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What Happened on Wednesday of Holy Week?

Earlier this week, we looked at what happened during Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week. Today, we’ll look at Holy Wednesday. All our references are drawn from the Holy Week Timeline.

Here’s Wednesday’s portion of the timeline. The horizontal axis is a timeline; the vertical axis represents the proximity between the key individuals and groups of the Easter story:

The major event of Holy Wednesday is Judas’ decision to betray Jesus. Although the betrayal doesn’t take place for another day, our knowledge of the impending betrayal colors our reading of the Last Supper story, which we’ll encounter tomorrow. Here’s the short but critical scene from Wednesday of Holy Week:

Holy Wednesday

Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus: Matthew 26:14-16:

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

How Should We Understand the Acts of the Apostles?

howtounderstandthebible

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


How shall we describe the amazing narrative we know as The Acts of the Apostles? Fast-paced, expansive, sweeping, intense, surprising, gripping, poignant, compelling, epic? All such descriptions would apply, and more. We have not read Acts rightly if we’ve just noted a string of historical details. Acts is unique in Scripture, yet it is a continuation of what its Gentile author, Luke, started in his Gospel when he set out to write “an orderly account” for someone named Theophilus so that he “may know the certainty of the things [he had] been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). Acts opens with:

“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” (Acts 1:1-2)

Right away Luke tells us the main characters of this narrative are the apostles (including Paul) and the Holy Spirit. From beginning to end, Acts is the story of the Holy Spirit inspiring, empowering, and guiding the followers of Jesus on a world-changing mission.

ElGrecoPentecost

To read Acts rightly, we need to keep in mind Luke’s purpose: to tell the story of how the gospel of Jesus the Christ broke out of the limitations of Judea and Galilee and spread across the Mediterranean world, crossing the barrier between Jew and Gentile and becoming a truly universal spiritual movement. Acts is about gospel and mission and Spirit. It is not a biography about the lives of Peter or John or even the apostle Paul. The focus is on the spread of the message about Jesus, and the dramatic ways people either accepted it or rejected it.

Acts has frequently been read in the past as a description of how the Christian church is supposed to operate. This is understandable, as Christian leaders desire to base today’s forms of ministry on a scriptural foundation. Only some of this is possible, however, because Luke clearly did not set out to write a manual on church life or church policy. Yes, it is true that Acts 2 gives a picture of healthy spiritual devotion: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (v. 42). But a couple of verses later, it says that the believers were selling their property and possessions in order to give to others, that they met in the temple courts every day, and that they ate together in each other’s homes (vv. 45-46). Churches today do not follow this pattern detail by detail. We don’t sell our cars, there is no temple to meet in every single day, and we don’t ring the doorbells of each other’s houses every night to share supper. Nor does Acts say these practices were then followed in the churches founded in Asia Minor or Greece or Rome.

Acts tells us what happened, which is not the same thing as telling us what should happen today. There were no church buildings in Acts; no pianos, guitars, or drums for worship. We have descriptions of the baptisms of only first-generation believers, and the method of baptism varied: in the name of Jesus; in the name of Father, Son and Spirit; in bodies of water; in a jail in Philippi; and in the desert along the Gaza road. The leadership structure of the early churches evolved over time, and we are not given a definition of how often the Lord’s Supper should take place in our churches today.

Acts is not a list of policies and formulae—it is something more wonderful—an account of the dynamic and oftentimes unpredictable movement of the Spirit of God in the era of the apostles, which puts us in the posture of expecting the unexpected today.

Perhaps there is a lesson in this for us. The vitality of the church will always come from the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit as believers become part of a dynamic movement. This is not to downplay the importance of church structure, but perhaps keep it in perspective.

There are a dizzying number of incidents reported in Acts, each of which is worthy of our contemplation. We ought to put ourselves in Paul’s place as he is chased out of a town, or shipwrecked, or plodding through two years of teaching in Ephesus. We need to imagine what it would have been like for Peter, commanded in a dream to enter the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and witness the unthinkable: the gospel spreading beyond the Jews. We need the maps at the back of our Bibles to have a sense of the geography of this movement.

The structure of Acts can be summed up this way: ever outward. First, there is Jerusalem and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the empowering of the apostles. The gospel crosses the line into the Gentile world with Cornelius. Peter is front and center in these early chapters. Then comes the conversion of the hostile Pharisee Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the apostle. The story proceeds with three great missionary journeys crossing one barrier after another until it eventually comes to the seat of the Roman Empire.

The Gospels give the gospel, and Acts, the mission of the gospel. And today in the 21st century, we see the cycle of proclamation, persecution, and expansion repeating. It is important for believers to understand that we have been here before and what it all means.


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.

What Happened on Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week?

What happened on each day of Holy Week? This week, we’ll be looking at the biblical events that took place during the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday.

We’ll base this discussion on our Holy Week Timeline. (Read about the process of creating that timeline at openbible.info.)

So what happened on Holy Monday and Tuesday? Here’s the Monday/Tuesday portion of the timeline. The horizontal axis is a timeline; the vertical axis represents the proximity of specific individuals and groups of people who played an important role in the Easter story:

Below are the scriptural descriptions of these events.

Holy Monday

The Cleansing of the Temple: Matthew 21:12-13

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

Holy Tuesday

The Fig Tree: Matthew 21:19-22

Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

The Temple Debates: Matthew 21:23-23:39. Excerpt from 21:23-27:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The Olivet Discourse: Matthew 24-25. Excerpt from 25:1-13:

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’

“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

What Was Jesus Teaching in the Parables?

howtounderstandthebible

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will open my mouth in parables,

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


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

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

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

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

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

Worship Leader magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How central to worship should the Bible be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lastly,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the National Worship Leader Conference all about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Should We Understand the Teachings of Jesus?

howtounderstandthebible

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


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

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

JesusTeaching

No wonder people were amazed.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Bible Gateway “Holy Week” Infographic Published in Newsweek

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Knowing Him” Easter Devotional Begins This Sunday

knowinghim

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

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

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

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

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

What Are the Gospels?

howtounderstandthebible

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


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

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

The_Supper_at_Emmaus_by_Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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