One Word

The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it hath lighted upon Israel.
~ Isaiah 9:8

Terrible advice preachers give

It’s a new year and a great time to commit to reading the Bible every day. With a plan, you could read the entire Bible this year. But the Bible is such a big book. You’re likely to get started and then get discouraged and quit. That won’t do. Everybody is pressed for time. In our parents’ day, the preachers would suggest you read one verse and meditate on that, but we don’t have time in our modern day for such old fashioned advice. We need something much more instant.

What you need is your one word for the year. Find a word and let that be your meditation starter. Some people’s word might be grace, faith, or prayer. Those words might be a little ambitious. My word for the year is “and.” That’s right, “and.” Think about it. The word and is spread throughout the entire Bible. Open to any page and you will find it quickly. It’s versatile but also meaningful. Think about it. The word and is used to join things together, so that means adding. Each day I can be moved thinking about all the things God has added to me and my life. What a powerful word and is!

That’s my word. You need to find your word for the year. It would be counterproductive to have to spend a lot of time on it, so find something short and easy. You don’t want to pick a word you’re not sure how to spell and have to look up in a dictionary to know what it means, like propitiation or something. Pick a good word and the whole Bible is open before you. For instance, this morning I opened randomly to Acts 8:8: “And there was great joy in that city.” There’s my word. I meditated for forty-five seconds on how God is going to add joy to my life. It was rich. You should’ve been there.

Just One Verse

Yes, I’ve been exaggerating, perhaps being facetious, to make a point. I only say this because some of my esteemed colleagues occasionally remind me that many people “don’t get it.” So, let’s seriously address the matter at hand and see if I may warm to my subject.

It is common this time of year for preachers to talk about daily Bible reading, daily devotions, daily quiet time, or some other terms for daily practices. I am glad to add my voice to those encouragements, but I also want to warn you against terrible advice. I regularly hear preachers recommending that you read just one verse every day and then meditate on that verse to see what the Holy Spirit may give you from it. They usually suggest reading just one verse is better than reading by some plan or schedule where you read a few chapters and tick a box. That is just plain bad advice.

First, let’s deal with the obvious. The Bible has no command about the daily reading of the Bible. We are not commanded to read the entire Bible in one year or two years. We are not commanded to read just one verse every day. We are not commanded to read the Bible according to any particular plan. We should be able to agree that any attempt to set some rule about Bible reading that Christians must keep is legalistic. If that’s the case then, why would reading one verse to get something out of it be bad advice?

Let us Reason Together

Now let’s get to reasons reading just one verse is such terrible advice.

1) It consoles and encourages laziness in the Christian life and pursuit of holiness in sanctification. Yeah, I said it. All of the Bible is God’s breathed out word of revelation to us (2 Timothy 3:16), and all of it is profitable for us to bring us to completion for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). We are born again through that word (1 Peter 1:23) and sanctified through that word (John 17:17). Every word is true and faithful (Proverbs 30:5) and every word converts and gives wisdom (Psalm 19:7-11).

The idea of reading just one verse minimalizes the Bible’s self-testimony. If all of it is good, then 0.003% of it is good. That is the percentage of one verse out of the total number of verses in the Bible. If you think you are going to read the entire Bible by reading just one verse a day, then know that it will take you over 85 years to read the whole Bible. I’ve heard every excuse there is. You have 15 minutes. Read your Bible.

2) This advice sets a bad example for the congregation. I fear that many preachers who recommend reading just one verse to get something out of it are actually recommending their own practice of sermon preparation. They read a verse or two and rattle them around in their head to see what comes out. It’s how they come up with sermons and then blame the Holy Spirit for it, as if that is ever conveyed in the Bible. Read the Pastoral Epistles. Nowhere does Paul suggest such a scheme. Every word he gives Timothy and Titus informs them and charges them about the hard work they have to do to preach and teach (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 18-19; 3:1; 4:6-16; 5:17-18; 6:11-16; 2 Timothy 1:6, 13-14; 2:1-7, 14-18, 23-26; 3:14-17; 4:1-5; Titus 1:9-14; 2:1, 7-8, 15; 3:8-11).

3) This advice teaches you to misread, misinterpret, and overall mishandle the word of God. The Bible was not written for you to read one verse to get something out of it. The Bible was written as one book that is made up of sixty-six books. The Bible was not written in chapters and verses. The Bible began to be written down over 1,400 years before Jesus was born and was completed around 70 years after he died. It was another twelve centuries before the Bible books were divided into chapters and another three centuries before those chapters were divided into verses. That means the verse divisions have only been around a little longer than the original King James translation, which is a little over 400 years old.

Chapters and verses do provide a good reference and convenience for study, but they have also done much harm. I have to agree with Charles Spurgeon about the trouble with such divisions:

I feel vexed with the fellow who chopped the Bible up into chapters; I forget his name just now, and I am sure it is not worth recollecting. I have heard that he did the most of his carving of the new Testament, between London and Paris, and rough work he made of it. Surely he was chaptering the Gospel of Matthew while he was crossing the Channel, for he has divided it in such queer places.

(From the sermon, “Harvest Men Wanted,” preached August 17, 1873, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.)

When Paul wrote the letter to the Church at Colosse, he never intended them to read one verse and see what they could come up with. He intended the entire letter to be read in that church and other churches as well (Colossians 4:16). The Bible was given in a progressive revelation over time (Hebrews 1:1). That progression means continuity and also movement toward completion, which has come with the first advent of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:2). God has given us a complete revelation and he means for us to read it all, but more than this, one cannot interpret the Bible correctly without reading all of it.

For example: how are we to understand Daniel 9:2? There Daniel is praying for understanding of the seventy years prophecy in Jeremiah. Daniel did not read one verse and then meditate on it. He read, considered, studied, and understood the scrolls, which were the extant Old Testament Scriptures. He particularly understood the duration of the promised desolations as seventy years from Jeremiah’s prophecy. Jeremiah specifically mentions the seventy years in Jeremiah 25:11-12 and Jeremiah 29:10, but these “verses” are not all that’s being considered. He referred to the “desolations” of Jerusalem, which Jeremiah also spoke of in Jeremiah 7:34; 22:5; 25:9, 11, 18; 44:2, 6, 22; et al.

But that’s not all. Jeremiah did not originate the prophecy of desolation. When Jeremiah wrote of desolations of Israel, he was tapping into a judgment motif that runs through the Scriptures. Over 100 years before, Isaiah wrote of these desolations (Isaiah 49:19; 51:3; 52:9; 58:12; 61:4; 64:11). This motif occurs in other Prophets’ writings and in the Psalms. It actually originates in the covenant curses at Sinai in Leviticus 26:31-33 and is repeated in the covenant rehearsal with the second generation of Israel in Deuteronomy 28:15-68.

You can’t just pick up and read Daniel 9:2 and get something out of it, at least not something accurate. Daniel is connected to the books before it and after it. Everyone of those “verses” have an original context that must be understood. It is simply not possible to correctly handle the word of God without handling all of it.

Another Word

Reading one verse to get something out of it is exactly the approach and practice of Bible reading that has us in the mess of biblical illiteracy we are in today. It ought to be obvious in books like Hebrews and Romans that they are filled with Old Testament references and you cannot read just one verse and properly understand the book’s message, but that’s true of the rest of the Bible as well.

It’s a new year and a great time to commit to reading the Bible daily. Don’t take bad advice. Read the whole Bible. You can do it. You won’t regret it.

What’s for Dinner?

It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word of God.
~ Luke 4:4

Whole Words

Have you ever eaten like a pig? Have you ever been so hungry you ate like a street dog assuming its last meal? Have you ever said you were starving? Were you actually starving? Probably not.

Imagine a scene where a starving man at last lays hold of food and he can’t shove food and drink in his mouth fast enough. Is that what would happen if you sat a starving man down to a feast of rich food? Reality is probably much different than what you imagine.

To Build a Bridge

In 1942, the Japanese captured the Scotsman Ernest Gordon and others as they attempted to sail from Indonesia to Sri Lanka and took them back to Singapore. They were force marched to a prison camp in the jungles of Thailand. There Gordon was part of the labor crew forced to build the infamous bridge on the River Kwai. The bridge was a part of the Japanese railway to transport supplies and support their planned attack on India.

The conditions in that concentration camp were reportedly some of the worst known in World War II. Unlike many others, Gordon survived the prison camp for over three years until the Japanese surrender in 1945 and he was liberated. Gordon endured malnutrition and extended starvation among other unimaginable tortures and privations. The prisoners had been fed just enough to barely keep them alive. It was not enough for many. It was said that for every railroad tie laid there was one life lost among the prisoners. Gordon himself was even sent to the “death house” in the camp where they sent prisoners who were expected to die soon, and yet he still survived.

When Gordon was freed, he was taken to a British military hospital set up in Rangoon in Burma for treatment. Gordon described himself and the others as living skeletons and they did not fall on tables of food when they first arrived like hungry lions on a wildebeest. They did savor some fresh brewed tea and fresh baked white bread, but they couldn’t eat much of anything they did eat. What they could eat was nothing very solid and Gordon said it was quite a long time before he could eat any meat at all. These men had to be slowly brought back to life and relied on small portions of soft food and heavy doses of vitamin and mineral supplements. Most of us will never know starvation like that.

If you’re like me, you look forward to all the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table for the best meal of the year. You probably even skimp on breakfast and lunch in preparation. What if this Thanksgiving the family was all gathered around the table and Grandmother didn’t bring food to the table, but instead brought pictures of turkey and ham? What if instead of anyone eating anything, she read aloud some of her recipes for sweet potato pie and cranberry salad? Would you be pleased? Would you in any way be satisfied?

As Gordon and the other men survived extended starvation and malnutrition in the camp, they began to be more interested in pictures of food than pictures of calendar girls. They pinned up pictures of roast beef, apple pie, potatoes, and chocolate cake on the walls of the hut. They took great pleasure in listening to a recipe for angel food cake being read aloud, and were tantalized by the pronounced ingredients. Of course, they couldn’t have truly enjoyed what they most longed for if roast beef and potatoes along with hot apple pie were set in front of them. That’s the sad reality of their situation.

The Bible is Food

The Bible compared to food is a common metaphor in the Bible itself. The prophet Amos spoke the word of the Lord about a time coming when there would be a famine, not of bread and water, but a famine of “hearing the word of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). Job treasured God’s word more than his meal (Job 23:12). Jesus charged Peter to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Paul charged the elders of the Ephesian church to “feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Peter echoed the charge he had received as he charged elders to “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2).

The food Christians need fed is the word of God. The primary job of preachers is to feed people the word of God. Bad preaching is bad food. A steady diet of bad preaching is like a steady diet of junk food. In twenty-one years of ministry I’ve been persistently dismayed by the amount of junk food preaching coming from pulpits. I’ve been even more dismayed by the number of people that prefer junk food preaching over wholesome and nourishing preaching. They pass by roast beef and potatoes preaching for potato chip and ice cream preaching.

Paul warned about people having itching ears and it shouldn’t surprise us when sugar-addicted children choose the line doling out candy as opposed to the line where real meat, fruit, and vegetables are well-prepared and served. It is sometimes the case that people prefer junk food preaching because they’re always chasing a sugar rush through light snacks that any grandma worthy of the matronly office would tell you will ruin your dinner.

Gordon and the bridge builders in the Valley of the Kwai would tell us it’s not always the case though. It is sometimes the case that people have been malnourished and starved for so long that they cannot tolerate hearty and substantial food. Their praise of bad preaching in churches and at conferences is more like Gordon’s men drooling over pictures of roast beef and potatoes while they were nowhere near ready to actually eat such a meal. Like POW’s, many Christians are so used to being fed only enough to barely sustain life that they are just not ready to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast.

A Prescribed Food Regiment

A preacher’s job is not to beat and berate such sick sheep who are ready to die, and to give them only a thick steak to eat would be cruel. Paul told Timothy that Christ’s servants must be gentle, patient, and meek to feed, or teach, God’s flock with the greatest care (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Being “right” doesn’t give you the right to be harsh, hot-headed, and rough instead. God’s flock needs to be fed with the faithful word (Titus 1:9) in order to be healthy and mature properly (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Paul put it best when he charged Timothy, “Preach the word” (1 Timothy 4:1). That “word” means all the scripture, or the whole Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Faithful, persistent exposition of the Bible gives people God’s words and is like taking the best fresh ingredients and preparing a hearty meal. It is a proper balance of sweet and savory. It is a nourishing and satisfying blend of spices mixed with the raw ingredients.

But, we have to remember that biblically malnourished people are far from connoisseurs. Gordon and the others had a mental desire for good food, but not the actual taste for it. That had to come over time. The medical personnel attending them had to bring them along in small increments with love and patience. Preachers are the medical personnel under the Great Physician of souls. We shouldn’t be surprised when plates of hearty Bible food are pushed back, or only half eaten. It seems discussions of preaching inevitably devolve into discussions of preaching styles and personalities, what’s boring and more enjoyable, and even sentimental feelings. This conversation is often joined by endless circling around the definitions of terms and personal experience.

The problem for Gordon wasn’t that he didn’t know or understand the difference between a steak and a piece of toast. The problem was that he simply couldn’t tolerate the steak for a very long time. Preachers need to realize the real heart of the problem with people pushing back plates is seldom a problem of definitions, and more often a problem of malnourishment that leaves people with no appetite or taste for meaty biblical preaching. Preachers must be gentle and patient and keep following the prescription of the Great Physician (2 Timothy 2:23-26).

As for those in the pews, could it that you have been suffering biblical starvation for so long that you’re more concerned with the idea of real food than you are actual food. For the good of your soul and the souls of your family, ditch the junk food and go to where you will be nourishingly fed God’s whole words (Proverbs 19:27).

Call me Ali

They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.
~ Mark 10:37

’cause I’m the greatest

Doctrine. To some, the word causes fear, trembling, and gnashing of teeth. May the hooves of a thousand camels stamp it and may the last camel die upon it under the burning noon sun of the desert. May doctrine be as the filthiness of the Gentiles and not be once named among us. Don’t talk to me about doctrine. In other words, some people would rather avoid it.

To some others, doctrine is where it’s at. They’re all about it. Give me some of that doctrine. Though Isaac sustained Jacob with grain and wine, I will run in the strength of that doctrine for forty days. Though I start on the journey of a thousand miles and the sun is hidden from me behind wet, stone gray clouds, I will fear no evil as long as doctrine is beside me, beneath me, and before me. In other words, it’s all in all to such folks.

I suppose, by now, you suspect me of dealing in extremes and setting up my heroism in forging some middle way. Why would I do that? Why would I want to find a way to be in between follies? I could be slathered with mayo and mustard and paired with cheddar between two slices of problems and I still would only be lunch meat. No, I want to find a better road entirely, the biblical road. What does the Bible have to say about doctrine?

What is doctrine?

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us all Scripture is inspired by God and all of Scripture is useful for doctrine, or teaching. That is what doctrine is. It’s teaching. The Greek noun here is didaskalian, and it means that which is taught. When Luke refers to the Apostles’ teaching in Acts 2:42, he refers to their doctrine, the body of teaching they taught.

The doctrine of the Bible is simply what the Bible teaches. The biblical writers wrote consciously of a body, or system, of instruction in the Bible. Paul charged Timothy to stick to the pattern of Paul’s teaching (2 Timothy 1:13). The Apostles’ doctrine is sufficiently formalized so as to be a standard of measure for all teaching (1 Timothy 6:3-5).

Biblical doctrine is never imposed on the Bible in part or in whole. Biblical doctrine is the Bible. The Bible is a book of sixty-six books and each of those books is made up of narratives, poetry, and paragraphs of prose. We have to give detailed attention to the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs of the biblical books. We have to study the flow, the logic, the grammar, the rhetoric, and the parallels and contrasts with similar passages in the other books of the Bible. Through this process, we come to the contextual meaning of the passage, and that is doctrine.

What is the purpose of doctrine?

The aim of the Bible’s teaching is not mere knowledge. Mere knowledge results in pride (1 Corinthians 8:1). Mere knowledge, no matter how vast its scope, is worthless (1 Corinthians 13:2). Paul often described doctrine in the pastoral letters with a Greek word that means sound, or healthy. The word literally means having good physical health. Biblical doctrine is healthy like a human body free of disease or sickness, but it also healthy like a nutritious meal that nourishes and enriches the body to perform its tasks (1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 3:17).

Biblical doctrine is foundational to growing in faith, obedience, and practical righteousness (1 Timothy 6:3; Titus 1:1; 2:11-14; 2 Peter 1:3-7). Doctrine sanctifies us and fills us with joy (John 17:13-17). Doctrine grows our discernment and protects us from error (Hebrews 5:11-14; Ephesians 4:4). Doctrine is also instrumental in making disciples, as God’s word creates God’s people (Matthew 28:18-20).

Conclusion

As pastors minister in their congregations, we aim for people to be brought to faith, grow in grace, grow in love, grow in unity, grow in witness, grow in joy, grow in worship, and grow in expectation of Christ’s return. That does not, or will not, happen apart from good doctrine. We simply cannot feed the sheep without exposition of all the words God gave us that forms accurate doctrine, which is then applied to the very people in front of us. Doctrine is a vital part of connecting people today to the Bible written so long ago.

In other words doctrine is essential to ministry. You cannot jettison doctrine and maintain ministry. Ministry without doctrine becomes manipulation. Whatever the means employed, people are conformed to whatever vision the pastor has for them, but they are not really transformed by the teaching of God’s word. On the other hand, often doctrine is not viewed as essential to ministry but the entire goal of ministry. Doctrine becomes a measuring stick by which we can tell who will be the greatest in Heaven. It is a quick check by which we can measure our distinctiveness from our neighbor. People are prepped by such a ministry as if Heaven requires a No. 2 pencil and fully filled ovals.

Doctrine is essential. Doctrine that does not lead us to making more and more of Jesus Christ and less and less of ourselves, is not sound and is not biblical. On second thought, my name is not Ali after all.

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