Questions Christians Ask: How Do I Interpret the Bible? (Part 3)

Helps for Developing a Good Routine for Bible Study

Step 1: Determine Your Objectives

In light of the fact that spiritual growth doesn’t happen overnight, it would be helpful to identify some objectives to motivate moving forward in the spiritual transformation process:

• Where do you want to be spiritually six months from now? A year from now? Five years from now?
• What role do you believe Bible study plays in your spiritual objectives?
• Are you convinced that you need to study the Bible on a regular basis?
• What facets of your schedule or priorities in your life are you willing to rearrange in order to accomplish your objectives in the study of the Word?
• Are you willing to pay the price?

Step 2: Develop A Plan

It is necessary to develop an intention plan for what Bible is going to look like in your life.

• Set a time and place. Consistency is a plus here. Where is the most effective place and when is the most effective time for you to study the Word?
• Set a starting point. If you’re new to intensive study of the Word, don’t let your ambition send you into the deep end yet. It’s not necessary to start in Jeremiah or Leviticus. Why not try one of the New Testament letters like Philippians or James – or maybe one of the Gospels like John or Mark? Keep it simple at the start.
• Set a pattern. Once you have decided what you are going to read, you use a good Bible reading plan to guide your personal Bible study. Helpfully, Bible Gateway has made available different reading plan options, so you can customize your Bible reading strategy.

Questions Christians Ask: How Do I Interpret the Bible? (Part 2)

We are continuing our overview of biblical interpretation and, as a bonus today, it comes complete with a list of recommended resources for studying the bible.

4. Discover the Intended Meaning

• The meaning of the text must be consistent with what the original author intended it to mean.
• The meaning of a passage is objective. You should be able to provide reasons for why you think it means __________________. This principle is important because it means that we can have productive debate about the meaning of a passage.
• A passage has a single meaning, but there can be many different applications.

5. Application

• In seeking an application from a passage, as what application the author originally intended
• Application is the thoughtful appropriation of biblical truth to our lives – how we take it in, embrace it, and adjust our lives to bring them in line with the truth of God’s Word.
• Application can be difficult to do consistently because of our sinfulness and our proneness to rationalize
• Application might take the form of a tangible action, worship, mediation, or adjusting our theology. Sound application must begin with sound interpretation.
• Four questions that lead to helpful application: What should I do? Who should I be (or who should I realize that I am, in Christ)? Where should I go? How should I see things?

6. Tools for Bible Study

• Study Bibles—They contain explanations, outlines, cross references and study notes. A good study Bible also has a concordance, maps, and a topical index.
• Concordance—An alphabetical listing of key words, names, topics, and a list of verses that contain the word you select.
• Bible Dictionaries—Allows you to look up words you don’t understand such as “grace,” “redemption,” or “faith.”
• Bible Atlases, Maps, and Time Lines—Allows you to locate where and when biblical events took place.
• Bible Commentaries and Handbooks—Written by scholars with years of study, these books provide overview, background, and insights on the Bible.

Some Helpful Resources for Studying the Bible

Study Bible

ESV Study Bible, ed. Wayne Grudem and J.I. Packer
NIV Study Bible, ed. D.A. Carson

Bible Overview

• Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (InterVarsity Press)
• Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Plan of God in the Bible (InterVarsity Press).

How To Study The Bible

• J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word (Zondervan)
• Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan)
• George Guthrie, Read the Bible for Life (B&H Books)
• Robert Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible (Kregel)

Bible Handbook

• David Dockery, The Holman Bible Handbook (Holman)
Bible Dictionary
• Howard Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, New Bible Dictionary (InterVarsity Press).
• Brian S. Rosner, T. Desmond Alexander, Carson Goldsworthy, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (InterVarsity Press).

Old Testament Introduction

• Raymond Dillard and Tremper Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Zondervan).

New Testament Introduction

• D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Zondervan).

Bible Atlas

• Thomas Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas (Holman).
• John Currid and David Barrett, ESV Bible Atlas (Crossway).

Single Volume Bible Commentary

• G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, and R.T. France, New Bible Commentary (InterVarsity Press).

Internet Helps

Christians are to be bible people. We believe that God inspired the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16), and it is given to us as a gift that we may enjoy a relationship with the living God through knowing him (John 17:3). We are to read the bible in order to know God and his revealed will. But let’s be honest, sometimes it is a challenge to make sense of the Bible. The following are some principles to be mindful of as you read the bible and aim to interpret it faithfully (2 Timothy 2:15):


1. Read to Understand

• The Bible is meant to be read (not decoded) and understood by ordinary readers. Scripture was written to ordinary believers in the ordinary language of the day.
• It should be read and re-read – the parts make more sense when the whole is understood.

2. General Principles for Interpreting the Bible

• Look for God’s Over-All Plan—There is an overarching story-line to the bible which begins in Genesis (first book in our Bible), culminates in the Gospels (Jesus death and resurrection) and consummates in Revelation (last book in our Bible).
• Find the Background of the Books (Five W’s and One H) – Find out who wrote the book and the reason for, or theme of, the books. Try to find out the “Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How?” of the book.
• Read Verses in Context (see below)—Read the surrounding chapters and the verses before and after the verse you are studying to get the whole picture of the passage.
• Consider the Whole Message of God’s Word—Take the whole Bible as God’s Word. Don’t just concentrate on one verse or idea. See if the teaching is explained more fully in other parts of the Bible by looking at the cross-reference or consulting a concordance.
• Discover the intended meaning (see below)—As you read the Bible, look for the author’s intended meaning. Ask questions like: what did it mean in that culture? What does it mean now? What are the main ideas?
• Learn the History and Geography—Use references (see below) to understand the where and when’s of events recorded in the Bible.
• Understand Forms of Language—Figures of speech are word pictures that help us understand a truth and are used often throughout the Bible (example: “thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” Psalm 119).
• Recognize Forms of Literature—The Bible contains various forms of literature: History, Narrative, Poetry, Wisdom, Prophecy, Parables, and Letters. Recognizing each form will help you interpret the meaning.

3. Understand the Context

Context refers to the circumstances that form the setting for an event, a statement, or a written text, by which that event, statement, or text can be rightly understood.

• Literary context refers to how a passage fits and functions in a book.
• Cultural context has to do with attitudes, patterns of behavior, or expressions of a particular society, which affect our understanding of a passage.
• Historical context has to do with historical events in the biblical era, either events recorded in the pages of Scripture or events that form the backdrop for the biblical story.
• Theological context refers to how a topic fits in the tapestry of theological themes in the story of the Bible.

bibile inerp

Questions Christians Ask: How Do I Interpret The Bible? (Part 1)

Questions Christians Ask: Is the Tithe Required of Me?

When the offering plate passes you by on Sunday morning, how much are you to give?

Giving in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, God commands his people to give 10 percent of their income to support the Levites—the religious teachers of the day. Plus, there were a couple more required offerings, all three of which added up to roughly 23 percent of an Israelite’s annual income, to say nothing of the temple tax and voluntary offerings.

Yet how much more have we received from Christ than the Old Testament saints could have imagined! Giving for the Christian is one way we use our money to invest for an eternal return. Giving helps us loose the chains that money can wrap around our hearts. Giving says, “God is sufficient.”

The faithful use of our resources is an undeniable indicator of our spiritual health. What we actually do with our money reveals where our heart truly is (Matthew 6:21). Materialism, selfishness, greed, hoarding, anxiety over money—all of these reveal that our trust lies not in God but in money. In the same way, generosity and faithfulness reveal that our trust is in God, not our possessions, as the source of our life.

Giving in the New Testament

Christians sometimes assume their responsibility starts and ends with giving 10 percent to a favorite charity. But that’s not quite right. Ten percent may be a good starting point based on Old Testament precedent. Think of Abraham giving that much to Melchizedek. But nowhere does the New Testament tell Christians to give a “tithe” (which means 10 percent).

Instead, Paul instructs each Christian to give “in keeping with his income” (1 Corinthians 16:2), which is to say, as much as one is able. Elsewhere he commands, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches” (Galatians 6:6; see also 1 Corinthians 9:14). And he commends one church for giving “with rich generosity” and “beyond their ability” (2 Corinthians 8:2,3).

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Christians are exhorted to give:

Generously— “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6).
Willingly-“Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Sacrificially—The poor widow with “two small copper coins” is commended by Jesus for putting into the offering “everything she had” (Mark 12:42-44).

Yet the Bible also teaches that what we give to the church must be balanced with our other financial obligations. Paul says that a man who does not provide for his family’s basic needs “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

Christian Stewardship

Stewardship involves the faithful use of resources that belong to another. An important part of following Christ is the use of our material resources for God’s purposes. In fact, Scripture is clear that an authentic relationship with Christ will find expression in the faithful use of our resources for his ends. Stewardship involves the use of our money and possessions for the glory of God, the work of his church, and the well-being of others.

The faithful use of our resources begins with a stark realization: God owns everything! All that we have comes from him, and therefore we don’t really own anything; we are merely stewards— overseers or managers—over things that belong to God (Psalm 24:1)

Money is just one of many stewardships God has given to us, like time or relationships. And just as we should make “the best use of the time” (Ephesians 5:16) for God’s glory, so we should with our money.

Every dollar in your bank account is an opportunity to bring glory to God. So would that next dollar best be used for extra needs at the church? Or to hire a babysitter so you can disciple a younger Christian? Or to give your family rest and intentional time together on a family vacation? Or to buy this house versus that house because it allows you to do hospitality? You are utterly free in Christ to decide! The point is, use your money as a resource to serve the Lord.

As Murray Harris puts it: “Christian stewardship is the management of life and all its resources for the glory of God.”


The Bible, Ethnicity, and Reconciliation

What the Bible Has to Say on Ethnicity

• The biblical world was multiethnic, and numerous ethnic groups were involved in God’s unfolding plan of redemption (Abraham, Rahab, Tamar and Ruth, Bathsheba, etc.).
• All people are created in the image of God and, therefore, all ethnic groups have the same equal status and equal unique value (Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:26).
• The gospel demands that we carry compassion and the message of Christ across ethnic lines (Luke 10:5-37, Matthew 28:19, Acts 1:8, Romans 1:16).
• The New Testament teaches that as Christians we are all unified together “in Christ,” regardless of our differing ethnicities. Furthermore, our primary concept of self-identity should not be our ethnicity, but our membership as part of the body and family of Christ. Further, our primary concept of self-identity should not be our ethnicity, but our membership as part of the body and family of Christ (Ephesians 2:14-16, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).
• The picture of God’s people at the climax of history depicts a multiethnic congregation from every tribe, language, people, and nation, all gathered together in worship around God’s throne (Revelation 5:9, 7:9, 10:11, 11:9, 13:7, 14:6, 17:15).

The Problems with Race as a Distinguishing Category

The category of race is unhelpful (and somewhat artificial) because it locates identity in physical appearance. The differing colors of skin that serve as racial markers are simply the result of differing levels of melatonin. The problem of using race as a category is compounded when we acknowledge that it often comes with stereotypes and assumptions that are based squarely upon biological attributes (like skin color and hair texture).

Thabiti Anyabwile, a pastor who was formerly pastor of First Baptist of Grand Cayman for many years. As a “black” man, he explains the hopelessness of using “race to distinguish men and women:

My barber in the Caribbean looks just like me. You’d think he was an African-American until he opens his mouth. When he speaks, he speaks Jamaican patois so it is clear that he’s not an African-American. My administrative assistant is also proudly Jamaican – very white-skinned. The lady in my barbershop looks a lot like my wife. You might think she is African-American or even Caymanian. She is Honduran. This notion of artificially imposing categories on people according to color – biology – is sheer folly. This is why much of the field on race and ethnicity has largely abandoned the attempt to identify men based on biological categories of race.”

The Preference for Ethnicity as a Distinguishing Category

The bible grounds human diversity in human ethnicity. To use the language of Genesis 10, we comprise “clans” in separate “nations’ that speak different “languages” in diverse “lands.” And with the globalization of the world and the migration of men and women across continents and into cities, these clans from separate nations and with different languages now often live in the same land.

Here the concept of ethnicity is immensely helpful (as opposed to race), for it includes all these considerations and more. Instead of being strictly tied to biology, ethnicity is much more fluid, factoring in social, cultural, linguistic, historical, and even religious. Anthropologists now tend to distinguish differing ethnolinguistic groups in the world based on a common self-identity with common history, customs, patters, and practices based upon those two primary characteristics: ethnicity and language.

Applied to the United States, we are a nation of increasing diversity of people groups: Anglo Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asians Americans and more. These categories can be further subdivided based upon other ethnolinguistic factors, leading us to realize that we are a nation of unique people groups with diverse histories from different lands with distinct customs and even languages.

The Power of the Gospel for Unity and Reconciliation

But, with this understanding we can see more clearly how the gospel is able to foster powerful unity in the middle of great diversity.

Ephesians 2:12-14, 18-19: 12 Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility… 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

From the beginning, sin separated man and woman from God and also from one another. This sin stood (and stands) at the root of ethnic pride and prejudice. When Christ went to the cross, he conquered sin, making the way for people to be free from its hold and restored to God. In doing so, he paved the way for all people to be reconciled to one another. Followers of Christ thus have one “Father” as one “family” in one “household,” with no “dividing wall of hostility” based upon ethnic diversity.

As David Platt says about the unifying power of the gospel: “The gospel does not deny the obvious ethnic, cultural, and historical differences that distinguish us from one another. Nor does the gospel suppose that these differences are merely superficial. Instead, the gospel begins with a God who creates all men and women in his image and then diversifies humanity according to clans and lands (Genesis 10) as a creative reflection of his grace and glory in distinct groups of people. The gospel compels us to celebrate our ethnic distinctions, value our cultural differences, and acknowledge our historical diversity, even forgiving the ways such history may have been dreadfully harmful.”


The Only Thing That Can Deal With the Problem of Your Heart…

A great illustration that Tim Keller recounts in his book Jesus the King:

Years ago my wife Kathy and I heard a sermon preached by Ray Dillard, an Old Testament professor at Westminster Seminary and friend of ours who has since passed away. He wept through most of the sermon, which was based on Zechariah 3. Zechariah is one of the prophetic books in the Old Testament, and in the first line of chapter 3, Zechariah, in a vision, is transported into the center of the temple. He says this: ‘Then [the Lord] showed me Joshua, the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord.’

The temple had three parts: the outer court, the inner court, and the holy of holies. The holy of holies was completely surrounded by a thick veil. Inside was the ark of the covenant, on top of it was the mercy seat, and the shekinah glory of God, the very presence and face of God, appeared over the mercy seat. It was a dangerous place. In Leviticus 16, God says, ‘If you come near the mercy seat, put a lot of incense and smoke up in the air, because I appear in the cloud over the mercy seat and I don’t want you to die.’ Only one person on one day of the year was allowed to go into the holy of holies: the high priest of Israel on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Zechariah, then, was experiencing a vision from the center of the temple, inside the holy of holies, and he saw Joshua the high priest standing before the Lord on Yom Kippur.

Ray Dillard, preaching his sermon, then drew on his scholarship and spoke in great detail about the enormous amount of preparation that took place for the Day of Atonement. A week beforehand, the high priest was put into seclusion- taken away from his home and into a place where he was completely alone. Why? So he wouldn’t accidentally touch or eat anything unclean. Clean food was brought to him, and he’d wash his body and prepare his heart. The night before the Day of Atonement he didn’t go to bed; he stayed up all night praying and reading God’s Word to purify his soul. Then on Yom Kippur he bathed head to toe and dressed in pure, unstained white linen. Then he went into the holy of holies and offered an animal sacrifice to God to atone, or pay the penalty for, his own sins. After that he came out and bathed completely again, and new white linen was put on him, and he went in again, this time sacrificing for the sins of the priests. But that’s not all. He would come out a third time, and he bathed again from head to toe and they dressed him in brand-new pure linen, and he went into the holy of holies and atoned for the sins of all the people.

Did you know that this was all done in public? The temple was crowded, and those in attendance watched closely. There was a thin screen, and he bathed behind it. But the people were present: They saw him bathe, dress, go in, come back out. He was their representative before God, and they were there cheering him on. They were very concerned to make sure that everything was done properly and with purity, because he represented them before God. When the high priest went before God there wasn’t a speck on him; he was as pure as pure can be. Only if you understand that do you realize why the next lines of the prophecy in Zechariah 3 were so shocking: Zechariah saw Joshua the high priest standing before the presence of God in the holy of holies- but Joshua’s garments were covered in excrement. He was absolutely defiled. Zechariah couldn’t believe his eyes. Ray said the key interpretive question is: How could that have happened? There’s no way that the Israelites would ever have allowed the high priest to appear before God like that. Ray’s answer was this: God was giving Zechariah a prophetic vision so that he could see us the way that God sees us. In spite of all our efforts to be pure, to be good, to be moral, to cleanse ourselves, God sees our hearts, and our hearts are full of filth.

All of our morality, all of our good works, don’t really get to the heart, and Zechariah suddenly realized that no matter what we do we’re unfit for the presence of God. But just as he was about to despair, he heard: ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you…Listen,…I am going to bring my servant, the Branch,…and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day’ (Zechariah 3:4 and 8 – 9). Zechariah probably couldn’t believe his ears. He must have thought, ‘Wait a minute, for years we’ve been doing the sacrifices, obeying the cleanliness laws. We can never get this sin off ourselves!’ But God was saying, ‘Zechariah, this is a prophecy. Someday the sacrifices will be over, the cleanliness laws will be fulfilled.’

How can that be? Ray Dillard closed the sermon like this: Centuries later another Joshua showed up, another Yeshua. Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua- it’s the same name in Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. Another Joshua showed up, and he staged his own Day of Atonement. One week beforehand, Jesus began to prepare. And the night before, he didn’t go to sleep – but what happened to Jesus was exactly the reverse of what happened to Joshua the high priest, because instead of cheering him on, nearly everyone he loved betrayed, abandoned, or denied him. And when he stood before God, instead of receiving words of encouragement, the Father forsook him. Instead of being clothed in rich garments, he was stripped of the only garment he had, he was beaten, and he was killed naked. He was bathed too, Ray told us- in human spit.

Why? ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). God clothed Jesus in our sin. He took our penalty, our punishment so that we, like Joshua, the high priest, can get what Revelation 19:7-8 pictures: ‘Let us rejoice and be glad…Fine linen, bright and clean, is given [to us] to wear.’ Pure linen – perfectly clean – without stain or blemish. Hebrews 13 says Jesus was crucified outside the gate where bodies are burned – the garbage heap, a place of absolute uncleanliness – so that we can be made clean. Through Jesus Christ, at infinite cost to himself, God has clothed us in costly. clean. garments. It cost him his blood. And it is the only thing that can deal with the problem of your heart.”

“As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God”

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Matt Harmon, that was published in London’s The Times, on why “Africa Needs God”:

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

Three Biblical Purposes of Marriage

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Ephesians 5:32

Marriage in the Bible is laden with a deep meaning and significance. What follows is Three Biblical Purposes of Marriage, beginning in Genesis (where the foundational purposes are given for marriage) and ending with Ephesians (where the purpose of marriage is given a fuller, transcendent, and eternal meaning):

1. Unitive

Genesis 2:18it is not good for man to be alone.”  Adam is created first, and yet it is “not good” for him to be alone. By himself he is unable to fulfil the purposes for which God created him. The remedy to this is the creation of the first woman. In contrast to the various animals Adam has just named, the woman perfectly corresponds to him. In response, the man said,

This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called “woman”,
for she was taken out of “Man.”

Genesis 2:23 Adam’s astonishment  She is like him in the right way (she is of the same kind) and unlike him in the right way (woman, rather than man). She is a different example of the same kind of thing as him. It is this complementarity that leads to profound unity between them when they eventually come together in sexual union.

Genesis 2:24Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The purpose of sex here is to express and deepen the unity between them. And the writer makes it clear that he is no longer just talking about Adam and Eve, but their posterity. The writer pulls back from their immediate setting to make the general observation: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife…”

What was going on with Adam and Eve explains what has gone on ever since. The perfect “fit” between the two of them is the foundation for every human marriage since. The account is not just about their union but every marriage union. The man and woman become “one flesh.”

Jesus teaches that it is God who joins couples together in marriage and makes them one (Matthew 19:6). God himself produces this union between them. Physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, two people are becoming knitted together. God has designed it to work that way.

2. Procreative

God is the one who makes humankind male and female, and God is the one who commands them to “be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28). Sex is God’s idea. It was not our invention but his gift. And it was not begrudgingly given, as if God said: “Well go on, if you have to.” No, God gave us a means of reproduction that was not just functional, but deeply pleasurable. Sex is a sign of his goodness.

This one-flesh union is designed to be the way in which Adam and Eve fulfil God’s command “to be fruitful and multiply.” From this union flows the possibility of new life—for children to result from it. Procreation is not the sole purpose of marriage (those unable to have children are no less married because of that), but it is clear that procreation is intended to be rooted in marriage.


Human marriage is also meant to reflect the grace that, in Christ, God shows to his people: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the churchEphesians 5:31-32. Here, Paul quotes that foundational Genesis passage and then adds a rich texture to it. He is saying that marriage is intended to picture the relationship that Jesus has with the church. It, too, is a union between two different, yet complementary, entities. The church is not the same as Christ, and Christ is not the same as the church (a wonderful truth given the imperfections of the church!). And it is because Christ is different to his people that he is able to draw them to himself, pledge himself to them, and have them be united to him. Human marriage is a reflection of this supreme, heavenly marriage between Christ and his people.

As the Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said when writing advice to a family member who was getting married: “From this point forward, it is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, it is the marriage that sustains your love.” As we have seen, marriage is far more than a feeling, or a social arrangement that is good as long as both parties are happy. It is far deeper than that, it points to a far greater reality than we might ever imagine, it is a commitment that is intended to reflect the character and good purposes of God, and it is to be received as a gift from that good God.

Religious Liberty: What is it and is it Worth Keeping?

There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.  —John Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men

What is Religious Liberty?

It is the freedom for all people to live out their faith according to their deepest convictions. (Important caveat: there are limitations, when it legitimately harms the common good, such as public health, it is fair and reasonable for the government to restrict religious liberty, but to do so, it must demonstrate a compelling interest for why it is a must to impede a person’s religious liberty while doing so in the least infringing way possible).

Why Should Christians Care About Religious Liberty?

Genesis 1:26-27. Humans are made in God’s image and they possess a conscience that helps them understand right and wrong. Human beings should be free to act on what they believe is their highest responsibility, obligation, and to pursue truth. True faith is always voluntary.

Mark 12:31. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This simple truth implies a fundamental truth about living together in a diverse world. We should treat others the way we want to be treated. If we do not want our religious beliefs targeted for harassment by the government, we should not want the religious beliefs of other religions targeted either.

Matthew 19:16-22. Rich young ruler – The man’s wishes to reject Jesus were respected by Jesus. The man was not coerced to follow Jesus.

1 Corinthians 10:31. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Religion entails a way of life. It is more than singing and praying and gathering in fellowship halls and sanctuaries. Religion stakes a claim on a person. Christianity demands that the believer live an integrated life. To have integrity is to integrate one’s beliefs with one’s actions.

Acts 17:6-7. “And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” Christians do not take our ultimate orders from any president or legislature, but ultimately from Jesus. Christians also understand that they will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The government should not aim to be Lord of one’s religiously informed conscience.

Matthew 28:18-20. Christians should care about religious liberty because it’s the pillar that allows the church to fulfill its mission. The effective and mass communication of the gospel depends on the freedom to proclaim it.

Constitutionally – Religious Liberty is Enshrined in the American Bill of Rights:

The Bill of Rights, established what is called the ‘first freedom’, that of Religious Liberty. The first Bill of Rights begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The freedom of religion is the foundation for all other freedoms. After all, if government can mandate what you believe or deny you the opportunity to live within your beliefs, then where will its reach end?

Why Did the Founders of Our Country Lay this Principle at the Very Foundation of Our Country?

• To be free to believe (or not believe), and free to live out those beliefs, is at the very cornerstone of a free society.

• Religious liberty arises from the truth that a person’s relationship with God is the most important relationship a person can have. No law or state should be able to interfere with a person’s relationship to God or his or her ability to live out his or her faith.

• In the same way, religious liberty teaches that religious truth cannot be coerced. Because it cannot be coerced, religion ought to be freely pursued.

• A government shouldn’t tell a citizen who God is or how God is to be worshipped. It is therefore right and good for persons, governments, or institutions to restrict themselves to the area that they’re designed to have authority over. A government is designed to see that laws are followed and that citizens are protected. The government is not designed to tell you or me what the me what the meaning of baptism is.

Religious liberty entails the careful balancing of a state’s right to uphold public order and the rights of citizens to freely exercise their religion in peaceful ways.

The state has legitimate authority under God (Though its authority is limited). The state should not set itself up as lord or god over the consciences of its people. The state exists not for the establishment of religion or the elimination of religion, but to protect the “free exercise of religion.”

Common Misunderstandings of Religious Liberty:

Religious liberty is often misunderstood today because we live in a society that is increasingly less religious. As a result, the views that religious liberty are designed to protect have less traction and support than they once did, which builds misunderstanding and even hostility.

Some opponents of religious liberty characterize “religious liberty” as a code word for bigotry. They warn that religious liberty is really a disguise for anti-gay, anti-liberal, or anti-progressive policies. Journalist now place scare quotes around “religious liberty” as though it were a pseudonym for discrimination.

It has now been customary to restrict the definition of religious liberty to freedom to worship. Freedom of worship communicates that individual should have only the right to gather together in houses of worship, and that a person’s ability to live out their faith is not protected. This is a reduction of the protections given in the Constitution.

With government expanding, it increasingly seeks to right wrongs and to encourage a set of behaviors and beliefs that is sometimes at odds with sincerely held religious beliefs. As governments continue to grow, we can expect that there will be more conflict with religion. This has come to a head recently with the growing numbers of conflicts between sexual liberties and religious liberty, including the pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving Lakewood, Colorado baker Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Biblical Perspectives on Suffering

Pastor William Willimon tells a story about visiting a woman in his church who had just given birth. When he got there, the husband and wife were waiting forth doctor because they had received the ominous news that “there were problems with the birth.” When the doctor arrived, he told the couple that the child had been born with Down syndrome, but he also had a minor and correctible respiratory condition. He said, “My recommendation is for you to consider just letting nature take its course, and then in a few days there shouldn’t be a problem.” The child would die “naturally” if they just left things as they were. The couple was confused and asked why they shouldn’t fix the problem. The doctor looked at them and said that raising a Down syndrome child would create enormous amounts of stress in the marriage, and that studies showed that many parents of Down syndrome children separated or divorced. He then said, “Is it fair of you to bring this sort of suffering upon your other two children?”

At the word suffering, the wife suddenly seemed to understand. She countered that her children had lived a safe and comfortable life with every advantage in the world. They had known, if anything, too little of suffering and the difficulty of life in the world. She spoke of “God’s hand” and said, “I could certainly see why it would make sense for a child like this to be born into a family like ours. Our children will do just fine. When you think about it, it could be a great opportunity.”

The doctor was dumbfounded and turned to the pastor, urging him to “talk some reason into them.” Willimon of course knew that the couple needed to be given good instruction as to what lay ahead so that they did not take up their parenting of this new child without some notion of what to expect. But, he wrote, the couple was using reasoning, though it was reasoning foreign to the doctor. It was the reasoning that suffering is not to be avoided at all costs.

The Bible does not give us all the answers we would like when it comes to all the particulars of suffering, but it does take it seriously, it provides a perspective from which to face it, and it does tell us what will finally become of suffering.

The book of Job tells us that though we may not understand from our limited perspectives, there is greater purposes at play even in the midst of suffering. Like Job, the New Testament book of Romans tells us that God is in control and does have a plan (Romans 8:28; see also Ephesians 1:11), and Revelation tells us that one day suffering will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4).

In the meantime, the Bible assures us that suffering can be used by God to instruct us, humble us, and teach us not to set our ultimate hopes on transitory things (Romans 5:3-4). Pastor Tim Keller sums this up well, “One of the main teachings of the Bible is that almost no one grows into greatness or finds God without suffering, without pain coming into our lives like smelling salts to wake us up to all sorts of facts about life and our own hearts to which we were blind.”

Christians may understand many doctrinal truths, but those truths seldom make the journey down into the heart except through enduring times of disappointment, hardship, and loss. As C.S. Lewis famously put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.”