The Dummies Guide to Ministry

Introduction… Stewardship

How do we as Christians practically act as God’s stewards in this world? A steward is someone who looks after the owner’s property and protects the owner’s interests. Money, time, energy and everything else is exercised according to the owner’s instructions. They manage the property and honestly report to the owner every detail. One of the foundational passages for this in the NT is the parable of the talents.

Matthew 25:14-18 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.”

In four blogs I want to look at Maturity, Ministry, Materialism and Money… to do so with some practical ideas – what do our choices and commitments say about our faith? Would someone know we are a Christian by the way we speak, the way we act, the way we spend our time, the movies we watch, the company we keep, the books we read, the way we spend money, the way we act at work, the way we treat the poor, the way we speak to or about our spouse or kids?

If you’ve ever been tempted to read one of the “Dummies Guide’s to…” – well that’s my aim – a “Dummies Guide to Stewardship”. You don’t have to be dumb or act dumb – a dummies guide is simply a non expert’s guide – an everyday guide. Stewardship for us is not a matter of putting into practice our expertise but rather putting into practice our beliefs and our trust.

I want to challenge you for four commitments.

  1. Maturity… actively working towards maturity in Christ through prayer, Bible reading, regular church attendance and ministry.
  2. Ministry… to use God given gifts in ministry for the encouragement and building up of Christians and the ministry of the Gospel
  3. Materialism… to prayerfully and courageously stand against the world in the pursuit of happiness through possessions.
  4. Money… to give generously and regularly to the ministry of the gospel in your church.

A Dummies Guide to Ministry

Two Little Boys – P.S. it’s a Joke!!!!

  • Two little boys, 8 & 10 were always getting into trouble – whenever anything happened in their small town their parents knew their sons would get the blame. But mum heard on the grapevine that there was a clergyman who’d been successful in disciplining kids, so she asked him to speak with her boys. He agreed to see them individually the next day.
  • So, mum sends her youngest down to the church next morning. The clergyman, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?”
  • The boy’s goes to speak, but makes no sound, sitting there with his mouth hanging open.
  • The clergyman repeats the question. “Where is God?”
  • Again, the boy makes gives no answer.
  • The clergyman raises his voice, shakes his finger and bellows, “Where is God!?”
  • The little boy screamed, sprinted from the room, ran home to hide in his wardrobe, slamming the door behind him. His brother finds him crying, and asks; “What happened?”
  • The little boy, fighting off tears says: “We’re in so much trouble – this is bigger than anything we’ve ever done. God’s missing, and they think we did it!”

Ministry’s such fun!

The Church 100 years on!

100 years ago that story might well have been a good description of church – things have changed dramatically (though you can still find churches that would not think this joke was a joke!). Ministers were scary – fire and brimstone preachers bellowing about sin and damnation from pulpits high in the air – dressed in black with big black Bibles. They still exist!

In the Anglican church and in plenty of others what the priest said was law – except it had greater authority because it came from God. The priest had standing in the church and the community; he was an integral part of society. Churches did limited ministries – teaching happened at church by the preacher. It happened in the home when every member of the family was catechised – which is what catechists used to do – come to your home and teach you the catechism – it’s in the back of the prayer book. The Priest preached and read services, did the prayers and the readings (3 or 4, even 5 at times) – there were few lay preachers or readers. Sunday Schools, if they existed, were tightly controlled by the minister, there were few youth groups, mostly no Bible Study groups (we have the Wesleys to thank for those in the modern church) – the ones that existed were an opportunity for the priest to come to preach to the gathered group in your home. I know this probably seems foreign to most – yet I know from personal experience that some groups still operate this way, and some ministers and even lay people operate this way.

Makes me wonder how they dealt with a passage like…

1 Peter 4:7-9 “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ…”

Mostly today the church is very different. The 16thC Reformation changed how we view church and ministry by going back to NT principles – especially that ministry was never meant to be the exclusive domain of the professional ministers and priests. Peter speaks of the new people of God, the church, as a priesthood of all believers.

1 Peter 2:9-10 “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Once we did not belong – we were not the people of God – but together now Christians are the people of God, the priests of the kingdom, called to declare the praises of Jesus who called us out of darkness – we are chosen and we are priests – a holy nation that crosses all boundaries, all colours, all national and racial differences to form one nation of priests under God.

The Dummies Guide to Ministry says… Ministry is not the domain of professionals – it is the responsibility and lifestyle of all who believe.

The Priesthood of all Believers

Peter writes about change – the real change that’s required of those who belong to Jesus. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – at least the theory – yet Peter goes to great lengths to describe the changes. His letters describe Christians at length – the new people of God – a chosen people, a royal priesthood, holy, a nation belonging to God, receivers of God’s mercy – God’s elect, strangers in the world, no longer strangers to God – spread throughout the world, yet gathered around the word, gathered before the throne of God – the chosen ones, made clean by God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, chosen for obedience, made one with Christ by his blood, granted peace and God’s grace in abundance. Why go on and on?

Why so many descriptions of the change?

Is it so detailed because even after 2000 years we still struggle to leave our old lives behind and be wholeheartedly committed to the new?

1 Peter 4:3 “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.”

All this we must leave behind gratefully, enthusiastically, with a sense of the reality that faces all people – that we must face God and deal with the lifestyle we have led.

1 Peter 4:4-5 “They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”

In the face of imminent judgement – how are we to live?

1 Peter 4:7-9 “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.  If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

Living as Priests

This passage is the Dummies Guide to Ministry. As we read the rest of Peter we can see that as God’s gathered people we are to be holy, to be self controlled, to purify ourselves through reading and obeying the Scriptures. We are to love one another, to crave what is good, to encourage rather than tear down, to get rid of all the relational tools that don’t belong in the church – malice, rage, anger, slander – there are standards of behaviour and love that we must live according to, no matter how imperfectly.

It is spectacularly easy to fail in these areas, to fall back into the behaviours of our old life, to revive the relational tools we were committed to as non-Christians. If that’s where you find yourself – failing in relationships as Peter is speaking of here – it’s not impossible to change, though it will often feel like it is. If you wrong someone – apologise – go to them and seek forgiveness – be open about it, talk about it – ask them to forgive you. It’s tempting to just ask God and to think that’s enough – it’s not. When we sin we sin against God and people – we need to seek the forgiveness of both. If its 20 years ago then deal with it today – seek forgiveness today. Forgiveness can only happen when you seek it. And if you fail today – seek forgiveness from the person you have wronged and repent and start again. And if you fail tomorrow do it again. How many times do we need to forgive – or be forgiven…? Jesus says 7 times 70? 7 is the number of God, times the number of God, times 10. We might say infinity + 1.

Christians are the priesthood of the kingdom – we have a new lifestyle – not one given to satisfying our cravings but given to ministry. Don’t think of ministry as a great list of gifts and abilities – Pater has no lists – this is the Dummies Guide – the experts guide for the rest of us – it gives us the simplicity of love and hospitality. Every Christian is a minister – we are each responsible to build, encourage, teach and train – to use our gifts, which every one of us has been given, to further the work of the gospel. We are to think clearly and carefully about life, relationships, the world, church, the cross, salvation, money, family – think clearly about this things from God’s point of view. We are to be self controlled – not pursuing things that will kill us but instead that which will save and keep us. It’s the work of a lifetime – to give up pagan commitments and commit to the work and life of Christ. Ministry starts with love.

Ministry Starts With Love

Actually – ministry starts with recognition – every one of us is a minister. There are no pew sitters in Christ’s kingdom.

1 Peter 4:7 “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”

We have to start by believing God – he declares he has gifted us for his work.

Do you believe God?

Do you believe God when he says that you have been gifted by Him for the work of ministry? I guess I’d want to ask if you think God hasn’t gifted you – why is that? Why would God single you out to lack the gifts to serve in ministry – when he clearly promises that every Christian is gifted for the good of the church?

Maybe it’s hard for you to see where you can serve – maybe you need help working out where to get involved – maybe you need an environment that supports you or a ministry team who will encourage you – but the Bible is clear that each of us, as Christ’ chosen people, have been given the gifts required to serve Christ’s church faithfully.

1 Peter 4:9 “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

The thing is – getting involved in ministry is not a complex issue. It’s not a matter of discovering a specific gift – though that can help. Rather it’s a matter of realising the wonder of what we have received – the grace of God, the riches of Christ, the glory of heaven, and the forgiveness of sins… once we realise how unbelievable it is that we are in a right relationship with God through Christ – ministry is the means by which we will share that news. Ministry starts with love that is clear about the nature of this world and the judgement to come and out of love for God and others shares the gospel.

When two people get married – how ready are they for what’s to come?

Let’s be honest – they are not!? They’re not ready for the changes, the commitment, the differences, the day-to-day wonder of learning to live in intimate relationship. But… we commit to love and to service – to love one another to the exclusion of anything that will destroy, wreck, hurt, damage etc.

It’s the same in ministry – we don’t have to know precisely what our gift is or how to use it – what we need is a commitment to love. With self control – not living just for pleasure… and with clear mindedness – not clouded with the world – and a commitment to pray – we must love each other deeply and offer hospitality without grumbling.

The Whole of Ministry

This is not just the Dummies Guide to Ministry – this is the whole of ministry. Everything else fits into these two ideas. Firstly Peter speaks of Agape – love of a family member – Christians – we are to demonstrate a real and abiding love for each other firstly by sharing the gospel together and building each other up in the truth of God’s word. That love is powerful because it can bring about the obliteration of sins. Peter says “love covers over a multitude of sins” – in the context of church and relationships and ministry. He doesn’t mean we sweep the sins under the carpet – we don’t deal with them as some churches do with a false ceremony of absolution, which has no effect whatsoever. No – the love of the Christian community can deal with sin – on the basis of love we can make sin disappear – we can remove the stain of sin from our relationship and relate to each other not based on sin but on holiness. The pain from personal hurt may well remain, but relationships can be rebuilt. Peter says we are through with sin – that was our lifestyle but no longer. Our practice should meet up with the theory, and though it never will in this world, that is what we are to strive for. We minister together when we deal with sin, forgive sin and no longer treat each other as sinners but as forgiven and beautiful.

Can I just make a bit of an aside and be really, really clear. Sweeping sins under the carpet is not what we are talking about. I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that a victim of abuse (for example) should be told that “love covers over a multitude of sins” as though that somehow fixes the sin of others who did the abusing – it doesn’t in any sense. But go from a different position – the active, compassionate, practical, persistent and long term love of a Christian congregation towards a victim of abuse can mend brokenness and ‘cover over’ the sins and bring healing.

  • A girl who has been abused by her mother might (eventually) find a whole group of mums at church that care for her and provides the sort of relationship a daughter has with a mum. It’s not the same – but it can bring healing and strength, a person or people to confide in, get advice from and to learn from. The mum still needs to be brought to account if that’s possible. But you know what churches so often do – they support the mum because they can’t believe their friend would ever do such a thing, and they condemn the girl and try to force her back into the abusive relationship.
  • Or consider the case of a paedophile priest – for too long the church has fumbled around ineptly dealing with these issues – all too often by sweeping the sin under the carpet, blaming the victims, and paying people off whilst moving priests to new location where their past is not obvious. The church has taken the idea of ‘love covering over a multitude of sins’ entirely the wrong way! This is wrong! The victims of abuse deserve support and love that in time may cover the effects of the sin by rebuilding trust, faith and hope. And for some victims this will not be complete until we reach heaven – in fact maybe for most victims. All too often the victims are the ones rejected by the church – frankly this is reprehensible – if we do that we deserve the condemnation we so often receive in the media. But a church can also demonstrate the love of Christ by not covering over the sin, by not excusing the behaviour of the abuser, by not condemning the abuse victim, by not allowing the evil to continue, by not assuming that the priest could never have done such things because he’s always been such a lovely man, by not excusing sin as an aberration. The priest who abuses deserves to feel the full effects of the law and the condemnation of the church. Whilst the aim of the law is punishment, the aim of the church is to bring that priest back from sin to forgiveness and relationship – but that should not EVER be an easy path and they must NEVER be trusted without responsible and obvious supervision at all times – that is part of loving both the victim and the perpetrator – and even of loving those who could have been victims had the priest been allowed to continue. They must repent publicly and openly (within the bounds of the law) – there must be no prevarication – they must be thrown out of the church and we must not fellowship with them until they are fully aware of their sinfulness, and make a full, honest and public confession and pay for their crimes – we must treat them like the criminals they are. If and only when they have completed an appropriate lengthy time of repentance and excommunication should they be allowed back into fellowship – under the strictest conditions and warnings. We may forgive the truly repentant, we may choose to fellowship again with them and treat them as a fellow Christian, but it is right that their sin should follow them – for the sake of others.

Anyway – back to the Dummies Guide – the second part of ministry is this…

1 Peter 4:9 “…Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

The word hospitality is not really the word we think of – it comes from a Greek word that means to demonstrate love to the stranger. It’s hard to see that in English. On the one hand we are to love our brothers and sisters deeply – with such love that we face up to sin – we don’t sweep it under the carpet but we deal with it – and once dealt with we forgive and get rid of it and no longer relate on the basis of the sin (duly noting what I have said above about abuse) – and – we are to love the stranger in our midst. We are to welcome strangers into our gatherings and into our lives. We are to give them of ourselves, our homes, our wealth, our resources, our time, our energy – we have a responsibility as priests of the Kingdom to…

1 Peter 2:9 “…declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

True love for non-Christians is not to condone their lifestyle by getting involved in the pursuit of pleasure (which so many Christians do – and I’m guessing all middle class western Christians probably fall into that trap at least at some point)… but to call them out of darkness into God’s wonderful light – to help them confront their sin and deal with it obediently under Christ.

A Dummies Guide

If we’re going to be practical about this then how do we do it? How do we minister? The Dummies Guide to Ministry is about good basic practical things.

  • The end of all things is near – so don’t give into the world but live prayerful, self controlled lives – be clear about the world.
  • Christians – love each other deeply. Love is ministry – love leads to ministry and love deals with sin.
  • Love those who are not Christs’ people – yet! Tell them the truth and help them be won to Christ – this is ministry.
  • Each of us has been given gifts for the purpose of serving Christ’s Church.
  • Use your gift to faithfully administer God’s grace.
  • If your giftedness is as a speaker of the Word then speak as though God were speaking – be humble but strong, loving but don’t water it down, ever truthful but gentle.
  • If your giftedness is a service gift get on with it and do it with the strength God provides.
  • Whatever you do in life as a Christian you are a minister – in all things we should live so that God may be praised through Jesus Christ.
  • The end result of ministry should be…

1 Peter 4:9 “…that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

From our ministry people should be left praising God.

How do you wake a sleeping giant? Spiritual Gifts 1

We are God’s workmanship!

How do you feel about yourself – do you like who you are? Are you gifted? Are you an introvert or an extravert, an optimist or a pessimist – a little of both? Are you clever, cute, bright, smart, talented, special, beautiful, handsome – all of the above – or maybe the opposite? In our world if you’re one of the beautiful people then it’s all yours – if not?

So many children are growing up thinking that they have no value unless they can be certain things or do certain things or get to a certain level of life. Every day in shopping centres you can see at least one of the reasons… parents who abuse their kids emotionally and mentally, using every name they can think of, and a few we’d rather not. In western culture we worry so much about smacking or caning or other forms of physical punishment – but in my experience many more children suffer to a far greater degree from emotional and mental abuse (without for a moment excusing or condoning any form of physical abuse). So many people can’t get a handle on their life because parents never told them how much they were loved, how special they were, how wonderfully they were made.

Do you know – regardless of how we see ourselves, or how our parents or other important people see us – God sees us as his workmanship – wonderfully made.

Psalm 139:14 “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

And as David goes on to say in the Psalm not just wonderfully made but created from the very start, known to God from before the very beginning of time and creation, and woven together in the womb with God watching over his creation. As we read in Ephesians…

Ephesians 2:10a “For we are God’s workmanship…”

Maybe that’s easy to see – if you’ve watched the program called “The Body” it’s hard to imagine how you can’t see. For many of us God creating and working his magic in this world is the only possible answer – the human body is just too amazing, as is the world and the universe. But there’s more to it than just our bodies, or the wonder of life.

Ephesians 2:10 “…created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Whatever the opinion of this world, whatever we have been lead to believe about ourselves, good or bad, God says that having become his children in Jesus, having trusted in Christ for salvation and moved from being God’s enemies to being God’s friends, he has remade us in Christ so that we can now start to fulfil his original design. We were created from scratch to do good works that God prepared for us before we were even a twinkle in our parent’s eyes. This is about how we fulfil the mission God has given us – how the church fulfils its mission in this world. I like to use Ephesians 4 as a guide for the life of the church – not the only one but I really like this.

Ephesians 4:12-13 “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

That’s God’s plan! And God has given us the means to carry it out – not one or two people able to fulfill his plans – but churches full. It is not the few who are wonderfully made and who are God’s workmanship – it is all – everyone – all creation. Every person is made to perfectly match God’s plans – in fact created in the image of God – made with purpose. So we read in 1 Corinthians…

1 Corinthians 12:1 “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be ignorant.”

Who is Paul writing to?

The whole church – the same as in Ephesians when he says we are God’s workmanship, the same in Romans when he says we have different gifts but one body. What does he says to the whole church about Spiritual Gifts?

1 Corinthians 12:2-3 “You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except in the Holy Spirit.”

What can we say about these Spiritual Gifts – without going further than the Scriptures do?

1.      Spiritual Gifts Are Given To Glorify God

Paul sets the stage by declaring that the purpose of Spiritual Gifts is to glorify God – especially designed to help us declare Jesus is Lord over all other gods – the mute idols that Paul talks about. The Corinthians came from a pagan, idol worshipping background, where spiritual utterances and demonic activity were par for the course – the cultic priests claimed all sorts of spiritual powers. The way to know that the spiritual gifts of the church are real – is by what they declare! No one speaking by the Holy Spirit can curse Jesus – no one speaking without God’s Spirit can declare Jesus as Lord. When the chips are down and life is threatened – you will only declare Jesus as Lord by the power of God.

The real evidence of God’s presence is not the gifts and the power that we so often seem to associate with the Spirit. The real evidence is Jesus proclaimed as Lord. Whatever takes away from the glory of God, whatever tears down or destroys the unity of the church, or damages the name of Jesus, even if it appears to be legitimately from God’s Holy Spirit – if it does not glory God and proclaim Jesus’ name then it has no place in the church. This is how we will know the work of the Spirit amongst us. As we start to learn about the gifts themselves we see…

1 Corinthians 12:4-7 “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord, and there are varieties of activities, but the same God empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

2.      Spiritual Gifts Are Given For The Good Of All

How will we know that the gifts we exercise are from God?

By their fruit!

1 Corinthians 12:7 “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Just as we know a good fruit tree when we see one – the product tells us everything we need to know.

It’s not that everyone has to have the same gifts, or start at the bottom and work your way up to the top of the gifts pile. In fact there is an array of gifts given to the church – everything we need to fulfill God’s plans of maturity and growth for us – that is His promise to us.

2 Peter 1:3 “God’s divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

So many people believe that faith is a private thing and that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. Nothing could be further from the truth – not least that you don’t stick a light in a cupboard – how useless is that? Why become a Christian with gifts from God for the good of his people – the church – and then not use them? Faith is not private – it’s designed to be shared with all, as scary as that may be at times. Together Christians make up the body of Christ – arms, legs, back, head, shoulders, feet, heart, lungs, eyes, nostrils, hair follicles –

1 Corinthians 12:12 “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.”

Together the body of Christ serves to strengthen and build up the whole body so that together the body matures. If there is one thing a body is designed to do it’s to work together for the common good. If your spleen goes on holidays for 6 weeks where does that leave you?

3.      Spiritual Gifts are given as God determines

1 Corinthians 12:8-11 “To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit – gifts of healing by that one Spirit – miraculous powers – prophecy – distinguishing between spirits – speaking in different kinds of tongues – the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

In distributing the gifts of the Spirit God doesn’t listen to the world. Thank God!!!! (And yes – I really do mean that). The criterion is not wealth or cleverness, how beautiful or wonderful we are, how much people like us or how famous we are. God has given every Christian gifts of the Spirit according to his plan and designs – just as he determines, as he decides.

The danger the church faced for many centuries was that they taught that it was the professionals who were gifted by God to serve in the church – the priests, the monks and nuns and so on. They alone did God’s work and the job of the congregation was to be obedient, to fill the pews and provide the cash (I now the time to take up the offertory??!) J And back then if you did get involved in ministry it was helping the priest or doing the flowers or the food or raising money through fetes, or distributing food to the widows or the needy – all good stuff but from the churches point of view back then – not the main game. Sadly we still see the same thing in some churches – it’s hard to imagine how they justify it when the Bible is so blatantly clear that God gives gifts to all Christians for service and ministry. Every part is as important as any other; every ministry and servant is important and valuable.

The Sleeping Giant

So “How do we wake a sleeping giant” – not the fee-fie-foe-fum variety – rather the largest company in the world, with combined income and numbers Bill Gates would sell his soul for?


The church!

The company of believers!

Every survey I’ve ever seen on ministry by people in the pews – not the paid staff of a church – suggests that most churches have less than 20% of people involved in the ministry of the church – it’s called the 20/80 rule and as far as I can tell it’s a pretty good indicator not only of ministry but of money, energy, time, support. And that is a sleeping giant!

Why do people in the church not get involved?

Too tired, worn out, busy in work and family?

Too scared, or afraid of mistakes, too young, too old?

Too immature, done too much already, not enough work to do in the church, don’t know what to do, can’t find a spot to serve, never had the opportunity, never took the opportunity, was cut down when I took the opportunity – badly burnt by past experiences?

All these may be true in your life – but let me say they don’t stack up too well as excuses.

If someone gives you a gift for your birthday or Christmas – what do you do with it? If you don’t open it what value does it have – and what does that say to the giver? You can admire the paper, read the card, and rattle the box to work out what it is – but while it’s wrapped it’s basically meaningless. The only way to deal with a present is to open it and use it.

It’s the same with God and his church – he has given gifts to every single person who belongs to him – if you tick the box “Christian” – “follower of Jesus” then you also tick the box “gifted by God for his church”. So what are you doing with it?

If you answer “nothing” what’s going on? Do you not believe God? He says he has given gifts to every person who is a Christian. So is he right or not? Have you tried and failed? Cause if you have I bet you have also said to a child to get back on a bike after falling off, or back on the horse, or suggested (or just thought) someone should face their fears?! Have you been cut down or unappreciated? Has your minister or another leader had a go at you for getting it wrong or not being very good or for failing? If so – give them a boot in the backside from me and tell them to support you as you try rather than having a go at you when you fail. And if you want to do something and are scared then ask for prayer and support – from minister, family, friends… get some training, do a course, get some practice in with someone you can trust, start small, volunteer to assist someone else who is doing it, give it a go. And if you have no idea what your particular gifts may be then ask for help and make sure your minister or leader gives it to you.

Around the world the evangelical church is growing – slowly, but faster than most churches. But imagine what would be happening if every single Christian used their gifts from God for the benefit of the church. Imagine your own church with the 80/20 rule reversed – if every person was using what God has given us to serve his people.

Churches should bloom not by the ministers’ energy or strength – such as they are – but by the enthusiastic use of the gifts God has given us – churches should be so committed to God’s plan that nothing could stop us using what God has given us.

The church should be able to tattoo this to our foreheads – that we are a church that is preparing…

Eph 4:12-13 “God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Reading The Bible for Yourself 3

How’s it going? It can be hard work in some ways setting time aside each day to read and pray—there are so many things that seem so important. Martin Luther the reformer of the church used to get up early in the morning to pray and read—5 am every morning. On particularly busy days he got up an hour earlier—he believed and practiced that the busier he was and more important the things were that he had to do the more vital it was that he prayed and read God’s word. But that’s alright for him—he was a monk after all.

Which is true, though he was married and had kids and held down a job—and reformed the church from the inside out—so maybe not all that different from us.

How do you find the time? Make a daily diary and fill in how you are going to spend your day with the things that absolutely must happen—kids to school, travel, work, sleep, eating, ablutions (which is a complex word for all those things we do to keep ourselves clean that involve the bathroom), food shopping, basic cleaning, ministry involvement and groups, kids’ sport, study and so on—whatever there is in your life that absolutely must happen. Be realistic with your time.

Having done that work out all the things you would like to do—shopping, recreation, TV, internet, sport etc—make a list of all these things and how long they take including the travel and preparation time. Again be realistic. Before you add them to your daily diary work out how long you plan to spend on reading the Bible and praying. I would suggest a minimum start would be 10 minutes for each—20 minutes a day. If you can find an hour spend an hour. You will gain great benefit from whatever time you spend in God’s word and in prayer.

Having done all that start with the most important things on your list—Bible reading and prayer—and fill in your daily diary—work out where each important thing will go each day and block out that time. If you find that everything is important and they just don’t all fit in then you need to reassess how you spend you days. Apparently Australians watch an average of 3 hours TV a day. How important is that—realistically? The first few times you give up your favourite shows it might feel like you’re missing out—but after a week or two you’ll suddenly realise that you’ve hardly missed a thing.

Once you’ve got it planned ask God to help you stick to it and then start—choose a day and start.

So now you’re reading – how about understanding?

Let’s be frank – at times understanding the Bible can be difficult, especially if you are new to it. The simplest thing to do is ask yourself questions about what you are reading (tool – understanding bible – link to a handy bookmark you can print out and keep in your Bible that details some basic questions you can consider, and the fundamentals of exegesis, hermeneutics and homiletics). The aim when we are reading God’s word is to understand what he would say to us—rather than what we think it means or would prefer God to say. So our aim is to understand what the passage actually says, to explain what the passage means and then to apply the passage to today and especially to myself.

This might seem complex at first but it’s really what we do every day when we read a newspaper or magazine. When we read the comics we understand that they are comics—not news, not editorial, not scientific information but humour. That tells us how to explain them and why they were written and then how to apply them. When we come to the main story we know to consider that this is current news which may or may not mean something directly to me, or family, or friends, or work, or country or world. We understand that the main stories are news—we read them and work out the main points and where it fits into the world I live in and then we work out how it applies to me, or how I need to apply it. We can apply this same basic and daily process to the Scriptures. As much as it’s the word of God, it is also literature and the same basic principles that apply to our interpretation and understanding of any media – writing, TV, video, music, photography and artwork – should be applied to the reading of he Bible.

In a future post I will look at some examples and apply the basic principles.


One important aspect of reading and understanding, that I will only briefly note at the moment, is how we are lead to respond, and especilly thinking of whether the passage prompts us to pray or praise. Almost all passages – possibly all – will either prompt us to a response, and maybe cause us in a fairly natural way to responsd – to pray (asking, thanking) or praise (honour, worship, give thanks, declare or acknowledge)—and often enough to do both. So that’s worth looking for—should I be seeking forgiveness, praying for strength or opportunity or something else? Should I praise God for something he is or has done? Is my natural response to be blown away by God’s love for me in Christ and to sing praises – or simply to stand in awe and wonder and say thank you. And so on.

Reading the Bible is an opportunity without parallel in this world—as is praying. It is an opportunity to find out the mind of God (within limits—he is God after all) and to talk with the creator on a personal level. Can’t get much better than that.

Here’s something to consider. During a training course I ran a while ago it turned out that that lots of kids of Christians don’t have their own Bible—how ridiculous. Time to put it on the agenda! Get your kids a Bible, help them understand it, read it together – and see the blessing of God at work in your life as a family.

Reading The Bible for Yourself 2

One of the most important decisions you will need to make in reading the Bible is which version do you read—KJV, NKJV, NIV, NICV, ESV, NLT, RSV, NRSV, NASB, Gideons, The Message, The Good News version—enough already. It’s confusing, especially if you’re new to it all. And sometimes older Christians are a bit smug about the fact that they know what all the abbreviations mean. Don’t do it—smugness is so unattractive.

Last post we looked at a little of how the Greek New Testament was written and then at the de-facto standard English translation—the NIV (New international Version). Let’s have a poke around in a few others.

For more than three centuries, the standard English translation of the Bible was the Authorised (AV) or King James Version (KJV). It was a literal translation; that is, it translated the original Greek and Hebrew word for word into English, finding the most direct English equivalent available, and retaining the grammatical structure of the original sentences as much as possible. This gave the reader not trained in the original languages the most direct access possible to the actual text of Scripture. Where the text carried several possible meanings, the KJV/AV translation reflected that, and left it to the reader to work out which meaning (or meanings) were intended.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, the KJV was starting to show its age (not surprisingly). English had changed over the course of 300 years. ‘Thee’ and ‘thou’ were no longer in common use; nor were the ‘-eth’ and ‘-est’ style endings for the verb. The vocabulary was substantially different, and the long, multi-clausal (divided by lots of commas) sentences of the KJV, that reflected the original languages so well, made for difficult reading, especially as the direction of English was towards shorter sentences.

Various attempts were made to update the KJV without changing its essential character—such as the Revised Version (RV) of 1881, which gave rise to the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901, which in turn formed the basis for the New American Standard Bible (NASB). For a number of years the NASB has been the closest English version to the original Greek—except that it’s American rather than English.

It was the publication of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in 1952 that marked the real beginning of ‘modern English’ translations. While maintaining a commitment to literal translation, the RSV sought to turn the original into English that made sense to modern readers. The archaic vocabulary, verb endings and complex sentence structure of the KJV were replaced with modern English equivalents. The RSV had some quirks—for example retaining ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ for addressing God, but the result was a translation that was basically literal, and stuck closely to the original, but which was readable for the 20th century person. You still find it in many churches in Australia and it is still the preferred version for many who were converted in the 50’s and 60’s. We have a tendency to love what we grow up with, to love what is familiar.

However the RSV had a very basic problem—the bias of it’s translation team towards liberal theology. This emerged at a number of important and now famous points. For example in Roman’s 3:25 the Greek states that Jesus was put forward by God as the “propitiation” of our sins—that is a payment to cause God to move away from his wrath against us. It is clearly there in the context but liberal theology finds it offensive that God would be wrathful with us and the Christ, the innocent, should have to pay the price—so they inserted the word “expiation” which basically means payment for sins. Instead of Christ dieing to appease God—cause him to turn aside from his wrath against us—Christ died only pay the penalty for sin.

Whilst this may at first not seem like much, the original word is propitiation—so whether we like the concept or not that is what we need to consider and work through. Expiation is also a Biblical word but it is not used in this passage—so the only reason to put it in the English is to change the meaning to fit your bias. My aim is to wrestle with the Scripture and to bring my thinking in obedience under them – not to try and force my way of thinking onto the Scriptures!

At another point in Romans (9:5) the team punctuated the sentence to remove the implication that Christ was God. Compare the following; “…is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.” (ESV) and “is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever.” (RSV) There is no punctuation in the Greek—it simply doesn’t exist—but the only reason to change the whole meaning of the chapter is a theological bias. And there are plenty of other examples. We still have to make choices as to which one is correct, but we should do so with eyes open rather than having that choice made from a theological position of liberalism.

However, the RSV was a very good translation: precise, generally accurate, and yet still readable. By the 1970s, however, there was a real desire to improve the quirks and liberal bias of the RSV, and produce a translation that was even simpler and easier to read. Paraphrases (taking the general meaning rather than a direct translation) such as the Good News Bible and the Living Bible were published. Ideas of ‘dynamic equivalence’ were in the air, in which the goal of translation was not to render word for word, but idea for idea. It was into this arena that the NIV was produced in the 1980’s.

In 1989, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) came along. In many ways, it was excellent. It retained all the precision and accuracy of the original RSV, avoided the pitfalls into which the NIV had fallen, and was still beautifully readable. Unfortunately, the NRSV had one major idiosyncrasy that was unhelpful. It is obsessed with gender inclusive language. In making the Bible more ‘politically correct’, the NRSV removed ‘he’ and ‘man’ wherever possible in the text, often with unfortunate results (the removal of ‘son of man’ in Hebrews 2:6 is one classic example).

Next post—where have translators been heading, the ESV and making the choice.

Reading The Bible for Yourself 1

One of the most important decisions you will need to make in reading the Bible is which version do you read—KJV, NKJV, NIV, NICV, ESV, NLT, RSV, NRSV, NASB, Gideons, The Message, The Good News version—enough already. Confused? Have no idea what we’re talking about? Fair enough.

The Bible was originally written in three languages—the Old Testament in Hebrew (the language of the Jewish nation); Aramaic (one of the languages of the region, but only a few portions of the Old Testament are written in it); and the New Testament was written almost entirely in Greek which was the language of trade, culture, education and so on throughout the civilised world of Jesus’ day—like English is today. Even better—most of the New Testament was written in Koine Greek—or “Westie Greek” – the common tongue.

The process of translating the Bible is not all that simple—it’s more than swapping the words over—the aim is to get the concepts and ideas across as much as the words themselves. Imagine trying to explain space exploration to a hidden tribe in Papua New Guinea and you get the idea—if they have no concept of space, let alone NASA or space travel—how will you tell them about it in their language? It’s far more than swappin words when the words don’t exist to swap with. I remember one of our lecturers at college (Moore) saying than in one particular tribe they considered that emotions and feelings came from the liver – whereas we would tend to say “from the heart”. To them “from the heart” just doesn’t mean what we think it does in English, and “from the liver” doesn’t work either because that’s not how they understand it to work. Fun!

All the different versions are attempts to bring the meaning of the original text into our modern language. There are three basic types.

  1. Translations which aim to translate the original text, structure and content into modern language.
    • Translations are divided into two different types as well – or two schools of thought on the best way to bring the text forward to the modern reader. Formal equivelence which aims for accuracy of the text – commonly called word-for-word translations… and Dynamic equivelence which aims for accuracy of ideas – commonly called thought-for-thought translations.
  2. Transliterations which try to bring the meaning of the text forward but not the text or structure. The Good News Bible, The Message and JB Phillips are all this style—easy English versions. Without for a moment seeking to denigrate these versions – each has it’s value – but, especially for the maturing Christian, the problem with transliterations is that you aren’t reading what God caused to be written but only someone’s interpretation of that. Commonly these transliterations are not from the original text (not always – for example “The Message”) and do they smooth out the text to make even the hardest passages simple of even simplistic. That raises all sorts of questions. In my opinion they are worthwhile for young children and possibly very new Christians, and they have a place in ministry amongst poorly educated or maybe in ESL type ministries. And – to be completly frank – if you are faithfully reading a “Good News” Bible I don’t want to say stop it – well done – keep going. But maybe if you have beena  Christian for a few years it might be time to put it aside in favour of a Bible that gives you more direct access to the text of the Scriptures as originally given. The transliterations might have a place in Bible Study but for most Christians we should move on from the ‘milk’ of a transliteration to the ‘meat’ of a translation.

The Translations

When we come to the translations—the RSV, NRSV, NASB, KJV and NKJV, and the NIV (New International Version) are the main ones in use—especially the NIV which has become the de-facto standard in evangelical churches. The NLT and ESV have gained some ground in recent years and there are new versions such as the new NIV (not the NIV84 which is being fazed out) and the Holman Christian Bible. If we take the NIV apart a little we see that it has become the de-facto standard because it is an excellent version that is relatively easy to read. But it also has problems, as do they all.

The problems usually have to do with the assumptions being made by the translators. The NIV translators wanted a very readable translation so they applied the techniques of modern English to the translation. A couple of examples;

  • In the Greek New Testament many sentences start with words that link sentences and ideas together—”for”, “but”, “and”, “also”. This can change the whole meaning of connected verses—for example in Greek there is a “for” at the beginning of Romans 1:18, connecting it to verses 16-17. In English we tend not to do this, or if we do not very often—so the translators moved things around to make it read according to the standards of English—and many times simply removed the connectives.
    • Romans 1:16-18 “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”… FOR … 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,…” (The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1996 (electronic ed.) (Ro 1:16–18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.)
  • The Greek New Testament will often repeat the same word to get the point across—again this is not on in English so the translators used different words to translate the same Greek word, thus missing the repetition of a single idea. For example, in Romans 1:3, Paul says that Jesus was descended from David “according to the flesh”.  ‘Flesh’ is an important word in the rest of Romans, and its appearance in the opening verses is very significant. However, the NIV translates it ‘human nature’ in 1:4, and ‘sinful nature’ elsewhere in the book. As a translation they are not technically incorrect—but by making these choices we should be asking whether they loose a vital ingredient in what Paul is saying.
  • A third problem is that where the original text carried a number of possible meanings, the NIV irons out the ambiguities to present one simple meaning to the reader, often by adding extra words. This makes for simplicity and clarity, but places the responsibility for interpretation in the hands of the translator, rather than the reader. And what if the translator makes the wrong decision? Or what if the text deliberately carries a number of layers of meaning? The possibility of sorting it out is removed from the reader, in the interests of simplicity. As an example, sticking with Romans 1, the NIV uses the phrase “righteousness from God” in Romans 1:17. In the Greek, the phrase is actually “righteousness of God”, which may mean either righteousness from God or the righteousness which belongs to God (that is “God’s righteousness”). Which did Paul intend? Or did he phrase it that way because he wanted to include both ideas? The NIV is not wrong; “righteousness from God” is a quite legitimate translation, but it is not the only legitimate one. And by shutting off other options, the reader is taken further away from what the text of Scripture actually says.

In all this the NIV is still one of the top translations and a very worthwhile one to purchase and read. Next issue we’ll look at the other translations and their strengths and weaknesses.

Building a basic Christian library

There are, quite simply, more resources to help in understanding the Bible, than for any other book or series of books ever written. Wading through the 1000’s of books currently available at Koorong (or on-line) to find the gems, is a hard task—worth the work but…!

What do you need if you want to be serious about studying the Bible? Maybe you lead a Bible Study group – or do Scripture or Sunday School—maybe you’re getting questions at home you can’t answer. Every serious Christian should have some of these at home to further their study and understanding of the Scriptures.

Theological Dictionary: “The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology” (EDT-often referred to as “Elwell”) provides in-depth summaries of theological issues from an Evangelical perspective and is one of the most valuable modern textbooks ever written. It tries to ensure articles are evangelical but also present other views with fairness (doesn’t always work). This is the textbook I go to first more often than any other. In addition to the article it gives excellent resources for further enquiry and is cross referenced internally. It is not a “Bible” Dictionary—so it covers more than words found in the Bible.

Theological Bible Dictionary: “Theological Dictionary of the Bible” (TDB) This is the one that dissects the words found in the Bible—edited by Elwell (EDT above) this is evangelical and pretty well balanced (doesn’t mean you’ll agree). Where the EDT covers theological ideas and concepts, the TDB deals with words only found in the Bible.  For example it doesn’t deal with the Trinity in a specific article because the word doesn’t appear in the Bible.

Bible Dictionary: Different editor, different company, same basic concept except bigger and broader than the TDB (above). Provides the meaning of words (as any dictionary does) with references to similar passages. Evangelical and based on the NIV text.

Concordance: “NIV Exhaustive Concordance” Do you want to find out what the Bible says about “predestination”? This concordance lists every occurrence of every main word in the whole of the Bible (doesn’t list “the”, “a”, etc). Of course, just because a word is repeated doesn’t mean that it means the same thing or is referring to the same thing in each case. Context remains vital in understanding. This has no theological bias – it’s taken directly from the NIV text. You can get concordances for every major translation of the Bible.

Commentary on the Whole Bible: There are many different commentaries from all sorts of different perspectives – this one comes in a single condensed volume, a 2-volume edition, and a ten-volume edition. There are many commentaries – you have to be picky because not all of them share the values of Biblical faith that we do. With most of them you need to look for the credentials of the authors and their backgrounds.

Bible Encyclopaedia: There are varieties of these – Bible Words, Customs, Maps, Background, General, Church History, Christian Martyrs, Christian Church, Flora and Fauna and a vast array of many others – scholars need something to do I suppose. This one deals with the main (most common) words found in the Bible and gives greater detail with background and usage. There are illustrated Encyclopaedias as well. The problem with many Encyclopaedias is their bias – so you have to pick and choose – and many of them are so shallow that they are virtually worthless.

The Bible Speaks Today: One good series – if you need something bigger than the one or two volume series is a series entitled “The Bible Speaks Today”. This covers almost the whole bible in a series – mostly one book per volume. It is good basic evangelical scholarship written for normal people – that is lay not theologically trained clergy. Each volume is between $15-$25.

Know The Truth – A Handbook of Christian Belief: Much smaller in size and scope this is a miniature “Systematic Theology” textbook. It sets down the basic beliefs of the Church and shows where they come from in the Bible. This is one of the best short courses in theology in existence, especially for the non-theologian. Generally can be found for under $20..

Leading a Bible Study Group

One of the most effective ministries in any church is well run Biblical Bible Study Groups. I know… you’ve just read that sentence twice and you’re thinking— “Biblical” Bible study groups?” What’s he going on about now?

What is a Bible Study Group? Well… it’s not a prayer group… or a gossip club… or a twelve step group… or a counselling group… or a social club. It’s a Bible Study and the Scriptures clearly state that the central activity of our time gathered as Christians—including in home Bible Study groups—is to be spent focussed and based on the Scriptures.

1 Timothy 4:9-13 “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.”

In the Bible the church is the gathering of God’s people around Christ who is the word of God. God is a gathering God, bringing His people together – that is the great picture of heaven in Revelation 20-21 – the kingdom of priests gathered before the throne of heaven with Christ the Lamb at the centre and listening to the word of God – the lamb on the throne – for all eternity, as his people worship him in songs of never ending praise.

Any church, or Bible Study group, that claims to be faithful to God, yet has a preponderance of time and teaching on things other than the Scriptures… is not the church, or is at least not being obedient to Scripture. Forbidding people to marry, forbidding certain foods, mandating worship on a certain day, twisting Scripture to take the focus off Christ crucified – these are not the church! They may well be an assembly of like-minded God fearers, spiritual worshippers, even Bible readers – but without the Scriptures truthfully taught and believed they are, as Paul says, hypocrites, liars, without clear conscience (1 Tim 4:1-2). Strong words! It may of course be that the folk in those churches don’t know any better – but the ministers should and the Bible is pretty clear (and harsh) about ministers and teachers who lead astray the people they are meant to be shepherding. (see

Our vision, however we phrase it, should ultimately be should be to give God all glorify, honour, power and majesty by proclaiming the saviour Jesus Christ. A Bible Study group should be an extension of the churches mission and focussed on that every week. The only way to give God glory is to give Christ our obedience and honour. A faithful religious Jew strives to give God honour and glory—but as moral, upright and religious as he is, as much as he reads the OT faithfully and prays, he cannot give honour to God because he refuses to be obedient to the claim of Jesus.

Colossians 2:6-8 “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”

This is what honours God—and this is what should drive us in our Bible Study groups. To be Christian means we have a new found desire to grow and mature to be like Christ – imperfect, but by the work of the Holy Spirit, in the reading of God’s word, praying, meeting together as the body of Christ, ministering to others, bringing our sinfulness under the control of the Holy Spirit, by repentance – we will become the great tree deep rooted in Christ. The small group setting provides the ideal hothouse for growth. It is the place where we can learn in depth, where we can discuss and question in a group of like-minded Christians – hopefully people of similar maturity and with a similar desire to grow.

Who should lead? The Bible gives us ample guidelines for leaders—check out the character and faith that are the big foci in Titus and Timothy in their lists of overseers. But here are the four criteria we should be looking for…

1. A desire to lead and serve others, to grow them to maturity in Christ. A desire to lead is not a desire to lord it over, but to serve as a shepherd serves.

2. A level of Christian knowledge and maturity above those we are leading and a willingness to honestly seek answers when we don’t know (teachable).

3. Character that has been shaped like Christ (not perfectly) and that is known to other mature Christians

4. People willing to follow you as a leader.

How do you start? Pray and think. Talk to your minister or church leaders. If it’s appropriate that you start a group, talk to those you might meet with, and get started.

What should my Bible study group look like?!

Is that a hard question? Every group is different, different churches do them different ways, they can be long and dull or lively and fast—or both. But what should we expect of them?

People call them Growth Groups, Home Church Groups, and a few other names—I call them Bible Study Groups (BSGs) because the thing we need to do together is study God’s word. That’s the main purpose and the main activity. If your group is not reading systematically through Bible books then it’s not a Bible Study. Systematically is important because if we simply chop and change all over the place we simply take the bits we like and often relegate the hard stuff. A preaching program should have a basic ethos of preaching the whole Bible, not just the parts we like—the things some churches/preachers might leave out because they’re too tough—I’d rather tackle head on. It’s one reason to exercise caution with the NIV Study Bible—especially the study notes—they almost always only comment on the easy things—the hard ones they simply bypass. It’s still a good Bible Study tool and if it’s the only commentary you have access to then go for it – just remember it’s limitations and the bias of the authors of the notes – good, bad or indifferent they do not carry the authority of the Scriptures.

Back to BSGs… there should be a leader or leaders who are mature (for their age and experience) and able to lead. They should be respected in your church—and you should respect them.

In planning time together, the Bible study should take a majority of the time. In most groups I would recommend a minimum of an hour of study. We should be praying together and sharing, with an aim of building each other up in maturity. That aim means we should be cautious what we share—intimate and hard stuff are better done in smaller settings, say with one or two close friends. Too many groups spend all their time sharing and praying and next to none listening to God by reading his word.

Sometimes we have this idea of a home BSG as being a church – when two or three are gathered in my name… and that’s fair enough. But f that is the intention and your Bible Study is to be a church then it should have the NT elements of church—evangelism, mission, financially supporting the gospel ministry and the poor, praise and edification, the Lord’s Supper—all centred around the word of God—the church is to preach the word of God so there should be teaching and preaching, not just Bible Study but the proclamation of the gospel. The group would need an outward focus.

The Bible Study group can also be the starting place for pastoral care—your group might be the first you call on for help, and the paid staff of your church might be the last to visit you in hospital. more on this another time.

Get into a great Bible Study Group—they are the best place to grow as a Christian and to encourage others.

The Bible: Reliable or Not

Every few years (or minutes) someone claims again that the Bible and especially that the NT is unreliable, not original, doesn’t say what the church says it says, is missing other books that are just as worthy of being in the Bible, isn’t God breathed, is just man’s word about God—and a bunch of other things. Dr Spong seems to write a new book every few years spouting the same basic rubbish that has been repudiated more than once by serious academics. No serious scholar with any training in the Scriptures ascribes to Spong’s views. He’s not the only one by any means – but most of them are the same sensationalised and misrepresented ‘facts’.

One of the questions that we keep coming back to is the reliability of the NT. The Da Vinci Code for example claimed that Constantine put together the NT and left out many books of equal value—extra gospels for example. It’s a recurring theme in Dan Brown’s novels,  attacking the integrity of the Scriptures.

So… how were the NT books chosen?

The books of the NT as we have it today were all written between 45 and 90 AD—James was probably written around 45 AD and Revelation was written about 90 A.D. It’s worth understanding that the New Testament books were written in the lifetimes of those who lived with Jesus. The letters and ‘gospels’ that people like Brown, Spong & Theiring claim should have been included in the Bible, were all written no earlier than the end of the 2nd century AD—no earlier than 190AD—and that date is very generous.

The NT was gathered in various ways.

1. There were attacks on the truth and validity of both OT and NT even in the NT church—Paul speaks of the Gnostics as one example.

2. The NT was gathered by many churches as they shared the writings of the Apostles and early Christians. The content testified to its authenticity.

3. Apostolic writings were used in public worship, so it was important to get it right.

4. Ultimately, the edict by Emperor Diocletian in AD 303, demanding that all sacred books be burned, resulted in the NT collection—it was only worth dying for the truth.

  • Clement of Rome (AD95) mentioned at least eight New Testament books as true Scripture in a letter!
  • Ignatius of Antioch (AD115) referenced 7 books
  • Polycarp, John’s disciple (AD108) referred to 15 letters.
  • Irenaeus (AD185) acknowledged 21 books.
  • Hippolytus (AD170-235) recognized 22 books.
  • The main problem books were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John.
  • The Muratorian Canon (AD170) included everything except Hebrews, James, and one epistle of John.
  • Athanasius (AD 367) cited the 27 books of the New Testament as being the only true books.
  • AD363—Council of Laodicea… only the OT and the 27 books of the NT were to be read in churches.
  • Council of Hippo (AD393) recognized the 27 books
  • Council of Carthage (AD397)… only those canonical books were to be read in the churches.

It’s possible that they were all wrong!

How did the early Church test Scripture

They applied the following test rigorously.

* Inspiration—did the book give internal evidence of inspiration, of being God breathed?

* Character—was it of proper spiritual character?

* Edification—did it edify the church?

* Doctrine—was it doctrinally accurate?

The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (collections of other early Christian and Jewish writings) were rejected as a result of not meeting these tests.

* Holy Spirit—the book should bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit.

* Apostolic—was the author an apostle or have the endorsement of an apostle? (Mark wrote the gospel of Mark under Peter’s endorsement. Luke wrote under Paul’s authority.)

* Universal Acceptance—was the book accepted by the early church as a whole? The recognition given a particular book by the church was important. By this standard, a number of books were rejected. There were some books that enjoyed an acceptance by a few, but were later dropped for a lack of universal acceptance. Then there were a few books that some questioned because of doubts about the author, not the content, but were later accepted because the majority accepted them.

There will always be those who want to attack the truth of the Gospel and the Scriptures. They will play on our doubts, and use the length of time that has passed to worry us. These days they use technology, superstition, video techniques, the medium of TV (if it’s on the screen it must be true), and often dubious science to support failed arguments of the past. The issues of things like the supposed gospels of Thomas and of Mary and all the other books that didn’t make it into the Bible have been dealt with many times in the past 2000 or so years and at every stage Godly Christians have agreed that the NT as it stands today is the original and that it stands up to the closest investigations.

Can I say—for Christians—there is another argument. The Scriptures we use claim to be God breathed and useful for teaching rebuking training and correcting the man of righteousness so that he can be prepared to do the works that God has prepared for him to do, by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Jesus. It is my belief that God has ensured that the Scriptures that exist in his name as his word have been gathered, protected, translated and defended under his Sovereignty—that what we have is the truth and we should be grateful and defend the Bible vigorously. I would say that one of the most significant achievements of the Christian Church in the past 2000 years has been to maintain the integrity of the Bible. What we have today is provably original written by the OT writers, the Apostles and those who wrote what the Apostles themselves saw and did over the first 70 years of the Church.

Reading The Bible

One of the Bible’s most consistent themes is the need for God’s people to bring themselves regularly into contact with God’s word—in Old Testament times the Jews were required to regularly attend the Temple for the reading of God’s word—and in fact the very placement of the Temple and before it the Tabernacle right at the centre of the nation—literally—with the 12 tribes arrayed around it—was all designed to make the point that the central issue in the life of God’s people was not their worship of God but his word to them. The Temple was where you came to hear God’s voice, to discuss and think through what it meant and then to go away and day by day, week by week act upon it. In many ways the Tabernacle was a tent-shrine for the Ark of the Covenant which held the Ten Commandments and the Torah—the first five books of the Bible.

In the New Testament the focus on the word of God is only expanded and made more pointed.

1 Tim 4:13 “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.”

2 Tim 3:16-17 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

1 Peter 3:15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

How can we have a Christian mind if we never read what God has said? How can we be profoundly influenced by that which we do not know? If you are filled with God’s word, your life can then be informed and directed by God. We so often ask for God to direct our ways—and then maybe are disappointed by the seeming lack of response from God. If we refuse to read what he has already caused to be written how can we expect him to speak again? The reality of my life, and many Christians testify to this—that God so often answers my prayers with his written word.

Do you find it hard to read God’s word? Maybe it’s different to other things you’ve read but read as it is written, with a sensible program of reading to guide you, it is not difficult. Sure, there will be plenty of things that first up do not make sense or are difficult to work through—but there a multitude of passages will make perfect sense.

If you’re new to reading the Bible my suggestion is you start with one of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. You could start at Genesis and just keep going, though by the time you get to Leviticus you may be battling to go much further. Better to start with Christ himself—Mark’s gospel for example is a great story as much as a vital link in our understanding—in Mark’s very concise account we get the no frills version of Jesus’ life—the important bits in a shortened version and in relatively easy English. Make sure you use a modern version—the NIV remains my choice because it is a clear reasonably accurate translation, though with the demise of the NIV84 we will all be looking at the next ubiquitous version. You could also use the NASB, NRSV or ESV, or the Holman Bible. Use a version that is as close as possible to the original, rather than interprets the text through paraphrasing. If you find reading particularly difficult then The Message or the NLT might be helpful. Regardless don’t use a King James—the language is archaic and often misinformed. And if all you have is the King James then read on!

So… you have your Bible, and you know where to start—what do you do now?

1. Set aside some time—if you can grab 15-30 minutes a day for prayer and reading this is ideal—if not put aside at least 10 minutes to start with plus some time to pray.

2. Try to get some personal space when you read and pray—the last thing Satan wants is you reading the Bible… so the phone will ring, the kids injure themselves, the dinner will burn and so on if you try to read and pray whilst doing other things. Many Christians call this time a “Quiet Time” – time out with God—and it’s certainly worth making it special time. If you can’t do this at home maybe you could try at lunch time. If you drive a long way to work you could listen to the Bible on CD and pray—just don’t close your eyes.

3. Pray—a simple prayer is more than enough—God knows what you are doing and he’s all for it. “Father—please be with me now as I read your word. May your Spirit be at work in me to understand what I read, to apply it day by day and to make me more like Jesus. Amen”

4. Start—read a small section at a time and work through it slowly—a chapter or smaller. Most Bibles are broken down not just into chapters but sections as well—so you could simply read up to each new heading. Just remember that the headings are not the Bible—they’ve been put there by well meaning editors but often as not can be misleading in understanding.

5. Meditate—no, not crossed legged on the floor saying a mantra—consider what you have read. Ask yourself what the passage is about. The simplest form of study is to ask five questions of the passage and answer them honestly.

  • What does the passage say…
  • … about God?
  • … about Jesus?
  • … about me?
  • … about the World?
  • What should I do in response to this passage?

Not every question will apply in every passage but in most they will.

6. Pray—in response to the passage, about yourself, family, friends—everything.

There are many ways of studying God’s word, some of which we’ll investigate over the coming months—but the hardest part is starting. Having started you will find like so many others that the word of God becomes an indispensable part of life. If you’re starting off, or trying to get going again why not ask your growth group to pray for you, and tell your minister or ministry minded friends and get them to pray too.

Psalm 119:103-104 “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.”