opening verse of Isaiah 46 he sarcastically notes that the physical representations of these gods (i.e. their idols) must be carried around—which eventually makes them quite burdensome. You’ll find variations of the verb “carry” in verses 1, 3 and 7.
By way of contrast, God reminds his people that he has carried them: “I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (v.4). Are you following this? God is not some stupid, powerless idol that needs to be carried around. No! He is the one who does the carrying!
A couple of weeks ago—when we were last in Isaiah, following the Scripture Union schedule—I challenged readers to identify the idols in their lives. What (or who) do we turn to when we should be turning to God? Netflix? Extra hours at work? Sports? Eating out? Pornography? Travel? Grandkids? Buying stuff? If this Old Testament prophet is going to keep warning us about idols, we’d better keep an eye out for them in our own lives.
Some of our idols are good things. Some are inherently evil. The danger lies in depending on them to deliver the pleasure or security that only God can give. When will we learn, as today’s Isaiah passage teaches, that our idols can’t carry us? In fact, we end up carrying them—as they get heavier and heavier.
Here’s a recap of the COMA Bible study method as I applied it to today’s reading in Isaiah 46.
Context: Bel and Nebo (I learned from the footnotes in my NIV Study Bible) were two gods of Babylon—the superpower that would eventually defeat God’s people.
Observations: The fact that these gods needed to be carried around is a repeating idea in this text.
Message: It is better to invest my resources (time/energy/money/affection) in the God who can carry me than in idols that need to be carried.
Application: Identify and remove a personal idol that is getting heavy (i.e. it’s becoming burdensome, either morally or spiritually or time-wise or in some other way).
One of my Bible profs from grad school days continues to be a “go to” guy for me. Occasionally, when I’m trying to understand a difficult passage or wrestling with its application to my ministry, I’ll pick up the phone and call this friend. I usually get his voicemail—so I leave my question and he responds with an answer in a day or two (usually on my voicemail).
My guess is that many readers of this blog don’t have the benefit of a “go to” Bible expert. So what do you do with your questions about the text? Here’s my recommendation. I’m a huge fan of study Bibles—especially the NIV Study Bible. I have both a hard copy of this resource as well as an app for it on my smartphone. It is amazingly helpful.
The first step of the COMA Bible study method is to understand the historical context of every passage that you read. Whenever the Scripture Union schedule takes you to a new book of the Bible (as it will on Monday, when you transition from the Gospel of John to Isaiah), be sure to take a look at the two or three page Introduction to that book in your NIV Study Bible.
But the Introduction to each book won’t answer all the questions you’ll have in your daily reading. This is where the footnotes come in—assuming that you don’t have a speed-dial number for a Bible scholar on your phone. If you’re skimming over this suggestion right now with a dismissive “yeah, yeah, yeah,” let me give you a taste of what you’ll find in these footnotes. (I’m surprised—from my own small group experience—at how many people own an NIV Study Bible but rarely glance at the scholarly insights on the bottom of each page.)
This past week you read (if you’re following the SU schedule) John 20, 21. Here are ten questions that you might have had along the way. The answers to all of them can be found in the footnotes of your NIV Study Bible.
1) John says that Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark” (20:1). But Mark says it was “just after sunrise” (Mark 16:2). How can these two accounts be reconciled?
2) Was Mary Magdalene alone, as John describes it—or was she with other women, as the other gospels report?
3) What did the fact that Jesus’ grave clothes were neatly folded indicate?
4) John notes that there were two angels at the tomb. But Matthew speaks of one angel and Mark describes a young man but no angels. Contradictions?
5) Why does Jesus tell Mary not to hang on to him? Explain.
6) What does Jesus mean when he says that we can offer others or withhold from them God’s forgiveness (20:23)?
7) Why does John call Jesus’ miracles “signs” (20:30)?
8) Why does Peter put on his outer garment before jumping into the water to swim to Jesus on shore?
9) What’s the significance of Jesus’ fire on the beach? And why does Jesus ask Peter for three affirmations of love?
10) What kind of death is hinted at when Jesus tells Peter that others will “stretch out your hands” (21:18)?
“Inquiring minds,” declares the slogan of a popular tabloid, “want to know.” I hope that you bring a curious mind to your Bible reading. You don’t have to guess at the answers to your questions. Many of them are addressed in the footnotes of your NIV Bible. Make a habit of scanning them as you read each day’s passage.
We took a family vacation to New England when my children were small. While strolling through a picturesque Vermont town, my daughter, Rachel, asked permission to cross the street. Without looking up, Sue gave her the okay and Rachel began to run to the opposite corner. Unfortunately, a large truck came barreling down the street at that very moment. By the grace of God, Rachel stumbled and fell before she had run more than a couple of steps. The truck swept by without hitting her. To this day, Sue is convinced that an angel tripped Rachel to save her life!
If you have young children, you’ve probably told them on numerous occasions to “Walk, don’t run!” Running just gets them into trouble. Running across busy streets. Running with a plate of food into the family room to watch a movie. Running on the slippery cement deck of a swimming pool. Running in church. “Walk, don’t run!” Parents say it hundreds of times.
But in today’s Scripture Union Bible reading passage (John 20:1-9), we encounter some people who had good reason to run. This is the account of Jesus’ resurrection. And I noticed several references to running in the story. Because I’m always looking for repeating words or ideas in a text, I wondered if there was some special significance to all this hurry.
Mary Magdalene was the first one at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. When she discovered that it was empty, “she came running to Simon Peter” to tell him the news (v. 2). Peter immediately took off to check things out for himself. John joined him. “Both were running”—but John “outran Peter and reached the tomb first” (v. 4).
Not all repeating words or ideas in a passage hold special meaning. So I wasn’t sure if there was an important insight to be squeezed from my observation of these Easter morning sprints. (Besides, I’d also made several other observations in John 20:1-9, and as always was asking the Holy Spirit to direct me to the one which he wanted to apply to my life.)
Here’s the message that I drew from meditating on the multiple references to running in today’s Bible reading: Communicating the Good News is urgent! (Message, as you know if you follow this blog, is the third step in the COMA Bible study method: Context–> Observations–> Message–> Application.) Mary was eager to share the good news of the empty tomb with the disciples. Peter and John were excited about checking out this good news for themselves. Communicating the Good News is urgent!
Do I have a similar sense of urgency about telling others the good news of Christ? Am I running to communicate it? My application today is to pray the prayer that I’ve taught others to pray. This prayer is based upon the spiritual armor, which Paul describes in Ephesians 6: 13-17 and which he encourages us to put on regularly. I call the third piece of this armor “gospel shoes.” Roman soldiers wore spiked boots into battle so that they could advance against the enemy without slipping. If I hope to advance into others’ lives in order to rescue them from Satan’s control, I will need to be wearing gospel shoes.
I am praying today that I will be eager and bold to talk about Jesus. I am praying for opportunities to do so. I am praying that I will run, not walk into these conversations. And I am praying for the hundreds of people who stood to their feet at Christ Community’s Easter services this weekend to indicate their desire to surrender their lives to Jesus as Savior and King. 91 of them took a further step and visited our Welcome Centers to pick up a Next Steps packet!
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.