Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dedicated to Learning; Dedicated to God

Like most people, I have many hats to wear. Some I have chosen (husband, father) while others chosen me (pastor, teacher). And some are a little of both (student, friend). In every part of my life, I hope that I am learning. As my #1 Rule of Life says, “When you stop learning, you start dying.” I have learned much in 2016, so in my final post of the year, I will share one brief thought from each of the following areas of my life. As a:

Husband: Cherishing my wife becomes difficult when our lines of communication are strained.
Father: Two great young adults are proof of the decision to raise future adults (rather than children).
Son: The sacrifices our parents made/make cannot be understood until we have been through the process of parenting our children at the same stage of life.
Friend: It is impossible to over-estimate the impact of good friendships.
Student: I have learned so much about Jesus this year, and it makes me want to know Him more.
Pastor: I need to lead better in order to accomplish all that God has for me and His church.
Teacher: When I quit learning from my students, it is time to stop teaching.
Missionary: God is at work around the world. Now that I have found my place, I must press on to know, and complete, the task He has given me.
Child of God: I may make progress most years, but I am nowhere near being an imitator of God (Ephesians 5.1).

This past Sunday, I preached on the idea of our being dedicated to Jesus. It should be the desire of each person to be dedicated each day and yet we all waver constantly. This past year has been met with a particular focus to learn more about Jesus so that I might know Him, and serve Him better.

I woke up on January 1st of this year in Amman, Jordan at the beginning of a ten-day journey to better understand the Bible – it’s places and message. Ultimately, my goal was to “walk WHERE Jesus walked so I can better walk AS Jesus walked.” I did the first part of this phrase (and hope to do so again), but have a long way to go on the second portion. While 2016 was a great year, I must now dedicate myself to continued learning in 2017. I do so not for the sake of learning itself (as important as learning is), but in order that I can become better in each area above. In doing so, I should then become more like Christ and imitate God a little better as one of His beloved children. If God can accomplish this through and for me, then regardless of whatever else 2017 may bring, I will have to consider it a successful year.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

7 Helps to Gain Biblical Insight

This past week, I preached from a passage that many people have a difficult time understanding. Frankly, I think that is good to be challenged in our understanding, but it can lead to problems. The problem is that too many people often think they know the Bible so well they do not need to study it (see 2 Timothy 2.15 for an exhortation) or do not think the Bible can be understood so they quit trying. Both reactions are wrong and represent the extremes.

As I mentioned last week, I was surprised to learn some new information about Jesus entry into Jerusalem. The fact that I can learn from a familiar passage is both exciting and humbling. It is exciting because it means that I should be able to continue to learn from all parts of the Bible. It is humbling because when I don’t learn, I must consider if it is a lack of serious study or something within me (pride?).

So, this week’s passage related to Jesus cursing a fig tree. It is a challenging passage for many because it appears that Jesus gets angry and takes out His anger on a little tree. But we are not told the size of the tree, and after my research this week, I would guess it had decent size (mature trees can be 15-30 feet tall), because Jesus action would make more sense if it was not a little tree. Ultimately, Jesus performed this (destructive) miracle as a parable (an action parable) to show what would happen to the temple in due time. (You can read more details from my sermon notes here.)

Again, many people have difficulty understanding the Bible and thus they give up. Much could be said about this, but I want to focus on those who are believers and have a desire to know, but just can’t seem to understand certain passages or the Bible in general. Let me provide a seven brief thoughts here that might help for the coming year. Consider this my Christmas gift to you.

1. Let the Holy Spirit be the guide.

The Spirit guided the writing of the Bible, so He can, and should, be a part of interpreting it (2 Timothy 3.16). If you are not a believer, this makes this part impossible (1 Corinthians 2.12-14), but Jesus promised His followers that they would know and understand the truth (John 14.16; 16.13-14). Of course, the Spirit helps us to live according to God’s Word as well, but we cannot live what we do not understand. So, asking the Holy Spirit to guide you in understanding the Bible is a critical first step.

2. Talk with others.

An important part of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide is to not only study in private, but to study, or at least consult, with others. Christianity was never meant to be a private affair. Both the Old Testament (the Israelites) and New Testament (the Church) talk about living in community with one another. We must learn and study on our own, but we must use that basis to learn and study with others as well. And, of course, we learn best when we apply our knowledge. Living out the principles of the Bible in the context of others will bring understanding that otherwise might not be developed.

3. Gaining knowledge is not an event, it is a journey.

We may often gain insights that transform us, seemingly in the moment. However, we cannot discern the mind of God, and thus we can never truly understand the depths of His Word. God does reveal His Word to us as we seek to know it, which is ultimately to seek to know Him. As you study the Bible (2 Tim. 2.15), remain humble (James 4.6). You may know parts of it very well, but we can never understand any of it perfectly on this side of eternity. But we can continue to know more about God, and indeed, truly know Him better over months and years of study until our journey is truly complete (Philippians 1.6)

4. The translation makes a difference.

Remember, the goal here is gain knowledge and understanding. Thus, a big key is to find a good translation that makes sense to you (personally, my two preferences are the ESV and NASB). Not all translations are correct (denominational/religious bias is a factor), but many translations are very good at representing the original manuscripts. (Click here for a chart which not only compares many translations but provides a chart comparing key characteristics of the translations.)

5. Study bibles are helpful.

Study bibles can be very beneficial because they provide some commentary about select verses that can be difficult to understand. Of course, they also provide better insight on verses which might already be understood. So, a good Study Bible is important. Good commentaries are important, but it is best to consult a commentary AFTER you have grappled with the text a bit so that you can measure your thoughts against others, not have them formed by others. While study bibles are helpful...

6. A good commentary (series) is a must for understanding.

Study bibles are helpful because if you have your Bible with you, then you have the notes. But the purpose of printing a Bible is the Bible itself and thus the notes are very limited. A commentary might have a few pages on one particular verse. While publishers may put a limit on the amount of content, good commentaries will go into far more detail. Again, not all commentaries are made equal and some can be very technical.

7. Learn how to understand the Bible.

This item should have gone earlier, but the most important thing is to include it. In our culture, we know to interpret what we see on a movie screen is different than interpreting a letter from someone we love. The same is true for interpreting the Bible. Finding a resource that can help you interpret the Bible for yourself is key. One that is very good for beginning to learn the process is entitled, Grasping God’s Word (Hays & Duvall). Remember, the Holy Spirit should be our guide, but knowing some how-to principles will help greatly.

These seven thoughts are not inclusive of all aspects for understanding the Bible. But, these seven ideas are possible for anyone, and except for #6 are very inexpensive (and even #6 can be done online with some success). While I certainly agree that the Bible has some challenging verses to understand, we will not have any excuse for our lack of studying when we stand before the Author. As 2016 draws to a close, I encourage you to find some resources that can help you study and understand so that you can better live the life you have been called to live (Ephesians 4.1).

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Just Keep Learning, Just Keep Learning

For those who may wonder, yes, the title is in regard to Dory the fish who said, “Just keep swimming.  Just keep swimming.” Be honest, if you have seen “Finding Nemo”, you have almost certainly paraphrased her words yourself somewhere along the line. See, I knew it. So, please, indulge my paraphrase too.

One of my life’s maxims is “When you stop learning, you start dying.” Of course, in today’s world where new information is growing exponentially, it might be said that it is impossible to not learn something new every day. Perhaps that is true, but learning requires more than just being exposed to new data through our various senses. True learning requires us to process the data we receive and then do something with it. Frankly, I concern myself with a lot of data that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme (e.g. sports stats), but sometimes knowing certain facts can be fun, and what is important is, in part, relative to each person.

Of course, one challenge to learning occurs when we are exposed to new material that challenges what we already know. This has been a recurring theme lately on the church blog (and here too) as I continue to work through the book of Mark. As I have said many times to date, it is easy to pick on the disciples lack of understanding because we are looking back on their story. But this week, the tables were turned, they saw something far more clearly than I ever had (as a learner and a teacher). The details are laid out here, but essentially, the issue is the way I have likely misunderstood Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem (what we call Palm Sunday).

While it is great to learn, we must determine our reaction to learning – when it goes against our preconceived ideas and especially against what we have been taught by others we respect. For me, I am usually encouraged to determine what else I only think I know. That is, if I learn something new, or different, about something I already knew, I often seek to know even more to uncover the real truth or more of it. Of course, there are limitations, but those limitations – time and interests primarily – are my limitations. If time was unlimited and my interests were better expanded, I wonder how much I might dig into everything!

As for the issue that brought this about (the details of Jesus’ entry), you might ask, “Does it matter?” Again, time and interests might be a part of your question. But for me, it matters deeply. First, it matters because I want to be true to God’s Word – especially in teaching it to others. This detail might not affect how I live out my faith directly. However, it does impact whether or not I can say that the same crowd who cheered for Jesus on Sunday called for Him to be crucified later in the week. That is not an insignificant statement, and it is one I have made in the past. Now, I find that the likelihood of that statement is false. Certainly crowds can be fickle, which is how this idea is generally espoused, but if Jesus had not yet entered Jerusalem when people were shouting “Hosanna,” then two distinct crowds exist. If so, then that is very significant!

When it comes to the Bible, it should be impossible not to learn more. God is omniscient and His word is deep! What we understand in part can save us, but we can never reach the depths of understanding on this side of eternity (Romans 11.33-34; and though I give deference to Paul (1 Corinthians 13.12), I am not certain we can then either). But many people do not care to learn more, or do not give the effort to do so. Or perhaps, it is a matter of understanding how to dig deeper. The truth is that many opportunities exists to learn how, but the care to learn and desire for learning must first come from within.

So, let us desire to learn and keep learning. Because as we learn, we have the opportunity to grow. And as we grow, we have the opportunity to become. This is true in all of life, but particularly so with regards to the ways of God. If we give ourselves to Him, He can teach us great things – even when we thought we already knew. And then, as we are becoming, what we become will be more like Him (Ephesians 5.1, Romans 8.29), which is the very desire He has for each of us.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Learning to See Clearly

This past week, my sermon began with Mark 10.46-52 and the story of Bartimaeus, but I then went back to explore the three sayings of Jesus where He revealed to His disciples what was to come (Mark 8.31; 9.31; 10.33-34). As I have been reflecting on His words, and how the disciples did not understand them, I have thought about all that I misunderstand as well. Of course, the list is far too long for this post (or even a series of posts), but I must speak for a moment on this issue.

The disciples were with Jesus every day for 3 1/2 years and yet they did not understand. It seems hard to fathom this, as it does the lack of trust the Israelites had in God despite following the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Yet, the disciples fully understood after the resurrection, and their actions changed the world. But what about us? What about me?

Do you believe someone could rise from the dead after being buried three days? If you are a believer in Jesus, you do. And, of course, Jesus raised Lazarus a day later than that. But what if you didn’t have that knowledge? I think it would be hard, if not impossible to believe.

What if you were told that the leader who had been promised for centuries was here? And this leader did not refute that He was Messiah, but His actions and the miracles gave further proof He was. And what if, because He was Messiah, that meant that all of those wonderful names mentioned by Isaiah were true of Him as well: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9.6)? And further, if that was true, then His government, upon the throne of David, would increase and know no end (Isaiah 9.7).  If all of these were true, the context of Jesus’ statements about suffering and dying upon entry into Jerusalem would make no sense at all.

But looking back Jesus' words do make sense. We have the advantage of hindsight. We look back and ask how the disciples could miss the truth of who Jesus was. But don’t we miss this as well?

What if our lives were recorded in such a way that people reviewed our (lack of) understanding years, or even centuries, from now? What if people reviewed my post of last week for instance (Carte Blanche) and wondered why it took me so long to do that? Of course, if I could, I would defend myself by saying, “Well, I have in the past, but I just keep forgetting how much I can trust God with my life?” To which, the people of the future would be as dumbfounded at me, as I often am of the Twelve (and other disciples).

The truth is that the disciples did have Jesus with them, but I have the Spirit with me (sent by Jesus, John 15.16-17). How can I not understand? Why am I so thick-headed regarding my situation sometimes? It isn’t for lack of knowledge (in most cases); it is for lack of understanding. More specifically, it is a lack of faith.

As I continue my journey, I need to remember where I have been and what life has taught me. I need not remain there, because I must go forward and become the man that God wants me to be (Ephesians 5.1). To do that, I must better reflect on what God has already done for me so that I am ready to trust Him regardless of what lies before me.

Like the disciples. I may not know what the future holds. Unlike the disciples, I do not have Jesus teaching me face to face what is to come. But what I have is far greater than what they had before the resurrection – knowledge that Jesus did what He said He would. The question is: will I respond as well as the disciples did once they understood what I am still seeking to understand. Because it is good to know and have knowledge, but it is another to understand and then live with the assurance that comes with the knowledge. As I continue to learn to see Jesus more clearly, may my life better reflect the assurance I want, the assurance I need, and ultimately the assurance He has already provided for me.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Carte Blanche

Over the past month, I have been giving the idea of prayer a lot of thought. I guess it began when I was preaching from Mark 9 when the disciples could not heal the demon-possessed boy. The story concludes with Jesus stating that prayer was needed to drive out that kind. The implication being, the nine disciples not with Jesus on the mountain had not prayed.

As I began to reflect on this statement further, I decided I would have our Community Groups work through a study entitled, Praying with Jesus. The study has been helpful so far, and has prompted further thoughts for me. This past week, I preached through the portion of Mark 10 which includes James and John making a request of Jesus (Matthew records this instance as the mother asking, but the important part is what is requested.)

A few keys to this passage are in the request before the request and in Jesus’ response to the request. First, before James and John ask the question, they preface their request with a statement, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” After they make their request (to sit at Jesus right and left), Jesus does not say, “No.” Instead, he says it is not His place to grant their request. (For more specifics on the passage, click here for the notes from my sermon.)

What James and John did was incredulous. They asked for a blank check from Jesus. “Do whatever we want you to do!” Wow! How bold. How often are we willing to make that request to another human being? Yet, here, the Brothers of Thunder show their brashness by making the request of the God-man.

As I have reflected on these verses, I realize that my prayers do something similar, even if the wording may be a bit more veiled. And my requests may be for others, but asking for a blank check is asking for a blank check, regardless of who you intend the beneficiary to be. Of course, this does not mean that we should not make our requests to God, but improving our understanding of prayer will also make us realize the importance of praying “in Jesus’ name” being far more than a tag-line to sign off from our communication, but rather to pray as He would pray (John 14.13-14).

As one thought has led to another, I keep coming back to one simple thought. While we may often request a blank check from God, the reality is that He is the one asking us for a blank check. Furthermore, only He is worthy of receiving a blank check. I cannot be trusted with such a responsibility, but He can. He knows me better than I know myself. He created me. He cares for me. He provides for me. He gave Himself for me. He loves me. At the very best, those statements are only partially true when reversed, and some might be absurd (e.g. I did not create God).

If that is true, then why am I unwilling to give God a blank check. I am not saying that I haven’t, but I tend to ask Him to hold it for awhile. Or perhaps I take it back from Him for “safekeeping” until I am ready. Really, like my hands are safer than His? So, it comes down to this. If I am not willing to give God a blank check, then I do not trust God. And trust is the basis for faith. So, as logic would dictate, not giving God a blank check means I do not have, or at a minimum am not living by, faith in God.

The reality is that I have experienced far too much of God’s grace and goodness to hold back. I may have given a few blank checks before, but now I give Him the whole checkbook with a simple prayer attached: Let my faith in You always be more than my trust in me.