The Power of Habits

September 1, 2017

Habits are powerful. They are the things we do without having to think about them too much. They represent our routine. When they are good habits, they help us live the kind of life we want.

I’ve been working on healthy habits this year. I’m drinking more water and very little diet soda. I’m trying to eat right, which in my case involves counting calories. I’m walking daily and exercising. But I will confess that forming these new, healthy habits has not been easy, but it has been life changing. I wish I’d done it sooner

How long does it take to form a new habit? One number that is frequently heard is 21 days. This number doesn’t quite represent the original quotations from which it was taken. It would have been truer to say a minimum of 21 days. More recent research would such that it takes on average 66 days, but depending on the complexity of the behavior, it can take longer. But good habits are worth it.

Once you form a good habit, you do certain things routinely. Of course, the danger is that you will lose the habit if you keep breaking it. Habit formation doesn’t take perfection, but it does take consistency.

Spiritual formation also includes habits. I’ve learned important routines in my spiritual life, things that I automatically do. One of the habits I would like to suggest to you as we begin a new quarter in our Bible school program is participation in Bible class on Sunday morning and Wednesday night. For some of us, this is a habit. We don’t have to ponder whether we are going to go. We just go. We have formed this as a habit in our life.

Will every class meet a burning need in my life? Will every class give me a spiritual, mountain top experience? Probably not. I’ve had meals of physical food that were quite memorable. I’ve eaten food that didn’t appeal to me very much (for example, think about your least favorite leftovers), but was still nourishing. The same will probably be true as we attempt to provide spiritual food in our Bible classes. I’ve learned to find something worthwhile in the classes I attend and to be spiritually nourished by it. Besides another aspect of being together is fellowship and forming my identity with fellow Christians. This is even more important for our children.

I suspect in eternity we will not look back on time that we spent in Bible classes and say things like: I wish I’d slept in more. I wish I’d watched more TV. I wish I’d worked more. I wish I’d done more household chores, or whatever else we might have done with this time.

I hope that you will give this habit a try. Remember habit formation will probably take weeks to months. Consistency is important in forming this habit. But maybe at the end of that time, you will say what I’ve said about my new healthy habits: I wish I’d done it sooner.

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Handling Accurately the Word of Truth

August 27, 2016

Charles Shultz had a great “Peanuts” cartoon where Charlie Brown is so busy reading his Bible that he forgets to feed Snoopy. Snoopy bangs on the door, enters and fixes his own meal, but before leaving has Charlie Brown read Psalm 50:12: “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee.” Charlie Brown cries out in reply, “Give me two weeks and I’ll find a verse to answer you.”

In his cartoon, Schultz poked fun at an all too common approach to scripture. Many people take the verses of the Bible as if they were a string of unrelated statements which can be pulled out to prove just about anything.

We must guard ourselves against this danger. Even though the Bible is inspired by God, we must use the same kind of common sense approach that we would use in understanding other books. We need to ask what kind of writing is this? For example, is this part of the Bible narrating history? Is it a letter? Is it prophecy? Is it poetry? After determining what style of writing it is, there would be further questions. To whom is it written? (In answering this question, we would want to include in our answer whether it is written to people under the old covenant or the new covenant.) And we need to ask who is speaking. After all, Satan is quoted in the Bible.

We would want to understand the verse within its immediate context (the surrounding verses and chapter), the wider context of the book, and the overall context of the whole Bible. We would want to interpret difficult and obscure passages in the light of clearer passages on the same subject.

There are in fact two distinct steps: (1) what does the passage mean, and (2) how does the passage apply to me. In the first step, we are asking what did the passage mean when first written and read by its first readers. After determining that, we may ask how do we apply this to ourselves.

Let us go back to the example of Psalm 50:12: “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee.” In the psalm this quote is spoken by God. He is rebuking his people for combining wickedness with worship. They continue to offer the sacrifices, but it is not matched by right living. He reminds them that the sacrifices are not made because God is hungry or has needs, “for the world is Mine, and all it contains” (Psalm 50:12b). In application to us, this psalm can remind Christians that we must serve God in all things, both in our worship and in our everyday behavior. God doesn’t need us; we need him. But clearly the verse means something different in the context of scripture, than it did in the context of the conversation between Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Their error is an easy one to commit, but with care an easy error to avoid.

The Bible is not an impossible book to understand as long as we approach the Bible the right way. May we follow Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB).


Improving Your Bible Literacy

August 22, 2014

By Bible literacy I simply mean having a good working knowledge of what is in the Bible and feeling comfortable reading and studying the Bible. Bible literacy in our country is at a low according to recent surveys. How do you buck this trend in your own life? First, make a commitment to read the Bible. Here are a few tips for improving your Bible literacy by improving your reading.

Get an Overview of the Bible Story. The Bible is a library of books divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. We need to become familiar with this library. The first step is to become familiar with the historical narrative of the Bible: the overall story of the Bible I would recommend beginning with the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and Acts. They provide the story overview of the New Testament. Reading Genesis through Esther provides the story overview of the Old Testament. With this historical framework, you are better prepared to explore the whole library.

Look Up Words in a Dictionary. The Bible has unfamiliar words: apostles, disciples, redemption, justification, propitiation, and the list could go on. Look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary. I would start with a Bible dictionary, but a regular English dictionary is helpful too. Every good reader I know uses a dictionary frequently.

Ask a Reporter’s Questions. The Bible is understood in the same way we understand any other book. Yes, I value the Bible as inspired by God, but because God has chosen to communicate in written language, we use the normal tools for understanding something written. We ask the same questions a reporter asks. In “The Elephant’s Child,” Rudyard Kippling made the questions memorable:

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

There names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

Asking and answering these questions is an important part of reading for understanding.

Context, Context, Context. Sentences mean something in context. Lifted out of their context, they may appear to mean something they do not. That’s why we need to read books of the Bible and not just proof texts here and there. Examine the context of the passage, the broader context in a given book, and the context of the Bible as a whole. We also attempt to learn what we can about the historical context. All these are important strategies for reading and understanding.

Construct a Timeline. The Bible covers a lengthy period of history. It can help your understanding to look at a timeline or construct a timeline with major events and people on it. The NIV Study Bible has a very nice timeline in it. The ESV Study Bible also provides a timeline via tables with dates and events.

Look Up Places on a Map. The Bible has unfamiliar places. Looking them up in a Bible atlas aids in understanding. Journeys and battles may make more sense once we see things on the map.


What Are Strong’s Numbers?

August 15, 2014

Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible was first published in 1890. It is a concordance of the King James Version. The concordance was compiled under the direction of Dr. James Strong, but more than 100 colleagues aided in the production of the concordance. Produced in the nineteenth century everything had to be done by hand. It was a very labor intensive project, but it has been useful to Bible students ever since.

The unique feature of this concordance was that it exhaustively cross-referenced every English word of the KJV with the word in the original languages. Each word in Hebrew and each word in Greek were assigned a number. These numbers are known as Strong’s Numbers.

Strong’s numbers allow the English readers to get back to the original language without knowing Hebrew or Greek. If they are curious about a particular word, they can look up the English word in the concordance, locate the verse reference, and then find the Strong’s number. This number tells them what original language word stands behind the English translation. With the number, the word can be looked up in the Hebrew and Greek dictionaries at the back of the concordance. This feature is helpful in digging deeper in a passage, evaluating translations, and doing word studies.

With a Strong’s number a student can do a word study on the original language word. He or she could find every occurrence of the particular Greek or Hebrew word regardless of how it may be translated. Most translations render the same Greek or Hebrew word with some variety due to the range of meaning each word has. But doing a word study on the original language word may help the reader see this range of meaning. It may help the reader see connections within the text that become lost in translation.

For example in John 21:15-17, John uses two different Greek words for love in Jesus’s question and Peter’s reply. Does that have significance or not? Some say that it does. I tend to think it is just a case of synonyms, and the main concern is that the question is asked three times (reminiscent of three denials). By using Strong’s Numbers a reader could look at John’s use of these two words for love in the entire gospel.

Strong’s numbers have been applied to translations beyond the KJV. The numbers have also become searchable in some Bible software packages and apps (e.g., Logos, Accordance, and Olive Tree Bible Study App to name a few). In computer-based searches, the search can be done much more quickly than with Strong’s Concordance and looking up all the references by hand in a Bible.

In addition some dictionaries and word studies use Strong’s numbers, so the reader can find additional information (e.g., Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (by Harris, Archer & Waltke), or The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Abridged Edition.)We are blessed with tools that help us carefully look at the text of the Bible.


A Well-Worn Bible

June 20, 2014

A Well-Worn Bible

Our church met in a park last Sunday night, and I snapped the above photo of one our elder’s Bible before he spoke. You notice his Bible is marked and falling apart. It reminds me of the Charles Spurgeon quote: “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.” A well-worn Bible is what you want to see in a church leader.

I still think he needs a new one, but he is going through the trauma that I have also experienced. I had a wide margin Bible that was beginning to fall apart after a decade of use. I knew the bookstore manager and asked him about the lifetime guarantee. He would gladly give me a new Bible if I turned in my old one. I couldn’t part with it, although I did move to a new one. You spend years with a Bible making notes in it. You have treasures in your margins that you don’t want to loose. Notes and underlining are a way of making the book your own.

I read a publishing statistic somewhere. A paperback Bible is expected to last one year of daily use. A hardback Bible is expected to last five years, and a leather bound Bible is expected to last 10 years of daily use. Leather is not to make the Bible into a religious relic. It is used because it makes for a durable binding. In fact, if you scan through any old libraries, you will find many leather bound books for that reason.

I have also seen pristine Bibles that shouldn’t have been. I once made a visit to home. The person had a Bible they wanted to show me. It was brought to me with obvious pride. It was still in the box with the white paper wrapped around it. It was like new. Inwardly, I was a bit horrified. I think I mumbled something about Bibles are to be used.

My Bible is now on my iPad. It is what I use on a daily basis. It won’t have the signs of a binding’s wear. But it still has signs of daily use: checked off Bible reading guides, highlighting, and notes.

Which is it for you? Does your Bible look new even thought it isn’t or do you too have a well-worn Bible?


Which Bible?

January 10, 2014

“Which Bible should I read?” The question is simple enough, but sometimes people ask the question with a subtext. The subtext goes something like this: there are so many different translations of the Bible, how does God expect me to sort this out? The subtext’s complaint then becomes an excuse for procrastination and inaction.

Informed Christians know that the Old Testament was written for the most part in Hebrew with a small portion in Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek. That means when there are controversies over meaning, the final appeal must be to the original languages. Yet, that does not rule out the importance of translations.

Translating the Bible into various languages has been done since earliest times (for example with the New Testament into Syriac and old Latin), but it received a greater emphasis beginning in the Reformation. Most people are not going to be in the position to learn Greek and Hebrew, yet we have a great interest in knowing what God’s word says.

So what are some good guidelines for choosing a Bible translation?

  1. Choose a translation done by a committee. Committee members serve as checks and balances on one another to prevent a bias from entering the translation. Most major translation have been done by a committee, and most modern ones have had committees composed of a spectrum of Christian groups. That doesn’t mean never read a translation by an individual, and it doesn’t mean that bias can never be found in a committee translation. It rather reflects the safest place to start.
  2. Be informed about translation philosophy. There are two basic approaches to translations: formal equivalence (more word to word) and functional equivalence (more thought to thought). Most translations can be described as formal equivalent or functional equivalent. Most translations will describe their approach in the preface. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Comparing the two approaches can be valuable. It is important to know which approach you are reading. I find formal equivalence helpful for close study, but when I was a new reader of the Bible, I found the functional equivalence helpful to my fledgling understanding.
  3. You can read more than one and compare. Although most of us will choose a primary translation for reading and study, we live in a world where it is easy to compare translations. Computers and mobile devices make this especially true. I’ve learned a lot through the years comparing the two kinds of translation approaches and different translations. Sometimes differences in translations make no real difference in overall meaning. Sometimes differences reflect possible nuances in the original languages, and sometimes differences alert the reader to problems of interpretation. But having read many different translations of the Bible, my overall impression is that they are all translating the same book. We may find verses where one translation is preferable to another, but the overall, big picture message remains the same.

According to a recent listing from the Christian Booksellers Association, these are the top selling translations by units sold:

  1. New International Version
  2. King James Version
  3. English Standard Version
  4. New King James Version
  5. New Living Translation
  6. Holman Christian Standard Bible
  7. Reina Valera 1960 (if you read Spanish)
  8. New International Readers Version
  9. Common English Bible
  10. New American Standard Bible

Although I would have preferences in this list, the reality is that you could learn how to become a Christian and what you need to be saved from reading any translation on this bestseller list. Just read it!


Thank You Bible Teachers!

December 1, 2013

The truth is I can’t remember their names except for the ones when I was a teen. I can’t remember specific lessons, although fragments of classes and moments in classes do come to recollection. Somewhere along the line a class made a paper model of the tabernacle. Songs, crayons, rounded safety scissors, Elmer’s glue, and a lot of patience on the part of teachers were a part of the experience.

It was in these classes that my first knowledge of the Bible came. It was there I heard of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Sarah, and all the other great narratives of the Bible. Flannel graph figures of Jesus and the Apostles brought to life the gospels. It was in these classes that a life long study of the Bible was born. It was in these classes that faith took root.

Bible teachers share their time and energy with students. It’s not just the time in class that teachers share. It takes time to be prepared. When you multiply 52 weeks times Sunday and Wednesday times the number of classes that we have, you realize the hundreds and even thousands of volunteer hours it takes for our Bible classes. And it is not just time, but energy too. Preparing a class and teaching a class is work, but it is rewarding work.

Bible teachers share their faith. Why bother to teach? Is it not because we believe in God and in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Our faith motivates us to share this message with others. The Bible lessons we teach are God’s message to a lost world. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17 ESV). Even small children have the beginnings of faith. Elementary students have a great capacity to learn facts. When their ability to do abstract thinking develops around the age of 12, this great reservoir of facts is not lost, but is built upon. These basic facts can lead them to more mature understandings of God’s will. And most important of all, the students hearing the word also come to faith.

Bible teachers share their commitment. Teaching requires commitment. There is the commitment of time. There is commitment to be present at Bible studies and worship. There is the commitment to prepare and read your Bible. There is commitment to pray for your students and your class. Commitment is very important and attractive. Commitment begets commitment. Only the live ember spreads the fire.

To the Bible teachers in my life, I say thank you. To the Bible teachers of this church, I say thank you. What you share with others can influence for eternity.