Cru @ SRU : Ask Anything Night (Part 3)

My apologies for the delays in responding. My preaching weeks become scattered. Back to the joyful grind! (It’s probably healthy at this point to remind folks that I’m not on staff with Cru, so these positions are not meant to reflect the organization! I’m just a pastor guy asked to participate – if you have a beef… it’s with me!)

 

Have you struggled or do you struggle to sit still and listen for God? If you can hear God during quiet time how does that happen for you and what can I do? 

There are a couple things going on in this question. I’ll take them in order. I have always struggled to find the mythical “quiet time” that some folks describe. That does not mean I do not have meaningful time with God – it simply means that my meaningful time works in ways that fit my life and personality. For example, one of my favorite things to do is to walk with my Bible. I’m always the first awake in my family. In the seasons when the sun is up early, I’ll grab my devotional passages for the morning and walk the streets/sidewalks of town with my Bible. I find that walking is helpful for me to carry on conversation with the Word. I love to ride my bike in the summer. I try to take a verse or passage with me to consider while I pedal. In the months where I can’t walk, I miss it. Walking inside is not as fruitful. But still I’ll spend time at the dining room table (my “office”) or elsewhere with the Word. Walking is my preference, though.

I believe the calling on each individual is to meet with the Lord in a way and at a time that is fruitful. If I were to wake up early and then close my eyes to seek the mythical & magical quiet time, I would be asleep in two seconds. Likewise at night… or any other time. Life can be exhausting. But I’ve found a way that I am able to dial in (so to speak) and enjoy the Lord’s presence through his Word. If I were to offer advice in this matter, it would sound like this:

  1. Give the Lord your most fruitful mental hour. If your mind and heart are strongest in the morning, then devote time in the morning.  If it is evening, then evening. There is no prescribed time.
  2. Include the Word. The only way to know 100% that you’re hearing the voice of God is to hear his revealed Word in the Scripture. We so often take for granted the fact that the Word is living and active. It cuts. It heals. It is true and abiding. Whatever you do, do it with the Word… written, digital, memorized. Do it all.
  3. Explore until you find fruit. Some people can withdraw and be in a literal prayer closet. Some have places that allow for focus. Some walk 😉 Some talk aloud. Some journal. Some draw. There are lots of ways to interact with the Word that speak from your heart as a reflection on what God has revealed to be true. Pursue. Pursue. Pursue. Don’t be discouraged if something isn’t “working.” It just means you’ve found another way that, in this season of life, is not fruitful for you. But there is a way. I guarantee it.
  4. I am often discouraged by hearing how others do it “differently” (which my heart unfortunately believes is “better”). This is a poison on our devotional life. I’ve spent years whittling away the methods at which I fail. But in that I’ve had great times and seasons, and I’ve found things that encourage my soul. Listen to others (including me) for ideas and encouragement, but don’t believe my answers are better… they’re better for me.

 

What does Philippians 4:13 mean to you? 

Philippians 4:13 is unfortunately mishandled by the body. It does not mean if you put your mind to Jesus you can do whatever you want, which is most often how people understand it. We live in a sound clip culture that wants one sentence (preferably with 140 characters or less) to fix our lives. This approach does not work with Scripture. Bible verses do not exist in a vacuum. They require context.

The context of Philippians 4:13 is so beautiful and relevant that it is doubly tragic to see it abused. I encourage folks to read the whole letter! That’s the way it was written. It has a flow. But even the few verses surrounding 4:13 serve to debunk the way it is mistreated:

… for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.
In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret
of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 

Incorrect understanding: I can do anything if I put my mind to it (and keep Jesus in my pocket)
Correct understanding: Life will have highs and lows, but I can endure with Jesus.

Philippians 4:13 is a verse about contentment, the satisfaction that Jesus provides a satisfaction that extends beyond circumstance. Whether in joy or suffering, Jesus is enough. And because Jesus is enough, he provides the strength to abound with humility and to suffer with dignity.

 

What is your view on gay marriage? Also, what do you think of people who are Christian but support gay marriage? Do you think it’s a bad thing? 

My view on marriage begins with God, because God created marriage.
My view on marriage comes from the Bible – the WHOLE Bible – because it is the Word of God.

God created marriage in Genesis 2. Adam, though enjoying the full fellowship of God, was lonely. God exists eternally in relationship as three Persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. Because we are created in his image, it stands to reason that we, too, would desire relationship with others. In the garden, before the fall, God provided for Adam more than just a mate. He provided woman as a friend and companion who filled a very specific void, who would serve alongside him to fulfill the commission of Genesis 1. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth. Have dominion. God created humanity to bring him glory by extending this commission. This has not changed. This is true today.

Marriage was not created to give us the warm fuzzies and make us feel good about who we believe ourselves to be. It was created to glorify God by living in line with his commission. Obviously sin screwed everything up. We still seek to fill the earth and to exercise dominion, but not to glorify God. This is the heart condition of all humanity. As such, it makes sense that we would distort what God has revealed to be true about everything, which would include marriage and sexuality. As such, any perversion of God’s intended design for humanity, marriage, and sexuality would stand as sin. This is ONE reason why sexual sin is so extensively dealt with in the Bible.

The other reason, just as important, is the gospel. From the beginning, God has used language depicting himself as a husband and his people as a bride. Most often, his people have played the role of the harlot – idolatrous and unfaithful, giving ourselves to any alternative that tickles our fancy. The ultimate expression of this marriage metaphor is the gospel. Jesus died to save his bride, the church. Paul says in Ephesians 5 that marriage is a picture of the gospel – a faithful husband dying to himself to present his bride pure to God… a bride loving her husband above herself. God, in his sovereign omniscience, gave us marriage to prepare us for what would be necessary in Christ – a plan which was laid forth before the foundation of the world. There is more at stake in the marriage question than a human relationship… it is the picture of the divine-human relationship that is compromised.

All that being said, I do not see homosexual marriage as honoring to our God, who created us for his purposes (not our own – that’s where the whole sin problem came from), and who created marriage as an active and widespread demonstration of the kind of love he has extended in Jesus Christ. The heart of sinful humanity is to do what we want, not what God wants. Every human faces this struggle. I face this struggle. The struggle will manifest differently in different people. As such, I believe in compassion. I cannot endorse the marriage, but that does not mean I cannot love the individual.

To answer that part of your question, I believe love is key, but love involves truth. The church is a hospital for sinners, and so I do not believe in casting down any one person for any one particular sin. But there must also be an understanding that certain sins have a far reaching impact. This means we stand on delicate ground. May God have compassion and help us! May he be glorified by the love that is indicative of his sacrifice for us! May we humbly approach him!

One final consideration (because this is a looooong dialogue these days) is with regard to identity, because the argument is very often made that sexual preference is a matter of identity – that it runs at the core of who we are. Human sexuality, by nature, involves another human. In fact, it requires another human. Sexuality involves the identification of an object of desire… but there has to be an object to desire, or it’s not human (we’re not asexual?!?). As such, I think sexuality is disqualified from providing true identity. True identity is in our souls. Regardless of the label, if we place our identity on something that is not intrinsic, we’re actually abdicating identity in favor of letting something outside of self define us.

The biblical assumption is that the image of God is intrinsic, stamped on our souls. That is how we were made. Obviously, folks can make the argument that God is outside of self, and so it’s the same thing. But I would also argue that if there is a transcendent God capable of speaking the universe into existence, then he is best qualified to tell us what we’re made of and why. (I know that sounds harsh, but I am brought low by this truth with regularity!)

The good news of the gospel is that, in Jesus, there is hope. The good news of the gospel that we cannot – in our sinful flesh – understand is that surrender to Jesus will involve surrender of those things which we have heretofore believed to be defining qualities. That last line might have sounded like bad news, but I assure you it’s not. Surrender to Jesus is to rightly acknowledge and agree with God that our basest desires are eternally flawed (and I’m not just referring to sexuality here. EVERY desire is broken and in need of new life). No matter who you are, what you do, or what you believe prior to meeting Jesus,  you must necessarily give it ALL to him and let him tell you what is right and true. The Christian life is a long sequence of finding out that he has better things for us… but most of those better things involve laying down sinful things that we are convinced will provide us happiness. That is the lie of the garden, the poison on God’s commission. There are numerous qualities that I would have used to define myself prior to meeting Christ. I am never happy to find that they are sinful. But I am ever grateful that he has shown me a better way.

There is hope.
And in our hope, there should be love.

 

How do I overcome judging myself and others? I know it is not my place to think negative thoughts about others and I do my best not to act on those judgments, but is there anything I can do to overcome judging as if I was God? 

Strangely, the answer is simple. But the outworking is lifelong and humbling. The gospel is the key. The good news of the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus is not a get out of hell free card. It is not a ticket to be punched, a doctrine we adopt in a moment and then tuck in our back pocket. It is a truth into which we immerse ourselves, letting it shape us – heart, soul, and actions.

Why do I start there?

Because we are in desperate need to be reminded of the sin from which we’ve been rescued. We are in continual need of being reminded of his sacrifice. We live at the foot of the cross because his blood is an ever-present reminder of the vileness of our own hearts, and his willing compassion to die for us anyway. As we dwell on this truth, we find ourselves able to believe two truths:

  1. Jesus loves me.
  2. Jesus loves them.

As we come to understand that we’ve been loved, we are able to see ourselves through the eyes of God – flawed, yes. But loved. Oh, we are so loved! While we were enemies, God died for us! If you are in Christ, you are an adopted son or daughter of God, given by Christ the right to call him Abba! Father! Daddy! God draws so near, not because you’re perfect, but because he is good. The revelation of his goodness will change you. Get in the habit of preaching the gospel to yourself – in good days and in bad. In the good days, the gospel will humble you. In the bad days, the gospel will pick you up. The truth never changes, so live there.

As we come to understand the vast love of God, we are able to see others through his eyes as well – flawed, yes. But loved. They are so loved! Whether his enemies or his children, the sacrifice of Christ stands as hope for them, the hope of adoption stands for them! Just imagine what it would be like to call them brother or sister! Not because we chose them, but because God’s love is bigger than our choices. I might suggest you get in the habit of praying for the people you are prone to judge. Asking the Lord to smile upon them despite their flaws will change you.

The gospel will also, in time (and in relationship!) impart to you the kind of love that enables you to be honest with another person about a matter of the soul. In other words, it is possible to judge rightly without condemnation, with an eye towards restoration (Galatians 6!). While there may be times to address matters of sin in a broad forum (like an “Ask Anything Night”, or in expositionally preaching the Word of God), I believe the  intention of biblical community is that sin would be addressed in relationship with other people, where healthy fellowship allows for compassionate conversation, prayer, and accountability. My final suggestion would be to seek community, kindred souls tethered to the gospel of Jesus Christ, who can help you live an honest and humbly surrendered life!

 

 

I’m still letting these churn. If you have questions, or would like to pursue additional conversation (in person… I’ve never seen a fruitful extended online conversation), contact me!

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In Brief : The Brick Bible

Title: The Brick Bible – The Complete Set
(Click image to view on Amazon)

Author: Brendan Powell Smith

 

I come at this review with such a heavy heart, because I believe the premise is brilliant, but the execution is terribly flawed. Using Legos to tell the greatest story ever told is fascinating and appealing to multiple generations. My generation would read out of nostalgia. My kids love everything Lego, and so the appeal would obviously be there. Smith’s execution of the scenery from an artistic standpoint is amazing. The photography is wonderful, the product of a decade of work. These graphic novels read so easily and well, that I am equally joyful and devastated, because the content couldn’t be more short-sighted and void of the fullness of God’s character.

I would summarize this attempt at a biblical synopsis as caricature at best. In leaving out the essence of the gospel, the story becomes a mockery of God’s revelation.

 

Regarding that violence…

Before I completely lose the people who might love this work, I am NOT upset at the violence or even the vulgarity of particular scenes. (Though I understand a number of panels have been removed because they carry the shock factor far beyond what might be “necessary” – I am thankful) I applaud the attempt at maintaining authenticity in the historical account. The Bible is a violent and vulgar story at times. Read the last two sentences again, because most reviewers who disapprove of the depiction do so for this very reason. In fact, it is the violence and vulgarity that caused Sam’s Club to remove this volume from their shelves.

Any faithful telling of redemptive history will include lots of blood, and lots of inappropriate accounts of sin. Yes, even sexual sin. The Bible is not shy about reminding us all of our legacy of sin. For the many who complain that a kid might just pick this up and be scarred, I remind you that they also might pick up the actual Bible and read the very same stories, though with words instead of toy pictures. Instead of silly plastic figures, they’d just have to use their imaginations to decide what it looked like when the Levite cut his concubine into a dozen pieces and shipped her to the tribes of Israel.

 

Brick Bible 1

 

A bigger issue…

I’ve spent a couple days trying to sum up the theology of the Brick Bible in my head. I still haven’t nailed it down, but here are a few key observations that bother me way more than the violence.

1) God the Father is always angry. Smith uses real Lego pieces from real Lego sets to provide faces throughout the work. (As a side note, it is part of the fun to look for characters I recognize – various Star Wars and Harry Potter, for example – and how they were used.) Smith’s chosen face for the Father is one of upturned eyebrows. God is presented in perpetual anger.

2) Missing the mark on Moses. Bible quiz: why didn’t God allow Moses to enter the promised land? You won’t find the answer in the Brick Bible. The account of Numbers 20 is included, but without the sin of Moses. Consequently, when God forbids Moses later in the Brick Bible, it is just another account of Angry God withholding goodness from people. The absence of grace is also reiterated by the inclusion of Moses among the murderers in hell at the conclusion of Revelation. Moses actually has the front and center place in hell for that crowd. So while our forgiveness towards others is necessary (see #5 below), God’s forgiveness is conspicuously absent.

3) God’s judgment is the big picture. It is true that Jesus talked about hell more than heaven, but Smith spends so much time on hell that you wouldn’t even believe heaven is a reality. I also missed the kingdom of heaven come crashing to earth. At every turn in these novels, God is judgment. Absent is “the LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulnessbut who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children”. (Exodus 34:6-7) I’m not saying God isn’t the epitome of justice, but his justice does not exist in a vacuum.

4) Jesus died for no good reason. The Lord is depicted as a kind of nice guy. He teaches – but his teaching is a frustrating mixture of moralism and futility, telling people to be good, but that it’s unlikely our angry God would ever let them into heaven. He provides no solution. His death was not only ineffective to pay the ransom for sin, but it was not appropriated to anyone to draw them near to God. It just sort of happened. Angry God strikes again.

5) Forgiveness might be the basis for salvation, rather than faith – and certainly not grace. Forgive others and God will forgive you. In other words, tolerance is king. Because the life of Christ was not a preparation for the death of Christ, and because neither the life nor the death of Christ are presented as a gift to sinful humanity through the good news, then the resurrection also is a byline. There is no real basis for hope. The way to heaven comes by forgiving everyone. The introduction to the New Testament Bricks, written by a seminary professor, provides the foundation for the relativism that follows. Truth is subjective (especially stuffy old truth provided by millenia of scholarship, prayer, and ministry by Christ through his Church), and so forgiving everyone as they live out their experience of truth is the apparent key to eternity.  Granted, this is not explicitly stated – but in the absence of the gospel, this is the most consistent message throughout.

 

Brick Bible 2

 

 

Can you make the Bible say that? 

The New Testament includes Scripture references near the spine, which is helpful – I’m guessing an idea that sprung up after the Old Testament novel since they are there absent. And yes, the vast majority of the text is direct quotation from the Scripture. But quoting half of a Bible verse is not necessarily helpful. Context matters. “Behold, the Lamb of God…” is a flowery half-quote, but it is given weight by the other half, “… who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) Guess which half was not found in the New Testament novel?

A series of half-verses and quarter-passages without access to the explanations offered elsewhere in Scripture will only create a fractured doctrine built on a heaping mound of misunderstanding. The Brick Bible is a series of hand-picked illustrations used to portray a partial understanding of God. Imagine with me, if you will, the backlash if I were to use the same process to caricature another person? To see sin without seeing the image of God? To see their faults without their qualities? There is an inherent hypocrisy in this work of tolerance to skip out on the whole revelation of God as the perfection of love, justice, mercy, grace, wrath, and forgiveness.

Overall, I enjoy exercises in critical thinking. So I embraced the mental calisthenics. Though my facial expressions at times may have suggested otherwise, I found something in this reading. But where I had hoped to find a fun resource to reference in ministry from time to time, I instead found an account too dangerous to even grant such an endorsement. I would not recommend these books to anyone who is not familiar with the Scriptures. Otherwise, the absence of context could be very damaging.

The introduction states that the novels are an invitation to read the Bible. I’m not so sure. For those who already believe this always angry, one-sided caricature of God, they will only be emboldened in their incomplete views – such a result does not require further Biblical exploration. Believers might be drawn to the Scriptures to reaffirm what the novels miss. I’m not sure what happens in between.

If only someone would write a toy Bible with sound doctrine. A toy Bible with the shock of God’s forgiveness in the midst of our overwhelming sin will compel people to read the real thing for a good reason.

 

 

 

The Church, She Ain’t Dumb

Occasionally, something as simple as an Amazon review can point out broad and deep issues in the church. Usually, though, it is not the reviews which “cleverly” aim to uncover issues that are actually successful. Instead, candid comments often provide a more realistic thermometer (or perhaps a barometer? My expertise in meteorological hardware is somewhat limited) of current trends and views.

For example, I read a review last night for a commentary which has sparked a mild rant in need of online venting.

Background: I was invited to preach at a Junior High Youth Camp this summer (check it out! Suncrest Camp). After careful consideration, I feel compelled to preach through the book of Esther. Ten messages. Ten chapters. It’s almost too easy. Of course, it is also the book about which Martin Luther said, “I am so hostile to this book that I wish it did not exist.” Fun. Indeed, there are challenges in the book, but there are challenges in any book. 

Like most pastors, my preparation involves an inordinate amount of time in the biblical text itself, in prayer, and also in commentaries – books written to share the opinions of men about the Truth of God. Good commentaries (translate: commentaries with which the pastor is inclined to agree) are not always easy to find. I rely on Amazon descriptions and reviews to discern a taste of what I might purchase.

I unearthed a review last night, given for a commentary on Esther, that hurt my heart. Here is the text of the review:

Full disclosure: I have not read the entire book. So this may be a little off base. But from what I have read, this is a great academic commentary if you are concerned with different textual opinions on the passages being discussed. If yo [sic] are looking for something to preach from, personal edification, or bible study material this may not be for you.

And so my rant begins with a question:

When did academic commentary cease to be useful for preaching, personal edification, and bible study?

The Bible was not written in English. I know, it’s shocking. I’ll give you a moment to catch up with that statement.

If this is true (and it is), then it stands to reason that something is lost in translation. And while I fully and whole-heartedly believe that God has preserved his word through faithful translators, I also hold that believers of every background can profit from knowing more than the most watered-down contemporary translation is able to share. This means that, at times, I believe it is useful – if not absolutely necessary – to engage the text of Scripture from a more challenging point of view. Most of the time, for English-speakers, English is the way to go. It is the easiest, it is the language we understand and remember.

The presence of a Hebrew word or a Greek word on the page is intimidating. It’s like my last name. There’s a in there. People see nine letters and the and they panic. The struggle is real. So I know what foreign languages do to me. But I’ve found, over the years, that if I press into the foreign, I learn something. I still remember the first time I tried. The text was “academic” in nature, but I was determined to grow. I kept a Greek alphabet in the volume and I took a moment to try to pronounce the foreign words. I took notes in the margins. By the end of the 700pg(!!) book, I was recognizing biblical words! Real, original, biblical words! My knowledge was shallow, but I found blessing in overcoming the fear.

Called to Preach? 

To say that “academic” materials are not useful to preachers is insulting to the pastoral calling. How would you feel, as a member of a church, to know that your pastor didn’t feel it was useful to even attempt to grasp biblical texts from an academic perspective? I do NOT condone pastors sharing everything they’ve learned. Sermons are not supposed to be just a formal reading of the Greek lexicon. But if there is no study behind the sermon, what is there instead? Pastors approach the pulpit to expound the word, to point to Christ, to equip and encourage. Maybe I’m naive, but I think there’s at least a little bit of thinking involved.

In the midst of preparation, I have a couple “academic” commentaries in hand. I also have a number of “smooth like butter” commentaries, which are usually compilations of sermons the author has already preached. To simply grab the butter and regurgitate… well… there’s a word for that. How would you feel, as a member of a church, to know that your pastor is only paraphrasing the fruit of another servant’s labors? It happens. I believe there is much to be gained from the butter. But I also believe the butter is one resource among many. Maybe there’s something newly churned waiting to emerge.

I want to be challenged by a text before I preach. As I am faithful to dig and explore, to pray and to apply, the challenge will come. Sometimes the full gravity of what I am saying doesn’t hit me UNTIL I’m preaching, but I rejoice even when this is the case. If the Holy Spirit has not poured the text over my weak and weary soul, my message loses a measure of authenticity.

The regurgitated sermon is not the fruit of the pastor’s time spent with God in the Scripture and prayer. It is the fruit of someone else’s time spent with God. Maybe I’m wrong, but apart from the extremely rare and fully disclosed case, I believe in sermons crafted from a word wrought on the heart of the Lord’s servant for that hour.

The Church, She Ain’t Dumb

I believe this Amazon review speaks a harsh word over the church as well. If the “academic” commentaries have no value in preaching, and no value in personal edification, and (most absurdly) no value in bible study, why do they exist? If pastors and Christians can’t profit, who can? I would like to offer a word to the church. You are NOT dumb. You do NOT need the Word of God watered down to some paltry level of intelligence. You do NOT need to be entertained more than you need to be fed. I believe in you. I’m one of you.

You CAN read the “academic” materials. You CAN grow by stretching your intellectual efforts. You CAN find transformation in the renewing of your mind. It’s true. The Bible says so.

When I preach, I push myself so that I can push the congregation – no matter the age or background of the group. I challenge the church because I believe in her. More importantly, I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to convict and convince as the full counsel of the Word is proclaimed. I believe our greatest growth is found in struggle. Consider the exercise of any muscle in your body. If you grab the bar but never lift, will you ever get stronger?

There is only blessing, never a curse, in striving to understand today what you did not understand  yesterday. Chase it.

The Bible and Beyond

We enjoyed dinner last night with a group of friends from church. Some of us have been reading a book together over the summer. One friend’s comment spoke well into this situation. She shared that she was worried at the outset that she would struggle to grasp the book. But as she read, she found it quite manageable. I would gladly have offered encouragement and assurance from the outset that she, and everyone else, would be fine.

I firmly believe our feeble brains will elevate to the challenge if we are persistent to engage. In other words, keep trying. Keep reading. There is no shame in reading slowly. There is no shame in reading with a dictionary on the table. In fact, the best books are likely to force you into the dictionary. Sometimes a single “dictionary word” can speak a thought unspeakable by a dozen emoticons. We never graduate from learning, so let’s go ahead and agree that needing to look up a word is a blessing and an opportunity. This is true of every book, including the Bible. Especially the Bible.

I plead with you today: Pastors, Church, readers. Believe in yourself enough to challenge and be challenged.

 

 

 

 

Bible Thinking Thoughts

Most often, when preparing a message, I have way too much that I want to say. (which is why I usually say way too much, occasionally in mild disorder) While I was writing my most recent message (obviously I don’t preach every week!), I was thinking I might enjoy writing out a few posts on the thoughts that got me there… who knows? Maybe you’ll be blessed in a study of the passage – or maybe you’ll pick up some nugget of truth for studying Scripture in general.

Often the most widely known verses in Scripture are understood and applied entirely apart from their context. It might shock you to know that Philippians 4:13 or Jeremiah 29:11 don’t exactly mean what you thought they meant when you had them tattooed on your forearm. (Don’t worry, they’re still great verses with amazing promises – don’t start planning that cover up yet)

The Word of God is alive. (Hebrews 4:12 – which also has a context!) And as such, God can certainly speak to anyone at any time and in many ways. But the reality is, every passage in the Bible has a singular interpretation, one meaning. Granted, there may be multiple applications… but the meaning doesn’t change. Our responsibility is to prayerfully dive in to mine out the specific interpretation, so we don’t arrive at misguided applications.

For my most recent sermon, I jumped into Matthew 7 and the oh-so-familiar passage about judging one another. I always like to start with asking relatively simple and normal questions… Who: Who is in the scene? Who is speaking? To Whom are they speaking? And the song continues with What, When, Where, and Why.

Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, is speaking in this passage. Matthew 7 is part of the larger portion of Scripture called the Sermon on the Mount. (covering Matthew 5-7) Nothing cryptic here… Jesus climbed a mountain and began to preach.

My (incorrect) tendency is to take this blessed sermon of the Lord’s and chop it to bits. Please don’t take this next comment as dodging responsibility or passing the buck, but I believe modern Bibles help us to make this mistake by breaking everything into sections. Paragraphs that belong together are torn at the seams. A story that is recorded over multiple pages is diced up until you forget that what you’re reading happened right alongside something three pages earlier.

I understand the value of breaking up the text. But I also see the danger.

Our sound bite culture thrives on the complete absence of context.

I think we’ve always been good at this. Our modern culture is certainly driven by memes, 140 characters, emoticons, and abbreviations. We even remember many great modern speeches or events by a single line… in fact, we often only remember these single lines:

We hold these truths to be self-evident… 

Ask not what your country can do for you… 

I have a dream… 

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall… 

I would imagine you know who said each, maybe even where, when, or why. But do we remember them because the lines, in and of themselves, are great? Or is it because they became symbolic of something so much larger and greater? Sometimes the lines are great, most often they just point to a great moment.

In one sense, and I mean this with the greatest reverence, the same can be said of the Sermon on the Mount. We remember lines, or at least ideas.

Anger runs deeper than our actions.

Lust too.

Turn the other cheek.

Love our enemies.

Judge not, lest ye be judged. (coming back to that one!)

It’s all in there. And just as in mere human speeches, there is a danger of misunderstanding or forgetting the context and, in doing so, misplacing the bigger picture. Was Jesus standing to offer a series of fascinating one-liners? Or was He standing to paint a bigger picture?

I liken the chop-chopping of the Sermon on the Mount to treating Jesus as though He were Mitch Hedberg. (This is the part where you Google Mitch Hedberg, heeding my warning that though he was 100% brilliant, he was most certainly not 100% clean) Hedberg was known for his one-liners. Jesus is known for getting just a little deeper.

I was recently required to read the Bible two times in two years using two different translations. On one level, it was a blessing. Every day I was swarmed with context – big picture stuff. If you’ve ever read a book like Isaiah or Job in just a few sittings, you know the blessing. It’s not easy, but it’s a blessing. Central ideas fly from the page.

(On another level, I missed digging into those very same passages. I studied deeper where I could, but nowhere near where my brain wanted. I missed digging so much, that when I finished the 2nd year, I spend the next four months in Galatians – from one extreme to the next.)

I believe proper study habits, of any subject, require a balance of context and detail. The Word of God is no different. We cannot ignore context without ignoring the big ideas of Scripture. We’ll miss the scarlet threads without context. We’ll miss redemption in the midst of pain, joy amidst difficulty, etc.

Moment of conviction: Did you meet the Lord in His Word today? If so, what did you read? What was the context? Do you know? Did you care? There’s nothing wrong with finding comfort in the 4:13’s and the 29:11’s of the Word. But they take on so much more meaning when we understand them in context.

Of course, even Christians… even pastors… even scholars disagree on context at times. But that’s never a reason to ignore context. In fact, those discussions are often enjoyable for different reasons. To choose ignorance, though, is simply destructive. Maybe you don’t like history. Maybe you don’t like to read. That’s OK. But you owe it to yourself (and your forearm tattoo) to understand the Word that moves you.