3 Steps to Understand the Bible Better

How do I understand the Bible? It’s a book that was written many years ago by people of a completely different culture. On top of that, the world has changed drastically. Just think of communication. During biblical times letters were carried by some type of animal or ship. The process was tedious and time-consuming. Today we can call, text, or have a face-to-face discussion via services such as Skype.
With all of these challenges, the question seems to change from, ‘How did I understand the Bible?’ to ‘Can I understand the Bible?’. And rightly so! Rest assured, you can understand the Bible. God has revealed his love for us through his Scriptures. I want to share with you three steps to help you understand the Bible more.
You can understand the Bible…
From the beginning it is important that you understand this is a journey. After reading this, you will still have more to learn. I have been reading the Bible since I was fourteen, and even after all this time I am still learning. It is one of the amazing truths about God’s Word. It is an inexhaustible mine of spiritual gems, all waiting to be gathered and taken into our hearts.
These steps are in no order of importance, although I do believe them to be foundational to our overall understanding of the Bible. So grab your Bible, and let’s dive in!
Step One: Understand the world in which it was written.
 
I cannot stress this one enough. There is an abundance of bad commentaries, sermons, devotionals, and Christian-mindsets as a result of simply not understanding the world in which the Bible was written.
Let me give you one example. The world of the Bible was predominately a patriarchal society. (You can check out the Christians for Biblical Equality for a fair treatment on the topic of the patriarchal world.) When reading through the Old Testament, particularly, one can be amazed at the treatment of women. Granted, the laws and rules laid out in the Torah were extraordinarily better than surrounding nations. (Rob Bell book reference) Still, it is helpful to understand that women were seen as less than man, to put it nicely. So when reading through a passage about the selling of a daughter, one is able to understand that the world in which those books were written had a much lower view of women than many cultures do today.
Or how about another one. The Bible constantly uses the shepherd as a picture of God’s dealings with humanity (for a few references, check out: Isaiah 40:11; Psalm 78:52; John 10:11; Hebrews 13:20; and 1 Peter 2:25). But why? I mean, I have never met a shepherd.patrick-schneider-213969
Now, understanding the world of the Old and New Testaments, we see how important shepherds were. They helped raise animals that would have provided milk, materials for clothing, and food. Of course, there were also the sacrifices! So they were vitally important to the biblical writers. It was an easy way for God to point to something they knew well to picture his desire to be with and take care of them.
Without at least a basic knowledge of this, the imagery may be lost. There are other variants to consider, but this is more of an overview.
Step Two: Get an idea of what the meaning looks like today.
Once you have an idea of what is going on, then begin to visualize how that looks today. This step is a little more difficult, because while some resources are out there for this (devotional commentaries seem to be the best for this step), there are often few that convey the meaning in today’s terms. For example, Ephesians 5:22-28 address the husband and wife relationship within a first century, Roman household. (For a more thorough treatment of this passage, see Rachel Held Evan‘s help overview of various literature.) With that understanding, it is helpful to realize the relationship of headship of the husband over the wife was customary. Paul’s key point, however, is mutual submission, which he uses to begin the entire passage. Taking this understanding, then, we can begin to see that for today, in which an equality exists between husbands and wives, the idea of mutual submission is the focus.
Step Three: Make a personal application to your own life.
This is where reading Scripture begins to be awesome. Because this is where Scripture meets your life.
When Scripture teaches either a direct point (see Hebrews 3:1 in which we are commanded to consider Jesus), indirect point (such as are found in narratives, see 1 Samuel 15:22-23), or simply a story in which no apparent point is made (see the graphic events in Judges chapter 19), the whole purpose of it is to apply to your life (see 2 Peter 1:3).
The whole purpose of Scripture is to apply to your life.
Once we get to this point, it is time to get personal. What do I mean? I mean that when you come across Scripture, it is time to figure out how it can apply to your life. Perhaps an example would prove helpful. Psalm 1:1 says, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers.” (NAB) This will look different for each one of us. For me, however, it might look like this: in order to be happy (which includes a spiritual sense) I must avoid the company of bad people. Oh, in case you were wondering, this isn’t speaking about just being around people. Paul covers that in 1 Corinthians 5:11. The picture is the gate of a city, where government and social outings occurred. This is an intimate gathering, not simply an association. My application would be: I must consciously avoid building intimate relationships with people who are actively opposing God. I may take it a step further and say that I need to avoid a certain coffee shop where I am tempted to be around such individuals. But I think that gives you the gist of it.
Wrapping it Up
These steps will take time and effort. It is worth it! Push past the steps that may not suit your particularly personality and gifts. Personally, I love the first step and struggle with the second and third steps. What do you struggle with? How can I help you?

Mother’s Day: The Best Mother

Where would we be without mothers? As a man and a father, I can say that on this side of eternity I will never truly understand everything they do. My own mother as well as my wife cause me to stagger in unbelief at the amount of work they accomplish, the love they shower on the family, and the countless hours spent worrying and caring for us.

Scripture, the Tanakh and the New Testament, was written during the patriarchal period. I doubt many people would argue with the fact that women were treated unequally, to say the least. However, several prominent women stand out as incredible women of virtue. Rahab, Ruth, Hannah, and Abigail, all women of wonderful faith.

But one sticks out to me: Mary. I was raised in a independent, fundamental baptist church. In order to keep from ‘compromising’ they put Mary on the back shelf, in order to not appear to ‘worship’ her, as they accused Roman Catholics of doing (which is absolutely absurd, but let’s stay on task). So I never really thought about her, other than that she gave birth to Messiah.

Mary stands out as the preeminent mother in Scripture.

But when I really began to look at Mary, I was overwhelmed at her simple faith and trust-informed action. I wish to spend the next few moments with you looking at Mary and hopefully encourage our mothers (my own mother and my wife stand as examples of this as well).

Simple Faith

One of the first aspects of Mary’s life that draws me to mirror her life. This poor girl, unknown to the world of first century Israel, became the mother of God, the theotokos. This betrothed young lady is visited by Gabriel, an angel.

Let that sit in just for a moment. Just meditate on the fact that this simple lady, waiting to join Joseph, has Gabriel (consider his history in Israel, that was an incredible honor!) come and declare a wonderful announcement: she would bear the Messiah.

After being told she would bear Jesus, her saintly reply was, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Can you imagine that simple faith? Even when she asked how it would be possible, she was not asking from a position of doubt but of curiosity of means. What simple faith!

Contrast that with our own lack of belief. When God says that he will never leave us, our reply: Why are you so far off God? When God said that he desires to be with us every day, our reply: Only when it is convenient for me, God. But Mary? Her reply: whatever you say Lord! That is the essence of simple faith.

After being told that her Son would die and she would experience a pain compared to a sword piercing her heart, Mary simply believed. That is simple faith.

Another act of simple faith (and should we say profound faith?) is her interactions with Simeon. During a prophetic utterance, he mentions something terrible, “…and you yourself a sword will pierce…” (Luke 2:34). This, of course, is a reference to the horrific torture and death her Son would endure and the pain a mother would be overwhelm with at the thought and eventual sight of it. Now, as a father, I cannot grasp this. How could a parent cope with such an utterance?aaron-burden-21616

How can Mary, after being told such a thing, have simply “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart”? (Luke 2:19) Again, this is the essence of simple faith. What a challenge to us! If God were to tell me of some horrific death one of my children were to undergo, I confess that my faith is weak and that I would struggle. I would take them and flee for protection. But not Mary. Mary trusts in God, that God would protect them. This is such a challenge to me, and as a mother she is an incredible example.

Trust-Informed Action

Trust-informed action? What in the world? Let me break this down and then we can look at this in the life of Mary. Action is our efforts in accomplishing a task. For instance, if I want to build a bookshelf I set up plans, procure the materials, and then begin the work. Now, it would be foolish if I were to just grab some two-by-fours and start building. My action would be building, my truth-informed aspect is that planning and procuring part.

Mary’s life was trust-informed. She knew the Scriptures. If one was to compare her song (Luke 1:46-55) with that of some of the songs in the Tanakh (see Exodus 15:1-21, for example) one would see how close they are. Though Scripture is silent to this, I imagine she would think of the many Psalms that speak of the Messiah as her Son grew up. Whether she learned this through Synagogue or attending Temple doesn’t matter, the fact is Mary’s faith was informed by Scripture.

Mary’s actions were informed by the sweet Scriptures.

But it did not stop in her head.  She “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” And then she spent her life raising her Son, the Messiah.

Do our lives reflect this? Do we know the Scriptures like Mary, and do we follow through with it?

Mary’s life as a mother is incredible. My wife and mother are incredible. Happy Mother’s Day, and may we all be more like Mary!

Walking Through Genesis- Chapter 31

Sometime (we are not told how long) after the agreement between Laban and Jacob a strife began to rear its ugly head. Laban’s sons were becoming jealous as Jacob was receiving all the material wealth their father had (of course we know that God was blessing Jacob, but apparently Laban and his sons did not see this, though Laban would soon find out that God was with Jacob). After the command came from God for Jacob to leave and return home, the discussion initiated between Jacob and his wives about the treatment they had received from Laban. Apparently, though Laban had made an agreement with Jacob, he changed it ten times. Additionally, Laban had squandered his daughters inheritance creating an even larger division in the family.

Understandably, then, Jacob attempts to leave without notifying Laban. Of course Laban becomes angry and then pursues Jacob, not only to find out what he was doing but also to find his daughters and many grandchildren. During the pursuit God appears to Laban in a dream and warns him not to speak good or bad. Finally Laban overtakes Jacob. A lengthy discourse takes place between the two. Rachel even made the mistake of stealing Laban’s idols but gets away without her father finding out. Jacob and Laban then make an agreement never to seek the ill of the other and then they depart, never to meet again.

Thankfully we are out of the whole childbearing battle from the previous two chapters! But we are still in the midst of family strife. Now the strife involves “extended” family. Boy could we spend a great deal of time here! Suffice it to say, we must be careful how we interact with family, and that includes extended family. A great deal of hurt can come from a foolish word, an action that was done in the wrong spirit, or even the disapproval. I have experienced this kind of hurt, and it takes a long time to heal, and the pain is still there. So as we live our lives, let’s work hard at avoiding the strife that Jacob and his family had the unpleasant experience of dealing with at this time.

Walking Through Genesis- Chapter 30

The family feud continues from the previous chapter. The battle back and forth between the wives of Jacob continues. It almost reminds us of something that would be off a reality TV show! After Leah and Rachel stopped bearing children they then gave Jacob their servants, Zilpah and Bilhah, in order to have more sons. It’s  mockery of how things should be done! There is even an exchange where Rachel “allows” Leah to sleep with Jacob for some mandrakes Reuben gave her. Finally the two (or really four) stopped giving birth to children.

The story then makes a huge move where Jacob requests to be able to leave Laban and return to his homeland. Laban and Jacob work out a deal and then Jacob retrieves what he and Laban had agreed to for his service.

The lessons here are pretty much the same as the previous chapter. The wild events that are taking place in Jacob’s family would be comical if it weren’t so sad. At any rate, it should become apparent to us that the best way to have a balanced family life is not to have more than one wife, to not play favorites, and to not to attempt to circumvent God’s plan.

The other lesson, as with the previous chapters, is to simply be honest. Just work out your details with your fellows before there is a problem. In Jacob’s case, Laban had turned into what Jacob was turning away from, a cheat. So in your dealings with others, be honest!

Walking Through Genesis- Chapter 28

The chapter continues the story from chapter 27. Jacob had just deceived his father, included God in his lie, and caused his brother Esau to want to kill him. After a short exchange between his parents, Isaac then bids Jacob to return to the homeland and find a wife there (as did his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac).

The writer of Genesis then includes an almost parenthetical paragraph of Esau’s marriage  to another wife. So he married again, in addition to the wives he had already married (see 26.34).

So Jacob set out to travel back to Harran to find a wife. During this journey he rests, placing his head on a rock for a pillow. As he was sleeping the vision of the ladder reaching to heaven and angels ascending and descending on it comes to him. Then God grants the same blessing upon Jacob that he had previously given to Abraham and Isaac. Upon waking Jacob realized that he was in the presence of God. He then made a vow to become a follow of God if God would provide for his needs and bring him safely back to his home.

This journey for Jacob would prove to be one that would have a significant effect on the rest of his life. He is slowly beginning to change from the heel catcher to the prince of God. Now before we are too harsh on Jacob, let’s remember our own spiritual journey. I imagine that most of us are like Jacob, at first we were dirty scoundrels. We were the trouble makers, the liars. But slowly, as Jacob was, we are being made more like Jesus. So as we walk through the rest of this book, we are really walking by a mirror. It is my hope that as you and I look at our reflection that we see our own journey from being heel catchers to princes with God.

Walking Through Genesis- Chapter 15

The 15th chapter of Genesis concerns what theologians call The Abrahamic Covenant. Chapter 12 and 17 also speak about Abraham’s relationship with God as well. 

Our focus will go from each aspect and we will draw applications as we move through the chapter.

15:1-6 is perhaps one of the most important passages of Scripture because it tells us how Abram had righteousness deposited to his account. To begin with Abram and God discuss the issue of Sarai’s (Abram’s wife) barrenness. In Middle Eastern culture it was normal for the heir to be a servant. However, God had blessed Abram and promised him that he would indeed have a son. So there are two things for us to take hold of in this passage: First, we need to take God at His Word. As with most things, this is much easier said than done. It’s easy to say we believe God is in control, but it is another thing entirely to trust Him when a loved one is on the hospital. The second thing we see is the importance of faith. It says, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (15.6, ESV). Faith is the essential element to begin and keep a life with God. Books, commentaries, lectures and sermons have all been made or given on this topic. The thing for us to remember is that we must believe God, and for our benefit God counts that as righteousness.

15:7-21 is a lengthy account of sacrifices, prophecy, and blessing. It is important to remember that, as we move through passages like this, that as difficult as it may be there is always something for us to apply. One of the things about sacrifice is that it requires work. Abram had to find the animals listed by God (a heifer three years old, female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon). Not only did he have to find these specific animals but he also had to sacrifice them. In this case, Abram cut them in half. Thankfully we do not have to do things like this today! But our sacrifice is something that requires an equal amount of work, if not more. We are told to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (see Romans 12:1-2). The second thing we can glean from this passage is comfort! Now, you may wonder how in the world we can glean comfort from a series of statements about Israel facing slavery in Egypt, but we can! Here’s why: God is in control! Nothing takes Him by surprise, and we can rest assured that He has a purpose for everything (see verse 16). The final thing we see is that God does indeed bless us. In our case we do nothing to deserve blessing. That is something that we must understand, for otherwise we develop a handout mentality. As we go through every day we must, like Abram, remember that God has blessed us and thank Him for it!

Walking Through Genesis- Chapter 14

Chapter 14 is comprised of two main accounts: the battle of the kings and the encounter with Melchizedek. The chapter gives several truths that can be extremely beneficial for the believer today.

                         The Battle of the Kings

     Synopsis: This section deals with the battle of kings whose names I can hardly pronounce! The basics of this story are four kings went to war with five kings. The basis for the war was the five kings were wearied after serving Chedorlaomer for twelve years (14.4). During this battle Lot (Abram’s nephew) was captured along with his possessions (14.12). Abram then gathered his trained men (which totaled 318) and went and rescued Lot (14.13-16).

     Application: If you are like me, at first you were probably pretty perplexed to gather something from this that we could apply today. However, there are several truths that we can and should apply. 

     1. First, the deeds of the five kings were noble. To rise up and face those who are taking advantage of you is quite a noble thing to do. Of course, the additional lesson here is that all of our efforts to avenge ourselves (or others) do not always result in the desired outcome. In this case, the five kings were effortless defeated and also led to the defeat of other groups of people, including Lot. So, stand up for what is right, even though sometimes it may result in your own defeat. We are reminded of the quote attributed to Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men do nothing.”

     2. The Boy Scout motto is the next thing we can learn from: Be prepared. For both Lot and Abram this event had incredible consequences. For Lot, the failure to provide protection resulted in his kidnapping. Of course, there are somethings that we cannot prepare for in life. But “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Our own failure to plan for the attacks of the enemy (the flesh, the world, and the devil) inevitably leads to our own capture. From Abram’s perspective, his ability to plan out and execute an attack with his limited resources led to the rescue of his nephew, in addition to the other people (14.16). The same stands true in our lives, if we plan and make the necessary provisions we can face the enemy head on with victory. A perfect example of adequate preparation for the believer can be found in Ephesians 6.10-20.

     3. The final aspect of application from this glorious battle is that some things are worth fighting for in our lives. Abram believed he was able to help Lot and the others and took action to deliver them. He gathered his own men and supplies and through incredible warfare defeated his foe. There will be times in our lives where we face something for which is worth fighting. Your spouse, your family, you friends, your church, and most importantly, your God are all worth fighting for. Sometimes these battles will vary from an inward attack on doubt or unbelief while other times it may be overt and in public view. But take heart in Abram’s example, fight for the things that are dear to you, and embrace victory.

                         The Meeting of Melchizedek

Synopsis: On Abram’s return from victory he meets the King of Salem, Melchizedek. He blesses Abram, offers a sacrifice of bread and wine, and then accepts tithes from him. After this interchange the king of Sodom attempts to offer gifts to Abram for saving him but Abram declines. His reason for doing so was for people to see the God had blessed Abram and not the king of Sodom

Application: This part of chapter 14 is a little easier to see application for us today, and for the serious student, it provides a depth of material.

  1. Melchizedek is a type of Christ. There are numerous studies about the subject, and for our purposes we will not attempt to discuss the matter. We are focusing predominately on the application aspect of Genesis. So how can we apply this type of Christ? I think it is important to realize that Jesus is everywhere (I understand that when Jesus became human he laid aside certain divine attributes, when I say Jesus I am referring more to God in the transcendent manner). One of the key differences of the saved and unsaved in Matthew 25 is the helping of those in need (see Matthew 25.31-46). And, interestingly, Jesus makes the connection of helping those in need with helping Jesus Himself! (On a side note, those in need in Matthew 25 were Jewish people during the tribulation. But the application stands for us to help those in need.)
  2. Abram offered tithes. This one is important, for many believers believe tithing no longer applies to us today. This is pre-Mosaic law. That is an important thing to note, because before Moses wrote down the law for the Israelites to follow tithing was in practice! So we are to tithe as well. Give!
  3. Learn to say no. This is a very difficult thing to do! If you are like me you may find it difficult to tell someone no. You want to please people and help them out. But sometimes it is actually better to say no then to say yes to everything. People are finding out today that saying no is not only a good thing, but a biblical thing. For Abram, it was important to say no because he wanted people to know where his possessions and greatness had come: God. This is a wonderful example of humility, and one that many today (including myself) need! In our American dream culture, it is easy for us to say yes to everything. But we must, like Abram, learn to say no.

Genesis is sometimes tricky, but I think you and I are starting to see that this incredibly old book has some wonderful applications for us today. Stay tuned as we continue Walking Through Genesis!