Brief Counsels in Biblical Information and Transformation

The Word of God instructs us. It gives us the knowledge of God. It teaches us about who God is, what He is like, what He requires of us. It teaches us about Christ and His Gospel and Kingdom. It teaches us about the way and benefits of salvation. The Word teaches us how to live together as the body of Christ (that’s what the epistles are about). The Word of God teaches us wisdom for living. The Word of God is truth and needs to be read and studied and heard in order to learn and grow.

The information that God’s Word gives us is also for the transformation of our minds, learning to think biblically; the transformation of our affections, having new loves, desires; and the transformation of our wills, learning to act biblically. Our actions come from a renewed mind; we will never act in a way that we don’t first think. Our actions are motivated by a renewed heart and affections, we will never act in a way that we don’t preeminently desire.

In order to learn the Word, to gain the information it has for us, we need to read it. Read it for both breadth and depth. The broader our knowledge of the Word, the more informed we will be when go for depth. In other words, daily Bible reading helps you with the sermons and your own personal study.

Tools for Information

Have a plan! There are plenty of plans out there. We put plans out every year. If you didn’t start on Jan. 1, don’t sweat it. Pick up a plan and use the off days to catch up. Remember the six “Ds”: Determination sustained by dependence, devotion inspired by desperation, and discipline empowered by delight.

Have a good study Bible. This is not necessarily your reading Bible (I personally prefer a Bible without notes for my daily reading). For basic information, a good study Bible, like the ESV Study Bible, the Reformation Study Bible, ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible, The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible and The NET Bible with the notes are all excellent choices. There are new study Bibles being released all the time. I wouldn’t worry about niche study Bibles that focus on an issue (E.g., an apologetics study Bible) I would use one that helps give a basic understanding to the backgrounds of Bible books, and basic explanation of passages.

Have a good basic commentary or two or three. The New Bible Commentary is a good one volume work. John Sailhamer’s NIV Compact Bible Commentary is a gem. The old classics like Matthew Henry and Matthew Poole are valuable. The Tyndale Commentary series is very good. I am never short on commentary recommendations, so just ask me about specific books!

Have a concordance in the version that you use. If you use the ESV, then use an ESV concordance. These are very helpful when looking to see how and where words are used.

Bible Handbooks or OT or NT Introductions are always helpful to have around too.

Utilize the times when the Word is taught at church. Christ has given you pastors as a gift to equip you (Eph. 4:11-13). We prepare, using the gifts and education God has provided, in order to help you grow. Our preparation is a service to the Lord and to you, to build you up in your most holy faith (Jude 20).

Tools for Transformation

Pray before you read the Word, hear the Word, or study the Word. I have used this acronym for years, which I learned from John Piper

I.       Incline my heart to your testimonies. Psalm 119:36 

O.      Open my eyes to see wonders in your word. Psalm 119:18 

U.      Unite my heart to fear your name. Psalm 86:11 

S.       Satisfy me with your steadfast love. Psalm 90:14 

Meditate on what you read. Turn the text over in your mind. Ask questions of the text. Pray the text. Cathy Madraso gave me a copy of Don Whitney’s Praying the Bible, I am looking forward into digging into this. (It looks so good that I ordered 20 for the church!). Luther’s little booklet, A Simple Way to Pray also teaches how to pray the Scriptures. Nothing gets the Bible into our blood stream like meditation and prayer.

Obey what you read. Obedience is a prerequisite to deeper understanding and discernment (John 7:17).

Come to the ministry of the Word ready to receive what God has prepared for you. Pray for an open heart, a hungry heart, an open mind, and a willing spirit. Pray for the preacher/teacher and come ready to meet with the Lord through His Word and Spirit.

God speaks to us through His Word. He teaches and transforms through His Word and by His Spirit. Are we doing our part? Do we want to learn and grow? Do we want to be changed? If so, God has granted all that we need through Christ.

How Does Biblical Meditation Work?

I’m bad at faking things. I suppose this is good for a pastor, but it’s also awkward sometimes. For example, if someone makes a joke and I just don’t get it, there’s this special art of not letting on that you have no idea what was so funny. I’m really bad at that. In that situation, I know something funny happened, I know I’m supposed to be laughing, but I just have to settle for faking it and letting the moment pass.

Many Christians undoubtedly share this feeling when it comes to the art of Biblical meditation. The psalmist says:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”

Psalm 1:1–2 (ESV)

We know there’s something important about meditation, we’ve heard people talk about it favorably, and yet, deep down, we just don’t get it. We know we’re supposed to be all about meditation, but it makes no practical sense to us, so we just have to settle for faking it and letting the blessing of meditation pass us by.

I’m basically just describing myself up until a couple of years ago. I read the Bible, I studied the Bible, I learned the Bible. The Bible was personal to me, filled with conviction and inspiration alike. And yet, I still struggled with the concept of Biblical meditation.

What helped me was a practical set of steps for my time in the Word, I owe a debt of gratitude to Martin Luther’s “Simple Way to Pray” for this practice and another debt of gratitude to Tim Keller for explaining this in his book on prayer.

Putting the “Biblical” Back into Meditation

When we consider Biblical meditation, we’re talking about “deep, reflective thought” about the Lord, his word or his works. There are plenty of unbiblical ways to meditate, and we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about something very different from what they do at the yoga studio or out in the world. We want to be filled with the Lord. We want to dwell on the Lord. We want to know Him better. So we meditate on the Lord.

But how? Tell many of us to sit still and think about something and chances are we’ll be thinking about some random detail of our day or the daily news within minutes. Either that or we’ll outright fall asleep. 

How do we actually meditate?

Four Steps to Biblical Meditation

While Martin Luther’s advice was technically about prayer, I found that not only did it help me in prayer, it taught me to meditate in a concrete way. Luther advised that a Christian start out with a section of Scripture, this can be a verse or this can be a broader section. What follows then is a step by step process that follows the acronym: T, P, C, A. This stands for: Teach, Praise, Confess, Ask.

So, when I do my morning devotionals, I try to read broadly and then pick a part that stood out to me. I’ll walk through what I used this morning:

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

Acts 20:24 (ESV)

Teach

Luther’s first point is that you need to understand what your passage teaches, or more broadly, you need to understand the meaning of the passage you want to meditate on. This passage from Acts comes when Paul is saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders because he is on his way to Jerusalem and he knows he won’t ever see these dear saints again. In faith and love, he explains that his highest goal is to faithfully preach the Gospel, even at the cost of his life.

Praise

Luther then asked, how does this passage teach me to praise the Lord? 

This is a wonderful question because its premise itself is an insight: We can praise the Lord from anywhere in the Scripture! At first glance, this may sound unusual. But give it a try and you realize God’s praise is everywhere.

So how am I meant to praise the Lord with this passage in Acts? I went with two points here: 

First, remember that Paul is the work of the mighty intervention of God. He went from persecutor of the church to apostle of God thanks purely to the Lord. I praise the Lord that he can do such marvelous work with such pieces of work as us!

Second, while I believe Paul was a courageous man, why was he courageous? He believed in the overwhelming worth and need of the “gospel of the grace of God.” God has given us a Gospel of such overflowing, lavish grace that the worst the world can throw at us is nothing in comparison. Praise God for a gospel so good, so gracious and so capable of saving the worst of sinners!

Confess

Luther’s third point was to use the passage to confess your sin. This also may feel unusual, but it turns out that our sin is not hard to see. Sinner that I am, I can make this point easily.

As I read of Paul’s pure faith and his courageous ministry, I confess to my God that I don’t look like Paul. He was so given over to the Gospel that he had to proclaim it wherever he went. Why am I so quiet? 

Paul was so certain of the blessed life to come that he regularly risked life and limb to bring good news to the lost and dying. Why is my passion so much less?

I see in myself a faith and a zeal that are so much smaller than that man of God and, more importantly, are so much smaller than my God deserves. 

Father forgive me.

This part of the process may seem bleak to some, but faith tells us that: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (ESV)

Although this passage burdens me at first, my God is gracious to relieve that burden. I do not leave my prayer time burdened, I leave my prayer time having once more experienced the gracious cleansing of my Father.

Ask

Lastly, Luther used the passage to then ask the Lord for something. What does this passage lead me to ask?

Lord, help me to believe in the amazing grace of your Gospel. May I overflow with good news for the dying and encouragement for the weak. Lord, may your Gospel be great, and may I and the world be small. May your Gospel be the passion of my life.

Summary: Teach, Praise, Confess, Ask

Four steps later, I have wrestled with a passage, praised my God with a passage, seen my sin in a passage and asked for God’s help based on this passage. Four steps later, it turns out I’ve gone and meditated on God’s word.

There is an incredible blessing in Biblical meditation. As you practice this, you will find it becomes natural. Frankly, it doesn’t take very long to go deeper into the Word. One advantage to Luther’s method is that it introduces a wonderful diversity into spiritual life. You will find yourself prompted to consider praises, confessions and supplications that you may never have considered otherwise. And every day you return to the Word, God will spur you on in new and enriching directions.

I pray that you are spurred on to a rich life of Biblical meditation. This is doable, I promise. May you be blessed as you meditate on the Lord day and night.

“You’re Not David!” Or Are You?

In a sermon clip, Pastor Matt Chandler makes this wonderful observation, “I want to be straight; I love you enough to be straight. YOU’RE NOT DAVID! Your trouble in life is not Goliath.” Chandler was pointing out, accurately, that the Bible is not about us, it is about God’s unfolding work of redemption in Jesus Christ. Chandler is responding to reading the Bible in a man-centered way that moralizes OT characters (uses them for moral examples), instead of seeing them point us to Christ. I give a hearty “Amen” to Chandler’s point, it is similar to the point I made in the ESV Women’s Devotional Bible when I wrote the devotion on 1 Samuel 17 (the passage on David and Goliath, page 336).

There has been a wonderful resurgence of Christ-centered exposition in our day. There has been a strong reaction against what is often called moralism. Taking the Bible and using its characters as mere examples of either exemplary or non-exemplary behavior, seems to miss and even misrepresent the Bible’s real message. “Be a good guy, like Joseph, don’t lie like Abraham, be strong like Sampson, be a good shot like David, be a good boat-builder like Noah, don’t drink too much like Noah….” rings hollow to the Bible reader who knows the sweeping message of creation, fall, redemption. Moralism takes the Bible and turns the great redemptive stories into mere stories with a moral, a kind of “holy” Aesop’s fables. Moralism can reduce the Bible to lessons for life, examples to follow, examples to shun. This is criminal. But let’s face it, in our hunt to uproot moralism from all preaching, we have missed something vital. Maybe we have pulled up wheat along with tares. Maybe in our efforts to protect the way we use the Bible, we have ended up falling off the other side of the horse.

Is it true to say, “You’re not David!”? Well, yes and no. It depends on what “David” Scripture is talking about. Are we David who is a type of Christ in his office as King? No, we are not that David. Are we David the man, the sinner? The David of Psalms 32 and 51? Are we David the justified? The David Paul talks about in Rom. 4? Yes, we are that David. There is an important difference between David the King and David the believer. Am I David the believer? Does David serve as an example to me in repentance? An example in confession? An example of trust, faith, and forgiveness? The Bible sure seems to think so.

If we want to read the Bible like the Apostles, then we dare not remove all exemplary preaching from our preaching. Why? Because the NT does indeed use the OT for moral example. The NT of course does more than that with the OT, but it does not do less.

In 1 Cor. 10 we have a powerful example of the Christo-centricity of the OT, as well as its exemplary use. Paul “Christianizes” the exodus and eating manna and drinking water from the rock in 1 Cor. 10:1-3. Then in a stunning moment of Christo-centricity he proclaims the Rock which followed them was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). Exegetical details and application aside, this is a profound statement. The implications of this declaration are tremendous. Christocentric to the highest degree! But then Paul makes application by saying that despite these remarkable privileges, God was not pleased with most of them (10:5). Paul then states that these things happened to them as examples (tupos) for us (10:6a). Then Paul gives us a list of examples that we should not follow (10:6b-10). Paul then reiterates the point again, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (11). Christocentric and exemplary use in the same passage.

Paul is Christocentric in his interpretation of the OT. Paul is also exemplary in his application of the OT.

Time would fail me if we were to go to Heb. 11. Hebrews 11 is an OT collage of the heroes of faith. Yes, heroes. It is indeed gloriously true that they are the cloud of witnesses who testify of faith in Christ (12:1-2), but their faith was also exemplary in its various nuances. Compare the various heroes and the fruit that came from their faith. Look at some of the non-hero heroes and marvel that something in their life of faith was found exemplary and worthy of imitation.

So am I David? No and yes. David as King, who rules and defeats the enemy, points us to the greater Son of David. That’s not me. But David also had a nature like ours. David as a believer knew what it was to sin, to be afraid, to trust God, to be sinfully self-confident. That’s me. Is it really OK to read the Bible like this?

Consider the way the NT speaks of Elijah. Elijah as a Prophet points us to Christ, the great Prophet of God and God’s final prophetic Word (Heb. 1:2). But in James 5 we have an interesting, non-Christocentric use of Elijah. In the context of prayer, James appeals to Elijah on the basis that he was a man “with a nature like ours” (Jas. 5:17). Elijah is used not in his great prophetic role, but as a believer. Elijah the believer, who prayed, is an example to Christians who should be bold in prayer.

I am not suggesting that we let the pendulum swing back and ignore how the OT points us to Christ. I am not advocating that we revert to the “killer bes” (see Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching), “be like David! Well, except when he committed adultery. Be like Sampson! Well, except when he was lustful and vengeful.” No, nothing of the sort! I am advocating Christ-centered preaching because that’s how the New understands the Old. But I am also urging us to use the Old in all the ways the New uses the Old, which means there is place for exemplary preaching, which is moored to the great redemptive themes. We should never preach the moral examples outside the context of redemptive grace. But within the context of the Gospel, we should preach OT examples, after all, they all had like natures as ours, even David.