Does being ignorant lead us to learn or despair?

In case you were ever wondering, I write these devotionals and posts to help. Simple enough, right? My hope is that people pick up their Bibles and don’t just learn from them, but learn how to learn. I want to help people develop their own tools to study Scripture. But this can be hard because it is easy for someone like me who grew up in the church, always enjoyed Bible study from a very young age, and went to seminary to take for granted how the Bible can be a difficult read. It is impossible for me to approach Scripture the way someone who has never read it would.

Since I have read it before I can at least pass along some of what I’ve gain and with Year in the Bible I try to bring others along into a deeper appreciation for what God has blessed us with. But it is difficult because I don’t always know the questions people may have or the experiences they bring with them. I’m not always sure how something may be received, such as the use of commentaries.

I like to read a commentary as I go through and often will share insights gained from such reading. I intend for these short quotes or references to shed light on the text. There is an immense amount of study and research that goes into their writing and I think it helps illuminate Paul’s letter which was written almost two thousand years ago. But even as I write that last sentence, I fear that commentaries may intimidate and make people feel inadequate. If to “really” understand the Bible you need several degrees and endless hours to study all the scholarly writings, then how can I read the Bible? Perhaps revealing the great depth of the Bible reminds us that we’re not swimming in the kiddie pool, and then we immediately feel out of our element.

But again, I’m doing this to help and I pray that God works upon you to dispel that spirit of fear. Yes, there is great depth, but God speaks to us in his Word, he blesses us with his Spirit to aid in our comprehension. We could think about all that we don’t know and toss our hands up and walk away. Or we could see the great wisdom that God wants to show us and see its vastness as an adventure. Knowing God is not simplistic thing, but isn’t that more exciting?

If it is an adventure, let us see it as Everest and with great excitement journey together. To take that analogy further, we can recognize that there are Sherpas who guide us along, like those we’ve relied upon for 1 Corinthians like Ken Bailey or NT Wright. But we all go together. In these last few weeks we’ve read of spiritual gifts and have heard that if we do not have the same gifts as they do, that is all right. Some can be guides–teachers with knowledge and understanding. But it is a gift to be shared with the body, to equip others to seek God in his Word, as well.

So, as I write hoping to help, I pray these devotionals equip you to read, not discourages you with the notion that God’s Word is beyond your abilities. May whatever you gain inspire a sense of wonder that leads you to desire still more nourishment from God in Scripture. We’ve one month to go in reading 1 Corinthians and may the Spirit already be stirring in you a hunger to seek out what is next, and perhaps then you can be one to inspire someone else to meet God in his Word.

Proclaiming Community in Communion

Two Sundays ago I was on vacation with my family and had the chance to worship at another church. It is always good to be able to step away and see how other churches do things and be reminded that the Church of God is much bigger than what I experience.

It happened to be a Sunday that the church was celebrating communion and one of the pastors was describing the sacrament and what we were about to do. What he said next was not wrong, but it gave me pause. As I said, it wasn’t wrong, but it was problematic because he didn’t follow it up with more. He said that what we were going to do was an intensely personal act between us and God. But he spoke nothing about how communion involves community.

When we take of the Lord’s Supper it is not merely a individualized, personal encounter with God. It is an act of the body and it is an act that emphasizes the body and how we are made one. God has taken away all that divided by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. What divided us from God is taken away, but also what divided people.

When we take communion, as it says in 1 Corinthians 11, “we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” By our actions we proclaim what that death did and what it represented. That’s why Paul criticizes the church in Corinth because their practice was not uniting the community, it was dividing it. If communion should proclaim the truth of the gospel, it can’t privilege the rich over the poor as they were doing. Nor should it focus entirely on the individual. There is that component, and we all should examine ourselves before taking of the sacrament, but there is more. Christ died to make us–collectively–his church. He is our head and we are his body. If we are not remembering that good news in communion, how then can our actions proclaim it?

The next time you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, be intentional to look around you at the other sisters and brothers to whom Jesus Christ has united us. You can certainly bow your head in private reflection, but know that this meal is thankfully more than about you and God, but it is a celebration that in Jesus the church is brought together and united. As we focus on the “foolish” act of our Lord on the cross, giving his body and blood for us, we proclaim his death–a death that brings us into fellowship with God and other believers.

Pray for God’s Wisdom as We Read His Word

When you read the almost endless supply of articles and essays written on women in 1 Corinthians 11, you’ll find a great variety of opinions as to what the chapter means for us today. It’ll range from women still needing to cover their heads all the way to this being a chapter that supports women leading in worship.

And while the commentaries I read, written by people far smarter than I am, conclude that this section is at least in some way puzzling, that detail doesn’t seem to stop fierce debate to occur that lacks the humility a puzzling passage should demand.

So before I write more on this chapter, take your time in reading the passage. See if you can list out all of what you think Paul is trying to say. How do those things fit with his larger writings in this and other letters? Try to read it without assuming you know what he’s trying to say. That last one is a tough one for all of our Bible reading. Too often we assume we know best, and we go searching for God to confirm our hunch. Let’s open up this week with prayer, for God’s Spirit to guide us as we seek, in good First Corinthian style, the wisdom of God.

Student’s Prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas

Creator of all things,
true source of light and wisdom,
origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of your light penetrate
the darkness of my understanding.

Take from me the double darkness
in which I have been born,
an obscurity of sin and ignorance.

Is Ignorance Bliss? What would Paul say?

As a lover of history and learning in general, I’ve never really resonated with the phrase, “ignorance is bliss.” I love to learn and think ignorance is pretty far from a blissful condition. If we don’t know our history, as the saying goes, we are destined to repeat it. Certainly there is so much to learn from those who have gone before us. We can learn from their triumphs and learn from their mistakes, as well. This applies to us personally, seeing other individuals and learning from them. But it also applies to groups and churches and even nations. For example, what can we learn from Egypt and its upheaval? What could Egypt have learned from its own history and history at large that may have been able to guide them in these last couple years? Whatever that answer may be, ignorance would have been no help.

Thankfully, God have given us a fantastic book full of our own history. It is the history of God’s people and the story of God’s work among us. In this context, is ignorance bliss? Is it better to overlook the testimony of the Bible? Are we better off not knowing Adam or the judges? Should we care about Moses or the kings? The Old Testament is too often set aside, but we are worse off if we choose to be ignorant. And I think it is a choice. Perhaps if you do not know Christ and have never been to church, you haven’t necessarily chosen to be ignorant of the Scriptures. But if you are a Christian and do not know the Bible we’ve been gifted, you have made a choice to be ignorant. It is an avoidable circumstance. Every day is a new day to pick up God’s word and read. Every day we can pray for the Spirit to enlighten our minds to understand God’s truth.

Or every day we can choose ignorance. We can choose to miss out on the lessons we can learn from those who have gone before us. We can choose to turn our backs on what God says about himself in the Bible. We can be ignorant of the fact that the God of the entire cosmos came to us in Jesus Christ and revealed all we need to know. Jesus reveals God to us in the flesh and shows us the way, shows us what life really is, and shows us truth.

The letter we are reading currently, 1 Corinthians, is a letter to a specific church in Corinth as well as to the wider church community of that day. It was written almost two thousand years ago. Life was different then. I think we can underestimate that. But that doesn’t mean this letter, and other letters like it, have no bearing on us today. I would not want you to be ignorant of their struggles and of Paul’s message. The Bible is living and active and by the Spirit it speaks to us today. We ignore it at our own peril.

How much better to heed Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 10, and accept an invitation to know God in his word. It is our very own history that we read. We are the seed of Abraham, heirs of the promise, and as we read from Genesis through Revelation, it is our story. At times it is frustrating as we see how far humanity can fall, but it is encouraging that our God remains faithful throughout. And to know of God’s faithfulness through the ages is a much more blissful condition than to remain in the dark about it. So let’s seek to be in the light, God’s light, learning from him and learning from the wisdom he shares with us.

Running for the Goal Means Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

It is so tempting to go through life comparing ourselves to everyone around us. Am I keeping up with the Jones?

Instead of fixing our eyes on our neighbors, we need to set our sights on the goal that is before us. We need to set our mind on things above, where Christ is, not the things of earth (Col 3); we should look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12). As we run we need to keep our true goal in mind.

We could look around and think that we’re doing enough because we’re not as bad as someone else. But other people are not like some sort of pace car that we measure ourselves against. We look to Jesus alone and seek him as our goal.

The Importance of Having a Goal in Our Christian Walk

There is a good reason there are so many 5k races these days. What aspiring runners have realized is that without a goal, the training is much more difficult. If you just want to run because it’s good for you, that may never happen. But if you first sign up for a race and then start training, that goal drives you on to prepare with more intensity, commitment, and endurance.

Runners

In his comparison to running Paul writes, “I do not run aimlessly” and then in reference to boxing, “I do not box as one beating the air.” He has a goal. The call of God drives him onward and rather than pointlessly beating the air, he disciplines himself. He knows what he needs to do in order to best meet the task before him.

I fear that for many Christians, their faith is pointless. Not that it doesn’t mean anything, rather it is pointless in that it lacks direction. There is no goal that drives them. Some think believing in Jesus is the finish line. But believing in Jesus enters us into his kingdom and into a new way of being. It’s a new creation and a new beginning. As Paul has mentioned earlier in 1 Corinthians we are no longer like the natural person for we have been gifted with the Holy Spirit. We are given God’s wisdom and all of us should have a calling and purpose.

But if we think we have no driving purpose it takes away from what we’re called as Christians to do. For what good is discipleship with no purpose? Why read the Bible? Memorize scripture? Pray? The goal of these things isn’t to make ourselves good. The goal is to do the good to which God calls us. The goal is to discipline ourselves like an athlete so that as we run the race and seek the goal of sharing the gospel, we will be ready. Discipleship should be seen as training–not training for no reason, but training in preparation for whatever God intends for us.

We can view the spiritual disciplines of our faith as aimless jogging, just to make us fit. Or we can view discipleship as training for a race, and a race that we intend to run hard. If you see it as the latter and you know that God wants to use you, doesn’t that then encourage you to be in the best shape possible?

So what goals do you have? What purpose do you see in your life? What do you think God wants you to do for the kingdom? That’s the first step. See the race God wants you to enter and sign up. Then “discipline your body and keep it under control,” as Paul writes. Looking toward the goal, commit yourself to whatever God needs you to do in order reach that end.

All Things to All People for the Sake of the Gospel

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:20-23

Paul was a Jew. To remain there would have been more comfortable. It would have been familiar. But, Paul knew he had a call from God to reach out beyond the community with which he identified. After encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was given a new mission. Paul was going to reach out to non-Jews, the Gentiles, to bring to them the good news of Jesus Christ.

He didn’t leave behind his Jewish brothers and sisters. He still appeared in the synagogues teaching, he still taught from the scriptures of what we now call the Old Testament, and he did all he could in order to “win Jews.”

But he worked hard to be able to build a bridge to another group of people. He needed to learn a new language and interact with a new culture. Paul worked tirelessly in following his calling to reach the Gentiles. And he does it all for the sake of the gospel.

Can you imagine putting in the the time it takes to learn a new language in order to follow the call of God in your life? Or how about giving up whatever strength we have in order to meet people in their weakness? He does it all to better reach them with the gospel.

This pattern that Paul follows is the one set forth by Jesus Christ. God came to humanity and became human. Jesus took on flesh, lived a life just us, endured temptation, humbled himself, faced persecution, and he did it all so that he may make for himself a people.

What do we give up to identify with someone God is calling us to serve? What are we willing to change? Is the goal of bringing the gospel to more people so captivating that we’d even consider changing?

The Evolution of the Way We Read the Bible

Book Greenbackground

When I was putting together some graphics to go along with this second iteration of Year in the Bible, I came up with a simple image of a book with a bookmark pulled down through the middle. Year in the Bible is a guided reading plan, so I thought a book with a bookmark fit that pretty well. The logo for Year in the Bible looks like a square and a triangle and is supposed to evoke the shape of an open book, too. I also have made bookmarks for this 1 Corinthians plan to tuck in your Bible. This all makes sense because books and reading go and in hand.

Except that is now changing.

When we kicked this off in June, I remember another pastor here mentioning the bookmarks and how you might need to take it and tape it to the back of your phone, if that’s where you read. What was meant as a joke had a lot of truth in it. For more and more people, reading the Bible doesn’t mean opening a book, but instead pulling out a phone.

What does it mean if reading the Bible now looks more like this?

What does it mean if reading the Bible now looks more like this?

So, I’ve been mulling that over for a while. Are there any implications for the way we engage with God’s word when we do so via a screen instead of a page? Do we lose something? Do we gain something? I certainly don’t have any conclusive remarks on this, especially since we’re just in the middle of what seems to be this great change in the way we read.

One worry for me is that I lose a bit of the uniqueness of the Bible when it is just another item for me to read on my phone. It doesn’t stand apart. I don’t have to make the deliberate choice I once did to carry a Bible with me. There is no sacrifice of space in my bag or the added weight to my shoulders. Also, if I went away to rid myself of distractions and to-do lists and emails and sat with my Bible, nothing else competed for my attention. With a phone or tablet, it is very easy to stop reading to quickly do something else. The temptation to multitask is great. For these reasons, and a few more, I’m not ready yet to part with my dead-tree Bibles.

Searching the Bible has never been easier. (Pictured is the ESV Bible App)

Searching the Bible has never been easier. (Pictured is the ESV Bible App)

But on the other hand, I now always have the Bible with me. And not only one translation, but many. My paper Bibles have nice concordances, but with the technology we have now, I can search through the entire Bible in a moment. I can follow cross-references all around Scripture, and do so with ease. Reading like this on a phone or a website has really encouraged not only the reading, but study. I am no expert scholar in Biblical languages, but I’ve got tools that help me with Greek and Hebrew that fit in my pocket. With that sort of ability it is not an usual feeling for me to think that I am living in the future.

Imagine carrying these books in your bag, let alone your pocket.

Imagine carrying these books in your bag, let alone your pocket.

There are sites and apps that can bring a communal aspect into your personal readings. You can tap on a verse and find out what comments others had contributed in regards to it. Have questions about what Paul meant in a certain passage? Maybe someone had the same question, too, and maybe someone else has a pretty good answer. There’s another program that provides fantastic illustrations and interactive graphics to help you feel like you’re in ancient Jerusalem, so as you read through the gospels you can see what it was like. As I’ve mentioned before, we can listen to the audio of the Bible and there can be real value in hearing and listening, as well as reading. Who knows what else may be offered in five or ten years?

Community notes in the Youversion Bible app

Community notes in the Youversion Bible app

About five hundred years ago the Bible was a book that resided in the hands of a select few. It wasn’t for the masses. But things change. Perhaps some of the reverence was lost when the Bible slowly became common. Would you feel the same way about the Bible if you only saw it richly ornamented and embellished in a church instead of in every hotel room drawer? Probably not. Yet the gain outweighed what was lost. God’s word is for the people of God, and when the printing press started a revolution and the texts were being translated into the vernacular, it had a great impact.

Illuminated manuscript of the Bible

Illuminated manuscript of the Bible

I don’t know all the implications of the technology many are now using to read the Bible, but we can at least rejoice as more people are given access to God’s word around the world. The tools are being spread and men and women are engaging with the Bible in new ways and the more we can draw attention–not to the technology–but to the content, the better it will be, for our focus can then be drawn to the Word of God, Jesus Christ.