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Introductions to the Pastoral epistles are here:

1st and 2nd Timothy

Titus

and, if you’re up to date, we’re now reading through Hebrews and Song of Songs. Since both of these books began on the same day, if you are falling behind, now is a good time to rejoin with the group!

I’m interested to hear any thoughts, comments or reflections people have on any of the above books, or about how you’re getting on with the read-through!

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Ecclesiastes

Ecc: 1:15

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

What the teacher says here is that he sees that the world is bent out of shape. He knows that everything under the sun is meaningless. He also knows that it should not be meaningless – the meaninglessness itself is a product of a broken reality. The meaning which is lacking can not be experienced, because what is lacking cannot be counted, except as a want. The teacher has confronted his problem. He does not allow it to get on top of him.

This is the preamble to his discourse, which, of course, he wrote after he had tried all the things he tried to create meaning in his life. If you read Ecclesiastes you find that he did all the things that people experiment with, in a search for meaning. He tried worldly wisdom, madness, stupidity, pleasures, possessions, people, sex, fame, greatness, reputation, honour, power, hard work, indigence, family, making vows to God, doing things for God, mourning, feasting, laughing and gossip, human justice, finding vicarious meaning through children, marriage, risky business, and every other thing that people try to give meaning to their lives. He found out that, “All is vanity”.

But that would be a gloomy and unpalatable end to the matter, if that had been all he had to say about it. In fact, he appeals to faith. His summary invites men to trust God, and to live out their lives as if God’s judgment should make sense of the things we do. In fact, it is something stronger than trust that he enjoins on his reader: it is fear. The one who lived out the life delighting in the fear of the Lord was the one whose life had most significance, and most meaning, and most glory. It turns out that the teacher knew what he was talking about, even if he didn’t know Who…

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ed

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Popular Idols.

Proverbs 29:25 says “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.”

Trusting in anything other than God for your security, happiness, hope and daily provision is idolatry. The bible says that is a fundamentally fatal idea, because it goes against the purpose of our very existence: to acknowledge God’s glorious character. If we don’t acknowledge this in our daily lives, then we are denying God his rightful place as God, and that is our most serious sin. Furthermore, if we persist in this sin, we blind ourselves to the grace, forgiveness and sheer glory of God, and miss out on the very thing we were created to enjoy forever. This is the most dangerous path we can tread, and yet we tread it daily.

Our idols are often “Good Things made into God things, which is a Bad Thing”. Idolatry looks like this: God gives us good things, often with instructions for how best to use them, and we recklessly appropriate them for our own greedy and savage uses, inflating our own sense of worth and offering little more than lip-service to our generous heavenly father.

Even for people who have accepted Jesus as their saviour and lord, allowing ourselves to let go of our idols is a slow and lifelong process which can only be done with the Holy Spirit’s help. Trust me, we all suck at this. But because of Jesus, God forgives, and his mercies are new every morning, which means that Christians do not need to be held captive to their past failings, and we can embark on a new trajectory that leads us away from idolatry and into full communion with God.

In the first instance, though, how do we identify those things that are preventing us from finding our peace and satisfaction in God?

David Powlison, in his book Seeing With New Eyes highlights 11 questions that help us identify what our idols are.

  1. What do I worry about most?
  2. What, if I failed or lost it, would cause me to feel that I did not even want to live?
  3. What do I use to comfort myself when things go bad or get difficult?
  4. What do I do to cope? What are my release valves? What do I do to feel better?
  5. What preoccupies me? What do I daydream about?
  6. What makes me feel the most self-worth? Of what am I the proudest? For what do I want to be known?
  7. What do I lead with in conversations?
  8. Early on what do I want to make sure that people know about me?
  9. What prayer, unanswered, would make me seriously think about turning away from God?
  10. What do I really want and expect out of life? What would really make me happy?
  11. What is my hope for the future?

We will soon start the book of Ecclesiastes, written by a cheerful guy who argues that everything is meaningless. I think it’s important to prepare for this by evaluating the things in our lives that give us meaning, and discovering whether there is something more important out there, beyond our immediate needs, appetites and desires.

HT Jared Wilson via Resurgence.

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One of my favourite websites is The Gospel Coalition because it provides a variety of intelligent and biblically-grounded teaching which is edifying and encouraging for Christians. My favourite blog which I tend to visit most days is Justin Taylor, who aggregates a variety of interesting and succinct content for Christians to engage with. Kevin deYoung‘s blog posts are usually well worth reading too. I am consistently encouraged by their blog posts because they demonstrate humility, wisdom and love (consistent with the fruits of the spirit) as they seek to teach, encourage and instruct Christians. I strongly recommend bookmarking their pages for moments of casual reading.

There are many Christian resources out there, and I think it is easy to get sucked into stuff that unwittingly changes your focus. Common pitfalls include being diverted too much by church management strategies, pseudo-Biblical lifestyle advice, and other disciplines, programs and theories that are appealing but imbalanced, or so simplified, that they result in our becoming detached from our most vital duties and concerns. We are surrounded by a thousand potential pursuits. Which is the most valuable? Which ones seem harmless but might compromise something more important? We only have so much time in this life, so it’s important for us to learn what is of central importance, and what can easily become nothing more than hollow religious detritus. This is one of the purposes of the bible read-through: to achieve a scriptural sense of what is of first importance, and what is secondary, so that we might order our chaotic lives accordingly.

The Gospel Coalition site hosts Don Carson’s “For The Love Of God” blog, which is linked at the side of this blog, and provides today’s readings and commentary from Carson. Another interesting thing which caught my eye was a resource for those  interested in understanding how to preach Christ in the Old Testament. For B2Y’ers, this might be worth a look in order to develop a further grounding in how the bible fits together. D.A. Carson writes an introduction to this resource which highlights many of the main problems Christians encounter when trying to get to grips with the Old Testament .

I could spend a lot of time linking to every article that I find interesting, but I feel that people like Justin Taylor are wiser and better placed to do that kind of thing, for the benefit of the Church. For this reason, I strongly commend TGC as a gospel-centred resource for Christians. You should bookmark it now.

 

 

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Don’t know if you noticed but the blog feed of For the Love of God (on the right hand side of this page) is stuck on June 4th. I will look into that and try and fix it. If anyone has an idea why that is, let me know! If you click the top of the feed link it still takes you to the most recent comments.

EDIT: NOW FIXED

P.S. If you’re reading from the Carson blog as your regular method, you might find it easier to remain one day behind: because of timezones and stuff, the Carson blog isn’t always updated when you want to read today’s reading… Just a thought.

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Intro to the Psalms

The Book of Psalms, or Psalter, is essentially the songbook for the worshipping people of God.  It is theology set to music.  It contains 150 poems which have been used as, and inspired many, songs for God’s people to both publicly and privately worship Him.  The psalms express a wide range of human emotion and teach us how to centre those emotions on God, regardless of our personal circumstances.  They teach us how to rightly express our love and adoration towards God and sorrow over sin; devotion to the word of God; to have dependence on God in desperate circumstances; how to respond in the battle of fear and trust; how to walk with God even when the way seems dark; thankfulness for God’s care and provision; and confidence in the eventual triumph of God’s purposes for the world.

Most psalms contain titles which tell us who the author was, historical notes, as well as directions for their liturgical use.  Although the majority of psalms were authored by David, leading Spurgeon to title his published works on the psalms as the “Treasury of David”, the other authors include the Sons of Korah, Asaph, Solomon, and Moses.  The individual psalms, therefore, come to us from a wide variety of periods in Israel’s history (Moses – David – Exile/Post-Exile).  The standard Hebrew text divides the psalms into 5 books (taken from the ESV study bible):

Book 1 Psalms 1–41 Psalms 1–2 have no titles that attribute authorship (but see Acts 4:25 for Psalm 2); they provide an introduction to the Psalms as a whole. The remainder of Book 1 is made up almost entirely of psalms of David: only Psalms 10 (but see note on Psalm 9) and 33 lack a Davidic superscription. Prayers issuing from a situation of distress dominate, punctuated by statements of confidence in the God who alone can save (e.g., 9; 11; 16; 18), striking the note that concludes the book (40–41). Reflections on ethics and worship with integrity are found in Psalms 1; 14–15; 19; 24; and 26.
Book 2 Psalms 42–72 From the Davidic voice of Book 1, Book 2 introduces the first Korah collection (42–49, although 43 lacks a superscription), with a single Asaph psalm at Psalm 50. A further Davidic collection is found in Psalms 51–65 and 68–69, including the bulk of the “historical” superscriptions (51–52; 54; 56–57; 59–60; 63). Once again, lament and distress dominate the content of these prayers, which now also include a communal voice (e.g., Psalm 44; cf. Psalms 67; 68). The lone psalm attributed to Solomon concludes Book 2 with the Psalms’ pinnacle of royal theology (72; cf. 45).
Book 3 Psalms 73–89 The tone darkens further in Book 3. The opening Psalm 73 starkly questions the justice of God before seeing light in God’s presence; that light has almost escaped the psalmist in Psalm 88, the bleakest of all psalms. Book 2 ended with the high point of royal aspirations; Book 3 concludes in Psalm 89 with these expectations badly threatened. Sharp rays of hope occasionally pierce the darkness (e.g., Psalms 75; 85; 87). The brief third book contains most of the psalms of Asaph (Psalms 73–83), as well as another set of Korah psalms (Psalms 84–85; 87–88).
Book 4 Psalms 90–106 Psalm 90 opens the fourth book of the psalms. It may be seen as the first response to the problems raised by the third book (Psalms 73–89). Psalm 90, attributed to Moses, reminds the worshiper that God was active on Israel’s behalf long before David. This theme is taken up in Psalms 103–106, which summarize God’s dealings with his people before any kings reigned. In between there is a group of psalms (93–100) characterized by the refrain “The Lord reigns.” This truth refutes the doubts of Psalm 89.
Book 5 Psalms 107–150 The structure of Book 5 reflects the closing petition of Book 4 in 106:47. It declares that God does answer prayer (Psalm 107) and concludes with five Hallelujah psalms (146–150). In between there are several psalms affirming the validity of the promises to David (Psalms 110; 132; 144), two collections of Davidic psalms (108–110; 138–145); the longest psalm, celebrating the value of the law (Psalm 119); and 15 psalms of ascent for use by pilgrims to Jerusalem (Psalms 120–134).

Using the Psalms as Scripture

The Psalms are recognised as inspired Word of God in scripture.  As such, they do not just help the believer express emotions, but also allow the Holy Spirit to shape them.  As scripture, the psalms can deeply act on the emotions in a transformative way, especially when dealing with “difficult” passages, calling on God’s people to use their minds in worship as well as their hearts and voices.  Emotions are never treated as a mere problem to be solved, but are part of the raw material (together with the mind) that the Holy Spirit can continue to use to shape us, changing our wants and desires to become more holy as He is holy.  The brutal emotional honesty of the psalms frees us to be brutally honest with ourselves and with each other, and teaches us how to minister God’s grace to one another within the gospel community of the church.  In this ongoing process of accountability and transformation, we see more clearly our dependence on God and his church as his Holy Spirit works amongst us.

As for the “difficult” passages of the psalms, none can be more jarring to our understanding for those of us living on this side of the cross of Christ, than those verses containing the “curses”.    Here are some helpful principles for understanding these passages (taken from the ESV study bible):

  • one must be clear that the people being cursed are not enemies over trivial matters; they are people who hate the faithful precisely for their faith; they mock God and use ruthless and deceitful means to suppress the godly (cf. Psalms 5:4–6, 9–10; 10:15; 42:3; 94:2–7).
  • it is worth remembering that these curses are in poetic form and can employ extravagant and vigorous expressions. (The exact fulfillment is left to God.)
  • these curses are expressions of moral indignation, not of personal vengeance. For someone who knows God, it is unbearably wrong that those who persecute the faithful and turn people away from God should get away with it, and even seem to prosper. Zion is the city of God, the focus of his affection cf. Psalms 48; 122); it is unthinkable that God could tolerate cruel men taking delight in destroying it. These psalms are prayers for God to vindicate himself, displaying his righteousness for all the world to see (cf. 10:17–18). Further, these are prayers that God will do what he said he will do: 35:5 looks back to 1:4, and even 137:9 has Isaiah 13:16 as its backdrop. Most of these prayers assume that the persecutors will not repent; however, in one place (Ps. 83:17), the prayer actually looks to the punishment as leading to their conversion.
  • the OT ethical system forbids personal revenge (e.g., Lev. 19:17–18; Prov. 24:17; 25:21–22), a prohibition that the NT inherits (cf. Rom. 12:19–21).

Thus, when the NT writers employ these curses or formulate their own (e.g. 1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:8–9; Rev. 6:9–10; Acts 1:20 and Rom. 11:9–10), they are following the OT guidelines. Any prayer for the Lord to hasten his coming must mean disaster for the impenitent (2 Thess. 1:5–10). Yet Christians must keep as their deepest desire, even for those who mean harm to the church, that others would come to trust in Christ and love his people (cf. Luke 23:34; Rom. 9:1–3; 10:1; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Hence, when they pray for God to protect his people against their persecutors, they should be explicit about asking God to lead such people to repentance. With these things in mind, then, it is still possible that the faithful today might sing or read aloud even these sections of the Psalms, if it takes place in a service of worship, under wise leadership, for the good of the whole people of God.

So as we delve deep into the psalms, let us together drink deeply from the unlimited reservoir of God’s grace, mourn at our sins, and seek rest, comfort, guidance and protection from our Mighty Rock, Shepherd and King.

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Now we have finished reading the gospels,  our New Testament readings turn to the Psalms (that’s right, and this is not an April Fool!). Our OT readings are now in Leviticus. The next couple of months will present more of a challenge as we try to keep a balanced old/new testament perspective.

A few points on my mind…in no particular order.

1.  KEEP IN TOUCH WITH THE GROUP

Please consider dropping me an email if you haven’t done so already just to confirm that you are still with us (even if you’ve fallen behind). It encourages me to know how you’re doing, and in turn I can encourage others who might be struggling with any aspect of the plan.

2. REMEMBER TO KEEP ASKING QUESTIONS.

There are certain important questions which arise when reading the current books, and when they go unasked and unanswered, it can make the daily readings more difficult and dry. Use the blog, reading partners, housegroups, or whatever methods you can to ask questions. This is not an exercise in pure stamina: our aim is fruitful devotional times. Find whatever resources you can to support it and make more sense of what you’re reading. Consider re-reading the blog introductions every so often.

3. CATCHING UP

If you have fallen behind I suggest you take note of where you were, and read the first few chapters of Leviticus today. Then tomorrow (1st April) start the Psalms, and Leviticus 4. Since we are at the start of two new books at the same time, it makes sense to use this as a catch-up. But only if it helps motivate you!

4. PSALMS INTRODUCTION

Tomorrow, I will post an introduction to the Psalms. It has been prepared by B2Y’er Paul Maxfield. This will help us to understand better the context of the Psalms, how their literary style is quite different from other books we read, who wrote them and over what time period. It will also address questions concerning some Psalms seeming vindictive, triumphalist or promoting some other attitudes condemned as sinful elsewhere in Scripture.

5. PRAYER/DEVOTIONAL

Remember these times of bible study are there for you to approach not just God’s words, but God Himself. He has made personal relationship with Himself possible through His son Jesus. Pray in these devotional times because God is waiting for you.

5. CHECK THE READINGS PLAN
Note that some days involve reading two shorter chapters (or Psalms). Remember to keep an eye on what you should be reading each day from the daily plan.

Please be affirmed and encouraged as you continue with us into these new and challenging sections of the bible. I remember being greatly encouraged by what I got out of these books the first time I did B2Y. I’m praying that will be the same for all you guys!

P.S.

Over the next week or so I’ll be posting the Psalms intro and also a recap of some of the points that came up at the meeting last week. Bet you can’t wait, eh? 🙂

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