23 December 2015

Discipleship: Knowing the Word

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

Remember that in John 8:31, Jesus says, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine." So, then, as I've mentioned before, the first step to discipleship is to know His word. Otherwise, how would it be possible to continue in it?

If you're anything like me, though, "know the word" seems a little bit abstract or poorly defined. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? How can I have any sort of confidence that I've accomplished this first step?

Here are a few suggestions that I've found helpful in my spiritual walk:

1. Read the Bible. Seriously, read it. The whole thing. Repeatedly. Get to know it like you know an old friend. This certainly doesn't have to happen overnight, but it does have to happen.

So work on it every day. Set an attainable goal and stick to it: Ten verses, a chapter, two chapters, ten chapters -- whatever you can reasonably accomplish every day. Make a habit of it, and don't bite off more than you can chew. If you start losing the meaning amongst all the words, quit for the day. It's not the end of the world if you don't hit your targeted number of verses. Simply taking the time to read is a victory in itself.

When you're reading, go for quality over quantity. Be sure that you understand who's talking, what's happening, why things are going on, and how each piece fits into the bigger picture. If you can only do by reading one verse per day, then only read one verse per day. If you're having trouble understanding, consider investing in a study Bible with commentary footnotes. (Charles Ryrie and John MacArthur have both written pretty solid ones.) There are also a lot of online commentaries and study aids to provide cultural, historical, and doctrinal context.

Bottom line: It's OK not to be a mega awesome superstar Bible-reader; all you need to be is a Bible-reader.

2. Think About the Bible. Grab one or two details from your daily reading and chew on them throughout the day, like a cow chewing her cud. Meditate on what you've read. Think about how -- or even whether -- it applies to your life or the lives of your friends, acquaintances, or loved ones.

As you read through, remember that not everything in the Bible reflects God's attitudes and thoughts about the world. Sometimes the text reflects the viewpoints, assumptions, and actions of other people in the narrative. These won't always align with the way God sees things. Also remember that throughout history, God has dealt in many different ways with nations and people, though His nature and purposes haven't changed.

3. Memorize the Bible. We'll talk more about memorization later, in our discussion of spiritual disciplines, but know that memorizing verses is one of the best ways to let God's word start changing your heart.

Are you struggling with a particular sin? Memorize a whole slough of verses dealing with that sin, and its opposite virtue. Psalm 119:11 says, "Your word I have treasured in my heart, / That I may not sin against You."

Are you feeling discouraged or depressed? Memorize a Psalm that talks about God's faithfulness, salvation, and love.

Basically, you can't go wrong with memorizing Scripture. It takes time, but that time definitely isn't wasted.

4. Ask for Help. First and foremost, ask God to show you what He wants you to see in your daily readings. Ask Him to help you understand it, too. The really good news here is that God already has a mechanism in place to make that happen. Jesus promised his followers that "the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name ... will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you" (John 14:26).

God wants you to be good at reading, understanding, and thinking about the Bible. That's one of the reasons He sent the Holy Spirit. He loves to teach you; ask God to open your mind and heart to His teaching.

In addition to the Holy Spirit, ask other followers of Christ to help you know Christ's word better. Get involved in a structured Bible study, Sunday School class, small group, or all of the above. And it's vital to be part of a local church that believes and teaches the Bible. There's a reason that Paul commands the Ephesians to speak to one another in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19): We are always stronger when we engage in a community of encouragement.

Another great thing to do is seek out a Bible study partner. Talk through your readings one-on-one with them. Memorize passages of Scripture together. Keep them accountable, and expect them to do the same for you.

Discipleship: Off With the Old and On With the New

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds his readers that they should no longer walk in darkness, but rather:
that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:22-24).
 This is what it looks like to belong to Jesus, for those who have heard His word and been taught in Him (v. 21). The key to understanding this command is in verse 23, where Paul instructs the Ephesians to "be renewed in the spirit of your mind." This is no superficial remodel; we're demolishing this sucker with a wrecking ball and creating something completely different. It is much more than a mere resolution to be a better person.

Throughout the next two chapters, Paul gives many examples of how this principle looks in real life:
  • Lay aside falsehood; speak truth
  • Don't allow sinful anger to control you; reconcile quickly
  • Stop stealing; work hard so you'll have possessions to share
  • Don't use unwholesome words; build each other up
  • Put aside bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice; be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving
  • Don't produce the fruit of darkness and disobedience (immorality, impurity, greed, filthiness, silly talk, coarse jesting); produce fruit of the light (goodness, righteousness, truth, thanksgiving)
  • Don't do dark deeds; expose them
  • Don't walk as unwise men; walk as wise
  • Don't be foolish; understand God's will
  • Don't get drunk with wine; be filled with the Spirit, encouraging each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
This behavior model is not based on suppression or impulse control; it's centered around replacement. The old, destructive, disobedient behaviors are displaced and choked out by the new, Christ-breathed ones. And the driving force is not our own will or desire; it is God's undefeatable power and our faithful acceptance of it.

Throughout our examination of these truths, it's vital to keep in mind that this is the same God, and the same plan, that are first introduced in Ephesians 1 and 2. In other words, Ephesians 4-6 are accomplished by the same One who called us out of darkness into light through His power (not through our own efforts). He prepared these good works beforehand so that we would walk in them. Thus, they are more of a birthright than a duty. They are what we were always meant to do.

And we know that if God has ordained us to walk in good works, He will certainly provide us with the means to do so. So we can relax: God is in charge, and He will give us the power we need. As Isaiah said, "The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish these things."

11 December 2015

Disciplines: The Scriptural Basis

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

I'm convinced that spiritual disciplines are not only a good idea; they are the best way for a believer in Christ to get better at following Him.

Here are a couple of passages from the New Testament that discuss this topic. There are others, but these two stood out to me because they make some really important points.

Hebrews 12:11-13 (NASB): 
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
The author of Hebrews is actually referring to discipline imposed by God "for our good, so that we may share His holiness" (v. 10). This discipline (the call to resist sin and endure persecution) is to bring God's children in line with His intent for their lives.

Verse 11 reminds us that discipline is momentarily painful and costly, but we can have faith that it will bear fruit and bring joy.

In verses 12-13, the writer urges his readers to respond appropriately to God's discipline: Strengthen your weak hands and knees, walk in straight paths, and your (spiritually) infirm body will heal. In other words, respond to God's discipline with self-discipline. Get in line with what He wants for you, and you will be healthier and stronger than ever before.

I Timothy 4:7-8 (NASB): 
But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
In this passage, Paul is talking to Timothy about some people who teach abstinence from marriage and certain foods. Paul rejects their teachings because "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude" (v. 4).

He goes on to call these legalistic rules (or "bodily discipline") "worldly fables fit only for old women." In other words, these superficial practices are not for mature followers of Christ. Instead, Paul instructs Timothy to pursue disciplines that lead to godliness.

We receive an important warning here. In pursuing spiritual disciplines, we are not simply trying to build good habits. By themselves, habits don't have much value. However, when a spiritual discipline makes us more like our Lord and Savior, it brings us value, both in this present world and for the rest of eternity.

In my next post, I'll discuss more of what it looks like to be a disciple of Christ (i.e., the practice of keeping His word). I'll also address some specific examples (from Ephesians 4-6) of how spiritual disciplines can fuel a life of discipleship.

Disciplines: An Introduction

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

A vital part of pursuing a disciple's life is the practice of spiritual disciplines. No, I'm not talking about God the Father pulling out His cosmic paddle and taking you to the spiritual woodshed. I'm talking about intentional, costly efforts that are designed to help you grow in strength, control, or skill, with a view toward improving your spiritual walk. These practices will help you to find your path, remove distractions, and keep moving in the right direction.

Here are some other forms of discipline you might be more familiar with:

  • A child practicing an instrument
  • A mother of four working out with a personal trainer
  • Football players taking dance lessons
  • A toddler sitting in timeout or losing privileges
  • A college student taking a defensive driving course
Let's think about what these examples have in common:
  • They don't necessarily come naturally
  • They're not always pleasant
  • They're done in an effort to get better:
    • Become better-rounded, more mature, or more complete
    • Improve or broaden a skillset; become more useful
    • Grow in skill, strength, speed, flexibility, or patience
How are these examples different from one another?
  • Some are self-imposed; some are imposed by others
    • The goal of the discipline depends on who is imposing it
    • The structure (i.e., what it looks like) depends on the goal
    • Self-imposed discipline requires a level of personal commitment
  • Some are regularly scheduled; others occur on an as-needed basis
  • Sometimes the focus is on developing new abilities; sometimes it's on improving or expanding existing abilities
  • Each discipline has different costs and benefits, both to the one receiving it and the one administering it
Discipline is an act of faith, just as sowing a seed is. Though we cannot see the results yet, we trust that this momentary, costly activity will bring benefits greater than its cost. In other words, we think spiritual disciplines are a smart investment. We press on because of our firm hope that these things will come to pass (cf. Hebrews 11:1).

Spiritual disciplines are primarily self-imposed. In other words, we make a conscious decision to place ourselves under a particular discipline. We do this because we expect it to bring about a certain result in our lives.

In my next post, I'll discuss the scriptural basis for making spiritual disciplines a top priority in the life of every Christ-follower.

09 December 2015

Discipleship: An Introduction

A disciple is one who follows and learns. The term comes from the Latin word discipulus, meaning student, pupil, or follower. And yet a disciple is more than a mere student. A true disciple must immerse himself in the master's teaching. He must allow it to become a way of life, not just a set of ideas. The deeper he goes, the truer a disciple he becomes.

In John 8:31-32, Jesus tells the Jews who have believed in Him, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." I think we'd all agree that we'd like to be free. And if we're followers of Christ, we also want to know His truth. So, then, continuing in His word is vital, if we are to attain these goals.

At least three things are required on the path to becoming Christ's true disciples:

1. Know the word. You can't follow a path if you don't know where it is. Similarly, you can't walk in the truth if you don't know what it is. Psalm 119:105 says that God's word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It shows us the way we ought to go.

2. Remove distractions. You won't get far on a journey if you keep taking side-paths that lead away from your goal. I John 2:15 instructs us not to love the world nor the things in the world. This is because the world around us is caught up in worldly, fleshly things. It isn't concerned about spiritual truths, so being too attached to the world will prevent us from setting our affections on things above, where Christ is (Colossians 3:2).

3. Begin following. You'll never get anywhere if you don't start. An old proverb says that the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and that's true. Before Joshua's death, he urged the Israelites to "choose for yourselves today whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15). The same choice applies to you and me, every day of our lives. Yes, we have chosen Christ once. But if we want to continue down the path with Him, if we want to grow in Him, we also keep choosing Him, moment by moment and day by day.

My purpose over the next few weeks is to outline how to get from where you are to where you want to be in a relationship with Christ. In other words, I want to help you reach that spot where you can look at your life, evaluate it in light of John 8:31 ("If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine"), and say, "Yes! That's me!"

In my next post, I'll introduce some tools that will help us as we journey together toward discipleship.

07 December 2015

Commentary on John 1:4-5

 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

-John 1:4-5 (NASB)

Here, John continues on with more abstract descriptions of the Word: He is the source of a life that brings light to all of humanity. The same living Word who was in the beginning, who was everything's first cause, continues providing life, light, and goodness to all who see Him.

In verse 5, we see our first indication of an adversary. Up until now, the Word has been unopposed, as well you might imagine. After all, think about what a potential opponent would be facing: A being that was in the beginning with God, that is one with God Himself, and that has brought all things into existence. It's not exactly taking candy from a baby to go up against this guy.

Nonetheless, this divinely powerful Light does have an opponent: The darkness. The word that the NASB renders "comprehend" is actually κατέλαβεν, and "comprehend" is only one possible meaning. Other senses of the word include "take hold of," "arrest," "capture," and "perceive." It comes from two words meaning "to aggressively take" and "down." Literally, the darkness cannot take the light down.

So the darkness could signify ignorance here: The Light was shining in the darkness, but the darkness failed to understand it.

Or the darkness could signify opposition: Despite its best efforts, the darkness couldn't stop the Light from overcoming it.

Regardless of which sense is correct here (and the answer might be that both are!), the Light stands in direct opposition to the darkness. It contends against darkness, evil, ignorance, and general sneakiness. This is a common theme in St. John's writings -- his first epistle reads, "This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all" (I John 1:5).

The stage is set, the actors are in position, and the lights have come up on center stage, overwhelming and driving out the darkness. (The darkness isn't completely gone, though -- he's hiding in the wings, preparing for his next appearance.) Now, at last, we're ready for the narrator to come on the scene...

04 December 2015

Commentary on John 1:3

All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
-John 1:3 (NASB)
Here, we learn that the Word (who, as you'll remember, was both with God and one with Him) is the source everything that exists. In other words, nothing has appeared on the universe's stage without His direct, express involvement.

This is probably as good a time as any to address a couple of Christianity's fundamental problems:

  1. If God's nature is thoroughly good, unadulterated by any evil, and if everything in existence has come through God, then how can we explain evil's existence? How could a good God have created a world fraught with evil?

  2. Similarly, if God is all-powerful, and if He hates evil (since it is foreign to His character), how can we explain evil's continued existence? Why hasn't He wiped it out from the universe once and for all?
It would be foolish to claim that I have some final, ironclad answer to these questions. In fact, many brilliant philosophers have been arguing about this very matter for centuries. I can, however, tell you where my intellectual and spiritual journey has led me. 
  1. I believe that when God creates rational beings, He gives them the ability to make decisions. This statement may seem obvious, but think about its implications. If God forced every human -- or angel, or whatever other will-bearing beings may exist -- to behave in accordance with His perfect nature, they wouldn't truly have the ability to make decisions. Oh, they might be able to choose within a range of acceptable options, but the decisions that mattered most to their identities would have been made for them long ago.

    I would argue, then, that our ability to choose evil is a fundamental part of being made in God's image. That is, our capacity for making decisions -- good or bad -- is the fingerprint of the divine.

  2. I believe that mercy is a fundamental part of God's nature. This is particularly true in how He views mankind, His favorite creatures. Just as I do not wish to destroy my children when they choose to disobey me, God does not wish to wipe out His disobedient children, either. Instead, He wants to reach out, to restore our broken relationship, to give us as many chances to repent as possible.

    This is why He sent His Son to take our sins on Himself and bear the punishment of our evil. Being divine, Christ is able to accept God's wrath without being permanently removed from His sight. Being human, Christ is able to truly take the punishment that Adam and his children deserved.

    Nonetheless, God is also constrained by His goodness, righteousness, and holiness. Thus, He cannot and will not brook unrepentant rebellion forever. A day of reckoning must come for those who do not accept Christ's substitutionary sacrifice on their behalf.
We'll dig deeper into these ideas later. For now, the important thing  to see is that everything came into existence through the medium of the Word, the divine logos. And by everything, the evangelist means EVERYTHING. He emphasizes this by repeating himself in the second phrase: "Apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being." 

God's very divine Word, the being with whom He is one, and with whom He was in the beginning, is the source of everything that is and everything that ever has been. And, as we'll see, the Word is also the only way for God's rebellious children to return to Him.

02 December 2015

Commentary on John 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

-John 1:1-2 (NASB)

From the very first words of John's gospel, it's obvious that this won't be a straightforward story. Jesus Christ, of course, is the focus of this book, but the evangelist won't actually mention him by name until verse 17. Instead, he begins with a more abstract title: logos (λόγος - "the Word").

John's audience, if they were familiar with the Septuagint (the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek), probably would have identified logos with God's universe-creating word of power, as in Psalm 33:6:

By the word [λόγω] of the Lord the heavens were made,
And by the breath of His mouth all their host.

If the readers were familiar with contemporary Jewish philosophers, they might have also heard of Philo of Alexandria's concept of the logos, which he identified with the Angel of the Lord. For Philo, the logos was an immaterial, adequate shadow of God, containing the fullness of His supernatural wisdom and power. Or perhaps they would have known of the Stoic concept of logos, dating back to 300 BC. Zeno and other stoics considered the logos to be the material, driving principle behind all life and action in the universe.

John's use of the term logos signals that he wants to provide his readers with a narrative deeper than a mere recounting of historical events. That doesn't mean he's going to play fast and loose with the facts. It does mean, though, that he's more concerned with spiritual truths than he is with giving an exact, detailed chronology of Christ's life and ministry.

We can tell from this first sentence that John's project is ambitious. The scope of his narrative begins not with Jesus's human birth in Bethlehem, but with the very origins of the universe itself. Moreover, the sentence echoes the first sentence in Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The implication is that, like some evangelistic Paul Harvey, John is here to tell The Rest of the Story.

John clearly asserts three things about the Word in verse 1:
  1. The Word was present in the beginning (time)
  2. The Word was in God's presence (location)
  3. The Word was distinguishable from God, and yet one with Him (identity)
In verse 2, John repeats his first two assertions, but uses the pronoun οὗτος ("this one," or "he / she / it"): This One existed in the very beginning, and This One was together with God at that time. The repetition underlines the fact that the Word was both distinct from God and present with Him before the world existed.

So, then, the stage is set, and the actors are present:
SCENE: The beginning of all things.
Enter GOD, accompanied closely by THE WORD, the embodiment of His dynamic creative power. They are distinct, yet somehow one.
And without even reading the next verse, we know what must follow. After all, here we are, surrounded by a fully-formed, wondrous world...