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The Oak Ridge Boys: An Interview with Joe Bonsall

Joe Bonsall
For more than 40 years, the legendary Oak Ridge Boys (41 million records sold) have been on the road entertaining sold-out audiences with their classic hit songs like Elvira, Bobbie Sue, Thank God for Kids, and many others. As their fans will testify, an Oak Ridge Boys concert is an unforgettable experience.

Bible Gateway interviewed Joe Bonsall (@joebonsall) about his book, On the Road with the Oak Ridge Boys: Forty Years of Untold Stories and Adventures (Harvest House Publishers, 2015).

Click to buy your copy of On the Road with the Oak Ridge Boys in the Bible Gateway Store

For those who may not know, briefly explain who The Oak Ridge Boys are, their style of music, the scope of their popularity, and your part in it all.

Joe Bonsall: The Oak Ridge Boys are an American music group whose roots date back to World War II. The present members have been singing together for almost 42 years. With a start in southern gospel the Oaks have maintained a lengthy and award-winning career spanning decades of hit songs with 41 million albums sold. We were recently inducted into The Country Music Hall of Fame. Me? I’m just a spoke in the wheel.

How did you come to believe what the Bible says about Jesus?

Joe Bonsall: I was heavily influenced by Christian kids in my neighborhood in Philadelphia that never gave up on me. But mostly… it was my mother who taught me about Jesus and the Bible!

On your website, you say the Bible is your favorite book. Why?

Joe Bonsall: Because it is God’s holy Word and a road map for my life. No other book can match that and besides… the stories are wonderful!

Do you have a favorite verse, passage, story, or book of the Bible? If so, why do you single that out from others?

Joe Bonsall: I have no absolute favorite verse. It is the cross and our risen savior that sticks out to me.

Do the other members of The Boys have Bible favorites and what are they?

Joe Bonsall: Everyone’s faith is their own private matter. I do know, however, that all of my singing partners are Bible believing Christians.

Describe the difficulty of maintaining a strong Bible-based faith in the professional music world.

Joe Bonsall: I have never found it difficult to be a light for Christ. I don’t think it’s any more difficult then doing anything else with your life. There are always temptations and Satan is everywhere. The battle between doing what is right or slipping away is everyone’s personal decision, no matter what their vocation.

Would you say that, of all popular music genres, country music is more accepting of the message of the Bible? If so, why do you think that is?

Joe Bonsall: I have no answer to this. I think that if people are brought up right and their decisions are made in a Christ-like fashion, then they shine their light. Many pop musicians started by singing in church and I think those memories and experiences affect your life no matter what your preferred genre of music may be.

What songs might there be that The Oak Ridge Boys sing that have as a foundation to their message a connection to biblical principles?

Joe Bonsall: We are always on the lookout for positive music. We are just not very good at not being positive. Big hits like Everyday, Dig In The Well, Touch A Hand, and so many more are positive in nature. But where the light really shines is when we sing gospel songs; for instance, we just recorded a hymns album—a very cool project called Rock Of Ages. It’s fun to sing about “the old story” in four-part harmony.

What do you hope readers of this book will experience?

Joe Bonsall: I think this book is a fun and very insightful look into the world of an American music act that has endured over decades of song. I try to take readers into our world and make them a fly on the wall. This is how we do it; this is how we have done it. And along the way I do my best to be a strong witness for Jesus Christ and give him the constant praise and glory. If you’re a fan of The Boys you’ll love it. If you’re a music student of some sort… this is a road map. If you need a laugh and a blessing here and there? It’s all here in On the Road with the Oak Ridge Boys.

Bio: Joseph S. Bonsall is an avid writer, songwriter, and 40-plus year member of the legendary American music group The Oak Ridge Boys. His previous books include G.I. Joe & Lillie Remembering a Life of Love & Loyalty and several children’s books. For relaxation, Joe retreats to his 350-acre farm on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line with his wife, Mary, and their seven cats. He also plays the banjo.

The Reformation Study Bible: An Interview with Dr. R.C. Sproul

[Editor’s Note: Click to buy your copy of the Reformation Study Bible (2015) in the Bible Gateway StoreReformation Trust, the publishing ministry of Ligonier, has thoroughly revised the Reformation Study Bible (2015) with more than 20,000 study notes and commentary by 75 scholars under the leadership of Dr. R.C. Sproul, who says, “By presenting a modern restatement of biblical, Reformation truth in its comments and theological notes, the Reformation Study Bible (2015) aims to carry on the legacy of the Geneva Bible in shining forth the light of biblical Christianity, which was recovered in the Reformation.”

Bible passage search result page exampleThe Reformation Study Bible (2015) study notes are available on Bible Gateway by tapping the “STUDY THIS” blue box on the Bible passage search result pages.]

Dr. R.C. SproulThe Reformation Study Bible represents centuries of ongoing theological study and biblical reflection. Its study notes and articles are built and influenced from the best theological insights from pastors and theologians throughout church history, including the latest archaeological discoveries and reflection from pastors and theologians today. Its topical articles introduce you to various important subjects, including church history, textual criticism, and more.

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. R.C. Sproul (@rcsproul) about The Reformation Study Bible (2015) (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2015).

How has God used awakenings throughout history to strengthen his church and are we in one now?

Dr. Sproul: It’s difficult to give a full answer to this question because the examples of how the church has been strengthened through awakenings are almost innumerable. We could look at the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers recovered in the Reformation that says that lawful vocations have value and so church members should use their talents actively in service to the church. The First Great Awakening brought a renewed zeal for evangelism and missions to the church.

I can’t tell you with certainty whether or not we are in an awakening today. That will be for future generations of the church to decide as they look back on God’s providence. It does seem, however, that the hunger for biblical truth in the developing world, as well as a renewed commitment to the doctrines of grace in our country, do result from some kind of fresh work of the Lord’s Spirit in His world.

How is the Reformation Study Bible unique from other study Bibles?

Dr. Sproul: Its uniqueness lies in its unashamed advocacy for the biblical truths of the Reformation. These truths, derived from concentrated study of Scripture, help provide a framework to show us the unified message of the Bible. I believe the sustained emphasis on God’s sovereign grace in the study notes of the Reformation Study Bible remind us that God alone is the author of salvation in a way that other study Bibles do not.

What are a few of the key Christian doctrines and why is it important for readers to understand them?

Dr. Sproul: The key Christian doctrines would include the doctrine of the Trinity and the person and work of Christ. If we do not know who God is, we cannot know our need or what we were made for, and if we are unclear on the identity of Christ, we can’t understand the greatness of our salvation or what He came to do. Justification by faith alone is also absolutely essential; if we have a wrong understanding of the gospel and try to mix our own works with the work of Christ as the basis of our salvation, we end up denying the gospel and put our own salvation in jeopardy. I could list many other doctrines, but I have to also emphasize the inspiration and authority of Scripture. It is the God-breathed revelation of our triune Creator and alone can reveal the depth of His character and His plan of salvation.

What do you mean when you say the Bible is the “norm of norms and without norm”?

Dr. Sproul: The point of this phrase is to underscore the fact that the Bible corrects our theology and not the other way around. We are not to force our views onto Scripture; rather, we are to derive our beliefs from Scripture. The phrase also points to the fact that the church cannot propose anything as normative for salvation unless it is taught in Scripture.

How does the Reformation Study Bible reflect the watchword “sola Scriptura”?

Dr. Sproul: In several ways. First, we consciously designed the Bible so that the biblical text is visually emphasized on every page via a wide single column of text and a larger font size than the notes. We believe the notes are useful, but the Bible has to be the final judge of the notes, and our design was chosen to help make that point. The sheer size of the work, I think, also reflects the concept of sola Scriptura. If the Bible is God’s revelation, then it demands our most careful reflection and willingness to understand and apply the text. By providing so many in-depth notes, we are calling people to pay attention to Scripture and to believe it.

Finally, although we have used the best scholarship to help us understand the Scriptures better, we have also sought tirelessly not to teach anything regarding the Christian faith that is novel. To put it another way, we are not interested in exploring the latest fads in liberal scholarship; rather, we want the time-tested and time-honored teaching of Scripture to shine forth on every page. Our goal is to teach in fresh ways the same biblical truth that earlier generations confessed, truth that does not change because it comes directly from God’s Word itself. We are not interested in discovering novel doctrines but in faithfully transmitting the infallible teachings of the Bible itself.

Explain the Reformed tradition of the original Geneva Bible and how the Reformation Study Bible stands in that tradition.

Dr. Sproul: The 16th-century Geneva Bible was the first Bible to contain study notes alongside the biblical text, and these notes came from many of the leading figures of the Protestant Reformation. Thus, they teach biblical Reformed doctrine. That’s exactly what the notes in the Reformation Study Bible do for our generation.

How does the new Reformation Study Bible (2015) present the light of the Reformation in a fresh way?

Dr. Sproul: In seeking to present the biblical truths the church has confessed throughout history, we’ve been aware also of the need to apply this truth to the unique challenges of our day. Where appropriate, the study notes and other helps deal with issues that are of special importance today. We’ve also sought to make the Bible as universally accessible as possible, knowing that this will be an important tool for discipling people around the world.

Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. Sproul: Two things. First, I am thankful beyond words for the many friends of Ligonier who have made it possible, in God’s providence, to bring this project to fruition through their prayers and gifts.

Second, I want to emphasize that this Bible is one of the most important resources we’ve ever produced. We hope that people will not only acquire the Bible but actually use it. We have to dig deep into God’s Word to grow in our faith and become mature disciples. Lord willing, this Bible can help us do just that.

Bio: Dr. R.C. Sproul is co-pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Fla., and the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries. A theologian, he’s the executive editor of Tabletalk and chancellor of Reformation Bible College. He’s the author of numerous books, including Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology, How Then Shall We Worship? Biblical Principles to Guide Us Today, and The Promises of God: Discovering the One Who Keeps His Word.

Bible News Roundup – Week of May 10, 2015

Read this week’s Bible Gateway Weekly Brief
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Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian
The New York Times

Pew: Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America
Christianity Today

Christianity Is Not Dying; Reports Pointing to Decline of Church Are Skewing Data, Say Baylor University Scholars
The Christian Post

Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways From Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey
Ed Stetzer

Vanderbilt Poll: Majority of Tennesseans Support Making the Bible the Official State Book
The Tennessean

Senegal Bible Translation Project Coming to a Satisfying Close
Mission Network News

25-year Project by the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands to Translate the Bible to a Sesarwa Dialect is Nearing Completion

Bible Translation Workshop Focuses on First Nations Languages
Anglican Church of Canada

Why You Can Trust Your Bible
The Gospel Coalition | Arizona

Four Biblical Mothers to Remember on Mother’s Day

hannahMother’s Day is just a few days away! We hope you’ll take some time this weekend to pay respects to your mother—or if that isn’t possible, to somebody in your life who embodies the grace and wisdom we associate with godly mothers.

The Bible speaks highly of mothers who raise children and guide their families in a righteous manner; in the oft-quoted Proverbs 31, the “wife of noble character” is honored by her husband and children for her virtues.

Motherhood wasn’t a requirement for godly women in Bible times—and just as today, not every woman who wanted children was granted her wish. But the mothers and matriarchs of the Bible exhibit qualities that all of us, male or female, parent or not, should strive to emulate. Here are a few of the famous mothers of the Bible, with links to their stories:

1. Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Perhaps no more famous mother exists than Mary, who at a young age learned from an angel that she would give birth to the long-awaited Messiah. Her song of praise in response, and the well-known events of Christ’s birth, are what usually spring to mind when we think of Mary. But her role as mother brought her grief as well as joy; we can only imagine what it must have been like for her to witness Jesus’ crucifixion. Read her story in John 19.

2. Elizabeth

Mary’s was not the only miraculous birth recorded in the New Testament. Elizabeth was a godly woman who was “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly”—and yet she and her husband were unable to conceive a child. God answered her prayers late in her life and she gave birth to John the Baptist, but is perhaps best known for her prophetic encouragement of the young (and perhaps frightened) Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Read her story in Luke 1.

3. Hannah

Hannah is one of the most inspiring mothers in the Bible, although her story is less well-known. Despite years of patience and prayer, she remained unable to have a child. One day “in her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the LORD, weeping bitterly”—and God answered her prayer at last. But Hannah’s character truly shone when, in gratitude to God, she dedicated her newborn son to His service. Her son would one day become one of Israel’s greatest prophets. Read her story in 1 Samuel 1.

4. Sarah, the Wife of Abraham

Sarah is one of the great matriarchs of the Bible—yet she didn’t become a mother until very late in life. In fact, her reaction to God’s promise that she would have a son was to laugh, as memorably recorded in Genesis 18. Nevertheless she did give birth to a son, and her lineage would include Jesus Christ himself. Read her story in Genesis 18.

There are many more famous mothers described in the Bible; many of them righteous, some not so much, but all used by God to bring about His design. This weekend, as we give thanks for the mothers in our lives, consider how you can embody the traits that define a godly mother—patience, kindheartedness, faithfulness—and consider how you can encourage the mothers in your community, young and old, as they work to meet that same standard.

While Mother’s Day is on your mind, here are a few Mother’s Day devotionals worth checking out (or passing along to mom):

Happy Mother’s Day to you and to the mother figure in your life!

Five Biblical Prayers for the National Day of Prayer

Today is the National Day of Prayer in the United States (#dayofprayer)—a day when people are encouraged to spend time in prayer and meditation. This year’s event is themed around 1 Kings 8:28:

…give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day.

Are you planning to participate in any way? To mark today’s special focus on prayer, we’ve gathered five of the most interesting and memorable prayers in the Bible. Use these as inspiration as you spend time in prayer today!

#5: David’s Prayer of Repentance (Psalm 51)

Convicted of a terrible sin, the Israelite King David cried out to God with one of the most moving confessions and pleas for forgiveness in all of the Bible.

Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just.
For I was born a sinner—
yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
But you desire honesty from the womb,
teaching me wisdom even there.
Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you. — from Psalm 51 (NLT)

#4: The Early Church Prays for Courage (Acts 4)

Continually harassed for their beliefs and activities—even for a miraculous healing!—the early church gathered to thank God for delivering them from prison or worse.

…they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:

‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
and the rulers have gathered together
against the Lord and against his Messiah.’

For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. — Acts 4:24-31 (NRSV)

#3: Solomon Prays for Wisdom (1 Kings 3)

If God offered to give you whatever you wanted, what would you ask for? The Israelite king Solomon was presented with just such an offer—but he didn’t ask for any of the things you might expect.

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.

“Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” — 1 Kings 3 (NIV)

#2: Jehoshaphat Prays for Deliverance (2 Chronicles 20:5-12)

Faced by an overwhelming force of enemies bent on his destruction, the king Jehoshaphat called out to God with a prayer that acknowledged his own powerlessness, and entreated God to intervene.

And Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord, before the new court, and said, “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying, ‘If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you—for your name is in this house—and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.’ And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom you would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy— behold, they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession, which you have given us to inherit. O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” — 2 Chronicles 20:5-12 (ESV)

#1: The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13)

Jesus’ own prayer is certainly the most famous prayer in the Bible—and it’s noteworthy for being short and to-the-point. Asked to demonstrate for his disciples how to pray, here’s how Jesus responded.

You, therefore, pray like this:

Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day [a]our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’ — Matthew 6:9-13 (NASB)

Bible News Roundup – Week of May 3, 2015

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Christian Book Award® Winners for 2015
Christian Book Expo
Save on these books and Bibles in the Bible Gateway Store

Gideons Distribute Historic Two Billionth Scripture
The Gideons International

20 Interesting Facts About The Bible
Scripture Union Canada

Hundreds of Secret Algerian Converts Requesting Bibles Each Month
The Tablet

How Chinese Catholics Around the World are Renewing Their Commitment to the Bible
The Catholic World Report

Oldest Complete Copy of Ten Commandments on Display at Israel Museum
The Times of Israel
See Exodus 20

Yale’s 1455 Gutenberg Bible Moved to New Home
New Haven Register

A Medieval Prayer Wheel Surfaces, But How It was Used is Anyone’s Guess
Religion News Service

David Brooks Wants You to be in a Bible Study
The Washington Post

US Capitol Bible Reading Marathon Continues for 90 Hours this Week
Christian Newswire

Dozens to Read Entire Bible Out Loud Over Four Days at Tuscaloosa, AL, Church
Tuscaloosa News

India: Two in Police Custody for Possessing a Bible on Sunday Inside the Kanaka Durga Temple Premises
Times of India

A Different Focus for Bible Distribution in China
Mission Network News

Are Canadians Done w/ the Bible?
Canadian Bible Society

Though the Earth Give Way – Earthquake in Nepal

The words of Psalm 46 may come to mind as we think of the many who suffer in earthquake-stricken Nepal.

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

One of the certainties of life is that life is full of uncertainty. No one knows when he or she might fall sick, or have an auto accident, or witness a natural catastrophe—be it fire, flood, or earthquake. Such was the case in Nepal April 25 when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck at 11:56 am. This was a day of worship for many Nepalese churches, and so people were together. Thankfully, many church buildings are simple structures with tin roofs, but there have been casualties. One church near the capital of Kathmandu saw 70 worshippers killed when their building collapsed.

A friend of mine in Nepal who is a Christian leader reported today:

“Eight million people have been affected and many have become homeless, parentless and widowed. My heart cries when I see people desperate, watch the news and see the television reports. There is a shortage of food, water and tents to sleep in. Almost 90% people of Kathmandu are sleeping on the street and in open spaces, but very few have got tents. Markets, banks, transportation and business houses are closed.”

“Though the earth give way and the mountain fall into the heart of the sea.” That is how the Psalmist describes the uncertainty of life. People in Nepal have seen the earth shake underneath them, and other people in other parts of the world have their lives changed by terrorism, or crime, or illness. “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall.”

This is when people turn to God. It is a time when that righteous prayer that Jesus taught comes to mind: “Lord, have mercy.”

What protection do we have in such a dangerous world? Where can we go where we will be safe?

Psalm 46 contrasts the experience of earthquakes and plagues and wars with the fortress that is God: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.” This statement recalls Jerusalem, but not as a walled city. There are no walls high enough or strong enough to prevent bad things from happening. Protection comes from God himself. He is the “refuge and strength,” the “ever-present help,” the “fortress.”

We cannot be glib about this. Or cliche. Or sanctimonious. It is easy to ponder the words of Psalm 46 when we’re sitting in a comfortable place, relatively free of worry of an earthquake. Yet the words are true. It is time to turn to God, all of us, for he is our refuge.

The people of Nepal deserve our prayers. And our help. We must not forget them as they live one long day after another, with many months of recovery ahead.

For more details on the situation on the ground, go here.

The Bible in Nepali can be read on Bible Gateway. And you can follow relief agencies’ updates with Bible Gateway’s Relief Agency Twitter List.

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 He writes the weekly How to Understand the Bible lesson series at the Bible Gateway Blog.

How Should We Understand the Book of Revelation?


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

If we did not realize already that it takes a lifetime to understand the Bible (and that’s a good thing), the point is driven home when we get to the last book in the Bible—Revelation. It starts out simply enough, it is a “revelation (in Greek, apocalypse) from Jesus Christ,” it is a “prophecy,” and it comes as a letter to seven churches. Fair enough, but then come the angels, beasts, earthquakes, horses and riders, wars, thrones, and much more. What are we to make of all this?


Here are two unhelpful approaches to Revelation. One is to think it is such an incomprehensible book of enigmas and riddles that we avoid it. The second is to uncritically follow someone else’s arbitrary interpretation of all the details and hidden meanings of its passages. Revelation is not too hard to comprehend, and we should benefit from it. But first we need to understand the big picture.

Revelation never describes itself as a symbolic code of future events plotted on a timeline. Like the books of prophecy in the Old Testament, Revelation proclaims a message. In Revelation the message is that God is coming to judge and to redeem, and that the powers of evil and empires will clash before God establishes the fullness of his kingdom. That central message gives people two things: warnings and comfort, just as the Old Testament books of prophecy did.

If we keep our eyes on this central message and the intended effects, we will be less likely to get bogged down when we get into details in the book.

The book of Revelation is similar to other literature of the time that’s called “apocalyptic,” which typically includes visions, global clashes, end-of-the-world warnings, and many, many symbols. It is, of course, the cryptic symbolism of Revelation that makes it challenging to understand. But when we connect many of the symbols with elements that appear earlier in the Old Testament Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, the message emerges from the details.

A commentary that many have found very helpful is The Message of Revelation: I Saw Heaven Opened, by Michael Wilcock (part of The Bible Speaks Today series). Like the other commentaries in this series, the focus is on the message of the book. Here is how Wilcock outlines the flow of Revelation:

The number seven appears many times in the book, 54 times altogether, and it is obvious that most of the book is organized around cycles of seven. Seven proclamations to seven churches (chapters 2–3), and three sets of seven-part visionary narratives: the seven seals (4:1–8:1), the seven trumpets (8:2–11:18), and the seven bowls (15:5–16:21).

Nothing in the book of Revelation suggests that its sequence of symbols and visions are to be plotted along a chronological timeline, all related strictly to the very end of human history. Christians in the first few generations saw the descriptions of persecution against God’s people as exactly what they were experiencing, for instance, at the end of the first century during the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian. Christians today who experience the spiritual battles of persecution, sometimes at the hands of national, totalitarian powers, read Revelation as a letter to them.

The three sets of seven (seals, trumpets, bowls) may best be read as three great cycles of bloody conflict and victory, each rising to a higher level of intensity. Here Revelation is not just describing what will happen in the future, but what does happen in history and will continue happening until the end.

The end of the story is an astonishing description of a new creation, including symbols of a new city, a new temple, and a new people. The message is this: God will prevail. A day is coming when “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:4). The ultimate victory of God is a closeness and a communion with his people.

What can we do to understand the book of Revelation? Reading it straight through in one, two, or three settings is very helpful because you will see connections. Read it in different translations. And sometime read it alongside one of the better commentaries. (Recommended: Michael Wilcock, The Message of Revelation.)

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

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

Bible News Roundup – Week of April 26, 2015

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2014—A Remarkable Year for Bible Translation, Despite Challenges
United Bible Societies

Ecumenical Bible Week 2015: 24-31 May (Ireland)
Bible Week website

Citing lack of funding, New York’s Museum of Biblical Art to close
Religion News Service
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What is Unique About the Books of James and Hebrews?


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.

We continue to find astonishing variety in the Scriptures when we look at two New Testament books: James, a book of Christian wisdom, and Hebrews, which explains the complicated connections between the old covenant and the new. Both of these books are not addressed to a particular Christian group. They are sometimes called “general epistles.”


The epistle of James, which was probably written by the James who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15), focuses on the practicalities of personal and community life. There is nothing in James about the nature of God, the plan of redemption, or the atonement; and Jesus is mentioned only twice. James is almost like the book of Proverbs for the New Testament. Wisdom is not an elite and specialized knowledge, it is everyday practical lifestyle rooted in values that come “from heaven.”

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (James 3:13-17)

This is straightforward and challenging. It is a call to action. If today’s leaders would take James’ description of wisdom as their paradigm of leadership, our communities would look entirely different. James is also known for the challenge to put faith into action (James 2:14-24). “What good is it… if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?” (2:14). James confronts favoritism, greed, and destructive talk. James gives some perspective for those going through trials or who are teetering on the edge of temptation. James challenges us to be patient, respectful, and peace-loving.

The greatest challenge in reading the epistle of James is not so much understanding what it means, but living what it prescribes.

The book of Hebrews is long for an epistle. It is steeped in details about the Old Testament sacrificial system and explanations of how the plan of redemption has been fulfilled in Jesus. It is a mystery who authored this book. “To the Hebrews,” means it was written for Jewish Christians who especially needed a theological explanation of how faith in Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law.

The first 10 chapters describe how Christ and faith in Christ has superseded the old covenant, has surpassed the accomplishments of Moses and Joshua, and has replaced the priesthood and the sacrificial system.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4:14-16)

The book of Hebrews provides a key to unlocking challenging questions about the story of God in which he works for centuries in and through a special covenant people, starting with Abraham, but then does something entirely new in Jesus. It is not that the terms of a relationship with God have changed, which always was and always will be faith based on grace. But the scope of God’s grace now expands to the whole world with the atonement in Jesus.

The book of Hebrews also warns believers about falling away from the faith, and challenges them to persevere in difficult circumstances, remaining faithful to the new covenant. Hebrews 11 is a stunning description of how faith and hope across the ages have been the distinguishing characteristics of God’s people, beginning with Abraham. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Heb. 11:1-2). The followers of Jesus have, in his sacrifice, the power to overcome sin and to persevere:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)

To understand Hebrews, we have to look backwards into the Old Testament, seeing how spiritual realities are anticipated and then fulfilled. When we do that, we will be stunned by the wide scope of biblical truth in the great narrative that stretches from a covenant with Bedouin shepherds from Mesopotamia to the entire world. And Hebrews lets us know that taking the long view—of persevering and plodding, of believing and behaving rightly—always has been the way of God with men and women.

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

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.