Archives For The Bible

Cultivation

Mark Beuving —  January 5, 2015 — Leave a comment

Sometimes when I go through my weekly ritual of mowing my lawn, I wonder, “How many times have I walked over this exact spot?” I step on virtually every square inch of my lawn every single week. I push the mower over every blade of grass, cutting them to the exact same length. During the week, those blades grow taller and begin to look a bit unruly. And then I walk back and forth across the lawn and cut them to a uniform height. Week after week after week.

I will never finish mowing my lawn. It will always grow and always require cutting. My neighbor, on the other hand, just installed artificial turf in his backyard. Week after week, year after year, my neighbor’s turf will continue to look almost like grass. It will never need to be cut. It will just be there. And I will be next door, walking across my yard.

Abigail Backyard Bubbles

Life calls for cultivation. Dead turf needs no cultivating (though I’ve heard it needs to be washed, which doesn’t sound fun). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled off dead flower petals to allow new ones to grow. Or how many times I’ve trimmed the bougainvillea plants lining my backyard. I feel like I’m constantly checking sprinklers, trimming, and doing a variety of activities to help my plants thrive.

Life is needy. Sure, life churns and thrives around the world even with no human cultivation. But there is a difference between an overgrown jungle and a well-tended garden. And if you take away some of the elements that life requires—water, for example—then life subsides. Life is needy. Gardens need tending. Plants must be cultivated.

As I mow my lawn, I sometimes consider what other areas in my life require this level of cultivation. I compare the number of times I’ve stepped on each blade of grass to the number of times I’ve read a given phrase in my Bible. I’ll never finish reading my Bible. It’s not enough to have read the whole thing. My knowledge of the Bible will never be complete; I’ll never hear its comforts and admonitions enough; my imagination will never be sufficiently stimulated by the prophetic and poetic imagery in its pages. And so I sit regularly in the same chair, holding the same book, re-reading lines that have long been familiar. This is an act of cultivation.

Or how many times have I spoken the same words to God? “Lord, help my daughters grow to love you. Give them hearts of compassion. Please provide for our family.” I have made these requests so many times. And I repeat other phrases to God endlessly: “Thank you for today. Thank you for my wife. For our girls. For constantly providing. For loving us.” It doesn’t matter how many times I say these things. They will need to be said again. I will never finish praying. I will always be cultivating.

How many times have I performed the simple gestures that show my wife I love her? I have taken out the trash so many times. I’ll never be done with that. I have spoken the words “I love you” so many times over so many years. I have tried to set aside my plans for her benefit many times (though not nearly enough). How many times have I performed simple, repetitive actions for my daughters? Saying “I love you.” Helping them get dressed. Getting them snacks. Buckling them into cars. Brushing their teeth. Disciplining them. Over and over and over I do these things. I will never be done with some of these activities (though I hope to teach my girls to brush their own teeth someday). I repeat these simple actions and words because they are a means of cultivation.

I suppose a well-tended garden could be glamorous, in a certain sense. But cultivation is never glamorous. It’s always boring. Always repetitive. Yet there is no garden without cultivation. So it is in our daily lives. The most important things we will do are boring, repetitive tasks. And yet they matter immensely. Each simple gesture is an act of cultivation, an act of faith toward what we know a plant or relationship could become if well cared for.

So as you begin this new year, what in your life needs cultivating? You can’t simply decide to be a good father, or a good spouse, or a good friend, or a good reader, or whatever. It requires patient cultivation. What will you cultivate? What are you cultivating now? What are you neglecting? And how can you, in faith, better cultivate those things that really matter this year?

Why Christians Can Disagree

Mark Beuving —  December 8, 2014 — 2 Comments

Christians often disagree. That’s why we have so many denominations. That’s why we have so many Christian books about every subject imaginable. That’s why we have so many commentary series. That’s why we have so many blogs.

Disagreement amongst Christians is common. But it’s unsettling. Doesn’t it bother you that we can’t all agree on how or when to baptize a person? Or how the sovereignty of God relates to the human will? Or how the world will end? There are a host of issues that Christians have disagreed upon for centuries.

Don’t you sometimes wonder how a group of people who are supposed to be united can disagree on so many topics?

It’s startling that we can worship the same God and read the same Bible and still come to so many disagreements. But there is a strange beauty in the whole thing.

disagreement

What unites all Christians is our union with Christ. What we all have in common is our shared commitment to following Jesus. When we “give our lives to Christ,” we are pledging our allegiance to a Person. We let go of our own ambitions and agree to do whatever Jesus tells us to do. A person of faith is a person who believes the words that God says.

So when a Presbyterian baptizes his baby, he does so because he looks at God’s word, sees a connection between New Testament baptism and Old Testament circumcision, and firmly believes that baptizing his child is an act of obedience to Christ. And when a Baptist waits for his child to mature before baptizing her, he does so because he looks at God’s word, sees adults being baptized in the New Testament as a confession of their own faith, and firmly believes that being baptized as a conscious believer is an act of obedience to Christ.

A Calvinist reads her Bible carefully and sees passages about God moving the hearts of men, about God working all things according to the counsel of his will, and about God’s involvement in even the most trivial or tragic of human affairs. She wants to understand God’s truth, and she believes and teaches about God’s sovereignty out of obedience to Jesus. An Arminian reads her Bible carefully and sees passages commanding human beings to repent and believe, passages that show human decisions and their real consequences, and about the responsibility of human beings to respond to God and his truth. She wants to understand God’s truth, and she believes and teaches human responsibility out of obedience to Jesus.

So we don’t agree on every point of doctrine. But for Christians, that’s okay. It’s okay because we know where we need to go for the answers. We’ll disagree on what those answers are, but we all know that truth is found in the Bible.

Scripture is sufficiently simple to ensure that we all know God and his truth as we read. But Scripture is sufficiently complex to ensure that we will never exhaust the rich themes, nuances, paradoxes, and genres it contains. This second feature of Scripture, it’s beautiful complexity, also ensures that we’ll all disagree at some point. We will all see a certain theme or nuance so clearly that we will lose sight of another equally important theme. Our interpretations differ, but we’re all mining the same source, a source that will never relinquish all of its unified complexity.

All of us will mine this book forever. To borrow some terms from Francis Schaeffer, we will all know biblical truth TRULY, but we will not know it EXHAUSTIVELY. And the simple fact that no single person on earth can hold every Scriptural truth, theme, and emphasis in mind at any given moment ensures that we will all disagree. For this reason, only God knows his word completely, knows it exhaustively. And it’s our joy to continually seek the mind of God as he has revealed it in Scripture.

So Christians can respectfully, joyfully, graciously disagree because none of us is (or none of us should be) studying the Bible so that we can be right. We are studying the Bible to know God and obey his will. And because we know the Christians across the street are doing the same, we don’t need to be troubled by their disagreement. It simply drives us to pursue God all the more and seek to understand him increasingly more until the day we see him face to face.

I can disagree with you because I am not the source of truth, and neither are you. If we remember that, and if we continue pursuing the source as an act of loving worship, then our disagreements can only make us stronger followers of Jesus and thereby increase our unity with one another.

 

 

 

Perhaps that sounds creepy. Let me clarify. Preston won’t be in your living room, he will be on your computer or tablet. The whole process will be simple, affordable, and effective. Here’s how.

Preston RedReaders who have had any exposure to Preston’s writing are familiar with his grasp of the Bible. I have always been particularly impressed with his ability to teach the Old Testament in a powerful, engaging, and clear manner. While his book Fight is about violence, Preston’s overview of the Old Testament’s teaching on the issue was hugely beneficial for me in simply understanding what the Old Testament is all about. The same is true of his book Charis, which is about Grace in the Old Testament. He knows these ancient books well, and he knows how to bring them to life.

You may or may not know that Preston has taught through the entire Old Testament in three Silo courses:

The Silo format means that each of these courses consists of roughly 15 sessions, and each session consists of a 5-7 minute video and some discussion questions. This is a great format for getting an overview of something as complicated and important as the Old Testament.

Normally Silo courses are $25 each, but if you use the coupon code “abraham” you can take 40% off each of these courses (offer expires December 31, 2014). This means you can cover the Old Testament in roughly 45 five-minute sessions for only $45. Or you can study these courses with a group for even less.

If you’d like to get a feel for what these three courses are like, the first two videos for each course are embedded below. If you’re ready to go, sign up for the first course here. And if you have any questions, let us know.

 

The First Two Sessions of the Pentateuch Course

 

Old Testament: Introduction to the Pentateuch from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

Old Testament: Two Ways of Reading the Old Testament from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

The First Two Sessions of the Historical Books Course

Old Testament: Introduction to the Historical Books from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

Old Testament: Joshua, Part 1 from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

 

The First Two Sessions of the Poetic & Prophetic Books Course

Old Testament: Introduction to the Poetic & Prophetic Books from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

Old Testament: Job from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

Is it ever okay for Christians to use vulgar language?

Charis front cover_w:tullianThis question is particularly pertinent to me, since my book Charis takes liberties that might offend some people. While the response to my book so far has been good, I’ve received not a few reactions that go something like… “I don’t think my grandma will like this book” or “some people will be offended at your language.” One friend of mine was having his wife read the book out loud while they were driving, but he told her to skip chapter 6 (titled “Whore”) because he couldn’t hear her say those words out loud.

Just to be clear, I don’t use any four-letter words in the book. Only five-letter ones. And I never say anything that, in my mind, goes beyond what the Bible (in its original language) actually says.

The plain and undeniable fact is: The Bible at times uses vulgar and offensive language. In fact, there isn’t a single literal translation of Ezekiel 16 on the market. You have to know Hebrew to fully understand that chapter in the Bible, because the Hebrew is just too graphic (The Message comes closest). The same goes for Song of Songs and other portions of the Bible.

But let me share my heart. I want you to know where I’m coming from. I know that the use of crass and vulgar language has become trendy in some Christian circles, and some Christian preachers seem to enjoy shocking their audience simply because they…enjoy shocking their audience. But that’s not me. There is nothing in me, and nothing in my book, that is designed to say things in a shocking way simply to get a rise out of some people. Shock for the sake of shock is immature and unchristian. I have no desire to push some undefined envelope just to thumb my nose at people more conservative than I.

However, I also have no desire to censor the Bible where it was designed to offend, stir up, or shake the overly religious out of spiritual complacency.

As I said, the Bible uses offensive, vulgar, and sometimes quite pornographic (that is: “graphic sexual imagery”) language. Our English translations will dim down the language, and there may be times when unleashing the original language is inappropriate. But my book Charis is written for adults, not children.

So I deal with Genesis 38 and Ezekiel 16 and Hosea. I don’t pass over what Zipporah did to her son in Exodus 4 or Abraham’s past life in Ur. Gomer was not a prostitute but a sexually promiscuous woman, and I explain why this matters. The best English equivalent to zoneh, in certain contexts, is whore (that five-letter word). Hosea would have shocked his audience; if our preaching of Hosea doesn’t shock ours, then perhaps we’re not being as faithful to the text as we should. I’m not trying to be edgy just to be edgy, and I asked my many editors to tell me if they thought I went beyond the actual text (sometimes I did, and those bits didn’t make it into the final draft). I put much thought into every word that I said, and every word I wrote I wrote for a reason. Again, my motivation is not to sound hip or crass or vulgar. It’s to be biblical.

My motivation is and will always be the same: To proclaim and celebrate the word of God in all its grit and grime. Because the scandal of grace is often buried in a pile of religious bumper stickers trying to keep the gospel strapped in a pew. And if that’s how God talks about grace, then so be it. But he doesn’t. He talks about all kinds of sin—the deep, dark stuff—that he rescues us from. Because this impresses on our soul the magnitude of his grace.

My motivation with every word in Charis is to be most faithful to the word of God in its original language, and I want to impact my audience with the message of grace in the same way that the Bible would have impacted (perhaps offended) its own audience. That’s my motivation. Not to be edgy, not to be cool. But to be faithful to God’s word, which I’m determined to teach faithfully.

In any case, I still give this warning in the Preface:

Grace is a dangerous topic. We often want to domesticate it, calm it down, stuff it into a blue blazer and a pair of khakis. But biblical grace—or charis, as you’ll see—doesn’t like to settle down. It doesn’t drive a minivan and it sometimes misses church. To prove this, we’re going to venture on a journey across the land of Israel, and I’m not bringing a pacifier. If you need to scream, I’ll roll down the window. If you want to get off in the next town, sorry, doors are locked. Grace is a dangerous topic because the Bible is a dangerous book. It wrecks people, it offends people, and it’s tough to read from the suburbs. If you’re under eighteen, you might want to find another book on grace. There are plenty out there.

ProphecyThe prophetic books of the Old Testament can be tricky. But these are important books, so it’s important that we understand how to read them well.

Old Testament prophecy is not what we tend to think it is. Duvall & Hays summarize some surprising facts about the Old Testament prophetic books:

  • Less than 5% prophesies about the time between Jesus’ first and second comings.
  • Less than 2% prophesies about Jesus (the Messiah).
  • Less than 1% prophesies about events that have not yet occurred.

Most Christians know that the Old Testament is full of prophesies about Jesus. And it is. But those prophecies are only a small fraction of what Old Testament prophecy is about. So what does the vast majority of the prophetic books cover? Sin, really. Or more accurately, the call to repentance.

When we talked about the Law, we said that it was given in a very specific context. So it is with prophecy. In fact, the context of the Law and the context of the Prophets are integrally related. The Law was part of a covenant that God made with Israel. Israel agreed to this covenant along with its terms: if they obeyed, they would be blessed and remain in the Promised Land; if they disobeyed, they would be cursed and carried off into exile.

Now, as we read the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi), the context once again centers on Israel, the covenant, and the Law. Particularly, Israel (which has by this point split into two nations: Israel and Judah) has disobeyed the Law, they have not been faithful to the covenant, so now they are facing exile. The vast majority of the prophetic books, then, is either calling Israel or Judah to repent and remember God’s covenant, promising them judgment for their disobedience, speaking to Israel or Judah in the midst of their exile and explaining how they got to where they are, or speaking consoling words of a time when they will be allowed to return to the Promised Land. (Sometimes the prophets will turn and speak to surrounding nations about judgment and repentance.)

With all of that in mind, here are some tips for navigating this difficult but rewarding genre of Scripture:

 

1. Always start by considering the historical and covenantal context.

Remember that these words weren’t written directly to you. Remember that these people are being held accountable to the covenant that God made with Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai. The relevance of each prophetic passage will extend beyond that historical situation, but it always starts there. So consider the audience, the place in which they stand (is this book written before, during, or after the exile? is it written to Israel, to Judah, or to some other nation? is the passage speaking of hope, judgment, or foretelling the future?), and what these words would have meant to them before you decide what it means for us today.

Jeremiah 29;11 PlateAn example might be helpful. We love Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I estimate that this verse covers roughly half of the decorative plates in Christian homes. But we need to consider the context. These words were written as part of a letter from Jeremiah to the leaders of the Jewish people who were in exile. The letter tells them to settle into their new exilic “home”: they’re going to be there for awhile. And then, after 70 years of being cut off from the Promised Land, God is going to gather them from the nations and return them to their home. Why? Because “he knows the plans he has for Israel.”

Go ahead and read Jeremiah 29:1–23. These words are not a promise that God’s plan for my life is bright and sunny. They are a promise to a disobedient people that they will be punished for 70 years, and then they will be allowed to return home. The context makes all the difference in understanding this passage.

 

2. Feel & visualize the imagery used.

The prophetic books are full of powerful imagery. Just as we said for the genre of poetry, enter into the imagery of the prophets. What visuals is the imagery painting? How should the imagery makes us feel, what would it have us experience? For example, Isaiah 5 confronts Israel in their disobedient response to God’s grace. But it does so by comparing Israel to a vineyard and God to a viticulturist. Take the imagery in. Consider its overall impact. Ask how this imagery would have felt to those hearing it (would they be frightened? given hope? moved to repentance?). Until you let the imagery hit you, you haven’t understood the prophecy.

 

3. Ask what you can learn about God by the way he speaks to his people in this passage.

We have so much to learn about God’s greatness, wrath, mercy, patience, faithfulness, fatherhood, persistence, etc. by reading the prophets. So we haven’t finished reading these passages until we ask what we can learn about God through his words and actions in these books. Let’s revisit Jeremiah 29:11. While we need to understand that it’s not making a promise directly to us, it’s hugely instructive to see God making this kind of promise to such a persistently disobedient people. By reading this passage carefully, we find that even though God punishes his people, he still cares for them, and offers them even more grace in the future. (So you don’t need to smash your decorative plates after all—just make sure you understand the context.)

 

I’ll end with a note about some of the biggest difficulties of interpreting prophecy. One big area of disagreement is how literally the imagery should be taken. When we are told that the lion will lie down with the lamb (Is. 11:6), is that giving us a non-literal mental image of peace or giving us a literal example of what will happen when peace reigns on earth? It’s not an easy question to settle, though the main point is clear (peace is coming!).

Then there are the prophecies about a future restoration for Israel. Are they going to be literally fulfilled in the literal nation of Israel at some point, or are these promises spiritually fulfilled in the church, the New Testament people of God? There are good arguments to be made either way. This is one of the biggest debates in biblical interpretation.

Finally, for that minority of passages that are predicting future events, when will those events occur? Once again, it’s not easy to determine. Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” While God’s Word is sure and we can trust that God knows what these events are referring to, Christians often disagree on precisely when and how these predictions of the future will play out. But don’t worry, it gets even more controversial when we get to the book of Revelation.