This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When It Rains, It Pours

We have various ways of expressing the same basic idea. “When it rains, it pours.” “Trouble comes in sets of three.” “One step forward and two steps back.” “Kick me while I’m down.” Whichever phrase we use (and I’m sure there are more), we are expressing the idea that troubles sometimes seem to pile on top of each other or bunch up in greater than normal quantities.

Sometimes we see these mounting or multiplied troubles because we are looking for them. If two bad things happen, and we expect a third, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to find something to meet our expectation. If we get into a negative rut, it becomes very easy to see the world through mud-spattered glasses. Not always, however, are these collections of trials in our imaginations. There are times in our lives when an assortment of troubles do intersect. That’s the bad news.

What’s the good news? The good news is that God is keenly aware of every combination of troubles. Not one challenge slips past His watchful gaze. God knows that each added attack causes increased pressure. Meeting five such situations at once is harder than meeting just one. God knows the solution to multiplied trials. We need God’s grace to face the assaults, and God knows that. He freely and generously gives His grace in times of trouble. He also gives His grace in measure to the situation. That is, when troubles increase, God also increases His bestowment of grace.

We may sometimes think, “If one more thing happens, I won’t be able to handle it.” Correct. Certainly we can’t handle it in our own strength, but neither can we handle it with the amount of grace we currently have. So when the new thing happens, God gives more grace to meet the additional needs. He will not leave us lacking.

“When it rains, it pours.” Our primary interpretation of that saying is that when bad things happen, look out, because more bad things are on the way. As Christians, we can have a different, and much happier, interpretation. When the trials of life come down like rain, God pours out His grace upon us in abundant amounts. We don’t need to dread the rain when God so bountifully supplies us with the grace we need.

“For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.” II Corinthians 1:5 (NASB)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Old Testament Context: Part 1

In looking at how the Old Testament books fit together, I have divided them into three segments. The first is early history, the years preceding the Jewish kingdom. This period lasts nearly 3000 years and is probably the easiest to keep straight, because it starts with Genesis and continues straight through Ruth. These books fall in order chronologically as they appear in the Bible, with only Ruth and Job as exceptions.

GENESIS: Starting with creation around 4000 B.C., Genesis covers the longest time frame of any book, ending around 1800-1700 B.C. It is a book of beginnings: the beginning of the world, of the human race, of the conflict between God and man, of God’s promised redemptive plan, of civilization, and of the Jewish nation. Genesis is also a book of promises. These promises, linked to redemption, are given to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. While covering many years, Genesis has few major characters. Adam and Eve’s story in creation and the fall is followed by characters about whom little is known. Ten generations bring us to Noah: Adam, Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah. The story of Noah and the flood is followed by a list of the next ten generations: Shem, Arphaxad, Salah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah, Abraham. The remaining major characters are the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. We see the beginning of the Jewish race through the choosing of Abraham, the very slow growth of the nation of Israel through Isaac and Jacob, and God’s preserving of the Jewish race through Joseph. The book ends with the growing nation having moved from Canaan to Egypt to escape a terrible famine.

JOB: Chronologically, Job is commonly considered to fall during the time of Genesis. This seems likely, as after the nation of Israel is started, we don’t typically see believers of God except in the context of Israel. Job is a strong believer, noted by God Himself as being without equal. With God’s permission and oversight, Satan brings horrific attacks against Job – destroying his wealth, his possessions, his family, and his health. Job struggles under those attacks, but ultimately recognizes that God does not have to explain Himself. Job submits to God, after which God restores and increases blessings upon him. Satan desires to destroy and discredit the possibility for a reconciled relationship with God, but the story of Job illustrates that Satan is wrong. God’s plan is good, and it will work.

EXODUS: Chapter 1 provides a transition between Joseph and Moses. God is preparing to return His people to Canaan after their 400 years in Egypt. Originally a nurturing setting for the young nation, Egypt has become a place of oppressive slavery. This book is a highlight of God’s plan, as God brings deliverance so amazing that no one would have dreamed it possible. The action of the story, with Moses as the primary character, likely takes place in less than a year (1400s B.C.). Moses, a Jew brought up in the palace of Egypt, obeys God’s instructions by confronting Pharaoh about delivering the Israelites. When Pharaoh consistently refuses, God sends a series of ten plagues that devastate Egypt. Finally forced by Pharaoh to flee, the Israelites are miraculously delivered at the Red Sea. The remainder of the book describes the first part of the journey toward Canaan, with its trials and God’s provision for this multitude in the wilderness. As the Israelites camp at Mt. Sinai, God gives the law and His instructions for the tabernacle they were to build as their place of worship. The book ends with the establishment of the tabernacle.

LEVITICUS: The book of Leviticus does not move the story line of Israel forward. It is a record of what God revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai – the types of sacrifices, the rules for living, and the system of worship.

NUMBERS: This book picks up the action where Exodus left off and continues the story of Israel’s journey to Canaan. The first several chapters tell about the census of the people and some more laws; in chapter 7 we come to the dedication of the tabernacle. After a few more incidents, the Israelites arrive at the edge of Canaan. Ten of twelve spies bring back a report that conquest of the land is impossible; because of the unbelief of the people, God sends them into the desert to wander for forty years. The book ends as God brings the next generation back to the border of the land in preparation for conquest.

DEUTERONOMY: Like Leviticus, Deuteronomy does not carry the story line forward. These are Moses’ final words to Israel as they are on the brink of conquest. He reminds them of what God has done and challenges them to obey God and conquer the land. He reminds them of the law they are to keep; he tells of the blessings if they keep it and of the consequences if they don’t. These final words of caution, encouragement, challenge, and instruction come graciously from Moses, though he knows he will not enter the land with them. The book ends with his death.

JOSHUA: Now in the early 1400s B.C., the story shifts to Joshua, the next leader of Israel. The book begins with the crossing of the Jordan River and the initial victory at Jericho. Joshua is a book of battles and conquests, in which the Israelites win the land from the heathen nations that were established there. The territories for each tribe are established. The book closes with Joshua’s final challenge to the people to remain faithful to God, followed by Joshua’s death.

JUDGES: Judges covers about 300 years immediately following the end of Joshua. In some ways a sad book, it recounts the repeated failure of Israel to follow God instead of false gods. The Israelites had not thoroughly defeated their enemies, and they were influenced by the remaining heathen nations. There is a cycle of rebellion, oppression by other nations, cries for help, and relief. God keeps His redemptive plan alive by continuing to deliver His people. He does this through a series of judges (or deliverers), 14 of whom are named: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson. This book concludes this segment of Jewish history and leaves us around 1100 B.C., prepared for the kingdom to be established.

RUTH: The story of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges and describes a Jewish family who moves to Moab during a famine. The sons marry foreign wives before the husband and both sons die. Ruth, one of the daughters-in-law, returns to Bethlehem with Naomi. There she marries Boaz, the great-grandfather of King David. The story gives the assurance that Gentiles are also included in God’s redemptive plan.

As a whole, this group of books shows the need for redemption and the introduction to that plan. We see man’s sin and failures. A few people stand out because of their righteous living, and God uses these people within His plan. We also see God’s promises that He will bring redemption. We see the initial steps in that process, as God chooses the Jewish people, increases them as a nation, delivers and helps them. These are the critical beginnings of the nation through whom God has promised to bring the Redeemer. God is able to move His plan forward in spite of man’s rebellion, Satan’s opposition, slavery and servitude to other nations, and even sojourns of His people in foreign countries. While the stories focus primarily on the big group, we also see God’s personal intervention in the lives of individuals, such as Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Job, and Ruth.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Plot Pyramid

The Bible is much more than literature, but it is written by a master Author; we can therefore use the terminology and tools of literature to help us understand and appreciate it. The Bible’s protagonist (main character or “good guy”) is God. The antagonist (person in conflict with the main character or “bad guy”) is mankind. Any story revolves around the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist; in this case, there is the glaring reality of sin, which causes a division between God and man. The Bible deals with this conflict and the path toward achieving resolution.

Literature analysis utilizes a plot pyramid to map the development of a story. The first element is the exposition. This is the “once upon a time” part of the story or the introduction; its purpose is to introduce the characters and the setting. In the Bible, this is Genesis 1-2. Though a very small part of the Bible, these chapters provide a firm and complete foundation for understanding the coming conflict. We are introduced to both God and man. We see that God existed before man and is the almighty creator of all things, including man. This supremely powerful God placed the created subordinate into a perfect and wonderful setting of great privilege and blessing. He gave a few simple instructions. This exposition establishes the characters and the relationship between them, at this point with no conflict.

The conflict is introduced in what is called the inciting moment, the event that sets the conflict in motion. This is found in Genesis 3 with the temptation and first sin by mankind against God. From here on, a conflict or friction exists, and the story cannot end until this conflict is resolved.

Next we come to the rising action, which is the set of complications the characters must work through as they seek to resolve the conflict. Remember that God’s objective is to bring reconciliation, but man does not make that easy. I see two distinct threads here. One thread is that man keeps working against reconciliation. We have the wickedness leading to the flood and the rebellion at Babel. The book of Judges reveals a repeated cycle of judgment-warranting rebellion. In the times of the kings, the people further offended God by habitually serving false gods, allying with wicked nations, breaking His commandments, and “serving” Him with empty ritual. In essence, man did nothing to help resolve the conflict.

The other thread is that God is constantly doing things to keep His redemptive plan alive. He starts in Genesis 3 by promising a Savior; in Genesis 12 He chooses the nation through whom that Savior would come. Two things “complicate” God’s efforts. We already looked at the first, that of man’s continued rebellion; to this, God responds with gracious longsuffering and forgiveness. The second complication is the unending series of threats against God’s chosen nation. Mighty forces work to destroy that nation before the promised Savior can issue forth from it. These nation-menacing threats include a childless patriarch, centuries of oppressive slavery in Egypt, multiple instances of bondage to other nations, repeated military assaults by foreign armies, and eventually an apparent end of the Jewish nation as it is carried into captivity and its cities are destroyed. Through all of these complications, God sustains His chosen line by giving deliverance and restoration. The rising action takes us from Genesis 4, through all of the Old Testament, and into the gospels.

The next element is the crisis or climax, the point at which the story reaches its greatest intensity and the outcome is most in doubt. This occurs at the crucifixion of Christ in Matthew 27, Mark 14, Luke 23, and John 19, as the hoped-for deliverer, the one intended to bring peace between God and man, is rejected and killed. The hope for reconciliation and resolution of conflict seems doomed until Christ rises from the dead. After this point, the outcome is no longer in doubt; the victory has been won.

The story isn’t over yet. We move to the falling action, which includes the book of Acts and the epistles. There are three elements to the falling action. First, the Christians seek to carry the message of reconciliation to the rest of the world so that more of mankind can be included. Second, the Christians receive instruction about how to live as reconciled people so that their message is effective and their lives reflect the reconciliation they have received. Third, the Christians are challenged to maintain the purity of the gospel and keep it from being corrupted.

Next, we come to the final moment of suspense, the last moment at which real conflict exists and complications remain. This is the battle of Armageddon, found in Revelation 20. The forces of evil make one last stand, attempting to defeat God and ruin His plan. While this event is still in the future, the Bible records that the rebellion will fail. All evil will be conquered, with no power to ever resist God again.

The final part of the plot is the denouement; this is the “happily ever after” part of the story in which all the loose ends are tied up. This consists of just two chapters, Revelation 21-22. The wicked are cast into eternal judgment, and the righteous enter into eternal peace and perfect reconciliation. We finally reach the resolution, the outcome of the conflict. The Bible’s conflict is resolved as God and mankind experience reconciliation that surpasses the blessed fellowship that was found at the beginning of the story.

Examining the Bible in this way is not just a literary exercise. Identifying the various components helps us to see the big picture and to have a more focused realization of what the Bible is really about. It helps us to see that the Bible is a unified message, not just an assortment of stories. It gives meaning, purpose, and direction. We tend to think that the Bible talks about a lot of different stuff, depending on which section we look at, but it reality the Bible is about one thing. This type of thoughtful analysis helps us to focus on the important question of what the Bible is about, rather than limiting our discussions to what a particular book or passage is about. Once we have a clear view of the Bible’s overall message, we have a good foundation for understanding its individual parts. We have a framework on which to place our deeper study.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Old Testament Intimidation

There are various reasons why Christians sometimes avoid the Old Testament. Its truths are not as readily applicable as those of the gospels and epistles. Some people don’t like history, and the Old Testament contains the most ancient history. The style of the poetic books is difficult for some. The prophets, with their symbolism, layers of meaning, and intimidating reputation, can be difficult. While not valid excuses for ignoring the Old Testament, each of these factors does contribute to the challenge in profiting from it.

Some of these factors may be the subject of future posts; for today I would like to focus on the enigma of the Old Testament’s overall structure. The Bible is one unified book, and its sixty-six parts work together to present a central message. The Bible doesn’t read like most books, however. When we read a book, we expect it to be written consistently in the same format, and we expect the chapters (or sections) to be arranged in a logical order. The Bible does not meet these expectations in the way that we are used to. In order to profit from our study of the Old Testament, we need to understand the way its parts fit together.

The Old Testament is arranged chronologically only in part. Rather than strictly chronological, the overall organization is by type of content. These various types of content mean that the Old Testament does not have a single format. The Bible begins with the Pentateuch (or books of Moses). Next come the books of history. These are followed by a section of poetic books. The Old Testament ends with the books of the prophets, divided into major and minor. Even within each section, the books are not always arranged in chronological order. Most significantly, the books from one section intertwine with books from other sections in regard to historical context.

When we read individual books, therefore, especially in a front-to-back reading of the Bible, we don’t always have the right context. As we lose the flow of history, we end up seeing the books as isolated units rather than linked together. When we lose the broader context and fail to see how the books relate to each other, we have the tendency to throw up our hands, believing the Old Testament organization to be a puzzle we can’t master. Our forays into the Old Testament tend therefore to focus on individual and isolated stories that seem interesting; we read them as such, hoping to gain some profit from them.

Our overall understanding of the Old Testament can be helped by seeing which books fit together, and where each falls in historical context. It is impossible to assign precise dates, and there is some difference of opinion about exactly where each book falls, but the following is an idea of how the Old Testament might be arranged on a chronological basis. Clearly this is not the same order in which the books appear in the Bible.

Genesis; Job (somewhere within the time frame of Genesis or Exodus); Exodus; Leviticus; Numbers; Deuteronomy; Joshua; Judges; Ruth (somewhere within the time frame of Judges); I Samuel; II Samuel; I Kings; Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon (these books fall mostly within the time frame of I Kings); II Kings; I Chronicles and II Chronicles (these books run parallel with I Kings and II Kings); Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel (these prophets fall in the time frames of II Kings and II Chronicles); Lamentations; Haggai; Zechariah; Esther; Ezra; Nehemiah; Malachi.

Another aspect that can hinder our understanding of the Old Testament is lacking an overall time line. Without an accurate bird’s eye view, we lose track of how books and Bible characters fall in relationship to one another. The creation was about 4000 B.C. Of those 4000 years, most of the Old Testament account (from the time of Abraham through the end of the Old Testament) fits into about 1700 years – less time than from the birth of Christ to the present. We tend to think of the time frame as being much longer than that.

One thing that can throw off our perspective is that the length of a particular book is not proportional to the period of history it represents. If we’re thinking on a time line, we can’t weight every book the same. About 1700 years of history have already passed by the time we read of Noah in Genesis 6. Another 400 years bring us to the life of Abraham in Genesis 12. This places Abraham about halfway between creation and the birth of Christ; the first 2000 years are covered in only eleven chapters of the Bible. God then focuses the Biblical record on an approximately 1700-year period, to which He devotes the remaining thirty-eight and three-fourths books of the Old Testament. Twenty-one of those books fall into the time frame of I and II Kings.

While the dates below are approximate, these selected major events and characters help to divide Old Testament history into some pretty even segments. This skeleton time line can help to establish a helpful perspective for the timing of the Old Testament.

4000 B.C. - creation
2350 B.C. - flood
2000 B.C. - death of Abraham
1500 B.C. - Moses’ early life
1000 B.C. - David’s early life
500 B.C. - rebuilding in Jerusalem
400 B.C. - end of OT

Upcoming posts will go a level deeper into the Old Testament by breaking pre-Christ history into several segments and providing an overview of the books and characters relative to each segment.

Sources consulted:
http://biblehub.com (biblos.com)
The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, 4th ed. B.B. Kirkbride Bible Co.: Indianapolis, 1982.
Wood, Leon J. A Survey of Israel’s History. The Zondervan Corp.: Grand Rapids, MI, 1986.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Storm

               The Storm (Sonnet 3)
The storms of life may seem to me unjust.
I feel the wind too strong, the waves too high.
The tossing tempest never seems to die,
And drowning threatens with each wave and gust.
The search for answers leaves me in disgust,
For to my mind appears no reason why.
But as I wonder how to just get by,
My Father whispers, “Trust, my child, just trust.
One day it will be time to understand;
My promises will be enough till then.
I realize what you need and also when.
I’ll lead you through and bring you safe to land.
I will not fail; I’m found when I am sought.
I am the Master of the storm; fear not.”

There are times in the Christian life in which it really does seem that a storm is about to destroy us. The winds whip, and the waves crash on every side. With no relief in sight, survival seems impossible. We’ve tried to do the right thing and to think the right way, but things seem just as bleak as ever. It may seem like a good time to quit trying. If life is going to be this crazy anyway, why not save our energy and avoid the extra frustration? Why not stop fighting until life becomes manageable again?

These are such human and such natural responses. God desires something more – a supernatural response. He wants us to trust Him, realizing that He is in control of what we cannot control and that He understands what we could never understand. God is big enough to trust. He will always be with us. He will always be in control. He will always have the answer. He will always deliver in His time and in His way.

These are just a few of the precious promises found in the Bible – and it is those promises that will see us through. We don’t see the answer yet, maybe not even the possibility of one, but we have the promises of God. In trying times, we must turn to and cling to those promises. Maturity teaches us to look sooner and more often to those promises that are able to carry us through the storm.

“The men were amazed, and said, ‘What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?’” Matthew 8:27 (NASB)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Toothpaste Tube

I squeeze my toothpaste tube from near the top. Grasping the tube lower makes it harder to accurately apply the toothpaste. When the supply of toothpaste at the top gets low, I squeeze from the bottom to get more toothpaste into the “reservoir” at the top. This system requires very little effort until the tube approaches empty. That’s when the real technique comes into play.

At first, the forefinger and thumb are enough. I just run them several times from the bottom of the tube up, pushing the toothpaste toward the top. It’s still a little early for the most thorough effort; enough toothpaste remains that some of it will end up being squeezed back down again anyway. Once the amount of toothpaste reaches the point that it will all fit above the squeezing point, though, I get really serious.

I start by placing the tube down on the flat surface of the sink. I place my forefinger at the bottom of the tube so that the back of my finger extends across the tube. I press down while running my finger up the tube, pushing most of the remaining toothpaste with it. I might do this two or three times before picking up my comb. Now I repeat the same process, using the spine of the comb. I make sure I get the edges and corners. By the time I finish, the tube is as flat as can be, and all the toothpaste is in the upper inch or two of the tube.

When the remaining supply dwindles, I have to work what is on the outside edges into the center of the tube. This is when the top of the tube gets folded over to prevent toothpaste from escaping back to the bottom. Squeezing the outside edges creates little triangles that get flattened as the remaining toothpaste moves into the center. The final days’ supply is accessed by pushing the increasingly flattening tube up and almost through the opening, so that all that remains unused is a tiny little bit in the neck of the opening.

Why do I do this? If I remember correctly, a tube of toothpaste costs me $1.97, and a tube lasts for several months. I’m sure I don’t buy more than three of four tubes per year. It isn’t as if toothpaste purchases are breaking my budget. I don’t know if it’s just human nature or if there’s something about a toothpaste tube that impels me to get out every last bit.

As I was working with the tube one day, a thought came to me. Why am I so diligent with a toothpaste tube, but don’t always give the same attention and diligence to the Bible? Just like there are steps in the process of fully harvesting all the toothpaste, so there are steps in receiving the full benefit of the Word of God. Scripture study has parallels to my toothpaste tube efforts.

The initial readings of a passage are like those early weeks of squeezing a new tube. It doesn’t take much thought or effort – just a casual squeeze, and something comes out. A little more effort is needed to keep refilling the reservoir at the top. From a Bible standpoint, this extra effort might include breaking a chapter down into paragraphs or reading the surrounding chapters for context. It may involve taking the time to restate the passage in my own words or create headings and summary statements.

Obviously, even more diligence is required to get what remains near the bottom or is hidden in the corners. For this level, I look at other passages in the Bible that deal with the same topic. I look up the meaning of words I’m not sure of and word roots that might give insight into the passage. Sometimes the most helpful methods for achieving greater profit are simply taking the time for thoughtful consideration, praying for understanding, and returning repeatedly to the same passage.

There is one significant difference between my efforts with the toothpaste tube and the Bible. I can master the toothpaste tube. I can empty it so thoroughly that almost nothing escapes my reach. The Bible, on the other hand, is so deep that I can return time after time, using every method that I know, and there will still be more truth for me to understand. In spite of all that I may learn, there always remains a potential for much more profit. While it is true that I’ll never learn all that is possible from a particular passage, I won’t learn enough if I don’t work diligently to seek out the truth.

I am reminded of a familiar but often slightly misunderstood verse, II Timothy 2:15. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” (NASB)

The passage is written to Timothy as a pastor; the context is a warning not to allow himself to become involved in trivial or distracting things that don’t matter. Instead, he is to remain focused on the fundamentals of the Bible and in presenting them correctly. The goal is to be an approved and unashamed worker resulting from an accurate handling of the Bible. The underlying meaning of the phrase “accurately handling,” (KJV “rightly dividing”) is to cut straight. The picture is of a seamstress who would need to cut the fabric straight or a carpenter who would have to cut the boards straight in order to achieve a successful end product.

How is that straight cutting achieved? It is by being diligent. This is the slightly misunderstood part of the verse. The KJV translates the command as “Study.” This conjures up the picture of a student bent over books, studying for a test. It implies mental exercise, often equated with memorizing the Bible. More accurately, the command is to make effort or be earnest. As translated above, it is to “be diligent.” It is to endeavor or labor or work at something. The emphasis is more on the underlying attitude and intent than on the action itself. When a reader comes to the Bible, he is to be serious about it, committed to learning, and working hard to gain the intended profit. Without diligence and serious commitment, it’s hard to “cut straight” the Word of God – and a lot of toothpaste gets left in the tube.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Revival in America?

What percentage of Americans are Christians? According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 52% of Americans identify themselves as Christians (non-Catholic). This number is consistent with other recent polls I found. Recent polls by both Gallup and the Pew Forum report approximately 40% of Americans attend church regularly. Could these numbers really be correct? If they are correct, how can our nation be plagued by so much immorality and godlessness? Why does it seem that we as Christians are a tiny little minority? Why is America in such need of revival?

I believe that the above numbers are, in fact, incorrect or exaggerated. Just because someone claims to be a Christian or to identify with a Protestant faith does not make him a truly born-again believer. Unfortunately, our country has many historically sound churches that no longer preach the gospel. There are numerous individual churches, as well as entire denominations, that limit their preaching to topics like being good and helping others, without ever addressing the fundamental reason for those actions.

On the other hand, I believe there are more true believers and more Biblically-sound churches than we realize. I believe someone who suggests 5% or 10% as the correct figure is probably estimating low. As far as churches, there are tiny churches tucked away in little towns all across our country. They may not have ties to any denomination, may not be part of a fellowship with other churches, and may not have kinship with any Bible college or university. As such, they are beacons of light in their own community, but few people outside of their community know they exist.

Considering individual Christians, I believe there are many thousands who have heard and accepted the gospel, rejoicing to have finally found the truth. Unfortunately, they were never taught that there is more to Christianity than just salvation. Perhaps they were saved in a special rally or revival service, perhaps through a TV preacher, maybe through someone who knocked on their door but never came back. For whatever reason, these legitimate Christians never grew, and therefore never had much impact.

Is revival in America possible? I believe it is. The number of true Christians is almost certainly less than 52%, but it is still high enough to make a difference. If all those tucked-away little churches and never-trained baby Christians were to step forward and be known, Christianity would have a much stronger voice.

When I pray for revival in America, my prayers focus on three aspects. First, I pray that leaders, well-known and important people, and influential citizens would be saved. These could be politicians, news media, company presidents, and so forth. As true conversion is coupled with a transformed life, a few people of this magnitude could have a tremendous impact.

In my estimation the most potential would come, however, from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Secondly, I pray for churches and pastors in America. Well over a third of the population claims to go to church regularly. There are churches out there filled with people who are available to be fed. Too many churches are failing to feed them. They stick with messages sent down from the denomination, amusing spiritual lessons, or a social gospel. What if these pastors would determine to boldly preach the truth of the Bible and to give their members nourishing spiritual food? I pray that pastors would do what they ought to do.

Third, and most important, I pray for individual Christians. I think especially of those who are saved but have never been trained. These people have great potential to do a work for God, but they need some mentor or some pastor to show them the reality of everyday Christianity. What if these Christians started going to church regularly? I also think of Christians who go to church Sunday after Sunday, but live for themselves the rest of the week. With church checked off as the right thing to do, they feel free to pursue the world’s entertainment and activities the rest of the week. They look, act, and talk like the world. What if these Christians started seeking deeper spiritual teaching and preaching?

I’m not trying to criticize any church or individual. Many of these sincerely believe they are doing everything they need to do. For many, they do not realize there is anything more. Their heart is directed enough toward God that if they did realize it, they would do something about it. So what we need is for God to awaken hearts and to give that realization. We need people to have a thirst for more. All of us, no matter what level we are at, need that thirst. God can prompt the thirst on His own, but He also wants to use us as Christians to whet the appetite of those around us. This is the heart of my blog – to encourage Christians at all levels to shine brighter and to go higher with God. If that happens at the grass-roots level, God can do a mighty work in and through us.

“It is time for the LORD to act, for they have broken Your law.” Psalm 119:126 (NASB)

“LORD, I have heard the report about You and I fear. O LORD, revive Your work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.” Habakkuk 3:2

“O LORD God of hosts, restore us; cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.” Psalm 80:19

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Study Guide: Hebrews

Many people think of Hebrews 11 as the faith chapter, but the entire book is about faith. The book was written to Hebrew Christians who, in the face of persecution and hardship, were in danger of turning from their new-found faith and returning to the Old Testament system. I see three aspects of faith that recur throughout the book. First, faith is required (see especially 2:1; 3:12; 4:1; 4:14; 10:35; 10:38; 11:6). Second, faith is rewarded (4:9; 6:10; 10:34; 10:35; 11:6; 11:11). Third, faith is reasonable when we fix our gaze on the amazing Savior in whom we trust (2:9; 3:1; 11:28; 12:2; 12:3).

This third aspect is extensively developed for most of the book, so that when we reach the later chapters (which focus more on the practical demand for faith), we have a firm foundation of knowing that we can trust Christ. Beyond the wonderful characteristics we see about our Savior, we see that He is better than the apostles, the angels, man, Moses, the Levitic priests, Melchizedec, and the chapter 11 heroes. My summary statement for the book is this: A life that reflects enduring faith in God is required; God is eminently worthy to receive that faith, and He will always reward it.

The outline below gives a summary statement for each chapter. It then gives a guide based on the primary aspect of faith focused on in each segment of the chapter.

CHAPTER 1: Revelation through Christ, the superior Son of God
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 1-14) based on the qualifications of the new messenger. Notice especially His divine characteristics (vs. 2-4) and his superiority over the angels (vs. 5-14).

CHAPTER 2: Christ’s ministry to weak man
Focus: faith is required (vs. 1-8). We see as reasons to heed the message the authority of the messenger (vs. 1-4) and the responsibility of those who hear (vs. 5-8).
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 9-18) because of the qualifications of our Savior.

CHAPTER 3: Christ faithful, but man punished because of hardening and unbelief
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 1-6) as we look at Christ in two roles and His faithfulness in each.
Focus: faith is required (vs. 6b-19). We are to take heed lest we depart, and the danger is reinforced through an example from Psalm 95 and Exodus 17. We don’t want to lose the blessings available to us as sons.

CHAPTER 4: Charge to be faithful rather than unbelieving
Focus: faith is required (vs. 1-13) and faith is rewarded (esp. vs. 7-11). We don’t want to miss the “rest” of God’s blessing (vs. 1-6), and we want to be careful how (in what condition) we enter into the “rest” of heaven (vs. 7-13).
Focus: faith is reasonable and faith is required (vs. 14-16). We are to hold fast to our faith with the aid of our understanding and helpful High Priest.

CHAPTER 5: Christ surpasses the earthly high priests
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 1-10) when we add to the characteristics of earthly high priests (vs. 1-4) the superior characteristics of our heavenly High Priest (vs. 5-10).
Focus: faith is required (vs.11-14). We have a parenthesis here to examine the sad condition of spiritual weakness (vs. 11-14) and the solution to such weakness (vs. 12-14).

CHAPTER 6: Need for mature faith in God’s unshakeable promises
Focus: faith is required (vs. 1-8). This continues the challenge of ch. 5 regarding spiritual weakness, as it challenges the believers to move beyond the basics (vs. 1-3) and reveals the danger for those who do not go deeper (vs. 4-8).
Focus: faith is rewarded (vs. 9-12). The believers were expected to return to their previous spiritual strength which would be accompanied by receiving promised blessings.
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 13-20) because of God’s unfailing promises which offer strong hope.

CHAPTER 7: Christ’s priesthood superior to all other priesthoods
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 1-22). We see Christ as superior to Melchisedec, who was pretty important (vs. 1-10). There are differences of opinion about who Melchisedec was. I believe he was a literal earthly priest placed by God’s supernatural intervention. (Among other things, if he were an angel or pre-incarnate appearance of Christ, why would the teaching be so hard for the believers to grasp? He is also presented as a known and accepted priest in Salem, not as someone who made a momentary appearance.) Regardless of the identification, the value is in recognizing the unique aspect of his unending priesthood. Christ’s priesthood was also superior to the Levitic priesthood (vs. 11-22).
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 23-28). I identified twelve specific ways in which Christ’s priesthood is superior to the Levitic line.

CHAPTER 8: Christ is a better high priest who offers a better covenant
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 1-13) because we have a superior priest in a superior place (vs. 1-5). There is the need for a new covenant (vs. 6-7), based on this distinction: the old covenant failed because of a problem with men (vs. 8-9), while the new covenant reveals the solution by God (vs. 10-13).

CHAPTER 9: Old vs. new tabernacle and sacrifice
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 1-28) because of the superiority of the new covenant (vs. 11-14) over the old (vs. 1-10). There was the necessity of a blood sacrifice (vs. 15-22), and Christ’s one-time sacrifice (vs. 23-28) met that.

CHAPTER 10: Christ’s effective sacrifice should not be taken lightly
Focus: faith is reasonable (vs. 1-18) because Christ’s sacrifice was accepted (vs. 1-10) and because it was accomplished by a one-time sacrifice (vs. 11-18).
Focus: faith is required (vs. 19-31). We have two reasons to take action (vs. 19-21) and three actions to take (vs. 22-25). We then see the sobering consequences of failing to act (vs. 26-31).
Focus: faith is required and faith is rewarded (vs. 32-39). These verses focus on one particular action: that of not throwing away our confidence. They give reasons for why we cannot do that.

CHAPTER 11: Examples of faith
Focus: faith is rewarded and faith is required (vs. 1-40). The chapter starts with a definition of faith (vs. 1-3). It reveals the pattern of faith (vs. 4-12, 17-35a), which is repeatedly based on specific statement from God, demonstrated by obedience, and rewarded by God. It talks about those who waited in faith (vs. 13-16; 35b-40), which was rewarded even though they never saw the results. These examples demonstrate practical faith, as a believer obediently lives out the life God has put before him, based on God’s promises and commands.

CHAPTER 12: Instructions and cautions regarding a life of enduring obedience
Focus: faith is required (vs. 1-29). As we properly run the race, we are to remember the examples (vs. 1-4). We are to remember the value of discipline (vs. 5-11). We are to remember the needs of others (vs. 12-17). We then have reasons for caution in living life of faith (vs. 18-29) – because of the place to which we have come (vs. 18-24) and the Person to whom we have come (vs. 25-29).

CHAPTER 13: Final instructions urging a life of faith
Focus: faith is required (v. 1-25). We have instructions regarding love (v. 1-4, 16); instructions regarding contentment (v. 5-6, 15); and instructions regarding leadership (v. 7, 9-14, 17-19). The closing prayer (vs. 20-21, 25) reveals how we are able to live a life of faith, followed by the author’s final comments (vs. 22-24).

“And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” Hebrews 11:6 (NASB)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Steadfast Anchor

          The Steadfast Anchor (Sonnet 29)
At times my feelings tell me that I’m wrong,
And following their lead, my thoughts agree.
My circumstances sing a plaintive song -
All shouting out that things are bad for me.
In spite of all that looks as if it’s true,
There is unchanging truth that helps me cope.
For come what may, no matter what’s in view,
On this one thing I firmly fix my hope.
My God will always be my faithful Friend;
He’ll never change through all that passes by.
His presence, love, control will never end.
An anchor sure - on Him I can rely.
When, of all reasons, only faith remains,
May that suffice to break doubt’s binding chains.

I just finished working back through a study I’d previously done on the book of Hebrews, a book packed full of anchors for the storms of life. The turbulent waters and pummeling winds can be so threatening. Our vision becomes filled with the storms, and hope is lost of ever sailing forward again.

In the midst of those terrifying assaults, we need to look not at the storm, but at the Savior. Doing so will provide an anchor for our soul that will hold it steady and firm. Hebrews is a great place to find anchors based on our Savior. He is presented as better than . . . well, than anything else. When we realize how amazing our Savior is and remember that He is always with us, we have the stabilizing anchor we need to get us through the storms. When we get a glimpse of His greatness, it makes all the sense in the world to place our faith confidently in Him.

“This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil.” Hebrews 6:19 (NASB)

“Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2 (NASB)