Tag Archives: Bible

The Bible is for Community

The various authors of the Bible wrote to groups of people. Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament to the entire congregation of Israel. In fact, the whole Old Testament was written for the people of Israel that they may know their history, their origins, their faith, and most importantly their God. The New Testament was largely written to whole churches. 

The Bible was Written for Community 

As Westerners who love our independence and individualism, we have a habit of reading the Bible as if it were written to individuals. This influences the way we interpret the text and limits our understanding of what God is saying through his word.

For much of church history, the people of God gathered together to hear the Scriptures read aloud. People could not read and study the Bible on their own at home because it was not easy to own a copy of the text. However, in the modern day, we take private Bible reading with our personal copy of the text for granted, as if it has been the norm throughout history.  

Praise God for the printing press! We can now immerse ourselves in the scripture on our own. However, other than gathering for a sermon or maybe a Bible discussion, we have largely forgotten that scripture is for a community, not just individuals. Because of this, we tend to interpret and apply the Bible through the lens of individualism. We struggle to see the community emphasis because of the blinders of our culture.

For example, 1 Corinthians 6:19 is commonly applied to refer to taking care of our physical bodies because they are temples of the Lord. However as is explained in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, we misunderstand the plurals in that passage. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19). You is plural, while temple is singular. The community of believers all together are the temple of God. While we must steward our physical bodies as gifts from the Lord, this passage speaks to how we should love the body of Christ. Rather Paul tells the Corinthian believers to care for and respect their local church body. Knowing this makes for very different applications from this passage. Rather than eating healthier or getting more sleep, it should lead us to reconcile with our brothers and sisters in Christ and care those who are hurting. 

We Need Community

In order to study the Bible well, we need community. I can study a passage for hours and then take part in a group discussion thinking I have really come to know this passage well. I’ll even have read several commentaries to get further insight. Then I sit in a group with a handful of other believers and without fail, at least one of them will point out something that leaves me speechless. I sit back thinking, “Wait! Has that been there the whole time? How did I miss that?” All of my hours of study were helpful and fruitful to both me and the group, but nothing could replace the gathered believers exploring and discussing the Word of God together. 

Christ said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” (Matthew 18:20 ESV) The Lord can and does give insight into his Word to individuals studying on their own, but there is a special synthesis that happens in the gathered body of believers. We learn from each other, but we also learn together from the Spirit of Christ among us. As Richards and O’Brien put it: “So why go to church? Why worship with a group? Because, in some way we may not fully understand, the Spirit indwells the group in a way the Spirit does not indwell the individual. We are all built together to become one, whole building: a single dwelling for his Spirit. Like it or not, we need each other” (Misreading Scripture, 109).

Unfortunately, we may have difficulty engaging the Bible as a community and studying together.When we get together for Bible study, often we float on the surface of the text rather than doing the hard work of mining the text as a community. Granted, the entire group must develop this skill. It takes practice and vulnerability with each other. But when we can successfully study together in order to develop a deeper understanding of the text, we get the joy of learning from perspectives other than our own.

Scripture Shapes Communities

Scripture was written to communities and intended to shape communities. A commonly quoted and much loved passage has a layer of meaning that is easily missed by Christians within individualistic cultures. Our cultural blinders keep us from seeing the full weight of the text, and we must work hard to take them off. 

The second person pronouns in Romans 12:2 are plural. English doesn’t have a formal second person pronoun, but we might read the verse as “Y’all do not be conformed to this world, but y’all be transformed by the renewal of the mind (singular), that by testing y’all may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

We read these as singular pronouns, but they were written to the church. Remember this letter was being read to the gathered body of believers. Imagine being in a gathering having this letter read to the group. You know it’s an important letter, and everyone is hanging on every word. Y’all have read through the bulk of the letter by now, and it’s all focused on the Gospel. Now it seems to have shifted. This is our response to the Gospel. 

Imagine how you would hear this passage differently in that context. Your whole spiritual life happens deeply embedded into community. All of your spiritual disciplines and spiritual growth happen with the people in the room with you now. You can’t imagine the Christian life apart from the Body. No one has ever asked you to. Now hear those plural “you”s: 

“This community should not be conformed to this world, but this community should be transformed by the renewal of the mind of this community, that by testing, this community may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Even modern day readers can get a hint of this understanding by reading verses 3-7. Paul immediately jumps into specifics of how spiritual gifts should be used within the church. He doesn’t transition to what Church life should look. He is already talking about it. 

For Christians within individualistic cultures, this reading of the passage might break a lot of our boxes. In an effort to understand what the Bible is saying, we need to make the effort to understand what the original audience would have heard. Their culture was very different from our own so the assumptions they brought to the text and the context within which they read it means that they understood it differently than we do. 

Should we still seek to be individually transformed by the renewing of our individual minds. Of course! We should pursue holiness in whatever way we can! However, the witness of Scripture seems to say that transformation happens not only—and maybe not even primarily—on the individual level but within the Body of Christ.

While we should still be jumping for joy that we can hold a copy of the Bible in our own hands (or phones), we need to remember to read and study within community. We need to challenge our individualist mindset and ask God how the passage we are reading should shape and form our community. If we fail to do this, we will miss part of what the Lord communicates to us through his word, thereby missing opportunities to obey and worship him.

Misreading Exodus

I once taught children’s Sunday school and was given a curriculum to use about the Exodus story. The gist of the lesson was that Pharaoh disobeyed God, so God punished Egypt with plagues. Therefore we should obey God unless we really like frogs. I ignored the curriculum and told the class of thirteen kindergarten boys the story of God revealing his glory to the world.

Ancient Egypt was the most powerful kingdom in the world at the time. And Pharaoh was the most powerful man on earth. Egypt had the strongest military and the most wealth. They had enslaved whole people groups, like the Hebrews. It seemed no one could defeat or diminish Egypt.

Enter Yahweh

Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, told Pharaoh through Moses to let his people go. Pharaoh would have scoffed at letting such a large part of his workforce go. Who would make him?

As an answer, God sent a series of plagues to dismantle the image of power Egypt had created for itself. Each plague showed God’s dominion over something the Egyptians worshipped or drew their power from. The Nile, both an object of worship and their source of agriculture, was turned to blood. Their cattle died. Locusts ruined their crops. The sun went dark.

The Lord was shouting to everyone in Egypt, from Pharaoh to the lowliest slave, that He was greater than the gods of the strongest kingdom on Earth.

Anytime Pharaoh seemed to relent, God would harden his heart. He was not done yet. He had more false gods to dethrone.

Salvation Through a Lamb

Then God foretold the tenth plague. The firstborn in every household would die unless they obeyed God’s command to spread lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their house.

Pharaoh lost his son and heard the grief of his people. He relented. He let God’s people go.

But the story did not stop there. Once again, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he regretted what he had done and sent his military to stop them. The strongest military in the world chased down a group of recently freed slaves including elderly people, children and animals. Pharaoh could be assured of his success.

Except God.

Except God had just defeated all of Egypt’s gods. Except God had destroyed Egypt’s crops, and shown His might over and over and over through a stuttering shepherd and his younger brother.

Even so, Pharaoh sent his armies. And God showed the world that he could protect his people from the mightiest army in the world.

God is Mighty to Save

If we make this a story simply about obeying God or else he will destroy you, we miss what the story is teaching about God. Yes, God sent plagues to Egypt in response to Pharaoh’s hardness of heart. But he did it for a reason: to show the world his glory.

His power to save was made known throughout the surrounding nations. Everywhere the Hebrews travelled, kings had heard of what Yahweh had done for his people. They heard that He had rescued His people and believed that He could do it again. The world heard that the God of the Hebrews was mighty to save.

He also did it to fulfill his promise. He had promised that he bring his people out of Egypt and into the promised land. The God of the Israelites is not a capricious God. He does what he says He will do. 

In the middle of showing his glory to the world, God offers salvation through the blood of a lamb. God would continue to use the imagery of blood on wood as a means of salvation until it’s ultimate culmination in Christ’s death on the cross. 

In short, the story of Exodus shows that God is mighty to save.

Why Every Christian Should Clearly Understand Sola Scriptura

It’s easy to think theology is dry and boring, useless to the life of the average believer. But theology is the most practical thing that we can do because what we think about God shapes the whole of who we are. It carries us through every season of life, and shapes every interaction we have. If we think wrongly about God, then we’re not equipped to follow him well nor to enter into the fullness of joy he offers us. The invitation to know God through the Bible is an invitation into joy.

God sent his word to us so that we can know him. He cares about how we approach it. His word is his mediated presence in our lives, so how we read and understand it is vital. So let’s do a little theology.

During the Reformation the reformers codified their beliefs into five statements that are still useful for us today. These statements are not infallible; they are not scripture. But they are useful for talking about what the scriptures teach us. For now I’ll focus on Sola Scripture, or translated, Scripture Alone.

What is Sola Scriptura?

Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.” (Ligonier Ministries) In other words, Scripture teaches us everything we need to know to follow Jesus. We don’t have to go to teachers, books, sermons, or even historical doctrinal statements of the church — however excellent they might be — to learn what it is to follow Jesus.

Are these things still useful? Yes. We know this because we see sermons, collections of songs of worship, and teachings within the Scripture. We even see church leaders gathered to discuss important doctrinal decisions. All of these things are a part of the life of the church and useful for the Christian, but they all serve to point the Christian to the scripture.

Prone to False Doctrine

Without a clear understanding of Sola Scriptura, we are apt to succumb to the false doctrines that surround us. We don’t live out our faith in a vacuum, but in a culture which has it’s own doctrines that we are steeped in with or without knowing it. If we don’t understand Scripture as authoritative, then we will be knocked around by every wave of doctrine. In the changing norms of our culture, we must be rooted in the Eternal Truth revealed to us by the Eternal God in his Eternal Word. If we understand that scripture alone has the highest authority on any topic on which it speaks then we will necessarily measure all other teachings against it, even the implicit teachings in the culture around us.

In the same way we test the teachings of our culture we should test the teaching of a Church tradition, a favorite pastor or blogger, or our own underlying assumptions. During the Reformation, the reformers made the radical statement that Scripture had a greater authority than the traditions of the Catholic Church (referred to as the magistirum). Luther and his counterparts wanted the Church to submit itself wholly and fully to the word of God. The traditions, while valuable, were not on the same level of scripture.

To the modern day evangelical, this seems obvious. However, if we outsource our theological thinking to the catechism and doctrines of our protestant churches, or to our favorite popular pastors, then we follow the same pattern of the Catholic church in trusting a magisterium over and above Scripture. We must faithfully measure all we are taught according to the standard of Scripture. This requires close study, a skill we must learn to cultivate.

Limits of Sola Scriptura

However, if we don’t understand the limits of the doctrine – that scripture contains everything we need, not everything that is useful — then we can be tempted to discount the value of Scripture when we encounter a question that Scripture does not address. For instance, the Bible does not address voting because democracy was not a form of government in the times and places the Bible was being written. So we can’t go to the Bible for simple answers on how or if to vote.

But we can learn from the scriptures about justice, power, peacemaking, how to treat foreigners, how to treat the poor, what God has to say about racism, wealth accumulation, and war. That insight should shape our voting. But there are other useful things that could shape our voting: an understanding of how our government works, if similar platforms have historically done what the candidates claim they will, a wise counselor’s interpretation of the Scripture and the political season. These things are extra-biblical, and useful, but they are not authoritative and are not to be trusted as being on par with Scripture.

Pursue Consistent Application

A clear understanding calls us to try to have a consistent application of the doctrine. It has been inconsistently applied since the early church fathers, by Luther and throughout the history of the Protestant church. Luther himself appealed to previous theological interpretations when challenged on the way in which the Lord’s Supper was taken. Even denominations like Baptists who say they follow the Bible alone, have strong traditions of interpretation through which the church members tend to view scripture.

We are far from perfect. Each Christian and church will have blind spots in our submission to Scripture’s authority. We will assume it says things it is not saying, and we will miss it’s clear teachings. However, we must pursue excellence in submitting our lives to scripture because through the Bible we get to know and experience God who is our Great Joy.

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What I Learned about Being a Proverbs 31 Woman

I went to a small, private Christian college for a year and lived in the dorm because they made me, so I heard one phrase like a broken record: “I want to be a Proverbs 31 wife”. Usually this statement was followed with some details about staying home and raising a bunch of kids and not working because it’s better for the family, and how could any mom who loves her children send them to the hell-hole that is daycare!

The young woman sharing these thoughts with me didn’t always (usually) have a boyfriend. I thought, “That seems cool, but my mom’s a programmer and as far as I know, my brother and I aren’t ax murderers.”

Being 19 and unable to handle conflict, I wouldn’t say anything. Also the fact that I never really read Proverbs 31 didn’t help in the stating an alternate opinion department. I knew I couldn’t live up to it, so it was too much of a guilt trip to read, so I avoided it. Again with not being able to handle conflict.

New Clarity

It wasn’t until I learned in a literature class (at one of those godless state universities) about the idea of a type character that I was able to read Proverbs 31, or anything else in Proverbs, without the crushing weight of guilt.

Once I had the idea of a literary type in my head, it was so obvious that Proverbs 31 is not describing any single woman, or what any single woman should be, but a type of woman: hardworking, kind, capable, honorable, loving, peaceful. No woman will ever live up to the full description. And we don’t have to. She’s an idealized example.

If I don’t “let my lamp go out at night”, i.e. stay up late working, and also “wake up while it is yet night”, I will not “have the teaching of kindness on my lips”. No amount of coffee could fix the crankiness that would emanate from me.

So with that freedom in mind, let’s take a look at a few verses in Proverbs 31.

“She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.” (v 13)

“She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar.” (v 14)

“She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” (v 16)

“She perceives that her merchandise is profitable” (v 18)

“She puts her hands to the distaff and her hands hold the spindle” (v 19)

“She makes linen garments and sell them; she delivers sashes to the merchant.” (v 24)

Work to do

This woman works, y’all. She’s making stuff and selling it. She’s buying real estate and using it to produce for her family. She knows that her merchandise is worth money. She’s got a diversified portfolio. And she’s not discounting the value of her work. Instead she’s selling it for a profit.

Now some of these verses are arguably about the work she does directly for the household, but she’s clearly making things for sale as well.

“Yes but all of these things can be done at home. She’s not going to an office for 8 or 9 hours a day.”

Let’s have a little history lesson.

A Unfamiliar Pattern of Work

The economy of the Ancient Near East (or Western Asia, if we’re not being Eurocentric) was different than today’s. People didn’t clock in at jobs and receive a salary for being a warm body that looked busy. That particular annoyance came with the Industrial Revolution.

Instead, people produced something of worth, then sold it. Or they transported things for someone who made something. Or produced food for their own family from the land. There were other types of work, but that was the bulk.

The woman described in Proverbs 31 was engaged in the economy of the time. She was earning by producing goods and managing her assets well.

Was she still the primary caregiver for her children? Maybe. We can’t tell from the passage. But we do know she was fully engaged in the economy.

Principles to Apply

By understanding the idea of a type character, and by thinking about the verses in the context in which they were written, we can understand the principles Proverbs is getting at and apply them to our lives and our context.

A Proverbs 31 woman works hard, manages large and small assets for the benefit of her family, engages in the economy, and knows that the work she does has value.

You can live out these principles whether you are a stay at home mom, a CEO, or a teacher. Whatever your day in and day out employment, you can do work that economically benefits your family.

In our context, this may mean a 9-5 job, which brings it own challenges when raising a family. But Proverbs 31 — far from restricting women in employment choices — gives you some of the guiding principles you need to make a decision regarding the work you do.

Why Leper Laws Matter to You

I’ve been reading Leviticus lately, which is not the most thrilling book of scripture. However, each time I read it, I’m struck by how much beauty and foreshadowing of Christ it contains. The laws concerning lepers take more space than one would consider quite necessary until you realize this probably comprises the extent of their medical textbook. In the description of these public health practices, we get a foretaste of Christ’s sacrifice. Continue reading Why Leper Laws Matter to You

Applying Scripture Leads to Spiritual Maturity

It is easy to approach Scripture only looking for knowledge. After all, we spend years in school reading in order to learn, for the primary purpose of passing a test. However, the Bible is not only a way to learn more about God; it is primarily a way to experience God.

We experience God through learning from and obeying His word. In Psalm 119 — a staggeringly long poem about the beauty and value of God’s word — the Psalmist claims more maturity than his elders and teachers because he meditates on and obeys the Lord:

I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.
– Ps 119:99-100 (NIV)

If we read the Bible only for knowledge, encouragement, or out of obligation or habit, then we miss the depths of what the Lord has intended for us. We must apply what we see in Scripture.

For years I read the Bible, wanting to grow in maturity. It wasn’t until I learned to find something specific to apply that I began to see my life transformed. While reading scripture, I began to ask myself the question “What specifically can I apply from this passage within 48 hours?” Most of the time, it’s not an earth-shattering act of obedience. One time – I can’t remember the passage – I began to feel convicted that I had neglected important relationships because I prioritized tasks over people, a frequent pitfall of mine. So for my application that day I delayed a few truly unimportant tasks and called my mom. Not earth shattering, but I’m pretty sure my mom’s love language is out-of-the-blue phone calls from her kids. I would not have called her that particular time if I had not read scripture and applied it.

I’ve asked this question while leading Bible studies with Christians and 90% of the time, people answer “read the Bible more”. Let me make it clear to you. If “read the Bible more” is your application most of the time, you’re missing the point. Should you read the Bible more? For most of us, yes. In addition to actually reading it, we must learn to apply it.

Once you get a little practice finding an application, it is not hard. Someone gave me a useful framework for thinking of an application: S.P.E.C.K

  • Sin to confess or avoid
  • Prayer, Praise, Promise
  • Example to follow
  • Command to Obey
  • Knowledge to pursue

I did not come up with this acronym. If anyone knows who came up with it, comment and I’ll gladly give credit.

Let’s do an example. What does this look like while reading the 23rd Psalm?

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Some possible applications from the passage could be:

  • Sin to avoid: “I struggle with anxiety and fear. Whenever I find myself feeling anxious in the next few days, I’m going to repent and ask God to help me trust him.”
  • Prayer: “I don’t always feel like the Lord is active or interested in my daily life. For the next few days, I am going to ask him to show me how he’s working.”
  • Praise: “I’m reminded of the Lord’s goodness from this Psalm. In the next two days, I am going to write down as many ways as I can think of that he has been good to me as a way to praise him.”
  • Promise: “I’m in a scary/difficult situation right now. Over the next few days, I’m going to remind myself of the promise that the Lord is with me.”
  • Example to follow: “It seems like the Psalmist takes time to contemplate the goodness of God and responds to that goodness through creativity which is then shared with a community. In the next few days, I’m going to find a creative way to express the ways the Lord has been good to me and share it with someone who might be blessed by it.”
  • Command to obey: “It seems like the Lord commands rest at the beginning of this Psalm. I’m not very good at actually resting on the Sabbath. This week on the Sabbath, I’m going to spend some extra time reading the Bible and go on a walk without my cell phone. I’ll stay away from TV and social media for the day too.”
  • Knowledge to Pursue: “I’m not sure what ‘Your rod and your staff, they comfort me’ mean. I’m going to look into that in the next two days and try to apply whatever I learn.

Each of these are 1) specific, 2) have a time attached to them 3) actionable 4) and most importantly are derived from the passage. There’s even one in there about reading the Bible more.

What about you? What is one way you could apply what you’ve learned in Scripture this week?