Feeling Confident Reading the Bible (Part 3)

Let’s continue with our hermeneutic principles (see the previous post for the first four). Remember to practice just one at a time for a while and don’t get overwhelmed. Author Josh Kaufman has found that twenty hours of practice can make you pretty good at something, if you’re focusing on key ideas like these.

5. Circumstances alter meaning.

In response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the Bible gives two different and contradictory answers in Mark 10:17 and Acts 16:30. In Mark, Jesus tells the rich young ruler that he needs to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, pick up “his cross” and follow Jesus. In Acts, Paul tells his jailer that all he needs to do is believe in Jesus. So is the Bible contradicting itself here?

The circumstances of the persons asking the question were far different. The rich young ruler’s problem was greed. In order to be happy and able to follow God, he needed to be freed from the love of money that blocked his love for humanity and for God.

But the jailer, in contrast, didn’t have that particular problem. As a pagan, his challenge was that he believed in many different gods, and it would require a new way of life for him to acknowledge and follow only One and to admit that what he had believed all his life was not true.

This principle is similar to studying the culture of the Bible, but it’s more specific: studying the particular circumstances in which a Biblical statement was first made, including the unique people involved.

6. A word may have different meanings even in the same book, written by the same author.

This is a tricky one. Once we figure out that a word means something, we want that meaning to stay the same, but that doesn’t always happen. A modern example is the word “bow,” which can refer to a curved weapon, to a part of a violin, to the act of bending down in front of someone, and other meanings. So when reading the Bible, it can take work to figure out which definition of a word is meant each time that word is used.

For example, the word “glorified” can refer to the state of Jesus’ body when He was first resurrected. But it can also refer to His new status in the universe when He ascended to Heaven. So we can say He was glorified when He came out of the tomb and the Roman soldiers saw Him, but He was not yet glorified in His new position of power and authority on the Throne in Heaven until later. Same word, different meanings.

7. A given act or a given word may be interpreted quite differently by the same person, or by two persons (or more) who approach identical data from different perspectives — different cultures, different contexts, etc.

This reminds me of when creationists and evolutionists can look at the same data in nature and come to very different conclusions about what they mean based on their different theories. In reading the Bible, too, people get very different ideas of it depending on where they’re from or how they were raised. So we shouldn’t expect interpreting it is easy.

Deep, Complex and Simple?

But remember that some parts of the Bible are very simple to understand. For example, all Christians agree that salvation comes through depending on Jesus. So don’t get hung up on the tough parts!

I heard a story about a guy in the 1800s who traveled on ships to various parts of the world, often stuck in small rooms for weeks on end. The only book he had with him was the Bible, and he ended up reading it all the way through five to ten times, if I remember right.

Well, he said that it was the greatest thing he had ever read, that the incredible story of love and truth and salvation changed his life. So the overall story of a loving God is what’s most important.

A Tiny Bit of Interest Plus Practice

Most of us mere mortals won’t be in that world traveler’s situation. But remember if you have even a tiny amount of interest in the Bible right now and you read just a little bit following that interest, your interest will grow as you get to know the Bible better and better. Your journey may take a long time, but that’s okay.

And I really I hope these principles of hermeneutics show you that even if the Bible seems confusing or self-contradictory sometimes — and if someone is trying to discourage you and make you feel that the Bible is just a relic that should be discarded along with bronze spears and chariots — remember that these principles show that it just takes some work (sometimes a lot of work) to understand something written by someone thousands of years ago.

But the God behind it all is still exactly the same as always, just as willing to help you grow in wisdom and happiness and in the knowledge of Him.

~Lemuel Bach
(Praise Team Leader at New Horizons SDA Church in Republic, MO)

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Feeling Confident Reading the Bible (Part 2)

Here is some powerful information that can help you understand the Bible better and therefore can make you more comfortable and confident with it. (I compiled this while reading this lesson.)

It doesn’t guarantee that you will always understand the Bible perfectly. But you can use it to help you think of what questions to take to your coach — the books or other resources you use that help you focus on the most important information (see my previous post).

The science and art of interpreting a text and getting meaning out of it is called hermeneutics. Here are the first four of seven reasons we need hermeneutics, as explained by pastor Noel Nadado.

1. Although the words may be intelligible, the meaning of the statement may still be unclear.

Nadado explained that meaning isn’t actually in the words themselves, it’s inside of human brains. We assign meaning to words; we agree in a society and culture what they mean. So it takes work to find out what a text or a word means when it was written in a different culture thousands of years ago.

2. Some people make the mistaken assumption that a part always equals the whole.

This happens when people read a single verse and then assume that is sums up the message of the whole Bible. When some single verse seems super confusing or illogical or judgmental, you need to look at more of the Bible to see what the entire message is.

I think it’s a good rule of thumb usually not to try to decide an issue using a single verse. In my experience, when someone ends an argument with one verse and walks away with an attitude that says, “There, that one verse proves you’re wrong,” it ends up diminishing the love between the parties and painting a harsh picture of God and of the Bible.

Jesus’ example is best, from Luke 24:27, when it says, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.” He showed the message of all of Scripture, not just one verse.

3. Word meanings change over time.

For example, the King James version of the Bible has over 850 words that mean something quite different today than they used to. If you enjoy the King James, it’s good to be aware of these changes.

For example, a confusing word is “meat.” In 1611, “meat” meant any kind of food, whether flesh fruit, nut or vegetable, but today it means only animal flesh. This is a minor issue for some people but a major issue for others. So when a word seems confusing or seems to contradict the rest of the Bible, more research is needed to understand the original meaning of the original word.

4. Cultural factors affect meaning.

Apparently, a prominent Christian author wrote an article in the 1890s renouncing people who bought bicycles. Over a century later, she seems unreasonable. But apparently at that time and in that culture, a bicycle was a luxury item, like buying a nice BMW today — seriously.

So when Christians bought them instead of giving money to missionary work, they were, for a hobby, neglecting souls who were dying without hearing about Jesus. Today, you can buy a bike for $5 at a yard sale, but not back then.

Similarly, in the Bible we find verses that seem extreme to us today. Idolatry comes to mind: we don’t understand today how horrifying some religious practices were back then, especially when human sacrifices and fire were involved. Studying the ancient culture using a commentary or through another resource makes some difficult passages suddenly simple.

Take One Hermeneutic Principle and Practice It

You can’t become a Bible expert overnight. It takes practice to develop a skill. So I recommend taking just one of these principles (or a principle from part 3 of this series) and try to notice it in action when you are reading the Bible. Then, move on to another principle after you have gotten some skill in the first one, and so on.

Stay tuned for the last three principles!

~Lemuel Bach
(Praise Team Leader at New Horizons SDA Church in Republic, MO)

Feeling Confident Reading the Bible (Part 1)

Imagine sitting down and reading the Bible for, say, a whole hour. Someone has asked you to study it and understand it and really get something out of it. How does that make you feel? If you rate your feeling on a scale of 1, reluctance, to 10, excitement, what is it?

I’m at a 4 sometimes, scared to read the Bible. Part of why reading the Bible doesn’t seem appealing is we don’t totally understand it and so are not confident that it’s worth spending time on.

Passion Comes After Learning

I heard an author, Cal Newport, last week explain that people who are really passionate about their jobs often get that way because of long experience in which they developed rare and valuable skills that they then enjoy exercising.

They didn’t start out with great passion — they weren’t good at their jobs at first — but they had just enough of a seed of interest that it could grow into great skill and then passion later.

Remember that point when you think about reading the Bible. Don’t expect to have great passion and amazing positive emotions right away. That takes time and growth in certain Bible-reading skills. But if you start with at least a small seed of interest, that can grow if you give it time.

It Takes Time To Learn

How much time? Well, some research says it takes 1,000 hours of practice to get pretty good at something. For example, if you work at a job for eight hours per day for six months, that gets you to 1,000 hours.

But in reading the Bible we might read for ten minutes per day. Getting to 1,000 hours could take years at that rate. So we need some special techniques to get better at understanding the Bible as soon as possible. And I’ll reveal some of those tricks a little later.

In the meantime, cut yourself some slack. It’s not realistic to expect to be a Bible expert if you’ve only read the Bible for a few hours total. But also remember that God is patient; in His grace, He gives us time to grow instead of expecting instant excitement and perfection.

Be Like Mike: Coaches Focus on What’s Most Important

Also, people have found that you can cut 1,000 hours down to 100 to 200 hours if you learn shortcuts — even to 20 hours, in some cases. The Pareto Principle, also called the 80/20 Rule, says that 80% of results come from only 20% of the effort, from focusing on the best, most important parts of any skill and ignoring the rest.

How do you learn what to focus on? Well, you need coaches — people who have gone before you and done the trial-and-error work to find out what works and what doesn’t so you don’t have to. Even great sports stars still use coaches.

For you, coaches can be books, online Bible commentaries, pastors, Bible teachers, and YouTube sermons, as long as they are trustworthy: they need to express the ideas of the whole Bible, not just their pet part of it.

Two of my favorite authors of this type are C.S. Lewis and Graham Maxwell. Maxwell’s book Servants or Friends? is powerful; Lewis’ book Mere Christianity is another good one.

In the next post, I’ll reveal more of what I shared with the class last weekend when we discussed this lesson: some key ideas about how to understand the Bible much better that you can practice for just a few minutes per day.

~Lemuel Bach
(Praise Team Leader at New Horizons SDA Church in Republic, MO)

Prayer: Power or Person? (Part 2)

So this idea in Sunday’s lesson that we should pray because we’ll receive power from it just doesn’t seem that great to me. There are a lot of people out there — and I have been one of them — who pray just because they’re told they are supposed to, even if they don’t think very highly of God or think much about Him at all.

They don’t have a picture of Him as their Love and their Friend; they see Him as a distant King Who can grant gifts. And they are told to speak to Him because it’s their duty and because they can make requests and ask for miraculous healings and the like.

Obligation Implies an Impatient God

I think that type of prayer distorts their picture of God even more. It’s prayer out of obligation, which implies that He is a demanding, impatient person with very little understanding of how relationships work. But real prayer is a joyous sharing of the self with the only Person Who will ever understand you fully.

It’s a privilege. It’s delicious. I used to relish my times of prayer because I could feel myself growing and gaining new thoughts and new mental pathways. When I had painful times in my day, I got excited because I knew I would talk with God about it that night. So I know it’s possible to anticipate prayer like a rich dessert, and yet people command us to pray, rather than motivating us to want to do it.

Working to Express God’s Love in Every Medium

I think we as teachers and evangelists should be doing everything possible to express, through every mode of communication, through every art form, an absolutely amazing love coming from God that just makes you tear up and weak at the knees and makes you automatically want to cry out to God.

People need to see Someone Who is so friendly that they just want to chat with Him and tell Him everything. We as teachers and evangelists — as Christians — need to express an atmosphere of such peace and delicious love people want to be inside that experience.

It reminds me of how C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia makes you feel like you really want to be in Narnia with the Christ-like Lion Aslan. Or how a great preacher tells stories God’s love and faithfulness that touch your heart.

But maybe there’s something I’m missing. Maybe even if someone doesn’t really think highly of God, they could still pray in a trite formula and that would be better than no prayer at all. We all start somewhere. I know that’s where I started.

Well, what I know for sure is that if people were so excited about God that they could hardly wait to spend time with Him, that would be the best of all. And so I want to put energy and hard work into expressing a God Who is so loving that people catch that desire.

Prayer Formulas are Training Wheels

To be fair, in the later days, the lesson explains some of the prayer habits of Jesus and the apostles and highlights principles of prayer that seem all right — Jesus going out early in the morning to pray, for example. It also gives a general outline of prayer: starting with praise and thankfulness, moving into confession, and finally making requests.

I just don’t want to pray in formulas, I guess. Prayer for me is just opening up about my life to a Friend. It’s not about meditating on a verse from the Psalms, as the lesson suggests, because for me it’s about sharing my actual, real life, not something David wrote.

Well, there’s probably nothing wrong with using formulas sometimes. But I would hope they’re only the first step in a learning process. With practice, you can eventually talk to God as a Friend, if you trust Him to accept you, if you catch a vision of His love. And I recommend never pretending to feel more for Him than you really do; instead, ask Him to reveal Himself to you in the way that you need.

And finally, after many conversations with God, every breath seems to be a prayer as you realize that you want to have the atmosphere of Heaven with you everywhere you go, in every situation of life.

~Lemuel Bach
(Praise Team Leader at New Horizons SDA Church in Republic, MO)

Prayer: Power or Person? (Part 1)

I come at this issue from a different paradigm than Sunday’s lesson. It seems like it was saying that the reason to pray is to get various benefits from it and to avoid the dire consequences if you don’t pray. The benefits are revival and reformation in your church, power, and positive change in your own life. And if you don’t pray, you will miss out on all those things and slide into apostasy.

I don’t see it that way. There’s truth in those ideas, but I don’t think it’s the most important truth.

Inspired by Hephzibah, My Delight

During the time in my life when I prayed the most, I prayed about fifty minutes every evening and loved it. Why did I do this? Because a Week of Prayer speaker had given me such a surprising vision of the incredible love of God that I simply wanted to talk to God on my walk back to my dorm room that night after the meeting.

So I stopped at a nice overlook of the campus and chatted with God for a while. I wanted to be around Him, around Someone Who loved me as intensely and tenderly as this speaker had described: he had explained that God called me hephzibah, “my delight,” and had gone deeply into what that means.

Sharing a Real Life, Not Just Requests

And so I ended up telling Him all about my day and about my various challenges in college, and, because of my beliefs and temperament, this praying wasn’t a series of requests as if talking to a genie but rather was a sharing of my heart and soul and life with Someone Who truly understood me and deserved my trust.

I was aware the whole time that God knew all about what I was describing and knew everything in my mind and knew what I was going to say, but I still wanted to talk to Him because of His love for me and because I felt perfectly accepted when talking to Him as I felt with no other.

Conversing with My Friend

I also asked Him questions and listened for the response and trusted that He was communicating something to my mind even if I didn’t hear an audible voice. I thought, “In a human conversation with a friend a would need to stop now and then and listen, so I should with God, too.”

And, in the end, I knelt down on the ground and just enjoyed the calmness and peace of the knowledge that I didn’t need to say anything at all, that He was just there, loving and accepting me. We just stayed quietly in communion or togetherness for a short time, and then I went inside and went to bed.

Praying and Losing Track of Time

And the next night, I had another fifty-minute time like that with Him. And not because I timed it. I just told Him what was going on, listened, communed, and then fifty minutes had passed when I finally looked at my watch. This went on night after night for many months, and I felt more like a complete human being or a real man than I ever had before.

My point is I wanted to be with Him, I enjoyed it, because I had been inspired by His love. I needed to share everything with Him. I needed to process what I was going through and get it out in the open and give it all to Him. It was not motivated by a desire for revival or power or evangelism goals. It was because of a desire for Him, because of a vision of His tenderness and passion for me.

There’s nothing wrong with having evangelism goals, but I think this lesson focuses too little on spending time with a Person and too much on getting power, which isn’t the way I think about prayer. What do you think?

In my next post, I’ll tell you what I think we can do to help people have better prayer lives. Until then…

~Lemuel Bach
(Praise Team Leader at New Horizons SDA Church in Republic, MO)

Laodicea: A Plan for Life?!

What was interesting about the lesson last week was that the message to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-21 was actually about hope and encouragement. I had always assumed it was about judgement, about coming down on them hard. Jesus does say that they were lukewarm and were poor and naked and too blind even to see it. But then He gives them a prescription, a series of three ideas in symbols that they would have understood:  gold, white clothes, and eye salve. And it’s a prescription that’s still useful for us today.

Laodicea: The Surprising History

The reason those symbols were understandable to the Laodiceans is in the history of the city itself. It was destroyed in about 61 A.D. by an earthquake, and when Rome offered to help the Laodiceans rebuild, they refused. They rebuilt it themselves, saying they had plenty of wealth without Rome, thank you very much. And they actually were a center for gold coins, which they created there and sent out to other areas. They were bankers. So they used their own gold to rebuild.

Here’s the connection: in Revelation 3:17, Jesus mentions that the Laodiceans had said, “I am rich. I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” And that’s exactly what the Laodiceans had said to Rome!

Jesus says that they are in reality poor, and that He can offer them gold refined in the fire. We’ll get to what that means.

Like a Bank of America, a Macy’s and the Mayo Clinic Rolled into One

Now, Laodicea was also a fashion center. They had lots of black sheep they used to create a renowned black, glossy wool that was turned into popular garments. People remarked on how beautiful Laodicean women were in their black clothes. And of course these latest fashions were exported to many other parts of the known world.

But Jesus states that they are actually naked and counsels them to buy white clothes from Him to cover their shame — which is more interesting once you know they were famous for black wool.

Finally, Laodicea was known for its medical training school and especially for the famous Phrygian eye salve made there. People loved that stuff, and the Laodiceans exported it all over the known world.

Jesus stated, probably with a bit of irony, that these people who had invented a famous eye salve were actually blind — meaning they were blind to their own condition and blind to important spiritual things.

Treasures No One Can Take Away

Well, the gold, clothes and eye salve that He offers are spiritual symbols. The gold refers to a faith that has grown incredibly strong through many experiences with God, a faith that no one can take away no matter what you go through, something secure from all disasters, aging, rusting — anything.

The white clothes have to do with covering anything that you’re ashamed of and just receiving from Jesus, every day, His righteousness that frees you from ever trying to earn acceptance from God and frees you from the need to struggle with guilt.

And the eye salve refers to the Holy Spirit Who can bring such powerful truth and understanding to your mind that you can detect even very subtle falsehood that is designed to mess up your life. The Spirit shows you Jesus and His perfect life and reminds you of His words. The Spirit shows you amazing opportunities to have more experiences with God — more ways to use your talents — that will make you even stronger and more joyful.

Putting Hopes and Dreams on Jesus’ Path

So Jesus offered them a mental technology — that’s how I think of it — that they could follow and that we can follow. The gold, the white clothes, and the eye salve are really a plan for life, a path. Receiving righteousness by faith every day from Jesus, walking by the Spirit, learning and experiencing and remembering more truth and wisdom that the world has ever known, and growing in a faith that will eventually be so strong that nothing can shake your confidence and security — this plan for life is very, very encouraging. What a surprise and what a difference from the judgmental ideas I usually have when reading this passage.

Now, no matter what else I do in my life, I want my accomplishments to be on this path that Jesus has laid out.

~Lemuel Bach
(Praise Team Leader at New Horizons SDA Church in Republic, MO)

God’s Two Teachers Working Together

In our Bible study class on February 16, we discussed an issue that turned out to be more controversial than I expected. We were discussing this lesson: http://ssnet.org/lessons/13a/less07.html

I explained that Nature can’t teach us Biblical truths on its own. Only the Bible can tell us about the Trinity or the fact that Jesus died on the Cross and rose again or that the Red Sea parted for the Israelites. You’d never learn those things by studying trees or birds or corn.

The Class Protests

An interesting thing happened, then. Some of the people in my class protested that people can still go to Heaven even if they don’t know about God or Jesus.

Now, that’s actually true: the apostle Paul explains that people are only judged on what they have heard. And the Holy Spirit speaks to people through whatever is available — Nature alone, for some people — and asks them to make a decision based only on what they know.

But my point wasn’t about salvation. It was simply that “God’s second book,” as Nature is called, can’t explain some of the eternal truths that only the words of the Bible can reveal to us.

The Limitations of Nature

Nature can’t show us a God of eternal, unchanging love. It can show us some amazing things like sunlight and rain falling on the righteous and the wicked. It can show us space, which is extremely large but not infinite. But to know Who creates the sun and the rain and Who contains all of space in His mind, well, only the Bible can explain that.

An interesting concept from my denomination is that if people are focused only on Nature, they forget about God’s majesty and the power of His consistent love and perfect wisdom. If their ideas of truth and good behavior come only from Nature, they can never rise above it.

But worshipping the God Who created (and still creates) Nature inspires us to be more than we are, more than Nature, more like Him.

Why the Bible and Nature are a Teaching Team

Nature alone shows us a confusing picture. There is beauty in Nature, yes — and some generosity among higher animals. But there are also greed, stealing, and animals eating each other alive. Nature can’t explain itself, but the Bible can explain why things are the way they are.

On the other hand, some ideas in the Bible can be abstract and hard to visualize until we hear an illustration that uses Nature — for example, the parable of the seeds falling on different kinds of ground — and then we understand that particular truth better. Then that thing in Nature — the seeds, in this case — is forever after associated with that truth.

So both of God’s books are good, and they work together to teach us and show us truths about Him and His kingdom. It’s all for our benefit, because getting to know Him and being more like Him are what make people truly happy.

~Lemuel Bach
(Praise Team Leader at New Horizons SDA Church in Republic, MO)