Posted in Bible Studies

Unmeasur’d Praise

Baroque composer Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) wrote Judas Maccabaeus. Many might know this opera by the familiar melody See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes. But it is the piece that follows that prompts me to praise God with fervent desire.

As a budding composer in the mid-Eighties, The Great Choruses of Bach and Handel has comforted, encouraged and motivated me to look to God for answers to my problems. While the decades passed, the song Sing Unto God has been my inspiration during those trying times.

I have not found a better version than that sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 1984:

Lyrics

Sing unto God, and high affections raise,
To crown this conquest with unmeasur’d praise.

The song is in a constant crescendo, always growing bigger and bigger, leading to an ultimate exultation of God. When I think about the words “unmeasured praise”, I think about how the flowers in nature extend their pedals and swell with color as a tribute to their awesome creator. I think about how heavenly bodies scream across the night sky declaring God’s omnipotent reign. I think about how all the gigantic suns burst with flares throughout the universe, giving glory to his name. And I think about how I, without restraint, raise my hands to worship whenever I am in his presence.

Psalms 68 says—a portion of which Händel based Sing Unto God:

“Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts;
his name is the LORD;
exult before him!” (Psalms 68:4)

God is always there with us in the desert, ready and waiting for our praise. Let us give him that praise without measure. For all that he has done for us, giving his son Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins; he deserves all of our worship.

Therefore, let us give thanks to the one who made us so wonderfully and a little lower than the angels for now. For he is the one who will ultimately crown us with glory and honor (Psalms 8:4-5).

Posted in Bible Studies

Mark Your Bible

How do you mark your bible? A member of a church I once attended asked the minister this very question. The minister related this story during a sermon. His answer was surprising. He said, “How do you mark your bible? You mark your bible.”

As simplistic as it sounds, he was right. Sometimes we tend to overanalyze a rudimentary task and place a process around it when, in fact, all we need to do is do what comes naturally.

I say this because I am one of those people who needs structure and cannot start a project until I have all the pieces in place of where I want to go, what I want to do, and with whom I want to do it. Some tasks are meant to be organic, in that what we are doing at the moment is what should be done.

However, that is not to say that if you have a bible-marking system that works for you that you ought to abandon it. On the contrary, keep doing what you are doing. If it helps you learn the scriptures, there is no need to change something that is working. My advice is for those Christians who are wondering what to do when they buy their first bible and want to make notes in it but have no idea how to do that.

Again, I will say it: mark your bible.

How I used to mark my bible

How I marked my bible thirty years ago

I once had an elaborate marking system that enabled me to visually look at certain passages of the bible and know instantly what it was about. My color categories where:

  1. Blue—God
  2. Red—Angels and demons
  3. Brown—Humanity
  4. Orange—Civilization
  5. Purple—Israel
  6. Yellow—Church
  7. Green—Kingdom of God

In addition to coloring the verses, I also placed red-pen boxes around words I would want to define; and if something really stood out, I would underline phrases and words with a red pen. Of course, thinking I would need to differentiate what I learned at home with what I learned at church, I would carry around a blue pen and mark my bible that way during sermons.

For a long time, this system suited me. I appreciated it, and I enjoyed reading through marked sections again, gleaning tidbits of truth as I went along. I found, though, as the years went on, my understanding had grown and what I had believed twenty-five, thirty years ago, is not what I believe today. Several fundamentals are the same, but through diligent prayer and bible study, scriptures I had once marked as one thing suddenly had taken on a different meaning.

How I mark my bible today

Nowadays, I simply mark my bible. If a thought or a verse really stands out for me, affects me in a way that it has never affected me before, I mark it with whatever pen I have in my hand. I agree, it is a simplistic approach, but ultimately God through the Holy Spirit reveals what we need to remember when we read our bibles:

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:25)

It is not how we mark our bibles, but what we gain from those passages we have marked.

Posted in Bible Studies

God’s Purpose

God is amazing. He really is. There are no other gods, because he is the only God; and as many times as we read that, he is even more amazing when bad things happen to Christians.

The book of Acts tells us about the early days of the church, from the time when Jesus ascended to heaven to when the apostle Paul arrived in Rome. Of the numerous accounts told, one in particular is an inspiration for Christians going through trials.

This week’s scripture is in the book of Philippians:

“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)

The story of Stephen

In Acts, chapter 6, the apostles needed someone who would look after the widows in the church on their behalf in order that their preaching would not suffer neglect (Acts 6:1-2). They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. It was in those days that the church was growing larger, multiplying with believers (verses 3-7).

Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great signs and wonders among the people. But there were certain men who rose up against him, disputing with him, wanting him to stop what he was doing. The more they went against him, though, the more they could not seem to overcome the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen was speaking. So they tried another tactic. They secretly instigated false witnesses to spew lies against him, saying he had spoken evil of the law and of the temple (verses 8-12).

The men eventually seized Stephen, brought him before the high priest and accused him of blasphemy (verses 12-14). And after a lengthy speech where Stephen spoke about Israel’s history, Moses’ part in the exodus, and how his accusers were resisting the Holy Spirit, the men brought him outside the city and stoned him (Acts 7).

Had God failed Stephen?

For a Christian to read this account, it may seem as if God had failed Stephen. One might ask, why would God allow this to happen? Did not Stephen believe God would have rescued him? Would God not have silenced his accusers and intervened on his behalf?

However, two very important things happened during Stephen’s death. First, before the stoning, Stephen saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand (Acts 7:55). Second, those taking part in the stoning were laying their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul (verse 58). Both points are significant in that it shows God had not really abandoned Stephen during his time of trial; and not only God but also Jesus was there with him, reassuring him everything was going to be fine (verse 56). Even more so, Stephen did not die in vain. His death served to transform Saul from a man who persecuted the Christians, to the apostle Paul, a man preaching about Christ Jesus the son of God (Acts 22:20-21).

God has a purpose

Only God could do this. Only he could put meaning to a tragedy and make it work for good (Romans 8:28). As much as we try to understand why bad things happen to Christians, it all makes sense in the context of God using that tragedy to do good from a thousand perspectives (Psalms 147:5). We may gain a glimpse of a fraction of one of those perspectives, but God ultimately knows why certain things have to happen in certain ways (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What we have to do as Christians is trust him (Psalms 25:2). We may not receive the answer we desire, but we will certainly receive the answer we need (Philippians 4:19).

Posted in Bible Studies

God Loves Us

God loves us so much that he was willing to give his son Jesus to save us from the penalty of sin. That through him, we could come before God’s throne and render our hearts and our minds to an omnipotent being who would do anything to have us sincerely call him Father.

One of the things one finds when reading scripture is the presence of intertwining thoughts between passages. There are interesting plays of words that a reader spots when viewing the bible as a complete text. For instance, Psalms 23:3 says:

“He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

Then Matthew 5:10 says:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Both verses contain the words “righteousness” and “sake” and both verses present a beautiful message of hope for those needing God’s presence in their lives.

But aside from verses that complement one another, the bible is rich with verses demonstrating God’s love for us:

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9)

“For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27)

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)

Today’s simple message is this: with every moment God grants us breath, let us love one another as God loves us.

Posted in Bible Studies

Memorizing the Bible

Bible memorization has been on my bucket list for years. It was only after my son took ill in the winter that I had decided to do something about it. It was then that I had memorized Psalms 23 fully. Moving ahead to today, I am in the process of memorizing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, 6 and 7.

The importance of Bible memorization

I am sure someone will ask, why is Bible memorization so important? After all, anyone can quickly summon the Bible on a device with a few simply swipes. What would be the benefit to committing God’s Word to memory?

The discipline of memorizing scripture produces fruit that will remain with a person for the rest of his or her life. First, it will draw the reader closer to God by establishing his word in the heart of the reader. Second, the reader will gain wisdom with the slow and labored act of ingesting biblical truths on a daily basis, wisdom that can only come with the passage of time. Third, and most importantly, when the reader needs help with life’s trials, and the reader will need that help, God, through the Holy Spirit, will bring into remembrance the learned words as a means to carry the reader through those trials.

Why I began memorizing scripture

When my son was in the hospital for a month, I had a lot of time by his bedside to think about life. I also had a lot of time to read what God had to say about it all. His words, especially Psalms, were a comfort to me.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalms 23:4)

As each day dragged into the next, I knew God was there with me in spite of my not having an answer as to why he would allow tragedy to strike my family as it did. Those words eventually became part of me, where now I can not only repeat them aloud without much effort, but also recall experiences attached to those words; experiences I would not have had otherwise, had I not gone through everything I did with my family at the time.

How I commit the Bible to memory

The way I commit the words of the Bible to memory is the only way I have found that works for me:

  1. Choose a book or chapter that has affected you on a personal level
  2. Learn a verse a day
  3. Recall the previous day’s verse before adding a new verse
  4. Read the text carefully, looking at each word of the text until you can picture it in your mind
  5. Write everything down that you have learned so far
  6. Meditate on the words and make them a part of you

It involves a lot of hard work

I cannot stress how important it is to understand that moving forward with the discipline of scripture memorization is going to be a lot of hard work. Some days will be more rewarding than other days, but recognizing that fact in no way diminishes the overall goal of knowing God’s truths in such an intimate way.

Ultimately, the reward will be God’s word living inside our minds and in our hearts, leading us in our daily walk with Jesus.

Posted in Bible Studies

What Did Jesus Drink While Dying on the Cross?

I always found it a mystery to read in the bible how Jesus refused to drink wine before the Romans nailed him to the cross. Even more of a mystery to me was to understand Jesus’ intentions when he asked for something to quench his thirst, and he drank sour wine while suffering the torture of the crucifixion.

So why would Jesus refuse one drink and not the other?

Jesus refuses to drink.

The gospel of Mark describes what Jesus had to endure, “And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take” (Mark 15:22-24 ESV throughout).

According to ancient Hebrew custom based on Proverbs 31:6-7, honorable women of Jerusalem would attend executions to provide support to the condemned. The women would administer them wine mixed with myrrh, or wine mixed with gall (Matthew 27:33-35) as a way to deaden or numb the senses from the pain of the cross. The mixture was also a natural sedative, putting those who took it to sleep.

Jesus refused to take it, “And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it” (Mark 15:23). Jesus refused because he wanted to experience every single moment appointed to him by the Father (Matthew 26:39) in order to remain the perfect sacrifice for sin (Ephesians 5:2).

What an incredible, selfless act Jesus performed. He took it upon himself to ensure nothing would interfere in his ability to fulfill the scriptures, as written in the Old Testament (Psalms 69:21), and that included enduring the pain of his suffering.

Jesus drinks.

Once he was hanging on the cross, Jesus did drink, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst.’ A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:28-30).

Jesus did drink, but what many people believe to be vinegar was nothing of the sort. The Romans did not give him vinegar. They gave him sour wine. Sour wine was there to quench the thirst of the soldiers. The cheap beverage was refreshing and contained nothing that would impede Jesus’ capacity to accomplish God’s purpose. In other words, he took the sour wine to remain completely aware of what he was going through and not that he had succumbed to the weaknesses of the flesh.

The ultimate victory belongs to Jesus.

What an awesome testament Jesus left us. He willingly sacrificed himself (1 Corinthians 5:7) as the Lamb of God (John 1:35-36), and with a clear mind, bore the torture for our sins (1 Peter 2:24). He rose three days later (Matthew 28:5-6) and now sits at the right hand of God (Romans 8:34), waiting for that day when he will return with all power and all glory to conquer all nations (Revelation 15:3-4).

Posted in Bible Studies

My Peace I Give to You

Yesterday I preached a sermon at my church about overcoming anxiety. The key bible verse I used comes from the Gospel of John:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27 ESV throughout)

I emphasized how that one verse in John has so much meaning for Christians, that it would take a series of sermons to cover all the layers. What I concentrated on most, though, was the message of peace Jesus delivered to his disciples.

Jesus was about to face crucifixion at Golgotha (Calvary) when he spoke those words. He said a lot more before that, but it was interesting that his first words after his resurrection were “peace be with you,” which he said once (John 20:21), when Thomas was not present, and once again, a week later (John 20:26), when Jesus instructed Thomas to place his finger and hand in his wounds.

To be clear, the disciples were behind closed doors when Jesus appeared; and who could blame them? The Romans had just killed Jesus, so for all they knew the Romans could have been after them as well. The chief priests were the ones who condemned Jesus in a mock trial, so who was to say they would not do the same thing to the disciples? Then there was this whole thing with Jesus having promised them persecution (John 15:20), and that ought to have made them even more apprehensive.

Imagine then what the disciples must have felt just before Christ had appeared to them that first time after his death. Their anxiety level must have been peaking. Those words he spoke “peace be with you” not only should have reassured them but also should have acted as a reminder of what he had said before his death:

“When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” (Matthew 10:19)

Saying it another way, the source of most of our anxieties is the fear of the uncertainty of what will happen next. Much of that anxiety turns out to be unfounded, since most of the things we think will happen never does. Jesus said, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). If that advice sounds familiar, it is, because it sounds a lot like the latter part of John 14:27: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Overcoming anxiety takes work. Coming to have the peace Jesus spoke about requires extra help, too. Thankfully, neither were the disciples nor are we without that help.

Jesus promised us a comforter, a helper, who would provide us with everything we need to overcome our anxiety, usher peace into our lives, and bless us with the truth that comes from reading God’s word (John 16:7). That helper is the Holy Spirit; and through the Holy Spirit God gives us the power to overcome and the power to remember the things spoken of by Christ Jesus (John 14:26).

I am thankful to God every day that I have the Holy Spirit to guide my path and protect my way. Even more so, I pray that all of you may come to have the generous gift of God, which is the Holy Spirit, that he may also give you peace from your anxieties and worries.