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“The First Service One Owes To Others In The Fellowship Consists In Listening To Them. Just As Love Of God Begins In Listening To His Word, So The Beginning Of Love For The Brethren Is Learning To Listen To Them. It Is God’s Love For Us That He Not Only Gives Us His Word But Lends Us His Ear. So It Is His Work That We Do For Our Brother When We Learn To Listen To Him.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The First Reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer Can Impact Us: Scripture Meditation

Introduction:

The first reason why Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact our preaching is the high premium on the meditation on the Scriptures. To Bonhoeffer, meditation on God’s Word was absolutely essential for every follower of Jesus. In his work, Meditation of Psalm 119, he wrote:

Therefore, it is never sufficient simply to have read God’s Word. It must penetrate deep within us, dwell in us, like the Holy of Holies in the Sanctuary, so that we do not sin in thought, word or deed.[1]

To Bonhoeffer, scripture meditation was even more important for pastors and preachers because if the word of God did not become full in his heart through meditation and prayer, how could he expect to properly explain the word to his congregation. He wrote, “I will offend against my calling if I do not seek each day in prayer the word that my Lord wants me to say that day[2]  

Biblical Foundation:

Meditation on the scriptures is a biblical theme based on passages such as Joshua 1. As Joshua succeeded Moses and was about to lead Israel into the Promised Land, God said to him…“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord  your God will be with you wherever you go” (vs. 8-9). God made it clear to Joshua that success and obedience will grow out of meditation on God’s word.

The Hebrew word for “meditate” means to “ponder” and “study.”[3] The word can be translated “recite it quietly.”[4] Matthew Henry wrote that Joshua was granted a “great trust” by God. Therefore, “he must find time…for meditation.” In regards to us, Henry continued: “Whatever affairs of this world we have to mind, we must not neglect the one thing needful”[5]

Psalm 1 also makes it clear that God will bless those who consistently meditate on his word: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

There is a connection between scripture meditation and being blessed by God. The Hebrew word for “meditate” is the same word in Joshua 1:8. God will bless the person who recites slowly and studies and ponders the word of God. To be blessed by God is more than being happy. Charles Spurgeon pointed out that the word “blessed” in Psalm 1:1 is a “very expressive word: 

The original word is plural…Hence we may learn the multiplicity of the blessings which shall rest upon the man whom God hath justified, and the perfection and the greatness of the blessedness he shall enjoy. We might read it, “Oh, the blessedness!” and we may regard it…as joyful acclamation of the gracious man’s felicity. May the like benediction rest on us![6]

Benefits of Meditation:

As seen in Joshua 1, God will also bless with success and fruitfulness. Bonhoeffer knew that the promises of Joshua 1 and Psalm 1 were true. He offered the following reasons why he meditated on the word of God:

Because I am Christian. Therefore, every day in which I do not penetrate more deeply into the knowledge of God’s Word in Holy Scripture is a lost day for me.

Because I am a preacher of the Word. I cannot expound the Scripture for others if I do not let it speak daily to me. I will misuse the Word in my office as preacher if I do not continue to meditate upon it in prayer.

Because I need a firm discipline of prayer.

Because I need help against the ungodly haste and unrest which threaten my work as a pastor. Only from the peace of God’s Word can there flow the proper, devoted service of each day.[7]

Bonhoeffer’s years of scripture meditation may have benefited him in his final years, months and days in prison. Even when he knew he would be executed, he continued to be characterized by joy and peace. Bonhoeffer’s outlook was witnessed by British officer Captain S. Payne Best. Best was captured by the Gestapo in 1939. They were fellow prisoners during Bonhoeffer’s final weeks. Best wrote that Bonhoeffer: was all humility and sweetness; he always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in the very smallest event in life, and a deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive…He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him[8]  

In a letter to Bonhoeffer’s family, Captain Best wrote that “Bonhoeffer was different (from the other prisoners); just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfect at ease…his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison.”[9] No doubt the promise of Psalm 1:1 was fulfilled. Bonhoeffer was blessed because be meditated on the word of the Lord day and night; and he was a tree planted by streams of water that yielded fruit (Psalm 1:3).

Scripture Meditation for Twenty-First Century Preaching:

Because twenty-first century preachers and pastors face many demands on their time, it is crucial that a portion of time be set aside daily to meditate on God’s Word. What would this look like in the daily schedule of a preacher?  John Piper explains the process of scripture meditation:

Now what does this meditation involve? The word “meditation” in Hebrew means basically to speak or to mutter. When this is done in the heart, it is called musing or meditation. So meditating on the Word of God day and night means to speak to yourself the Word of God day and night and to speak to yourself about it—to mull it over, to ask questions about it and answer them from the Scripture itself, to ask yourself how this might apply to you and others, and to ponder its implications for life and church and culture and missions.

One simple way to do this is to memorize a verse or two and then say them to yourself once, emphasizing the first word. Then say them to yourself again, emphasizing the second word. Then say them a third time, emphasizing the third word. And so on, over and over again, until you have meditated on the reason why each word is there. Then you can start asking relational questions. If this word is used, why is that word used? The possibilities of musing and pondering and meditating are endless. And always we pray as we ponder, asking for God’s help and light.[10]

Piper’s understanding of biblical meditation is similar to Bonhoeffer’s perspective. In Meditating on the Word, he defined it as:

In the same way that the word of a person who is dear to me follows me throughout the day, so the Word of Scripture should resonate and work within me ceaselessly. Just as you would not dissect and analyze the word spoken by someone dear to you, but would accept it just as it was said, so you should accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation…Do not ask how you should tell it to others, but ask what it tells you! Then ponder this word in heart at length, until it is entirely within you and has taken possession of you.[11]

A twenty-first century pastor and preacher must possess the discipline to set aside portions of the day to meditate on God’s Word. In doing so, “we are taking the time to ponder the Word of God, allowing for the Holy Spirit to reveal the riches of wisdom.”[12]

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word, (Nashville: Cowley Publications, 1986), 127-128.

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] James Strong, The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 32.

[4] The NET Bible: First Beta Edition (2001), 434.

[5] Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Whole Bible: Volume Two (Old Tappen: Fleming H. Revell Company), 5.

[6] Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Volume One (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), 1.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word, 30-32.

[8] S. Payne Best, The Venlo Incident (London: Hutchinson and  Co. LTD, 1950), 180.

[9] Quoted in Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A  Testament to Freedom, (San Fransico: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 43.

[10] John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), 125.

[11] Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word, 32-33.

[12] Douglas J. Rumford, Soul Shaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1996), 252.

Nothing on Your Phone (Including TGC) Can Replace the Local Church

Theological content is easier than ever before to find. The internet has made resources for the Christian life ubiquitous—whether it be women’s Bible studies, commentaries, sermon podcasts, books, video summaries of biblical books, video reflections on tough doctrines, documentaries on apologetics questions, entire courses on preaching, or whatever you are looking for. Sure, there is also more bad Christian content than ever before—read the Christian book bestseller lists or top religious podcasts list and weep—but there is also a ton of helpful, trustworthy, doctrinally sound stuff. The world will always need solid theological resources and guidance for Christian living, and technology is making it easier to get these resources out. We should be thankful.

But as much as we should celebrate this age of abundance in Christian resources—what my colleague Sarah Zylstra calls “theological affluence”—I worry about some of its side effects. Namely: why is the rise in access to theological material coinciding with a decline in Christian church attendance? Could it be that our easy access to theological content is, in a twisted way, making us see church as unnecessary? Listening to a Christian podcast or devotional app, after all, is much easier than getting out of bed on Sunday morning and going to a church building. But is it the same?

It is not.

Two Perversions

Just as material affluence can keep us from church on Sunday because we have the means for all manner of distraction (globetrotting vacations, weekends at the lake, NFL games on our 90-inch flatscreen), theological affluence can keep us from church because we have umpteen resources to fill our theological “tank” during the week. Why would we be desperate to attend church regularly, listening to our so-so pastor’s Sunday message, when we can listen to John Stott and John Piper sermons on our commute, five days a week? Doesn’t that check the box?

Part of why this problematic thinking sounds reasonable to many evangelical Christians today is because we have long practiced a faith that is systemically corrupted by (at least) two perversions:

1. Consumer Perversion

We think of faith primarily in terms of “what I get out of it”—whether that’s a feel-good sermon, a “safe” friend group (especially for our kids), or an escape-from-hell ticket. Certainly there are gains in the Christian life (the ultimate gain!), but when we approach it as “what can you do for me?” consumers, our faith is fickle and fragile. What do we do when being a Christian starts costing us, when suffering comes, when church gets . . . uncomfortable? This consumer perversion (amplified by the overly individualistic tendencies of Western culture) makes church-hopping a thing—since there will always be a church with better coffee, better kids’ ministries, less annoying people, and so on. If church, then, is mostly about “getting” the best of whatever spiritual thing you’re looking for, you’ll always be unsatisfied—constantly trying new churches and perhaps eventually giving up or turning online. The “best” preachers and the “best” worship music are on iTunes, after all, not in your local church.

2. Gnostic Perversion

We think of faith mostly as a “content” experience. It’s in our heads and in our hearts: it’s the ideas we pick up from books, podcasts, and sermons that matter. We think of our Christianity mostly as a mental, disembodied experience. And this dovetails with the consumer perversion, since if Christianity is mostly “content,” then we can justify picky standards—demanding that a church’s preaching be intellectually stimulating, doctrinally rigorous (but not too rigorous), culturally contextualized, and so forth; otherwise, we’ll leave and search for better content at another church. You can see how this gnostic perversion might gradually convince someone that physical church (with its subpar “content”) is dispensable in an era where better-quality content is just three taps away on a smartphone.

What Only Church Offers

But Christians are not meant to be consumers; we’re meant to be servants. And Christianity is not merely content; it’s an embodied, lived community. Active, committed participation in the local church reminds us of this.

To be a Christian is to be like Christ: to serve rather than be served (Mark 10:45). You can’t do this by sitting in your car listening to a Christian podcast or gazing at a YouTube video about the Bible. In these activities you are being served. To be sure, you’re being served wonderful things! But it’s not enough. You also need to serve others, and the local church invites you to do this. The church is a place where Christians serve one another (1 Pet. 4:10), encourage one another (Heb. 10:25), love one another with brotherly affection, and outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10). The church is a community profoundly oriented around loving others and serving the world beyond itself.

The church is also an embodied community, something that cannot be replicated through books and screens. In the disembodied digital age we have the illusion of “connection” with our many social-media followers, but we’re still lonely and unknown behind all the manipulative filters and layers of facade. The local church—an enfleshed community of tangible people in regular contact and close proximity—can be an antidote to our disembodied grief. It grounds us in reality and reminds us that we aren’t just brains on sticks. We were made for physical connection with people, not just informational connection through screens.

In a lonely, disembodied world, the church offers a beautiful alternative: an embodied community where at least once a week you are in physical presence with your church family. It’s a place where the manipulative filters of life online fall away and you can be known in a truer sense, warts and all. It’s a place where our real struggles and weaknesses are harder to hide; a place where healing—emotional, spiritual, physical—can happen. It’s a place where you can do physical things together: sing, stand, sit, kneel, hug, attempt awkward bro handshakes, even eat and drink the communion elements. You can get none of this from podcasts and apps and audiobooks.

No Substitute for Church

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By Megan Briggs

eternal securityWhile at the Sing! Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, John Piper addressed a subject heavy on the minds of many Christians who identify with the reformed part of the evangelical church. Piper spoke to Josh Harris’ announcement that he has “fallen away” from faith. The theologian and pastor, who knows Harris personally, said it’s foolish to think that only some of us are capable of committing apostasy, but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t sovereign and that the doctrine of eternal security isn’t true.

“At 73, I go to my knees almost every single day and say ‘Hold on to me!’” Piper exclaimed during a Q+A session at the conference. “If God doesn’t keep me, if he takes his hand off of me this afternoon, I will commit apostasy,” he said.

What About the Doctrine of Eternal Security, Though?

The doctrine of eternal security essentially says that once a person comes to know and accept the saving grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they cannot become “unsaved.” This doctrine is also known as “once saved, always saved,” and Piper says he believes in it. However, he admits saying “I believe in the doctrine of eternal security” and “I could go to hell this afternoon” presents a very troubling juxtaposition. One wonders how both statements could be uttered in the same sentence.

Piper argues the answer lies in another doctrine, one he sees “on every page of the Bible.”  Piper articulates the sovereignty of God this way:

Nothing you do originates the decisive act or impulse that saves you. Nothing you think, nothing you will, nothing you do originates the act of the soul or the act of the body that causes God to elect you, predestine you, call you, keep you, or glorify you. All of it is a free gift.

While this doctrine teaches us there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, it also implies we are ultimately not in control of whether we fall away. When considering whether or not one could commit apostasy, Piper argues that nobody should have the mindset “I could keep this from happening.” The sovereignty of God teaches us that only God can keep us from falling. If this thought is hard to wrap your mind around or shifts your thinking, Piper admits the thought can throw you “really off balance.”

Self-Stability vs. God-Stability

Since we cannot simply will ourselves not to commit apostasy, this is where we need to shift from being self-stable to being God-stable, Piper says. To replace one’s sense of self-stability with God-stability requires some Bible knowledge, prayer, and “some deep soul work.”

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The Rhythm of the Christian Life

Abilene: Leafwood Publishers, 2019.
Available at Amazon.com.

This book by my former PhD student Dr. Brian Wright resources Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for a pattern of modern discipleship.

The foreword is by Timothy George!

Blurb: Most of us think that if we could simply balance our lives better, we would be happier. But what we actually need is to rediscover the rhythm. As Christians, our whole life consists of loving God and loving others, just like Jesus did. In this book, Wright invites us to find true joy as we embrace these two core realities and discover how they are meant to work in tandem. Explore The Rhythm of Christian Life and recapture the joy of life together as God always intended.

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“By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian,” Harris wrote on his Instagram account.

The author of the best-selling I Kissed Dating Goodbye book (written for Christian singles encouraging them to stop dating, which Harris has since redacted) says he has undergone a “massive shift” in his “faith in Jesus.” Harris refers to the shift as a “deconstruction” of his faith, but translates his words for Christian followers by saying “the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’”

Josh Harris ‘Repents’ of Teaching on Sexuality, Harming LGBTQ+ Community

Harris articulates he has spent the last several years “repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few.” He also “repents” of his teaching concerning homosexuality, saying he’s sorry for the hurt he’s caused the LGBTQ+ community through his teaching.

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During his last days in school his family noticed how much he was looking forward to the study of theology. If he had any doubts about his calling, he did not mention them. He was attracted by the prospect of grappling with the as yet unexplored subject. He was not yet driven by any love of the church or an articulated theological system of beliefs, and certainly by a discovery of the Scriptures and their exegesis. His interest in the discipline of theology was still much more philosophical than religious.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 44.

At the time of his confirmation he had started reading his Bible for himself, and did not hide an exciting novel between the black covers! 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 37.

The family, including Dietrich’s mother, had its own direct relationship with Bible, and the traditions the church, without feeling a need for any ecclesiastical guidance; thus, any direct connection to the institutional church seemed unnecessary. No church dignitary or minister seems to have played a role in the Bonhoeffer’s social relationships at that time…The impulse (for Dietrich) to become a theologian for the sake of the real church belonged to a later period.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 35.

Popular and prolific Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe died on the evening of May 2, 2019, at the age of 89.

Warren Wendel Wiersbe was born on May 16, 1929, the third child of Fred and Gladys Anna (Forsberg) Wiersbe, in East Chicago, Indiana (25 miles southeast of Chicago). At that time, the steel town of East Chicago was the most industrialized city in the United States. His mother was of Swedish descent, and his father was of German descent. He was a lactose-intolerant milkman.

Wiersbe traced his conversion to May 1945 during high school sophomore. Just before his sixteenth birthday he attended a Youth for Christ rally and heard the ministry’s first full-time evangelist, 26-year-old Billy Graham. Though he was raised in the church and had attended Vacation Bible School, he trusted in Christ for the first time that night in response to Graham’s altar call.

A few years later, the president of Youth for Christ, Torrey Johnson, asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Wiersbe responded, “I wanted to go to school and get some Bible training and then preach the gospel.” Johnson responded: “Young man, find the one thing you do that God blesses, and stick with it! Around that time, Wiersbe later wrote, “I had developed an insatiable appetite for the Word of God, and I wanted to study and understand the Bible more than anything else in all the world.” He began acquiring and using his first books: the Scofield Reference Bible, Strong’s Concordance, Cruden’s Concordance, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, The Christian Worker’s Commentary by James M. Gray, Notes on the Pentateuch by C. H. MacIntosh, using tools from a dispensational perspective.

After attending Indiana University in Indianapolis for a year and then Roosevelt University in Chicago, Wiersbe enrolled at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, a northwest suburb of Chicago. He entered a five-year program that enabled him to get a college degree and seminary degree at the same time. As a seminary student, he was ordained in 1951 and began serving as pastor of Central Baptist Church, a blue-collar, 150-member neighborhood church in East Chicago. In June of 1953, he received his bachelor of divinity degree from Northern and married Betty Warren, whom he had met at Northern. (She was a librarian, and he practically lived in the library.) Together they had four children—two boys (David and Robert) and two girls (Carolyn and Judy). He once said of marriage: “Getting a wife is something like being saved. You make a decision and then you discover you’ve been chosen. And this is what happened. We just knew we were made for each other.”

In 1957, he left his pastorate at Central to become Director of the Literature Division for Youth for Christ International.

From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. A local Cincinnati radio stations broadcast his Sunday sermons as the “Calvary Hour.” His Sunday During his tenure the church grew from a capacity of 800 people to one that could hold 2,000 worshipers.

In 1971 he received a call from the famed Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, succeeding George Sweeting, who became the president of Moody Bible Institute. Wiersbe’s sermons were featured on Moody’s “Songs in the Night” national radio program. Wiersbe served at Moody from 1971 to 1978, during which time he wrote for Moody Monthly, penning the “Insight for the Pastor” column, where he offered not only practical theology counsel but also wrote biographical sketches of noted figures in church history, which formed the basis for his books Listening to the Giants (1976) and Walking with the Giants (1980). Each of the entries included bibliographic information for further reading—a feature that encouraged and guided many pastors to explore primary sources for themselves. Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace to You, writes: “The backbone of my library today consists of books he introduced me to. He sparked my interest in Lloyd-Jones, the Puritans, and preaching—among other things.”

During his time in Chicago, Wiersbe also served as board chairman for the Slavic Gospel Association.

The staff at Moody Church quickly discovered Wiersbe’s sense of humor. He recalled:

God has a sense of humor. If you don’t believe that, go to the shopping mall, sit there and look at the people. It will convince you that God has a sense of humor. Humor is based on contradiction, seeing the other side of a situation. In one of the churches I pastored, we would have our staff meeting on Monday morning. We’d spend the first twenty minutes laughing over what happened the day before. Because people are people and situations are situations. I remember the Sunday morning at Moody Church when John the Baptist came in. This guy came in wearing a white robe and carrying a big pole and he said he was John the Baptist. We knew he was a fraud because he had a head.

Beginning in 1978, Wiersbe began teaching practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and authored materials for a DMin course on “Imagination and the Quest for Biblical Preaching,” used at both Trinity and also Dallas.

In 1980 the Wiersbes moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he became Bible teacher at Back to the Bible Radio Ministries. In the course of the move, Mrs. Wiersbe told the real estate agent, “We are looking for a library with a house attached.” Their house would eventually have the entire basement devoted to Warren’s collection of more than 10,000 books. During that time he wrote a bi-weekly column for Christianity Today. From 1984 to 1990 he served as general director of Back to the Bible.

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