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What Was Jesus Teaching in the Parables?

howtounderstandthebible

This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.


For most of us, the parables of Jesus naturally lodge themselves in our memories. The parable of the good Samaritan, for instance, is not only a memorable parable, but it has become embedded in our culture—as in “Good Samaritan laws” that protect people who come to the assistance of others. The parable of the prodigal son—where a foolish young man squanders his inheritance, only to find that his loving father welcomes him back with mercy and grace—is the gospel in a single picture and a simple message: You can come home to God. The lost sheep. The hidden treasure. The wise and foolish virgins. The talents. They are all like pictures on the walls in our homes, memorable scenes that are windows into reality.

jesusparable

Jesus sometimes taught in parables because these vivid stories engage us in thought, emotion, and sensation. They impact us. They force us to go away and ponder, struggling with the meaning perhaps, feeling struck by the truthful and accurate perspective on life they offer. You could say the parables are subversive because they embed themselves in our minds. We cannot escape their message. Jesus said parables unlock mysteries for those who believe, but they remain enigmatic riddles to those who do not have “ears to hear” (Luke 8:8-10). This is one more indication for us that reading Scripture with faith is entirely different from reading it like we read any other book.

We will avoid much frustration and confusion if we remember this: Most parables have one main point. Most of the time the details in the story do not have specific symbolic meaning. In the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10), for instance, Jesus did not assign a symbolic meaning to the robbers, the man’s wounds, the donkey, the innkeeper, the two silver coins, Jerusalem, or Jericho. Yet that has not prevented Christian thinkers over the centuries from assigning meanings to the details. The problem is, if the meanings are not indicated in the text, such allegorical interpretations are purely arbitrary.

Over the years different people have assigned entirely different meanings to the two coins given to the innkeeper, for instance: they are God the Father and the Son, or they are the Old and New Testaments, or they are the promise of this life and the life to come, etc. But why?

Here again, the simplest and most natural explanation of a biblical text is always the best. The parable of the good Samaritan is Jesus’ answer to the question: “Who is my neighbor?” At the end Jesus makes it obvious what his point was:

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)

Parables are not abstract teachings. They almost always call people to a certain response.

Now, if Jesus did assign specific meanings to the details in a parable, then of course we must include these in our understanding. In the parable of the sower, for instance, the four landing places of the seed—the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, and the good soil—have specific meanings which Jesus himself indicated (Matt. 13:18-23). The same thing is true of the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30; 36-43). Nevertheless, even in parables with detailed meaning, we should not lose sight of the forest for the trees. The parable will impact us best if we look for the main point.

As we read the parables, it is also important that we take the time to understand the cultural and geographical settings of the stories. A good commentary, for instance, will describe the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, which is the setting for the good Samaritan story. The “road” is a dusty path winding upwards into the Judean hills through an arid wilderness. It is a lonely and desolate place, where thieves would take advantage of someone. All the parables with agricultural settings are best understood if we understand the life of the farmer in the first century. And shepherding in Jesus’ day (as in David’s day) is utterly different from ranching today.

The ending is very important. The takeaway from any given parable typically comes in the punch line at the end. The extended parable of the wheat and the weeds, for instance, ends with the day of judgment where truth and falsehood are finally distinguished. In the meantime, we live in the mixture.

The parables of Jesus are God’s gift to us who are mere mortals, unable to find truth on our own, and quite lost in interpreting the meaning of life.

“I will open my mouth in parables,

I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” (Matt. 13:35)


Get the whole book version of How to Understand the Bible here. Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.

Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.

The Ministry of Leading Biblical Worship: An Interview with Jeremy Armstrong

Jeremy ArmstrongWorship is both a noun (the formal expression of reverence and adoration for God) and a verb (to feel an adoring reverence for God). The Bible tells us to worship God (Psalm 100:2) and to hold his name in highest regard (Exodus 20:7 and Matthew 6:9). It also quotes God saying he wants our worship to be love-inspired (Hosea 6:6) and Spirit-led (John 4:23). So the role of anyone responsible for leading corporate worship services can be seen as vital to the growth of the Christian body.

Bible Gateway interviewed Jeremy Armstrong, managing editor of Worship Leader magazine (@WorshipLeader) on the subject of worship and what the Bible has to say about it, and the National Worship Leader Conference.

Worship Leader magazine

[Browse the many worship resources available in the Bible Gateway Store]

How did Worship Leader begin and why is it an important resource?

Jeremy Armstrong: In 1975, Dr. Charles E. Fromm, the publisher of Worship Leader magazine, was recruited from city management and actively promoting “Jesus Music Concerts” to head up the first major church-based Christian record label, Maranatha! Music.

While working at Maranatha!, Chuck produced several innovative worship record series such as The Praise Series, Kids Praise, Words of Worship, Psalms Alive, and others, and during that time he founded Worship Times journal. That publication included regular contributions from influential theologians and worship thought leaders such as Robert Webber, Jack Hayford, Chuck Swindoll, Ronald B. Allen, among others. In 1991, he partnered with longtime friend John Styll to birth Worship Leader magazine, expanding the scope and reach of his former publication.

Before that time the term “worship leader” was not one commonly used in church ministry. Chuck wanted to cover two main ministry categories: worship and leadership, which is where the magazine, and subsequently an entire role in the church, got its name.

Currently published in English and in Korean, Worship Leader has been in publication for over 20 years raising the level of thinking and broadening the role for leaders in the Church.

Explain what is meant by the tagline: Pursuing the mission of God in worship.

Jeremy Armstrong: “Mission means inviting all the peoples of the earth to hear the music of God’s future and dance to it today.” Christopher Wright, The Mission of God (Inter-Varsity Press, 2006)

Our mission is tied to God’s mission in the world: to make Jesus known in order that the world will be drawn to God (Deut. 4:5-8; 10:12-19). It is our praises, our worship, where, more so than any other human action, God is seen and declared as God in fullness and glory. In our worship, the Lord is praised and a testimony is born, summoning all other people to know God and to worship him—for his glory and for the betterment and complete redemption of humankind (Rom. 5:18). Worship Leader hopes to encourage and equip worship and church leaders to embed their music and worship ministries in the mission of God.

How central to worship should the Bible be?

Jeremy Armstrong: As worship is more than the music of a Sunday service, I’m going to assume we’re talking specifically about sung worship here. We believe that congregational music should, at its essence, be seen as sung prayer. Prayer is the basis for all renewal; it’s in prayer that we engage with God and are transformed to his image (Matt. 6:9-13). So with that in mind, what’s the best source of engagement with God? Scripture. So it’s vitally important that our worship music is birthed in and saturated with Scripture.

Along with our magazine, we have a music sampler of new worship songs that goes out with every issue (Song Discovery). So we listen to a great, great deal of music for the purposes of worship. When reviewing worship offerings, I evaluate them based on many criteria, but the most important is biblical faithfulness—my ear is pricked for songs that are scriptural. The words don’t have to be verbatim (sometimes that’s important, but other times it makes a song difficult to sing). But songs that are birthed in Scripture are immediately identifiable. Lines from the Bible, thoughts, and truths that are founded on biblical passages, songs from the Psalms—these are what I’m looking for when evaluating songs for congregational worship. I’m always surprised and saddened when these songs are hard to find on a worship album. But I’m also delighted when they’re abundant.

What are the key passages in the Bible that form the proper concept of worship?

Jeremy Armstrong: Since the name of our magazine is Worship Leader, you might imagine that we’ve put some thought into the question “Who is the worship leader at a church?”

The short answer is, “Jesus is our worship leader.”

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being. Hebrews 8:1

As Hebrews 8 explains, Jesus is our High Priest who stands between us and the Father offering the sacrifice required for our salvation. This is amazing news for worship leaders! Worship doesn’t start with us nor is it dependent on us. It comes from Jesus and is acceptable to God because of Jesus. Worship Leaders don’t have to make God present amongst the congregation, Jesus does that. And once worship leaders and worshipers grasp this, our whole identities are transformed.

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16

Twice in the New Testament the apostle Paul decided to broaden the landscape of his musical language by referring to the songs used in worship as “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). There are obviously a lot of things happening in this passage and quite a few interpretations, but a couple of things are clear: we’re to sing to one another; we’re to sing to God; we’re to sing with all variety, and we’re to sing with thanksgiving in our hearts.

Lastly,

…True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. John 4:23

In John 4:23, Jesus teaches us (via a Samaritan woman) what true worship is. Again there is much to learn by engaging this story yourself, but for me, here are a few truths: everyone can worship (even Samaritans); worship can happen anywhere (and in any style); worship comes from a biblical understanding of God; and worship involves our full heart which changes our behaviors.

There are many more Scriptures of course, but these are some good ones to begin with.

Your phrase “curators of worship” is interesting. Who are you including in that?

Jeremy Armstrong: In today’s music-multimedia church, the worship leader is much more than the music person. They curate many pieces of art from many disciplines in order to help facilitate the sung prayers of their congregations. Videos, pictures, songs, visual elements, smells—you name it. It’s all available, and all of it can be useful for helping people engage with God. Sometimes the curator of worship isn’t the person who leads the music in a service of worship. We’re seeing many of the Boomer generation begin to take on this role, becoming worship pastors. These curators mentor and lead teams of artists and musicians who then make use of their skills to create and present a multimedia and full sensory worship experience.

How should curators of worship incorporate the Bible into their planning of worship services?

Jeremy Armstrong: Again, the Bible is foundational and essential in any preparation for worship. For these curators, it can certainly be direct incorporation: Scripture readings after particular songs, Scriptures with visual backgrounds that help illuminate the Word, Scripture set to music. But it must also be the bedrock of everything we bring before our congregations—from the Starbucks cup set next to the amp to the visuals behind our lyrics to the songs we sing. These things must be founded and designed in the truth of Scripture. Again, as in the case of songwriting, they don’t have to be word-for-word, but without the resonance of the Word, they’re in danger of becoming merely emotional outpourings lacking the cornerstone of Christ.

What is the danger in becoming too enamored of technology in corporate worship?

Jeremy Armstrong: Technology is not the danger. Technology is neutral. The danger is when the technologies become the focus of the message as opposed to the message being the focus (Jer. 1:16). Certainly being enamored of our technology will create this mis-focus. We find it helpful to continually ask, “Is this technology an idol or an icon?” Idols point to themselves while icons point to God. Ideally everything we do in a service of worship will point to God, making the mediums (people, videos, jumbotrons, hymnals, etc.) fade to the background. Of course, it’s also easy to become enamored of not just our current technologies but also ones of the past. The hymnbook is a technology. It’s one that has largely gone out of usage, for better or for worse. But some people’s love for that particular technology kept them from making changes that spoke more in the language of the culture they were ministering to (projected lyrics). I’m not saying that projected lyrics are better than hymnals, but the point is that we have to always evaluate why we’re using the technologies we use, be willing to change so that we speak in the vernacular of our communities, and also be willing to tear down any of the technologies that may have become idols for ourselves and our congregations.

How should worship leaders—and congregations for that matter—guard against the idea that corporate worship services are concerts/performances/entertainment for the audience and remember that God is the Audience?

Jeremy Armstrong: This is a bit of a hot topic for us. One thing we try to continually reinforce is that performance is not a dirty word. One of the snags with that particular word is the inherent entertainment-ness of the term in contemporary culture. Oftentimes we hear worship leaders addressing a large group of people from onstage, lights blazing in their eyes, saying, “We’re not here to perform.” … Hmmm.

This is confusing because, in a real and concrete way, it’s inaccurate. What the song leader most likely meant to convey was, “We’re not here to entertain you.” And while that sentiment is probably closer to what a worship leader would hope to impart, it’s also just as false as the proclamation that “we’re not here to perform.”

Leading worship is a performance art. Giving a sermon is a performance art. Giving the announcements, ushering congregants, and directing traffic are all performance arts. And hopefully all, at least in some way, entertaining. Worship leaders prepare; worship leaders rehearse their teams; worship leaders play skillfully in order to guide a congregation with the knowledge that they are singing to and about the true Audience of our worship. But this performance is designed so that others are encouraged to engage with God. A well-performed worship set helps make this happen. So, yes worship leaders offer a performance, but the key is that it is more than mere performance.

Successful life-changing worship comes only from and through Jesus Christ. But God uses us to help illuminate this reality. Services of worship represent the divine partnership between God and man (2 Pet. 1:3-11) to bring about the renewal and restoration of his church—of his people.

What is the National Worship Leader Conference all about?

Jeremy Armstrong: The National Worship Leader Conference (@NWLConf) encompasses a broad range of styles and traditions in order to facilitate inspiration, understanding, and unity amongst the body of Christ. The ultimate focus of the National Worship Leader Conference is prayer. Congregational prayer, sung prayers, individual prayers, spoken prayers—the fundamental quality of worship is common prayer. As well, everything from worship skill to production to musical performance to missional outreach is built on the centrality of God’s story and offering worship that is pleasing to his ear as expressed in his holy Word. Because NWLC has a core value of biblical worship, we believe God uses this to bring about real spiritual transformation both in individuals and in worshiping communities as a whole. Because we’re not gathering to train concert performers or entertainers, attendees see a refreshing absence of pretension. Ultimately we gather to craft and engage in worship that is directed to God, is about God, and is acceptable to God, not through our ability but through the finished work of our savior and true worship leader, Jesus Christ.

We have four National Worship Leader Conferences happening all over the country in 2015. You can find out more at nwlconf.com.

Bio: Jeremy Armstrong is the managing editor of Worship Leader magazine. One of the most valued and respected resources of its kind, Worship Leader offers biblical, practical, and innovative insights and articles for church leaders around the world. Visit worshipleader.com.

“If God Loves Me, Why Did I Lose My Job?” A New Devotional for the Unemployed

losemyjobAre you unemployed? Are you struggling with the emotional toll of that unemployment?

If you’re unemployed right now (or know somebody who is), you know that joblessness brings more than just stress about finances. It also brings crippling worry about the future, despair at long and fruitless job searches, and frustration with prayers that aren’t being answered. Does God even care about you? Why would He leave you to wallow in spiritual, emotional, and financial uncertainty?

There aren’t easy answers to those questions—but our newest email devotional has some insight and inspiration for you. It’s called If God Loves Me, Why Did I Lose My Job?. It’s a seven-day email devotional written by Rick J. Pritikin, who knows firsthand about the hopelessness and despair that accompanies the loss of a job.

You can sign up for If God Loves Me, Why Did I Lose My Job? by visiting our Newsletters page, clicking the box next to the devotional title, and filling out the signup form on the right side of the page. It’s completely free and drawn from Pritikin’s book of devotionals that wrestle with the spirtiual dimension of unemployment.

If you’re feeling trapped by unemployment, this will give you a new reason to hope—and to trust in God to provide for you. And if you know somebody who could use a bit of encouragement, please point them to this devotional!

How Should We Understand the Teachings of Jesus?

howtounderstandthebible

This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.


If someone asked you who your favorite teacher was when you were growing up, chances are someone specific would come to mind. And chances are you still respect that person today not because he or she was a fantastic lecturer, or had a superior knowledge of the subject matter, or had a memorable voice. Our favorite teachers—the ones who influenced not just our thinking, but our lives—are usually those people who taught us about life. And it wasn’t just with their words. Their own lives were distinctive.

Jesus is widely considered the greatest teacher of all time. But we will only understand him in this capacity if we consider setting and context. Jesus was not a college lecturer or a mystical philosopher. Those who were under the teaching of Jesus were following him on foot, from one village to the next. They heard a parable when he walked into a field of grain, a discourse on being the bread sent from heaven after he fed a multitude, and debriefings with his disciples after many argumentative flareups with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. At a Jewish festival where water was used, he stood and said in a loud voice: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink” (John 7:37). Jesus’ teaching was dynamic and interactive. It spoke into both the practicalities of everyday life, and into cosmic, eternal issues.

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No wonder people were amazed.

We’ll best appreciate the Gospels if we understand the forms of Jesus’ teaching and the main themes of his teaching. One form was exaggeration or hyperbole. Few believers have ripped out their eyes or cut off their hands because Jesus said in Matthew 5:29-30 that it would be better to do that then end up in eternal condemnation. We understand Jesus’ point, made through a shocking statement.

When Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, his point was that it is extremely difficult for a self-sufficient person to admit their insufficiency. There is an often-repeated interpretation that in Jerusalem there was a small gate in the wall that necessitated a camel to go to its knees to enter. The problem is, there is no archaeological or epigraphical evidence that any such gate ever existed. Unfortunately, there are many interpretations of Scripture that have been repeated countless times but were never based in fact.

Jesus used similes and metaphors. “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). These have immediate impact, and they are memorable. Some of his most powerful metaphors explained the kingdom of God. The kingdom is like a mustard seed, leaven, a net, a man who finds a treasure, the sprouting of seed from the soil. These require careful reading. For instance, Jesus did not say the kingdom is like treasure, but it’s like what happens when a man finds a treasure and does everything to get it.

Jesus also spoke in short, memorable aphorisms or proverbs. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37). “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50). Jesus acknowledged that he spoke figuratively for effect: “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father” (John 16:25).

Jesus spoke in riddles and he used irony. He used almost every kind of verbal method you could imagine, including parables (which we’ll come to in the next chapter). But the power of Jesus’ teaching for his original hearers and for us is not in the method. There was a ring of truth, a veracity, and a power in his teaching. For example, Matthew tells us, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:28-29). We would have been amazed too.

As with every other kind of text in Scripture, we need to take time to study the context of any given teaching of Jesus. To whom was he speaking? What were the circumstances? Were there any special cultural details? Even in the teaching of Jesus, Scripture means something specific to us that is based in what it meant to Jesus’ original audience. That is where we’ll find the true meaning, and thus, the authority.


Get the whole book version of How to Understand the Bible here. Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.

Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.

Bible Gateway “Holy Week” Infographic Published in Newsweek

Newsweek presents Jesus: His Life After Death
“Holy Week” is the name given to identify the final days leading to Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. As Holy Week unfolds, a large cast of characters play out a powerful emotional drama. But the story’s depth makes it somewhat complex. To help you track the people, places, and events of Holy Week day-by-day, Bible Gateway has prepared an infographic that visualizes each of the different strands of the Easter story as they lead to Easter Sunday.

Bible Gateway's Infographic Holy Week Day-by-Day
(Click the image above for a full-size version. It’s also available in PDF.)

Each line in the chart represents a different person or faction that played a major role in the Easter story. Follow the lines to see how these individuals and groups interacted with each other during the events of Holy Week; read the Bible passages associated with each major event to learn about them. See this post for more information about how to read this timeline and what it does and doesn’t show. (And please note that this chart is an interpretation, drawn from the different Gospel accounts. There’s room for some interpretation in the timing of some of these events.)

We encourage you to project the above infographic during your church services and to print copies of the above PDF version to distribute them to people at your church. Please include the following information: Copyright ©2013 Bible Gateway, part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. Released under a Creative Commons-Attribution-Noncommercial license. Visit www.BibleGateway.com to freely search, read, and share the Bible.

The special magazine edition, Newsweek presents Jesus: His Life After Death, includes the Bible Gateway Holy Week Infographic (See the magazine pages [pdf]). Here is the magazine’s description:

It’s the greatest story ever told, and now, Newsweek Special Editions presents a 100-page celebration of the last days of Jesus Christ and the inspiring, world-changing events that ensued. This Newsweek collector’s edition takes you behind the scenes of Jesus’s Passion—from Palm Sunday to crucifixion to resurrection and beyond—with original commentary from noted scholars and historians including Reza Aslan, bestselling author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as insight into the story after Christ’s resurrection with NBC’s A.D. executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. It’s an all-angles look at the people and places involved in one of the world’s most transformative events: the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

“Knowing Him” Easter Devotional Begins This Sunday

knowinghim

Our Lent devotionals have been underway for several weeks now (perhaps you’ve signed up for one of them!), and we hope they’re helping you keep focused on Jesus as Easter approaches.

If you’ve been enjoying those devotionals (or if you missed out on them), we have some good news: Another major Lent devotional experience begins this Sunday, March 15. It’s Knowing Him, written by Mel Lawrenz. Sign up here.

You may recognize Mel as the pastor and author who writes the How to Understand the Bible weekly series, and whose work appears regularly here on the Bible Gateway blog. Knowing Him is a daily email devotional centered on the premise of Philippians 3:10: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.” Here’s how Mel describes it:

The readings will get into the story of Jesus’ last week, including the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. We will also explore the meaning of forgiveness, atonement, redemption, and other things Jesus accomplished for us.

So if you’re looking for a thoughtful, reflective devotional to walk you up to Easter Sunday (or if you missed out on the earlier Easter devotionals), this is a great option. Visit our Newsletters page to sign up.

What Are the Gospels?

howtounderstandthebible

As we turn to the New Testament, the first question is, “what are the Gospels?” Reading the story of Jesus well is the foundation of faith. For devotional thoughts leading up to Easter, see Knowing Him.


Believers do not sit passively waiting to hear the voice of God. They long to hear it. They believe God has not left humanity in silence, but has spoken loudly and clearly through “the Word” that is Holy Scripture and “the Word” that is Jesus the Christ. The opening words of the book of Hebrews confirms that this is true:

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb. 1:1-3)

The_Supper_at_Emmaus_by_Rembrandt

[Jesus is the center of the four Gospels. Rembrandt’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1628) shows the astonishment of disciples who realize who Jesus really is, after the resurrection.]

This is the big picture. God did not leave humanity in desperate silence. He spoke through men called prophets, and then he decisively spoke to humanity through his Son, Jesus the Messiah. Jesus is not just the word of God, but is also the embodiment of God’s glory and very being. Jesus the Christ is the central theme of all of Scripture because his life, death, and resurrection provided a way of redemption.

Jesus takes the stage in the four biblical documents called “the Gospels.” Nothing could be more important in our reading of Scripture than understanding the meaning and message of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It would be easy to think these books are historical narratives because they tell the events of Jesus’ life. But they are more than that. The Gospels are also more than biography—the telling of one person’s story. The Gospels are a unique kind of literature because their purpose is to proclaim the truth that the Son of God appeared in Judea and Galilee, was authenticated by great miracles, was killed, and rose from death in final victory over sin, Satan, and death itself.

The Gospels are proclamation. Their authors are evangelists. So they do not read like modern historical accounts. Their authors were true believers, not just historians. Given the emphasis on truth in their writings, they can be taken as honest and truthful witnesses.

The first time I read through the New Testament, I remember being somewhat puzzled about why there are four Gospels. The simple answer is that four different people had their own reasons to write the true story of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel was written first, and much of his content appears in Matthew and Luke. Matthew tells more of the story and has a special interest in explaining the story of Jesus to first-century Jews. Luke, on the other hand, is trying to help a Gentile audience, and he says right at the start that he wants to offer “an orderly account” in order to bolster certainty in the faith.

John’s Gospel includes many actions not reported in the other Gospels. It also includes more of Jesus’ teaching, much of it in long discourses. The opening prologue of the Gospel gives a cosmic perspective:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (John 1:1-4).

New Testament scholar Leon Morris said the Gospel of John is shallow enough for a child to wade in, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim in. All the Gospels, not just John, require deep reflection and study over a lifetime to appreciate their meaning. Be careful if you think you understand “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), or “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38), or “your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matt. 6:10). We may understand at one level, but the impact of the sayings of Jesus will always have greater impact on us the longer we study them. They take a lifetime to comprehend and apply. The greatness and the grace of Jesus’ teachings expand toward every horizon of life.

One last point: It is very easy to read the words of Jesus as if he were speaking directly to us, yet there is some risk in doing that. His teaching certainly is for us, and its meaning will transform our lives. But we still need to understand his teaching in its original context, as the Jewish Messiah speaking to his varied audience—disciples, followers, the curious, and enemies. And then we can explore how his truth applies to us.


Get the whole book version of How to Understand the Bible here. Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.

Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.

A Guide for Bible Skeptics: An Interview with John Dickson

Dr. John DicksonThe Bible continues to be the world’s bestselling book. Doubters, skeptics, and critics have attempted to discredit it, ignore it, and ban it. Yet the Bible has outlived them all. What is it about the Bible that is so compelling for countless generations? And how can you communicate to skeptics the Bible’s validity?

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. John Dickson (@johnpauldickson), about his book A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible: Inside History’s Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics (Zondervan, 2015).

[Also see the guest blogpost by Dr. Dickson, Challenge for Skeptics: Read 100 Pages of the Bible.]

How do you find common ground with a skeptic who doesn’t believe in the validity of the Bible?

Dr. Dickson: It really depends what their doubts are. If they have historical questions, I try to tackle those. If philosophical, I do walk down that path. Ultimately, I want skeptics to actually read the Bible, because many of the criticisms thrown at Christians today are ‘secondhand’ one-liners out of the atheist playbook. There’s nothing like confronting the Book itself, personally, to really feel its force. I often say, give the Bible 100 pages, slowly, with some technical assistance, just like you would some other major classic of Western literature.

Click to buy your copy of A Doubter's Guide to the Bible in the Bible Gateway StoreIf I were a skeptic, where would you tell me to start an investigation of the Bible?

Dr. Dickson: No doubt, a Gospel. Eusebius tells us that the first evangelists of the post-apostolic era preached Christ where he was not known “and passed on the writing of the divine Gospels.” So this is an ancient form of engagement! One of the most enjoyable things I do in ministry is conduct short courses on the Gospel of Luke in my lounge room with a small group of skeptics and inquirers. Leading them through the life of Jesus raises all the usual questions—the existence of God, the problem of suffering, other religions, and so on—but keeps the conversation connected to the Bible’s center, Jesus Christ. In fact, the week I get back home from the US I will be running another of these courses. It is a privilege.

How do you sum up the “basic framework” of the Bible?

Dr. Dickson: The Bible recounts the interaction of God with his people. It is split into two sections, the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). The Old Testament is the record of God’s dealings with his chosen people, Israel, and covers the time period from the “Beginning”—whenever that was—to roughly 500 BC. The New Testament begins with the birth of Jesus (shortly before the AD 1 mark), tells of his life, teaching, death, and resurrection, and includes numerous texts written to the first generation or two of Christian believers, up to the end of the first century. A key thing to remember about how Christians read this big book is that they have always insisted on two simple things: first, that the Old Testament points forward to what Jesus would do in the New Testament; and, second, that we must therefore read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. The Bible is a story that stretches from creation to eternity, giving everything in between a particular shape and substance. In Bible-speak, this is called “salvation history” or “biblical theology,” an account of how God planned, revealed, and executed his purposes for the world.

It seems that most people don’t see how the Old and New Testaments reflect the same message. But you do?

Dr. Dickson: Yes, I do. The shape of both the Old and New Testaments is vertical and horizontal, partly about love for God and partly about love for neighbor. The Ten Commandments, which introduce all of Israel’s laws, consist of four commandments about what one does for God, followed by six commandments about the treatment of others. The rest of the Bible, this vast story, concerns God’s remedy—in biblical speak, “redemption.” Redemption in the Bible is not just a spiritual rescue. It involves three dimensions: God intends to redeem our relationship with him, our connections with one another, and our enjoyment of creation itself. The Bible’s redemptive plan is not just about putting souls into heaven. God wants to redeem all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven—which doesn’t leave much else!

The story of Adam and Eve points to our humanity, our sinfulness. But rather than mourning our brokenness, you say this understanding brings us to peace?

Dr. Dickson: The story of Adam and Eve, or the principle of human sinfulness that springs from it, is a key way that Christians make sense of the evil and darkness in the world. It’s an idea that shapes everything, including Christian anthropology. The expectation is that people, all of us, are sinful. This might seem depressing, as Nietzsche certainly suggested, but there is also a liberating realism in believing we are fundamentally glorious and fundamentally wretched at the same time. I have often thought it would be a terrible burden to think we are good through-and-through. How could we live with the perpetual disappointment of daily evidence to the contrary? But a doctrine of sin liberates us from these expectations. I am “Adam;” you are “Adam.” This is not to say that Christians become comfortable with their sins, but they do begin to see through the fantasy of imagining we are deeply and inherently good. And that realization brings a peace.

How did Abraham’s covenant with God set up our understanding of grace, and in turn, differentiate Christianity from other world religions?

Dr. Dickson: God’s calling of Abraham and his covenant with him do not depend on a believer’s behavior but on the Almighty’s trustworthiness. Abraham did obey God, but his actions were a response to divine favor, not the means of securing it. Abraham is the paradigmatic sinner startled by grace—lost but sought and saved. This is exactly how relationships with God are structured in Christianity, from the first book (Genesis) to the last book (Revelation). They are entirely grace-based and have nothing to do with merit or the particular goodness or badness of someone. The structure of relationship with God in a typical religious framework is: obedience first, favor second. The structure of relationship with God, found in the call of Abraham and then throughout the Bible, is: favor first, obedience second.

In what way is Revelation a grand bookend to the Genesis story?

Dr. Dickson: Well, it is very striking that the last two chapters of the Bible (Rev. 21-22) are replete with references to the first two chapters of the Bible (Gen. 1-2). The ‘good’ of Genesis 1 is recovered and surpassed in the glory of the new creation. The ‘tree of life,’ from which humanity was banished in Genesis, reappears in Revelation as the pledge of eternal life for God’s people. All three relationships which fell apart after Genesis 1-2 are recovered in Revelation 21-22: our social interactions with one another are restored in a new city, ‘Jerusalem;’ our connection with the physical environment itself is renewed with a ‘new earth;’ and, above all, the presence of God among his people in Eden is reclaimed in the words of Rev 21, “God himself will be with them.” The picture of salvation in Revelation is nothing less than the reconciliation of all things in Christ.

As your book concludes, you talk about how nearly every culture we know about has made three questions a core part of its philosophical curiosity. What are those questions?

Dr. Dickson: The questions are: How do we connect with our Source? How do we get along with one another? How will the pain of material existence be resolved? It seems that these are the universal questions, and I aimed to show throughout this new book that the Bible offers a deliberate and comprehensive set of answers. From Genesis to Revelation—the bookends of the Bible—Christian Scripture says the Creator has disclosed how we can be reconciled to him, how human communities can flourish, and how creation itself will be restored. That is the story of the Bible. And it satisfies our deepest longings. It’s water for our thirst.

Which part of the Bible speaks most effectively to the way Christians should be living their daily lives?

Dr. Dickson: I can’t do better than repeat the answer of one of my old New Testament instructors and the former Archbishop of Sydney Donald Robinson: the Gospel and the Apostle. In his stunning, but little known, book, Faith’s Framework, Robinson argues that the ‘structure’ of New Testament theology is precisely the foundation of Christ in the four Gospels and the explication of Christ in the New Testament epistles. That’s how I think about how the Bible addresses our daily lives. We look to the teaching of Christ first. We hear him calling on us to love our enemies, refuse to judge, shun the adulteries of the heart, practice mercy like the Samaritan, and so on. Then we turn to the apostolic letters to learn how this gospel-ethic plays out in the messiness of the non-Christian world. This is no mere moralism, for the apostles will always lay their theological foundation, the saving work of Jesus Christ, before outlining how the way of Christ is to be lived out from day to day. It is Gospel and Apostle, always.

Bio: John Dickson (PhD, Macquarie University, Sydney) is a senior research fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University; co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity; and senior minister at St. Andrew’s Roseville. The author of more than a dozen books, he is the host of two major historical documentaries for Australian television and is a busy public speaker in corporations, universities, churches, and conferences.

What Should We Understand About the World of the New Testament?

howtounderstandthebible

This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.


When we turn the page from Malachi to Matthew, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, from Ezra the scribe and Haggai the prophet to John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, we enter an entirely different world—and we must understand it. The gap between the testaments, known as the intertestamental period, is 400 years, but what happened during those centuries set the stage upon which everything in the life of Jesus and the expansive mission of his followers would take place.

Galatians 4:4-5 says: “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” Other translations use the phrase “in the fullness of time.” We’re told that the life of Jesus, the coming of Messiah, occurred just when God intended. And what a time it was.

StPaulsTravels

Read just a few chapters in one of the Gospels and you’ll encounter Romans and Herodians, Jews and Gentiles, Pharisees and Sadducees, teachers of the law and ordinary country folk, and many others. We need to understand who these people were in order to understand the role they played in the great drama that is the New Testament. Turning to a good one-volume Bible dictionary is an excellent way to quickly look up a name, a group, a movement, a place, or anything else. Reading one article on “The Pharisees” will greatly help you understand the Gospels.

The world of the New Testament includes the land of Israel, of course, but the book of Acts and the letters of Paul launch us out into the wider Greco-Roman world surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus’ entire life and ministry took place in the tight geographical stretch from the hills of Judea to the fertile plains and lakeside villages of Galilee. When he was in Jerusalem, Jesus had tense encounters with Jewish religious officials and Roman authorities. When he was in Galilee, near his hometown, his interactions were with ordinary people. The apostle Paul, on the other hand, traveled by boat and caravan and on foot into Syria, Asia Minor, Crete, Greece, and Italy. The epic story of his life included chains, prison, and trials in front of magistrates that turned into sermons.

The world of the New Testament was a clashing and blending of Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures.

The exiles who returned from captivity in Babylonia in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah gradually rebuilt Judea, a much smaller entity than what Israel was at its zenith. In 330 B.C., 200 years after the start of the return, Alexander the Great rolled across Judea with his formidable army and began a long and decisive domination of the Jews. Greek (or Hellenistic) culture was hard to resist. The Greek language was dominant, and that is why all the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek. More than two centuries before Jesus’ birth, the Old Testament had been translated into Greek (the Septuagint). This “Greek Old Testament” was used by many of the New Testament authors and of generations of Christians thereafter who did not know a bit of Hebrew.

Alexander’s successors split his empire, and the division known as the Seleucids were the next power to dominate Judea. One of their kings, Antiochus Epiphanes (who reigned from 175–164 B.C.), decided to defile the temple of the Jews and to establish an idolatrous religion there. This outrage led eventually to a heroic Jewish revolt under the Maccabees, and eventually Jewish independence that lasted for about 100 years, starting in 166 B.C.

Then came the Romans. General Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C., and in 37 B.C. Herod the Great was made king of the Jews by the Roman Senate. But the Romans dominated Judea, occupying it with its army and taxing everyone they could. In the Gospel accounts, many times Jesus’ detractors tried to get him to make politically risky comments, as when they asked him whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. Most people who were looking for the Messiah were expecting a strong leader who would repel the Romans from Judea.

In the world of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, we run into two important religious sects or orders, the Pharisees and Sadducees. These were social movements going back to the days of Jewish independence a century and a half before Jesus. Their original purpose was noble: to preserve Jewish identity, including its spiritual integrity, by faithful obedience to the law and the rites. By the time of Jesus, however, far too many Pharisees had become misshapen by the diseases of self-righteousness, legalism, and spiritual blindness.

“When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son” (Gal. 4:4a). The world of the New Testament is a varied and confusing mass of religions, philosophies, political parties, religious groups, and ethnicities. There were many gods in the Greco-Roman world; but, as always, people were waiting for a truth that rose above all of that—which is exactly what they found in the gospel of Jesus.


Get the whole book version of How to Understand the Bible here. Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.

Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.

Fathers & Faith: New Poll on Struggles with Dads and God

This story was written by author and apologist Lee Strobel. It appears in the latest issue of his email newsletter, Investigating Faith with Lee Strobel. You can sign up to receive Investigating Faith here.

Two findings emerged in a new national poll that I commissioned on fatherhood and faith: the younger the generation, the more people report having difficult relationships with their fathers. At the same time, the younger generation reports the highest percentage of people who are struggling with belief in God.

I’m wondering: are these findings related?

The poll itself can’t prove or disprove a direct correlation between those findings. Certainly, there are a lot of factors that influence a person’s belief in God. But in my case — and in many others I’ve seen through the years — a person’s relationship with their earthly father can influence whether they’ll be receptive to a heavenly Father.

caseforgraceI commissioned the Barna Group to conduct the poll in conjunction with my new book, The Case for Grace, in which themes of faith and fatherhood are intertwined. In the book, which came out this week, I describe my own rocky relationship with my dad, which was one of the factors that moved me toward spiritual skepticism. I was an atheist for much of his life, until a nearly two-year investigation of the evidence for Christianity prompted me to become a Christian in 1981.

Among the findings of the poll:

• The younger the responder, the more likely they are to report difficulties in their relationship with their fathers. Among the Elder generation (ages 69 and up), 15 percent said they had a poor or below average relationship with their dad while growing up. For Baby Boomers (ages 50-68), the number was 17 percent; for Gen X (ages 31-49), it was 22 percent. And for Millennials (ages 18-30), the number grew to 26 percent — or one in four.

• More than one-third of Millennials are struggling with belief in God, compared with one-quarter of Gen X and one-fifth of Baby Boomers and Elders. Put another way, 62 percent of Millennials are certain God exists, compared with 74 percent of Gen X, 82 percent of Boomers, and 79 percent of Elders.

So two findings can be identified. First, a higher percentage of Millennials report having subpar relationships with their fathers than previous generations. And second, a higher percentage of Millennials are uncertain or doubtful that God exists, compared to older Americans. While this particular survey can’t establish for sure whether there’s a correlation, I think these findings are definitely worth further exploration.

Some findings by other researchers are also relevant:

• In his book Faith of the Fatherless, psychologist Paul Vitz of New York University showed that many well-known atheists through history — including Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Schopenhauser, Ludwig Feuerbach, Baron D’Holbach, Volatire, H.G. Wells, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and others — felt abandoned or deeply disappointed with their fathers.

“That a child’s psychological representation of his father is intimately connected to his understanding of God was assumed by Freud and has been rather well developed by a number of psychologists, especially psychoanalysts,” said Vitz. “In other words, an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God.”

• In the 2014 book Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations, published by Oxford University Press, Vern L. Bengtson and his coauthors found that for religious transmission through generations, “fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad.” He found that “a father who is an exemplar, a pillar of the church, but doesn’t provide warmth and affirmation to his kid does not have kids who follow him in his faith.”

leestrobelWhile my dad provided for our family and was a good father in many respects, we never really connected emotionally. In our case, there was always a distance between us.

In fact, The Case for Grace opens with a confrontation in which my dad finally declared, “I don’t have enough love for you to fill my little finger.” At the age of 18, I stormed out of the house, intending never to return — and unwittingly launching a life-long quest for grace.

My new book puts together the puzzle pieces of grace. I traveled thousands of miles to capture the inspiring stories of people whose lives have been radically transformed by God, with each story shining light on a different facet of grace. Included are prodigal sons, addicts, and even murderers who have found new hope and purpose. It’s my hope that readers will see how God’s grace can revolutionize their own eternity and relationships.

The poll included 1,001 telephone interviews conducted among a representative, nationwide sample of adults ages 18 and older. The interviews were conducted from August 25 through September 10, 2014. The sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. The cooperation rate was 78 percent.

This post has been slightly edited from its original published form.