Sunday, September 29, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply

What are your expectations for this article? What do you think you will discover that I have written? It probably is not what you expect. If you expect something, then you have some idea what I have written before you have read it.

Likewise, if you have read the Bible a hundred times, or even just once, you will have some idea of what to expect if you read it again. Nevertheless, you will undoubtedly find something you didn’t notice the first time you read it.

But understanding the Bible more deeply doesn’t involve simply finding information you didn’t remember from reading it before as you read through it again. While that is part of it, there are some additional principles that are helpful for enhancing how you gain a deeper understanding.

First, reading the Bible over and over again is additive. It’s like pouring coffee back in the coffee maker and brewing it over and over again. It will get stronger each time you brew it.

Second, as you read, you will want to investigate information in passages that you didn’t investigate before that helps you understand the passage better.

Third, as you learn about what the Bible says, you must read it as though what it says is true. That means it will influence your philosophy and desires. This colors what you read and frames it the way the Author of the Bible intended instead of what you intended the times you read it previously.

Fourthly, as your mind and heart change, your ability to think in the terms of the Bible will change. I’ve discussed this before as categories. The greater your intelligence, the greater your ability to apprehend these different categories.

Finally, your understanding will increase as you put into action what you learn from the Bible.

I will write in more detail on these in future articles, but I wanted to introduce this series to you beforehand. While I will be writing in more general terms, I do want to make known that what has instigated this is a desire to counter a tendency for people to engage the Bible on a more superficial level. Particular strains of this are as follows:

  • Many people fear all theological debate as somehow unnecessary. Some theological debate is indeed unnecessary. However, there is plenty of deadly theological error that goes unchallenged because people won’t internalize convictions that counter rank heresy. If God truly saves people, some theological battles are important lest people unwittingly engender a lack of faith.
  • There are people who believe that some things cannot be understood because they cannot understand them. There may be some things that we cannot understand, but I assure you that we can understand far more than many of us think. Where even great theologians have chalked some things up to “mystery”, many of these mysteries are understandable because God has revealed them to us and has given us the Holy Spirit to help us understand what the Bible says.
  • People are sinful and simply don’t wish to learn what they are doing wrong so they can repent of it. On one level, they know what the truth is, but they cloak their eyes as though they don’t see it and either convince themselves that it isn’t true or isn’t understandable.
  • People have a cultural sensibility or hold some popular philosophy that is challenged by the scriptures. They determine to understand what the Bible says only up to the point where it disagrees with their deeply-held unbiblical beliefs.

These patterns of misunderstanding the Bible are deadly to the Church because many of these kinds of people are otherwise faithful church members. Many people pray for a revival. The only way it will come about is if these patterns of unbelief are challenged and changed by a movement of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Christians. That’s why I’m presenting this series.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Acting on the Bible

If you read the Bible as though it were true, you must act on what the Bible says.

Let’s say you purchase a new hair dryer. On the label is a warning not to use the hair dryer in water. I can’t imagine how anyone would use the hair dryer while they were taking a bath, for example. However, something happened to someone to warrant putting a warning label on hair dryers. So you read the label warning you not to use the hair dryer in water. You say, “Aha! It’s dangerous to use the hair dryer in water.” It doesn’t seem reasonable that you would then get in a bathtub full of water and try to dry your hair.

However, we too often do that with the Bible. We read what the Bible says, agree with its admonitions, and then promptly go out and do something other than what the Bible says. When that happens, we make it difficult to understand the Bible better because it would be detrimental. Isaiah, when faced with a vision of the living God in Isaiah 6:5 said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…” If too much were to be revealed to us at once, we would be undone. Isaiah came close.

As we act on the admonitions of scripture, we are strengthened to receive greater understanding by virtue of the Holy Spirit who indwells all believers. When we fail to act on the scriptures, our minds are cloaked by God, even those who are unbelievers, so that we don’t understand. Paul wrote this to the Romans in the first chapter of his letter to them:

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things...

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done."

Therefore, although you have knowledge of all the God has revealed, disobedience will result in a failure to understand what you know.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Reading with a Changed Heart and Mind

This will take some explanation. As I stated in the previous article, none of us approaches the Bible as a blank slate. One way we do this is that each of us understands things by using systems of categorization. These systems also include rules for assigning things to each of these categorizations. Our systems of categorizations are learned from the things that are normal to us: our families, our friends, the media we give our attention to, the teachers we have, etc. Whenever I talk about “sensibilities”, this is typically what I mean.

Let me give you a simple example of what I mean by categorizations. Let’s say we have a bag of M&Ms. Can you think of some categories by which we can separate these M&Ms? The most obvious is by color. So we can separate them into piles of red, blue, green, orange, brown, etc.

But there may be another way of separating them. Now if the bag we have is just opened from the store, it probably only contains one kind of M&Ms, but if not, then there may be different kids mixed in. What I’m talking about is the difference between plain, the ones with nuts in them, or the ones with pretzels in them. Those are different categories than colors.

Are there any other kind of categories? Imagine the factory where M&Ms are made. They make M&Ms by some kind of lot number, I presume. That’s a category that few people think about. Or I would assume that there are some kind of quality control standards. Hopefully all M&Ms are in the category of those M&Ms that will pass inspection. But realistically, there are probably a few that do not pass inspection. Each quality standard is a different category against which each M&M must be tested. Each will either be in the category “pass” or the category “fail”.

But we don’t usually think about those categories. Nevertheless, it is a very important category for M&Ms. If you want the quality of M&Ms that you are used to, you should hope that each bag that you purchase has only M&Ms that are in the “pass” category of each quality standard.

But it’s the same way with the Bible. We approach the Bible at first with the most obvious sets of categories. As we read the Bible, we might pick up on the fact that there are sets of categories for examining our lives and thinking about God that we have never thought of before.

Too many theological debates are a result of different theologians using different sets of categories for understanding the Bible. All theological debates will be cleared up when God brings each of us to understand the set of categories we should have been using all along. When investigating different views, it is a sign of theological maturity that we are able to identify the sets of categories theologians use. When this happens, we can easily understand why theologians often debate so.

Identifying a theologian’s system of categories is also important for discerning the truth of a matter. Too many theologians are disingenuous. Such discernment allows us to see a theologian’s internal deception.

But also, as we develop Biblical systems of categories, our understanding of the Bible will deepen. So as you read, look for ways of thinking about things according to how they are presented in the Bible in ways that you haven’t previously considered.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Value of a Person

You astute Christians: I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m guessing you think I’m going to talk about how we find our value only in Christ. You are partially correct. But have you thought about how that value is made evident to us?

It’s true that we can discern the truth of it in careful study of the Bible. It’s also true that we can be told about it by faithful teachers of the Bible who have done the study. But have you noticed that people don’t simply obey the Bible just because they have studied it? The teachings powerful for persuasion are given with testimonies by people who have experienced it in some practical way in their lives or who, in the process of discipling someone; lead them to put the teachings into practice themselves.

Among other things that Yancey Arrington wishes he had known about discipleship, one is that “it’s found in a network of relationships.” Discipleship gives the disciple a sense of value in the Church. Truly, God doesn’t need any one of us. He created the universe without our help. In fact, not only does God not need us, we need him. We have negative value as members of a fallen world. All of us deserve not only death, but eternal torture as punishment for our insolent sin. The only man who doesn’t deserve that kind of punishment is God himself who took on flesh and dwelled among us as the man, Jesus Christ. By the death of his body on the cross, he paid the price we deserve to pay. In that way, we were given value worthy of eternal life with God.

But we don’t apprehend that value by claiming ourselves worthy of it. We apprehend that value by understanding that we are not worthy of it. This seems contradictory and is often difficult for young believers, as well as many older ones, to balance.

Dave Miller at SBC Voices illustrates this in his recent article about Busy Pastors. Pastors often find some value in the amount of work they do. So even mature Christians can struggle with the contradistinction between lack of value in our sinfulness and value given by God outside of our actions.

God calls us to serve him. Our value is not in serving him, but in being served by Christ in salvation. Nevertheless, we give honor to people according to what they do in the Kingdom. That gives the illusion that we gain value by doing good things. Rather, we demonstrate God’s value when we do good things. But when we disciple each other in accordance with the Great Commission, we must often temporarily play to people’s need to feel valued.

Kate Mulvey is no Christian. She is a self-centered self-valued woman who has determined that men hate her for being smarter than them. So at age 50, Kate is still single. Kate’s problem is not that she is too smart. Her problem is that she hasn’t found a man that’s valuable to her. She is self-sufficient and there’s nothing a man can do to add positively to her identity. It’s the same reason why Hollywood movie stars jump from spouse to spouse and why many people in this culture anymore have trouble with commitment.

People will go where they are valued.

It’s the same thing in churches. People hop from church to church when they are looking for a sense of being valued. So churches try hard to be nice to new people. But there is a difference between being nice to each other and living in true Christian fellowship. Being nice to each other feels like you are valued for a short period of time. But true Christian fellowship is a lasting relationship between believers that gives each the sense of being valued. That sense might come from the relationship, but it’s lasting because it’s rooted in ongoing discipleship. So the value comes from Christ.

Do you want people to stick around? See their value in Christ and treat them accordingly. Don’t just be nice. Give your fellowship in good times and bad. Let people know how you need them, not just in general but in specific ways. This is how the gospel works through the Great Commission in the discipleship in the Church to hold churches together.

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Reading As Though It Were True

None of us approaches the Bible as a blank slate. On one end of the spectrum, some of us have a set of beliefs that we are intent on holding as true no matter what evidence is given to us to the contrary. On the other end of the spectrum are those who are willing to ditch their beliefs for any new thought that comes their way.

There is a balance between these that we can term “cautiously open” to changing our thinking. The question is on what basis we are cautiously open:

We might be cautiously open because we want to believe anything that will make us the most comfortable. Some atheistic naturalists like to accuse theists of merely fulfilling some evolutionary need to believe in a higher power. The fact is that we all have some need to feel good about ourselves and our lives.

We might be cautiously open because we want to justify some lack of moral culpability. We just want to sin and we don’t like anything or anyone telling us that our particular sin is immoral. If anything tells us we can commit that sin, we are willing to believe it. If anything tells us that we cannot commit a particular sin we are willing to deny it.

We might be cautiously open because we want power over other people. Like or not, these kinds of people exist in this world. They are willing to propagate beliefs among others that will enslave them ideologically and are willing to stifle beliefs that will free them ideologically. Most people are not very good at this. Some people are exceptionally good at this.

Parenthetically, we proclaim a gospel that sets people free from sin without denying that things clearly are sinful. It’s no wonder that some oppose this message with both the contention that something is not a sin and the good news that we can be free from it.

But the way we are to be cautiously open to changing our beliefs is if we desire truth and are willing to accept that we might not currently know the truth as fully as we can. This begs the question that the Bible is an accurate source of truth. The key to knowing is if we are honest about our sinful motives. If we are, then even a cursory reading of the Bible is sufficient for demonstrating that it is more honest about our own motives than we are. Peter testifies as much when he answers Jesus in John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The Samaritan woman that Jesus met at the well testified in John 4:29, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.” This is the same reaction that we find in ourselves when we read the Bible and are honest about our own sinful motives.

Therefore, we cannot understand the Bible accurately if we do not read it as though it were true.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Twelve years ago people climbed into real planes and crashed into real buildings. People lost their lives.

The purpose for this action was to provoke a response and illustrate the power of the God of Islam over the world. The belief of the perpetrators is that we flout unrighteous freedom. Their contention is that we are all subject to the commands of Allah.

That message doesn’t sound too far from the Christian message. Sin against God is indeed the unrighteous flouting of freedom from the commands of God. Many atheists have noted this similarity and have concluded that Christianity is as dangerous as Islam. Many point to the Crusades as evidence of the similarity in the danger of the message. That’s only evidence of a lack of sophisticated thought enough distinguish between historic political European Christendom and the true Body of Christ as it bears the gospel of peace.

But let us not make the same error. The American experiment was an attempt to build a nation free of the errors of Christendom by marrying a Christian worldview with a novel iteration of the Greco-Roman republic. Our success has been marginal, but the system is failing. It quickly morphed into just another kind of Christendom. Instead of self-sacrificing for each other, we sacrifice each other for our own benefit, and we wonder why we aren’t acting like a Christian nation anymore.

Our false towers of institutionalized morality have fallen. People are losing their lives spiritually because we have relied on government for a good country instead of relying on the proclamation of the gospel for changed lives.

Our towers were attacked precisely because we haven’t relied on the proclamation of the gospel. Those who are dead in their sins are angry with those of us who have trusted Christ for our lives and are dead to our sins. They have attacked our false political towers to demonstrate the power of their god of self-worth and self-determination over and against those of us who trust Christ.

Let us not forget the towers that fell twelve years ago. Let it serve as a reminder that we have a fallen world to serve, not to help them uphold the sins that separate them from Christ, but to shine the light into the darkness of their sin to highlight the need they have for Christ so that they might believe. It is the gospel that makes us free and not political victory.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Investigation

As I pointed out in the last article, the Bible wasn’t written in our cultural context. It was written by and to a people long ago with a different culture. They had different practices and routines, different political situations, and different popular philosophies. No doubt as we read the Bible we will encounter many references to things that are unfamiliar to us.

Also, as I pointed out in the previous article, reading the Bible over and over will result in noticing things we didn’t notice before. In early readings of the Bible, we will have a tendency to skip over things that we don’t recognize when they appear in the midst of things we do recognize. As we read through the Bible, it is likely that new things will strike us as something we need to investigate in order to understand the passage better.

Fortunately, we are blessed in these days to have rich resources for investigating these kinds of things. There are Bible handbooks, Bible dictionaries, commentaries, etc. I recommend checking more than one. Different aspects of information might be available in the work of different scholars.

Don’t be alarmed if you find that they don’t agree. You will be able to get a fuller view of uncertainty in scholarship that way. If the observation is related to a theological point of view, you will be able to see why something either supports or undermines your own point of view and you will be able to refine your thinking.

So you grow more deeply in your understanding as you gain more information on what you are reading. You also grow more deeply in your understanding as your own previous beliefs are challenged.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Hiding Place: Deliverance from Sin or a Prison

Years ago I was friends with an elderly lady who sang baritone with me in the choir at one of the base chapels at Camp Lejune, NC. Her name was Linda. She died over a decade ago.

Linda’s parents were German musicians who were killed in a train accident just before WWII. Linda spent the next few years in a Catholic school in Berlin during the war. She would take bread to the French prisoners of war.

She invited me to a thanksgiving dinner one year where she had some Austrian friends from the old country coming to visit. The dinner was lovely and I enjoyed the cultural experience. After her friends left, Linda sat down with me and told me of the old days. She told me how she saw the propaganda of the Third Reich and how deeply it influenced her thinking. She also told me how wrong it all was, but how hard she struggled against her indoctrination. She told me how she knew it was wrong to hate Jews, but that she wrestled with her training as a young child to hate them.

She told me other things as well about how brutal some of the Allies were, particularly the Russians. She told me how she came to America and took speech lessons to remove the German accent, How she married and remarried. How evil her second husband was and how he was spending time in Leavenworth prison. Even colonels with spotless records can commit crimes. She told me of her hidden son who lived, yet as little more than a spectre, after a serious automobile accident cause by his use of drugs.

In all of this, she left the Roman Catholic Church and found solace in the gospel of grace. A military wife, she stayed close to the base and the transient families she knew there.

Her story is an echo of many. I’ve been fascinated with how such deceit as what was propagated by the Nazis can affect entire populations of people. Last night I watched a documentary following the children and grandchildren of Hitler’s top men as they fought against the dark legacy of their infamous fathers. It reminds me of the warnings in Exodus where the iniquity of the fathers will be visited on their children and grandchildren. Although their descendents did not commit the crimes of their fathers, they bear the weight of guilt among those who survived their father’s sins.

I’ve also watched Lore recently. It’s a German movie about children of Nazi parents who fled across country to their grandmother’s house when their parents were taken prisoner in the Allies’ invasion of Germany. Many of the reviewers noted that the kids acted like brats. Frankly, they aren’t any worse than the kids Hollywood portrays. It’s odd that we are quick to judge Nazi kids while giving the kids on, say, Home Alone, a pass.

(Note: Being a foreign film, Lore isn’t rated. It should be rated R. There are adult themes and images. Beware if you plan to watch this.)

But I compare this also to the 2009 portrayal of the Diary of Anne Frank. My favorite portrayal was the 1980 version. After watching this one, I see how filtered the 1980 version was. The 2009 version showed a bit more the bratty side of Anne Frank. Are victims less sinful than their murderers?

On the one hand, we would note that a murderer committed a crime. It is no crime to be victimized. However, the nature that rises up to fuel a murderer is shared by all people. We are all products of a fallen world and subject to the dubious information that colors it darkly. It is perhaps more apparent to those with murderous parents, such as the offspring of Himmler, Goering and Goeth. They are more able to recognize the evil in their own hearts because of the astonishing sins of their fathers because of the difficulty in coming to terms with sins they did not commit. For that matter, think of the Jews born in captivity during the exile in Babylon and Persia. They didn’t commit the sins that sent their parents into exile, yet they must bear the burden of those sins.

For others, who have lived in relative peace by parents who are relatively decent people, sin seems to be more of an abstract thing. In this case, fairness becomes the arbiter of sin. It is easy to believe that which is fair is good and that which is unfair is evil. It is easy to arrive at the conclusion that being fair makes one a sinless person.

So it is hard for such people to understand that God is not fair. Jesus, the only truly innocent man, paid the price for the sins of evil people. That’s not fair. It can only be fully understood by people who truly see the depths of their own sin, whether that sin has resulted in action or harbored only in the mist of dark thoughts and desires.

Linda knew the sin she was capable of and fought against it while all around her swarmed the stench and decay of death in the sins of others. Let us not treat slavery to righteousness as a prison when we are hidden from our destruction as Anne Frank and her family was for a time. Let us regard our hideaway in Christ soberly and not despise it. Let us not be brats in the Body of Christ.

5. I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
6. Therefore let everyone who is godly
offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters,
they shall not reach him.
7. You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah (Psalm 32:5-7, ESV)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Additive Reading

One key area where education practitioners test students to indicate development in verbal skills is reading comprehension and retention. If everyone were the same, they wouldn’t need to test students to see what their current abilities are. The fact is that none of us have perfect comprehension and retention. When we read something for the first time, we don’t fully apprehend its meaning. I have email replies from people asking questions that I answered in my original email. I know for a fact that they didn’t get it.

The Bible is no small tome. Its material is typically referentially anachronistic from our point of view. That is to say that it wasn’t written by or to people with our cultural sensibilities. It can be difficult reading and it can be easily misunderstood if care is not taken to understand what is written in the various contexts.

It is common for pastors who have been well trained and have already read the Bible through many times to read a passage over and over before they develop a sermon on it. If pastors have a need to do this, how much more do the rest of us need to read passages multiple times in order to understand the full import of the meaning?

The reason is because there is a principle where reading some over again allows us to notice things that we missed or don’t remember the first time. Unless we re-read the Bible many times we cannot claim to have much of an understanding of it. Some people may require fewer readings to understand it deeply. Others may need to read the Bible more in order to understand it more deeply. Regardless whether your comprehension and retention is better or worse than others, we all need to read the Bible over and over again to understand it more deeply.