December 6, 2019

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” Only is a good word to ponder. When we have many of something, it is easier to be generous. When we are down to one item of something, it is much more difficult, and it requires sacrificial love to part with the only. When we move to persons, only becomes even more precious and more difficult to give up or lose.

It is interesting to see this use of the word “only” in relationships. The Greek word that occurs in John 3:16 (monogenēs, Strong’s # G3439) is found four times in the New Testament and once in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, dealing with this kind of relationship. We can get a sense of the cost of “only” by looking at these occurrences.

Jephthah made a foolish vow to sacrifice what first came out of his house after his successful battle. The first was his daughter. The text of Judges 11:34 describes her as his “only child.” What a tragic vow and great loss!

As Jesus drew near to the city of Nain, a dead man was being carried out for burial. The dead man’s mother was a widow, and he was described as her “only son” (Luke 7:12). Her loss was great until Jesus raised her son.

Jairus implores Jesus to come to his house to heal his daughter because she is dying. She is described as his “only daughter” (Luke 8:42). Faced with a great loss, Jairus turns to the one who could save her. Jesus raises this only daughter from the dead. Loss is turned to joy.

When Jesus returns from the Mount of Transfiguration, he is met by a man whose son was seized by a spirit and thrown into convulsions. He begs Jesus because this son is his “only” (Luke 9:38). This is a case of suffering that Jesus heals, and he relieves this father who has an only son.

Hebrews 11 recounts Abraham’s faith in offering Isaac. He was in the act of offering up “his only son” (Hebrews 11:17). This may seem confusing because Abraham also had his son Ishmael, but Isaac was “only” in a special way beyond biology. Isaac was the son of promise. The promises that Abraham had received were to be fulfilled through Isaac. In that way, he was Abraham’s only son.

God’s only Son stands in a unique relationship with the Father. It takes sacrificial love to give the only Son, to watch him suffer at the hands of cruel men, and to let him die for sinners. Such is God’s great sacrificial love for our sake.

— Russ Holden

What Translations Are People Reading?

November 29, 2019

What is the best Bible translation? I like the reply that says, “The one that’s read.” I’ve read many different translations in my Christian walk, and, clearly the statistics indicate we live in a multiple translation environment, so as we attempt to teach, we have to take that into account. Translation differences can often lead to interesting investigations to help us better understand a passage. But I’m curious about what people are reading.

What are the most purchased Bible translations? The following list is from August 2019 and compiled by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

  1. New International Version
  2. King James Version
  3. English Standard Version
  4. New Living Translation
  5. New King James Version
  6. Reina Valera (Spanish)
  7. Christian Standard Bible
  8. New International Reader’s Version
  9. New American Standard Bible
  10. The Message

The Barna Group did a survey in 2018 of the most read Bible translations.

  1. King James Version 31%
  2. New International Version 13%
  3. English Standard Version 9%
  4. New King James Version 7%
  5. Amplified 7%
  6. Christian Community 4% (originally produced in the Philippines)
  7. New American Standard 3%
  8. New Living Translation 2%
  9. Revised Standard 2%
  10. Contemporary English Version 2%
  11. New American Bible 2%
  12. All others (1% or less combined) 9%
  13. Not sure 8%

Dr. Jack P. Lewis did a review of Bible translations called The English Bible from KJV to NIV*. Lewis had the knowledge of the languages, and the book is a detailed oriented book. But one of his concluding thoughts may help us in our multi-translation world.

While versions differ in translating specific statements, all of the available English translations present the basic duties toward God and man. By comparing one with the other, the person with no language training can be warned about going astray because of the peculiarities of one translation. He may be challenged to new ideas by reading a new translation. The religious problems of the world are not caused by people reading different translations; the most serious problem is that many read no translation!*

— Russ Holden

*Jack P. Lewis, The English Bible from KJV to NIV, p. 412.

Thanks in All Circumstances

November 22, 2019

This has easily been the toughest year of my life. A couple of falls on the ice last winter left me with severe back pain. During that time, my Mother died. I spent eight days in the hospital with sepsis. Although I got better, we knew that I also had a heart infection. This eventually led to open heart surgery where my aortic valve was replaced, my mitral valve repaired, and my pacemaker and wiring removed. And of course, what lay behind my infections was my low immune system due to multiple myeloma, so I’m also under treatment for cancer.

I’m glad that we face life one day at a time, one moment at time. Otherwise, this past year would have been overwhelming. Somehow, I’ve managed my way through it. I suspect that I should replace “somehow” in the previous sentence to “with lots of prayer.” I’ve recounted this past year to say that in the midst of all of this, I always found reasons to be thankful.

It is a wonderful discovery. We don’t have to have everything going right to be thankful. Maybe our thanksgiving in troubled times is just a bit sweeter because of the contrast. It may be that times of trouble also bring clarity about what is most important. I am thankful for waking up each day and having a new day to work, love, and serve.

I am thankful for my family. I had visits. Things I needed were brought to me. We had some wonderful shared meals especially meals where the food came from outside the hospital. My wife Kathy bore the burden of visits. It is exhausting having someone in the hospital. My family was there for me.

I am thankful for my church family. Again, there were many encouraging visits. I received a ton of get well cards. I had people praying for me in many different places.

I am thankful for simple things. I would be awakened early in the morning for vitals, and when I was well enough, I would just get up. I would enjoy a cup of coffee, read my Bible, and watch the encroaching rays of the rising sun on the buildings outside my window. It was peaceful and satisfying.

I am thankful for my spiritual blessings. As the hymn says, “Nothing in my hands I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling…” God has saved through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. I am thankful for God’s grace and mercy. And I have experienced God’s blessings, his providential care.

Thanksgiving is important. Thanksgiving can occur even in troubled times. I appreciate this saying: “It is not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.”

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 ESV)

— Russ Holden

Turn Down the Thermostat

November 15, 2019

I’m amazed at the anger and the resulting violence over what appear to be trivial things. We’ve even invented terminology for some of this violence: road rage. In some of these cases, someone ends up dead, and the perpetrator is facing prison time. If we looked objectively at the issue that caused the conflict, we would say without question that it wasn’t worth it.

Proverbs warns us about the angry person: “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24–25 ESV). What is interesting in this warning is that the anger is something learned. We don’t have to be hot tempered. We don’t have to fly off the handle. Further, the warning states that this kind of anger is a snare to the person who has it. It will get them in trouble. It will cause them grief. Anger of this type is a trap.

Anger is not necessarily sinful. Jesus looked around the synagogue with anger when they were waiting to see if he would heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5). Paul instructs: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26–27, ESV). So how do we keep anger from leading us into sinful and sometimes even destructive behavior?


  • Be angry but don’t sin. We can constructively express our anger. There may indeed be a wrong that needs to be corrected. But for anger to do this, it must lead to words.

  • Be quick to hear and slow to speak. When we are angry, we often want to tell our side and sometimes with a loud tone of voice. This passage in James reminds us to slow down our talking and speed up our willingness to listen. Sometimes disputes are resolved simply by understanding the other side. James 1:19-20

  • Be slow to anger. Thomas Jefferson said, “When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.” It’s actually good advice because it slows us down, and the counting distracts us for a few moments. We may be in better control as we address the real issues. 

  • Use a gentle answer. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, ESV). Sometimes lowering the tone of your voice and slowing down what you say has a way of de-escalating a conflict. <b>
  • Don’t dwell on angry thoughts. Anger should lead us to seek reconciliation. But if reconciliation is not possible, then we are to leave it in the hands of God. He is the ultimate judge. We need to let it go and not allow anger to simmer on the back burner. It will damage us far more than the person with whom we are angry. Our thoughts need to be good thoughts. (See Philippians 4:8.)

Let’s all turn down the thermostat on anger.

— Russ Holden

Humble Yourself

November 8, 2019

The disciples were arguing among themselves: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1) Now they would have agreed that Jesus was the greatest. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the King. Their discussions would have been about the second position on down. What was their pecking order?

In response, Jesus called a child, placed the child in their midst, and said:

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3–4 ESV)

Aristotle writing about virtue would never have mentioned humility. This is a reminder that we are following Jesus and not other ethical instructions. Humility plays an important role in Jesus’s instructions. Humility is to be free of pride and arrogance. Pride in the sense of feeling superior. Arrogance is an excessive claim to position and importance. Paul gives us a good insight with this instruction: “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3, ESV).

Humility is the proper response to God. God is the omnipotent Creator. He is all knowing. I cannot compare with him. Falling down in worship is the proper response, because he is worthy of worship. I am a creature created in the image of God, so that I have value and worth. I’m not nothing. But the proper response before God is humility. I cannot in my mind place myself above God without serious consequences. Humility prepares us to listen to God, and listening prepares me for a life pleasing to God.

Humility also transforms our approach to others. Arrogance makes us act superior to others. Humility doesn’t mean we don’t stand up for ourselves, but it does mean that we see all people as created in the image of God. Everyone is worthy of dignity and respect. Looking down on others occurs in our culture because of wealth, education, race, ethnicity, language and issues like this. None of this arrogance is pleasing to God. Humility leads us to see others as they are from God’s point of view. Greatness in the kingdom of heaven requires humility.

— Russ Holden

Basic Bible Study Tools: Harmony of the Gospels

November 2, 2019

A gospel harmony aids the reader in comparing all the gospel accounts for an incident in the life of Christ. Some will merge the various gospels into a single narrative often with comments. The Restoration Movement author, J.W. McGarvey, did this in his Four-Fold Gospel. A more recent attempt at merged account is The Chronological Life of Christ by Mark E. Moore. The other approach is to put the gospel accounts in parallel columns, so that the reader can easily compare the gospel accounts from a particular narrative. Print versions often provide footnotes that help harmonize the parallels.

The first harmony of the gospels that I owned was A Harmony of the Gospels for Historical Study by Stevens and Dewitt based on the KJV. I had it for a class in college, and it opened up to me what this basic Bible study tool can do. In graduate school, I used Aland’s Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum (Greek). I’ve also purchased the NASB and NIV harmonies by Thomas and Gundry. A.T. Robertson’s Harmony is also still available, and it was based on the Revised Version, the predecessor the ASV. And there are few others as well. Choosing a harmony may be a matter of picking the translation you want to use for it.

In desktop Bible software, Logos, Accordance, Wordsearch, and e-Sword do a good job of displaying the gospels in parallel accounts. For mobile Bible software, a harmony is best seen on a tablet. You will probably only be able to see one gospel at a time on a phone but be able to see the other accounts by scrolling across. Olive Tree has released a harmony of the gospels for several translations including the ESV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, HSCB, and NRSV. E-Sword’s mobile app will also display a harmony of the gospels in whatever translations you have available in your app.

Online several choices are available for free. McGarvey’s Four-fold Gospel is available at The best online that I have found for a parallel display is at It provides several English translations for example KJV, ASV, and Lexham English Bible (a translation done by Logos Bible Software). And it has several foreign language translations including Spanish. It also has several editions of the Greek New Testament.

A word of caution: it is important for us to understand each gospel in its own context. So get familiar with each gospel. But harmonies can be helpful for us to see the broader context of scripture. A gospel harmony is a basic Bible study tool.

— Russ Holden

Jesus’s Recipe for Virtue

October 25, 2019

My first encounter with recipes was in high school. I had a required course called “Family Living.” It was a course designed to teach us necessary life skills. One assignment was to cook a meal at home for our family.

The first dinner I cooked following recipes was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Okay, I just heated the green beans, but the mashed potatoes were from real potatoes. I learned that following a recipe leads to a particular dish. When you follow the recipe for fried chicken you do not end up with meatloaf. Following a recipe also leads to a particular dish with consistency. All things being equal, if you or anyone else follows the recipe, the same results will occur every time.

I believe that Jesus has a recipe for virtue. What do I mean by virtue? Virtue has to do with moral living and goodness. If we follow Jesus’s recipe, we will develop into people of good character. For the goal is to be like him, conformed to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29). And this recipe will work for everyone who tries it. There is consistency in results following Jesus’s instructions.

Jesus instructs us, “Follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus says this twenty times in the gospels. Following Jesus excludes other recipes for virtue or the good life, and competing recipes exist. Historically, the people of God have not always been good at following the Lord’s instructions. They have frequently borrowed from other recipes spoiling the dish. Following Jesus acknowledges him as the living, risen Lord. And this path to virtue requires a relationship with him.

Jesus also instructs us, “Deny yourself and take up your cross” (Mark 8:34). Luke helpfully notes that taking up your cross is a daily task (Luke 9:23). The cross was an instrument of execution, so Jesus’s words were shocking. But speaking of death appears to be a death to self, which compliments the command to deny yourself. Self-denial is certainly counter-cultural. Self-denial is putting Jesus and God first in our lives. Self-denial and dying to self is also putting sin out of our lives and filling ourselves with the things of God.

This is the basic recipe. Yes, there are other commands. But these instructions prepare us to follow Jesus anywhere he leads and do anything he commands. Following Jesus will lead to the virtuous and good life. If we are going to find the life that pleases God, we need Jesus’s recipe for virtue.

— Russ Holdern