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The Story of the Bible: How the Good News About Jesus Is Central

Tim KellerTim Keller (@timkellernyc) is senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) (@RedeemerNYC) in Manhattan, New York, and author of numerous books. He is also co-founder and vice president of The Gospel Coalition (@tgc).

The following article by Dr. Keller is excerpted from the NIV Zondervan Study Bible.

[See our blogpost: Accolades for the New NIV Zondervan Study Bible]

Click to brows the many available editions of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible in the Bible Gateway StoreIn After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre famously illustrates that stories are necessary if we are to assign meaning to anything. He imagines standing at a bus stop when a young man he doesn’t know comes up to him and says, “The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” He knows what the sentence literally conveys, but he has no idea what the young man’s statement and action mean. The only way to know that is to know the story into which the incident fits. Perhaps, alas, the young man is mentally ill. That sad life story would explain it all. Or what if yesterday someone had approached the young man in the library and asked him the Latin word for the wild duck, and today the young man mistakes the man at the bus stop for that person in the library. That trivial story would explain it as well. Or perhaps the young man is a foreign spy “waiting at a prearranged rendezvous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact.” That dramatic story would make sense of the incident too. But without a story, there’s no meaning.

All Fits Together

The title of this article includes an all-important assumption: the Bible is not just a diverse assortment of stories and materials; it altogether comprises a master narrative. This is not to say the Bible is written like a novel with a tight, simple plotline—not at all. It contains many individual stories and a lot of non-narrative material. But just as J.R.R. Tolkien produced thousands of pages of narratives, poetry, articles, maps, and even lexicons over the course of decades in order to tell one very sweeping story, so God, the author of every part of the Bible, is also telling one overarching story about the real world he created. There is a basic plotline to which all the parts relate and which makes sense of all the pieces.

The Bible begins with God making the world “very good” (Gen. 1:31)—without the corruption, decay, and death that now dominate the world (Rom. 8:20–21). He placed human beings in the world as his masterpiece, made in his image to reflect his own glory (Gen. 1:27). We were created to adore and serve God and to love others. If we had chosen to live like that, we would have enjoyed a completely happy life and a perfect world. But instead, we wanted God to serve us and do what we wanted because we made our will the sovereign measure of all things. Instead of living for God and loving our neighbor, we turned away to live self-centered lives (Gen. 3:1–7). And because our relationship with God has been broken, all other relationships—with other human beings, with our very selves, and with the created world—are also ruptured (Gen. 3:8–19). The result is spiritual, psychological, social, and physical decay and breakdown. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming)—that describes the world under sin now.

God’s Response

How did God respond? Did he respond with wrath toward the human race or with love? The answer is yes—to both (Rom. 1:18; John 3:16). God insists on truth, demands that we do right, and threatens to punish all disobedience and evil. Nonetheless, he pursues the human race in love, declaring his intention to save and not allow all to perish in their sin. The Lord calls a people to himself in order to create a new human society—people who know his holy character and his law, his love and his grace. This community began as an extended family (Gen. 12:1–8) out of which God created an entire nation: the people of Israel, whom God delivered from slavery and established under Moses. With this people God made a covenant in which he promised to be their loving God and they promised to be his faithful people (Exod. 19:1–8). But the history of this covenant relationship is one of almost unrelieved failure of the people to be what God called them to be.

All stories have plot “tension” and, in the most gripping narratives, it’s intense. It comes from the clash of seemingly intractable forces in the struggle to restore things. And here we can see why the Bible is indeed a story. Through two-thirds of the Bible, the part we call the Old Testament (OT), an increasingly urgent, apparently insolvable problem drives the narrative forward. God is a God of holiness and is therefore implacably opposed to evil, injustice, and wrong, and yet he is a God of infinite love. He enters into a relationship with a people who are fatally self-centered. Will he bring down the curse he says must fall on sin and cut off his people, or will he forgive and love his people regardless of their sin? If he does either one or the other, sin and evil win! But it seems impossible to do both. Is the covenant relationship he established with his people conditional (so that failure is punished) or unconditional (so that the covenant is maintained despite the people’s failure)?

Again, the answer is yes—to both. This resolution is largely hidden from the reader through the OT, though Isaiah comes closest to unveiling it. The glorious King who brings God’s judgment in the first part of Isaiah is also the suffering servant who bears God’s judgment in the second part. It is Jesus. And in the New Testament (NT), Jesus Christ, the Son of God, comes as our substitute—living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, in our place. By living a perfect life, he earns God’s blessing for obedience; by dying on the cross, he takes the curse for disobedience (Gal. 3:10–14). When we believe in him, he receives the punishment we deserve and we receive eternal life as a gift (2 Cor. 5:21). And he does this in order to not only pardon our guilt but eventually free us from all sin and give us glorious new bodies and even a perfect, renewed world (Rom. 8:18–39).

The Greatest Story of All

The best and most compelling stories have high stakes and astonishing, unexpected resolutions. If that is the case, there has never been a greater story than this. The stakes are literally cosmic: everyone and everything is at stake. It seems impossible that God could be true to himself—fully good and loving, fully righteous and just—and still save us. It seems impossible that after all we have done there should be any hope. But victory is achieved through one man’s infinite sacrifice on the cross, where God both punishes sin fully yet provides free salvation, where he is revealed as both just and justifier of those who believe (Rom. 3:26). Jesus stands as the ultimate protagonist, the hero of heroes.

Because the Bible’s basic plotline is the tension between God’s justice and his grace and because it is all resolved in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Jesus could tell his followers after the resurrection that the OT—“the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44)—is really all about him (Luke 24:27, 45). Paul says that all God’s promises throughout the Scripture find their fulfillment only in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). So everything in the Bible—all its themes and patterns, main images and major figures—points to Jesus.

The Bible, then, is not a collection of Aesop-like fables, fictional stories that give us insights on how to find God and live right. Rather, it is both true history and a unified story about how God came to find us in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived and died in our place so we could be saved by grace through faith and live with him forever in a remade world, the Garden-City of God (Rev. 21–22). From this basic plot there emerge profound insights, principles, and directives on how to live. But the Bible is not primarily about us and what we should do. It is first and foremost about Jesus and what he has done.

This is the Greatest Story not merely because of its infinitely high stakes and the endless wonder of its resolution but also because of its transforming power. How different is the Bible’s story from the dominant one told in the Western world today—that we are accidents, here for no purpose other than what we create for ourselves, living in a world marked by one operative principle: the survival of the strong over the weak? Just as MacIntyre’s response to the incident at the bus stop will be completely determined by what he discovers the story to be about, how we respond to suffering, death, sex, money, and power will be profoundly influenced by whether we understand and believe the story of the Bible about Jesus—or not.

The above article is excerpted from the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, general editor, D.A. Carson. Copyright © 2015. Used by permission of Zondervan, part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing. All rights reserved.

The 50 Most Important Teachings of the Bible: An Interview with Jim George

Jim GeorgeIt’s been said that what you believe is how your behave. What you believe about God, his written revelation—the Bible—and his ultimate revelation—Jesus—will define how you live your life. Having a grasp of what the Bible teaches, then, is crucial to living life to its fullest. What are the key teachings every Christian should know and how should they influence a believer’s daily behavior?

Bible Gateway interviewed Jim George (@JEGeorgeAuthors) about his book, The 50 Most Important Teachings of the Bible: What They Mean for You (Harvest House Publishers, 2015).

Click to buy your copy of The 50 Most Important Teachings of the Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

What need do you see among Christians that prompted you to write a book about the 50 most important teachings in the Bible?

Jim George: During the past 30 years of ministry, I’ve witnessed an alarming decline in biblical understanding. Christians are less and less familiar with their Bibles. Correspondingly, Christian doctrine has fallen into disfavor and the average believer has a very elementary understanding of the basic doctrines upon which the Christian faith rests. To do my part in countering this decline, I sought to write a book on the basic doctrines of the Bible; not from an academic perspective, but prayerfully, with a practical, down-to-earth approach.

You say there are some teachings in the Bible that are more foundational than others. What do you mean?

Jim George: Obviously any doctrine that deals with salvation must be seen as foundational. The reformation was based on this fundamental doctrine of salvation by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Also, any teaching on the person and nature of God must be considered as essential. What a person believes about God will determine how that person behaves.

Why do you say the Bible is the ultimate handbook for life?

Jim George: The Bible contains “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) and is the ultimate “truth” (John 17:17). The Bible states in no uncertain terms that it contains God’s revelation of himself to man (Hebrews 1:1-3). The Bible states that “his divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). No other book can make these kinds of claims, so it stands to reason that the Bible is the ultimate handbook of life.

What’s your reaction to people who say the Bible is confusing, contradictory, and not to be trusted?

Jim George: First, I’d ask them if they believed in God. If they don’t believe in God, then, of course, the Bible would appear confusing and contradictory, and there would be no reason to trust in a book written by a god who doesn’t exist.

But if they do believe in God, I would ask them to show me specifics about the Bible that are “confusing or contradictory” to them. Most people have read very little of the Bible. What they’ve read has been bits and pieces, and would appear at first glance to be confusing and even contradictory. But diligent, purposeful reading of the Bible would help clarify and answer many of their questions. It might be as simple as finding a translation that gives the confused person a better understanding.

How can you have one chapter titled “Satan Is Not as Powerful as You Think He Is” followed by a chapter titled “Ignore Satan at Your Own Risk”?

Jim George: These two chapters deal with two misconceptions of Satan. First, Satan is viewed has having a power equal to God. This is not true. Satan is a created being and therefore ultimately answerable to his Creator, God, who limits Satan’s activities (Luke 22:31). Satan can do nothing without God’s permission (1 John 4:4).

The second misconception is that of underestimating Satan’s power; that is, since believers are “protected” from Satan’s destructive power, they have nothing to fear from Satan. This is not true. Satan is an extremely powerful spiritual being who “prowls around life a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He’s the father of lies (John 8:44) and deceives many regarding religion. Satan deceived Eve by getting her to doubt God (theology), and he can do that to unsuspecting Christians (1 John 4:1).

Yes, Satan is not as powerful as we think, but he’s more powerful than any believer can deal with apart from putting on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-17).

What did you learn about yourself in writing this book?

Jim George: The Bible is an amazing book written by an infinite God who reveals different aspects of himself, and his son, the Lord Jesus every time you read and study your Bible. This is even more evident when any person begins to write about God, and his desire to have a relationship with his creation. I come away, as always, with a sense of wonder from the fact that the creator of the universe would desire to have a relationship with me and all others who would embrace his son as their savior.

Which of the 50 teachings comforts you the most?

Jim George: I especially like the idea expressed in the title of one teaching—“Jesus Walks with You, and When Necessary, Carries You.” God leaves none of his children behind. Therefore I have the assurance that what God began in me at salvation, he’ll complete in heaven (Philippians 1:6).

And which challenges you the most?

Jim George: The teachings that deal with Christian living are the most challenging because they remind me of my need to abide in Christ and make the effort to walk moment by moment by God’s Spirit. Christian living is where my—and every believer’s—doctrine is lived out. What I believe will determine how I behave.

You end with saying “Heavenly Living Starts Here and Now.” What do you mean?

Jim George: With salvation, a believer begins a new life. They’re “born again.” In God’s eyes, they’re now citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). As future citizens of heaven, God expects his children to start acting out here and now what they will be in heaven. Obviously, our sin nature hinders this process, but with the Holy Spirit’s help, Christians can grow in grace and knowledge, and that citizenship will be lived out 100 precent when we get to heaven.

Bio: Jim George and his wife, Elizabeth George, are Christian speakers and authors. Jim, author of A Husband After God’s Own Heart (a Gold Medallion finalist) and The Bare Bones Bible Handbook, has MDiv and ThM degrees from Talbot Theological Seminary. He’s served in various pastoral roles for 25 years and been on The Master’s Seminary staff for ten years. Jim and Elizabeth have two married daughters and are grandparents.

CNN: A Catholic Reads the Bible

Laura BernardiniLaura Bernardini (@laurabernardini) is director of coverage in CNN’s Washington, DC, bureau. She’s a lifelong Catholic but had never read the Bible from cover to cover. For the next year, she’s reading every word, from Genesis to Revelation.

[Select from any of our many Bible versions to read the Bible yourself on Bible Gateway.]

[Select a Bible reading plan on Bible Gateway that’s right for you.]

Here’s an ongoing list of Laura’s weekly essays on CNN:CNN logo

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 1: The Genesis

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 2: A Flood of First Impressions (Genesis 1-11)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 3: Get Me Out of Genesis (Genesis 19)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 4: Inspired by an Above-Average Joe (Genesis 37)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 5: This God Scares Me (Exodus)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 6: Going Back to the Roots (Leviticus)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 7: 10,000 Commandments (Leviticus)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 8: Uncomfortably Numbed by Numbers (Numbers)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 9: A Talking Ass Saves the Day (Numbers 22)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 10: God Needs an Editor (Deuteronomy)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 11: Seeking Professional Help

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 12: God’s Promises (Joshua)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 13: Rooting for Ruth (Ruth)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 14: Better Not Call Saul (1 Samuel)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 15: Cruel and Unusual Punishments (2 Samuel)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 16: Praying for the Wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 17: Ahab Goes to the Dogs (1 Kings 16)

A Catholic Reads the Bible, Week 18: If You Feed Them, They Will Come (1 Kings 17)

Bible News Roundup – Week of August 30, 2015

[Return daily during the coming week for updates]

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The Most Popular Bible of the Year is Probably Not What You Think It Is
The Washington Post
See the NIV Zondervan Study Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

Survey Shows How People Connect To Faith On Mobile Devices
News Release
Learn about the free Bible Gateway App

Year of the Bible at Colorado Christian University
Colorado Christian University
Read the Bible on Bible Gateway

Slideshow: Bible Translation Day—Then and Now
Dr. Douglas Moo’s speech: Evangelicals and Bible Translation

A Major Transition is Occurring in Bible Translation
Bible Translation 3.0 – Mission Frontiers
A New Era in Bible Translation – Mission Frontiers
Bible Translation in the Digital Age – Mission Frontiers

Adventist Scholars Release a Modern Translation of the Bible in Russian
Adventist Review
Read the Bible in Russian on Bible Gateway

In the Beginning was the Word, Now on Display at Penn Museum
A Collection of Bible Museums & Exhibits

Churches Participating in The Story Bible Education Program
Vail Daily
The Story is Improving Bible Literacy in Churches: An Interview with Shelley Leith

No Request Too Big or Too Small for Scripture Booklets
Mission Network News

Nepalese People Receive Digital Bible After Disaster
American Bible Society
Read the Bible in Nepali on Bible Gateway

No Country has a Complete Translation of the Bible in Sign Language
Mission Network News

CNN: A Catholic Reads the Bible

WWI Bible Returned to UK Family on Centenary of Battle Where It Was Lost
Gazette & Herald

For Centuries, This Book Sold 2nd Only to Bible
See the many editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress in the Bible Gateway Store

See other Bible News Roundup weekly posts

Accolades for the New NIV Zondervan Study Bible

Click to browse the many available editions of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

“…a magnificent achievement. The illustrations are stunning and the maps are expertly done. Most important, the content in both the articles and the commentary is superb. Every Bible reader and person in ministry should turn to it often for help.”
Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner, Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Associate Dean, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“This NIV Zondervan Study Bible is a tremendous tool for informed Bible reading and study. The notes are written by the best assembly I’ve seen of faithful, international scholars. I highly recommend this publication.”
Tim Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City

“Don Carson and the whole team deserve our congratulations. The notes and articles of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible are helpful, thorough, and readable, and the maps and artwork are beautiful. I am particularly grateful for the writers’ emphasis on Biblical Theology and the unity of the Bible.”
Paul R. House, Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School of Samford University

“This is a study Bible like no other! It’s not every study Bible that brings a layman-accessible seminary education with it, but this one surely does.”
Fred Zaspel, Pastor, Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA and adjunct professor, Calvary Baptist Seminary

“With a treasure trove of fair-minded introductions to biblical books and themes, accessible verse-by-verse commentary by a stellar cast of experts, and a reliable series of articles on the gospel-shape of all Scripture, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible is a uniquely important resource to add to your collection.”
The Rev’d Dr. John P. Dickson, Founding Director, Centre for Public Christianity

“…it has precisely the kinds of helps a Bible reader would hope to find to aid one’s understanding and appreciation for what the Bible teaches. This study Bible has all the marks of greatness about it, both in its introductory articles and the accompanying notes, pictures, and graphs.”
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., President-Emeritus Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Click to browse the many available editions of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible in the Bible Gateway StoreThe New International Version of the Bible, the world’s most read and most trusted modern-English Bible translation, is now complemented by extensive study notes and resources designed and edited by general editor and The Gospel Coalition co-founder, D.A. Carson. The new NIV Zondervan Study Bible presents the best of evangelical biblical scholarship, appealing to a broad spectrum of Bible readers. Built from the ground up to reflect the most current 21st century scholarship, Dr. Carson—along with a team of over 60 contributors—crafted all-new study notes, book and section introductions, a library of articles, and other study tools that specifically focus on biblical theology—or the progressive unfolding of theological concepts through the Bible.

An added bonus when you purchase the NIV Zondervan Study Bible print edition: you’ll get a code to gain free digital access (a $19.99 value) to its comprehensive study notes, maps, charts, articles and more from your computer or mobile device through Bible Gateway and Olive Tree.

[See our blogpost: The Story of the Bible: How the Good News About Jesus Is Central.]

Click to browse the many available editions of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

[See our blogpost: Read More Than One Bible Version Side-By-Side on Bible Gateway.]

The all-new study tools provided in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible support the project’s unique goal of “unpacking God’s story:”

  • first book-by-book
  • then as collections of biblical literature
  • and finally tracing the Bible’s complete witness to the gospel.

Click to browse the many available editions of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

Bible students from every walk of life will grow deeper in their understanding of Scripture as God’s story is unpacked by

  • nearly 20,000 new, comprehensive verse-by-verse study notes
  • a 4-color interior with over 60 informative charts
  • more than 90 maps
  • and hundreds of photos.

In addition, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible houses a library of 28 articles by award-winning scholars covering topics such as covenant, the Bible and theology, and love and grace, among others.

Releasing within the year-long NIV 50th anniversary celebration, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible reflects the vision that drove the commissioning of the original translation committee in 1965. Dr. Douglas Moo, assistant editor of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible and also the chair of the current Committee on Bible Translation—the governing body that oversees the NIV translation—agreed to commit the additional time to this project because, he says, “I am convinced a study Bible that focuses on putting the whole story of the Bible together is a vital resource for the people of God.”

[See our blogpost: Doug Moo’s Special Message on Bible Translation (Live Presentation from ETS 2014)]

For more information on the NIV’s anniversary celebration, visit (@NIVBible). Join the social media conversation with these hashtags: #NIV, #NIVBible, and #NIV50.

[Browse the Bible Gateway Store to see the many editions of New International Version Bibles.]

Under the guidance of Carson, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible also represents the work of associate editors Richard S. Hess, T.D. Alexander, Douglas J. Moo, and assistant editor Andrew David Naselli, as well as 60 additional contributors. Says Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, “This NIV Zondervan Study Bible is a tremendous tool for informed Bible reading and study. The notes are written by the best assembly I’ve seen of faithful, international scholars.” More information is available at

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About Zondervan
Zondervan is a world-leading Bible publisher and provider of Christian communications. Zondervan, as part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., delivers transformational Christian experiences through its bestselling Bibles, books, curriculum, academic resources and digital products. The company’s products are sold worldwide and translated into nearly 200 languages. Zondervan offices are located in Grand Rapids, MI. For additional information, please visit

The NIV Zondervan Study Bible, featuring Dr. D.A. Carson as general editor, is built on the truth of Scripture and centered on the gospel message. It’s a comprehensive undertaking of crafted study notes and tools to present a biblical theology of God’s special revelation in the Scripture.

Poll: People Don’t Bring a Print Bible on Summer Vacation

Since the beginning of the summer (in the Northern Hemisphere), we’ve been asking Bible Gateway Blog readers to answer the question: “When do you read your Bible while on family vacation?” Surprisingly, the most selected answer (27%) by the more than 1,600 people responding is: “I don’t pack a Bible.”

This might mean that they don’t read the Bible at all while on vacation, or that they rely on a different source for Scripture—perhaps a Bible app (like the Bible Gateway App), Bible readings via email, or even a Gideons Bible in their hotel room.

The other answers selected in our poll are:

  • During family devotions (before the start of traveling each day) (23%)
  • Whenever I remember to (18%)
  • Other (15%)
  • In the car (any time daily while traveling) (9%)
  • Around the campfire (before bedtime) (6%)
  • Beside the pool (during an activity each day) (2%)

No matter how you read the Bible on vacation or elsewhere, we want to assist you in your objective of knowing God’s Word. One way is to use Bible Gateway’s many Bible Reading Plans that you can easily personalize to fit your own reading style and time schedule. Once you sign up, be sure to share what you read with your Facebook and Twitter followers, telling them about the options available on Bible Gateway.

[See results of our other Blog polls]

Our next Bible Gateway poll asks “Of the books of the Bible listed, which one is your favorite?” Cast your vote below.

Of the books of the Bible listed, which one is your favorite?

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Just a reminder that you can support the ministry of Bible Gateway by purchasing your Bible, book, music, and gift needs in the Bible Gateway Store.

A Wicked Birthday Party: The Story of Herodias and Salome

Ann SpanglerWhat can Jezebel, the Bible’s wickedest queen, reveal about God’s holiness and power and even about his sense of humor? What about the Woman at the Well—the one with five husbands and a live-in lover? And what of the prostitute whose tears bathe the feet of Jesus in front of people who despise her?

There are also “wicked good” women like Deborah, Ruth, Hannah, Abigail, Esther, Mary, and more. What do their lives tell us about God’s invincible love and his determined plan to save us?

Click to buy your copy of Wicked Women of the Bible in the Bible Gateway StoreIn her new book Wicked Women of the Bible (Zondervan, 2015), Ann Spangler (@annspangler) tells the stories of 20 wicked and “wicked good” women in greater detail. At the end of each story, Ann provides a brief section including additional historical and cultural background as well as a brief Bible study in order to enhance the book’s appeal to both individuals and groups.

The stories of these women of the Bible reveal a God who is not above it all but who stoops down to meet us where we are in order to extend his love and mercy.

[Subscribe to Ann Spangler’s weekly free email devotionals, Women of the Bible and Men of the Bible]

The following article is an excerpt from Wicked Women of the Bible by Ann Spangler. Visit to learn more. Save 47%! Pre-order the new book today from the Bible Gateway Store.]

A Wicked Birthday Party: The Story of Herodias and Salome

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the
books were opened: and another book was opened, which is
the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things
which were written in the books, according to their works.
Revelation 20:12

Key Scriptures: Matthew 14:3-12; Mark 6:14-29

How a Wicked Mother-and-Daughter Combo Committed Bloody Murder

In the moonlight that streams through the window, she can see tiny beads of sweat glistening on his forehead. He is agitated and fitful, disturbed by some nocturnal vision. Even though she knows it’s coming, she jumps when his scream tears the silence. And he jumps too, now wide awake. Herod Antipas sits up in bed, recalling the terror he’s just lived through.

“It was John,” he exclaims. “So real. I saw the slash across his neck, the blood streaming down his beard and clumping in his hair. Suddenly he appeared, out of the darkness, pointing straight at me. Though his mouth was closed, I heard him say: ‘You viper! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees, and the trees that bear no fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire.’ He kept saying it, over and over, calling me a snake. I grabbed a club to beat him off, but he just stood there staring!

“Then I saw them, off to the side—a multitude of people screaming and in torment, burning but not burning up—and among them there was my face staring back at me!”

The tears are running down his face now. His body shakes. It has been like this off and on since the night of his birthday feast.

Herodias can still smell platters of meat, heaped high with sheep tail, roasted lamb, quail, and veal. She sees the servants weaving in and out of the raucous crowd, carrying trays loaded with grapes, figs, and dates, and delicate dishes made from gazelle meat and bird tongue. There are almonds, olives, pomegranates, and delicious desserts. High officials and military men have gathered to wish Herod well. Wearing garlands on their heads, the leading men of Galilee toast him with endless cups of wine imported from Italy and Cyprus. Paved in beautiful mosaic and bedecked with large, multicolored tapestries, the palace is filled with musicians, dancers, and storytellers whose only purpose is to amuse and delight.

The occasion is Herod’s birthday. The location is Machaerus, a palatial stone fortress just east of the Dead Sea. Perched high upon a mountaintop, it is surrounded on three sides by deep ravines and boasts a commanding view of the eastern frontier. From its heights, Jerusalem and Jericho can plainly be seen. Like all fortresses, this one has its share of dungeons. Inside one of them, a man is fastened to the wall in chains. He is Herod’s prisoner, a prophet named John.

A wild, unkempt man clad only in camel skin and a leather belt, John the Baptist both fascinates and repels Herod, who brings him out from time to time to hear him preach. The man is so compelling that Herod wonders what it might be like to follow him into the Jordan River so that John can baptize him. But how can he since John has already publicly condemned him, accusing him of committing incest by marrying Herodias, who was both his niece and his half-brother’s wife?

Still, Herod’s sliver of a conscience tells him it would be a crime to kill a man as good as John. Plus, he fears that murdering the prophet will spark an insurrection. So instead of executing John as he might like to do, he lets him languish in prison for most of a year.

But Herodias will not let the matter drop. She despises John for condemning her divorce and remarriage and for doing it so publicly. How dare he threaten and thunder, dragging her name in the dirt, as though he is God? Whenever she speaks of him, Antipas catches a glint of malice in her eye that reminds him of his father of not so blessed memory.

Herod the Great was a man of grand ambitions and abilities. But he was grandly paranoid too. In addition to murdering several of his sons, he put all the baby boys of Bethlehem to death merely on talk of a star and a little child destined to be king. Caesar Augustus once joked that he would rather be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huis), because as a nominal Jew, Herod would at least have had some scruples about slaughtering a pig, though he certainly had none about executing members of his own family.

Herodias herself is the granddaughter of Herod the Great and therefore her husband’s niece. Living in the shadow of her grandfather’s monstrous paranoia, she is aware that her own father, grandmother, and several of her uncles were among his many victims. With ten wives, he had plenty of children to fear. But Herodias was not one of them. Instead, she was numbered among his favorite grandchildren. Doting on her, he arranged a marriage with one of his surviving sons, her uncle Herod Philip.

But Philip was landless and crownless, and if Herodias longed for anything, it was for a glittering crown to wear on her head. While she was thinking of how to acquire one, Philip’s half-brother Antipas happened to visit them at their home in Rome. He stayed for days and days and was so smitten by Herodias that he begged her to leave Philip and marry him. Herodias was shameless and clever and would not abandon her husband unless Antipas promised to divorce his wife, a Nabatean princess, who was the daughter of King Aretas IV.

So Herod Antipas destroyed his alliance with Aretas by divorcing his wife, and Herodias abandoned her current uncle-husband to acquire another.

Though she loves him, Herodias thinks Herod Antipas is something of a disappointment. Merely a tetrarch, who rules Galilee and Perea—the land beyond the Jordan—he has not yet managed to grace her brow with a crown. As it happens, Antipas’s territory is the region in which both John and his cousin Jesus can most frequently be found, preaching, teaching, performing wonders, and stirring up trouble.

Like all the Herods, Herodias is a schemer. But her first scheme, to use Herod Antipas as a stepping stone to power, had been openly challenged by John, whose insolence quickly ignited her wrath. So she decided to silence him, if not all at once then in measured steps. She began by pressuring Herod to imprison the popular prophet. Once John was thrown into jail, she waited for an opportune time to finish him off. She pressured Herod, but without results. How is it, she wondered, that even though she is only a woman, she is twice the man her husband is?

Then comes Herod’s birthday celebration, the perfect occasion to complete her scheme. She relies on Salome, the daughter she bore to her first husband, Herod Philip. Dressing her in a costume of glittering silver, she instructs her daughter to perform her most beguiling dance. Herodias has carefully calculated the moment, counting on Salome’s performance to create the perfect climax for her husband’s boisterous birthday party. And she is not disappointed.

With a sultry smile, Salome spins and twirls, extending her arms in a great, expanding circle as she moves across the floor, inviting every man to imagine what it would be like to become her intimate acquaintance. Finally, when she has exhausted every seductive surprise, she comes to rest like a delicate bouquet at Herod’s feet.

“Bravo!” he says, and all his guests rise to applaud her.

“Ask me for whatever you want and I’ll give it, up to half my kingdom!” he declares.

Excusing herself for just one moment, Salome hurries out to consult her mother. “Ask him,” Herodias whispers, “for the head of John the Baptist.”

Returning at once, the young girl appears before Herod and says, “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The request dismays Herod. He had not seen this coming. The political climate is not conducive for executing such a man. Plus it is a violation of the law to carry out a sentence or to behead a man without first holding a trial. But he has made a public oath and will not shame himself by rescinding it in front of so many powerful men. Immediately he orders John’s execution.

In a few minutes ’time, while the guests are still murmuring about Salome’s extraordinary dance and her shocking request, the executioner returns. He is holding a large platter on which John’s head rests. He presents it to Salome, who then presents it to her mother, who accepts it with great pleasure.

On hearing of John’s murder, his disciples come and take his body and lay it gently in a tomb.

When Jesus learns of his cousin’s death, he withdraws from the ever-present crowd to be alone and pray. Grieving for John, the best man he has ever known, his own future comes clearly into view.

As the fame of Jesus spreads, people begin to say that he is John the Baptist risen from the dead. Even Herod is haunted by the possibility and has been overheard, saying, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead.”

Herodias believes no such nonsense and is haunted by nothing but her continued ambition to one day become a queen. But there is more horror to come. In due time, she will accompany Herod to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover. She will be present on the day that Jesus, the one they call the Christ, appears before him accused of many crimes.

Later, after John and Jesus have both been executed, one by Herod and the other by Pontius Pilate, now Herod’s bosom friend, she will watch her husband’s armies flee from King Aretas, who is determined to avenge himself on the man who years earlier had divorced his daughter to marry someone else.

Herod Antipas is so thoroughly defeated that many think of his humiliation as divine retribution for beheading John. Still, Herodias pursues her schemes of greatness, this time urging Herod Antipas to go to Rome in order to petition Emperor Caligula to bestow on him a royal crown. But her brother Agrippa is a clever liar who sends a messenger ahead of them accusing Herod of sedition. Stripping him of all his lands and goods, Caligula banishes Herod and Herodias to Gaul, where Herod soon perishes.

Though Herodias lives on, her story fades. We don’t know what becomes of her. Whether her calloused heart led her into yet more wicked schemes or whether it was softened by the loss of everything she ever wanted, we will never know. What we do know is that she was guilty of at least one great act of wickedness, choosing to murder the man who through his powerful preaching turned the hearts of many wayward people back to the God who loved them.

The Takeaway

What might have prevented Herodias from turning toward God and away from her sins? What prevents you from doing the same? Why is power often such a corrupting force even among good people? How have you handled power, whether on a large or small scale, in your own life?

The above excerpt is from Wicked Women of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by Ann Spangler. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. Taken from pp. 172-176.

Bio: Ann Spangler is an award-winning writer and the author of many bestselling books, including Praying the Names of God, Praying the Names of Jesus, and The One Year Devotions for Women. She’s also coauthor of Women of the Bible and Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, and the general editor of the Names of God Bible. Ann’s fascination with and love of Scripture have resulted in books that have opened the Bible to a wide range of readers. She and her two daughters live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Bible News Roundup – Week of August 23, 2015

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August 25 Marked the Official Release of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible
The Gospel Coalition
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Video: God Wrote a Book
Desiring God
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USCCB National Bible Week (Nov. 15–21, 2015) to Celebrate 50th Anniversary of Dei Verbum, Role of Bible in the Family
International Day of the Bible is Nov. 23, 2015

“The Saint John’s Bible: Illuminating the Word” Exhibition at the Biggs Museum in December
The Saint John’s Bible: A Work of Art

British Library will Lend World’s Oldest Bible to British Museum
The Guardian
A Collection of Bible Museums & Exhibits

See a Page From a Gutenberg Bible in Close-Up
A Collection of Bible Museums & Exhibits

At Penn Museum Pre-Papal Artifacts Look at Links Among Faiths
NewsWorks WHYY
A Collection of Bible Museums & Exhibits

New Children’s Bible Reaches the Un-Reached in Eurasia
Mission Network News
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New NIV Bible Helps Girls Navigate Teen Years
CBN News
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UK Cathedrals Booming Thanks to ‘Late Night Shopping’ Tactics
The Telegraph

When Jesus Got the Bible Wrong
Christianity Today
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The BE Commentary Series – New Study Feature on Bible Gateway

Dr. Warren W. WiersbeBible Gateway provides many free resources to help you understand the Bible. We’ve now added commentary volumes for the books of Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, John, and Romans from the popular BE Bible study series by Dr. Warren W. Wiersbe, published by David C Cook.

[See our blogpost: Read More Than One Bible Version Side-By-Side]

Dr. Wiersbe is an internationally known Bible teacher and the former pastor of the Moody Church in Chicago. For ten years he served as general director and Bible teacher for the Back to the Bible radio broadcast. Dr. Wiersbe has written more than 150 books. In 2002, he was awarded the Jordon Lifetime Achievement Award by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. He and his wife, Betty, live in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Click to buy your copy of The Warren Wiersbe Bible Study Series: Romans in the Bible Gateway Store

Click to buy your copy of The Warren Wiersbe Bible Study Series: John in the Bible Gateway Store

Click to buy your copy of The Warren Wiersbe Bible Study Series: Proverbs in the Bible Gateway Store

Click to buy your copy of The Warren Wiersbe Bible Study Series: Psalms in the Bible Gateway Store

Click to buy your copy of The Warren Wiersbe Bible Study Series: Genesis 25-50 in the Bible Gateway Store

Click to buy your copy of The Warren Wiersbe Bible Study Series: Genesis 12-25 in the Bible Gateway Store

Click to buy your copy of The Warren Wiersbe Bible Study Series: Genesis 1-11 in the Bible Gateway Store

Whether you’re a pastor, teacher, or curious Christian, use these BE series commentaries to study the Bible verse-by-verse in easy-to-read sections that emphasize personal application as well as biblical meaning. The BE Series is the culmination of Dr. Wiersbe’s life work and is respected by many as a warm and stimulating approach to Bible study.

One reviewer says, “Dr. Wiersbe writes with such clarity and in a ‘down to earth’ fashion, it is a thorough encouragement and makes me want to dig into God’s Word even deeper and learn and grow more.”

[See our blogpost: How to Read the Context of a Verse on Bible Gateway]

Here’s how to easily access the BE commentary series on Bible Gateway.

While Reading a Bible Passage

Look up any Scripture passage (say, John 3) and then click or tap the Study This button. It looks like this:

Click to enlarge this image of the Bible study resources list on Bible Gateway

This will display the list of Bible study resources on Bible Gateway. You can then select the category you’d like to open by choosing from the complete list in the drop down menu. Click “Commentaries.”

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Now select “Warren Wiersbe BE Bible Study Series.”

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This will result in the display of links to reference sections in the commentary selected.

Click to enlarge this image of the drop down menu

Clicking “John 3″ will open the commentary text for that Scripture portion by Warren Wiersbe.

Click to enlarge this image of the drop down menu

The commentary text is shown alongside the Bible text to which it refers.

If you’d like to purchase a print edition of the BE commentary series, you’ll find the volumes in the Bible Gateway Store.

Praying the Bible: An Interview with Donald Whitney

Donald S. WhitneySince prayer is talking with God—the only Person in the universe worthy of being called awesome—why don’t people pray more? Why don’t the people of God enjoy prayer more? When you’ve said the same old words about the same old things about a thousand times, how do you feel about saying them again? Could the Bible help shape your thoughts and petitions?

Bible Gateway interviewed Donald S. Whitney (@DonWhitney) about his book, Praying the Bible (Crossway, 2015).

Click to buy your copy of Praying the Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

Why does God want us to pray?

Dr. Whitney: God wants us to pray for the same reason you want your newborn to cry—it’s a sign of life. Just as the spirit of life in a baby causes it to cry, so the Spirit of life in child of God causes him to cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).

God also wants us to pray because that’s how we communicate with him. We can’t send Him an email or text (even though He sees them all). But we can speak to Him. Prayer is also the means God has ordained by which we receive many of the blessings He has for us.

It seems people don’t really enjoy praying. Why is that?

Dr. Whitney: Christians should enjoy prayer, right? After all, prayer is communion with God Himself, the Creator of the universe. And yet, we can lose the enjoyment of God in prayer if we say the same old things about the same old things when we pray. Repetitive prayers soon lead to wandering minds. Wandering minds lead to aimless, joyless prayer.

How are people’s prayer methods problematic?

Dr. Whitney: As I mentioned, when people pray the same old things about the same old things, problems arise. Prayers without variety tend to become words without meaning. Repetitive, meaningless prayers are boring. And when prayer is boring, you don’t feel like praying. And when you don’t feel like praying, you don’t pray—at least with any fervency or consistency. Five to seven minutes of prayer can seem like an eternity, and your mind wanders for half that time. You’ll suddenly come to yourself and think, “Now where was I? I haven’t been thinking of God for the last several minutes.” And you return to that mental script which you’ve said so many times, and as a result almost immediately your mind begins to wander again. That’s because you’ve said those same words so many times that’s it’s almost impossible to keep your attention focused in prayer.

Now, the problem is not that people pray about the same old things. In fact, to pray about the same old things is normal. My observation has been that when people pray, they tend pray about the same six things: family, future, finances, work or schoolwork, church/ministry/Christian concern, and the current crisis in life. If you’re going to pray about your life, these things are your life. If you don’t think so, how much of your life has no connection whatsoever to your family, future, finances, work or schoolwork, church/ministry/Christian concern, and the current crisis? And thankfully, these six things don’t change dramatically very often.

So if you’re going to pray about your life, and these six things are your life, and these six things don’t change dramatically very often, that means you’re going to pray basically about the same old things most of the time. That’s normal. That’s not the problem. The problem is when we say the same old things about the same old things. That’s boring.

What are you recommending as the simple solution to the boring routine of praying the same old words about the same old things?

Dr. Whitney: The simple, permanent, biblical solution to saying the same old things about the same old things in prayer is this: when you pray, pray through a passage of Scripture. When you do this, you’ll continue praying about the same old things, but you’ll pray about them in brand new ways.

In other words, pray the words of Scripture and you’ll never again suffer with saying the same old things about the same old things. Each time you pray it’ll be a different prayer than you’ve every prayed in your life. And this will be true even though you continue to pray about the same old things.

What are the practical steps of praying the Bible?

Dr. Whitney: Simply turn what you read in the Bible into prayer. In other words, talk to God about what comes to mind, verse-by-verse, as you go through a passage.

Now let me unpack that in little more detail. After your Bible reading, choose a passage from which to pray. Normally that will either be a passage you’ve just finished reading or else a psalm. So after you read a chapter in your daily Bible reading, you might go back and pray through—as time allows—what you just read through.

Most days, however, after my Bible reading I usually go to the book of Psalms and choose one of the Psalms to pray through. That’s because the Psalms are the only book of the Bible inspired for the very purpose of being reflected to God. (As you know, the Psalms were the songbook of Israel; words inspired by God for the purpose of being reflected to God in song.)

So let’s say I’ve chosen to pray through Psalm 23. I read the first line—“The Lord is my Shepherd”—and I pray what comes to mind from that line. So I might pray:

“Lord, I thank you that you are my shepherd. You’re a good shepherd. You have shepherded me all my life. But, Great Shepherd, would You shepherd my family today? Please guard them from the ways of the world and guide them into the ways of God. I pray that You would cause my children to love you as their shepherd too. Please make them Your sheep. And would You shepherd me in this decision I need to make about my future? Please shepherd me into Your path on this. I also pray for our undershepherds at the church. Please shepherd them as they shepherd us.”

I would continue to pray in this way about whatever comes to mind as I read “The Lord is my shepherd” until nothing else comes to mind. When that happens, I look at the next line, “I shall not want.” Just like with the first line, I talk to God about whatever that verse brings to mind.

What do you mean when you say pray a Bible passage, line by line, even if what comes to mind has nothing to do with the text?

Dr. Whitney: When praying line-by-line through a passage, sometimes you may encounter verses you don’t understand. Or maybe you do understand the verse but it doesn’t prompt anything to pray about. It’s fine to skip those verses. Nothing says a person has to pray over every single verse, or that a person cannot dwell for their entire prayer time on a single verse. And nothing says a person has to finish the entire psalm.

You simply talk with God about whatever comes to mind as you are reading a passage, even if what comes to mind has nothing to do with the text.

Now, let me defend that from the text. What does the text of Scripture tell us we can pray about? Everything! In other words, we can take every thought Godward, even if what we think while reading the Bible doesn’t relate to the text.

For example, suppose you’re praying through Psalm 130 and you read verse 3, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” As you do, your friend Mark comes to mind? You know that verse is not about your friend Mark when it uses the verb “mark.” But what should you do? Pray for Mark!

Or what if you’re praying through a passage and sinful thoughts come to mind? You know for certain that the verse is not teaching the sinful thoughts you are having. What should you do? Turn those thoughts Godward. Confess them. Pray about them.

I use those extreme examples to make a point. But frankly, I believe that most of the time what comes to people’s minds as they’re praying through a passage will be something much closer to the true meaning of the text. Furthermore, is there any better way for people to learn the true meaning of the text—if all they have is the Bible and the Holy Spirit; no other tools or resources—than to pray over a passage? Besides, as I’ve already mentioned, I think in most cases if someone comes to a verse they don’t understand, they’re going to pass over it and go to the next verse.

What’s the difference between interpreting the Bible and praying the Bible?

Dr. Whitney: In every other case I can think of, when we come to the Bible a primary concern should be accuracy of interpretation. We never have a right to read into the text what we want it to say. It’s our job to dig out of the text what it says and means. Hermeneutics—being concerned to interpret the text of Scripture accurately—is foundational to all biblical Christianity.

But I want to emphasize that what I’m teaching is not about Bible study, but about prayer. With Bible study our primary concern is the meaning of the text—using cross-references, extra-biblical tools, etc.—to discover that meaning. Only secondarily are we praying, perhaps occasionally thinking, “Lord, what does this mean?” or “How do I apply this?”

With what I’m advocating our primary activity is prayer, not Bible study. We’re praying, but while occasionally glancing at the Bible. We’re simply talking with God about whatever His Word suggests as we read it.

By this means our prayers become Word-shaped. Moreover, the Word of God teaches us as we pray, something that rarely happens when we don’t use the Bible as the basis of our prayers.

I have enough confidence in the Word and the Spirit that if people would pray the Bible, their prayers would be far more biblical than they would be if they just made up their own prayers, which is what most people do nearly all the time.

How do you pray through a psalm when it calls for God’s judgment upon his enemies?

Dr. Whitney: Yes, those Imprecatory Psalms! This is not the place for a lengthy treatment on interpreting them, though ultimately I think we put all the Psalms—in one way or another—in the mouth of Jesus. I’m doubtful we should pray specific people’s names when we pray through the Imprecatory Psalms. I often put the enemies of my soul—that is, those enemies that come from that sin factory that beats in my chest—in those psalms. I sometimes put our national sins in there, as when asking God to destroy racism, abortion, etc., in this country.

Essentially I think we can pray the Imprecatory Psalms in general against all unrighteousness, against all who remain lifelong, unrepentant enemies of God. In the end we’re saying that we stand with God and His righteousness and that we want all unrighteousness and all who stand as His eternal enemies to be destroyed.

What do you recommend as a systematic approach for praying a psalm each day?

Dr. Whitney: I recommend something that didn’t originate with me—a little plan called “The Psalms of the Day.” The benefit of this plan is that it gives the reader specific psalms to turn to each day. It eliminates the random turning of pages, looking for just the right psalm. That tends to be a drag on the prayer life.

Start with the day of the month. That’s your first psalm. So if today is the 15th of the month, the first psalm you consider is Psalm 15. Then, because there’s often 30 days in the month you add 30 and get Psalm 45. After that you simply continue adding 30 until you get five Psalms. So on the 15th of every month, your five Psalms of the Day are 15, 45, 75, 105, and 135. On the 31st, pray through a section of Psalm 119.

If you’ll take just 30 seconds or so to scan five psalms every day, it’s uncanny how one of them will put into expression something that’s looking for expression in your heart.

A second benefit of this method is that it systematically exposes people to all 150 Psalms. All the Psalms are equally inspired, even though they’re not all equally easy to pray through.

After Psalms, what other parts of the Bible do you recommend people pray through and how should they do that?

Dr. Whitney: All the Bible is worthy of praying through, of course. But I find that the easiest place to do this is the Book of Psalms. Not only were the Psalms inspired by God for the purpose of being reflected to God, but as someone has said, there’s a psalm for every sigh of the soul. With 150 psalms, the entire range of human emotions is found there. You’ll never go through anything in your life where you will not find the root emotion expressed somewhere in the Psalms. That’s why if someone will quickly scan five psalms every day it’s amazing how one of them will put into words what’s swirling in your soul.

Beyond this, I find that the New Testament letters are the next best place in Scripture from which to pray Scripture. That’s because there’s so much truth compressed into them that virtually every verse will suggest something to pray about.

The narratives are a little more difficult. Instead of looking at the text microscopically as in the Psalms and New Testament letters, I find that by looking for the “big idea” presented in the particular story I usually have no difficulty in praying through a narrative section.

What do you hope will be the ultimate result as more people pray the Bible?

Dr. Whitney: That those who know how to pray the Scriptures will teach others how to pray the Bible until every Christian on the planet has learned how to pray God’s Word.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Dr. Whitney: Use them to pray through the Bible!

Bio: Donald S. Whitney (PhD, DMin) is professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s written several books related to Christian spirituality, including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Spiritual Disciplines for the Overwhelmed, and 10 Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health. Don blogs regularly at