September 18, 2020
The tabloid press continually report on beautiful people who went under the knife to be more beautiful. They went under the knife of cosmetic surgery pursuing a vision of outer perfection. Although such surgery seems extreme, all of us would willingly consent to surgery when our life or health is at stake. None of us like it, but we are willing to go under the knife.
But there is a surgery more important than the ones to enhance outward beauty or repair physical health. This surgeon wields more than a scalpel. He wields a sword.
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Hebrews 4:11–13, ESV
The message about the sword is bracketed by some important ideas. We are to strive to enter the rest which is heaven itself, and we are warned that this rest can be missed by disobedience. At the end, we are told that everything about us is exposed to God before whom we must give account. God has already seen all our spiritual x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs. There is nothing about us that he doesn’t already know. We shouldn’t play games or think we can hide. Faking it leads to disaster even if others buy our sham.
The point of sword is that it pierces. The sword of the word can pierce all the way to our thoughts and intentions. God has always wanted our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:5). God has always wanted his law written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). This is surgery to make us more beautiful on the inside. This is surgery to correct our failing spiritual health. Without it, we will spiritually die. The surgeon wants us more obedient, more holy. The word’s penetration into our heart is to make us more like the one we are following – Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
Hebrews reveals all too clearly that there have been others who have heard the word and responded with hardened hearts (3:7-8). We have a spiritual surgeon who wants to penetrate all the way to thoughts and intentions. He wants to make us more beautiful on the inside. He wants to make us more like Him. Are we willing to go under the knife?
August 28, 2020
I’m a book lover and an avid reader. And like most book lovers, I have a stack of books that I haven’t gotten to despite the number that I do read. But I certainly can’t keep up with the number of books published each year. The US publishes over 300,000 books a year, and that is not counting self-published books which could make the count go up to a million. Of course, a vast amount of those books wouldn’t interest me, but even among the books that do interest me, I have to choose. I can’t read them all. So I relate to the words of Ecclesiastes:
My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
(Ecclesiastes 12:12 ESV)
The quote is a reminder that there is no end to the making of books, but it also is a warning about priority: “beware of anything beyond these.” The passage is putting “the many books” on one side and “the words of the wise” put down in “the collected sayings” in verse 11 on the other side. The priority is because the words of the wise “are given by one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Priority in the midst of many books must be given to inspired Scripture.
I’ve learned this lesson. I’ve prioritized Bible reading in my life. It has been the habit of my life. I’ve learned that reading religious books doesn’t give you knowledge of the Bible. That must be gained firsthand. And without the knowledge of the Bible, you can’t test the truth of merely human religious books. So if all you are doing is reading religious books, you have your priorities wrong. The Bible must come first.
This is especially true for church leaders who teach: elders, teachers, and evangelists. I’ve actually heard sermons that came from popular religious books that contained the same errors that were in those books. Discernment can only come from knowing your Bible thoroughly. Paul as he departs from the Ephesian elders for the last time, having preached “the whole counsel of God,” says, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified”(Acts 20:32 ESV). It’s God’s word that builds up. It’s God’s word that will give you the eternal inheritance.
The weariness that comes from many books is still with us. Some of those books are worth reading, but we need our priorities straight. Priority in the midst of many books must be given to the book of books — the Bible.
— Russ Holden
December 14, 2018
A study Bible is likely a reference Bible, but a reference Bible is not necessarily a study Bible. The reference part of the name refers to cross references which are footnotes to other passages which are provided to be of help in understanding the passage you are reading. The basic idea behind them is the old adage: the Bible is its own best interpreter. The footnotes are usually indicated by superscript letters and are found either in the center column or a side column of the page. Better mobile software like OliveTree will also have cross references which bring up pop-up windows. A reference Bible will have these cross references but lack the commentary of a study Bible. Most study Bible have cross references too. Cross references are also independent of translator notes which provide alternate translations or alternate manuscript readings.
Several things need to be kept in mind as a user of cross references. Cross references are not inspired. They will reflect the doctrinal orientation of the compiler, and so they must be tested just like any commentary on the text. Jack P. Lewis gives an example of this problem. One set of cross references link antichrist/antichrists of 1 John 2:18, 22, 4:3, and 2 John 1:7 with the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. The linking of these two things belongs to premillennialism/dispensationalism.1 For the reader trying to understand either one of these passages, the linking of them by cross reference will likely bring confusion not clarity.
The other problem that Lewis notes is when cross references to English words are not actually corresponding occurrences of the same Greek or Hebrew words, and as he says, “… merely lead the reader along the arbitrary choices of English words made by translators.”2 The point is that like commentary, the user of cross references must be cautious and test things against scripture itself. We must always check the context of the cross reference to make certain that it is actually talking about the same thing as the passage we started with. Also, beware that a cross reference may refer to only a part of a verse and not to the whole verse. Finally, if all we are doing is going from one cross reference to another, we may be failing to study the text at hand. We may end up with a string of passages which we don’t understand in context. Cross references may at times be helpful, but they are not always needed.
How can cross references be helpful?
- They may provide the Old Testament scripture reference that is being quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. The New Testament author often intends us to read more of the context.
- The may provide parallel passages to a narrative. In Matthew 14:13 which begins the feeding of the 5000, the ESV gives a cross reference of Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-13. These are the parallel passages of the feeding of the 5000 in the other gospels. A similar situation occurs with 1 and 2 Kings having many parallels to 1 and 2 Chronicles.
- They may provide additional passages for a theme. The NASB on Deuteronomy 4:2 which deals with adding to and subtracting from God’s commands provides the following cross references: Deut 12:32; Prov 30:6; Rev 22:18.
There are different systems of cross references. These will vary from translation to translation and from publisher to publisher. This warns us that not all cross-referencing systems will be the same. Used wisely, they provide a basic tool for Bible study.
1Jack P. Lewis, “Are Cross References Reliable?” Questions You Have Asked About Bible Translations, pp. 182. Dr. Lewis’s book chapter came from a Gospel Advocate article. It is well worth reading, and can be found online at http://lakeside-church-of-christ.org/articles/guest/guest.php?id=cross-ref [accessed 12/14/2018].
2Ibid, pp. 183-184.
November 2, 2018
Admittedly, archeology does not necessarily interest everyone, and some aspects of archaeology can be tedious, but many of the results of archaeology are exciting for the student of the Bible.
Backgrounds. Archaeology has helped us understand ancient customs and the background to certain passages. The Nuzi tablets, for example, contain marriage contacts which obligate a childless wife to give her husband a handmaid who would bear children for the couple. This helps us better understand the actions of Sarah in giving Hagar to Abraham (Genesis 16:1 ff.) and of Rachel in giving Bilhah to Jacob (Genesis 30:1-3). This doesn’t make the actions moral in the eyes of God, but they would have been viewed as socially acceptable for the time.
Translation. The meaning of the Hebrew word, pim, was unknown in 1611. The KJV translators conjectured from the context of 1 Samuel 13:21 that it mean “file.” The KJV reads, “Yet they had a file for the mattocks …” Archaeologists have found small weight stones in Palestine with the word pim on them. The name of the weight was evidently the expression of the price for sharpening the plowshares, making a pim about 2/3 of a shekel. The ESV taking advantage of what has been learned from archaeology has “… and the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares…” (1 Samuel 13:21, ESV).
Defense. The criticism of alleged inaccuracies in scripture have been refuted by certain discoveries. For example, the Hittites were unknown outside the Old Testament, and many thought this was a case of an historical error in scripture until archaeologists discovered the Hittite city of Hattusas. Before the ivory finds in Samaria, some skepticism was expressed over the phrase “houses of ivory” in Amos 3:15. We now know that ivories were used either to adorn the walls as paneling or were inlaid in furniture. “Houses of ivory” were houses decorated with ivory not built out of ivory as archaeology has now shown. Amos knew what he was talking about.
Many more examples could be given to illustrate the importance of archaeology to Bible study. But archaeology reminds us that we are dealing with real people, places, and events.
June 22, 2018
Speeches can be divided into two categories. Some speeches are given merely to entertain. When heard, they are in a sense consumed at that moment. Nothing lasting is expected from them. The after-dinner speech is a good example of this type. We enjoy it, but nothing further is expected from us as listeners.
The second kind of speech is the one that intends to make a lasting impression. This speech is designed to inform or motivate the listener. The lecture of a teacher is a good example of this type. The final exam always involves more than simply: were you there when the lecture was given.
It is perilous for the listener when he confuses the second kind of speech with the first. Merely consuming and enjoying a lesson intended to inform or motivate is to fail as a listener. The consequences depend on what kinds of lessons are being ignored.
Such was the situation in the days of Ezekiel. He ministered to the Jews in captivity in the years before and after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The people enjoyed hearing him, but they were approaching his words in the wrong way. God says to Ezekiel:
As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’ And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it. Ezekiel 33:30–32, ESV
The people could give Ezekiel compliments for the enjoyment of his lessons, but they failed as listeners. They failed to put into practice God’s message.
This raises an interesting question for the church. The goal of those who teach and preach is in the words of Peter: “whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11, ESV). The goal for teachers and preachers is to present the content God’s message not their own. The question we must ask is: can we fall into the same trap as the people of Ezekiel’s day? Can we view those who speak to us as “singers of beautiful songs” and then fail to be doers of the word we have heard (see James 1:22-25)? Each must search his own heart, but the message from the book of Ezekiel is clear. As listeners, hearing God’s word must be more than entertainment.
May 4, 2018
With so many English Bible translations to choose from, we may be under the impression that everyone in the world has easy access to the Bible in their own language. However, that is not the case. Statistics from the Wycliffe Bible Translators put this in perspective. There are about 7000 languages known to be in use today. More than 1,500 languages have the New Testament and some portion of the Bible in their language. More than 650 languages have a complete Bible in their language. More than 2,500 languages across 170 countries have active Bible translation projects for their language. Approximately 1600 languages still need a Bible translation project to begin. At least 1.5 billion people do not have a complete Bible in their first language. More than 110 million do not have a single verse of the Bible in their language.*
English speaking people are fortunate from the standpoint of history. In the 1300s if an Englishman wanted to read the Bible, he needed to know Greek, Hebrew, or Latin. The first English Bible was that of John Wycliffe in 1382. But translators had a great resistance to overcome, because the mood of religious leaders of the day was that the Bible should not be in the common language of the people. As a matter of fact, the Council of Constance in 1415 angered at Wycliffe order his body to be disinterred, burned, and his ashes thrown into the river Swift.
The first printed English Bible was published in 1525 and was the work of William Tyndale. In Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a dispute with a learned man is given in which the man argued that it would be better to be without God’s law than the Pope’s. Tyndale is said to have replied: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” But due to opposition, Tyndale had to flee England to do his work. The first printed English Bible was published in Germany and had to be smuggled into England in bales of cloth. Tyndale was later betrayed, tried for heresy, and executed in 1536.
The easy availability of the Bible in English is a blessing that is easy to take for granted. However, history testifies to the fact that some have risked and given their lives so that we may have it, and others must still wait for it to be given in their own language.
May we cultivate the attitude of the Psalmist: “The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalms 119:72, ESV). Have you read your Bible recently? Having and reading the Bible is better than silver and gold.
February 23, 2018
The basis for the public reading of scripture in our assemblies can be found in the New Testament. Timothy, an evangelist in Ephesus, is instructed by Paul: “Until I come, continue to devote yourself to reading, to exhortation, and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Most modern translations render reading as public reading. Although the word can mean either private or public reading, the public nature of the other two items in the series, exhortation and teaching, would cause us to think of the assembly. Other passages also indicate a public reading of the word (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27, and Revelation 1:3).
The public reading of God’s word underscores its authority. It also gives opportunity for us to hear the message of scripture. Yet it must be done well. If we do it poorly, the hidden message may be that this is unimportant–the exact opposite of what we want to convey. Let me make some suggestions for public reading to help us achieve excellence.
- Select a unit of thought to be read. Remember chapter and verse numbers are the later addition of editors. They may not always help in selecting a unit of thought. The reader may need to give some context to help the listeners. The goal is that the scripture selected will convey the same message to the listeners as if they had read it in context for themselves. (Most of the time for us, the passage is selected to go with the preaching text. If you want to know the passage prior to Sunday, let me know.)
- Check for pronunciation and words you may not understand. A Bible dictionary can aid you in the pronunciation of Bible names, so can the book, That’s Easy for You to Say: Your Quick Guide to Pronouncing Bible Names. The web sites, biblespeak.org and thebibleworkshop.com, provide audio pronunciations of some Bible names. An app called Biblical Pronunciation is also available for Android and iOS. Some Bible names have multiple acceptable pronunciations. But nothing hurts a public reading like stumbling over the pronunciation of unfamiliar words and names.
- Watch for problems that may arise in public reading that might confuse the sense. Failing to pause at the right place or pausing in the wrong place may confuse the listener. Consider the example Luke 2:16: “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (NRSV). If the reader fails to pause at the comma, it will end up sounding as if all three — Mary, Joseph, and the child — are in the manger.
- Find the author’s meaning, place the stress and emphasis on the main point.
- Read more slowly than you might speak but be willing to vary the speed and pitch to fit the tone of the reading. I once heard a comparison of audio books made by Audible.com with amateur produced audio books. The speed and pitch of the Audible books were well modulated. The amateur books sounded flat in comparison. And this difference effects the listener’s ability to pay attention and comprehend. No, I’m not expecting us to become professional readers, but it is something at which most of us can do better.
- Communicate the emotion and tone of the passage with your voice if possible. Is there joy? Is there anger? Is there sarcasm? Is there humor?
- Practice reading the passage aloud.
February 16, 2018
When I arrived at my sister’s house, it was night. Rounding a curve in the street, I could see her house all lit up since it sits on a hill. The house had lights all the way around, so it was like a beacon. For me, the lights were welcoming. They were even helpful as I unloaded my luggage from the car. But I knew all those lights hadn’t been there on my previous visit, so I enquired about them. She said that there had been break-ins in her neighborhood, so she had the lights installed for security.
The same light can be welcoming or something that a person wants to avoid and hide from. It is the same light, but different responses to this light. Which brings us again to Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (ESV). Even though the psalm presents this picture of God’s instructions as light for guidance, he also reflects the reality that it is not true for everyone. The author of Psalm 119 confesses he had gone astray (119:67, 119:176). He had returned and was now keeping God’s law, but there had been a time in his life when he was wandering in the wrong direction.
Besides the personal confession in Psalm 119, the psalmist also speaks of the wicked. “Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, who forsake your law” (Psalms 119:53, ESV). “Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me, I do not forget your law” (Psalms 119:61, ESV). God’s instructions have all the wonderful qualities that we looked at in the last article, but they require the right response from us. It is instructive to go through the psalm and ask: what kind of response is the psalmist making to God’s precepts? Here’s my list, and I’m going ahead and personalizing the list as ways I am responding even if it is a work in process.
- I feel reverence and awe for them because of who God is. 119:120, 119:161
- I diligently keep them. 119:4
- I remember them (119:11, 119:15) and meditate on them. 119:153, 119:176
- I delight in them (119:14) because they are more valuable than riches (119:35, 119:47, 119:72), better than money (119:103), and sweeter than honey (119:143, 119:174).</;i?
- I seek them as my counselors. 119:24
- I hope in them. 119:43
- I am comforted by them. 119:52
- I am blessed by them. 119:56
- I love them. 119:97, 119:119, 119:163, 119:165, 119:167
- I count them as my forever heritage/inheritance. 119:111
- I rejoice in them like someone finding a treasure (i.e., plunder). 119:162
- I am helped by them. 119:175
I’ve looked at Psalm 119 in four articles to tell my journey of moving beyond a few favorite verses to a deeper appreciation for this psalm.* I used some inductive questions to reflect on the psalm: What do I learn about the author and circumstances? What are his petitions? What does he say about God’s instructions? How does he respond to God’s instructions? Answering those questions and meditating on the psalm brings a deeper appreciation. God’s word can indeed be a light for my path, but for it to bring guidance, I must have the right response to God’s instructions.
*The articles in order are:
February 9, 2018
When I think of Psalm 119, verse 105 certainly comes to mind: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalms 119:105, ESV). The psalm emphasizes the importance of God’s instructions by the use of Torah (law) along with seven synonyms. One of those eight words will be in every verse except for four verses, but the psalmist compensates for these omissions by using two of these words in five verses. The emphasis is clear.
But how do I get beyond just underlining Psalm 119:105 or couple of other favorites? I never really appreciated the psalm as I should until I did an inductive study of it. I took a few simple questions and recorded my findings. I’ve already written about learning what I could about the author and his circumstances and noting his petitions to God. He has clearly telegraphed in the psalm by his use of law and its synonyms that a major theme is God’s instructions. So it is helpful to go through the psalm and record all that he says about God’s instructions. Here’s my list, but it is a project worth doing for yourself.
- God’s instructions are righteous. 119:7, 119:62, 119:75, 119:106, 119:137, 119:144, 119:160, 119:164, 119:172
- God’s instructions give life. 119:25, 119:37, 119:50
- God’s instructions are good. 119:39, 119:68
- God’s instructions are saving. 119:41
- God’s instructions are true. 119:43, 119:142, 119:151, 119:160
- God’s instructions teach good judgment, knowledge, and wisdom. 119:66, 119:98
- God’s instructions are sure, trustworthy. 119:86
- God’s instructions endure. 119:89, 119:152
- God’s instructions are broad. 119:96 How do we understand the word broad or wide in this verse? One approach is found in the NET: “I realize that everything has its limits, but your commands are beyond full comprehension.” Obviously, we get a clue from the contrast. Another approach is to compare limits to something that is boundless.
- God’s instructions are a light for your path. 119:105
- God’s instructions are wonderful. 119:129
- God’s instructions (in this case, promises) are tested. 119:140
These are the conclusions of a reader who has spent time in God’s word. I agree with his conclusions as someone who has also spent time in God’s word. The Bible is an amazing library that has a unified message despite the fact that it spans 3600 years, 40 some authors, three languages, and three continents. It contains predictive prophecy. In the places where it can be tested by history and archaeology it has been found reliable. We have sufficient manuscript evidence to believe we have reliable manuscripts. It has a message that makes profound sense of the human predicament, and its practice seems to produce the best in its followers.
If you are not convinced, I invite you to read and see. Investigate! Maybe you too will become convinced of the characteristics of God’s instructions in Psalm 119.
December 29, 2017
The Bible is a big book—really a library of books. Although I have valued Bible reading since I was a teenager, I’ve never succeeded at it without some sort of plan. The plan could be very simple. I will read a section of scripture before I go to bed. The plan could be more involved—I will read the Bible through in a year. The plan should fit you.
- Choose a translation that you are comfortable reading. Translations fall into two categories: formal equivalent (e.g., KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJV, ESV) and functional equivalent (e.g., NIV, Easy-to-Read, NET, CSB). Formal equivalence attempts to match the forms of the original language as closely as possible in the receptor language. Functional equivalence attempts to achieve the same effect on the reader. Formal equivalent translations usually have a reading level of 8th to 12th grades and are harder to understand. Functional equivalent translations may have a reading level of 3rd to 8th grades, but leave more opportunities for bias from the translator. My advice would be start with the ESV or NKJV which have lower reading levels (about 8th grade) than the NASB or KJV (about 10-12th grades) and see how it goes. If you are having difficulty with comprehension, then switching to something like the NET, CSB, or NIV makes sense (about 7th grade). For people still having difficulty, the New Century Version or God’s Word have even lower reading levels (about 3rd to 5th) .
- Personalize your plan. Reading through the Bible in a year is a wonderful goal, but maybe that isn’t the proper starting place for you. My first time through the New Testament was without a time goal involved—I just set as a goal reading through the New Testament, and kept at it until I was finished. Reading through the New Testament in a year takes about five minutes a day. The next thing I did was read through the narrative portions of the Old Testament (Law and History), which gives you the basic story of the Bible.
- Listening may be a great alternative. Some people have difficulty sitting still to read. God needs action-oriented people too. Maybe you should consider listening to the Bible on mp3 files or CDs as you drive or do other activities. The YouVersion Bible app has audio Bibles for free as do some others. If you want CDs, local bookstores or Christianbook.com are sources for these.
- Define success. If success is defined as reading a particular portion of scripture on a particular day, then I’m a failure, although I’ve been reading the Bible through in a year for decades. I claim to be a regular Bible reading but not always a daily reader. Expect to get behind and have to play catch up. Get ahead if possible. If your goal is more knowledge of the Bible, then skimming or skipping a section may allow you to keep going. How many people have gotten bogged down in the first seven chapters of Leviticus (sacrificial laws) or the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles (genealogies)?
- Add variety and scope. If you succeed in reading the New Testament, then go on to read other portions of the Bible. Maybe you will work up to reading the entire Bible through in a year. I like reading guides that provide an Old Testament and New Testament readings on the same day for variety. I’ve also used different translations for variety.
- Do it. If you have come up with a personal plan, then the next step is doing it. As in forming any new habit, it takes time and you will have setbacks, but if you keep at it, reading the Bible brings many rewards.