How to Tell if Someone Knows God

At a church dinner on Sunday, I was discussing last Friday’s post with an older, wiser gentleman in my congregation. We reflected on the main measure of success for any Bible study: Do people know God better through his Son Jesus Christ? And this good man asked a great question: How do we know whether someone knows God (or knows him “better”)? How does one observe and evaluate such a thing?

The question was neither aggressive nor condescending. This kind brother intentionally stimulated further meditation and consideration of the Scripture. Thank you, Denny!

Easy but Unacceptable Answers

Of course, some answer the question in clearly unbiblical ways:

  • People can’t know God unless they are members of our church.
  • People can’t know God unless they adhere to every specific of a certain extra-biblical creed, doctrinal statement, or code of conduct.
  • People can’t know God unless they use a certain translation of the Bible.
  • People can’t know God unless they are baptized.

Now I’m no hater of church membership, historic Christian creeds, decent Bible translations, or baptism. But reacting against unbiblical abuses of such things is right and true. (For example, consider Paul’s reactions to abuses of circumcision and law in Galatians 5:2-12, 6:14-16.) And it’s not hard to come up with exceptions that disprove each proposed rule.

However, let’s not over-react with equally unbiblical conclusions, such as “I’m not God, and I can’t see people’s hearts. Therefore, I can’t know whether someone truly knows God or not. I won’t play God by even asking the question.”

Though a question as personal and invasive as this can inspire fear in the stoutest heart, let’s not hesitate to speak clearly where God has spoken clearly. What can be more helpful than to have a clear way to observe and evaluate the presence or absence of true faith and knowledge of God?

So what has God spoken on this topic?

Three Clear Tests

Chiceaux Lynch (2007), Creative Commons

Chiceaux Lynch (2007), Creative Commons

God gave us an entire book of the Bible to answer this very question. Consider this explicit purpose statement for John’s first epistle:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

While John intended his Gospel to stimulate faith leading to eternal life (John 20:30-31), he intended his first letter to promote assurance of eternal life for those wondering whether their faith is true faith. As a result, the teaching of 1 John helps us test not only ourselves but also other people, including professing Christians. John doesn’t hesitate to apply his principles to the spirits and teachers within the church to call out the false prophets, devil’s children, and antichrists among the membership (or former membership). The letter’s tagline is “We know.”

John gives three clear and objective tests of genuine faith. He states them early and returns to them repeatedly throughout.

  1. Keeping God’s commandments: the test of personal change.
  2. Loving the brothers: the test of personal affection.
  3. Confessing Christ: the test of personal witness.

The first exposition of the tests occurs in chapter 2: Change (1 John 2:3-6), Affection (1 John 2:7-11), Witness (1 John 2:18-25). But John repeats and develops the three tests repeatedly through the letter, climaxing with his closing statements.

  1. Change: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18).
  2. Affection: “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19). See 1 John 4:7 for John’s definition of what it means to be “from God.”
  3. Witness: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21).

Applying the Tests

As you evaluate whether your Bible study (or any other ministry) was a success, you’ll want to observe attendance figures, participation levels, and the faithfulness of the leaders. But please don’t neglect to ask the most important questions.

  • As a result of the study, do people know God better through his Son Jesus Christ?
  • How do we know?
    • Are people changing to become more like Christ?
    • Do they have more affection for each other, and are they acting on it?
    • Are they more empowered to confess Jesus as the Son of God? Do they firmly believe it, and do they boldly declare it?

John doesn’t expect anyone to be perfect (1 John 1:8-10); neither should we. These questions aren’t concerned with people’s position as much as with their direction. We know that those who head in the right direction in all three areas have eternal life.

Do You Interpret the Bible Literally?

When helping ordinary people learn to study the Bible, the question is inevitable:

Do you interpret the Bible literally?

This is a hard question to answer, and Justin Taylor explains why. He taps into some insight from Vern Poythress—who, coincidentally, endorsed Knowable Wordto list 5 different ways one could interpret a passage “literally.”

  1. Determining the meaning of the words in isolation.
  2. Accepting obvious and explicit figures of speech, but taking a literal meaning if possible.
  3. Discerning the meaning intended by the original author.
  4. Reading the text as if it were written directly to us.
  5. Discounting any possible figurative use of language.

It’s not easy to answer the question of whether we interpret the Bible literally without knowing what the questioner is actually asking. Because of this complexity, Justin Taylor would like to do away with the word literally in discussions about the Bible. What do you think?

Check it out!

Don’t Forget the Gospel During Bible Study

This is not a post about connecting the interpretation of a Bible passage to Jesus. I won’t dwell on considering the work of Christ when applying the truth of Scripture. By God’s grace, you should do both of these things. Today I want to stress the importance of the gospel as it relates to the Bible study process.

postit-1

Success and Failure

At Knowable Word, we’re big fans of the Observation-Interpretation-Application (OIA) Bible study method. It is our goal to help ordinary people learn to study the Bible. We advocate for steps that help you find the author’s main point, connect it to Jesus, and apply that truth to all the musty crawlspaces of your life. Our suggestions are not perfect, but we believe these are sound principles that help us to know God better through his son Jesus.

But what if you forget? How do you react if you jump too quickly to interpretation and don’t spend enough time in careful observation? What happens when you get excited about a pet application and miss the main point? What should you do when you mishandle God’s word?

On the other hand, suppose you follow all of our suggestions to the letter. How do you feel about your personal Bible study then? How does God think about it? Or maybe the Bible study group you are leading had a wonderful meeting—do you carry yourself as though you got a heavenly promotion?

We Always Need the Gospel

The good news of Jesus Christ is not just information that brings us into a relationship with God; we need to know and act on this news in every moment of our Christian lives. Neither is the gospel merely the dessert cart wheeled out at the conclusion of the Bible study meal. We need the gospel from soup to nuts and back into the kitchen.

We tend to hear this exhortation about remembering the gospel and think immediately of our moral behaviors—our successes or failures in the realms of pride, anger, lust, jealousy, and the like. But we need reminders about God’s love, Jesus’s work, and our new identities throughout our lives, and we need to connect these truths to our every endeavor, including studying the Bible.

So as you study the Bible yourself or with a group of other people, here are some ways to remember the gospel.

  1. Our successes do not take us closer to God — If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, God’s love for you is full. You cannot do anything, including following sound Bible study principles, to make God prize you any more. All the proper method, careful listening, and prayerful application in the world will not draw God any closer to you. In your place, Jesus has offered to God all of the obedience you will ever need to be accepted. Interpreting the Bible accurately and applying it thoroughly will lead you into further obedience and greater joy, but God cannot be on your side more than he already is.
  2. Our failures do not cast us away from God — In the same way that God does not love you any more for your successes, he loves you no less for your failures. Whether your errors in Bible study are small or large, you cannot drive God away from you, not even a little. If you have spotted a mistake, you should repent and make efforts to set things right. But God is not distant from you in the meantime; indeed it is his grace that leads you to repentance (Rom 2:4).

    I need this exhortation most as a small group leader. Hours after a study ends I will think of several ways I failed my group. I didn’t connect our interpretation to Jesus; I didn’t make time for specific applications; I talked too much and didn’t ask enough questions. It’s easy for me to be overcome with regret.

    But I need to remember the gospel at these moments. Instead of dwelling on my shortcomings, I try to focus on Jesus. God doesn’t look at me as subpar and inadequate because of my performance; he sees Jesus’s perfect record instead of mine and is completely satisfied. God’s grace is lavish and powerful—strong enough to lift my chin and help me trust him even when my flesh tugs me toward despair.

  3. We are free to offer the grace we’ve been given — Have you ever caught someone yawning or nodding off during your Bible study meeting? Are you frustrated to see your friend fighting the same battles against sin he fought a year ago? Does one member of your small group seem clueless despite your efforts to teach the Bible? Because God has loved you deeply, you are free to pass along love in the same manner. In his love God is patient, long-suffering, and full of forgiveness. Despite your flesh’s desire to complain or lash out in anger or frustration, remembering the gospel will help you to be patient with others in their sanctification even as God is patient with you.

How to Know Whether Your Bible Study was a Success

I want to believe that what I do matters, especially when I’ve put in much time and effort. Don’t you?

And when we lead Bible studies, our common temptation is to measure success in all the wrong ways:

  • Did a lot of people come? Is the group growing? (Acts 19:29-41)
  • Was the meeting exciting? (1 Kings 18:28-29)
  • Did I faithfully speak the truth? (Job 5:8-16, quoted approvingly by Paul in 1 Cor 3:19)
  • Did I follow all the steps and have the right interpretation? (Luke 10:25-29)
  • Do people feel close to each other? (Gen 11:1-9)
  • Are defenses being lowered? (Gen 3:1-7)
  • Are people learning? (2 Tim 3:6-7)
Bernard Goldbach (2011), Creative Commons

Bernard Goldbach (2011), Creative Commons

When I call these the “wrong ways” to measure success, I’m not suggesting any of them are bad things. Merely that they are not the main things. If these things happen, then praise God! But unless the main thing happens, the study was not yet a success.

The main measure of success

What is the main thing? I addressed it early in this series when I explained the main reason to attend a Bible study. I now return to the same goal for evaluating success:

As a result of the study, do people know God better through his Son Jesus Christ?

If you remained faithful to the truth, there’s a good chance you led them to the one who is the Truth. But if you didn’t incarnate love in the process, you made much noise without making an impact. That’s not success.

If a lot of people came and felt comfortable with each other, but their affections and lives weren’t conformed further to Christ’s image, you may have merely accelerated their slide into hell.

If very few people came and you’re patting yourself on the back for standing fast as one of the only truly faithful ones in the land, it might be time to work on sweetening your speech and adding persuasiveness to your lips.

If people learned a lot, terrific. Did the increased knowledge increase their love for God and bolster their commitment to submit to Christ the Lord?

Yeah, but how do you measure it?

You may commit yourself to helping people know God through his Son Jesus Christ. It feels great to make such a commitment, but it still feels vague and idealistic. How do you know whether it’s happening? What is the visible evidence of such success?

In his book Growth Groups, Colin Marshall gives the following diagnostic indicators of a healthy small group. These indicators are most helpful when we remember they are secondary. That is, they don’t define success; they show that success is possible. If these indicators are present, the group might be healthy, and we can get close enough to people to evaluate their progress in knowing God. If these indicators aren’t present, the group is probably not healthy, and we probably can’t get close enough to people to know.

  1. Ownership: each member belongs to the group. People have commitment to the group and concern for the group’s welfare.
  2. Participation: high levels of involvement in discussion. People prepare for the meeting, engage with the discussion, and/or interact deeply with the text.
  3. Openness: honesty in self-disclosure. People feel safe to celebrate success, confess failure, and commit to personal change.
  4. Service: each member using their gifts. People trust each other and all pitch in. They don’t rely on the leader to do all the work.
  5. Achievement: the group goals are being achieved. People pray and work to the end that they would know Christ more and that others would come to know Christ.

I appreciate Marshall’s diagnostic, because it gives me a way to measure the overall health of the group. But, as with a healthy human body, it’s possible to look healthy on the outside without truly being healthy. But with ownership, participation, openness, service, and achievement, our chances are good of peeling back the layers and captivating people’s hearts.

 

50 Observations of John 3:16

I was so proud yesterday when this photo showed up on my Facebook timeline.

John 3-16 bloomSome students, who lead Bible studies for DiscipleMakers Christian Fellowship at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, have been reading Knowable Word together, and they took my challenge from page 42 to make 50 observations of John 3:16. They sent me a photo of this autographed white board to show the fruit of their labors.

My favorites are:

  • #2: “God” is the subject
  • #6: “Whoever” – excludes no-one
  • #11: “Love” is past tense
  • #16: “For” – connector (back to Moses & serpent in verse 15)
  • #22: “God gave” = a choiceBloom DCF
  • #28: “Believe” = theme of John
  • #41: Simplicity

Great job, Huskies! Does anyone else want to flex those observation muscles and give it a try?

(Almost) How the Bible was Meant to be Read

I’m a reader, and I love the Bible. So I was thrilled when I saw Crossway’s announcement for the new ESV Reader’s Bible last summer. I knew I had to get one in time for my annual Bible read-through to begin on January 1. I’m glad I did, because the Reader’s Bible lived up to my expectations.

ESV Reader's BibleSome folks don’t realize how much stuff on the pages of their Bibles isn’t part of the inspired text. Of course, there are obvious mechanisms like page numbers and reference headings that aid navigation. But there are also section headings, footnotes, cross-references, chapter numbers, and verse numbers. Sometimes, there’s also commentary at the bottom of the page.

In addition, we don’t realize how typography (the page layout of the text) impacts the way we read the text. Does each page have one column of text or two? Is the text broken into paragraphs, or does each verse start a new line? How large is the font? Is poetry divided into stanzas, or does it run on and on without a break? Is the poetry set apart with indented lines, or is it printed in a block of text just like prose?

The ESV Reader’s Bible cuts out most of the extraneous conventions and gets most of the typography just right. The result is a Bible that—though it looks just like any other book we read in this generation—doesn’t look very Bible-like to most Bible readers, and thus represents a significant risk on the publisher’s part. Will people buy a Bible that doesn’t look like the Bible they grew up with? Will sales be enough to cover the investment? We should celebrate Crossway’s courage for pushing this venture as far as they did.

After reading the entire book in about 5 weeks’ time, here are my impressions.

  • Reading the Bible was more fun than usual. I usually enjoy the Scripture. I always enjoy my annual saturation in it. But honestly, some of the sheer fun wears off by the end, and I push forward more because I believe in the vision for a quick read than because I’m having fun in the process. But this time, I simply couldn’t put it down because it didn’t feel like reading “the Bible”; it felt like reading a good book. And I love reading good books.
  • I read the entire Bible more quickly than usual—partly because I combined actual reading with listening to an audio version, but also partly because the page layout gave me permission to keep going. In fact the page teased me. It taunted me, suggesting that more plot tension, climax, and resolution lay just around the corner. Without all those huge chapter numbers, verse numbers, and section headings interrupting me and giving me a feeling of arrival, I felt like I could keep reading another section; no—another section; no—another section.
  • The context stood out much more than some of the content. I would pass over some of my favorite verses like an angel of death at midnight, almost forgetting they were there, because I had gotten swept into the bigger picture of the author’s rhetoric. For example, 1 Corinthians 13 came and went before I realized what had happened. I wasn’t so focused on hitting “the love chapter”; I was far more conscious of the clarion call to unity within the church, which is more the point, I think.
  • Using this Bible in discussion groups is a little funky. When I want to observe something, the best help I can give others is, “Look at the sentence in the third paragraph, somewhere around verse 16.” Honestly, though, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. How great would it be if we all stopped thinking of the Bible as a collection of 31,102 separate sayings (verses), and instead thought of it as a collection of 66 short books?

This edition, of course, is not perfect.

  • The paper is way too thin, so the back-side ink shows through and the pages are difficult to turn. However, I’m not sure how else they could have fit 1825 pages into a single volume. This page formatting holds fewer words per page than typical Bible typesetting, and something has to give to manage the physical thickness.
  • For some reason, Crossway decided to keep chapter numbers in the margins. It’s nice that they moved them away from the text block, and that they altered the color. But, as Mark Ward said in his review, “It feels like Crossway made it about five minutes from the summit of Mt. Everest and then decided that was good enough.” I imagine they thought it would be not just difficult but impossible to navigate through the tome without them, but the reference headings at the top of the page would have been just fine.
  • For another strange reason, they decided to keep the suggestive “He,” “She,” and “Others” headings in the Song of Solomon. I wish they had trusted us with the plain text and allowed us to wrestle through exactly who was speaking when.

I commend this Bible to you. I’m a proud owner of the imitation leather, TrueTone edition. But as soon as I finish composing this review, I plan to order a copy of the cloth over board (hardback) edition to serve as my new markup Bible. I’m eager to begin a new season of study with a fresh text, independent of the usual conventions that clog assist study.

TruTone: Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books. (Westminster is usually cheaper, but you won’t be able to add toilet paper to your order there…)

Cloth over board: Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books.

———————–

Disclaimer: The Amazon and Westminster links are affiliate links, so if you click them and buy stuff you’ll help to pay for my new markup copy of the ESV Reader’s Bible.

Look at the Book: Romans 8:28

If you’d like a real treat, watch a skillful student of Scripture in action. Desiring God continues to release a series of videos showing John Piper in the study, examining God’s word in great depth.

He’s working through Romans chapter 8 bit by bit, and spent 3 10-minute sessions on a single, crucial verse: Romans 8:28. This verse is not only one of the most famous verses in the Bible, but also one of the most commonly misunderstood. Piper unpacks the verse, phrase by phrase, explaining the meaning of each phrase in the context of the paragraph.

What to look for: Piper has a keen eye for observation of the text. In these videos, he shows how to notice repeated words, comparisons, contrasts, and connectors. He demonstrates what to do with these observations. He asks terrific questions (“Why does the verse begin with ‘we know’?” “Who are those who ‘love God’?” “What is the ‘good’ that all things work together for?”). He shows how to answer such questions from the text at hand, including the surrounding context. He pulls it all together beautifully in a way that celebrates Paul’s main ideas and honors God’s word. There are many, many things to commend. If you struggle with any of these skills, watch these videos to see how it’s done.

What to look out for: Piper does so much so well, but I think he jumps a little too quickly to many cross-references. Right when his questions get good, he bails from the text at hand and looks for help in other Pauline passages. But the church in Rome wouldn’t have had access to those other letters of Paul’s, and I wonder how they would have wrestled through these questions. And, how do we avoid making unhelpful cross-references (importing meaning from passages that use the same terminology in different ways)?

In the end, I don’t disagree with any of Piper’s conclusions. But I wish he had left a few questions unanswered, being content simply to make statements such as: “This passage doesn’t answer the question of what exactly “God’s calling” means, so we’ll just leave that question for another study in another passage.”

Despite this minor criticism, Piper’s videos have much to commend them. If you’d like to see good observation and interpretation in action, you would do well to check them out!

Buying a Markup Bible

Are you convinced that you should consider using a markup Bible? Such a Bible is an ideal way to begin studying God’s word, as it gives you space to underline, circle, highlight, or write directly on the text of Scripture. A markup Bible frees you from the pressure to preserve the book you’re using and allows you to focus on God’s words.

Using a markup Bible may be as easy as taking one of your current Bibles (or some printouts from Bible Gateway) and applying ink to paper. For most people, there is no need to make another purchase.

bible3

Bill Smith (2014), Creative Commons License

But maybe you don’t have an extra Bible you’re able or willing to set aside for this purpose. This post is for people who are considering buying something new.

What a Markup Bible Should Not Be

In what follows you’ll find several qualities I value in a markup Bible. Allow me one negative suggestion first. Your markup Bible should not be a study Bible.

Judging by the supply, Christians in the U.S. love study Bibles. I think there is a place for a study Bible, but if you aren’t careful, using such a Bible can hamstring your personal study of the Scriptures (as Jen Wilkin so ably argued). So if you’re buying a markup Bible, don’t buy a study Bible. This will help you guard against the presumption that comes from trusting experts to interpret God’s word for you.

What a Markup Bible Need Not Be

Your markup Bible will get a lot of use—that’s the point!—so it will get messy. It will bear the signs of love. This means you won’t miss the genuine leather, the fancy page edges, or the gold-stamped monogram. While you don’t need to snap up the cheapest Bible you can find, you can safely steer away from the high-end Bible market.

Think of it this way. Your child loves to play outside, and you want him appropriately dressed. The clothes he wears will get stained, muddied, and utterly worn through. Will you shop for his play jeans at Target or Ralph Lauren?

What a Markup Bible Should Be

Of the dozens of features to consider, only a few top my list for a good markup Bible.

  • translation — A good translation is vital when studying the Bible closely and paying careful attention to words. Try to choose a Bible version that has a word-for-word translation philosophy.1 Here are a few reliable Bible translations that I recommend for close study: New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), and New King James Version (NKJV).
  • margins — In addition to underlining, circling, and drawing lines between words (these help me observe the text), I frequently write little interpretive questions in the margins of my markup Bible. What does that mean? Why did he write that? Why did he do/say that? So what?

    For most Bibles, margin width is an afterthought. But some newer Bibles are made with oversized margins. These may be advertised as “Journaling Bibles” (see below), but those margins offer generous space for marking and annotating the text.

  • font size — Since a markup Bible is a tool for study and doesn’t need to slide into a purse or a pocket, be sure to buy a Bible with a readable font size. Thinline and pocket-sized Bibles are convenient and popular, but the font size sometimes makes me feel like Isaac in his latter days (Gen 27:1). Make sure you can see the words on the page comfortably so that you can interact with them.

While you might consider other features like cross-references or the color of the words of Jesus, searching for a good translation with a decent font size and generous margins should start you down the path to buying a useful markup Bible.

A Few Recommendations

Without further ado, here are some Bibles you may want to consider as you make a markup Bible purchase. (Prices listed were accurate on Feb 6, 2015 and may change. Unless noted, links direct you to Amazon.com.)

  • NASB Note-Taker’s Bible — Hard cover, 8-point font, wide margins for notes. It’s selling for $25.81 right now. (Buy it at Christianbook.com for $24.99.) You can also find a NKJV version at Amazon ($25.36) or CB ($24.99).
  • ESV Journaling Bible — This has a hard cover, 7.5-point font, ruled margins for notes, and an elastic strap (like a Moleskine journal), selling for $28.79. (Buy it at CB for $23.99 or at WTS for $22.79.)
  • ESV Single Column Journaling Bible — This is a variation on the previous item where the text of Scripture is set in a single column instead of the traditional two columns per page. It’s $30.98 at Amazon, $24.99 at CB, and $23.99 at WTS.
  • ESV Wide Margin Reference Bible — This has an imitation leather cover, 9-point font, and margins on the outside and center. (The previous three items just have wide margins on the outside of the pages, not near the binding.) It’s $40.44 at Amazon, $39.99 at CB, and $35.99 at WTS.
  • ESV Single Column Legacy Bible — This 9-point text is set in a single column with nice margins on the outside and bottom of the page. It comes in several (imitation leather) cover designs and colors. (I’m linking to the burgundy cover, which is the cheapest.) It’s $35.98 at Amazon, $29.99 at CB, and $29.99 at WTS.
  • Pew Bibles — Let’s mix it up for the final suggestions. None of these pew Bibles have wide margins. However, they’re significantly cheaper than the previous items and they have the Large Print option available. These are all hardcover.
    • ESV Value Pew Bible — 8-point font, $10.64 at Amazon, $7.99 at CB, and $7.19 at WTS
    • ESV Pew & Worship Bible — 9-point font, contains some responsive readings, $11.83 at Amazon, $9.99 at CB, and $9.59 at WTS (Buy the large-print version—12-point font—for $18.96 at Amazon, $15.99 at CB, or $14.99 at WTS.)
    • NASB Pew Bible — 8-point font, $7.99 at Amazon, $7.49 at CB (Buy the large-print version—10-point font—for $11.66 at Amazon or $10.99 at CB.)
    • NKJV Pew Bible — I cannot find the font size for this, even on the manufacturer’s page! It’s $10.67 at Amazon and $9.99 at CB. (The large-print version of this Bible is called “Giant Print,” and you can buy it for $13.37 at Amazon or $11.99 at CB.)

Footnote

  1. The other major translation philosophy is thought-for-thought, and you can see most translations listed on the spectrum between the two here. You can also go here (scroll down) to find a translation comparison chart and to see some verses in many different translations. 

Disclaimer: The Amazon and WTS links in this post are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy something after clicking through our link, we get a small percentage of the purchase price. It’s an easy and helpful way to support the site!

Community-Building Ideas for Your Bible Study

At the risk of sounding falsely humble, I must admit I don’t have this community-building thing figured out. I have co-laborers in my church and in my ministry who are far better at fostering healthy community than I. (Though I’ll also admit I’m better than many of them at knowing the previous sentence should end with “I” and not “me.”) However, none of them were available in time for publication, and you’re stuck with me. Here are a few helpful ideas I’ve picked up over the years:

Jeff Helsel (2012), Creative Commons

Jeff Helsel (2012), Creative Commons

1. Love must reach beyond the timeframe of the Bible study meeting. If people think I care about them only during the 90 minutes allotted to our meeting, they’ll learn to limit their care for one another to the same time slot.

2. Take initiative. Ask people how they’re doing. Remember what they tell you so you can ask them again later. If someone is disengaged from the group, ask a direct question to draw that person back.

3. Ask people to participate. When people are good at something, find ways to ask them to keep doing it for the group. Give them jobs, and with them will come a greater sense of ownership in the group.

4. Have fun together. If you don’t yet have a sense of humor, buy one. People get exhausted when their conversation with you is always very serious and deep. You’ll seem more human when they can lower their defenses and simply have fun.

5. Ask them to observe. If someone is struggling, ask others (without breaking confidences, of course) how they think that person is doing. Ask those people what they think would best serve the struggler.

6. Give them real people responsibility. Ask people to play a part in each others’ lives. “Could you get lunch with Robert for a few weeks to encourage him through this difficult time?”

7. Serve together. Find tasks or service projects that need to be done in your church or community, and work on them together with your group. Nothing lowers defenses and grows relationships more than a little sweat and shared service, especially when you get outside of your normal routine together.

8. Celebrate criticism. My former pastor Tedd Tripp once told me that when someone criticizes him or the church, it means God has gifted that person in that area. (If you’re gifted at something, you’re likely to think the people around you aren’t very good in that area.) So he always thanks them and thanks God for them. Then he asks them to help fix it. Perhaps God put them here for that very purpose. This advice is good for leaders of all stripes. Don’t get defensive; choose to celebrate any and all criticism of you or your leadership.

My Favorite Way to Read the New Testament

I’m in the thick of my 5th annual Bible romp, and I just hit the New Testament. This year, I decided to read the Old Testament in canonical order (the order they’re found in most Bibles) so I could try out my nice new ESV Reader’s Bible. (I’m loving it; here’s my full review.)

Jordan Klein (2007), Creative Commons

Jordan Klein (2007), Creative Commons

Now that I’m in the New Testament, I couldn’t resist going back to my favorite way to read it. Going straight from Matthew to Revelation is fine, of course. But I love considering the New Testament along four tracks:

  • Track #1: Matthew, Hebrews, James, Jude
  • Track #2: Mark, 1 Peter, 2 Peter
  • Track #3: Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
  • Track #4: John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Revelation

There’s nothing magical about these four tracks, but I find them helpful in showcasing and explaining the message of Christ in four specific ways.

  • Track 1 focuses explicitly on how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament and led Jews into the new covenant. Those familiar with the Old Testament tend to love this track.
  • Track 2 focuses on Peter’s eyewitness testimony to scattered Jewish converts to Christianity. Established religious folks often benefit from this track.
  • Track 3 focuses on Paul’s witness to Christ and his ministry to the Gentiles. No-nonsense folks who love to have all the facts tend to love this track.
  • Track 4 focuses on John’s eyewitness testimony to scattered Jews, seeking to persuade them of Jesus’ messiahship and to assure them amid great persecution. Young believers and unbelievers exploring Jesus often benefit from this track.

Since all Scripture is profitable for all men and women, I don’t want to pigeonhole these tracks too narrowly. But noticing some general trends and connections (for example, that Peter was the source for much of Mark’s material) can help us to digest the major threads and to target our ministries in ways similar to the apostles who wrote these books. Also, it helps us to remember there are multiple ways to present Jesus to the world, depending on the type of people we seek to reach.

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