Six tips for effective Bible Study

If you ask me how to grow spiritually, I will tell you to read your Bible. All of it. I’ll also tell you don’t expect to blossom into a super-Christian overnight, or even after you’ve read it through one time. I’ve been reading my Bible for more than thirty years. (I know – to some of you, I’m a teenager in the Scriptures.) I didn’t understand much after the first time through nor the second. But by the third time through, I started recognizing things and the more laps I completed the more the Bible began to made sense. I still can’t claim super-Christian status, but I know more now than I did when I started. I thought I’d share a few things that transformed my Bible-reading – and me.

The very first step I took into Bible study was chasing down the cross-references in the margins which sparked the passion I still have to connect the Old and New Testaments. That made me hungry for more. Another tip that revolutionized my Bible study is to consider the full context of the Scripture you’re reading. Context is like x-ray vision glasses that help you see deeper into the passage. What happened before your passage? What happened after? How does your passage fit into the whole?

Then the Holy Spirit started sending me on digs for word meanings. Word meanings change from generation to generation. We need to know what the original author was saying, not the 21st century meaning of his words. And writing out Scripture helps me focus on each word.

I also slowed my pace. I learn so much more when I take smaller, deeper bites. I’ve found that consuming the entire Bible in about 3 years is best for me. And I love to read the Bible in chronological order. The events in Scripture didn’t happen in the order in which our modern Bibles place them. Following a chronological reading plan helped me see the overarching story and discern the long-term (aka – eternal) plan of God throughout human history. It helped me to better identify His character and faithfulness as I watched Him consistently work out His plan.

The Bible is not a “one-and-done” kind of book. You can’t just read through it in a year and expect to gain all the wisdom and knowledge you need for life. The most important tip I can give you for effective, transforming Bible study is time and faithfulness. An investment of time- every day – in the Word of God brings huge dividends. Come on, Beloved, let’s dig in!

Only Words?

How can we rate our faith in God? Listen to your words when your guard is down. Our truest selves come tumbling out of our mouths in our private moments, when life is hard or when we’re weary, anxious, in pain, or taken by surprise. Our unguarded words reveal a lot about us. Let me give you two examples from the Bible. Raw emotions often speak the truth from the deepest part of our hearts.

God had rescued Israel from Egyptian slavery and was leading them toward the Promised Land. Moses sent out twelve spies to investigate the area. Their report was both encouraging and frightening. The land was very fruitful but it was also inhabited by fierce giants. The people began to grumble asking, “Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword . . . [and] our wives and children [be] taken as plunder?” (Num 14:3). Wait. Did they not just walk through the sea on dry ground!? But their words expressed the fear and lack of faith in their hearts. And God was listening. He said “I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell then, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say.’” (Num 14:27-28). That’s a terrifying statement.

Contrast their words with the words of Job, who suffered more in one day than you and I will suffer in a lifetime. He lost his wealth, his children, and his health. Oh, he was very upset with God and was not shy about expressing it. But despite it all, Job said: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. He said that a day is coming when “I myself will see Him with my own eyes” (Job 19:25,27). Do you hear the heart behind those words? That is faith speaking.

Listen to Jesus’ words about words: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). What you say in those unguarded moments says volumes about what you believe in your heart. And God is listening.  If he did to you the very things He heard you say how would that turn out for you? Beloved, make sure that the “words of [your] mouth and the meditation of [your] heart are pleasing in God’s ears (Ps 19:14).

Perfect Balance

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I read it first on a Bible cover, It was embroidered with red thread on a quilted grey paisley print. “One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: that you, O God, are strong and that you, O Lord are loving” (Psalm 62:11-12). For some reason, I couldn’t stop staring at it.  I’m sure the woman who owned the Bible was a little concerned that I might try to sneak off with it. The verse captured me – and like the Holy Spirit often does, He asked, “What does that mean?” I quickly jotted down the reference and turned my attention back to the teacher.

When I got home I went to my concordance and started to dig. Guess what? Strong means strong and loving means loving. Well, that was . . . enlightening. But then the Spirit said, “Not the individual words, the whole verse – what does it say about God?” He is strong. He is loving. “Don’t separate the two words. What do they mean together?” God is strong and loving. And then I understood.

If God were just strong, we would fear for our lives. His power would overwhelm us and He might use His strength against us. If He were just loving, He could do little to help us. He would look on us with pity and sorrow for our sufferings, but could only pat us on the shoulder and wish us well. But He is strong and He is loving. His strength is perfectly balanced by His affection. His love is equally matched by the power to rescue. His love allows Him to see our needs and respond with compassion, mercy, and grace. His power enables Him to work mightily on our behalf, parting seas, holding back the sun, bringing down strong walls, and overwhelming enemies. And rising from the grave.

There have been many powerful men throughout history who had no compassion and left a wake of pain and destruction behind them. By the same token, many benevolent hearts offer empathy, but cannot render any real aid. God is sufficiently both; He cares and He moves. This, Beloved, is the God who listens to your heart’s cry and responds with power. He sees you. He hears you. He loves you. And He is coming to your rescue.

Words

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David posed the question: “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1) Part of the answer is “He who speaks the truth from his heart” (v.2). God demands truth – because He is truth. But truth is pretty hard to find these days. Thanks to social media, anybody can have a platform from which to espouse their brand of truth. But it is worth listening to? Does it agree with the source of truth?  Before you and I take their message to our hearts we need to ask one more question: what does their message say about their heart? Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). What comes from the lips says everything about a person’s heart – about who they really are. Are their words angry and venomous? Are they boastful, profane, and disrespectful? If their words are all about themselves then so are they.  Any “wisdom” they offer will only serve them and not you. Are their words kind, helpful, beautiful, encouraging, and uplifting? Do they speak the truth? A person’s words tell you the true condition of their heart. Especially in those unguarded moments of an emotional response.

Here’s why this matters – when you absorb someone’s words, you are, in a sense, taking on the condition of their heart.  Do you want a heart like the latest celebrity or athlete? Do you want your heart to resemble a politician’s? Perhaps it’s time to evaluate the voices you are listening to. Whose Twitter feed are you following? What music do you listen to? What t.v. Shows are you watching? There’s so much we can’t control, but where we have a choice, let’s choose to hear from good hearts full of truth because what goes in our ears touches and shapes our own hearts.

And by the way, the same thing applies to your children (and grandchildren). They are literal sponges – what are you allowing them to absorb? What is shaping their very impressionable hearts? Who are they becoming because of what they are hearing?  And most importantly, how are your words towards them and around them? What are you planting in their hearts?

Yes, you’ve heard this from me before, and you’ll hear it again because it is so important. Go back to what Jesus said –words reveal the condition of the heart. What are your words saying about you, Beloved?

Hebrews: Examing the Hard Stuff

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And so we come, in our study of Hebrews, to one of the hardest passages in the Bible. Let me remind you where we are in this message: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Hebrews 6:4-6).

If you’re wondering where I’ve been the past two weeks, it is dealing with life issues and researching this passage. Here is what I’ve discovered: There is more confusion around these words than coherence. These are people who were never saved to begin with.  Or, they were once saved and became so hardhearted they drifted or walked away. In either case, there is no assurance of salvation and eternal life. So who’s right?   In today’s devotional, we’re going to define some terms. It’s not important that you know the original Greek words, but that you understand them as the original author did. This may be a little dry, but hang with me, we’ll put it all back together later.

Impossible: the word combination negates the power to accomplish a task. Because we know He has infallible power we can reason that the task is not impossible for God.

Once: once for all; what is done is eternally valid and never needs to be repeated.

Enlightened: to illumine; spiritually imbue with saving knowledge, to instruct, inform, teach.

Tasted: to come into existence: to prove to be – implying the partaking and enjoying of the experience.

Gift: a thing given

Shared: sharing/participating in (by context: sharing in the Holy Spirit)

Fall away: to fall beside a person or thing; to slip aside; to deviate from the right path (by context to fall away from the true faith and worship of Jehovah God).

Brought back: renew, restore; to renew that he shall repent (only appearance in Scripture)

Public disgrace: to make a public example in a bad sense, to expose to public disgrace.

What do all these words and terms mean together?  That’s the next Hebrews devotional. Stay tuned . . .

Blessed Be The Name of the Lord

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I remember when “cool” was a temperature, then it became a word of affirmation. Sometimes it’s used to describe someone that is aloof – but it also describes someone who is fascinating. Then again, the weatherman said a cool front is passing through this week. And don’t forget about Paul Newman’s movie “Cool Hand Luke.” I think I’ve confused myself here. But consider how important words are. Words we used in the past are now banished because they are deemed demeaning and offensive. On many college campuses, some words are forbidden because they might “trigger” an emotional response of fear or anger. Yet today, words that were once spoken in reverence are spat out like curses.

Consider how our culture uses the words “Lord,” “God,” “Jesus,” and “Holy.”  Yet they identify the Righteous Creator and Sovereign King of the universe. Tradition says that in the medieval days when monks were transcribing the words of the Bible and they came to the Name, they would leave their table, wash themselves, get a new quill, write the Name then break the quill. This was to ensure that they did not approach the Name of God in an unclean state and that the pen that wrote the Holy Name would never be used to write something profane. That may be a bit over the top, but oh, that we still venerated the name of God!

One of the ten commandments says: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name” (Exodus 20:7). When we speak these designations of God as mere words in anything less than reverence we are misusing God’s name and identification. When we say “Good Lord” it should only be to praise Him, not register frustration. “Oh my God!” should be spoken as a prayer, not an exclamation of surprise or excitement or – worse – disgust. “Jesus Christ” is the name of the Son of God and our Savior, and is not to be spat out like a curse. And “Holy” is the highest description of the Lord God, and should never be joined to farm animals, bodily functions, and sexual slang.

Yes, our words carry meaning. Beloved, let’s consider carefully the words we say and use our mouths to speak of our God and Savior in the reverence due them.

Giants

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David and Goliath. One of the best-known stories of the Bible.  A story of good versus evil in the face of impossible odds.  We learn so much from David here. Faith. Determination. Confidence. Preparation. Fearlessness. All very good lessons. But I saw something in this story that I’d never noticed before and I think it’s a very powerful lesson we need to learn.

When David visited the battle site he discovered that the Israelite army was at a standstill. They were paralyzed with fear and he soon saw why. “Goliath, the Philistine champion stepped out from the lines and shouted his usual defiance” (1 Samuel 17:23). His usual defiance was to belittle them, challenge them, threaten them, and thoroughly intimidate them. He said, “This day I defy the ranks of Israel!” (8-10). They were “dismayed and terrified” (v. 11). I imagine so! Goliath was over nine feet tall, wore 125 pounds of armor, and carried a spear with an iron point that weighed 15 pounds (4-7). “When the Israelites saw the man, they all ran from him in great fear” (v. 24). And this went had gone on for forty days – twice a day (16). The Israelites had given up hope.

David saw the same enemy and heard the same schpiel. But he saw it much differently. David demanded, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (26). He realized that the Israelites 1) forgot whose they were, and 2) they were afraid – of words.

You and I have an enemy who looks like a giant in our eyes and all day long he berates us and accuses us and tells us we are worthless. He tells us we’re going down. And we listen – day-after-day-after-day – until we start to believe it.  Because we forget whose we are – that we are the sons and daughters of God and co-heirs with Christ. Because we are afraid – of words.

Here’s what the Lord impressed on my heart: Giants must be defeated – not feared.

If you are in Christ, satan’s only weapon against you is words. That’s it. But you have the righteousness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Stand your ground, Beloved. You are more than a conqueror (Romans 8:38).

Hebrews: Hold On

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“Do you want goldfish?” Joy’s mommy asked her. “Yeah!” she answered enthusiastically. “I’ll give you some if you take two more bites of spaghetti.” She quickly shoveled in two forkfuls and beamed at her mother with noodles hanging out of her mouth. Some might consider that bribery, but in our house, we call that toddler negotiation. If you do this, I’ll do that.

When the author of Hebrews used the word “if” it’s wasn’t arbitration as if God is negotiating with us. ”If” as it’s used here is a statement of fact. “We are His house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast” (Hebrews 3:6b). That doesn’t mean if we hold on to our faith, then God will save us. It means we prove the genuineness of our profession of faith if we hold fast to the courage and hope we claim to possess.

I just rewrote that last statement because I originally said, “if we hold fast to Jesus with courage and hope.” The Holy Spirit stopped me. “Look at that verse again. What do those words mean?” Courage in this verse means boldness, confidence, and public openness of speech. With that in mind, look back at the end of this verse, “. . . courage and the hope of which we boast.”  A “profession of faith” is a public statement – not that we “chose Jesus,” but that we are confident that He will do what He promised – to save us now and eternally.

As an example, he referenced the Israelites who rebelled against Him by questioning His faithfulness. Quoting from Psalm 95, he said that they “hardened their hearts . . . during the time of testing in the desert.” They whined and complained and doubted God every time they come up against a challenge. They asked, “Is the Lord with us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). Why? Because “they have not known my ways.” They doubted God because they didn’t know Him.

As believers, we should grow in our faith. Our confidence in Jesus should become deeper, not more shallow. If we begin to doubt Him and question His faithfulness we should reconsider the genuineness of our profession and whether or not we really know Him.

Because “if” you know Him, Beloved, you will love and trust Him. All the way to the end.

I don’t hear your words, I hear your heart

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I have hundreds of verses marked in my Bible, but two have very special significance to me.  Isaiah 51:16 says “I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand.” God pricked my heart years ago through that verse and I asked Him to put His words in my mouth and let me be His spokesman. I used that exact word. The very next day I read, “If you utter worthy, not worthless words, you will be my spokesman” (Jeremiah 15:19).  The connection was a clear as day to me.  I remembered hearing about ancient Scribes who copied the words of Scripture and every time they wrote the name of God they would use a brand new pen to write that one word and break it immediately afterward so that the pen that wrote the holy name could never be used to write anything profane.  If I wanted to fulfill my calling, my words – my mouth – would have to radically change. I thought, “okay, I can do this – I will diligently watch what I say.” Then something made me angry. And someone said something I didn’t appreciate. And my boss asked me to do something I didn’t want to do. And you know what – I didn’t say a “worthless word.” But I sure thought them. In my mind and heart I was spouting off left and right. That’s because my tongue wasn’t the real problem – my heart was. Jesus said: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34) I didn’t need to watch my mouth, I needed to watch my heart.

Have you ever noticed how many celebrities and politicians have to hastily take down tweets or backpedal comments trying to soften their words?  Sure, most of them have speechwriters and handlers who prepare well-worded messages for them, but they always seem to get in trouble over words said (or tweeted) in unguarded moments.  Because those words were coming straight from their heart. You and I are the same, just without all the publicity. The words we speak, especially when we are not “in control,” reveal the true condition of our hearts. It’s so much deeper than the words we speak. Beloved, what do your words – spoken, posted, or thought – say about your heart?

Tested and Tried

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I am a “word nerd” – I love words. I especially love to discover the root of Biblical words because that brings a deeper understanding of what the original text was saying, which is crucial to studying the Bible for life transformation. Hebrews 11:17-19 describes the account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord. The passage says that “God tested [Abraham],” and, as He often does, the Spirit whispered in my heart: “what does that mean?” So I grabbed my exhaustive concordance (my favorite tool for deeper Bible study) and discovered something so vital to the Christian’s walk I knew I had to share it with you.

The word “tested” (peirazo in the Greek) has two meanings: to temp and to examine. Listen to the follow-up: “The difference between a test and a temptation is found in the tester’s motivation and expectations: the devil tempts that the believer might fail God’s standards of faith and so sin; God tests that He might determine and sharpen true character, with no focus on making the believer fail.” The devil will put you in tempting situations with the intention of bringing you down. God puts you through tests with the express purpose of perfecting you. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand who’s behind the test, but the way through is always the same. Keep your eyes on Jesus and your heart firmly planted in the Word. In either case you will emerge with deeper roots of faith and a testimony of God’s power and goodness.

Beloved, I don’t know what temptation or test you are facing in this season, but I now that there is only one right way through: with God. He will not let you fail.