Let Down Your Guard to Keep Up the Fight

In the classic image of a gray, moat-encircled castle, the drawbridge is a crucial defense tool. When the bridge is up, enemies are exposed and archers have the advantage.

In this position the castle is isolated and cannot receive any food, supplies, or correspondence. Though dropping the bridge makes the castle vulnerable, a fearful king who won’t let others inside is in trouble of a different kind. The king falls if the bridge doesn’t.

Your Heart is a Castle

Georges Jansoone (2006), Creative Commons License

Georges Jansoone (2006), Creative Commons License

We shield our hearts from others without thinking. On one level, this is natural—we don’t need to reveal deep secrets in every conversation.

But some people don’t let anyone across the drawbridge. We need community to apply the Bible, and at its core a community is a network of close, honest friendships. Letting down our guard is difficult, but it isn’t just a nice idea to consider—it’s essential to growing as a Christian. Without friendships, our hearts starve like the paranoid king.

Small Group Prayer

A small group is an important place to build Biblical community. Your fellow group members may not start out as your dearest friends. But as you meet regularly and discuss the most important topics in the world, you create an environment where transformational vulnerability is possible.

Even a brief period of prayer can promote honest sharing in your group. These opportunities can embolden people to disclose themselves in ways that mark true friendship.

The group leader should encourage prayer requests that cannot be delivered in another setting. You can learn about Bob’s aunt’s cat’s bunion surgery by email without missing an opportunity to care for Bob. But when Bob confesses his anger or loneliness or gluttony, you are better equipped to bear his burden and love him if you can look him in the eyes and draw him into a conversation.

Assignment #1: Find one personal item to share during your next small group prayer time. What are the areas of your life in which you see great need for repentance and growth? How can you strengthen your group with stories of God’s provision or his deliverance from an entangling sin (Heb 12:1, NASB)?

Applying the Bible

Effective Bible study involves careful observation, intense interpretation, and penetrating application. Though it is the most uncomfortable part of the process, if we skip application we’ve missed the point.

Applying the Bible is more than just saying “pray more,” “read my Bible regularly,” “trust in Jesus,” or “focus on the Lord in everything.” Amen to these exhortations, but when application is not concrete it’s like trying to visit Greenland by “going north.”

Friends within your small group can help you get specific, but you need to open the door before they can walk through. Here are two keys: practicing application on your own, and being willing to discuss application (past and future) in detail.

The vocabulary isn’t all that important, but the more familiar you are with the categories of application, the more broadly and thoroughly others will be able to address your concerns during your small group meeting. As part of this process you must anticipate the particular resistance your flesh offers to change. If you can pinpoint your tendencies, you can enlist help to combat them.

You also need to be able to talk about application with your friends. When the Holy Spirit helps us connect the main point of a passage to an area of disobedience in our lives, we need to push through the fear and feelings of exposure that often ride shotgun. If you are willing to be specific about your sin and answer questions from your group members, you will be that much closer to the obedience you seek.

Assignment #2: For your next small group meeting, read the relevant Bible passage ahead of time and prepare some personal applications to discuss with your group. Remember that vulnerability inspires vulnerability, and if one person in a group is willing to talk honestly, others will as well.

Why Elihu is So Mysterious

At a recent pastor’s conference on the book of Job, a leader asked the attendees whether the speeches of Elihu (Job 32-37) should be trusted, like God’s (Job 38-41), or discarded, like those of Job’s three friends (Job 4-5, 8, 11, 15, 18, 20, 22, 25). The show of hands was evenly divided. I couldn’t believe my eyes; every attendee was fully committed to studying and explaining God’s word carefully, and yet there was a widespread and fundamental disagreement on how to read a significant part of the book of Job.

Have you wondered how to read Elihu? Can we get to the bottom of the mystery?

Let Me Introduce Elihu

Anirban Ray (2013), Creative Commons

Anirban Ray (2013), Creative Commons

He pops on the scene out of nowhere: “Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger” (Job 32:2). He speaks a few times and then vanishes. God clearly vindicates Job and condemns Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (Job 42:7-8), but he says nothing about Elihu.

Casual readers of Job barely notice Elihu. If they have the guts not to skip from chapter 2 to chapter 38, their eyes glaze over long before they meet Elihu in chapter 32. They sink in a bog of poetry; words swirl together into an indistinguishable mire, and Elihu comes and goes while readers are still gasping for air. Some don’t realize he’s not one of the “three friends.”

In addition, we’re clearly told that Elihu is young (Job 32:4, 6), raving mad (Job 32:2, 3, 5 – four times!), and full of criticism for Job (Job 33:12, 34:7-8, 34:35-37, etc.). Yet God clearly claims that Job has “spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7-8). What’s all the fuss? This case should be closed.

Why Elihu is Just Like the Other Three

Here is the main challenge: Elihu draws the same conclusion as Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. That’s why many interpreters think Elihu is just like them.

Eliphaz: “Job has sinned” (Job 4:7, 15:4-6, 22:5).

Bildad: “Job has sinned” (Job 8:5-6, 18:4).

Zophar: “Job has sinned” (Job 11:6, 20:29).

Elihu: “Job has sinned” (Job 34:7, 37; 35:16).

Of course, the reader knows Job has not sinned: “There is none like [Job] on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8, 2:3). But Elihu charges him with sin, just as the other three do. What’s all the fuss? This case should be closed.

Why Elihu is Just Like God

Though God clears Job of all charges (Job 42:7-8), notice that his declaration comes after Job repents in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). Before this repentance, God calls Job a faultfinder (Job 40:2) who speaks without knowledge (Job 38:2) and puts God in the wrong (Job 40:8).

Elihu also desires to justify Job of all charges (Job 33:32). He accuses Job of finding fault with God (Job 33:9-11), speaking without knowledge (Job 34:35), and putting God in the wrong (Job 34:5-6, 36:23).

Why Elihu is Not Like the Other Three

Though their conclusion is the same, their arguments are completely different. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar perpetually argue: “Before you began suffering, you must have sinned.” Elihu’s case is different: “Since you began suffering, you have sinned.” The three concern themselves with Job’s hidden conduct; Elihu concerns himself with Job’s present speech.

We can see the difference in the evidence they bring. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have no evidence, only presumption, though Job begs them for the merest shred (Job 6:28-30). Elihu, however, constantly brings specific evidence to support his charges: “You say…You say…You say…You say…” (Job 33:8-11, 33:13, 34:5-6, 35:2-3, 36:23).

The poet signals a difference in the number of speeches and responses he gives to each character. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar get no more than three speeches apiece, with the speeches growing shorter as the book progresses. Elihu gets four speeches. Job refutes every speech of the three with eight speeches of his own; Job never responds to Elihu’s speeches, though Elihu asks for a response (Job 33:32-33).

Elihu himself distances himself from the other three. Furious at the stalemate and their inability to answer Job, Elihu promises he has something new to say: “[Job] has not directed his words against me, and I will not answer him with your speeches” (Job 32:14). The poet likewise distances Elihu from the other three. In one of the few narrative and evaluative statements of the book, he declares that Elihu “burned with anger also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong” (Job 32:3).

Conclusion

Confusion abounds over Elihu because he sounds like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, drawing the same conclusion: Job has sinned. But as we penetrate the poetry, we see that what Elihu means by his conclusion is not what they mean by it. His four speeches ring with incredible truth desperately needed by any innocent sufferer:

  • God has not been silent; he speaks through your pain (Job 32-33).
  • God is not unjust; he will eventually strike the wicked (Job 34).
  • Righteous living is not pointless, though we are insignificant next to God (Job 35).
  • You’re in no place to criticize God; remember to fear him (Job 36-37).

And God reinforces Elihu’s fourth point with some of his most aggressive and fear-inducing words in all the Bible (Job 38-41). May we all repent of justifying ourselves and remember to fear him.

Panel Discussion: Bible Study for Ordinary People

Last week I had the privilege to join a live panel discussion about Bible study for ordinary people on Innovate 4 Jesus live. Joining me was Rebecca Van Noord, editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine, and Nate Smoyer, Team Lead of Partnerships and Advertising of Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software.

Over the course of the hour, we hit many topics, such as:

  • why we should study the Bible
  • what inductive Bible study is all about
  • how to teach children to study the Bible
  • how to use commentaries well
  • what we’ve seen work well in our churches
  • how pastors and church leaders can encourage good Bible study

This discussion was surreal for me, as Bible Study Magazine is my favorite magazine. It was so much fun to have this discussion with Rebecca Van Noord, BSM’s editor-in-chief. I see her photo inside the cover of every issue, and there she was for me to interact with!

Check it out!

Teach Your Preschoolers to Have Devotions

On a recent drive home, I had the following conversation with my 6-year-old daughter:

What did you learn at baseball practice tonight?

Lots of things!

Like what?

The same thing I learn at every practice.

And what is it that you learn at every practice?

I don’t remember…

No wonder she has to relearn it at every practice.

This is how shepherding children usually feels: seeking clarity, repeating things, practicing skills, and repeating things. Training our children to walk with God is no different. We can start early, promote good habits, and practice those habits year after year. The rare “Aha!” moments are glorious, but most of our parenting will consist of innumerable “try it again” moments.

Preschoolers are Ready for More

Let’s not wait for the children to be ready to walk with the Lord before encouraging them to start practicing. If God placed them in your family, they are ready. Of course you should address matters of belief, character, and wisdom as you have opportunity. And from the children’s earliest days you can train them to hear God’s voice and respond to it.

Let’s say you’d like to hand your children a Bible and teach them to use it. You’d love to give them a handsome devotional page and begin coaching a new season. And though you are ready for this step, your children are not. They would stare blankly at the indecipherable runes and hieroglyphs and ask you where the pictures are. Your child cannot yet read.

What do you do?

Illiteracy is No Obstacle

We’ve found four things helpful in our household. I’d love to hear your ideas as well.

1. Read to them

You can read the Bible as a family. You can read one-on-one. You can read in groups. Whatever it takes, however it works best for you, read the Bible to them.

The key, as always, is to read the Bible. Supplement their Bible intake with children’s Bibles, but don’t limit the children to the supplements. Like a good Amish cook, keep the grease right in that pan and don’t ever wash it out. Let your instruction simmer in the caloric, fatty goodness of God’s own words. Your children will get used to them and be able to understand them. These children are much smarter than we think they are.

For example, I had a child who consistently resisted instruction from us. He would get distracted and make excuses, refusing to hear counsel. We disciplined him when appropriate, but we clearly needed something more. So I had a private devotional time with this child in James 4:6-7. This child could not read, but he could understand that God would oppose him if he was proud. He knew he wouldn’t win if God fought against him, and the Scripture softened his heart toward us.

2. Read near them

Children will imitate what they see. It’s nice if they know you go into a room alone to have time with Jesus, but it’s even better if they can see you spend time with Jesus day after day. Soon enough, their play time will include “time with Jesus,” and they’ll find “Bibles” to carry around with them.

3. Have others read to them

My wife knew our kids would learn to use technology before they learned to read, so she taught them how to use a simple mp3 player. We loaded it with nothing but an audio Bible, and asked them to listen to it every morning. She would give them a track number (Bible chapter) for the day, and they would draw pictures while listening. But their drawings would take longer than a single track/chapter, so they’d hear multiple chapters in a row. The next day, she’d give them the next assigned chapter, which would involve some repetition from the day before. (In other words, on the day for Exodus 15, they’d hear Exodus 15-18. The next day would be “Exodus 16,” but they would hear Exodus 16-19.)

In these pictures, we’ve seen Noah carrying animals onto his boat, Abraham watching the stars, and Israel fleeing from “Ejip.”

Whales and drowning soldiers in the Red Sea, while long lines of Israelites pass through on dry ground (Exodus 14):

Red Sea

People gathering manna, baking it in the oven, and fighting Amalekites (Exodus 16):

Manna

4. Work it into their routines

Whatever you do should become routine (not mindless but regular). The more repetitive it gets, the more normal and expected it will be. And how many of us wish our time in Scripture and in prayer would feel normal and natural?

To be clear, our family life is not one of complete Bible bliss. We still eat dinner, watch Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and play baseball. We build legos, and we fight. But we try to organize life around the Scripture in basic and repetitive ways.

Here’s your chance to help the next generation. May they rise up and call you blessed.

Two-Word Summaries of Every Bible Chapter

In DiscipleMakers, we train our collegiate missionaries to both master and be mastered by the Scriptures. One exercise we use involves chapter summaries. Within their first three years, new missionaries are expected to read the entire Bible and create a list of summaries for every chapter. Though there’s a difference between a summary and a main point, we need to master the “what” of Scripture before we can be mastered by its “why.”

In 2014, Pastor Gregg Peter Farah blogged his way through every chapter of the Bible, summarizing each chapter in one or two words. You can find the results on his blog.

Along with the two-word summary, he included a one-sentence “big idea” and a brief “next step” attempting to apply the chapter. While Farah’s extreme brevity occasionally misses the mark, I think much of the time he absolutely nails it. For example:

Ephesians 2
SUMMARY
Incomparable riches

BIG IDEA
The more we grow in our faith the more we will see and understand God’s outrageous love for us.

NEXT STEP
Keep growing and going with Jesus. Have a hunger to know him more and be ready to be overwhelmed by his blessings.

Remember, he is summarizing (observing), not interpreting. So his Old Testament summaries don’t say much about Christ or the gospel. This often leads his application to be not as rich as it could be. But for brief, clear statements of what each chapter says, Farah does well.

The blog format can be difficult to follow, requiring much scrolling to find particular chapters. But if you use his search bar (upper right) to find “Bible summary [name of Bible book]”, you’ll make it easier.

Check it out!

P.S. For DiscipleMakers staff: No plagiarizing these great summaries!

HT: Jeffrey Kranz

 

How to Ruin a Small Group Discussion in 4 Easy Steps

You know what’s fun? Ruining good things. Like squirting mustard on ice cream. Or playing The Four Seasons on kazoos.

good Bible study group can be a blessing to the people who attend—so let’s put a stop to that. Since many benefits of a small group come through the interaction between group members, we’ll focus our disruptive energy there.

Susan Sermoneta (2005), Creative Commons License

Susan Sermoneta (2005), Creative Commons License

Having a fruitful, Bible-centered discussion is hard—many details must fall into place, and several people need to catch the same vision. But ruining a discussion is easy. It takes only one person! Just a few of the techniques below will do the trick.

Hijack the Discussion

Like any conversation, Bible study discussions can be spoiled with a simple disregard for manners.

So here’s the first suggestion: Drive the conversation off topic. It doesn’t matter where you steer—just yank the wheel. If you’re a novice, turn the discussion to yourself: your history, fears, afflictions, regrets, or heroes. With some practice, you’ll be ready for the next level: introducing issues that appear to be on-topic. For example, when studying one of Paul’s prayers, question how prayer works instead of discussing the substance of his prayer.

Achieve expert status by using controversial topics. Season your remarks with hot-button issues for maximum distraction. Be careful not to visit the same well too often lest you become the end-times guy and your leader nip your efforts in the bud.

Shut Down the Discussion

If you’re serious about ruining a conversation, put yourself above the group. Here are two ways to assert your importance.

First, monopolize the discussion. When the leader asks a question, jump right in. Ramble through your responses, and leave little time for others. (Pro tip: Avoid eye contact with your leader. Good leaders can warn monopolizers with a look.)

Second, spurn the discussion. Broadcast your disdain lest anyone think you’re just quiet. Hold your head in your hands. Sigh. Yawn. Communicate that the questions are either ridiculous or beneath you. Create a distraction without going so far that you’re asked to leave.

Starve the Discussion

Lively, significant discussions need an engaged, honest group. A wise leader will start the game of catch, but he shouldn’t need the ball often.

To maim the discussion, keep the dialogue shallow. Don’t listen to others or follow up after any responses. Push the conversation in academic or intellectual directions. Insulate yourself and others from applying the Bible or discovering where application is needed.

Cripple the Discussion

It’s time for your trump card. Instead of just being impolite, the most insidious way to demolish a small group discussion is to misuse the Bible.

Ignore your Bible. Give your “gut response” to questions. Talk about “what the passage means to me.” Don’t ask anyone to justify their answer from the Bible, and learn to deflect if this question comes to you.

Give Sunday school answers. Most answers in a first-grade Sunday School class are either “God,” “sin,” “love,” “trust in Jesus,” “be nice to my sister,” or “obey my parents.” Grab some of these or their grown-up equivalents (“read the Bible,” “focus on the Lord”), and let the clichés commence. Offer Christian-sounding responses without the trouble of engaging the text.

Invoke your Bible’s study notes. Don’t use the notes as an aid—assert them as a final authority. This is most effective when the notes contradict a recent response.

Chase cross references. When your leader asks an interpretive question, blurt out some verses from your Bible’s cross references. Don’t look at the context; you only need the same English word in both places.

Don’t study the Bible. As a summary, this suggestion is your most powerful tool. Make sure that you don’t observe, interpret, or apply the Bible with any care or concern. Also, stay away from certain blogs that promote these behaviors.

NIrV Study Bible for Kids: Fine for What it Does

NIrV Study Bible for KidsAs soon as our children can read, my wife and I are committed to giving them each a Bible and teaching them how to use it. Four of our five now have full title to their own copies of the Good Book, and said property has quickly become used, bumped, beaten, carried about, dropped, and otherwise handled with great frequency and fervor. Just as we’d hoped. (Hardbacks are a must at these young ages.)

The first two children to reach this milestone won themselves the ESV Grow! Bible, which appears to be out of print now and drawing a high price on Amazon. I wouldn’t recommend capitulating, though. The Bible has a solid hipster feel to it, but there’s generally too much on the page. Kids can struggle to figure out which words are Bible words and which words are not.

Because that design was too busy, we took a different route with the third child and provided her with the ESV Children’s Bible. This Bible is nice and clean, giving full attention to the sacred text while peppering it with full-page pictures of key stories. This was great for her, but we still found our new reader struggling with the ESV translation. The words were too big, the sentences were too long, and she regularly lost her place. She often gave up and went back to board book children’s Bibles.

So we changed it up altogether for the fourth child. While our church uses the ESV, we wanted to make sure our child would develop motivation to read on her own. And since we had no problem with simplified children’s paraphrases (like those found in the board books or in The Jesus Storybook Bible), we decided to try a simplified translation keenly focused on being clear. We went with the NIrV.

Now our 3rd child (6 years old) and our 4th child (almost 5 years old) generally share the NIrV. Both love it and can read it well. Just the other day, I overheard my 6-year-old reading about designing the priest’s clothes in Exodus 28. She had a blast with it, and I’m all about encouraging such delight in even the stranger parts of the Bible.

I was delighted to receive a free copy of the NIrV Study Bible for Kids from BookLookBloggers.com in exchange for an honest review. Small price to pay to get a second NIrV in the house.

I like many things about this Bible:

  • My youngest readers can read it well on their own.
  • The “study Bible” parts of it aren’t too bossy. Full-page pictures are scattered throughout. There is generally one small box of extras every 4-5 pages (though the frequency is higher in the gospels).
  • The extras highlight memory verses or simple cultural facts that children can relate to.
  • Books have one-paragraph introductions followed by a list of “good verses [really, passages] to read” within the book.
  • The front has two pages to orient young children to the Bible’s layout.
  • The physical volume has a sturdy cover and binding.

This edition has limitations, of course.

  • I love it for beginning readers, but I want to graduate these children to another translation as soon as they’re ready for it.
  • I tried to read Ephesians in one sitting, and it drove me nuts. Because the sentences are so short, many words must be repeated, thus making the text longer than other translations. For example (I’ve italicized the repetitions that don’t show up in most translations):

God’s grace has saved you because of your faith in Christ. Your salvation doesn’t come from anything you do. It is God’s gift. It is not based on anything you have done. No one can brag about earning it. We are God’s creation. He created us to belong to Christ Jesus. Now we can do good works. Long ago God prepared these works for us to do. (Eph 2:8-10, NIRV)

  • For these reasons, we’ll never read the NIrV out loud as a family. The children do just fine listening to adults reading a mature translation.

But that said, I must agree with the NIrV’s preface: “People who are just starting to read will understand and enjoy the NIrV.” For it’s intended purpose, it’s great. I’m happy to recommend it as a stepping stool, but not as a cornerstone, for early childhood Bible education. 3 out of 5 stars.

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Disclaimer: The Amazon links are affiliate links. If you click them and buy stuff, you’ll enable us to continue blogging about our children’s Bible reading habits. “It is not that I want your gifts. What I really want is what is best for you” (Phil 4:17, NIRV).

Free Ebook: Taking God at his Word

Taking God at His WordUntil July 14, Crossway is giving away Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung as a free ebook. This book is a short, clear, and powerful explanation of what the Bible says about the Bible. If you read ebooks, you should get this one.

Download it from Crossway by completing their short questionnaire and joining their mailing list here. (You can always unsubscribe if you don’t want their emails, right?)

You can find my review of the book here.

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Using the Bible in the Homosexuality Debate

The debate on same-sex marriage rages not only in the U.S. government but also within the church. Confusion abounds regarding whether God approves or opposes same-sex unions.

Last month, The New York Times took a few of the key Bible verses used in the debate, along with explanations from a proponent for each side. This article is not the final word on the topic. It doesn’t necessarily represent the most sound articulation of either viewpoint. But it shows us, without a doubt, how critical the Scriptures are to the debate. One cannot truly claim to follow God without submitting to his word.

But how do we know if we’re interpreting it correctly?

The article touches on Romans 1:26-27, Leviticus 18:22, Matthew 19:3-6, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

Are these teachers reading each passage in context? Have they observed carefully enough? Are they doing justice to the authors’ main points? Is their application sound?

Read, study, and consider. How would you respond to each? (Please note: Trollish comments, or those that don’t address the Scriptures, will be deleted.)

Check it out.

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