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

In the House of Mourning

October 18, 2019

Ecclesiastes has a counterintuitive proverb: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, ESV).

Obviously, it would be more fun to go to the house of feasting, and Ecclesiastes is not opposed to enjoyment. In fact, enjoyment is a gift of God (3:13). Yet, the house of mourning teaches us the brevity of life. Death may come suddenly, or it may be expected with the decline of aging or the wasting away from disease. But unless the Lord returns first, we will all die.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a celebrity or ordinary, wealthy or poor, wise or foolish. Death is a reality of life. The speaker of Ecclesiastes struggles looking at life under the sun. I suspect “under the sun” may suggest life from merely this world’s point of view. From that vantage point, we hear him lament:

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:15-17, ESV

Although there are frustrations with life under the sun, life in this physical world, Ecclesiastes points us beyond it to a relationship with God. The final chapter encourages, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth…” (12:1, ESV). Especially remember God before the decline of aging sets in. Ecclesiastes paints a vivid picture of aging with imagery from village life. Or at least remember God “before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken” – in other words, before death.

The reason for this command is that there is a purpose to life.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, ESV

What is the lesson that we should learn in the house of mourning? Prepare for death by living life to the glory of God. Don’t miss the whole purpose of life.

−Russ Holden

Freedom in Christ

October 4, 2019

Some people make me nervous when they quote scripture. It is because what they seem to mean by the verse doesn’t seem to be what the verse appears to mean in context. For example, consider Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17)

What some seem to mean is that their impulses so are so Spirit guided, they don’t need to worry about what scripture says. Now I’m not opposed to feelings and impulses. When I have impulses to give, serve, or speak a good word for Jesus, I’m endeavoring to act on those impulses. I do believe in God’s providence to put opportunities in our way. But feelings are not a test for truth. Hopefully our feelings flow from our acceptance of truth and are tested by truth.

So, what does Paul mean by freedom? It is helpful to look at other places where he explains his concept of freedom.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, ESV)

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13, ESV)

For Paul, freedom in Christ is freedom from the bondage to law which condemns us when law is used as a means to salvation. We can’t be saved by our perfect law keeping (by merit), because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Our freedom in Christ is also the freedom not to sin. We have forgiveness of our sins by the atoning death of Christ, so our past burdens are removed. We have spiritual help in the present to aid us in the battle against temptation and to grow in Christian graces. Paul warns Christians of the two paths in life that we still face: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace…. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:6, 13, ESV)

Freedom in Christ is not freedom to do as you please and ignore scripture. Scripture, after all, is the Spirit’s inspired message. It is freedom from perfect law keeping and merit when we accept God’s grace in the atoning death of Christ. It is freedom from the bondage to sin, when we find and use the spiritual resources that God has richly provided for our victory. The journey in Christian living has taught me that this is true Christian freedom. The freedom to be the human being God intended me to be for there is found love, peace, and hope.

— Russ Holden

Why Sing?

September 27, 2019

Singing is an important part of our worship to God. We want our singing to be pleasing to God, and we want it to be meaningful as worshippers. One important way of focusing on singing is simply to ask its purpose. Why sing?

Dr. Everett Ferguson provides a good list in his book, The Church of Christ:

  1. Singing is a way of preaching Christ. Several New Testament passages are thought to have been early Christian hymns (e.g., Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16). 
  2. Singing is a confession of faith. “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge (or confess) his name” (Hebrews 13:15, ESV).
  3. Singing expresses the indwelling Spirit and word of Christ. Ephesians 5:18-19 associates singing with being filled with the Holy Spirit. The parallel passage in Colossians 3:16 encourages us to have the word of Christ dwell in us richly. How many things do you remember because you have repeatedly sung them?
  4. Singing as praise is a spiritual sacrifice. See the quotation of Hebrews 13:15 above.
  5. Singing shares in the praise of heaven. In Revelation we are brought to the throne room of heaven and given a taste of its praise (Revelation 4:8, 10-11, 5:8-12, 14:2-3, and 15:2-3).
  6. Singing is for instructing and encouraging one another. When we sing, we teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16). We must sing with our minds (1 Corinthians 14:15). When we sing, we are speaking to one another (Ephesians 5:19).
  7. Singing expresses the unity of the church. “…that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6, ESV — emphasis added).
  8. Singing involves the whole person. Scripture emphasizes that singing is to be with both spirit and mind (1 Corinthians 14:15). We are to sing with our hearts (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) as well as with our lips (Hebrews 13:15).
  9. Singing expresses deep religious emotion. “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (James 5:13, ESV).*

Good singing has meaningful words that draw us closer to God. Let’s sing praise to God with our whole being.

—Russ Holden

*Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Eerdmans, 1996), p. 271

Fear of God?

September 20, 2019

Should we talk about the fear of God? Isn’t the love of God all that we need? I’m convinced just as Paul taught the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), we must too. If we are to be balanced in Christian living we need to understand what the fear of God does for us. And yes, when we talk about “fear,” we are also talking about reverence. But we must not forget that when talking about God we are talking about one who is other than us and greater, far greater, than us. Here’s a list of the positives that come from the fear of God.

Wisdom and Understanding
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10 ESV) cf. Psalm 1:7

Avoidance of Evil
“By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil.” (Proverbs 16:6 ESV)

Prolongs Life
“The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short.” (Proverbs 10:27 ESV) cf. Proverbs 14:27, 19:23

“The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.” (Proverbs 22:4 ESV)

Perfecting Holiness
“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV)

Motive for Evangelism
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” (2 Corinthians 5:10–11a, ESV)

Built Up, Comforted, Growing
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” (Acts 9:31 ESV)

Acceptable Worship/Service
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28–29 ESV)

— Russ Holden