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

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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.

What Do We Learn From the Exile and Return?

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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.


The grand narrative of Scripture speaks to the most urgent needs all people have, including the needs to be connected and grounded, to be protected and to belong, to know who you are and where you fit in. The Bible contains the stories of the people of God when they lost all of that. People torn away from their land, torn up as a people, and torn down by humiliating loss. This is the meaning of the exile in the last sections of the Old Testament in which Israel in the north is destroyed by the Assyrian empire, and Judah in the south is taken into exile by the Babylonians.

It is a heart-rending and poignant part of the old covenant narrative. Remember that the land which the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah occupied is located precariously between the various empires of Mesopotamia to the northeast (Assyria, Babylonia, Persia), and Egypt to the southwest. The ruthless Assyrians waged war with Israel in the north, defeating the tribes in 722 B.C. Prophetic warnings about the Assyrian raids were sounded loudly and clearly by the prophets Amos, Hosea, Joel, Isaiah, and others. The Assyrians resettled their captured lands with other people groups, resulting in a mixed population. This is where we get the Samaritans in the New Testament.

Destruction_of_Jerusalem

The Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzar assaulted Judah in the south. This is when the unthinkable happened. Jerusalem, the City of David, Zion, the site of the temple, was put under siege in 597 B.C. The walls were eventually breached, and the Babylonian army took all of the educated and skilled members of the community into exile, hundreds of miles away, into Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel was among them.

But even though God’s people were displaced from their land, their homes, and their temple, God was still present with them: “While I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1). And what visions they were! Four fantastic living creatures, chariot-like wheels covered in eyes careening through the sky, a valley of dry bones, and on and on. The prophets Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Ezekiel also spoke about the impending exile.

I remember when I first read these parts of the Old Testament thinking I had no clue how to understand them. There were people and places and images that were a bit familiar to me, but the big question was how to put it all together. I also remember being put off by teachers, authors, and preachers who seemed to be connecting details of the oracles of the prophets with events in my own time in an arbitrary way. They seemed to be reading Ezekiel as if it were written just about us, and their interpretations seemed stretched, to say the least.

Remember, the meaning of the text of Scripture for us is grounded in what it meant for its original audience. So the prophetic predictions of war and exile and eventual return are primarily about the real history of God’s people six and seven centuries before Jesus. It is a compelling story, full of insight about human nature and the nature of this world, which we must apply fully to our lives today. But we must use all means to understand what these oracles meant back then. Here is where excellent commentaries and Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are indispensable. We must still read these late texts of the Old Testament in an uncluttered and unfiltered manner, letting all the images and pronouncements impact us. But then we ought to avail ourselves of the best tools to understand the details.

The exile is tragedy, but it is matched by the hopeful story of the return of God’s people to the land described in Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the last three books of the Old Testament, the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Even before the destruction of Israel and the exile of Judah happened, the prophets spoke of eventual restoration.

Indeed, some 70 years after Jerusalem was emptied and the temple was destroyed, the leader of a new dominant empire, Cyrus of Persia, decreed that Jews be allowed to return to their land and begin a process of reconstruction. The book of Nehemiah documents reconstruction of the city; the book of Ezra, the reconstruction of the spiritual life of the people. This is different from most history. In the story of the return of the Jews, we see the central importance of worship as the people begin sacrificing again on the site of the old temple, the importance of the word of God as Ezra reads the book of the Law in the hearing of all the people, the importance of moral leadership.

We also see in the return the unchanging covenant of God, the central theme of the Old Testament. Through Ezra and others, the people rediscover the Book of God, and through it they remember the God of creation, of the covenant with Abram, of the deliverance in the exodus, of the land. And all of this in spite of the disobedience and unfaithfulness of the people. This is God then, and God now.


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 Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses: An Interview with Chris Bruno

Chris BrunoEven though the Bible is the world’s bestselling book, it can be intimidating for new, as well as seasoned, readers to know where to begin reading it and how to best understand it.

Dr. Chris Bruno (@chrisbruno1) has written The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses (Crossway, 2015) to help readers grasp the overarching story line of the Bible through concise key scriptures that serve as “turning points” in the Bible narrative, highlighting God’s sovereignty, glory, and grace throughout his Word.

In the video above, Dr. Bruno discusses his book with Justin Taylor, senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway. Video interview timestamps are as follows:

Click to buy your copy of The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses in the Bible Gateway Store

  • 00:00 – How can you cover the whole story of the Bible in just 16 verses?
  • 01:14 – Can you give us some examples from the book of how you do this?
  • 04:22 – What is biblical theology and why is it important?
  • 08:08 – How did your identity as a pastor, husband, and dad help you write this book?
  • 12:15 – What do you hope the Lord accomplishes through this book?

The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses highlights 16 key Bible passages that are pivotal in the Bible’s story line—enabling readers to see God’s incredible plan to redeem his people and glorify his name from Genesis to Revelation:

Part 1: The Time Is Coming
1. Creation (Genesis 1:31)
2. Human Beings (Genesis 1:26-27)
3. The Fall (Genesis 3:6-7)
4. Redemption Promised (Genesis 3:15)
5. Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3)
6. Judah the King (Genesis 49:10)
7. The Passover Lamb (Exodus 12:23)
8. King David (2 Samuel 7:12-13)
9. The Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:6)
10. Resurrection Promised (Ezekiel 37:3-5)
11. New Creation (Isaiah 65:17)

Part 2: The Time Has Come
12. Fulfillment! (Mark 1:14-15)
13. The Cross (John 19:30)
14. Resurrection (Romans 1:3-4)
15. Justification (Romans 3:21-26)
16. Glory (Revelation 21:1-4)

Bio: Chris Bruno (PhD, Wheaton College) is the executive director of the Antioch School Hawai’i and pastor for discipleship and training at Harbor Church. He spends most of his time leading a church partnership for theological education and church planting. He has written numerous articles and reviews. Along with being the author of The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses, he’s the coauthor (with Matt Dirks) of Churches Partnering Together (Crossway, 2014).

Journey to Easter with Bible Gateway’s Lent Devotionals

lastsupperLent is the 40-day part of the church liturgical calender leading to Easter, and millions of Christians around the world mark this season with prayer, Scripture reading, and acts of self-denial—all aimed at drawing closer to Christ by reflecting on the message of Easter.

Every year, we put together a series of special email devotionals and reading plans during Lent, and this year is no exception. With Lent here, now’s the perfect time to visit our Newsletters page and sign up for one or more of these:

  • Bible Gateway’s Lent Devotions: An eclectic mix of Scripture passages and reflections to help you think through and apply the message of Easter.
  • Readings for Lent and Easter: A Bible Reading Plan for Lent: Read a daily Scripture passage chosen to focus your heart and mind on the message of Easter. (This reading plan takes full advantage of our new and improved Bible reading plan functionality—visit the reading plans page to learn more.)
  • On the Road to Calvary (by Max Lucado): Discover the true meaning of Easter with this week-long daily devotional written by beloved author Max Lucado.
  • 40 Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A devotional journey with WW2 pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer that will both challenge and encourage you throughout the Lenten season. One of our most popular devotionals, and very appropriate for Easter.
  • Knowing Him: Journey to Easter with 22 short, daily inspirational reflections from pastor and author Mel Lawrenz. (Begins March 15.)

In addition to these, we’ll also be unveiling some interesting new devotionals in the days ahead!

You can sign up for any of these on our Newsletters page—just check the box next to the devotional(s) you want, and fill out the subscription information box on the right side of the page.

Whether or not you plan to observe Lent in any special way this year, we encourage you to try one or more of these and see what a difference it makes to begin each day with a devotional message from Scripture.

What is Important About the Era of the Kings?

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This week is the beginning of Lent. See Knowing Him: Devotional Readings for the Easter Season for a new way to draw closer to Christ. You can also sign up for the email version of Knowing Him.


I remember when I first read the Old Testament books that recount the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah. David’s and Solomon’s reigns are epic. But then begins the long and oftentimes sordid story of about 40 successive kings, most of whom were “evil.” I remember thinking: This is hardly encouraging reading! Yet buried in the history is the story of God, and we must understand it.

In the middle of the story of the Old Testament is an era spanning five centuries in which we hear about the checkered history of the kings of Judah and Israel, the high points and low points of the people of God, and many lessons about integrity and faithfulness, sin and destruction. This is the era of the kings, a complicated narrative that is an important part of the word of God because it describes the crooked pathway that eventually led to the coming of the Messiah.

The era of the kings began with the people saying it wasn’t enough for God to be their king—they wanted a man to rule them, just like all the other nations. They did indeed become like all the other nations—but not for the good.

The era of the kings stretches from the reign of Saul, a thousand years before Christ, to the destruction of Judah and the exile of the last king in 586 B.C.

Before there was a king, the Israelite tribes lived in scattered, small settlements with judges like Gideon, Deborah, and Jephthah providing a degree of leadership. Then the period of the kings, as told in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, is divided into two parts. The first three kings—Saul, David, and Solomon—spanned more than 100 years in what is sometimes called the “golden age” or “the united monarchy.” After Solomon there was civil war, and the 12 tribes of Israel divided themselves into a northern kingdom, called “Israel,” which included 10 of the tribes, and a southern kingdom made up of the remaining two tribes, called “Judah.”

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After the disappointing narrative of the reign of Saul, the mostly optimistic accounts of the golden era under David and his son Solomon describe Israel as a rapidly expanding empire that eventually enjoyed a period of peace and stability. David established Jerusalem as the capital, and the center point of the spiritual life of the nation. Solomon advanced that with the building of the temple.

But faithfulness to God is a fragile thing. After Solomon’s reign, civil war split the kingdom in two, and for hundreds of years the bitter fruit of unfaithfulness shaped life in Israel and Judah. As we read the books of Kings and 2 Chronicles, we are struck with almost monotonous patterns: bad kings, good kings who become bad kings, a few good kings who kept their integrity and even introduced reform and revival to the people.

We also learn about the spiritual dynamics behind these movements. Those kings who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” and brought bad times on the people were guilty of the worship of foreign gods, of sacrificing outside the rules defined in the law, and sometimes of stooping to the low level of the foreign religions, including human sacrifice. Whole generations lived in complete violation of the Ten Commandments. They forgot their heritage and their God, and they didn’t even know there were Scriptures that had defined them as a people.

So the stories of revival and reform under kings like Hezekiah and Josiah are like sunbursts breaking through a heavy overcast sky. Josiah smashed the sites of idolatrous worship and removed the illegal shrines and priests, mediums, and spiritists. He removed pagan statues that previous kings had put at the entrance to the temple, of all places. And he reinstituted the celebration of Passover for all the people of Judah, which had been neglected for centuries.

Here is the sum of it:

“Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.” (2 Kings 23:25)

And in this narrative we have one more proof of the power of the word of God in Holy Scripture: Josiah’s revival began after his officials discovered the long-lost and forgotten Book of the Law while carrying out Josiah’s orders to repair the temple of the Lord. This was the turning point. When Josiah heard the words read to him, everything suddenly made sense. Generations of corruption. Spiritual confusion. Aimlessness. Josiah tore his robes in repentance. This is one more example of the power of the written word to release people from longstanding spiritual paralysis. It is a lesson for us.

So how should we understand the era of the kings? We must read these books as history, but not just political history. These narratives show us spiritual movements downward and upward. Most of the prophets fit into this story by interpreting how God’s people could sink low, but also where there was restoration.

We must not artificially lift verses out of context and claim them as our own. These are the stories of real people in a real place. History does offer lessons. History tells us what happened in the past so we can understand what happens in our world, because human nature remains a constant, for good and for ill.


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.

Becoming Worldly Saints: An Interview with Michael Wittmer

Michael WittmerMany Christians sense a tension between their desire to enjoy life in this world—the beauty of God’s creation, the rich love of deep relationships with others—and the reality that this world is fallen and broken, in need of redemption. How can we embrace and thrive in the tension between enjoying creation and promoting redemption?

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Michael Wittmer (@MikeWittmer) about his book, Becoming Worldly Saints: Can You Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life? (Zondervan, 2015) (visit the book’s website where you can get a free small group study guide).

Click to buy your copy of Becoming Worldly Saints in the Bible Gateway Store

What do you mean when you write, “You’ll never understand yourself unless you feel the weight of the question, ‘Can you serve Jesus and still enjoy your life’”?

Dr. Wittmer: Every time we sin we’re saying “No” to this question. We ask, “Will I really enjoy my life if I obey Jesus here?” If we don’t think we can trust him, if we’re not sure he is on our side, then we strike out on our own and do what we want.

My point is that we all ask this question, at least subconsciously. If anyone thinks they don’t ask this question, they should stop and consider why they sin.

What is a worldly saint?

Dr. Wittmer: A worldly saint is a godly person who enjoys creation and thrives in their earthy, human life. Examples include the patriarchs, who enjoyed the material blessings that God showered upon them (Gen. 15:14; 46:5-6); Paul, who commanded preachers to encourage their people to thankfully appreciate creation (1 Tim. 4:1-6), and Jesus, who was accused of partying a little too much (Matt. 11:19).

The story in John 21 illustrates Jesus’ value on creation. Jesus appeared on the beach with the purpose of restoring Peter, yet he still thought it was important to give his disciples a miraculous catch of fish—which they gratefully counted to be 153! Jesus then used some of these fish to cook breakfast, which prepared Peter for their hard conversation. Think about it. Not long before the resurrected Christ ascended into heaven, he made breakfast on the beach. Jesus and redemption matter more than creation, but they don’t eliminate creation. The gospel frees us to thrive in every aspect of our human lives.

What does it mean to be created in God’s image and placed on earth to enjoy and steward this world on his behalf?

Dr. Wittmer: In the Ancient Near East, only kings were said to bear the image of their god. In Genesis 1-2, God democratizes this notion and declares that all humans are made in his image. Just as ancient kings claimed to govern territory on behalf of their god, so the true God commands all humans everywhere to govern the entire world on his behalf (Gen. 1:28). In Genesis 2:15, God told Adam to work the garden (Hebrew term means “serve”) and take care of it (Hebrew term means “guard”). We obey God’s first command when we responsibly develop culture from the earth’s raw materials. When we consider how our various tasks contribute either directly or indirectly to this stewardship, we will realize how even our earthly tasks will receive God’s heavenly reward.

Explain your statement, “A flourishing human life is the best advertisement for the gospel, and the gospel in turn empowers us to become better people.”

Dr. Wittmer: There’s competition between the cultural and redemptive mandates, between responsibly stewarding creation and making disciples of Christ (Gen. 1:28; Matt. 28:18-20). The money I spent on a new tree is money I can’t give to church. And yet these two commands also complement each other, because the more I flourish as a human the more attractive the gospel becomes. All things being equal, no one should flourish like a Christian. A well-lived life is an excellent platform to speak about Jesus, who as our Creator and Redeemer is the One who inspires us—and makes it possible—for us to thrive.

How should ‘worldly saints’ understand such verses as 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” and Colossians 3:1-2: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”?

Dr. Wittmer: This is the key to the book. I give the complete answer in chapter 7, but I’ll say here that if you read the context of these passages, you’ll find that John and Paul are not telling us to avoid the world or earthly things but to stop sinning. The “world” that we are not to love is “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16) and the “earthly things” we should avoid are “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry… anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language” (Col. 3:5-9). God commands us to hate sin, not stuff. Our problem is the Fall, not God’s good creation.

Where in the Bible might it support your contention that “a good life is like good jazz: it has rhythm.”

Dr. Wittmer: One obvious place is God’s command to observe a weekly Sabbath (Ex. 20:8-11). Life must be a rhythm between work and rest. Christians need not keep the Sabbath in some legalistic way, yet common sense tells us this is for our good. People whose switch is always stuck in the On position—even if it’s for explicitly gospel activities—will soon burn out. It’s an unhealthy way to live, and a bad advertisement for the gospel.

Why is God’s judgment the only thing that gives ultimate meaning to life?

Dr. Wittmer: This is the point of Ecclesiastes. Everything in life is ultimately meaningless when viewed apart from God (Eccl. 1:2; 2:9-10). God’s judgment is the source of all value because he is the only being with intrinsic value (Eccl. 12:13-14). What is the value of my life, my marriage, my church, and my job? The value of any of these cannot come from themselves, because all are finite. Regardless how successful any of these are, their ultimate value is simply whatever God says. This should encourage us whose lives don’t seem as consequential as we had hoped. If God says we are priceless, then we are.

What do we risk when we make too much or too little of creation?

Dr. Wittmer: When we put our hopes in creation we lose our ability to love God. We worship the creature more than the Creator and turn God’s good world into an idol (Rom. 1:21-25).

But we also can lose our ability to love God when we make too little of creation. A relationship of love requires two separate people. We cannot love the other if there is no other. The first step toward loving God is to recognize our good, real, and separate (though dependent) existence from him. When we continually put down the good things of this world because we fear we will turn them into idols, we piously eliminate the possibility of loving God. God is infinitely better than his creation in every way. But this creation provides a necessary place to love him from.

Besides eliminating the possibility of loving God, making too little of creation also destroys the possibility of redemption. Our salvation depends on the incarnation and resurrection of the Son of God (John 1:14; 1 Cor. 15:12-19). Neither of these would be possible if there was something inherently wrong with our physical world.

How should our understanding of the gospel change the way we live?

Dr. Wittmer: We should feel liberated to be the person God has made us to be. We need not worry that our calling doesn’t seem spiritual enough. Paul says God will reward whatever we do, so work at it with all your heart (Col. 3:17, 23-24). Even slaves can know that their work is serving Jesus (1 Cor. 7:17-24).

But the gospel not only liberates us. It also raises the bar of the Christian life. We are commanded to be ourselves, and to be the best version of that person. There are no timeouts in the Christian life. We cannot give God a tithe, then say the rest of our money is for us. We cannot give God our Sunday, then say the rest of our week is for us. We cannot give God our morning devotions, then say the rest of our day is for us. God cares that we read Scripture, pray, and serve our local church, but he cares just as much how we talk to our spouse, raise our children, do our jobs, and what we text and watch online. It all counts now.

What’s the best way to achieve a balance between being “heavenly-minded” and a “world lover”?

God doesn’t call us to balance. He calls us to embrace both extremes full on. I need to be flat out committed to the heavenly purpose of the gospel. As Jesus said, what does it profit someone if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? (Matt. 16:26). What could be more important than not going to hell?

I also need to be fully immersed in this good world that God created. I want to enjoy every moment of this earthly life that Jesus purchased for me. If redemption restores creation, then the whole point of being a Christian is to become a better human. My earthly life will be interrupted by my death, which is a consequence of the Fall. But My Redeemer has defeated death and reversed the curse, and he will bring me back to live forever with him here, on our restored earth (Is. 65:17; 2 Pt. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-4).

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. Wittmer: The gospel cannot get started without an underlying good creation. Consider the biblical story. From start to finish, it is earthy, physical, and in the best sense of the word, materialistic. The story begins in a sensual garden of delight and then tells how a nation was delivered from physical bondage into a land overflowing with milk and honey. The story turns on an embodied God who physically died and rose again, whose sacrifice is remembered in the physical waters of baptism and the bread and the cup. The story consummates on a new earth where in the presence of God we will celebrate the marriage supper of the Lamb, bite into fruit from the Tree of Life, and gulp handfuls from the river of life.

From beginning to end, the material world matters. Get creation wrong—assume there is something inherently bad with God’s good world—and you’ll never get the gospel right. Redemption is more than creation, but it is not less.

Bio: Michael Wittmer, PhD, is Professor of Systematic Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. In addition to Becoming Worldly Saints, he’s the author of Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything I Do Matters to God, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough, The Last Enemy: Preparing to Win the Fight of Your Life, and Despite Doubt: Embracing a Confident Faith. He and his wife, Julie, live in Grand Rapids, Michigan with their three children.

Five Bible Passages That Show Us What True Love Looks Like

Valentine’s Day is (nearly) here! Maybe you’re looking forward to a romantic date night with the love of your life… or maybe you’re resigned to playing video games and curating your Pinterest boards by yourself while all your friends go out with their significant others. (Hey, we’ve all been there.)

Either way, Valentine’s Day is a good opportunity to learn what the Bible teaches us about love. Not the shallow “love” on display in advertisements and marketing copy, but real, genuine love—the self-sacrificing, grace-extending attitude that God wants to see embodied in all of our relationships, not just our romantic ones. Whatever your plans for Valentine’s Day, take a minute to reflect on these five powerful Bible verses that explain what true love looks like.

1. 1 Corinthians 13

Perhaps the most famous Bible passage about love, this one is frequently and understandably recited at weddings. But as with many well-known Bible quotes about love, it’s not just romantic love that is being described:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a ringing brass gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and I know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I parcel out all my possessions, and if I hand over my body in order that I will be burned, but do not have love, it benefits me nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous, it does not boast, it does not become conceited, it does not behave dishonorably, it is not selfish, it does not become angry, it does not keep a record of wrongs, it does not rejoice at unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will pass away. If there are tongues, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but whenever the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside the things of a child. For now we see through a mirror indirectly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know completely, just as I have also been completely known. And now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. (LEB)

2. 1 John 4:16-18

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (NIV)

3. Romans 12:9-13

Love must be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. (HCSB)

4. 1 John 3:10-17

This is how God’s children and the devil’s children are apparent: everyone who doesn’t practice righteousness is not from God, including the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister. This is the message that you heard from the beginning: love each other. Don’t behave like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he kill him? He killed him because his own works were evil, but the works of his brother were righteous. Don’t be surprised, brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have transferred from death to life, because we love the brothers and sisters. The person who does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him? (CEB)

5. Matthew 22:34-40

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (ESV)

How does the picture of love in these verses compare to the type of love that marketing campaigns and relationship manuals exhort us to practice? Do you exhibit this type of love toward your spouse or significant other? Do you exhibit this type of love toward everyone in your life?

This is a re-post of a classic from our blog archives. It originally appeared in 2014.

What Should We Take From the Books of Wisdom?

howtounderstandthebible

The books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, are called “the wisdom books” of the Old Testament. Here we find honest, practical, and life-changing principles which are as true today as when they were written thousands of years ago. But how can we make sure we are understanding and applying these truths in proper ways today?

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If you were to stumble upon a long-lost manuscript that no eyes had seen for generations, and if you were to read its opening lines which offered a “wisdom” like what’s described in the following lines, you might consider it one of the greatest discoveries of your life.

Proverbs… for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance. (Prov. 1:1-5)

proverbs

These are the opening lines of the book of Proverbs, one of three books in the Old Testament (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes) called “wisdom literature” (although other books contain sections of a similar kind). So, in addition to historical narrative, law, prophecy, and poetry, the Bible also has this lively, deep, and profound set of books referred to as “wisdom.” These are books about real life.

Proverbs is a book of practical wisdom. Job is an epic story exploring the deep issues of suffering, purpose, and God. Ecclesiastes offers a sharp-edged perspective on the hard realities of life. Once again, we see the utter honesty of the Scriptures. We see the disordered state of the world and human nature, and guidance on seeking the order of God.

Any believer would do well to read the book of Proverbs once a year, if not more often. These Hebrew proverbs (meshalim) are short, pithy statements of truth and practical guidance. They address life issues like attitude and speech, sexuality, poverty and prosperity, marriage and family issues, and much more. The statements are brief, vivid, and memorable. Because of this style, they include figures of speech, so we must understand the main point of the statement.

For instance: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine” (3:9-10). You may not be a farmer who owns barns and vineyards, but you can still get the big point: Honor God with all that you own, making giving a top priority, and you will do well in life.

When you read the Proverbs, always keep in mind that they are general statements of what is generally true. The writer does not claim they are promises from God or guarantees of what always happens. The original readers did not assume that if you honored God by giving the firstfruits of your crops, the barns would always and forever overflow. Droughts happen. Barns burn down. Thieves prowl. Life happens. But the principle is generally true.

[Check out How to Understand the Bible, the book, here.]

Many parents have counted on Proverbs 22:6, which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV). Therefore, some are bewildered when their grown-up children do “depart” from lives of virtue and health. They may be left thinking, We must not have done the training part right. But the proverb is not a guarantee. It is guidance—true, helpful, and clear. Parents should take the moral development of their children seriously; and most of the time, those planted seeds will bear fruit. But not every time.

The book of Proverbs is good as gold as a divinely inspired guidebook for right living. It confronts us about sloth and anger and theft and lewdness and gossip. It guides us toward prosperity through prudence, and contentment through simplicity.

It is important to read the book of Proverbs in sections, rather than one verse at a time. Selecting a single verse out of context will lead to misunderstanding and prevent us from seeing the whole. We must look at the painting, not the brushstrokes. As in reading the Psalms, let the power of the images hit home. And when you do find a single statement that could be a landmark verse for you, go ahead and memorize it (as long as you understand it in context). “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (3:5-6).

Finally, just a word about two other Old Testament books that are unique. The book of Job contains wisdom, but embedded in it is the heart-rending story of a man undergoing unbelievable suffering. The main characters in the drama say many things that aren’t true at all; for instance, all suffering is the direct result of specific sins and failings. But in the end, Job finds solace in God himself and not philosophical answers.

To some people, the book of Ecclesiastes reads like a statement of hopelessness. Rather, it is a brutally honest description of the dark side of life, which ought to propel us onto the mercy of God.


Next time: “What Is Important about the Era of the Kings?”

Get information about the 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 Need for Awakening: An Interview with Matt Brown

Matt BrownAre you drowsy in your faith? Do you have a sleepy attitude about living the everyday Christian life? Is your approach to reading the Bible lethargic? Then you have a need to awaken your soul to God’s presence and to ignite your faith to change your world.

Bible Gateway interviewed Matt Brown (@evangelistmatt) about his book, Awakening: How God’s Next Great Move Inspires and Influences Our Lives Today (Leafwood, 2015).

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

In your book you say you want readers to “Live Awake, Live Inspired, and Live Influential.” Unpack what those mean.

Matt Brown: For the past 13 years I’ve traveled and shared the gospel in churches of many denominations from coast to coast across the US, as well as holding our own evangelistic events and conferences focused on bringing people together from different backgrounds around the gospel. I’ve seen firsthand so many times how encouraged believers are when they get a glimpse of good news about God’s activity around the world.

Acts 13:41 on Bible GatewayEven though more American Christians gather in church on a single weekend than all the NFL stadiums over an entire season combined, the vast majority go to churches consisting of about 120 people. Even believers in larger churches too easily get tunnel vision, and only know of a few things God is doing around the world. Acts 13:41 explains, “I’m doing something right before your eyes that you won’t believe though it’s staring you in the face.” The message of Awakening is that God is doing so many incredible things today, and it is so encouraging, and I want to help people awaken to that.

From there, I share lots of inspiring stories and Scriptures, and break down what I believe we can do to take these stories and Scriptures and be even more influential for the sake of the gospel with those around us.

Psalm 105:5 on Bible GatewayWhat do you mean Christians today have tunnel vision?

Matt Brown: So many Christians have tunnel vision because they are only focused on their small corner of God’s kingdom. God is doing so much, but they limit their perspective to their church, a few churches around town, or their denomination. Think about it: two BILLION people around the world claim adherence to faith in Jesus Christ. How do we even begin to summarize or generalize something so staggering? When we look around—truly look around—we will see that God and the gospel and the church are much more glorious than we can ever begin to imagine. Scripture calls us to break away from our tunnel vision, saying “Keep your eyes open for God, watch for His works, be alert for signs of His presence.” (Psalm 105:5)

What is the scriptural precedent that God is at work all around us?

Matt Brown: We see in the Bible that many people missed the miracles and teaching that Jesus was doing right in front of their noses. There were even times that his closest disciples didn’t understand the significance of what was taking place. This is encouraging to know they were in the same boat, but also eye opening; and inspires us to take greater notice of what God is doing in the everyday—all around us.

John 21:25 says that “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” This is a shocking statement. And—since Jesus went to the right hand of the Father—God, by his Spirit, is moving in and through the church all over the world. And the same [as the verse] could be said. We wouldn’t be able to keep track even if we wanted to; but opening our eyes to this bigger story overwhelms and stirs our faith in a way that nothing else can.

Why is it important for Christians to hear that ‘Christianity is exploding around the world’?

Matt Brown: We hear so much negative news about faith in the news media, if it is even covered at all. But God is at work in the church in ways like never before in history. I believe that some of our heroes of the faith in generations before us would be astounded at what’s taking place today.

We get enough bad news. We need more good news for our weary soul. And you don’t have to look far within the church to see it.

Colossians 1:6 on Bible GatewayI ask in the book: would the early church have experienced the growth it did if the apostles preached the way some preachers in America do today, when they share how our culture is falling apart, and how young people are leaving the faith in droves? Their message was, “The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world.” (Col. 1:6) The gospel is growing all over the world today too, but too few people are preaching this because they don’t realize it’s happening.

What steps can Christians take to stay awake and inspired in order to be influential for the gospel?

Matt Brown: Of course, nothing feeds and awakens the soul more than the Word of God! But a good next step might be to pick up a copy of Awakening, and if it stirs your faith like I hope it will, share it with your men’s or women’s Bible study at your church, or go through it with a small group of friends, and pray with me that God will continue to move in greater ways across our nation!

Bio: Matt Brown is an evangelist, author of Awakening: How God’s Next Great Move Inspires and Influences Our Lives Today (2015, Leafwood), and founder of Think Eternity. He and his wife Michelle are impacting thousands of people with the gospel each year through live events and online. They also minister to more than 400,000 followers on social media daily.