Say, “Father!”

When I was a child, we attended a small church in Bristol, England.  Outside was a low wall forming a small courtyard where people would gather after church.  Teenagers would laugh and chat while younger children would weave in and out, playing tag.  It was a happy bubble of fellowship and laughter.

One Sunday, a group of local teenagers was on the other side of the street.  One picked up a stone and threw it at the church, smashing a small window high above the door.  As the glass shattered, that safe bubble burst.  I immediately ran inside and went straight to my Dad.  As far as I could tell, he was the tallest and one of the strongest men on earth.  I felt fearful and threatened, so Dad was the one I wanted to be close to at that moment.

The idea of a loving and protective father is not just important for children.  It is also important for all Christians.  In one well-known Bible passage, Jesus uses four words that should influence our lives every day.

In Matthew 6, Jesus addresses the subjects of giving, praying, and fasting.  In all three cases, he urges his followers not to make a show of their religious practice but to do them in secret.  After all, God knows what happens in secret, and he is all that matters.  So with the subject of prayer, Jesus warns against being showy visually or in our vocabulary.  And then, he gives a model prayer in verses 9-13.

When you pray, say, “Our Father in heaven….”

Familiar words.  You can probably quote the prayer.  Maybe you have noticed how it starts with one address, asks two things regarding the Father, and then three things regarding the family.  Let’s ponder the “address” some more. “Our Father in heaven.”

Many things should be true of a father.  Let’s be simplistic.  On the one hand, a good father is supposed to be an authority figure with power and strength.  On the other hand, a good father is supposed to be loving, kind, and close.  That immense strength has to be under control for the good of those under his care.

A. Our Father on Earth – Sadly, we live in a world where so many Dads have done a poor job of impersonating our heavenly Father.  They have been missing, angry, drunk, and even abusive.  Many Dads resemble the devil more than they do God.  But even if we did have an honourable Dad or even a Christ-loving Dad, we probably all feel a lack in our hearts.  Whether that is a slight lack or a gaping wound, it only underlines how we were created for closeness with a father.  We long for a father who is powerful and strong so that we can feel safe and secure.  We long for a father who is loving and close so that we can feel held and happy.  Our father on earth may not have been what we needed, but what about our Father in heaven?

B. Our Father in Heaven – Jesus was on a mission.  It was not just a mission to rescue us from sin and bring us into a relationship with God.  It was also a mission to reveal God’s heart to us.  What is our Father in heaven like?

i. Authority & Power – When the stone bursts the safety bubble of life, we need a Father who is big and strong.  In Matthew 8:23-9:8, we read three stories that show us a glimpse of God’s authority and power.  Jesus rebuked the winds and the sea during a great storm, and they obeyed him.  Jesus commanded demons to leave the two demon-possessed men on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus forgave and healed the paralytic.  Jesus demonstrated his divine authority over creation, the spiritual forces of evil, physical healing, and forgiveness.  At the end of this trio of stories, we read, “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” (To one man in particular! – see Matthew 9:8)

ii. Love & Closeness – When the bubble bursts and the glass rains down, we need a Father whose heart is towards us.  In Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus encouraged his followers to pray and ask because of God’s good heart.  Who gives a child a slice of slate to chew on when they ask for toast?  Who thinks a poisonous snake is a suitable alternative to a healthy protein and omega-3-laden fish for a hungry child?  We are fallen creatures in a fallen world, but we know how to give good gifts to our children.  So “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

iii. Who is in Heaven – There is one moment in Matthew’s Gospel where heaven bursts onto the scene.  In Matthew 17:1-7, Jesus takes three disciples up on a mountain, and the curtains are pulled back.  Suddenly they see Jesus in his heavenly impressiveness, conversing with Moses and Elijah.  Peter panics and suggests a tent-building plan.  Then there is a bright cloud and a booming voice from heaven. “When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.” Quite right.  It was terrifying.  But notice that Jesus was not on his face.  Why not?  Because he knew the voice and the heart of the one who spoke.  On that mountain, they got to experience God’s terrifying power and authority, but take note of what they heard!  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (v. 5). Our Father in heaven is both terrifyingly powerful and wonderfully loving.  Jesus has made him known to us!  That is why it is crucial to be sure that he is not just The Father in Heaven, or even Jesus’ Father in Heaven, but Our Father in heaven.

C. And What About Us? – Whenever we think about prayer, we tend to start thinking in terms of a religious burden.  “We are a month into a New Year, and I should do better at praying.  I need to be more diligent, more purposeful, etc.”  Maybe there is another way to look at this. 

If God has all authority and power, then that means I can come to him as one who is frightened and weak.  If God is loving and close, then I can approach him as one who is childlike and weary.  I don’t need to impress him.  I can just come as I am, start with “Our Father in heaven…” and then pour out everything on my heart.  What a privilege!

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Please see the new series of videos for 2023 – Enjoying the Word . . . all about enjoying Bible reading and Bible study.

Bible Reading Basics – Part 2

If you have a good Bible reading and study plan that works well, that’s great.  But what if you don’t?  What if others don’t get on with your approach?  Well, for you, or for someone else, this video might be helpful.  It shares a reading and study approach that I believe has a lot to commend it. 

There is flexibility – you choose what time to give to it. 

There is motivation – you choose where to put your energy. 

There is potential – I’ve not found a plan that seems more likely to build solid Bible-shaped believers.

One of the challenges of Bible reading is maintaining momentum. There are a number of momentum killers, like long lists of names and unpronounceable places. What should we do?

One way to evaluate your Bible times is by checking in on what is happening in your mind and heart the rest of the time. What does it mean to meditate on God’s Word day and night? Check out this video for more:

The question that I hear more than any other is this, “what should I do when I don’t feel like reading my Bible?” It is an important question. We all need a decent answer that can help us when we inevitably get those days. Here is a video that may be helpful.

Please click here to subscribe to the YouTube channel – thanks!

Bible Reading Basics – Part 1

When you first open the Bible, it is an overwhelming tome, to say the least.  Over time we can start to find our way around the Bible, just like we can learn to find our way around a big city – one landmark at a time.  In fact, the Bible gives us a great example of such landmarks right at the start of an important chapter.

Why do so many believers lose their love of Bible reading before Valentine’s Day?  Could it be that they are trying to read and study simultaneously?  Have you ever found yourself struggling through Leviticus and taking very little in while longing to be in Philippians (and knowing you won’t be there anytime soon)?  Perhaps it is time to make a helpful separation.

The Bible speaks of delighting in the words of God.  Other Christians sometimes seem to sound so delighted by the word of God.  So why do some of us never seem to reach those heights?  Perhaps a simple suggestion relating to concentration might prove helpful.

Is Biblical Interpretation Boring?

When Paul wrote to Timothy, the senior apostle urged the younger Timothy to do the work necessary to “rightly handle the word of truth.”  The implication is that it is possible to mishandle the word of truth.  You only need to listen to a few sermons online or visit a few churches to start your collection of scary examples! 

Nuanced technical caveats notwithstanding, it is essential to recognize that every passage says something specific.  Our job as we study is to determine, as best we can, what that something is.  That is to say that each passage has one accurate interpretation.  It cannot mean anything, and it does not mean everything.  It means something.

Once we determine that meaning, that one interpretation, we can then begin to evaluate the many potential applications of the passage.

Here is a video on this specific matter:

But if we are going to talk about the rules and principles of interpretation, then are we not embarking on a tedious task?  After all, who wants to memorize rules?

You could say the same thing about other processes too.  Learning to ride a bike feels tedious, but it opens a new world of adventures for a child.  Learning to drive a car safely can feel overwhelming, but it creates new freedom that is a wonderful blessing.  Learning anything will involve some rules or principles.  The real question is this: is it worth learning?

When we learn to handle the word of truth rightly, we start to see the richness God has put in our Bibles.  We get to understand his glorious message to us.  We get to enjoy the beauty of the divine revelation in all of its literary splendour.  We get to experience the life-change that comes from living a Bible-marked life.  The rules of interpretation sound dull, but they are a means to infinite treasure!  Boring is not the word; let’s try exciting instead!

Check out the video to see which Bible passage I use to introduce this point!

Bible Posture – 2 Points

We live in an age marked by resistance to authority.  The idea of submission has fallen on hard times.  But don’t miss either the logic or the blessing of this concept:

The Logic – Submit yourselves to God (James 4:7).  This is logical.  God is God, and you are not.  And being a Christian involves a thorough acceptance of that reality.  Nobody else has ever achieved even a tiny fraction of success in their attempt to usurp God’s role in the universe.  It is so simple.  God is God.  And I am not.  It makes sense not to pretend otherwise.

The Blessing – The Christian faith is not simply about logic, however.  James 4:8 goes on to describe how we can draw near to God, and he will draw near to us!  What an amazing thing!  If we try to usurp his place, we create a conflict between ourselves and God.  He opposes the proud.  But if we will humble ourselves and submit to him, he gives grace to the humble (see 1 Peter 5:5-6).  The blessing of submission to God is closeness with God.  And since he is a good God, this is a good thing!

So the first posture point to ponder: Be under, not over, the Word!

It would be bizarrely arrogant to think that my finite mind and experience can evaluate and judge God’s Word.  Who am I to imagine that I can decide what to accept, what to dismiss, etc.?   

In Acts 17:11 we read about the Jews in Berea. They were commended for receiving Paul’s message with eagerness, and then checking that teaching against the Scriptures.  May that be our posture too . . . leaning forward, hearts open, head nodding, eager to hear from God’s Word!

Post point two: Receive God’s Word with eagerness!

Here is the latest video (and click here to subscribe to the YouTube channel) –

Whose Word?

The Bible is unlike any other book on earth for this reason: it was inspired by God.  Other books may be written by inspiring people or by people inspired by their subject.  But the Bible is “God-breathed” – it comes from God.  God superintended the writing process so that the original authors wrote their thoughts, in their words, in their language, and God made sure that they wrote exactly what he wanted to be written.  That is why we call it God’s Word.  (2Tim.3:16)

So when the prophets wrote their books, they did not dream up their content.  Rather, they were carried along by the Holy Spirit – he was the wind in their sails!  Again, that means that what we have in our Bibles is not just humanly authored but also divinely inspired. (2Peter 1:20-21)

This all means that our goal in reading or studying the Bible is to understand what is there.  What did the Author and the author intend to communicate?  Our job is not to be creative, or fanciful, or original.  We do not get bonus points for making up a meaning nobody has seen before.  No matter how clever you are, what you can make it say is not as good as what God made it say!

Check out the latest video in the Enjoying the Word series:

5 Reasons to Study the Bible

Some Christians seem excited about Bible study, while others seem scared of the concept.  Why should we invest time in studying the Bible?  Here are five good reasons!

1. For spiritual life.  Some years ago, I was pointed to a fascinating book about conversions in the Muslim world.  I am sure you have heard of how God is using dreams and visions to bring Muslims to Jesus.  The book’s author pointed out that when these testimonies are investigated, the dreams are a key link in a chain, but they are not the whole chain.  In each case, the person had to encounter God’s written word before coming to faith in Christ. 

When Jesus spoke to the religious leaders in John 5, he shocked them by saying they did not know God or have his word in them.  These were men who spent hours in their scrolls every day.  Jesus pointed out that they thought they could find life in the scriptures themselves, but actually, those scriptures were pointing to a person – him!  (John 5:39)  As we study the Bible, it points us to Jesus.  As we meet Jesus, we find spiritual life itself.  Knowing God the Father, through Jesus the Son, is the very essence of eternal life. (John 17:3)

2. For spiritual growth.  Six times we have had the joy and privilege of bringing a newborn into our family.  Life is relatively simple for the baby.  Eat and sleep.  And those regular meals with Mum result in the biggest growth spurt of their lives (even more than a teenage boy!)  So Peter positively uses the analogy of milk to describe how the Bible will nourish us and grow us as believers.  We should long for that sustenance so we can grow spiritually.  (1Peter 2:2)

3. For spiritual maturity.  That same analogy is also used in Hebrews but in a negative sense.  The preacher to the Hebrews is concerned because these believers have not matured as they should.  Instead of solid food, they are still on a liquid diet.  Mature believers can discern between good and evil because they have been trained for the challenges of spiritual adulthood.  Where should we look for solid food if the Bible provides spiritual milk?  Still, the Bible – that part of the analogy remains consistent!  (Hebrews 5:11-14)  Have you ever met a genuinely mature believer who had arrived at that stage without a steady diet of the Bible shaping their life and character?   No, nor me.

4. For spiritual effectiveness.  We live in an era of unlimited opportunities.  Where do you go if you want thorough equipping for ministry in the church, home, and workplace?  There are so many seminars, workshops, books, courses and institutions inviting us to come along and learn.   Paul wrote to Timothy and described the God-breathed usefulness of Scripture.  It teaches, reproves, corrects and trains us.  What is the result of that biblical influence in our lives?  It is that we may be complete, equipped for every good work.  That is quite the promise! (2Tim.3:16-17)

The Bible offers us salvation, spiritual growth, maturity and equipping for all aspects of life and ministry.  Some might stop there, but there is another reason to study the Bible:

5. For spiritual delight.  Psalm 1 introduces us to the righteous man who doesn’t allow the world’s message to shape his life.  Instead, his delight is in the revelation of the Lord; on that word, he meditates day and night.  Have you ever paused to ponder the word “delight” in Psalm 1:2?  He does not merely concern himself with the message or even simply find his life instructions there.  He delights in it.  There is something about God’s very character, and therefore his inspired Word, that means we can read and study it for sheer delight.  The ultimate reason to spend time in God’s Word is not that we have to, but because we get to!  The heart of eternal joy and never-fading delight is opened toward us in the revelation of Scripture!

There are more reasons to read and study the Bible, but that’s a good starting point. 

Enjoying the Word – Introduction

New year and new project! Last year I enjoyed working through the book of Psalms on YouTube.  I hope those videos will be useful to more people this year as people choose to use them as companions in a journey through the Psalms.  And now we are into a new year and a new project: Enjoying the Word.

Enjoying the Word will be a growing collection of videos that will hopefully help people to enjoy reading and studying the Bible.  The first part of the sermon preparation process is the privilege of every believer – to spend time in God’s Word so that it gets into us and changes us.

The plan is to release short videos related to Bible reading and Bible study.  I will share a simple process to think through the Bible study journey.  I plan to release more mini-series called Pursuing God’s Heart Yourself. These short series use a single Bible book or section to illustrate important principles of biblical interpretation.  And I may work through a Bible book or two from start to finish to show the workings of healthy Bible study. 

I hope this will be helpful to you and to others you know.  Please do let me know if you have questions or ideas for videos.  And please share the resources with others too!  As videos are liked and shared, and as more people subscribe to the channel, so these videos will get in front of more people. (You can click here to subscribe to the YouTube channel.)

I am also planning to write companion posts on this blog to point to individual videos or mini-series of videos.  The subjects we will cover in the videos perfectly fit this blog, so why not?

The introductory video includes a quick look at a fantastic biblical truth!

Learning from a Different World

Travel can be transformational. By travel, I don’t mean layovers in airports en route to somewhere else (I’ve unsuccessfully visited some significant countries this way!)  No, I mean genuinely visiting.

Let me share two examples and then make my point for us.

A “Third World Country” – How often have you heard people return from a missions trip and say that the local people taught them so much? It is a consistent message! I remember visiting an East African country and experiencing a completely different life. 

There was the food, the wildlife, the weather, and the transport. The cultural differences hindered my teaching, but then again, they also supported it. There was that more remote tribe where the children could pick out their friends in a picture on my camera. And yet they could not recognise themselves because they had never seen a good reflection before. And there was much to learn from the simple lifestyle, not to mention the sacrificial hospitality. It was like stepping into a different world, and I came home changed by my visit.

A “Second World Country” – I visited an Eastern European country some years ago. We walked past the jail where political prisoners, including pastors, used to be held and tortured. Communism never has room for dissenters, free thinkers or any God except the state. Therefore church leaders and Christians are always a threat. 

I remember asking a man driving me to a meeting what it was like to live under communism. He spoke of how some things worked, but nobody was free. He gave me two examples. He described living in a world where one in three people worked for the government as an informer. It meant that you would never speak openly about politics or religion. You never knew who would inform and lead to your arrest and the suffering that might also come to your family. And he described how everyone would dutifully buy the newspaper, signalling that they were good citizens. But they would never read it because everyone knew it was all government-controlled lies.

I have thought a lot about that conversation over the years. It was like a haunting warning from another country at another time. I often think about how our culture is moving towards that kind of community spying. We now live around people ready to call out anyone who breaks the brand new moral codes related to gender, sexuality and race. And we have technology constantly monitoring every click of the mouse, message from our keyboard or even word uttered by our mouth. And perhaps most concerning is the number of people who digest the messaging disseminated through our news media but don’t realise how controlled the messaging is. It is not hard to imagine our world morphing into another iteration of communism with millions of people naively celebrating such a sinister transformation of society! After all, it always comes out of a crisis for the good of the people.

The bottom line – Travelling to a different culture and meeting people who’ve lived in other times can hugely impact us. It should have a significant impact on us. Insightful lessons that will enrich our lives. Haunting warnings to protect us. If we have the privilege of travelling and go eager to learn, it will change us.

So, what do we do as Christians when we open our Bibles? What happens when we preach the Bible to others? We get to travel to a different world.

1. A different world geographically & culturally – Good bible study and biblical preaching will take our imaginations to the battlefields of ancient Israel, the throne rooms of ancient kings, the living rooms of ancient peasants, and the discussion forum of ancient philosophers. We will visit the Sinai peninsula’s wilderness, the fishing villages of Galilee, the arid hills around Jerusalem, the stormy Mediterranean sea, and strategic cities around one section of the Roman empire.

2. A different world educationally – Good bible study and biblical preaching will take our hearts right into the crowd hearing Moses preach. Or we might join the crowd hearing an Old Testament prophet proclaim God’s message. We might sit on the grass and hear Jesus teach. Or perhaps overhear the apostles announcing the resurrection. We will spend time being mentored by the experience of a young shepherd fighting for his nation, a want-away prophet running from his calling, or a height-challenged tax collector hiding in a tree. Wonderful enrichment for life and haunting warnings await us if we just travel into the Bible with our hearts open and ready to learn.

3. A different world entirely – Good bible study and biblical preaching take us to faraway lands and insightful mentors and, beyond that, give us a glimpse into another world. The Bible is not an old travelogue. We are earthbound and tend to think very “down here” kinds of thoughts. But heaven has broken into our world, and we can hear from the world of love where God is forever reigning, without caveat or coup. We might pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In the Bible, we get not only those words to pray but also the life-changing revelation of what that all means. 

Every day we have the privilege of travel with all its life enrichment, haunting warnings and unique mentoring opportunities. Open your Bible with an open heart. And every time we share our biblical travels with others in conversation or preaching, we can take them with us. Don’t shortchange yourself or others by simply grabbing for an applicational point or a quick anecdote. 

Too many of us visit the world of the Bible like a traveller in transit through an airport. We might pick up a local bar of chocolate in a kiosk, but we haven’t truly been to the country, and our lives show no evidence of impact. What would it look like to really go? To meaningfully visit? To spend time with the people, to see the sights, to be lastingly changed? 

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By the way, after going through the Psalms in 2022 on YouTube, I am planning to spend the next months offering short videos related to the subject of studying and enjoying our Bibles. Please let me know, at any time, if you have an idea that would help that playlist become more useful to you or your church!

The Incarnation is Not Just for Christmas

We all say it every year. Where did this year go? Before we know it, the year has slid past, the temperatures have dropped, and the shops swell with Christmas sights, sounds, and shoppers. In church, we are busy preparing for the nativity play and dusting off the carols for their annual airing. We will hear the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, a briefer reading from Isaiah’s Immanuel section, or Micah chapter 5, and soon Christmas will be all over.

But the Incarnation is not just for Christmas.

The Incarnation is critical to the Christian faith. At some point during these weeks, someone will point out that Easter is the reason for the season. They are not wrong. Jesus had to be born to live the perfect life and then die in our place. But that is not the whole story. The Son of God became one of us for several reasons, including God’s great rescue mission.

I have introduced three more reasons that the Incarnation is not just for Christmas. To read the article, please click this link and then check out all the other great resources on the Union website!