November 30, 2013

There is no “last” supper

Family meals are opportunities for communication, bonding, and learning about and from each other. There is no better place to share experiences, news, make plans, and voice and discuss concerns. In our home, family meals feel warm, secure. We care and sense that we belong here. We also try new foods and eat well.

Research says children perform better academically when they eat meals with their family. It also helps us build lasting, solid relationships, gives us a sense of identity, eases conflicts and establishes traditions and memories that can last a lifetime.

And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. (Luke 22:14)

Jesus sat down to eat and drink with his apostles. What does this mean for them and for me as a Christian?
First, the twelve were convinced that He was the Messiah and began following Him, going where He went and imitating His example. This was a good beginning, but there was more.

Next, they became his disciples. That is, He was their teacher and He made truth clear to them. However, disciples do not necessarily sit and eat with their teacher. The relationship went beyond that.

These twelve became His servants. He trained them and they did what He asked of them, preaching the Gospel and doing His will in setting up His kingdom. Yet servants rarely eat with their Master. Their relationship included something more. Toward the end of His life, Jesus said something very remarkable . . .  

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)

At this, the relationship went beyond Teacher/disciple and Master/servant to friendship, yet there was even more. Just before Jesus died, He invited these twelve to a special meal where they sat around the same table, ate the same bread and drank from the same cup. This relationship was soon to go even rather than friends . . .

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God . . .  (John 1:12)
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God . . .   (1 John 3:1)

My fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. He made me His follower and disciple, His friend. But by faith, I am also a child of God with a permanent invitation to enjoy intimacy in His presence, both now and beyond this life. One day, we will sit down together at the marriage supper of the Lamb, Jesus and His children, my Friend and His family, and enjoy being together forever.

November 29, 2013

Garbage in, garbage out?

What about watching television or reading books that would not be found in a Christian bookstore? This question came to mind from today’s devotional reading. It was about Bible study and suggested reading useless, impertinent books is a sin for the same reason indulging in useless conversation is a sin.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:29–30)

While the reading didn’t talk about television (it was written in the 1700’s) I immediately included it, for I might sit in front of the tube if I don’t have a book in my hand. I like watching and reading mysteries and crime stories, reasoning this is because justice happens at the end. Yet, is seeing justice accomplished worth putting into my head whatever else happens in the program?

Oddly, when I opened my Bible the passage was not related to the reading, but this one . . .

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 3:1–7)

I began comparing it with the last version of “The Mentalist” that I watched. I’ve underlined all the things in this passage that were depicted in that episode. Not one person on the show demonstrated any love for God. One was dressed as a religious person but had a knife concealed in her robes and used it to attack someone. As I kept reading, I wondered if I was one of the weak women burdened with sins and led away by various passions, a person who is always learning but hasn’t got it yet.

In the computer world, the GIGO principle is well known. It isn’t so popular when it comes to the human mind. Psychologists try to tell us that there is no relationship between violence committed and violent video games played, and that watching horror movies has no effect on the psychological makeup of those who view them. I’m not sure that I agree.

Back in the day of no movies, television, or X-box, the Bible says that people do this stuff in real life and we are supposed to avoid such people. What about today’s actors and graphic images that do such things? Are they an acceptable substitute for that which God’s Word tells His people to stay away from?

As for books, I know the effect that descriptions of violence and graphic sex can have on me, so I refuse to read books like that. But what about those whose characters set no godly example and are like the people described in 2 Timothy? 

Not all books are filled with sinful people, yet today’s market says those books are boring and the characters are plastic and not real. Actually, the characters in the Bible are real. Scripture describes the life of murderers, rapists, adulterers, thieves, a full range that includes only one Hero who never sins. All of it is honest about real life, but I doubt very much if today’s devotional writer thought about the Word of God that way. He realized, as do I, that God shows us the worst of ourselves so that we want the best that He can offer. He isn’t trying to encouraging sin by telling us about sin, but instead shows the terrible consequences of living for sin and self instead of living for Him. Sin leads to death and eternal punishment.

As I think about television shows and books, I can also see the downhill trends. It used to be that a lead character could make mistakes, but also took responsibility for them and acted in noble ways. Not anymore. Today’s star of the show can violate the name of God in normal speaking and even break the law (or the laws of God) in the name of “justice.” The characters of hero and villain have blurred.

As for this Word from God today, I’m thinking that I can start out admiring the stars of a show or the lead characters in a book, but if their lives begin to ignore their own sinfulness, will I also slide into ignoring that too and continue to admire them? Or will I avoid such people and go find better stuff for which to fill my mind? 

November 28, 2013

Going beyond mere reading . . .

Apparently there are some who have memorized the entire Bible, others parts of the Bible, yet they make no claim to have a relationship with its Author. This attitude may have been true in Jesus’ day also. He rebuked those who claimed to be religious, but they were not happy to call Him their Messiah. Jesus pointing out that these people read the Scriptures with entirely the wrong attitude.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39–40)

The Bible was written to reveal God to those who seek Him. If compared to the cloud that went before the Israelites, it is dark and hard to understand by those who resist His Spirit, something like the Egyptians who saw His amazing deeds but refused to believe. Yet for those who did believe, that same cloud appeared bright and glorious, and led them on their escape from bondage.

This must be true concerning the Bible. God is spirit and communicates Himself in a spiritual manner. If we know the Spirit of God, then the Word of God is opened to our minds by Him.

Christians are given the Holy Spirit, yet I know I can be filled with myself and my concerns. When I come to the Bible each day, I must ask God to fill me with His Spirit, confessing anything that might stand in the way of His communication to my heart and life.

This means that before I read the Bible, I must pray and ask that God sends His Spirit to direct my understanding lest His Word of God merely flies over my head and I miss whatever He wants to say to me.

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)

This is such an amazing reality. Each day God speaks to me from His Word. Sometimes I am not listening very well, but when I do, what He says is always helpful and practical because it is startlingly related to my circumstances. When I finish reading, my heart is filled with awe at His grace and how He uses His Word to feed my Spirit.

Reading daily and diligently is important, but more important is knowing how to read. Paul wrote, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

For this, the Holy Spirit is helpful, but it is also helpful to consult with other Christians. This can be done in Bible study groups, hearing sound preaching, and reading books and commentaries that refer to what I am reading. I must pay attention to how the church has traditionally understood various teachings and passages. While the church and traditions are not the final authority (God’s Word holds that place), no one person has a corner on all truth. God reveals it to His people as a Body, and He is consistent. That is, Christians all over the world generally have the same understanding of His Word. We may not use the same language, but our Interpreter is the same Spirit. He does not contradict Himself.

The most important requirement for Bible study is never an academic goal, or merely to know it. Memorizing the entire Bible is useless unless I also do what it says.

Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge. (Proverbs 23:12)

God does not reveal Himself to those who will ignore Him and walk on. He intends an intimate relationship built on an intimate knowledge of Him. He knows me deeply and personally and wants me to know Him like that. The Bible contains the deep things of God and cannot be understood or be of any benefit to me if I am reading it carelessly or superficially. Instead, God wants an industrious intimacy, a meek humble heart, willing to hear what He says and put it into practice in my life.

November 27, 2013

How to study the Bible . . .

Ever stumbled through something without the instruction book? I’ve some hefty software that came with an equally hefty user’s manual and never cracked it open. Of course, that was foolish. I learned the hard way and the long way what the software would do or not do, missing basic tips that would have made using that software much easier.

While many do not realize it, life also comes with the manufacturer’s book of directions. This manual is not about how to change tires or how to bake a cake. It is information about the Author of life, who is the source of eternal life, how to have that life and how to live it out. It is wise to not only crack it open, but diligently read and study it, for in it we can find what is needed for living well and with purpose.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39–40)

Jesus told the Sadducees that they came to the Scriptures with the wrong attitude. They were looking for ways they could live forever, but rejected Him, the only source of that forever life. Yet even the people of God who have accepted Jesus and have His life need to be urged to search the Scriptures. The main excuse for not doing this is the size and complexity of this book of books. Many people simply don’t know where to start or how to study it.

The above verse gives one clue . . .  Jesus said that the Scriptures bear witness of Him, that is, they tell us the purpose of the Bible. It is God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ — to show us the way of salvation, that is, how to have eternal life. So read it with that goal.

He is the treasure hidden in both the Old and New Testaments. He is depicted in prophesies, types, sacrifices, and shadows, then revealed in a human body to bear our sins. He is shown as a priest and a prophet, a friend of sinners and the “express image” of God, the Father. Again, read it looking for Jesus.

Another instruction is to search the Scriptures in childlike humility. Those who are wise in their own eyes cannot see the marvels in God’s book. They are revealed only to those who sense their own need for His Word.

So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation. (1 Peter 2:1–2)

Notice there is another element in these verses besides hunger. The one who benefits from the Word of God (here called spiritual milk) is the person willing to turn from sin. Repentance changes both our lives and our appetites. When we turn our backs on sin, we are more willing to come to God’s Word and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”

Third, search the Scriptures intending to obey what God says. This attitude works together with being able to understand the Bible. Those who are willing to obey “get it” but those who are not interested in obedience will not understand it. This is because spiritual things must be revealed to us by the Spirit of God. He knows what we need to hear and what we are ready to hear. He also will not give us truth unless our hearts are ready to receive and obey it. This is grace too, and clearly shows the value of being teachable.
If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. (John 7:17)
My sister was saved in Algeria through the ministry of a missionary who risked her life to be in that place. She taught my sister, who then taught me, a wonderful way to read the Bible devotionally. Begin in the New Testament with a notebook and pen in hand. Read until something pops out that you do understand. Write the date, the verses, and then whatever it was that you understood. Repeat daily.

This formula works really well. Taking courses and reading books on how to study will also be helpful, but never underestimate the power of God to open the meaning of His Word to a heart that is willing to hear Him and do what He says.

November 26, 2013

Unwrap God’s gift and use it

Some religious people came to Jesus with a question about eternity. Perhaps they wanted to trap Him, but He turned the question back to them and said that they were mistaken in their question because they did not know the Scriptures.

At least one person reads this blog and sends me messages telling me that what I say is not biblical. Then he goes to great length to prove that he knows better. However, his teaching does the same thing as these religious folks who came to Jesus – making a point about one biblical issue without considering what the entire Bible says about that issue.

Jesus also saw beyond this problem to a far deeper one. While people may seem to love the Bible, they err if they don’t come to it with faith or the right attitude . . .

And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:37–40)

I’ve met people who used biblical terms but attached different definitions from those understood for centuries by the Body of Christ. It might sound as if they “speak our language” but they don’t. How confusing.

I’ve also met people who say they are saved by their faith, with an emphasis on “my” faith, not on Jesus Christ, the One who saves. These and other seemingly sincere beliefs can be very confusing. The Bible warns God’s people about them and sets up better examples to follow . . .

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)

Those religious people who approached Jesus with their question had studied the Bible to affirm what they already decided it said. The people of Thessalonica studied it to make sure that what they were taught was true, earning the designation of being “more noble” for their efforts. Motivation makes a difference in how the Word of God is read and received.

Today’s devotional reading says something profoundly true about the human heart. Even without the judgment of Scripture, we already know we are fallen creatures. Our hearts tell us -- for if we are honest, how else do we explain the origin of those corruptions and ugly attitudes that daily arise from within? We could blame God, but we know better. A good and holy God does not create anything unlike Himself. Humanity started out made in the image of God, but we don’t need a mirror to tell us we are not like Him now.

Not only that, it is plain that we don’t much like what we have become. Why else are we unwilling to admit our depravity? Why else do we cover our sin and try to appear better than we are? We know the muck inside.

The Bible tells the story of God’s created humanity falling into rebellion and darkness. It also tells us the way out, how we can become what He intended by believing in Jesus and receiving His life in redemption. Those who do this have a far more humble approach to His Word. Instead of using it as a weapon to prove ourselves, we know that by grace we have been saved, and His book is necessary to support and guide our new lives.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14–17)

My current studies in theology challenge my mind and heart. One thing stands out; the errors that happen and even spread throughout the church of Christ all happen for the same reason: ignorance of the Word of God. Without it, we cannot know the mind of God nor how to live in ways that please Him. He gave it to us to show our need and His supply, our fall and His recovery. It is our vital connection to Him.

Of course, we need to search the Scriptures and become familiar with what they say. This is the grand drama of redemption, the story of His covenant made to bring us into intimacy with Himself, and our light to guide every step we take. This is God speaking to our hearts and graciously giving to us His heart.