Why I Write

My goal on this site is to help ordinary people learn to study the Bible. I pursue that aim through a few practices:

  • On Mondays, I demonstrate Bible study skills on a particular text of Scripture.
  • On Wednesdays, I link to other pages on the Internet that either demonstrate good Bible study skills or lay the ground work for good Bible study skills.
  • On Fridays, I usually back away from the text to reflect on the skills themselves. Currently, I’m explaining methods for leading effective Bible studies.

All three practices fit into a larger model for teaching people how to study the Bible. But as each post comes and goes, and we focus on very specific skills, we can easily lose sight of the model.

That’s why I occasionally write brief posts like this by way of reminder.

And that’s also why I created a table of contents page for my series on Proverbs 1-9. It’s gone so long that the forest has been long since overgrown with trees. This table of contents will let you know all the main topics I’ve hit so far, and it will let you know what remains before the series finishes. I didn’t link to every post but only to the first post for each segment of text. From that post, you should be able to click through to the next post and the next if you’d like to read through a particular section.

I’ll activate the last few links as I finish those posts over the next few months. Please let me know if you have any ideas for making this page more useful!

5 Things the Wise Person Can Do

Because God implanted his wisdom in this world, wisdom empowers us for life in this world. It doesn’t take us out of this world into vague, ethereal, or escapist sentiments. Thus, true wisdom will never lead us into otherworldly practices like denying pain (Prov 3:11-12), forbidding pleasure (Prov 5:18-19), or romanticizing the past (Eccl 7:10).

In Proverbs 8:12-21, we saw 5 things wisdom won’t do in this life. The wise person will take these things to heart and apply them diligently.

Because wisdom won’t run out (Prov 8:12), you can always draw on it. Wisdom is available to you, and it will always be available to you. You don’t have to rely on the experts to tell you what to think, and you don’t have to wait on authority figures to tell you what to do. Your questions are not beyond God’s concern, and your problems are not beyond God’s reach. And when same-sex marriage is universally legalized and religious freedom is broadly rejected, it won’t mean that divine wisdom has failed or gone on vacation. We shouldn’t get so uptight about increased hostility, lost opportunity, or apparently restricted liberty. Such things cannot thwart God’s kingdom and gospel from advancing. “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us” (Martin Luther).Martin Luther

Because wisdom won’t pander to pride (Prov 8:13), you can relinquish your self-interest. You won’t get what you want by demanding it. And just because you don’t have to rely on experts or wait on authorities—it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from anyone. You’re not always the expert or the authority; God made you to function in community with others. If you don’t have to protect or defend yourself, you’re free to hate the evil within you as much as the Lord does. Only then will you find the wisdom you need to put it to death. Luther again: “No man can glory in thy sight; all must alike confess thy might and live alone by mercy.”

Because wisdom won’t let you down (Prov 8:14-16), you have every reason to execute your responsibility faithfully. You can move into your own place. You can buy that house; you can learn that skill. You can work hard, even under a harsh supervisor. You can love and respect your spouse, even if it’s not returned. You can discipline your children consistently, even if it feels like you’ll do nothing but spank them all day (the feeling isn’t true!). You can lead your own Bible study this year. You can tame your tongue. You can set aside sexual immorality. The Spirit of wisdom—the Spirit of God—can do all these things and more through you. More Luther: “Christ is himself the joy of all, the Sun that warms and lights us. By his grace he doth impart eternal sunshine to the heart; the night of sin is ended! Alleluia!”

Because wisdom won’t play hard to get (Prov 8:17), you have only to ask. There’s nothing to complain about. You don’t need to make more money or buy more books. You don’t need to go to seminary or Bible college. You don’t have to earn your way. You don’t have to prove yourself. You have not because you ask not. Everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. Those who knock are the ones who have all the open doors. There’s no mystery here; you can try it now: “God, please give me wisdom for _____________. My only hope is Christ. Amen.” Luther once again nails it: “Christ alone our souls will feed; he is our meat and drink indeed. Faith lives upon no other!”

Because wisdom won’t leave you empty-handed (Prov 8:18-21), you have everything to gain by seeking it! Sure, you might spend some money or sacrifice financial stability. You might give up some free time that could have been spent on amusement. You’ll risk misunderstanding or ridicule if you look too fanatical. But what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? Guess who: “Happy the man who feareth God, whose feet his holy ways have trod; thine own good hand shall nourish thee, and well and happy shalt thou be.”

A Little Greek can be a Big Distraction

I’ve argued that you don’t have to reference Greek or Hebrew to study the Bible. You can observe, interpret, and apply just fine using a decent English translation (I use the ESV and NET the most).

In this post, I’d like to give an example of how knowing a bit of Greek can actually distract you from careful OIA of a passage.

Afghanistan Matters (2009), Creative Commons

Afghanistan Matters (2009), Creative Commons

In John 21:15-19, Jesus and Simon Peter eat breakfast and chat about love and lambs. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times, Peter affirms his love, and Jesus calls him to be a godly shepherd.

Those who dig into the Greek text of John 21 quickly discover that John uses two different words for “love.” Jesus’ first two questions use the word agape. Jesus’ third question and all three of Peter’s responses use the word philia.

“Do you love (agape) me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philia) you.”
“Do you love (agape) me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philia) you.”
“Do you love (philia) me?”
“You know that I love (philia) you.”

The question arises: What is the difference between agape and philia? What’s really going on in the conversation that doesn’t come across in English?

So the student reads commentaries and consults lexicons. Many blogs address this particular question in this particular passage (just Google “agape philia john 21,” and you’ll have no shortage of reading material). Some say that agape love is the higher form of love, and Jesus comes down to Peter’s level the third time. Others reverse it, saying that by the end Peter convinces Jesus that he has the right kind of love.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that Greek words each have a focused, specialized meaning. It approaches lexicons as technical manuals, almost as if there’s a code to be broken, and the right tools offer the key.

But no language works that way. Not English or German, Greek or Hebrew. Words certainly have histories. They have ranges of meaning. Lexicons help us to understand their range of usage.

But literature is as much an art as it is a science. Writers have agendas, but they advance their agendas by making them beautiful. So they use synonyms, turns of phrase, metaphors, and other such devices.

Referring to John 21;15-19, D.A. Carson explains:

Some expositions of these verses turn on the distribution of the two different verbs for “love” that appear…This will not do, for at least the following reasons…The two verbs are used interchangeably in this Gospel…The Evangelist constantly uses minor variations for stylistic reasons of his own. This is confirmed in the present passage. In addition to the two words for “love,” John resorts to three other pairs: bosko and poimano (“feed” and “take care of” the sheep), arnia and probata (“lambs” and “sheep”), and oida and ginosko (both rendered “you know” in v. 17). These have not stirred homiletical imaginations; it is difficult to see why the first pair should (The Gospel According to John, pp. 676-677).

If we hadn’t gotten distracted by Greek expeditions, what treasure might we mine from this passage? Note the following observations, which could easily be made from the English text.

  1. The setting: the scene takes place at a charcoal fire (John 21:9), the same setting where Peter denied Jesus three times (John 18:18). Charcoal fires appear in only these two scenes in the Gospel of John. It’s not an accident.
  2. The flow: Peter begins the chapter chasing his former vocation as a fisherman (John 21:3). Jesus wants to turn him into a shepherd (John 21:15-17). Peter gets it. Later, when he instructs church elders, he doesn’t call them to be fishers of men. He commands them to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1-2).
  3. The model: Jesus wants Peter to follow him (John 21:19b). This means Peter should be a shepherd like Jesus was (John 21:15-17). This means dying for the good of the sheep, just like Jesus did (John 21:18-19, 10:11-15).

John 21 shows Jesus restoring and commissioning Peter for sacrificial leadership in the church. This much is clear even in translation.

Sure, the Greek (or Hebrew) text often reveals wordplay that doesn’t translate well. Sometimes the structure of a passage or argument is more clear in the original language than in translation. And Greek and Hebrew are simply beautiful and fun.

But the main point of a passage rarely depends on intimate knowledge of the original languages.

The New Testament Uses the Old Testament

scrollThe apostle Paul provoked an uproar up and down the Roman empire with a simple, two-point message:

  1. The Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead

  2. The Messiah is Jesus

He staked these claims in the soil of Scripture.  Luke tells of his stint in Thessalonica:

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’ (Acts 17:2-3, ESV)

The citizens of Berea wouldn’t take it on Paul’s word alone.  They had to see it for themselves:

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica [who ended up attacking both Paul and his message]; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)

Paul wasn’t the only one to use this method of reasoning.  Every apostle used the Old Testament to explain this great message about Jesus, and many of them wrote it down for us in the New Testament.  Some authors were more explicit in their use of the Old Testament than others.  And we can learn much from them about how to read the Old Testament ourselves.

To that end, I’ve compiled a few lists to help launch you into the delightful world of intertestamental hermeneutics (a big phrase that simply means “how the New Testament authors understood the Old Testament”).

These lists won’t give you a complete understanding of the Old Testament and how it speaks of Jesus.  But they will direct you to the passages that most explicitly influenced the apostles’ thinking.  May they help you see Jesus more clearly.

Top 10 OT books quoted in NT

10 OT books never quoted in NT

Top 13 OT chapters quoted in NT

Top 11 OT verses quoted in NT

Top 10 NT books that quote OT passages

11 NT books that don’t quote the OT

Now go, you Berean, and see if these things are so. Check out the Resources page for an exhaustive list of NT quotations of the OT.

Question: What do you think about how the NT authors used the OT?

Who is Buried in Abraham’s Tomb?

rp_Image-Empty-Tomb-300x160.jpgGenesis 23:1-20 tells a strange episode in the life of Abraham: the negotiation and purchase of a grave site – the cave of Machpelah – for his wife, Sarah.  Coming between the climactic tale of (almost) sacrificing Isaac on Mount Moriah (Gen 22:1-24) and the procuring of a wife for Isaac (Gen 24:1-67), the narrative of Genesis 23 seems out-of-place and awkward.  It can be difficult to see any point to this chapter beyond Abraham’s bereavement of his dear wife.

Consider, however, who ends up buried in this tomb: both Sarah (Gen 23:19) and Abraham himself (Gen 25:9-10).  Also, Isaac, Isaac’s beloved wife Rebekah, Jacob, and Jacob’s unloved wife Leah (Gen 49:29-30, 49: 31-32, 50:12-13).

Notice specifically that Rachel, the wife whom Jacob loved most, was not buried there (Gen 35:19-20).

Why is this tomb given such emphasis in the narratives of Genesis?  I have some suggestions:

  1. It was the only piece of land Abraham ever owned, even though he was promised all of Canaan (Gen 17:8).  Thus, it was a bit of a deposit or foretaste on the promise.
  2. Abraham refused to receive it as a gift from any man (just read how extensive the negotiations were in Gen 23:6-16).  He was fully committed to owning it legally, publicly, and personally.
  3. This foretaste of the promise for Abraham and the next few generations came only as each person died.  They did not enjoy it in their lives; only in their deaths.
  4. As they died in faith, these men and women received part, but not all, of what was promised to them (Heb 11:13-14).
  5. They would only receive the full promise along with us (Heb 11:39-40).
  6. Those buried in this tomb were those who were to become ancestors of the son of promise.  Remember that it was Leah, not Rachel, buried in the cave.  Leah was the woman who gave birth to Judah, from whom came David and Jesus.

In short, knowing who would be buried in the tomb at Machpelah is the key to understanding why it gets so much press in Genesis 23.  Abraham’s investment in the tomb represents his faith in God’s promise to send a Son who would crush Satan (Gen 3:15) and enable God’s people to live with him forever in close companionship (the point of the “Promised Land” of Canaan – see Gen 17:7-8, overturning the fall in Gen 3:23-24).

The only real estate Abraham ever owned was that tomb.  His descendant Jesus didn’t even own his own tomb (Matt 27:59-60), but he fulfilled every promise (2 Cor 1:20) and brought us into eternal fellowship with God (Eph 2:13-16).

Knowable Word Unplugged

Announcement: I need to unplug from blogging for a week so I don’t go bonkers. I promise I’ll spend the time in quiet rest and reflection on my life’s purpose.

What does man gain by all the toil
    at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever. (Eccl 1:3-4, ESV)

In the meantime, I have some lovely content from the blog archives that I’ll re-post this week. Enjoy!

Dependence vs. Diligence

I’m sitting in a Bible study, digging into a psalm with a group of people, when a woman bursts out, “Why are we wasting our time with all this study? Why can’t we just read—instead of studying—and depend on the Lord?”

I’ve never read a well-reasoned defense of this perspective, so I don’t want to caricature it unfairly. But I’ve bumped into its proponents with regularity. Usually, there’s a claim that Bible study is too academic and disengaged from character and obedience. And that relating with God should be natural and full of chemistry and compatibility.

Thus, the reasoning goes, working hard at Bible study is like reading a manual about sex. It deflates the personal, relational component by replacing the beloved with mere information about the beloved.

But the illustration (and the perspective, I daresay) misses the fact that this “manual” wasn’t written by a disinterested third party but by the Beloved himself. The book explains how he wants to be known. Is it an act of dependence to disregard diligence in understanding it?

Jess Sand (2009), Creative Commons

Jess Sand (2009), Creative Commons

For example, my wife occasionally sends me text messages with to-do reminders. Could I possibly express my love for her by failing to observe and interpret them well? If she asks me to buy milk, would she be delighted with buffalo wings? When she has a book on reserve at the library, does she want me to read it there and return it to the shelf?

I have much agreement with the people I describe in this post. I want to depend on the Lord. I don’t think knowledge about God should ever replace knowledge of God. I think we misread the book if we don’t know the person behind it.

But couldn’t it be the case that diligence is a sign of dependence? When building a bunk bed, couldn’t one express dependence by diligently following the assembly directions? And isn’t rejection of the manual tantamount to dependence on oneself?

Bible Study is Hard Work

Desiring GodAt Desiring God, Jen Wilkin asserts that Bible study is hard work. She asserts that it doesn’t come easily or naturally to anyone. She accuses us of giving up or seeking a shortcut when progress is slow.

Being a student of any subject requires effort — the process of gaining understanding is not easy and can often be frustrating. Depending on the subject, learning may be enjoyable, but it will not be effortless. Learning requires work.

This is as true of learning the Bible as it is of learning algebra. We think that learning the Bible should be as natural as breathing in and out; if knowing God’s word is so good for us, surely he would not make it difficult for us to do so. But learning the Bible requires discipline, and discipline is something we don’t naturally embrace. Because learning the Bible is a discipline, patience will play a much-needed role in our progress.

What do you think?

Check it out!

5 Things Wisdom Won’t Do

Evan Leeson (2008), Creative Commons

Evan Leeson (2008), Creative Commons

We often think of wisdom as something otherworldly, like the sound of one hand clapping or the ability to be incomprehensibly vague. That’s why we find Eastern mysticism so alluring, and why we fall for crazy, less-than-biblical, escapist sentiments like “leave all your cares behind as you come into worship this morning.”

And in Proverbs 8, Wisdom’s great praise of herself, Solomon will clarify that wisdom is otherworldly. Or more precisely, pre-worldly (Prov 8:22-31). But before he gets there, he makes sure to inform us that wisdom’s effects and benefits are very much this-worldly.

Remember Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back? He gave his student, Luke, a chance to raise his star fighter from the swamp by means of “the Force.” When Luke assumed Yoda was asking the impossible, Yoda proved he was not by performing the task himself. In response to Luke’s exasperated “I don’t believe it,” Yoda’s retort summarizes the problem with other-worldly mysticism: “That is why you fail.”

Do you believe wisdom can make a difference in your life now? Do you understand that wisdom will not take you away from your life but toward it? Wisdom will give you not only the insight but also the motivation and the gumption to do what God wants you to do. And it will be worth it.

Through my study of Proverbs 1-7, I’ve written many posts on what wisdom does, including:

Here in Proverbs 8:12-21, we see 5 things wisdom won’t ever do in this life, according to God’s promise.

Wisdom won’t run out

“I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,
    and I find knowledge and discretion. (Prov 8:12, ESV)

Wisdom dwells with prudence. If she gets lonely, she knows how to find knowledge and discretion. Her friends are legion, and her well of insight cannot dry up. You will never exhaust what wisdom can do for you. Complicated relationship? Unforeseen financial crisis? Physiological changes? Wisdom always has more to offer.

Wisdom won’t pander to pride

The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
    and perverted speech I hate. (Prov 8:13)

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7), setting you on wisdom’s path. The alternate path—the way of evil—has its own beginning, which wisdom despises: pride, arrogance, and perverted speech. Wisdom won’t let you promote yourself with arrogant thoughts or words that pervert the truth about you. This is in your best interest, because God won’t have to oppose you (Prov 3:34).

Wisdom won’t let you down

I have counsel and sound wisdom;
    I have insight; I have strength.
By me kings reign,
    and rulers decree what is just;
by me princes rule,
    and nobles, all who govern justly. (Prov 8:14-16)

Wisdom will strengthen you to execute your responsibility well. Wisdom has both insight and strength. If you are a king, wisdom enables you to reign and make just decrees. If you’re a mere prince or noble, you have the same promise. In other words, if God has given you a responsibility, his wisdom will help you to carry it out.

Wisdom won’t play hard to get

I love those who love me,
    and those who seek me diligently find me. (Prov 8:17)

All you must do is seek her, and she’s yours. What are you waiting for?

Wisdom won’t leave you empty-handed

Riches and honor are with me,
    enduring wealth and righteousness.
My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold,
    and my yield than choice silver.
I walk in the way of righteousness,
    in the paths of justice,
granting an inheritance to those who love me,
    and filling their treasuries.” (Prov 8:18-21)

Wisdom has riches and honor for you, but not the kind of riches and honor you might think. This stuff is enduring wealth (Prov 8:18), nothing less than complete righteousness and favor with God (Prov 8:35).

Here’s the rub: To get what wisdom offers in this world, you must give up what you can get from this world. Since fearing the Lord means giving up all claims to self-righteousness, you must come empty-handed. But the empty hand that loves wisdom becomes a full and bursting treasury (Prov 8:21).

Not Creation but Discovery

Fields of Music

As far as musicians go, I’m an odd bird. I play the trombone, and I’ve performed both solo and in ensembles (jazz, quintet, marching band, symphony, wind ensemble, brass band)—but I couldn’t make it as a performer. I’ve composed a few miserable pieces—but I despise composition.

After getting my bachelor’s degree in music, I almost went to graduate school for the one thing most musicians loathe: music theory. I wasn’t nearly as into creation or expression as I was into investigation. I wanted to know why good music was good and why bad music was bad. I wanted to know not only who the great composers were but also what they did that was so great.

Carl Guderian (2014), Creative Commons

Carl Guderian (2014), Creative Commons

How did Beethoven build an entire symphony (his 5th) off of 4 notes: short-short-short-long? How did Dvorak get an orchestra to play every note of the scale at once and have it still sound good, in the climax of his 9th symphony? How does the rock band Dream Theater move so smoothly between 4/4, 7/8, and 6/8 time?

So I confess my bias is more toward the analytical arts than either the expressive or compositional ones. And I concede that we need all sides for life to be interesting.

But there’s a time and place for each skill. If a composer can’t create, or a performer can’t express, or a critic can’t analyze—that person’s craft is doomed.

What does this have to do with leading Bible studies?

Leading Bible Studies

To switch the metaphor from music to literature: Leading a Bible study is not like a creative writing assignment. Nor is it like a poetry reading. It should be much more like a literature club: reading, discussing, and responding to the author’s thoughts.

In other words, preparing a Bible study should involve much more discovery than creation or expression.

A Bible study is not the place to express yourself or your views of the world—unless you mean them to be examples of bringing every thought captive to Christ. A Bible study is also not about how clever or profound you can be. Your burden is not to come up with something new, but to speak what has already been spoken.

Notice the Apostle Paul’s final charge to the one who would inherit Paul’s ministry:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Tim 4:1-2, ESV)

Paul charges Timothy:

  1. In the presence of God
  2. In the presence of Christ Jesus
  3. In light of Jesus’ impending judgment of all people
  4. Because of Jesus’ appearing
  5. Because of Jesus’ kingdom

As my friend Dave Royes has said, “There is no larger font in the Bible.” Paul could not draw any more attention to this charge than he has drawn. His life’s work, which he passes to the next generation, rests in the following imperative.

And what is the charge? What is so important that Jesus’ appearing and kingdom took place to make it happen? What will impact Jesus’ judgment of both living and dead? For what purpose has God become present in Christ?

That we might preach the word.

You don’t have to write your Bible study; it’s already written for you, and you merely have to discover it. You don’t have to prepare an intriguing sermon; you must uncover what has been said so you can say it.

If you try to be profound, you’ll fail to figure out what God has said (the second practice for preparing effective Bible studies). But those who depend on the Lord are free to speak what he wants them to speak.