Category Archives: Bible

A Brief Word about Divine Restoration

My friend from back in the day (let’s call her Kara) recently confided in me about a besetting issue in her life. I told her I would pray for her and that if she had any Bible-related questions to ask, I would welcome them.

She took me up on my offer. (I’m sharing this conversation with her permission.)

“There’s a scripture in Joel that talks about God restoring what was lost [2:19-24]. I looked it up and it talks about God restoring the time the Israelites had plagues of locusts. Further down, it says that God restores time lost to shame and guilt and darkness, he gives us back the time [2:25-27]. I was wondering if you could explain that further to me. How does he do that? Do you think he’d restore time lost to [my issue]?”

After assuring her that I understood how personal her question was, this is how I answered.

“I think it’s helpful to start by addressing the issue of blessings and curses. When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law, He established what is called the Sinai Covenant. In this covenant, there were attendant blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience for the Israelites. The blessings were tangible: long life, political security, large families, abundant crops, and the like. The curses, as it just so happened, were the opposite: short life, political instability, barren wombs, infertile soil, and the like. God sending this plague of locusts on Israel was just retribution for their covenant infidelity. But by means of their repentance, they may rightly anticipate divine restoration (2:12-17).

“And yet, there also seems to be something deeper at play. In the later verses, God promises many things: a pouring out of His Spirit (2:28-32), a judgment of Israel’s rival nations (3:1-16), and Israel elevated as the supreme nation for all time (3:17-21). Why? On what basis does God promise such extravagant blessings? It can’t be on the basis of their keeping the Sinai covenant for two reasons: 1) the Sinai covenant never offered such blessings, and 2) God doesn’t offer such a stipulation here in Joel’s prophecy. That means that God is making these promises on the basis of a New Covenant. Joel in essence is saying, for God’s people, beyond the scope of physical blessings and curses based on obedience or disobedience to the Law, there is a grace from God that ultimately supersedes anything we could reasonably anticipate. It will happen in His timing and in the manner He decrees, but it will happen nonetheless.

“For Christians, we are not–indeed, we have never been–under the Sinai Covenant; we are not subject to its particular curses, nor are we ensured its particular blessings. What we tend to experience are the natural consequences of our actions, whether good or bad [or, God may be discipling us as His children (Hebrews 12:4-11)]. What we are promised through Jesus, by means of the New Covenant He instituted with His people, is a glorious future beyond what we could reasonably anticipate (Revelation 21-22) as well as the indwelling Holy Spirit as the means to confront and conquer our own sin in the meantime. His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9), and grace will lead us home.”

Kara thanked me and told me this is what she needed to hear.

It’s what I needed to hear as well.

Reading the Bible to My Son

I started a project where I tried to read the Bible to my son every night before bedtime. That’s it. We read one story and then discuss what it means. The next night we read the next story, and so on. We started with the Gospel of Luke, and now we are almost done reading through 1st and 2nd Chronicles (yes, you read that right). If it’s a late night and we don’t have much time, I will read to him one of the Psalms.

My son is pretty good at reading, so I sometimes have him follow my finger along while I am reading to him. Of course he is 6 years old so he can get a little wiggly. (His sister just turned 3, so she gets even more of a pass.) I have had to learn to let go of expectations of perfection on his part. I just have to trust that there will be a cumulative effect in his spiritual formation.

Why have I decided to do this? Because it is literally the easiest thing to do. Because VeggieTales is not a substitute for parental instruction. Because the notion of family worship isn’t something that I grew up with but sounds intriguing to me.

Mostly, I have become convicted of my role as the primary spiritual teacher for my son and daughter. Television and movies will teach them things opposite of what the Bible teaches. Secular teachers will—in the very best case scenario—teach things that are indifferent to Christianity. Even Sunday school teachers and AWANA will be at best supplemental sources of instruction.

Only I and my wife have the primary task of teaching our children diligently what the Word of God says (Deuteronomy 6:7). Only I and my wife are charged with training up these children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6). Only I and my wife are given the divine responsibility to raise these children in the instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).

Will I miss some reading times? I already have. Have I flubbed the explanation of the passage? Yes, both because there were times I did not fully understand the point of the story I was reading, and also because there were times I did have an accurate understanding but employed a truncated explanation. Will my children automatically become always-obedient, perpetually-compliant demi-angels? Ha. Will this practice ensure the eternal salvation of my children? No.

And yet… For His own sovereign purposes, God saw fit to call both me and my wife to repentance and faith, and to become the parents of these particular children. I teach my children what the Bible says, not out of a mechanistic sense of inevitability, but out of gratitude for my own salvation, out of obedience to my Lord, and out of hope that my children will grow to full maturity: knowledge, reproof, correction, training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

Parents, if you aren’t already reading the Bible to your young children, please start. If your children are a bit older, find what works for your family and then do it. (Also, if you have more experience in this, please share your wisdom!) The Word of God is our only infallible rule for faith and practice, our Lord Jesus Christ deserves our full devotion and faithful service, and our children need their parents to explain what in life is most important.

As this photo reads, your most important disciples are sitting at your kitchen table.

My year of reading The Message

I have made a personal goal for myself to read through a different translation of the Bible each year for the last several years. So far, I have read “word-for-word” translations (e.g. NASB, ESV, NKJV) as well as translations that tend toward “thought-for-thought” renderings (e.g. NLT, NIV, NET). This year, I decided to read Eugene Peterson’s popular paraphrase of the Bible, “The Message.”

Side note 1: for those of my readers who might now question my salvation, fret not; I kept last year’s NASB on hand for comparison. Side note 2: when I began this project, I had no idea that Peterson was in the last year of his life (he died October 22, 2018).

Eugene Peterson wanted to make a version of the Bible that was readable, and in that goal, he was quite successful. I think that Peterson’s impetus was pastoral. His reasoning seemed to be that people want to read the Bible, but are often put off by the inherent murkiness of translation English. To me, I think the problem is deeper–that people do not, in their natural sinful state, want to read the Bible. But I digress.

As I indicated, the Message is eminently readable; it was written at a 4th-grade reading level, which makes it one of the easiest-to-read versions available. This readability is aided by its layout: single-column pages, no verse numbers, no study helps like cross-references. Only chapter numbers and section headers remain, and the only footnote indicated the longer ending of Mark. If I had to make a guess, I would say that the Message could be credited with popularizing the reader’s Bible format.

Peterson included his own introduction to each book of the Bible, which vary wildly in helpfulness. His introduction to Obadiah, for example, clarifies the background relationship between Israel and Edom. By contrast, his introduction to Micah rambles about the role of prophets in general, with little information pertinent to this particular book.

At the risk of overly generalizing, The Message works best for the narrative genre, gets fanciful on the poetic genre, and misses the mark on the didactic genre. The most effective portion might be Proverbs; Peterson clearly had a gift rewording pithy sayings. By the same token, his idiosyncratic rewording detracts from the Gospels, rendering certain portions unrecognizable.

At times, Peterson’s commitment to capturing the rhetorical affect of a passage simply undermines the intended meaning expressed in “word-for-word” translations; other times, he outright contradicts the original author’s intent. For example, in Joshua 10:14 the author remarks on God causing the sun to stand still at the battle of the valley of Aijalon. Here’s the NASB (note the bold portion of each rendering):

There was no day like that before it or after it, when the LORD listened to the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel.

And here’s the Message:

There’s never been a day like that before or since—GOD took orders from a human voice! Truly, GOD fought for Israel.

To say that God “listened to the voice of a man” is not to diminish the ultimate sovereignty of God; to say that God “took orders from a human voice” comes close to denying God as the supreme authority over humanity.

Any Bible paraphrase, by its nature, reveals the theological leanings of its author. Despite his noble intentions of wanting people to read the Bible for themselves, Peterson has–however unintentionally–introduced his readers to a god of his own invention. At his memorial service, Peterson’s son asserted that his father only ever had one sermon throughout his life and ministry: God loves you. This “one sermon” reverberates through the pages of The Message. In its proper context, this is a right and true understanding of God. But divorced from other, more central truths like the sovereignty of God, this truth becomes a half-truth.

The Message is a decent-enough retelling of the story of the Bible (akin, in its own way, to “The Jesus Storybook Bible”). As a faithful version of the Bible, it falls short. Readability does not equal reliability. If you truly desire to know God in His fullness, and if you can’t read the original languages of the Bible, get a proper translation.

There is a shelf in our house dedicated exclusively to Bibles. From now on, I will no longer keep The Message on that shelf.

P.S. for a more in-depth review of The Message, read this: The Message is Not a Bible Translation: Peterson’s Philosophy

Who are the “Least of These?”

Matthew 25:40 NIV
Then the King will reply, “Truly I say to you, whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”

I have seen many internet articles just on this one passage (Matthew 25:31-46). Unfortunately, such articles tend to be written by someone telling Christians that they are not acting like good Christians, chastising them for failing to live in accordance with this verse. They share an underlying indictment: “How dare you claim to care about people’s spiritual condition if you won’t take care of their physical needs?”

On its surface, this passage looks like it means that one’s eternal salvation is determined by one’s acts of compassion. Whenever we help the disenfranchised and the downtrodden of society, our entrance into heaven is all the more assured. On the other hand, as I heard one famous teacher describe it, Jesus will turn away at the final judgment from self-identifying Christians who failed to help the poor during their lifetime, saying, “I don’t want to hear it!”

You, dear reader, may currently hold this view. So did I. You may not even be aware that there might be a better way to understand Jesus’ words. Neither did I. (And, neither do some commentaries!)

We will almost always misapply what we misinterpret, and we will always misinterpret when we ignore literary context. There are several problems with the view described above, but I will only highlight what I think should be most obvious—this view ignores the very next words that Jesus says.

Jesus doesn’t just say, “the least of these” (yes, He just says “the least of these” in v 45, but He clearly has in mind the same people about whom He spoke in v 40); He says, “the least of these brothers of mine” (or “brothers and sisters of mine,” as in the translation above). Jesus doesn’t just throw out the term “the least of these” as a poetic catch-all for every disadvantaged person in existence. It seems to me that He has a particular subset of disadvantaged people in mind.

Question: Whom does Jesus consider “brothers and sisters?” Answer: His disciples in particular, and by extension all Christians in general*.

Matthew 12:46-50 ESV
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus most closely identifies Himself with His closest followers (Matthew 10:40-42), those who “[do] the will of [His] Father in heaven,” which means they believe that He is indeed the One the Father has sent (John 6:28, 40). Jesus has already foretold that those who follow Him will be rejected and even suffer overt persecution on account of their faith in Jesus and their proclamation of the gospel (Matthew 5:10-12, 10:16-25). These persecutors, along with those who passively approve of their actions, are the goats Jesus describes.

Conversely, those who helped the disciples with their physical needs counteracted against the persecution and ostracism the disciples suffered. Their acts of compassion were also acts of solidarity; they outwardly showed that they inwardly accepted the disciples’ message (Mark 9:41). These sympathizers are the sheep Jesus describes. Thus, in accordance with the rest of Scripture, this passage teaches that entrance into Jesus’ eternal kingdom is contingent on accepting the message of the gospel in all its fullness and acting in accordance with its implications. Faith that works, and all that (James 2:14-17).

In short, this particular passage is NOT about charity in general nor what is called “social justice.” I do not write this to denigrate or discourage you if your current practice is based on what I consider a flawed interpretation. This is not a call to exclusivity but a reminder of priority, not turning a blind eye but having a biblical perspective. I am not suggesting that we never do anything to help people in general who have serious need unless they pass some sort of spiritual litmus test, but that we make sure we are doing the most important things first. I cannot tell you what you should do about the guy on the street corner, but I will encourage you to pay more attention to Christians who are suffering as a direct result of their faith in Jesus. It happens, even today, even here.

Those who stand against Christians, stand against Christ; those who stand with Christ, stand with Christians. Christians who are not currently being persecuted are to support those who are. Because whatever we do for a Christian—even the least important Christian you know—who is suffering for the sake of Christ, we do for Christ Himself, the Lord of all Christians.

* I would argue that whenever the word “brother” is used in the Bible, if it does not clearly mean “male sibling,” then it means either “fellow Israelite” (God’s Old Testament people) or “fellow Christian” (God’s New Testament people). Go ahead, try that definition in Leviticus 25 or I John 3:10-18.

EDIT: Since this particular passage has gained a lot of attention in recent days, I am including links to some other posts that also come to similar conclusions, approximately in order from earliest to most recent.

What’s the difference?

When I was younger, I thought a lot about the story of the Passover. After all, I was the firstborn son in my family, so I thought, If I had lived back then, my life could have been in jeopardy. But I was also a little horrified by the story itself. All those innocent Egyptian boys! How could God do that?

At the time, I wondered whether any Egyptians put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts and thus escaped the terrible plague. I suppose my thinking was not too far fetched; in Exodus 9:20-21 it shows that some Egyptians believed that God would make good on His threat to send devastating hail and prepared accordingly. Still, it was a speculation based on the silence of the text.

I have come to realize that the answer to my question is in the silence. The Bible only talks about the Israelites putting the blood of the lamb on their doorposts, which means only the Israelites performed this ritual. The reason only the Israelites did this is because the ritual was explained only to the Israelites. God expressly told only the Israelites how to avoid the tragedy that would soon befall the Egyptians.

Why? Because God wanted to save the Israelites. They were already His; He just gave them a visible sign of that spiritual reality. They in turn believed that He was going to do what He promised and responded in obedience.

God distinguished Israel from Egypt back then through the Passover, and God distinguishes Christians from everyone else now through Jesus Christ.

The Bible declares that Christians are spiritually distinct from unbelievers and delineates ways in which Christians should be practically distinct from unbelievers. The imperatives of Christianity directly flow from the indicatives of Christianity.

We Christians are different; therefore, we ought to be different. Or, alternately: our Christian activity is determined by our Christian identity. (Either sentence would be an acceptable Tweet.)

There are a myriad of interpretations and a million more applications that have been drawn from Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed falling on different soils. Here is what I understand as the main takeaway—only the seed that fell on good soil produces fruit. That is, only Christians can be Christ-like. This is not to deny that a Christian will sin, but to affirm that a Christian is no longer a slave to sin (cf. Romans 6:1-14).

We who are truly Christians will show ourselves as such. We are already His; He has graciously given us ways to demonstrate that spiritual reality. We in turn trust that He will do what He has promised and respond in obedience.

And why did God decide to save us who trust in Jesus? “[It was] not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (II Timothy 1:9). God saved us so that we would acknowledge the Lamb that was slain on our behalf and worship Him as the worthy King.

Christ Jesus makes all the difference in the world—and in us.