Archive for July, 2009


Reading the Bible

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Today I completed reading the Bible through for the year. Reading the entire Bible through each year has been a practice I’ve been committed to since I entered the ministry in January, 1984. Granted, I’ve often wrestled with the question as to whether or not I do this out of rote legalism. But as a pastor-teacher, I have come to the conclusion that if my life’s work is centered on communicating the Scriptures, I should be committed to reading the written word systematically.

There’s nothing special about my particular discipline. Each day I read five chapters from the Old Testament and two chapters from the New Testament. I have read straight through from Genesis to Revelation, but have come to appreciate the variety of reading the Old and New Testaments simultaneously. I also read one chapter of Psalms per day, which allows me to read the book a little more than twice per year. Finally, I read the chapter from Proverbs that corresponds with the day. For example, today is July 30, so I read Proverbs 30. I read this book of wisdom 12 times per year. Over time I’ve read the Bible through in the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New American Standard Version, the New International Version, and my present personal favorite, the New Living Translation.

When I read the Bible, I read for the sake of reading it and listening for my own spiritual formation. That is, I don’t read for sermon ideas or teaching material. I would not call my reading Bible study. I do that as a part of the multiple preparations I do each week. My posture toward the Bible when I read is to read it for my own sake. As I read I have a pen and a journal which allows me to personally interact with the words I read on a given day.

Reading the Bible through each year always provides several blessings that are beneficial. The practice reminds me that all of the words of the Bible are important. My personal preference would not be to read Leviticus or the genealogies of Chronicles. But those chapters and verses are there for a reason.

Another blessing is the blessing of balance. Reading the Bible through keeps me from parking on theological hobby horses or camping on texts that might cause me to go to seed on a particular doctrine. Like you, I know people who have become single issue Christians, focusing on things like end times prophecy or election. In Acts 20:27, Paul speaks of declaring “the whole counsel of God.” Reading the Bible through helps me become God centered and not self-serving in the treatment of the Bible.

As I read I’m always blessed by the fact that even having read the Bible through 25 times, I still learn something new about God with each reading that draws me closer to him. Though the words are the same as last year, each reading makes my relationship with God richer and fuller. I don’t want to get so caught up in reading about people, places, and history that I miss God!

The final way reading the Bible through has blessed me is that the discipline helps me to understand the big picture. My personal conviction is that the Bible is a unified book. There are many inter-related texts. The Old Testament points to the New, and the New Testament reflects the Old. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old while the apostles shed light on Jesus, to name a few examples. The Bible is one story. To neglect reading the entire story is like renting a DVD and randomly choosing scenes to watch.

If you’ve not read the Bible through in a year, I commend the discipline to you. Just don’t become a Pharisee in the process. And remember, the point is to know God.

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This is interesting…

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Interesting article in USA Today about atheists who are renounciing their faith by being “de-baptized.” Click here for the article.

Categories : Atheism, Baptism
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Improving Soil Conditions

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My wife loves to work in our landscaping. She would consider this one of her hobbies, and she’s very passionate about it. Because she loves working in the flower beds, I get the privilege of helping out. Last week Lisa began working on building another flower bed. Upon its completion we will have completely encircled the house.

Before any flowers or plants can be planted, the soil must be prepared. We take our wheelbarrow out into the yard, and begin mixing equal parts of sand, top soil, peat moss, and the natural soil from the bed itself. This is mixed in the wheelbarrow, then dumped into the bed where it is stirred in with the existing soil.

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus described four soil types which represent our reception of the message of the Kingdom. The parable is designed for us to see ourselves and to identify which kind of soil we possess. Which brings us to another question: How do I improve my soil type? How can I increase my responsiveness and fruitfulness? James 1:19-22 gives us three ways we can improve our reception of the message of the Kingdom.

1. REMOVE THE OBSTACLES. “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters. You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives…” (James 1:19-21a)

Before we can receive the message of the Kingdom, we have to eliminate obstacles. This is not unlike preparing a flower bed by pulling out the rock and debris before adding good soil. James gives us some suggestions as to what kinds of obstacles impede our reception of the word. He mentions anger, filth and evil. I don’t think James is giving an exhaustive listing. He offers some examples of obstacles. Each of us would do well to consider the things in our lives that get in the way of our hearing and work to eliminate them.

2. CULTIVATE HUMILITY. “…and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls” (James 1:21b)

Our relationship to the word is important. Every day we are either “under” the word or “over” the word. By this I mean we either approach the word with humility, placing ourselves under its authority, or we approach the word with pride, placing ourselves above its authority. In my Baptist tradition I have always admired the fact that we as Baptists are “people of the book,” and that our high view of Scripture enables us to see the Scripture as our authority for faith and practice.

3. ACT, or RESPOND. “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says” (James 1:22).

Once obstacles are removed and we receive the word with humility, we must act upon what the message calls for us to do. James continues, “For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for what you do” (James 1:23-25).

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Soil Types

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In the Parable of the Sower, one discovers that the farmer is the same and the seed is the same. The soil is the difference, which becomes the focal point of the story. In Jesus’ interpretation of the parable in Matthew 13:18-23, he plainly describes the four soils which are distinguished based on their reception of the seed. The focus is not the message, but the reception of the message. Furthermore, the one message of the Kingdom can have varying degrees of impact.

The first soil type is RESISTENT. It is the footpath which has become hard and unresponsive. The resistant soil is unresponsive because it “does not understand” the message of the Kingdom. The dormant seed is quickly snatched away by the enemy.

The second soil type is described as rocky or SHALLOW. This soil receives the message of the Kingdom with enthusiasm and joy, but because it lacks depth the initial enthusiasm is dimmed at the first sight of adversity or persecution. Because of its lack of depth, the small plant gives up.

Yet a third soil type is the DISTRACTED soil…characterized by thorn infested. While the seed finds enough soil to take root, it finds itself overcrowded with distractions. Apparently there are multiple trust issues, as the soil is cluttered with the worries of life and the lure of wealth. The seed is perhaps initially intrigued by the message of the Kingdom, but only insomuch as Jesus becomes an “add on” or an upgrade to a complicated life. But the gospel is not an add on. The message of the Kingdom is intended as the organizing and ordering principle of one’s life.

If we pause for a moment to evaluate the first three soils, we quickly observe that 2 of the 3 that failed to produce fruit responded favorable at the onset. But receiving the word with joy and enthusiasm is not enough. Those who receive the Kingdom must receive the kingdom with a willing heart and a submissive mind. God does not drive us into the kingdom of God. God may plead, but he does not demand. He will persuade, but will not drive us into the Kingdom. The mystery of the Kingdom is that the Kingdom has come yet people can reject it. Many do. To be a disciple in the Kingdom means hearing and responding to the message of the kingdom in such a way your life becomes defined by it.

This brings us to the final soil, the PRODUCTIVE soil. This soil is good, receptive and responsive. Jesus uses hyperbole and exaggeration to show the profound impact that the message of the Kingdom can have. In first century Israel, any ten-fold increase would have been recognized as a good crop. Yet Jesus speaks of fruitfulness that can measure thirty-fold, sixty-fold, or even one hundred-fold.

The Kingdom comes when seed and soil come together. Kingdom begins to come in a person’s life when the soil receives the word. Any hearing that does not result in life change (transformation) is not valid hearing. Conversions that count are confirmed via our discipleship and our fruitfulness.

This parable is designed to challenge us to see ourselves in the soil types. Which soil are you? Can you look at your life and see evidences of fruitfulness? If so, are you as fruitful as you can be? Tomorrow I’ll discuss how we can improve our soil in order to increase our fruitfulness in the Kingdom.

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The Parable of the Sower

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We have a landscaping issue at our house. We have two spots in the flower bed in front of our home that literally won’t grow weeds. Usually the dirt around new construction is not the best, so we thought we needed to simply improve the soil. We did so by adding sand and peat moss, hoping these agents would help those big chunks of beige clay. No luck. Three years and about 4 yews later, we still can’t get the soil to produce lasting growth. The yews we planted to replace the yews we planted to replace the original yews are yellowing.

The focal point of the series on the Kingdom of God concerns the parables of the present Kingdom found in Matthew 13. The first and perhaps most significant is the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23). The Kingdom is a Kingdom of the word, and the parable of the sower is a parable about how we receive the word. It’s interesting that our paragraph headings in our Bibles refer to it as a parable about a sower. But in reality it’s a parable about soil. According to Jesus, our hearts are like soil which receives the message of the Kingdom.

Jesus came to announce that the Kingdom is here. But the Kingdom comes through persuasion rather than force. The Kingdom has indeed come, but not with irresistible power. It is like a farmer who sows seeds. Some receive it but many do not.

The parable begins by describing a farmer (literally “the” farmer) who goes out to sow seeds. Clearly this happens during a time in history that did not include tractors and implements designed for sowing seed precisely in order to maximize yield. Farmers who were Jesus’ contemporaries more than likely used the broadcast method of sowing. They would reach their hand into a bag of seeds, and fling them across the ground. The farmer sowed purposefully. After all, the text states that he “went out to sow.” But he also sowed generously and indiscriminately. The farmer was caught up in target audiences so to speak. His job was to sow.

The seed, Jesus described, is representative of the message of the Kingdom. This seed contains life, and when it accomplishes its intended purpose, produces fruit. In the parable the farmer and the seed are the same. The difference is the condition of the soil.

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Thinking about the Kingdom

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In thinking about my present series on the Kingdom of God, Ken Lumley suggested this classic clip from Dead Poet’s Society to help our understanding of how we are to think about the present Kingdom of God in light of all that we have been previously exposed to…

Categories : Kingdom of God
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When our eyes are open to see, and our ears are open to hear, and our minds are attune to conceive and perceive, we are aware of the tangible reality of the present Kingdom of God right now in our midst. We find that Jesus is accessible today as a reality and not merely a historical character. We become aware of the work of the Kingdom in areas like justice, beauty, and sharing the gospel.

To conclude, let me simply encourage you today by reminding you of the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (NLT). In the present Kingdom all things matter and everything counts. Perhaps this is why Jesus placed high value on “cups of cold water” offered in his name. Your life in the Kingdom counts. It matters and is significant.

Categories : Kingdom of God
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What is a Parable?

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When I began planning the Right Now series on the Kingdom of God, I did what I always do…I took a shopping trip to my favorite store, When I searched the Amazon site for available resources regarding the Kingdom of God I discovered good news and bad news.

The bad news first. I was appalled at the limited number of resources that were available on the subject at hand. Could it be possible that the core teaching of Jesus had been thoroughly neglected? “Maybe it was just,” I mused, and then quickly made my way to “Blast! Same result!” I still shake my head in disbelief at the idea that nothing substantial was being published on this important subject.

Now the good news. During my quest I came across a wonderful reference work on the parables of Jesus titled Stories with Intent by Klyne R. Snodgrass. Snodgrass serves as the Paul W. Brandel Professor of New Testament Studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. Stories with Intent is a comprehensive resource for serious Bible students who desire to learn about parables and how they functioned in the first century. Beside the biblical background support, Snodgrass provides hermeneutical assistance to help interpret the parables and arrive at an appropriate application for today.

In the introductory material to the book, Snodgrass spent three pages offering a definition of the word parable. Check this out. He writes, “Hardly anything said about parables–whether defining them or explaining their characteristics–is true of all of them. For this reason every parable must be approached in its own right and not assumed to look like or function like other parables. A parable is often defined as an illustration due to the root fallacy of deriving the meaning from paraballo, which means literally ‘to throw alongside.’ From this people have viewed parables as earthly stories with heavenly meanings. Although there is some truth in this saying, this approach to understaning NT parables will not do. Parables are much more than illustrations, and although some are concerned with future eschatology, they are not about heaven. They are about life on earth.”

Snodgrass continues by interacting with several classical definitions of parables by New Testament scholars. He then offers this: “If meaning is the value assigned to a set of relations, parables provide new sets of relations that enable us to see in a fresh manner. Parables function as a lens that allow us to see the truth and to correct distorted vision. They allow us to see what we would not otherwise see, and they presume we should look at and see a specific reality…they are stories with an intent, analogies through which one is enabled to see truth.”

He concludes by making the case that the purpose of parables is to “awaken insight, stimulate the conscience, and move us to action.” In other words, Jesus taught in parables to cause us to think for ourselves and to respond with action. While the parables often call for specific moral action, they are more importantly calls issued to disciples to radically reorient their lives as participants in the Kingdom of God.

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In yesterday’s post I suggested that God has equipped us to see, hear, and think of the present Kingdom of God in ways that are real and tangible. This begins with our comprehension of the reality of Jesus today versus viewing him as a historical personality.

Today I want to discuss our work in the present Kingdom. The Scripture makes it clear that God builds the Kingdom. However, God has ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world takes place not least through one of his creatures who reflect his image. We participate in God’s work. With thanks to NT Wright and his work Surprised by Hope, I’d like to outline how our present work in the Kingdom can be viewed. Wright expresses it in three ways.

First, the Kingdom work of Justice in what Paul calls “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Justice is the intention of God to set the whole world right. Where we see evil and injustice, we stand and speak. We stand and speak on behalf of those who do not have the ability to stand for themselves and have no voice to speak for them. Following the pattern of Jesus (Luke 4:18-21), we stand against evil, injustice, and alleviate suffering any way that we possibly can.

Second, this Kingdom work includes pointing out Beauty. We need to highlight the glory and splendor of creation that foreshadows the glory yet to be revealed. Beauty gives us glimpses into the future Kingdom that will be consummated at the return of Christ. Romans 8:18-25 indicates that all of creation will ultimately be redeemed, just as we will someday be redeemed. God will not throw away his creation. If I understand the Scriptures correctly, God will someday establish the future Kingdom here on earth.

Finally, we participate in the Kingdom work by sharing the gospel message. Jesus inspires hope for the present, not just the future. The word “evangelism” sends shivers down the spine of many. But just because many do it badly doesn’t mean nobody should ever do it at all (Romans 1:14-17). The power of the gospel lies not in the hope of an experience, nor in removing the threat of hellfire, but in the powerful announcement that God is God, Jesus is Lord, the powers of evil have been defeated, and that God’s kingdom has come.

I believe that there are four areas where we get the gospel message wrong. First, we get it wrong when we say that in order to become a Christian one has to say no to the good things of the world. The gospel offers the ability to say no to the bad of our present evil age, but not to the denial of the good.

Second, we get it wrong when we make the gospel about what happens to us when we die, or, in other words, Heaven and Hell. The gospel was never intended to make physical death the hinge upon which the gospel swings. If you read the New Testament, you’ll discover that Jesus didn’t make much of physical death. On at least two occasions he referred to people who had died as “asleep.” In the teaching of Jesus, the death that counts is the death that comes at conversion. Too often we emphasize the wrong death in our proclamation of the good news (Colossians 3:1-4).

Next, we misspeak the gospel when we make the main thing a personal and private relationship with Jesus which becomes the only thing that matters. The gospel according to Jesus is not a “me and my salvation” experience that is disconnected from anyone or anything else. The gospel is very corporate and communal.

Finally, we get the gospel wrong when we communicate that radical obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ is optional. The commands of Christ are not optional for me to pick and choose. In the present Kingdom, our ethical behavior is a reflection of hope.

Categories : Kingdom of God
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The Reality of the Present Kingdom

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“No eye has seen, nor ear has heard, and not mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” — 1 Corinthians 2:9 (NLT)

When Paul penned these words to the church at Corinth he was not describing the splendor of a heavenly existence that we receive when we die. If you read the context of the verse (1 Corinthians 2:6-16), you’ll see that Paul is talking about life in the present Kingdom of God. Because we have the mind of Christ, our eyes will see things, your ears will hear things, and your mind will conceive things that are real. You will see God’s will and his work done on earth even as it is done in heaven. It’s not abstract or mystical. It’s tangible and real.

Matthew 11:2-15 reports the story of John the Baptizer and the crisis of faith he experienced following his arrest and incarceration. He sent his apprentices to Jesus to ask him if he was the one who was bringing the Kingdom of God or not. Jesus responded to John’s disciples by saying, “Tell John what you have seen and heard…” In short, Jesus invited John and his disciples to open their eyes and ears and minds to the present work of the Kingdom that had already arrived and was in their midst. Like us, John was struggling to see the present Kingdom.

Why is this difficult?

If you put a straight stick under water, the stick will appear crooked. The reason is that you are trying to see the stick through two dimensions. Looking at the stick through two realms simultaneously creates distortion. We have to learn to see things from the realm of the eternal.

My middle child is as right brained as they come. Ever since she was a little girl, she’s had an unusual ability to find four leaf clovers. She can do it at will. I know many people who have never legitimately found a four leaf clover. But just a couple of weeks ago she had found four four leaf clovers just walking across our back yard. She can’t really explain this ability apart from saying, “I just don’t look at the three leaf clovers.” Sometimes our view of the present Kingdom is beyond our grasp because of all of the distractions of the three leaf clovers in life.

What are we looking for? What are we listening for? What do our minds need to be opened to? Where do we need to seek clarity that is free from distortion?

For one, we need to see Jesus as a present reality versus as a historical character.
For 20 centuries, Jesus has been a flag of convenience under which all sorts of ships have sailed:
· The advancement of our programs and institutions;
· Our politics;
· Our justification for our social work;
· Our private agendas;
· Even our self help moralism.
Because of that, Jesus has become for many the most confusing part of the Christian life. When we are confused about Jesus, he gets reduced to being our problem solver. We use him to solve our problems of sin and society or to proof text him according to our preferences and positions. When Jesus becomes misappropriated, he becomes a caricature. Jesus is not merely a problem solver nor is he our flag of self promotion. He is to be the most defining and transforming person in your life. Jesus is accessible today in real and tangible ways.

Categories : Kingdom of God
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