As a person prone to anxiety, quieting myself before the Lord can be one of my biggest challenges. It somehow feels easier to “do” and get things accomplished than to sit and quiet my mind. Yet there’s something about stilling myself before the Lord that can’t be replicated. It allows me a moment to breathe…in…and…out. Inhaling his Spirit. Exhaling the burdens. It’s in these spaces I give him a chance to be heard over all the noise, all the doing.
Often when I find myself in dry seasons, I realize I’ve had trouble stilling myself. I can easily go through the motions of devotion time with the Lord without actually settling my mind.
Psalm 46: 10 tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.” That sounds so sweet and serene, doesn’t it? But it’s not some cushy recommendation, it’s a command. If we widen the lens a bit, we’ll see that this verse sits near the end of a Psalm, a song if you will. It would have been sung by the worshipping community of the day. It begins with:
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
verses 1-3 (NIV)
If you continue on, you will see this Psalm is about a people who felt afraid, who feared war and destruction. It’s a Psalm about trusting in God’s power and might, about not giving in to anxiety because he is the Lord Almighty. When it comes to, “Be still, and know that I am God,” it is not a suggestion. In the original Hebrew, it is a command.
Quiet yourself. Calm yourself. Pay attention!
See and know that he is God. Breathe in and out, knowing he is above everything that comes our way, realizing he will have the final victory. It’s allowing for a moment of reverence. “Silence before God shows reverence.”1 Having reverence for the Lord isn’t about being afraid of him, but it is about exalting him to his proper place and framing ourselves within ours. He is the King of Kings, God Almighty, God-of-Angel-Armies2. And it is because of God being in his proper place, Maker of heaven and earth, Sustainer, Protector, Helper, Comforter, that we don’t have to fear. It is because of who God is that we can breathe, that we can be still.
I can always find something to worry about. Some days life disappoints, and I feel my chest tighten at my inability to control. But Psalm 46 invites us to something more. It invites us to something better. Come, bow down at the feet of our Savior God, still your mind from your worries, and know the God-Most-High still sits on his thrown. Somehow exalting him seems to put things back into perspective.
Though the earth give way and the mountains fall, we need not fear.
1 NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible 2The Message Translation phrases “The Lord Almighty” as “God-of-Angel-Armies” in verse 7.
Recently a friend of mine opened up and shared some tough things, smeared mascara running down her cheeks and all. She ended our talk by saying how much she appreciated having a safe space to let her guard down and allow someone to know all of her– the good, the bad, and the ugly. No matter what trial she’s going through or what she’s personally struggling with, she knows I love her and won’t disown her.
Later that night, as I reflected, I thought about what typically keeps walls up in relationships: There is often this underlying fear of truly being known. “Well, if they really knew me…” This fear of being rejected for who you really are.
I know I’ve experienced this. People initially engage me in conversation alright, but upon revealing my nerdy knack for all things philosophical and theological, I see their eyes glaze over and a yawn begin to form. My knee-jerk reaction is to shut down and stop sharing who I really am; just stick to what they want to hear.
This happens all the time in our lives, from the big to the small. Most of it is insignificant. You refrain from interjecting that you actually didn’t care for that movie with the weird blue people when the rest of the group did. You hide your enjoyment of classical music and ballet when amongst a group of athletes and gym-goers. You pretend to understand the lofty verbiage coming from a well-educated individual, shoving down that feeling of inferiority in their presence. Your daughter pauses at mentioning her favorite hobby of playing with dolls after a few classmates joke that dolls are for babies.
We all do it.
To a degree, some of this is normal. We don’t want every conversation to become a debate, and if we’re in a healthy place, we merely recognize that people enjoy different things.
However, when fear and shame build and it begins to affect us on a deeper level, then it stagnates our relationships.
A refusal to ever open up with your small group.
Prayer requests that always remain “unspoken.”
An inability to share flaws, all the while they fester into a sense of shame, feeling like “you’re the only one” who struggles with fear, pride, anger, bitterness (you fill in the blank).
Here is the beautiful part: God does know us. He knows every intricate, unique detail about us. He knows what makes each of us tick. He knows Joy is sweet and sensitive and can’t handle too much chaos at once. He knows Grant is the extrovert who feels lonely without lots of bustling activity and people around him. He knows Jamie comes alive with music, while Sarah is happiest digging in the dirt, and Calvin loves any game involving a ball to kick or throw.
Along with all the good, He also knows which of us tend to lose patience the easiest, those who are the most gripped by anxiety and the “what ifs”, those whose moods can swing up or down, those who struggle with laziness, and those who forget to slow down and enjoy quiet moments with their kids.
God knows all of this, along with so much more that we don’t even recognize about ourselves. And yet he still chooses us. He still says yes, again and again, whether at this moment you are thriving and living your best life, or you feel like a hot mess puddle on the floor. He relentlessly pursues us, because he is the Perfect Heavenly Father who never gives up, nor turns his back, on his children.
In the same way you delight in the differences of your kids, God delights in us.
That being said, what if we began to really absorb that we are to reflect the heart of God? What if we allowed the way God faithfully loves us to transform us to the degree that we can love others in that very same way? How would that change the way people experience the love of Jesus in this world?
What if you become a safe haven for a close friend? A trusted confidant with whom they can truly be themselves and still experience the love of Jesus.
What if you begin to extend the same grace and mercy toward your child as God extends to you?
How would your marriage change if you knew your spouse would still approach you with agape love, no matter how low you feel on your worst day? What sort of intimacy could begin to flourish?
That, my friends, is pure freedom and kingdom-of-God relationships. What a lovely picture to envision being surrounded by friends and family with whom we feel both known and still loved.
Unlike the moment with my friend where she did feel incredibly safe and loved, I don’t always get this right. Sometimes I roll my eyes at my husband. Sometimes I unintentionally dismiss what someone else enjoys. Sometimes I react poorly to my daughter’s sensitivity, forgetting that she gets most of that trait from me. But God has been bringing this to my attention more and more, and I’ve been asking Him to keep stretching my heart to love like he does. Because the truth is, without receiving God’s love ourselves, allowing it to permeate our hearts and transform the way we view others, trying to love like Jesus will be quite the uphill battle.
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
1 John 4: 10-12
This doesn’t necessitate being all things to all people. Even Jesus said no to some things and some people. But we do have this incredible opportunity to embrace the relationships God has put in our lives and to begin allowing God’s love to bubble up out of us, so that those with whom we do interact are impacted for the better.
Let us go about our week and ask the Lord for discernment about where we can display steadfast love to others, along with where we can begin to make ourselves vulnerable in order to receive Christ’s love from trusted people around us.
I came home the other night from a full day of work, rushing to kids’ activities, both body and mind exhausted. Then I stepped into my backyard that evening and couldn’t help but feel a sense of complete gratitude.
Birds fluttered and danced across the yard. Hues of pink and orange began to streak across wispy clouds. Fragrant lilac was being carried by the breeze. Neighborhood kids could be heard in the distance giggling and chattering together.
A stroll out to my little garden revealed bright white flowers speckling my strawberry bed. Pops of green and purple lettuce greeted me. Happy little peas began to grab hold of their trellis. Tiny zinnia seeds began to push their way through the dirt.
My mundane backyard was transformed into Eden.
I could have chosen to dwell on the fatigue my body felt or the annoyance my son stirred up in me that afternoon or the neverending to-do list I couldn’t seem to make much ground on. But that day, I didn’t.
Some days I inevitably do give in to that grumbling spirit and I go down the path of “woe is me.” Every now and then we need to feel all the feels. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging what is hard or stressful, and it is perfectly okay to have legitimate seasons of grief or lament (we’ve talked about that in What To Do With All The Feels: A Lesson On Lament).
But regardless of the season in which I find myself, whether fast and chaotic, slow and boring, the perfect happy-medium, or especially trying, God is developing in me this constant need to dwell on that which is good and lovely and excellent.
Finally, brother and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
I make choices about the content I allow to enter my mind:
Too much news produces anxiety; The Dick VanDyke Show makes me laugh.
A little bit of HGTV can spark creativity; too much can produce a spirit of discontent.
However, that’s only part of the equation. Consciously taking time to see all the good and right and admirable in the day-to-day becomes life changing.
Our perspective changes things. The lens with which we view our day changes our approach. Therefore, more and more, I am trying to find those places and moments of seeing God’s hand or artistry in my daily routine.
The kindness displayed by an encouraging co-worker.
Sentimental words from my daughter: “you’re the best mom ever.”
The sweet tune of the goldfinches as a thank you note for their thistle.
Vibrant blue hydrangea waiting to say hello outside my front door.
A family that still comes together for dinner in the evening.
The wonder on my son’s face as he discovers a new stone.
A quiet moment with just my Bible, journal, and a HOT cup of coffee.
You can tell I’m a small-town girl moved by nature, but for you it could be entirely different.
Instead, maybe it’s:
The smell from the corner bakery.
The neighbors who congregate every evening in the shared greenspace.
The familiar hustle of people rushing home after work.
The intricate stone architecture on the church the next block over.
A breezy stroll in the neighborhood fruit market where each vendor knows you by name.
Whatever it is that brings us joy, wherever we live and with whom we interact, we can grab hold of those nuggets of glory.
There is power in the thoughts on which we dwell. These thoughts, constantly sprinkled through the day and week, change us. They shape our view of life. They draw us closer to the heart of the Father and ultimately mold us to be a little more like Him.
Share your nuggets of glory with me! Where did you see God in your day? What moments brought you joy?
I wrote this well over a year ago and tucked it away. It was raw and it was personal. I needed to write for therapeutic reasons, but I couldn’t share in the midst of the valley. For a time, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever share it, but after seeing a few dear friends walk through their own valleys with their children, it seemed appropriate, even if only for the purpose of sending all my love and encouragement to them. You aren’t alone. ❤
Having children has been my hardest trust journey of all. Every step of it, if you don’t want to live in fear, has to be placed into God’s hands. From the waiting and the trying to get pregnant. To the hopeful anticipation that it will be an uncomplicated pregnancy. To the checking for 10 fingers and 10 toes. To the sweet hugs as you send them off to kindergarten. To the moment they’re suddenly suiting up in cap and gown.
I’m quite certain it doesn’t end there.
But actually trusting God through a difficult situation is a lot harder than just reading about it or saying the words or believing in the philosophy.
When suddenly a season hits where you aren’t sure as to your child’s health and something feels amiss. People give awkward comments, unwanted advice, and readily slap on labels. You begin to obsessively check your phone, waiting for reports from “the experts”. When it feels like you are staring evil in the eye and have no choice but to prepare for battle. It’s as if the situations around you are spiraling and you’re lost in this sea of questions and doubts and doctors and experts and the like. You start to question everything you’ve ever done as a mother and the ways it could have caused permanent damage- from the non-organic food you consumed while pregnant, to the not-so-perfect parenting moments. And you nonchalantly try to sneak out of church before anyone notices the tears beginning to well up because you can’t hold the fake smile any longer.
That’s when things get real.
We all know we’re supposed to trust God with our kids, with our precious little babies. But what does that look like when things hit home? What does that mean when living in this fallen world seems to invade the very fabric of our lives?
I wish I could say I understood the space I find myself in right now. I wish I could say it all makes sense and I can see how it fits into God’s larger plan. But right now it just feels heavy. It feels dark. And there are moments when it feels as though Satan himself is warring against my family and my child.
The Bible is very clear that we serve the God who provides. Jehovah Jireh in Hebrew means, “The Lord Will Provide.” We first see this name given to the Lord in Genesis 22:14. God tells Abraham not to lay a hand on Isaac and instead provides the sacrifice through a ram caught in the thicket, so Abraham names the place “The Lord Will Provide.” This is in direct contrast to the name Abraham gives God in the previous chapter, El Olam, the “Eternal God,” where He is the enduring God, the God of the long term and big picture. Here, Abraham recognizes that God is also the God of the short term, caring for our needs of today. The two attributes beautifully compliment one another to convey that Yaweh is not a God of either/or, but a God of both/and. Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham carried on in obedience because he believed God would provide. His ability to trust was because of who he knew God to be.
Right now my soul so badly needs to remember that. I need to know that I serve a God who provides for today, like rain drops bringing sustenance to the sun-scorched crops. But I also need to know that my God takes care of the big picture; that he is holding my family 10 years from now; that this all somehow matters.
The truth is, we don’t always get to know all the answers. Sometimes we can see the bits and pieces of the greater picture later on, sometimes we can see the good that comes out of the bad, but other times we walk through difficult seasons with no sense of purpose and no justification for the pain being felt. Those are the seasons we grab on tight to the hand of God and ask Him to steady us. Those are the moments when the need for a Savior and the longing for eventual restoration of all things is felt more than ever.
Sweet Jesus, erase our tears and bring about healing.
In the meantime, I hope and I trust. Not because life is rosy or because I’m guaranteed a happy ending, but because I can be confident in my Savior God. He is faithful, He is merciful, He is good, and He is both my El Olam and my Jehovah Jireh. Like Abraham with Isaac, I’ll continue to step forward in obedience, trusting God to provide, remembering that he loves my sweet child even more than I do.
For any of you out there going through a difficult road with a child, my heart and prayers are with you friends.
Even as a champion for reading and understanding the Bible, I understand that without absorbing today’s topic, everything else I’ve written these past weeks is meaningless. When we approach the Bible, we must come with an open, humble heart that allows the cerebral information to penetrate into our hearts. Without that, we’re reduced to academic scholars, pushers of religious dogma, even to Pharisees.
Let’s look at this quote from a Seminary Professor, C.L. Blomberg:
“If we wanted to be brutally honest…one would have to say that the conservative, evangelical Christian…is probably the closest parallel to the ancient Pharisees.”
What terms or adjectives come to mind when you hear Pharisee? Does that statement seem a bit extreme? Did it strike a chord? Seem a little offensive to your Christian sphere?
Before walking off in a huff, hold onto your panties, take a deep breath, and hear me out. Let me remind you that the man who made that statement is not anti-Christian. He is a Bible professor, teaching pastors and ministry students who will go on and teach more people. So why would he say such a thing?
Jesus actually had a lot to say on this topic.
In Matthew 23, Jesus spends the entire chapter rebuking the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." - Matthew 23: 25-28
Yikes! Jesus compares them to whitewashed tombs, calling them dead on the inside. Clearly he takes it very seriously that they care more about following the rules and looking good on the outside than they do about cleaning their hearts.
Again, in John 5: 38-39, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “nor does God’s word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Of the religious groups of the day, the Pharisees knew the scriptures better than anyone, adhered to the rules better than anyone, yet they were missing the main point! Jesus was making it clear that their strict rule following wouldn’t save them. Jesus’ message was about coming to Him for salvation.
In the process of trying to more carefully understand the context and absorb Biblical knowledge, we cannot forget to make that head to heart connection. If all we ever do is store up a wealth of knowledge, a list of dos and don’ts, we become too much like the Pharisaic Jew or the legalistic evangelical, and forget what is at the center of Christianity: a transformative relationship with Jesus.
The trouble is, we humans tend to go to extremes. If you remember the introduction (An Intro: Why It’s Not Just For Your Pastor), I spoke about being informed in the Scriptures for ourselves so that we are not like lemmings and easily led astray. However, on the opposite side is an equal challenge of not becoming the hypocritical, white-washed Pharisee. We should neither have a faith that is led merely on warm fuzzies and our emotion of the day any more than we should claim a faith in Jesus that is reduced to academic knowledge of the Bible while ignoring its purpose to shape us into the reflection of the one we claim to follow.
We need balance.
I will make this very clear: dogmatic reading of the Bible or a precise following of the rules will not save you. Only a relationship with our Savior, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is what saves. “For it is by grace you have been saved…not by works, so that no man may boast” (Ephesians 2). Repenting from our sin and accepting the gracious gift of Jesus that has been given us is the only thing that saves. However, if we don’t build on that foundation, if we ignore the opportunity to come to know our Creator God and Savior more through his Holy Scriptures, we miss out. We pass by on the chance to better understand the heart of God and to allow it to transform our lives.
So if there’s anything with which I can leave you regarding the need to read your Bible, perhaps it is this:
Reading the Bible is not a “you have to,” it is a “you get to!”
Therefore, as we conclude this series, my prayer for you is that you can let this notion be your framework as you grow your knowledge of God’s beautiful, holy Scriptures. Let His word be your sustaining daily bread. Let it guide you and provide you with a discerning voice. Celebrate the unending richness you will uncover as you peel back the layers of its goodness. And then sit back and ask our gracious God to use all of that to work inside you so that you never resemble the Pharisees, who quoted the holy Scriptures yet failed to recognize when He stared them in the face. Rather possess a heart that is so transformed, it begins to reflect the heart of the Savior.
May our God bless you and keep you, and make his face shine upon you.
I have to be honest that after teaching Bible study this way for several years, I thought it would be simple to convert into a blog. However, taking what I’d normally discuss with a group over the course of an hour and trying to reduce it down into a concise blog format proved to be much harder than anticipated.
For the sake of what we can cover here today, I zoomed in on one passage from Ephesians. I would recommend, however, for your own study, that you read the surrounding chapters (or even the whole book) to grasp the larger picture. As we read from Ephesians 2, we are going to journey through the Inductive Guide so you can practice alongside me. For each section of the guide, I will explain what I do and then provide bullet-point information of the notes I would take in my journal. This is meant to give you ideas; it is not the only way to think about the passage and/or study scripture. The more you practice, the more you’ll find a rhythm that works for you. If you can, grab your Bible and turn to the book of Ephesians. Otherwise, I will also have the verses here. A printable version of today’s practice will be available at the bottom.
JEW AND GENTILE RECONCILED THROUGH CHRIST
Here, I think about where the book of the Bible is located, use the Genre Guide, or look at the intro in a study Bible to help me determine what genre I’m reading.
Letter: sometimes referred to as Epistles.
Written in response to a specific need or circumstance.
For today’s purpose, or when I’m preparing a lesson plan for Bible study, I do dig into the context a bit deeper than for daily reading by utilizing some of the Tools I mentioned. But even knowing general context helps unveil new layers of the text. This where it’s helpful to use that study Bible introduction and think about where the book is located in the Biblical Timeline. In this case, Ephesians is written after Christ’s death and resurrection, when the new churches of Christian believers are being formed and undergoing heavy persecution.
Author: Written by Paul, the apostle, around 60 AD. One of the 4 letters written while in prison in Rome.
Original Audience: new Gentile Christian believers in Ephesus and the general Mediterranean area. Written to encourage them in their new faith and to encourage unity. (Gentile simply means “not Jewish”)
Listeners would have known that Paul was currently imprisoned in Rome after being accused by Jewish leaders that he brought an Ephesian Gentile beyond the temple’s outer court (see Acts 21:27-29)
Ethnic and cultural differences between the Jewish and Gentile believers had become an area of contention in the Ephesian church. This brand new church was in danger of becoming 2 separate churches.
When we enter the scene, this new church is fragmented, and Gentile Christians are being made to feel lesser than because they’re not Jewish (and not circumcised). Paul comes in and makes it very clear about their worth in the kingdom of God.
Observe: What does the passage say?
At this point, I begin reading and make notes along the way about significant points, themes, etc. I pause every couple or few verses to write down what I want to remember. I may also jot down other verses of which I’m reminded.
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Vs 11 & 12: Remember what life was like before Christ!
Before Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Jews did not realize that salvation would ever be extended to the world, to people outside of themselves. This was a big deal for Gentiles! (word for a non-Jew)
Vs 13: Jesus dying on the cross changed everything. Jesus allowed them to be part of the family.
Ephesians 1:5- “he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ”
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Vs 14/15- Jesus is our peace. He destroyed the barrier, between people and with God. Jesus brought reconciliation/atonement for our sins.
1 John 2: 1-2 “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father– Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Vs 15/16- Create a new humanity from the two = means to reconcile the two sides.
Vs 17- Christ’s message of salvation was for everyone; Jew and Gentile.
Vs 18- Both have access to the Father because ofJesus.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Vs 19- All part of God’s family; citizens.
Vs 20-22- Jesus holds it all together; the cornerstone; he’s the unifier. Everything is built off of Jesus.
Interpret: What does the passage mean?
Here, I look back over what I observed the text to be saying, along with what I know of the context. I try and pull a couple of main points or themes I am seeing from the text.
Jesus’ atoning work was and is a big deal! It changed a lot of things!
We tend to take this for granted in our era, but this was and is life-changing. Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in a new era of relationship with God; the turning point in God’s rescue plan.
We are Gentiles. We would have been excluded prior to Jesus.
Theme: remember who you were, so you can remember who you are.
Remember what you’ve been saved from.
Those who receive Jesus are called members of God’s family; adopted, heirs; no second-rate citizens.
Theme of unity:
The body of Christ should not be at war with itself anymore.
The church, reconciled to God through Christ, is to live in a way that exemplifies the ultimate restoration
Jesus is our peace; the one who holds things together. But that also means we need him to hold things together; can’t do it on our own.
Application: What does it mean for me?
At this point, I can’t do it for you. This is where you apply what you’ve learned personally, not merely as a universal principle. What from the reading and interpretation is speaking to your heart? What is God challenging you to do or pray?
Personally, God was moving my heart about the theme of unity, and about how Jesus is our source for peace. We are in a time of extreme division, even within the church body. This reminds me not only of Christ’s call for unity, but the fact that he is the root of it. When our focus becomes ourselves, or when we try and do things in our own strength, everything falls apart, just as a foundation would if you pulled out the chief cornerstone. This past week it has caused me to reflect on how I can present Christ’s peace in my own sphere. It has also reminded me to see fellow believers as children of God, as part of the family. We may have moments of disagreement, but I should never be looking at others as second-rate citizens of the kingdom of God. We’re in this together, and it’s only through Jesus that we can remain in or come back to a place of unity.
I pray that God not only spoke to your heart about today’s reading, but you were able to learn something to grow your excitement and confidence in studying God’s word. In closing, I wanted to pray the same prayer Paul said to the Ephesian church:
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge– that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3: 17-19
Blessings as you go about your week. Next week we’ll visit the last part in this series, an important component to our studying of the scriptures.
Today I wanted to share some of the tools I have found helpful along the way for my own study and for preparing Bible studies. This isn’t going to be an all-inclusive list of every resource out there; these are simply the go-to tools I utilize regularly.
1. Read different translations for comparison. Different translations serve different purposes. Some have been more closely translated word-for-word from the Hebrew and Greek texts into English to produce the most literal translations. However, as we discussed with context, this is where the actual meaning can sometimes be “lost in translation” without careful reading. In the middle of the spectrum are thought-for-thought translations. And on the opposite side are paraphrase translations, which offer a more devotional style reading. Below I’ve listed several popular Bible translations in descending order, from most literal to the least. A really great option is using www.Biblegateway.com to compare different translations side by side.
ESV- The English Standard Version is the most literal translation, attempting to translate word for word from the original text.
KJV- The King James Version is an English translation of the Bible commissioned for the Church of English in the early 1600s. They have also made the more updated New KJV with more updated language. It can have a poetic flow, naturally from the older way of speaking.
NIV- The New International Version is more of a meaning-for-meaning translation of the Bible. It was translated into English directly from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts, but attempts to convey the original contextual meaning through its translation. It was initially published to meet the need for an updated English language translation.
NLT- The New Living Translation is more focused on translating meaning and entire thoughts, as opposed to translating word for word. It intends to make the translation into modern, everyday English, such that its meaning will have the same effect as the original audience.
AMP- The Amplified Bible’s goal is to “amplify” the meaning by blending word meaning and context to translate the original. It uses additional words to help make the meaning more clear. Since it sometimes takes multiple English words to fully interpret a Hebrew or Greek word, this is a more lengthy translation.
The Message- A paraphrase translation written by Pastor Eugene Peterson. It was his attempt to bring the original heart and emotion into this translation. Written directly from the Greek/Hebrew texts.
2. Study Bible. If I could only recommend one thing for you, this would be it. It provides so much great information in one package. There are many versions out there. Here are three I can recommend from personal experience.
Life Application Study Bible– This This is a great option if you want some contextual info mixed in with devotional-style thoughts.
NIV Study Bible- This study Bible provides more historical & contextual info than the above version, along with more maps and photos.
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. I would recommend this for those most interested in deeper historical and contextual information. On a continuum, The Life Application version supplies basic information, the Study Bible supplies plenty of info for most readers, where this version is going to provide a wealth of information for the reader wanting a lot of detail and knowledge. I find this to be a great Bible for preparing lesson plans when I lead Bible studies.
3. Utilize Cross-References. In many Bibles, you can find cross-references to other verses in the Bible (often using a letter system in the margin). This is a great way to read the Old Testament verses that New Testament passages are referencing, or vice versa.
4. Use a Concordance. This is a way to help you locate verses containing certain words or topics. Some Bibles have one located in the back, but you can also buy expansive ones, like Strong’s Bible Concordance. You can also utilize Biblegateway.com for the same purpose.
5. Use a Greek/Hebrew Dictionary.This can be really great for exploring the meaning of a word more deeply. Because the English language is more limited, you can often learn a much deeper meaning of what the original Hebrew or Greek meant to convey.
8. N.T. Wright. If I had to pick just one author to read user-friendly, trusted Bible commentaries by, this is the guy. A brilliant, British Bible scholar, N.T. Wright has a great series of commentaries that are written for everyday people like us, as opposed to writing for other theologians. He explains contextual background but also uses anecdotes to make passages even more relatable. You can look for his series Titled “For Everyone.”
9. Listen to the Bible. I’ve been there. With 3 kids, work, and extracurriculars, I am still there. Certain seasons of life are crazier than others. In those stretches, I’ve found it easier to listen to the Bible while I’m driving, exercising, doing dishes, etc. The Bible App by YouVersion is great for this option.
I hope you find these help. Like I said, this is not an exhaustive list, but these are the regular tools and devices I find myself using. I do also want to note that I do not access all of these every day or even every week and month. They’re simply great tools I go to when needed. Some days I have more time to study scripture than other days. Some topics I want to dig into more than others. So please do not look at this as a to-do list of your daily devotional time. That would be quite the accomplishment! They are tools to put in the toolbelt to help us as we explore God’s word.
Keep at it! For Part 7 we’ll practice walking through the Inductive Study Guide to give you the confidence to do it on your own.
I’m praying God will give you his wisdom and discernment as you open his precious Holy Scripture.
Today we’re going to discuss why the order of application matters. Why can’t we just read a verse from the Bible and immediately apply it to our lives? There’s no one-size-fits-all with the variety of verses contained in the Bible. So there will of course be instances where that may work out and a verse means just what it sounds like, even after seeing the larger framework. However, with many other verses and passages, if we skip ahead of noting genre and context, we can skew the original meaning altogether.
Let’s use another well-known verse as an example:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11 is often perceived as this notion that God will not let harm befall us; nothing bad will ever happen; God has good and prosperous things planned for me; and God is going to rescue you quickly from any troublesome situations. Again, a sort of motivational verse.
Read in isolation, that does seem to be the case. God knows the plans he has for us and it sounds like he wants to give us prosperity and a hopeful future. Golly, if I’m going through a hard circumstance, it would sure seem like God is going to come to my rescue, for surely he doesn’t wish anything bad on me?
Well, sort of. That idea isn’t all fallacy, but there are holes in that theology.
If we put on the brakes and use the Inductive Method we’ll discover several important points to understand what God is saying here and why he is saying it. Jeremiah 29:11 is written at the point in history where the last of the Israelites’ land has been conquered by the Babylonians and they have just been taken into Babylonian Exile (see Part 4 for a Timeline and major Biblical events ). After ignoring Jeremiah’s warnings and pleadings for 23 years for them to repent, Israel is facing the consequences of breaking their Covenant relationship with God.
At the beginning of Chapter 29, titled A Letter to the Exiles, God begins by letting the exiles know they will be in captivity for 70 years. He instructs them to ignore the false prophets who are spreading ideas that God will come to their immediate rescue and destroy Babylon. Instead, God tells them to build houses and settle down, plant gardens, and marry. He is making it very clear that they better get comfortable because they’re going to be there for a while.
At that point, we approach verse 11 within its full paragraph:
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
So what is God’s point here? He tells them to hunker down because exile will last 70 years. But then he says he will come to them and free them from captivity after that 70 years because he knows the plan he has for them. There is light at the end of the tunnel. He knows the journey through the dark tunnel may appear daunting, but ultimately, he has a plan; a plan that will result in a much better ending than if he’d merely taken away their immediate discomfort. He is encouraging them to hold on, have faith in him. There is hope and a future, it just may not involve squelching the discomfort today brings. It is meant to instill hope in the midst of their exile, not to provide news that exile will be short-lived.
Now that you have the larger context of Jeremiah 29 and what it meant to the original listeners, take a moment to reflect and see how it applies to your life, to situations you may be facing.
How would you apply Jeremiah 29:11 to your life now? Does it still seem to fit within the Prosperity Gospel belief that if you follow God, no harm will come upon you? Does it still leave you with the assumption that immediate rescue is imminent? Or does it enable you to reflect on that verse differently? Does it teach you something new about the character of God? Does it cause you to reflect on your own trials in a new light? Does it provide a fresh lens with which to see a God in whom we can trust for ultimate purpose and intention, even when we at times have to experience pain in this life?
I hope and pray this example has helped you gain insight as to why we should be cautious to apply scripture too hastily. Briefly pausing to understand the greater scope really can open the doors to a deeper understanding of God’s character and heart, and thus, how that pertains to our daily lives.
And in case you were curious about the end of the story, Babylonian Exile does end in 539 BC when Cyrus, king of Persia (who had since captured Babylon), allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. See the book of Ezra to read that story. All of that, combined with the world events that occur over the 400 Years of Silence (period between Old & New Testaments), set the stage for the perfect timing of the arrival of the Son of God, Jesus, who brought about the incomparable hope and future for mankind….but those details we’ll save for another time.
Keep practicing and don’t get discouraged if the process still feels messy. Later this week, we’ll take a look at tools I’ve found helpful for studying the Bible.
As I referenced in the Intro, somehow I came away from my adolescent years of church and Sunday school with a very fragmented view of the Bible. I am embarrassed to say it was closer to my mid 20s when, through studying on my own accord, I began to connect some of the dots, particularly of the Old Testament of the Bible.
I figured I would start by making myself vulnerable so that no one need feel inferior. Wherever you’re at in your Biblical knowledge, you have nothing to be ashamed about.
For example, I was definitely older before I ever connected that the story of Joseph directly connected to the story of Moses. As in, the Israelites end up in Egypt in the first place because Joseph brings his family there to save them from a famine. Then the Israelites become enslaved later on and Moses is the man God chooses to help free them. I think the first time I pieced that one together, my mind was blown. Likewise, it was most certainly only in the past 5 years that I realized the kingdom of Israel, God’s chosen people, actually split in two at one point! It became two nations, mad at each other! I’ve led Bible studies for 15 years and it still took time to figure some of those things out– and hey, no judgment! It’s a big Bible, ha!
Now, some of you may be laughing at me wondering, how did you not learn that earlier? As I said to my husband, I will now say to you: we didn’t all have the privilege of attending Christian school growing up. So seriously, count that a blessing and don’t take it for granted if you did. But I will also assume that there were others of you, like myself, who went “OOOOOHHHH! Now I get it!”
As I prepared this, there were so many MORE things I wanted to include, but it was just too much for an already lengthy topic. So we’ll dive into more overarching Biblical themes and important events in the future. Today, the purpose is to lay the groundwork and understand the larger picture.
The Bible is really one big love story about a Creator God wanting to restore relationship with his people and creation. Everything in the Old Testament points to Jesus, and at least ⅔ of the New Testament references the OT, so it is so important to understand both. They do not exist within a vacuum. Each informs the other.
In the beginning, God created this world and mankind, all operating under his shalom (peace). Then man rebelled and broke that peace, bringing about suffering and chaos. But almost right away, in the book of Genesis, God already kickstarts his rescue plan. It begins with a man named Abraham. God establishes a Covenant with Abraham and says “I will be your God and all nations will be blessed through you.”
Descended from Abraham comes the people of Israel. When they first make their exodus out of slavery from Egypt, they no longer know Yahweh God, whom their descents followed. So God again establishes his Covenant with them and says “I will be your God, you will be my people, all nations will be blessed through you.” God promises to be their God and secure blessing upon them, but Israel is supposed to live in a way that reflects the heart of God. For their side of the Covenant, they are to be a beacon to the nations around them, displaying the generous and compassionate heart of their Lord.
The rest of the OT is waiting to see if Israel can hold up their end of the Covenant relationship. Can they be ambassadors of Creator God to the surrounding nations? Can they bring redemptive living to the world? We, of course, know they fail in this mission. They abandon Yahweh and live in the most detestable of ways, and the Covenant relationship is broken. Yet even in the bleakest of moments, when impending Babylonian conquest is upon the Israelite people, God already speaks of his continued rescue plan, of sending a Redeemer and establishing a new covenant, which will not be written on tablets of stone but on their minds and hearts.
When we open the book of the New Testament, the rescue story comes to a pinnacle. The Creator God, knowing his creation cannot rescue and atone itself, humbles himself and comes to the very world he created as God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. Jesus, fully God, but also descended from the line of Abraham and the Israelite nation, is for all people what they could never be for themselves, never able to fulfill the Old Covenant. He presents a New Exodus, where now all peoples of the world are invited to come out of slavery from sin and into freedom under a New Law, a New Covenant. For the first time since the fall of Adam and Eve, Jesus restores right relationship between God and man by becoming their sacrifice, the final slaughtered Lamb,the last atonement needed. He dismantles the Old Law and establishes a New Covenant.
The most central part of the story has occurred, but it is not over. Jesus’ death and resurrection was the bridge to restoring the relationship between people and their Father God, but the final restoration of the world has not yet come. We will not be swept off to heaven someday and this world destroyed in a final judgement. One day, Jesus will return, and this world that God so lovingly created, he will make new. Heaven will come down to meet earth, and our Lord will dwell among us. And the ultimate peace, the beautiful and orderly shalom that God always desired for this world and for his relationship with his children, will be restored.
In the waiting, Jesus makes it very clear in the Gospels that we do not have to wait for God’s Final Restoration. When Jesus came, he ushered in the Kingdom of God. He displayed and taught what it means to live in a such a way that reflects the heart of the Father. And so in the meantime, while we wait, we can bring the Kingdom of God to this world each and every day by choosing to display God’s shalom, by choosing to reflect his love and mercy and compassion. In the same way the Israelites were supposed to be a light to the nations around them, but failed without access to relationship with their Heavenly Father, we are invited to partake in God’s story by being ambassadors of King Jesus to the world around us.
Now that we have the plot of the story and ultimately know the ending, where God restored relationship at great cost to himself and where God’s love and peace will prevail, we can begin to fill in some of the details along the way.
Below you will find a bullet-point, cliff-notes version of the major events in the Bible. It’s like reading it in fast forward and it can make it easier to see how the pieces fit together. This isn’t all-inclusive, but it provides anchor points. A downloadable pdf of this will be at the end. Following that, there will also be a printable Timeline. I find it to be handy to reference, because even the best of us can forget things along the way.
Major Events of the Bible:
Creation (Genesis 1-2)
People repeatedly sinning against God (Genesis 3-11)
Fall of Adam and Eve, and decline of descendants
God spares Noah and the animals as a remnant
Makes a Covenant with creation to never again destroy it (rainbow)
Man again turns corrupt; the Tower of Babel- God confuses the languages and people scatter (Gen 11)
God’s solution: God makes a Covenant Promise with Abraham (Genesis 12-17)
Promises to make him into a great nation and to give him land
Millions of descendants
All nations will be blessed through him
Patriarchs of God’s people (Gen 21-50)
Abraham→ Isaac → Jacob
Jacob’s other name- Israel, which means “wrestles with God”
Jacob’s 12 sons become the 12 tribes of Israel
Jacob’s son, Joseph, is sold into slavery in Egypt, which leads to his eventual position of power in Egypt
Joseph saves his family, Israelites, during a great famine→ family moves to Egypt
Israelite population rapidly grows in Egypt. When the old generation dies and new pharaoh no longer remembers Joseph, Israelites are made into slaves as a means to subdue them (Exodus)
Moses’ life is spared, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter
God delivers his people out of Egypt in Exodus and enters Covenant relationship with them (the Mosaic Covenant) (Exodus 19 & 24)
I will be your God, you will be my people; I will dwell in your midst
Israelites are meant to be God’s image bearers, to represent God to the world, to be set apart
Israelites know little about Yahweh before this point; they have to learn how to live as people set apart (hence, The Law)
Deuteronomy (just prior to entering the Promised Land)
God restates their covenant relationship and details their blessings if they obey him and worship him alone, as well as the terrible judgments if they do not (see Deut 28)
Israel vows to keep the Covenant, but of course they do not
Joshua through 2 Kings follows the Israelite’s story of entering the Promised Land and seeing if they keep that agreement (clearly they do not)
They gradually conquest the land and then lose pieces again as they fall into sin
Time of the Judges
Israel’s attempt to have a leader; someone representing God, to guide the people
Judges were political military leaders but also a judicial role (like a Supreme Court)
It goes horribly and by the end, it’s written, “in those days Israel had no king: everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 21:25)
Outrageous moral decline- rape, murder, neglect of widows/orphans/poor, worshipping pagan gods
Samuel is the last judge
The Cycle of Judgment: they do this all through the OT
the people are faithful and enjoy peace→ People get complacent and rebel→ God gives them into the hands of their enemies→ People turn back to God and cry out in their oppression→ God rescues them and people are faithful under that leader→ Until that leader is gone and the people rebel again
Israel enters monarchy- a new strategy of trying to lead the people via a king (1 Samuel)
Saul is the first king- starts okay but can’t remain faithful to God
Samuel is instructed to go to Bethlehem and anoints David as the next king
David is the one who takes Jerusalem and establishes it as the capitol
David finishes conquering the Promised Land
Israel’s land being established; wants to build a permanent temple for God
Solomon is the last king of Israel in its entirety– cursed because of his unfaithfulness (1 Kings)
The Division of the Kingdom (1 & 2 Kings)
The Northern Kingdom- referred to as Israel
There are no good kings here in its history; they turn to idol worship
The Southern Kingdom- referred to as Judah
Where Jerusalem is located
Where we get the term “The Jews”
Has a few good kings mixed in with the bad
On-going civil war between the kingdoms
The destruction of the northern kingdom, Israel, by the Assyrians (722 BC) – 2Kings 17
The destruction of Solomon’s temple and the southern kingdom, Judah, by the Babylonians (587 BC)- 2Kings 24 & 25
Exile in Babylonia and Egypt (550-450 BC)
Return to the land- Ezra & Nehemiah
Persian age (538 BC)- In his first year of rule, King Cyrus frees the Israelites
Rebuilding of the temple- Nehemiah
Intertestamental period (also referred to as the “400 Years of Silence”)
Greek empire from 336-165 BC
Brings the Greek language (common trading language), making for one common language
Greek cultural influence
Greek preference for aesthetics over content
Roman Empire in rule by the time Jesus is born
Jesus’ Birth, Life, Death & Resurrection (The Gospels)
Jesus ushers in the Kingdom of God and establishes a New Covenant
Jesus becomes the final sacrificial Lamb of atonement for sins
Jesus’ death & resurrection restores right relationship with God
The formation of the early church (Acts)
Jesus’ disciples become the first missionaries
The Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost
The invitation to be God’s people is opened up to non-Jews (referred to as “Gentiles”)
Saul is converted on the road to Damascus and renamed “Paul”
Nero comes to power in the 60s AD
Intense persecution- causes Christians to spread out and ultimately spread Christianity to other parts of the world
Revelation: One day Christ will return and restore all things; the earth will be made new and heaven will meet earth, and God will dwell among his people.
….Until then, we eagerly wait and see what role we’ll play in God’s story.
Now it’s time to look at why paying attention to the genre you are reading is helpful. Genre is another way of saying the category or classification, characterized by the same form, style, or subject matter. Genre is one of the first things I make sure to pay attention to because it can shape your entire reading of a verse, chapter, or book.
For example, if I read a parable of Jesus but forget what a parable means, we could have a big problem on our hands when I interpret Jesus’ words of “I am the vine, you are the branches” to mean that literally. Jesus is not actually some weird anthropomorphic grape vine. Likewise when Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grew and became a tree, it isn’t really a mustard seed. There are lessons embedded in his words there.
On the flip side, if I fail to see the book of 1 Samuel as an historical account that happened to the Israelite nation, I may only regard David’s life as a nice story with a lesson. It becomes easy to take for granted that these were real people, at a real point in time.
We know that in all literature, the genre affects our reading of it. Reading a poem by Dr. Maya Angelou is going to be absorbed much differently than reading the Diary of Anne Frank. Knowing one is poetry and one is historical informs our interpretation.
As for the Bible, some people will break them into even more specific categories, but there are certain overarching genres that are typically agreed upon:
Law: The first 5 books of the Bible are typically considered books of Law, also referred to as “The Torah” and “The Pentateuch”. They include the story of how the Israelites became God’s people and the laws that were given them. These laws were meant to be the standard by which they lived under the Covenant made with God; a display that God’s people did not live like the rest of the world. The laws also served to show that no one was capable of earning God’s love. The Moral Laws (such as the 10 Commandments) are what most people are familiar with, but these books also include the Civil and Ceremonial Laws put in place to govern the Israelite nation. The Civil and Ceremonial Laws were very specific to their people, place, and time within history.
Narrative: This tells a story or provides an historical account. This is found throughout the Bible, as entire books or as chapters within books.
Poetry: These use imagery and figurative language. They often express emotion and repeat phrases for poetic flare. The books of Psalms and Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon) are included here. However, poems and songs are found in many books throughout the Bible.
Wisdom: A collection of wise sayings, meant to influence the moral code of its readers.
Prophets (Major and Minor): Written by prophets living in a specific period of Israel’s history, these were written as reminders and warnings to the Israelites. These need to be read with an understanding of the Covenant relationship between God and his people.
Gospels: The term literally means “good news.” They were a proclamation of the new king, Jesus. These include the life of Jesus. A sub-genre, Parable, is found here.
Letters: Written about a specific circumstance to a specific group of Christians in the Early Church. It is crucial to understand those things first in order to reach appropriate conclusions regarding application.
Apocalyptic/Prophecy: Revelation and parts of Daniel are included in this genre. These are urgent messages meant to warn and/or comfort the original audience. Apocalyptic literature uses a lot of symbolic language that must be understood through the lens of similar preceding Biblical texts. They are meant to evoke emotion; not necessarily to speak to the cerebral side.
For a handy visual, download and print the Genre Guide. As with the Inductive Bible Study Guide, this can be helpful as you get started. Keep in mind that multiple genres can be found within a book of the Bible.