I mentioned previously the book Unto A Good Land: A History of the American People. Written by six American historians the book is massive — a little over twelve hundred copy-paper sized pages. It’s too big and heavy to hold on my lap, so I read with it open on my desk. When I began, I found myself taking copious notes. There was so much I didn’t know! I needed to keep track.
But at that rate, a little each day at lunch, I’d never finish. Perhaps, I thought, I should just read. Absorb as much as possible, and then read it again – or read another book covering the same ground. The idea was to improve my over-all understanding of American history.
For a similar reason I encourage you to read the Bible through every year. Wouldn’t it be better to just pick a book of the Bible and read it several times, or spend your time in a detailed study of a small section?
There is a place for both of those efforts. But unless you are able to seat your study in the entirety of the text, you’ll probably go off course. You can’t be a “specialist” without first being a “generalist.” The history of anything is inseparably connected to the history of everything, and every book of the Bible is connected to the whole.
We are coming to the end of 2020. If you didn’t read the Bible through this year, or tried but fell off the wagon, determine to pick it up and begin anew. Four chapters a day will get you through by the end of 2021. Give it a whirl. A year from now you will have developed a habit that will expose you to everything God has revealed. And if you don’t get it all the first go round, you’ll get more the second.
By the way . . . I finished Unto A Good Land this week. Six to ten pages a day got me through, and I learned a lot. Set a goal, lay a plan to accomplish it, and don’t let anything get in your way.
In their book, Unto A Good Land, five noted history professors tell the story of our nation taking into particular account the influence of religion on our history. The early explorers were Spanish and Portugese and while trade and riches were motivating factors in their efforts, mission work was also on their minds. Columbus claimed to be God’s “messenger of the new heaven and the new earth.”
But the methods of such early explorers as Cortes, Vasquez de Coronado, and Don Juan Onate were a far cry from what Jesus had in mind with the Great Commission. Cortes, for example, forced the Indians to give up their idols and embrace Christianity, giving captured women to his captains but requiring them to be baptized before marriage or cohabitation. Natives were often treated with such little regard by their conquerors that one observant missionary complained “we cannot preach the gospel now.”
Effective witness begins not with a message, but with personal presentation and treatment of others. I remember seeing a 1946 photo of fifteen Dr. Pepper salesmen in crisp uniforms gathered for a 7 am sales meeting. A blackboard was filled with daily reminders but to one side was a poster with these words at the bottom: “Every member of an organization who in any capacity comes into contact with the public is a salesman, and the impression he makes is an advertisement, good or bad.”
The apostle Paul wrote that God’s ambassadors should set an example for others by doing good so that God’s name might not be slandered and that the teaching about God our Savior might be attractive.
You can force people to embrace a religion. The early explorers did it. But you cannot force people to have faith. Cultivating faith in others through example, mentoring and teaching is really what the Great Commission is all about.
“Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).
What do you remember of your first “communion?” I was baptized on Sunday, October 10, 1965. I was twelve. We had no baptistry so after assembly, we drove in a small caravan to the seaside where my father baptized me. There is a small picture of the event it in my office.
An elderly lady missionary had her birthday celebration that day and after my baptism, we went to her party at the YMCA (they had a room large enough to hold the crowd). Then, a few hours later, we met with a congregation near there (no evening service for us) and I was served the Lord’s Supper. I knew I had that day crossed over and was now counted one of the People of God. From that day to this, every Lord’s day, I’m reminded of that fact.
To a goddaughter at her first communion C.S. Lewis wrote: “Don’t expect (I mean, don’t count on and don’t demand) that . . . when you take your first communion you will have all the feelings you would like to have. You may, of course, but also you may not. But don’t worry if you don’t get them. They aren’t what matter. The things that are happening to you are quite real things whether you feel as you would wish or not, just as a meal will do a hungry person good even if he has a cold in the head which will rather spoil the taste. Our Lord will give us right feelings if He wishes – and then we must say ‘Thank you.’ If He doesn’t, then we must say to ourselves (and Him) that he knows us best. . . . For years after I became a Christian I can’t tell you how dull my feelings were and how my attention wandered at the most important moments. It is only in the last year or two that things have begun to come right – which just shows how important it is to keep doing what you are told.”
I’ve been doing my Old Testament daily Bible readings in a new translation this year and one of the things that took me off guard was the appearance of “Lord of armies” as a name for God. It first appears in 1 Samuel 1:3. The NIV renders it “Lord Almighty.” The ESV translates it “Lord of hosts” – and I was used to those, but not “Lord of armies.” Notice that it is not “Lord of the Army,” as in Israel’s army, but Lord of “Armies.” God is the Lord of all armies. The title has special relevance in the prophets because Israel was looking to the army to rescue her; if not her own army, then the army of Egypt, or Syria.
Interestingly, the title, while ubiquitous in Isaiah and Jeremiah (half of all its uses are in those two books), does not occur at all in Ezekiel or Daniel. And why? Because in captivity, Israel had ceased to be a sovereign nation. She had no army, and lacked the political muscle to call on another nation to help her. The term was irrelevant for God.
Ezekiel however chronicles a vastly different situation for Israel. Some of them are living yet in Canaan, believing their brethren in captivity have gotten what they deserve. Those in captivity are hoping their brethren in Canaan will mount a force and come rescue them. The world of both groups has collapsed. Their times are unprecedented. Neither group is looking to God who is called in Ezekiel the “Sovereign Lord” (NIV) or “Lord God” (KJV, ESV). Ezekiel uses that name some 210 times for God out of 293 in the whole Old Testament.
By using that particular name for God, Ezekiel’s message to a bedraggled Israel was the same as it is for us. Whatever is going on, for whatever reason, God is in control. He rules. Only he rules. Put your hope in him because as sovereign, He is the only hope there is.
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:15-16)
John William McGarvey was born in 1829 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. He became a Christian at the end of his first year in college. Three years later, he became a preacher.
When the Civil war began McGarvey was preaching for a small congregation in Dover, Missouri. Every day people met to talk about little else but the war. The newspapers were, of course, full of war news. McGarvey, could have spent his time reading the reports and sitting in the general store pontificating with others on how the war ought to be fought – or whether it ought to be fought at all. Instead, he spent three years writing a commentary on the book of Acts. My point is this: When McGarvey found his world falling apart, and chaos all around him, he made sure to take some time to feed his soul.
We cannot ignore the present crisis. But might I suggest that while we practice “safe distancing” and conscientious hand washing, that we use some of the extra time we may have to feed our souls. If you have not begun a daily reading of the Bible, do that. You may not make it all the way through this year, but you might just develop a habit that will change your life. Set aside a time for prayer and mention by name all those in our family you know. Phone a friend – perhaps one you haven’t connected with in a while. Use your time for something good.
Watching TV, listening to the news (for hours on end) will not make you a better person, may make you feel anxious and rob you of faith and will certainly waste precious time.
By the way: McGarvey’s became one of the most widely used commentaries on the book of Acts in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 challenges to the Catholic Church to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, Germany. Most historians cite that as the beginning of what became known as the Reformation.
Luther felt he was in uncharted territory, but he was determined to lead the Church he loved out of her worldliness into spirituality.
All did not go well.
Luther was tried and excommunicated in 1521. His life was in danger. Though Luther was trying to reform the Church, once he revolted, others felt free to do the same. What followed was, for many, excommunication, persecution, and execution. Luther felt deep responsibility and wrestled with deep depression.
If all that weren’t enough, in August of 1527 the black plague re-emerged in Germany and in August, struck his town of Wittenberg. The healthy and wealthy fled. Luther and his family stayed and ministered to the sick. Luther’s son contracted the disease but recovered. His pregnant wife also contracted the disease and recovered, but their newborn daughter, weakened in utero, died at the age of five months. It was during this time Luther wrote his most famous hymn based on Psalm 46:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.
Our helper He amidst the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
Covid-19 is not the Black Plague, but like the Black Plague, it is a “mortal ill.” By all means, be wise and be careful. Wash your hands, and if you are sick, stay away from people who are well. But keep this in mind: our hope is not in any of these precautions, but in the Lord of Hosts. As Luther wrote in verse 2
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He
The Lord of hosts His name, from age to age the same
And He must win the battle.
“And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” (Matthew 13:11).
In the first two plagues of the Exodus story, whatever God empowered Moses to do, Pharaoh’s magicians could also do. That changed with the third plague. It is almost like God was in a contest with the magic of Egypt! Of course, the contest ended with the third plague – which the magicians could not duplicate. God was supreme.
With the next three plagues that lesson would be repeated, along with another one: This supreme God has a chosen people. “‘But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land. I will make a distinction between my people and your people” (Exodus 8:22-23).
My people. Your people.
Jesus emphasizes the distinction: “to you it has been given. But not to them.” The disciples were “insiders.” The crowds were “outsiders.”
To Christians Paul wrote ‘Christ gave himself to redeem us, to purify for himself a people who are his very own’ (Titus 2:14). Peter wrote: “[Y]ou are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God . . .” (1 Peter 2:9).
Insiders have two tasks: First, to behave like insiders – like Jesus – so that no one will malign the word of God, so that people will be ashamed of opposing us, so that we can make the teaching about God our Savior attractive to others (Titus 2:5,8,9). We can’t do that if our lives look theirs. Second, having made the word of God attractive by our behavior, we must bring those outsiders inside our world.
“You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word” (Psalm 119:114).
Psalm 119 is the longest of the Psalms. It may well be the most artistic.
There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This psalm has twenty-two sections, each named for a succeeding letter. So, in your Bible, the first section of Psalm 119 is headed “aleph,” the second “beth,” the third “gimel” and so on to the end of the alphabet.
Each section has eight verses, and each one of those verses begins with a word corresponding to that section’s alphabet letter. Thus the first section has eight verses, each verse beginning with a word starting with an aleph (or “A”). The second eight verses each begin with a beth (or “B”). On it goes, changing letters every eight verses. If you don’t think that’s tough, try writing your own poem that way!
So why the artistry?
The more complicated the structure, the more valuable the subject. And so, the writer does it this way, giving the poem great length and complicated presentation to underscore the importance and value of his subject, the word of God.
But I want to focus on one little phrase: “according to your word.” It occurs five times in the poem and on all five occasions, the writer refers to something God has promised: hope in desperate times (vs. 25), strength in days of sorrow (vs. 28), knowledge and good judgment for day to day living (vs. 65), relief in times of suffering (vs. 107), and understanding in times of confusion (vs. 169). Interestingly, the author knows these are the promises of God because he has read them in God’s word.
Like the Psalmist, make God your refuge and shield in 2020 by trusting in his promises – promises you will find in a daily reading of God’s word. You can’t know about them if you don’t read about them.
In her recent book, Confronting Christianity, Rebecca McLaughlin writes:
In 2015 I met an Iranian science professor from a world-class university. I asked him how he came to be a Christian. He replied, “Through the ministry of J.S. Bach!” My new friend had been raised in a Muslim family. But when the Islamic revolution swept through Iran in 1980, he abandoned his familial faith. Alongside his scientific studies, my friend was a semiprofessional flutist. Classical music was banned by the new government, so music lovers crowded into private houses to savor illicit sonatas. Before one secret concert, my friend rehearsed a Bach flute sonata with his musical mentor but was stopped a few bars in: “I cannot hear the cross of Christ in what you are playing,” his mentor complained. My friend was bewildered: with little knowledge of Christianity, he had no idea what his mentor meant. But the challenge stuck with him. Gradually, he began to apprehend the profoundly Christian fabric of Bach’s works; and when he first walked into a church a few years later, he sensed the same reality.
Reading those words I was reminded of these very important truths: while there is only one road to Christ, no one knows it on their own. Everyone must be shown the way. The way can only be shown by Christ followers, but it is revealed in ways that are as varied as the lives we live and the experiences we share.
It may not be Bach, but you have something in common with a friend, an acquaintance, a co-worker, a relative who needs to know the way to Jesus. Use that commonality to point them to Christ that they too might become a disciple.
My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent . . . 16 for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood (Proverbs 1:10-16).
Barry Black grew up on the streets of Baltimore, the son of a devoutly religious mother. She paid her children a nickel a verse for every passage of scripture they committed to memory and Barry quickly learned to game the system. He began looking for the shortest verses in the Bible (“low hanging fruit” he calls them). There was “Jesus Wept” (John 11:35). Then “Rejoice evermore” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Then “Remember Lot’s Wife” (Luke 17:32) and “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Barry found two for one specials. “Do not kill” was Exodus 20:13, but so was Deuteronomy 5:17. Learn it once, get paid twice. Barry’s mother knew what he was doing, but she also knew what she was doing. In order to find those verses, Barry had to make his way through the Bible. Eventually, his mother capped what she would pay to a quarter a week (five verses), and eventually, Barry found greater value than a nickel a verse.
One afternoon in his 13th year, young Barry was invited by some friends to join them in taking revenge on a common nemesis. Barry remembered Proverbs 1:10-16 and refused, choosing to stay far away from those “friends.” The revenge went horribly wrong, and a boy died. The others were charged and convicted of murder. “That would have been me” Barry says, “had I not remembered the proverb” and taken it to heart.
Today Barry is the Chaplain of the United States Senate and as I listened to him a few days ago (his speech peppered with scripture) I thought: That’s what David meant when he wrote: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11).