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Challenge for Skeptics: Read 100 Pages of the Bible

[Dr. John DicksonThis guest blogpost is by Dr. John Dickson (@johnpauldickson), author of A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible: Inside History’s Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics (Zondervan, 2015). He holds a PhD in history and is the founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity. Dr. Dickson is an Australian speaker, historian, minister (Anglican), husband, and father.]

The Bible is a literary ‘classic;’ perhaps the literary classic. And like many other works in the literary canon, the Bible can be hard-going. It requires thoughtful reading, at a slow pace, preferably with a few footnotes helping us bridge the cultural divide. You might not like it at first, maybe for a hundred pages or more. Eventually, its subtle logic and moral power creeps up on you, and you may even find yourself agreeing with those who say that no one can claim to be an “educated Westerner” until they’ve read the Bible.

Click to buy your copy of A Doubter's Guide to the Bible in the Bible Gateway StoreI had a similar experience in recent years with another work from the Western literary canon. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was one of ten books my literary friends insisted I should read if I wanted to maintain any pretence of being a cultured human being. I swallowed my ‘I-only-read-non-fiction’ pride and sat down one lazy weekend to give it a go.

The book opens with that intriguing and unforgettable line, “It was best of times, it was the worst of times…”, but after a couple of pages I was sure I would hate it. The sentence structures were complex, the language unnecessarily verbose (and sometimes even foreign), and the historical setting—London and Paris at dawn of the French Revolution—was an alien land for me.

Fortunately, my edition of A Tale of Two Cities included a lengthy introductory essay from a Dickens scholar and copious footnotes throughout the book explaining unusual terms, cultural peculiarities, and historical references. I dutifully read the notes, all of them. It was a ‘classic’, after all. It was my intellectual duty. I slowly began to appreciate Dickens’ skill and intent, but even a hundred pages in I saw it only as a worthy book, not something to be relished.

I can’t say exactly where everything changed—somewhere around the middle of the story, I think—but I distinctly remember putting the book down after a brief installment and wishing I had time to keep going. I was hooked. I had grown fond of the unusual rhythm of the language. I was fascinated by the historical details. And above all, the story captivated me. It is a moving human plot and an insightful portrait of the universal themes of sacrifice and renewal. I felt I had been repaid for my effort, with interest.

After reading Dickens, I resolved never again to mock a ‘classic’—without first reading it, slowly and in its entirety. I’m glad my literary friends were patient with me through my dogmatic non-fiction years. At times I must have sounded to them like the 15-year-old in English class: “Shakespeare is stupid!”

Some people approach the Bible like this. They’ve never read it—at least not slowly, as an adult, with some technical assistance. Yet, just like the proverbial 15-year-old, they know it’s stupid. But there are reasons this book has influenced our culture, arguably, more than any other text. There are reasons it continues to sell more copies than any other book, every year.

The most important and rewarding literary works often require something from us before we reap the benefits. I guess it’s in the nature of a ‘timeless work’ to seem, at first, less immediately relevant, less temporal. But my experience with Dickens has taught me that the pay-off can be surprising, far exceeding the effort.

Every thoughtful adult should read the Bible—at least a hundred pages of it. Start with the Psalms and the Gospels, preferably with some interpretive aid close by. Even if it begins out of a sense of cultural and intellectual duty only, that’s reason enough to open a true classic—doubly so in this case. The patient and attentive reader of the Bible will be repaid tenfold.

Wayne Grudem eBooks 80% Off – Ends Today!

Of the many comments author Wayne Grudem hears from readers, these are the most common:

1. “Thank you for writing a theology book that I can understand.”
2. “This book is helping my Christian life.”

Those are pretty high marks for theology books that are as thick as dictionaries! And these compliments have been paid time and again to Grudem’s classic work Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine and its abridgment Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Both eBooks are on sale today – and today only! (February 2, 2015)

Two other eBooks from Wayne Grudem are included in this one-day flash sale. Since you’ll save between 80% – 87% , you don’t want to miss today’s deals. Learn more about these eBooks below.

  1. Systematic TheologySale $7.99 (Regular Price $39.99)
  2. Bible DoctrineSale $3.99 (Regular Price $27.99)
  3. Christian BeliefsSale $1.99 (Regular Price $9.99)
  4. Politics – According to the BibleSale $3.99 (Regular Price $31.99)

systematictheology1. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (eBook)
Sale Price: $7.99
Regular Price: $39.99
Buy Systematic Theology

Notable: A church of 800 people went through this book together as a Bible study. Why? In the words of John Piper, “It is penetrating but not confusing; readable and clear but not superficial; biblically grounded, even biblically saturated, but not textually careless or glib; devout and reverent but not uncritical or naïve. I expect to turn to it for decades.”

Quote from the Book: “I do not believe that God intended the study of theology to be dry and boring. Theology is the study of God and all his works! Theology is meant to be lived and prayed and sung! … I am convinced that there is an urgent need in the church today for much greater understanding of Christian doctrine, or systematic theology. I think that many Christians will find that understanding (and living) the doctrines of Scripture is one of their great joys.”

bibledoctrine2. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith (eBook)
Sale Price: $3.99
Regular Price: $27.99
Buy Bible Doctrine

Notable: This abridgement of Systematic Theology is newly available as an eBook. Half the length of Systematic Theology, but Bible Doctrine keeps all of the larger volume’s readability, application to life, and emphasis on Scripture.

Quote from the Book: “I have written it for students—and not only for students, but also for every Christian who has a hunger to know the central doctrines of the Bible in greater depth.”

beliefs3. Christian Beliefs: 20 Basics Every Christian Should Know
Sale Price: $1.99
Regular Price: $9.99
Buy Christian Beliefs

Notable: This is Bible Doctrine condensed into its 20 most essential biblical teachings. Even more than Grudem’s other books, Christian Beliefs has become a favorite pick of small groups and Bible studies.

Quote from the Book: “Knowing and understanding basic Christian beliefs is important for every Christian. People who don’t know what the Bible teaches will have no ability to distinguish truth from error… But Christians who have a solid foundation will be more mature, will not be easily led astray, will have better judgment, and ‘will have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).’”

politics4. Politics – According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (eBook)
Sale Price: $3.99
Regular Price: $31.99
Buy Politics – According to the Bible

Notable: Should government protect gun ownership? Gay rights? Abortion? Grudem answers this and many other hot-button political issues in Politics – According to the Bible. Here Grudem applies what he’s learned over 30 years of teaching biblical interpretation and ethics at the seminary level. To learn more watch Grudem’s interview on FOX News.

Quote: “My primary purpose in the book is not to be liberal or conservative, or Democratic or Republican, but to explain a biblical worldview and a biblical perspective on issues of politics, law, and government… I hope that Christians who take the Bible as a guide for life will find these discussions encouraging. I believe that God’s perspective on politics is joyful ‘good news,’ just as the rest of the Bible is good news for all areas of life!”

We recommend you check out these books right away! The sale ends Monday, February 2, at 11:59pm ET.

Revival Is Needed: An Interview with Tony Evans

Dr. Tony EvansWhat is the root of social, economic and political unrest? And why is revival needed in the Christian church?

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Tony Evans (@drtonyevans) on the topic of revival. His recent book is America: Turning a Nation to God (Moody Publishers, 2015).

What do you consider to be the root of social, political and economic unrest, no matter where it’s found?

Click to buy your copy of America: Turning a Nation to God in the Bible Gateway Store

Dr. Evans: The broad answer is sin. To be more specific, it’s a failure or refusal to align ourselves under God’s standard and to address issues God’s way.

Define what you mean by revival and explain why it’s necessary among Christians.

Dr. Evans: Revival is the return of God’s manifest presence to His people for the purpose of them renewing their relationship with Him, with each other and for the good of the broader society.

It is necessary because much of what God determines to do, or not do, in the world is determined by His relationship to His people.

Why are prayer, fasting, and love important elements in order to bring revival?

Dr. Evans: Fasting says that the spiritual is more important than the physical. Prayer is the means by which God has established for God’s people to invite the spiritual into the physical, and the invisible realm into the visible realm. Love is essential because it reflects the nature of God and it is the means by which we are to manifest our vertical relationship to Him as reflected in our horizontal relationship with others.

What is “God’s manifest presence”?

Dr. Evans: Gods’ manifest presence is where His reality becomes visible to us—it’s not just theological knowledge of it but rather the visible experience of Him.

What do you mean by “the fire that ignites”?

Dr. Evans: The fire that ignites is a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit because He’s often aligned with fire in Scripture—to ignite a fire in us for God and His will and work both in our lives and through our lives.

How well is the church doing its job of building disciples of Jesus?

Dr. Evans: One of the major failures of the church is not a focus on building disciples but a focus on building members. Because we do not have this emphasis on discipleship, we do not have the kinds of Christians on a large scale that God feels comfortable working with and working through due to their low level of commitment to Him.

What should be the goal of discipleship?

Dr. Evans: The goal of discipleship is consistently conforming our decisions to the will of God so that His rule over our lives is visibly seen.

Tell us about your strategies to bring reform to the church.

Dr. Evans: It’s a 3-fold strategy. Phase One is to call churches throughout our land to a solemn assembly, and not allowing illegitimate divisions to come between us and divide us to carry out God’s purposes through us. Phase Two is doing good works in the community, primarily through the adoption of public schools so that the community can see the benefit the church brings to it. Phase Three is having a publicly unified voice on issues facing their community so that God’s perspective on it can be heard by a unified church. Each phase flows out of the other.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. Evans: The future well-being of the nation squarely lies in the hands of the church. If the church refuses to step up to the plate than we have ourselves to blame for the devolution of the culture.

Bio: Dr. Tony Evans is the founder and president of The Urban Alternative, a national ministry dedicated to restoring hope in personal lives, families, churches and communities. Dr. Evans also serves as senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. He is a bestselling author and his radio program, The Alternative with Dr. Tony Evans, is heard on nearly 1,000 stations around the globe every day.

How Should We Read the Psalms?

howtounderstandthebible

This week we come to the beloved songs of the Old Testament called The Psalms. We turn to the Psalms when we need comfort, strength, or just words that we can pray to God. Today we look at how to get the most out of the Psalms.

A new development: learn how you can help believers in communist-controlled Vietnam, Taliban-controlled Pakistan, and religious battleground Nigeria get the book How to Understand the Bible in their own language. Learn more.


The Bible is not just a book. It is relationship in words. God’s word to men and women, boys and girls. A living action between the almighty Creator of the universe and his most cherished creation: humanity. We do not understand Scripture unless we hear in it the divine-human dialogue.

psalm

The Psalms prove this. In the beloved 150 songs and poems in the middle of the Bible, we witness not just God speaking to us, but the privilege we have of speaking to God. This is the essence of relationship: two parties interacting with each other. And what an interaction! The Psalms express the full range of states of the human heart:

Thanksgiving and praise… “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Ps. 107:1).

Lament… “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (Ps. 22:1).

Celebration… “I lift up my eyes to you, to you who sit enthroned in heaven” (Ps. 123:1).

Wisdom… “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Ps. 127:1).

Judgment… “Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them. May their place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in their tents” (Ps. 69:24-25).

In the Psalms we find honest, sometimes brutal, expressions of the human heart. The Bible would not be valuable if it were a string of sentimental platitudes or religious propaganda. But it is not. The songs and poems that are the Psalms express the highest joy and the deepest sorrow. Their authors plead with God, shout at God, beg God for forgiveness. They exalt virtues and righteousness, and they condemn in the bitterest terms the ugly abuses people sometimes carry out. The Psalms teach about the attributes of God (“the Lord is my Shepherd,” 23:1) and the history of God (“[he] swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea,” 136:15). They speak of humanity’s great potential (“You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor,” 8:5) and the darkness of human depravity (“shame will come on those who are treacherous without cause,” 25:3).

So how should we read this “treasury,” as Charles Spurgeon called it? First, some facts. The Psalms were the songs written to be used by the Israelites in their worship life—both personal and communal. The titles on the Psalms indicate that almost half of them were “of David,” and some others are identified as being written by various composers—“sons of Asaph,” “sons of Korah,” Solomon, Moses. They were made into a collection after the Jews returned from exile.

The many quotations from the Psalms that appear in the New Testament reveal that these songs were deeply embedded in the minds and hearts of the Jews. Most people today love the Psalms, and whether they realize it or not, the poetry has much to do with it. After all, one could state the proposition: “God is timeless, but people come and go.” Or one could paint with words, which is what Psalm 90 does:

A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered. (vv. 4-6)

The Psalms are the most sensory part of God’s word, including this delicious invitation:

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
(Ps. 34:8)

So how should we read the Psalms with understanding? For one thing, we should read slowly and deliberately in order to take in the sights and sounds, taste, touch and smell in which the truth of God is contained. Try reading a Psalm a day aloud—which is how all people in the ancient world read. For millennia people have meditated on the Psalms, storing up their treasures, frequently to be recalled during critical times of life.

We should also pray the Psalms. Let the voice of the Psalm you are reading be your voice, even if your life circumstance is not the same of the particular Psalm you are reading. Put yourself in the shoes of the writer, and you will understand the realities in the Psalm. For example, sense the pathos in Psalm 137, composed in the exile:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs. (vv. 1-3a)

This should put a lump in our throats.

Do not look down at the Psalms with a magnifying glass. Pray them upwards with a megaphone. The word heart appears 131 times in this book of the Bible, which seems only appropriate since in the Psalms we have the heart of humanity reaching out to the heart of God.

What a privilege to have this pathway to God.

Care to offer feedback this week?


Next time: “What Should We Take from the Books of Wisdom (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job)?”

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.

Deepen Your Experience of Scripture With Bible Gateway’s New Scripture Engagement Section

You may not identify it as such, but all your searching, reading, comparing, and sharing of the Bible on Bible Gateway are the beginning elements of what’s called “Scripture Engagement.” They’re only the start because fully engaging the Bible is a growing, developing, relational process that has as its ultimate objective enjoying a deep, meaningful, and engaging relationship with God.

We’ve now partnered with the Taylor University Center for Scripture Engagement (@TaylorU_CSE) (TUCSE) to create a dedicated Scripture Engagement section on Bible Gateway consisting of practical exercises and activities you can undertake to regularly interact more meaningfully with the Bible. You can access this section through our top navigation bar—just hover over or click the word “Bible” and click Bible Engagement in the dropdown menu:

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Take your time exploring the different topics in our Scripture Engagement section. You’ll find that it describes and offers 12 Bible-reading practices intended to help you intimately know God and become a closer follower of Jesus:

These practices all dovetail with our extensive and free online library of more than 200 Bibles.

Bible surveys seem to indicate that, while the Bible continues to be the top international bestseller, a large percentage of people are not reading it as often or as attentively as their Bible ownership might indicate. This new partnership with TUCSE will help the millions of users of Bible Gateway (including you) to not only read the Bible, but to also incorporate its life-changing teachings into their (your) everyday living. It’s very much in keeping with our mission statement: to honor Christ by equipping people to read and understand the Bible, wherever they are.

We pray that you’ll give holy attention to the regular practice of Scripture Engagement on Bible Gateway.

Using a Print Bible is How Most People Follow Publicly Read Scripture

The majority of Bible Gateway users responding to an online survey say they read their print Bibles when Scripture is read aloud in church.

We asked Bible Gateway Blog readers to complete this sentence: “When Scripture is read publicly in worship service, I….” More than 6,000 of you voted. Of that number, 48% chose the phrase, “follow along using my print Bible.” Twenty-one percent said they “follow along with the text projected on the church screen.”

Only 13% “follow along using my mobile/tablet Bible app,” 10% “simply listen without looking at the words,” and 2% pray.

Two percent said they “daydream” while Scripture is read, another 2% said they “don’t attend worship services,” and a final 2% chose “other” as their response.

It’s interesting that nearly half of the users of Bible Gateway, who are comfortable reading digital forms of Scripture here, prefer to use their print Bible editions during the public reading of the Bible in corporate worship.

[See results of our other Blog polls]

Our next Bible Gateway poll asks “What’s your Bible reading goal in 2015?” Cast your vote below and then visit our Bible Reading Plans page to select the flexible and customizable reading plan that’s right for you to use according to your own pace and interest.

[See our blogpost, Read the Bible at Your Own Pace with Bible Gateway’s New, Improved Bible Reading Plans]

What’s your Bible reading goal in 2015? (select up to 3)

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

Texas Governors Keep Tradition of Dedicating Bible Verses to Successors

Since 1925, governors in Texas have continued the tradition of singling-out Bible verses for the benefit of their successors on inauguration day. It began when Gov. Pat Neff placed the inscription, “Presented to My Successors in Office,” on a small leather-bound Bible and gave it to Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson with Psalm 119:105 marked: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”

Here is a list of markings and inscriptions in the “Neff Bible” with links to the verses in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible:

Gov. Neff to Gov. Ferguson: Psalm 119:105 — “Marked by Pat M. Neff Jan 18, 1925″

Gov. Ferguson to Gov. Moody: Matthew 7:12 — “Marked by Gov M. A. Ferguson Jan 18, 1927″

Gov. Moody to Gov. Sterling: John 3:16 — “Marked by Dan Moody Jan 10, 1931″

Gov. Moody to Gov. Sterling: Psalm 19:14 — “Marked by Dan Moody 1/10/31″

Gov. Sterling to Gov. Ferguson: none found

Gov. Ferguson to Gov. Allred: Jeremiah 50:32 — “Marked by Governor Miriam A Ferguson Jan 15, 1935″

Gov. Allred to Gov. O’Daniel: Psalm 91:2 — “Marked by Governor James V. Allred for Governor W. Lee O’Daniel—Jan. 17, 1939″

Gov. O’Daniel to Gov. Stevenson: Exodus 20:3-17 — “The Ten Commandments marked by Governor W. Lee O’Daniel for Governor Coke Stevenson 8-2-1941″

Gov. Stevenson to Gov. Jester: 2 Timothy 2:15 — “Marked by Coke Stevenson January 21, 1947 for Governor Beauford H. Jester”

Gov. Jester to Gov. Shivers: Gov. died in office

Gov. Shivers to Gov. Daniel: Philippians 4:6 — “Phil. 4.6 Marked by Allan Shivers Jan. 15, 1957 for Governor Price Daniel”

Gov. Daniel to Gov. Kazen: Psalm 121 — “Marked for Governor Abraham Kazen Jr August 4, 1959. Good luck. Price Daniel.”

Gov. Daniel to Gov. Connally: Proverbs 3:5-6 — “Marked by Gov. Price Daniel for Governor John Connally 1/15/63″

Gov. Connally to Gov. Smith: Proverbs 29:18 — “Preston, may you have a happy and productive administration. My fond regards always—John”

Gov. Smith to Gov. Briscoe: Proverbs 12:19 — “Dolph, may your administration be productive and enjoyable—Good luck and best wishes—Preston Smith”

Gov. Briscoe to Gov. Clements: Micah 6:8 — “Dolph Briscoe for Bill Clements Jan. 16, 1979″

Gov. Clements to Gov. White: Ecclesiastes 3:1 — “Bill Clements for Mark White 1-18-83″

Gov. White to Gov. Clements: Proverbs 22:6 — “Mark White for Bill Clements 1-20-87″

Gov. Clements to Gov. Richards: Ecclesiastes 3:17 — “Bill Clements for Ann Richards 1-15-91″

Gov. Richards to Gov. Bush: Amos 5:15(a) — “Ann Richards to George Bush 1/17/95″

Gov. Bush to Gov. Perry: Isaiah 40:28-31 — “Marked by GW Bush for Rick Perry 12-21-00″

Gov. Perry to Gov. Abbott: Matthew 20:25-28 — “Marked by Rick Perry for Greg Abbott 1-19-15″

How Should We Interpret What the Prophets Had to Say?

howtounderstandthebible

The prophets in the Old Testament are a rich body of teachings in which God’s people are called to be restored to a close relationship with God. But what are we to make of the dire warnings, and the promises? Why does God’s word have so much about the conditions and the events centuries before Christ? What does it all mean for our lives today?


It’s okay to be honest if you’re having difficulty understanding sections of the Bible. Remember, our difficulty understanding Scripture is not a problem. It is what you’d expect of a body of scriptures that speak into the complexities of human experience, and contain the high truth of a transcendent God. When we come to the Prophets, typically the questions that get asked are: What are they talking about? Is this about them or us? Is prophecy about the past or the future?

Remember that when you’re interpreting the Bible, the simplest and most natural explanation is always best. When Jeremiah speaks about Babylon, he means Babylon. Amos was really warning about the armies of the Assyrians descending on Israel. Haggai’s words about the rebuilding of the temple were about events during that period when the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Most of the events the Old Testament prophets spoke about were fulfilled in the era in which they were spoken. What we get to do all these centuries later is pull out and apply these truths and principles, and apply them in fresh ways in our lives.

In the Old Testament, the prophet was a person who was called to bring the word of God to the people. The prophet was not a fortune-teller or soothsayer. He was not reporting the headlines of the news, mysteriously, before they were written. The prophet was a proclaimer. He brought words of assurance and promise, as well as confrontation and warning. Many people are called prophets: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, etc., whose prophetic activity (i.e., being God’s representative to the people) is embedded in the historical narratives.

prophets

There are 16 Old Testament books we call “the Prophets.” Four “Major Prophets”: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel; and the so-called “Minor Prophets”: Amos through Malachi. (“Major” and “Minor” only mean their length, not their importance.) All of these books were written within a narrow 300-year span, from 760 to 460 B.C. This helps us understand their purpose. All the prophetic books of the Old Testament were God’s word to his covenant people, warning them and bolstering them during periods of pronounced spiritual and national danger.

The honest truth of the Bible is that men and women—even those blessed to be the covenant people of God—kept falling into sin. It is sobering to read through the Old Testament and encounter never-ending cycles of obedience and disobedience. So God spoke through the prophets. They confronted, warned, and assured. They did offer predictions, most typically showing the cause and effect of disobedience and unfaithfulness. Every oracle of every prophet means something specific. The challenge is that most of us do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of Tyre and Sidon, of Persia, of Darius, of the Nazirites, of Ekron, and of Meshek and Tubal.

Some passages in the Prophets clearly point to events to be fulfilled centuries later, for instance predictions of the coming Messiah. Isaiah 53 is widely understood to be pointing to Jesus. “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (v. 3).

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

Then there are some passages that appear to be fulfilled in the era of the prophet, but also extend out to the Messianic Age or the end of time. It is possible for a prophecy to have multiple fulfillments, though we have to make sure this is clearly called for in the passage.

So here are some recommendations on reading the Prophets:

1. Read these books naturally and in ample segments, not verse by verse. Listen for the spiritual movement within prophetic oracles, rather than getting bogged down in details. Catch the big-picture spiritual dynamics and message of the oracles. For instance, the disposition of God (e.g., disappointed, indignant, sorrowful, tender, caring), the condition of the people addressed (e.g., frightened, disobedient, humbled, arrogant), the predictions of what might or will happen (e.g., captivity, deliverance, famine, restoration). The best thing we gain from the prophetic books is not about events on timelines, but the great spiritual realities of life, including insights into disobedience and sin, and the judgment and mercy of God.

2. Use Bible helps. In reading the Prophets, we will benefit greatly from good Bible dictionaries and commentaries. Look for commentaries where the original setting and meaning of the Prophets are respected and explained. Unfortunately, there are many commentators, preachers, and teachers who assume prophecy is mostly about events yet to unfold in our day, when the biblical text indicates otherwise. This is crystal ball interpretation. It is arbitrary, misleading, and does not respect the call of the Prophets. It overlooks the plain meaning of the biblical text, which must be our first priority.

3. Go ahead and apply the spiritual lessons of the Prophets to life today. These 16 Old Testament books are the word of God to us, as long as we allow for the different terms of the old covenant and what we stand on today, the new covenant.

4. Be enriched by the word of the Prophets. Don’t be discouraged by their complexity or sometimes-dire message. It is only because God loves humanity that he spoke through the prophets—hard truth included.

Care to offer feedback this week?


Next time: “How Should We Interpret What the Prophets Had to Say?”

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.

Did God Really Command Genocide?: An Interview with Drs. Paul Copan & Matthew Flannagan

Dr. Paul CopanWould a good, kind, and loving deity ever command the wholesale slaughter of nations? We often avoid reading difficult Old Testament passages that make us squeamish and quickly jump to the enemy-loving, forgiving Jesus of the New Testament. And yet, the question remains. How can we understand the biblical, theological, philosophical, and ethical implications of Old Testament warfare passages?

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Paul Copan (@PaulCopan) and Dr. Matthew Flannagan (@_MandM_) about their book, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Baker Books, 2014).

Dr. Matthew Flannagan

[Also see our blogpost: Is God a Moral Monster?]

Lay the groundwork of the book for us. What are some of the primary arguments you’re addressing in Did God Really Command Genocide?

Dr. Flannagan: Skeptics claim that a person who believes both that God exists and that the Bible is God’s authoritative Word is rationally committed to four claims:

      We ought to obey God
      The Bible is God’s Word
      The Bible teaches that God commands genocide
      Genocide is morally wrong.

Click to buy your copy of Did God Really Command Genocide? in the Bible Gateway StoreThese claims are inconsistent. As formulated, a Christian who believes the Bible is God’s Word must deny that genocide is wrong. This is the primary argument we address. We also discuss broader questions of whether religion causes violence as well as arguments invoking the Crusades and jihad.

In Chapter 2 you write, “In the Bible (God’s Word), God appropriates the writing of a human being with the writer’s own personality, character, and writing style.” How does this affect how we interpret the Bible, and particularly in regards to the stories where God seems to command genocide?

Dr. Flannagan: It means that God’s Word comes to us mediated by a human author who uses language, figures of speech, and illustrations of his own time, place, and culture to convey God’s message. When we read the text, we’re not just interested in what the historical human author has to say but, more importantly, what God says by way of appropriating that author’s text as part of a bigger narrative of Scripture.

It can seem like the God of the Old Testament is different than the loving, compassionate God spoken of by Jesus. How do we reconcile these two pictures of God?

Dr. Copan: God is both kind and severe (Rom. 11:22), which is what the Old Testament (OT) affirms: he’s both gracious and compassionate but will not leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:6-7). Jesus aligns himself with the OT prophetic tradition. Although he speaks about loving and praying for our enemies (which the OT does as well [Prov. 25:21-22]), he’s severe with hypocrites and those resisting God’s claim upon them. Jesus drives out moneychangers from the temple (Jn. 2:13-17); pronounces severe judgment on cities that witnessed his miracles but refused to repent (Mt. 11:21) and on those who lead Jesus’ followers astray (Mt. 18:6); and affirms the justice of OT judgments (Mt. 15:4; 24:38-39; Lk. 17:29).

What are some of the unique issues to consider when we look specifically at the story of the Israelites driving out the Canaanites?

Dr. Copan: First, like God’s command to Abram to leave Ur, the command to drive out the Canaanites is unique and unrepeatable—not universal. Second, the “utterly destroy” language was common hyperbole in ancient Near Eastern war texts; so where peoples are “utterly destroyed,” survivors are often abundant (see the oft-repeated line “they could not drive them out” in Judg. 1-2). Third, these divine commands are given reluctantly and because of human hardheartedness (compare Mt. 19:8). Fourth, these commands aren’t private revelations to Moses and Joshua (unlike Muhammad’s or Joseph Smith’s “revelations”); they’re accompanied by public, powerful signs and wonders (Egypt plagues, Red Sea crossing, pillar of cloud/fire, manna), which Canaanites recognized (Josh 2:8-11; 5:1; compare 1 Sam. 4:7-8).

Tell us about “hagiographic hyperbole.”

Dr. Flannagan: The basic idea is that the accounts of Israel’s early battles in Canaan are narrated in a particular style, which is not intended to be literal in all of its details, as it contains a lot of hyperbole, formulaic language, and literary tropes (expressions) for rhetorical effect.

When biblical authors use phrases such as “They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed” (Josh. 11:11), which are later followed by passages that presuppose that the same areas are still inhabited by the same peoples, they cannot be affirming that literally every man, woman, and child was killed at God’s command. It’s a mistake to take them as affirming that Israel literally engaged in complete annihilation at God’s command. They’re exaggerating for rhetorical effect.

How is emphasizing God as both loving and just important in discussing these difficult biblical texts?

Dr. Copan: On the justice side, remember that these reluctantly-given commands are less-than-ideal (compare Ezek. 18:31). Also, God patiently waited over 400 years until judgment was ripe (Gen. 15:16) so that Israel could finally enter the promised land. Further, God is ever-willing to relent from threatened punishment upon repentance (Jonah; Jer. 18:7-8). Additionally, Canaanites engaged in what we’d consider criminal activities (infant sacrifice, ritual sex, bestiality, incest), and Israel’s calling would be harmed through their influence. Finally, in a supreme emergency, a good God would have moral justification for commanding something severe, though involving innocent lives lost (for example, fighter jets shooting down a hijacked commercial airliner to prevent extensive harm). On the love side, see the just war question below.

You devote an entire section of the book to the question “Is it always wrong to kill innocent people?” How do you address such a large, complex question?

Dr. Flannagan: First, we defend the view that our moral duties or obligations are identical with what God commands us to do. Then we argue that while a loving and just God would, in normal circumstances, prohibit killing innocent people in highly unusual cases, God could, for the sake of some greater good, command an individual to kill. If the latter applied, then the individual in question would be exempted from a moral principle that otherwise would be binding upon him.
This entails that the moral prohibition on killing the innocent is not absolute. It’s more accurate to say that there’s a strong presumption that applies in most cases but can, in highly unusual circumstances, be overridden by a divine command.

When discussing just war, you write “A war that is just should ultimately exhibit love for one’s neighbor.” Tell us about that statement.

Dr. Copan: The Mosaic Law commanded love for one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18), but this didn’t stand in opposition to capital punishment in the Law; indeed, such punishment could also serve to protect innocent Israelites from further harm. Likewise, just wars (for example, stopping Hitler in World War II) show concern for the victims of unjust aggression. And while perpetrators of harm are our neighbors and should be prayed for, love—not to mention justice—typically requires removing the source of harm to protect the innocent. In Romans 13:1–7, the God-ordained minister of the state bears “the sword” (an image of lethal force) to protect and punish. This is true with a police force (domestic) as well as an army (international).

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when we talk with Christians and non-Christians about the violence of God?

Dr. Flannagan: People tend to approach this issue with broader concerns about groups like ISIS and events like 9/11 as well as recent atrocities in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, whose attempts were allegedly justified because they were done “in the name of God (Allah).” So they often have perceptions (not always accurate) of historical events such as the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, and so on, being allegedly based on God’s commands, and they often believe religion is the root cause of most wars.

It’s important to emphasize that if we accept God did command violence on unique occasions in the past, we’re not saying that he commands us or anyone else to do so today. Nor are we committed to supporting or endorsing groups who claim that he does.

Bio:

Paul Copan (PhD, Marquette University) is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. He’s the author of several popular apologetics books, including Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, and lives with his wife and five children in Florida.

Matthew Flannagan (PhD, University of Otago) is a researcher and a teaching pastor at Takanini Community Church in Auckland, New Zealand. He’s also a contributing author to several books.

What Is Important About the Land of the Bible?

howtounderstandthebible

If you want to understand the Bible, you have to understand the land of the Bible. It is not only central to the covenant of God, it is the geographical stage on which the magnificent drama of the people of God is played out. You may be surprised when you take a closer look. After you read this, consider going here to watch a 9-minute video giving you a visual understanding.


One of the ways we know that the truth of the Bible is rooted in reality is that the story of the Bible—the drama of God’s interaction with humanity—unfolds in a real place. This is a real God engaging with real people across a timeline that goes for thousands of years in a specific part of the world. The Bible is not detached philosophy. It tells us what happened (in history) so that we can understand what happens (in life).

After the Pentateuch (the first five books of Scripture), there is a major transition as the wandering Israelites entered the ancient land of Canaan. Under Joshua, the Israelite armies conquered this territory promised to them by God as an inheritance (Josh. 1:1-6). The small land of Israel, just 200 miles long and 100 miles wide, would be the main stage for the drama of redemption until the world-changing mission of the apostles—altogether a span of two millennia.

What is it like, this “good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8)? To the Hebrews who had left slavery in Egypt 40 years earlier, it was a true blessing. It wasn’t paradise, but the plains and hills were a good land for farmers who grew crops of wheat and barley, who developed groves of olive and fig trees, and tended vineyards. The coastal climate is similar to that of Southern California.

In the Old Testament, we find the connecting points between land, life, and theology. The three great festivals (Passover, Firstfruits, and Ingathering) corresponded to the beginning and end of harvests. Rain is the grace of God. Food on the table is the blessing of God. Drought is a time of testing. The land also supported the herding of sheep and goats. So it was easy to describe God’s care as his shepherding (Ps. 23), and Jesus as “the good shepherd.” Real land, real life, real people, real God.

But Israel was a difficult land to live in from a political point of view. The surrounding kingdoms were an almost continual threat, and part of that has to do with the geography of the land of Israel. If you look at a map of the region, what you will see is that this small strip of land is hemmed in by the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Arabian Desert to the east. Then, to make things even more complicated, the region to the north and east—known as Mesopotamia—was home to a succession of aggressive empires: Assyria, Babylonia, Persia. To the south and west of Israel lay the great land of Egypt. So Israel is a small bridge of land between sea and desert, standing in the way of superpowers to the northeast and the southwest. This explains much of the history of the Old Testament. It is amazing, actually, that there were even brief times when Israel was strong enough to have security and stability.

To understand more about this place and the events that transpired there, picture this bird’s-eye view of the land. Going across the land from west to east, there are five main regions (picture them like strips running north to south). First, is the coastal plain. Flat, fertile, and lush, this is a desirable part of the land, and thus contested by people like the Philistines who occupied the southern coast for centuries. Chariot battles happened here—not so in the central mountainous region of the land.

IsraelTopographical

To the east of the coastal plain are the foothills known as the Shephelah, which slope upwards to about 1,300 feet. The gentle hills of this region are also fertile, crisscrossed with olive groves and fig trees. It is also the battleground for many fights in the eras of Joshua and the Judges, and it’s the region where David famously stood up to the Philistine champion Goliath.

Moving east again, we come to the central mountainous region including Judea and Samaria. These low mountains—rising to just 3,500 feet—are rocky limestone hills, undulating across the landscape. Jerusalem sits on a set of such hills, as does Bethlehem.

The fourth region is the Jordan River Valley, which drops dramatically from the central mountains to below sea level.

And finally, to the east again, the high plateau region known as Transjordan rises. From here Moses viewed the Promised Land he was not allowed to enter.

In the north is the fertile plain and productive sea known as Galilee. More about that when we get to the New Testament.

This is “the land.” More than geography or a patch on a map, it is central to the covenant promise of God. Yet by the time we get to the new covenant, we find that God’s geography and the mission of his people extends to the whole world, just as he promised to Abraham, the man from Mesopotamia who walked across the chalky hills—“all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3).

Get a visual understanding of all this: Watch a 9-minute video here.


Next time: “How Should We Interpret What the Prophets Had to Say?”

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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.