Bible studies and prayer meetings
John 5: These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you.
It all starts when Jesus heals a lame man with the order to pick up his bed roll and walk. The wonderful miracle is lost on the religious leaders because it takes place on the Sabbath. Never mind the miracle, they insist, what’s this about telling people to carry things on the Sabbath? Pitiful, isn’t it. When these leaders angrily challenge Jesus he does nothing to calm them down. Rather, he identifies himself with his Heavenly Father and claims his support and direction in all he does. How in the world do they think they can win an argument with the man who just worked a miracle? Jesus moves on to point out that they, Bible scholars that they are, know all about what the Scriptures say about the Messiah. He tells them it’s time to get their heads out of their Bibles and look in the eye the one testified about by those very Scriptures. Silly religious leaders! They’ve given their lives to knowing God’s Word and have now missed the Living Word of God standing right in front of them. How could they ever think that Bible study is better than fellowship with the Lord who is right there with them? I’m glad we Christians today know better. We’d rather spend five minutes in the literal presence of the Lord than an hour of debating some obscure term from the Bible. Right? I know, I know, there’s a place for both. Still, I can’t help but note that Bible studies are generally better attended than prayer meetings.
Take Away: It’s better, if one must decide between the two, to know Jesus than to know the Bible. Happily, we don’t have to decide.
No shallow water here
John 1: The Word was God.
Intentionally paralleling the opening words of Genesis John begins his gospel with poetry. In the first words of the Bible I’m told that God “spoke” the world into existence. “God said…and there was.” Now, I’m told that in recent days God has spoken again. This time, not creating a new world but, rather, creating salvation. This time, God has spoken in a man and that man is the Word of God. Everything I need to know about salvation, everything necessary for salvation is accomplished in the living Word of God. The One John introduces here is more than just a man speaking God’s words. He is, in man, God, himself. This, my friend, is a huge concept that can’t be explained in one short devotional paragraph. It can, though, be summed up in a sentence: “the Word was God.”
Take Away: To know Jesus is to know God. To know Jesus is to know Salvation.
A good word from the Lord
Ezekiel 29: I’ll give you, Ezekiel, bold and confident words to speak.
A turnaround is coming. For some time now Israel had heard nothing but condemnation from God’s prophet, Ezekiel. According to him things are going to get worse before they get better. Now, we see that things will, indeed, get better. The same man who’s condemned their sin and the sins of the nations associated with them is going to be given a different word from the Lord. His words will bring hope and deliverance. His messages will reconnect them with God, himself. What powerful words they’re going to be! These aren’t the empty promises of a politician. This is God’s man speaking God’s word to them. When the Lord gets involved words take on an additional element of power. As a preacher I’m both encouraged and challenged here. I’m encouraged that, as old fashioned as it might seem, that God can communicate to people through a weak vessel like me and that as I preach God can “stir up fresh hope” and usher in “deliverance” in people’s lives. I’m challenged to live close enough to the Lord that he can direct me in that endeavor; to trust him and cooperate with him in what he wants to say to those who are listening.
Take Away: Words directed by the Lord are powerful and can be life changing.
Ezekiel 3: Get all these words that I’m giving you inside you.
Ezekiel’s vision is intended to prepare him for the ministry God has for him. At one point in his vision he’s given a scroll and told to eat it. He reports that it tastes like honey. When the Lord applies the vision he tells Ezekiel that he needs to fully digest the message he has for the exiles. God’s message needs to become part of him to the point that even if people disagree or simply refuse to listen to him that he’ll have absolute confidence in what he says. While I don’t enjoy arguing religion, I certainly enjoy talking about it. I love dealing with the finer points of the faith, especially the more difficult to understand passages. However, there are some things that ought not to be subject to debate. I’ve learned that there are a few, very few, absolute basics that need to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker. They’re to become as much a part of me as are my heart and lungs. It’s not that I refuse to discuss them, but that they are at the core of my existence. Without diving off into the deep end of the pool here, I think I can name them off the top of my head. First, God is. Second, Jesus is the Son of God who died for my sins and was resurrected to life. Third, as I trust in Jesus as my Savior I have the hope of eternal life in him. These truths not only “taste like honey,” they also make me who I am today and for eternity.
Take Away: Some things are debatable and a few, just a few, aren’t.
How inspiration works
Jeremiah 36: There were also generous additions, but the same kind of thing.
Babylon isn’t the only threat to Judah during Jeremiah’s ministry. Egypt also invades and conquers the nation. Jehoiakim is made king of Judah by the Egyptian conquerors. It’s during his years in power that the Lord tells Jeremiah to write down a recap of all the prophecies that have been made concerning Israel and Judah. Jeremiah obeys, dictating his messages to Baruch, who serves as his secretary. The prophet sends Baruch down to the Temple to read it all to the people and the message creates uproar. Before long, Baruch, scroll in hand, finds himself before king Jehoiakim. The king, though, isn’t impressed with Jeremiah’s message. As Baruch reads, the king takes a small knife and trims away each column as it’s heard. He then, in an act of rejection, throws what has been cut off into the fire. When Baruch returns to Jeremiah and tells him what’s happened, Jeremiah starts all over again, dictating another message from God, this one more elaborate than the first. Obviously, there’s a lot here, but I find myself thinking about how God brought about the Sacred Writings that make up our Bibles. In this case, God doesn’t dictate a message to Jeremiah to dictate to Baruch. Instead, the Lord just tells Jeremiah to write down a summary of all the prophecies he’s given concerning Israel and Judah. Jeremiah goes to work, dictating to Baruch who faithfully writes down what he hears. The real kicker to me is that when this process is done a second time, we’re told that Jeremiah adds some stuff to it. In other words, there isn’t just one way for this scroll to be written. The Lord wants Jeremiah to tell the story, and I have no doubt that the Lord helps Jeremiah remember many specifics. However, for the second round, Jeremiah wants to add some stuff. It isn’t that he’s making things up; he just remembers more and decides to include it. We have here a pretty neat example of how the Scriptures were given to us. The Lord doesn’t dictate word for word (that is, unless it says he did). Instead, he says, “write about this event or tell the message you received from me.” From there, the writer’s free to frame things in his own words and even from his own perspective. Because of that we hear from the Scriptures not only the “big message” of God’s intentions, but also the “little message” of how the writer views the world. If you think about it, that’s a pretty good example of how God works in this world: partnering with humanity and even accepting some of our limitations.
Take Away: The Lord wants us to partner with him in what he’s doing in the world.
Playing the “God card”
Jeremiah 23: Quit the “God told me this, God told me that” kind of talk.
Jeremiah’s not the only preacher in the nation. As he proclaims God’s message there are others with a very different message, contradicting Jeremiah all the way. Jeremiah preaches saying, “This is God’s message,” and these other preachers come along right behind him saying, “No, THIS is God’s message.” These preachers with their alternate sermons have gotten the attention of the people. They’ve also gotten the attention of God. The Lord tells them, “Only the person I authorize speaks for me.” He says he doesn’t want to hear any more “God told me” preaching from the others. The Lord isn’t against them discussing Jeremiah’s sermons. He says, “Ask questions of one another, such as ‘how do we understand God in this?'” I’ve been in some discussions with people who played what I’ve heard called the “God card.” That is, they declared that “God told them” what was right. Once that’s said it’s pretty much the end of the discussion. After all, who wants to argue with God? This can be a big problem when someone with a differing view plays their “God card” too. Now what are we going to do? God is giving conflicting messages to different people! In this passage I’m reminded that the Lord’s paying attention to my words. I’d better tread lightly when I presume to speak for him. I’m not saying the Lord never directs, after all, this is all about Jeremiah’s message, and he HAD heard directly from God. Most of the time I’d better do more listening than “declaring.” The Lord isn’t opposed to them discussing Jeremiah’s messages, but he’s very much against them presuming to speak in his name.
Take Away: Most of the time it’s better to “listen” than it is to “declare.”
One more Bible study will do it
Jeremiah 8: They know everything but God’s Word.
My immediate reaction upon reading this line is that it’s a call to spend more time studying the Scriptures. After all, Bible study is a good thing; at least I hope so since I spend a lot of my time doing it. To be honest though, I don’t think that’s what Jeremiah is talking about. His listeners know what their Scriptures say and consider themselves to be “owners of God’s revelation.” In other words, they know the Scriptures and claim they’re written just for them. The problem isn’t that they don’t read God’s Word. Rather, it’s that they don’t listen to the word of the Lord! Through Jeremiah the Almighty is shouting out at them, trying to get their attention. They’re going in the wrong direction and need to turn around before it’s too late. While they’re faithfully going to Bible studies they’re ignoring what the Lord’s saying to them at that very moment! What an important reminder for us today. We have our KJV’s and our NIV’s and our NASB’s, and yes, our copies of The Message. We tune in to TBN or Sky Angel, listen to our Christian radio station, and then attend our Bible Studies. That’s just fine, in fact, that’s great. However, when the Lord bypasses all that stuff and speaks to our hearts what are we doing with it? Jeremiah says that even though they’re good at learning what the Scripture says they’re terrible at listening to the Lord when he speaks. Are we, and am I, doing the same?
Take Away: All the Bible study in the world won’t compensate for our ignoring what the Lord is saying to us this very moment.
Seeing God, everywhere
Psalm 19: God’s glory is on tour in the skies.
God speaks to us in various ways. When I hear the phrase: “God’s Word” I always assume that it’s the Bible that’s being talked about. David, who thought of the written word of God as the Torah, reminds me that “God’s Word” is much more than written words making up a leather-bound book or a rare and valuable scroll. He says that Creation, itself, is the “Word of God.” Whether I am watching the sunrise or a starlit nighttime sky I’m reading God’s message of love and goodwill to me and to all human beings. These things, David says, are roadmaps to God…roadmaps with easy to follow directions. Of course, beyond the written Word, or the Word displayed in Creation, is the Living Word of God: God the Son, Jesus. David only has a dim, distant knowledge of the Word in the Flesh. Still, even lacking that, he keeps seeing God everywhere he looks. In all of life, God is speaking; I just need to learn to listen on a broader scale that I might more fully hear his message to me.
Take Away: If we pay attention we’ll hear from God in a wonderful variety of ways.
Note to my readers:
As most folks know, the Book of Psalms is the longest book of the Bible. It’s also the lynchpin of the Wisdom Literature in Scripture. By their very nature the Psalms are devotional reading. More often than not, as I read the Psalms I don’t need a commentary as much as I need to listen to what’s being said and then find ways to internalize it into my life. Many people do that by reading a Psalm each day as a part of their daily Bible reading. I don’t intend to write a devotional on each Psalm. Instead, I encourage you to spend some time letting the Psalms feed your spirit. Perhaps the devotionals I do write will serve as primer to help you do that.
Chewing on the word of God
Psalm 1: You chew on Scripture day and night.
The book of Psalms is the world’s finest songbook. For centuries the Hebrew people turn to the Psalms and chant them as a part of their worship. Four part harmony hasn’t been invented yet, but they have the themes of worship down pat. Not only are the Psalms worship songs, they’re often prayers too. They’re not always high sounding and polished prayers. Often they’re prayers from the heart and they reflect the entire range of human emotion. If I know a few things about harmony and chord progression that the Psalmists don’t know, I have to admit that the Psalmists know some things about absolute honesty with God that I need to learn. The first Psalm is a simple consideration of the kind of people God likes. Right at the heart of it is the fact that God likes people who “chew on Scripture day and night.” This goes way beyond doing my daily devotions and reading a bit of the Bible. Instead, it reaches down into my life as I take what I’ve read and consider how it applies to what I’m doing throughout the day. Today, I’m reminded that God likes people who like his Word. That’s a fine reason to allow it to permeate my life.
Take Away: God likes people who like his Word.
Nehemiah 8: This is a day holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!
Many of those listening to Ezra read and explain the Scripture this day left the land of their birth to return to this land of their ancestors. They left family and friends, security and comfort to go to an unsecured city that wasn’t a city at all; rather, it was a pile of rubble. They made the hazardous journey to Jerusalem and then braved real opposition as they labored to rebuild the wall and prepared to re-occupy the City of David. As this task is completed, a holy event is planned. Governor Nehemiah and Priest Ezra organize an event centered on the Word of the Lord. However, something unexpected happens as Ezra reads and explains the Scripture to them. These good people begin to weep and wail. The sense of celebration is replaced with a feeling of failure and fear. The leaders have to act quickly or this holy day will turn in to a day of mourning. Why is it that the people react as they do? I think it’s because they begin to grasp the enormity of their sins and that of their forefathers. Generations earlier, King Josiah responds in the same way when the Book of God is found in the Temple. As he hears it read he’s alarmed and responds in humble fear of God. There’s a place for this kind of response to God’s Word. In fact, I need to be fearful and heartbroken when I realize my sin. However, the story must never end here. The Word of God is not intended to condemn me. Instead, it’s to be for me a wonderful message of hope. I’ve failed God and should stand condemned but God is gracious and offers me hope. The bad news is that I’ve sinned against God. The good news is that he’s the God of Second Chances graciously offering me and you hope and restoration.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.