Tuesday, October 27, 2015

In the Storm

 "And now I advise you to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only the ship will be lost. For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve came to me and said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul! You must stand before Caesar, and God has graciously granted you the safety of all who are sailing with you.' Therefore keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be just as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island."
- Acts 27:22-26 NET

In the midst of a violent storm, God's promise transforms the outcome. Standing on them requires work, sacrifice, and faith instead of fear. Paul goes on to lead the men in a hearty meal before tossing grain overboard to lighten the load. Whatever we have to cast out along the way, we have the presence of God with us and the assurance that those "sailing with us" will also come through.

This reminds me of the lyrics of a worship song:

"I will not fear the war
I will not fear the storm
My help is on the way."

Paul's experience in this chapter is a beautiful illustration of the help God gives us in the midst of the storm. Hebrews 4:15-16 fit into the context of a chapter that teaches us about entering His rest. Only after we enter His rest can we embrace Him as our faithful high priest. We have confidence to draw near and receive mercy and grace when we come through Christ, not works. But once we draw near, we find something that is so intimate, so precious, that it's hard to imagine.

For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help. -Hebrews 4:15-16 NET

He was fully God, but also fully man. In His humanity, His incarnation, He faced every temptation and overcame by the power of the Holy Spirit in His life. And by drawing near, the passage says, we will find "mercy and grace" to help when we need it most.

The help is in times of need, of weakness, of humanity. We get a rich understanding when we compare Hebrews 4:16 with 1:14 and 2:18. In Hebrews 1:14 "help" actually means “minister” or “render service”; this same word is used to refer to disciples and to practical acts of service. In Hebrews 2:18 "help" means “succor”, help in the idea of relief or rescue. But "help" as in Hebrews 4:16 is used ONLY twice in the New Testament, the other time in earlier in Acts 27:

After they had hoisted it up, they used supporting cables [literally = helps] in undergirding the ship; and fearing that they might run aground on the shallows of Syrtis, they let down the sea anchor and in this way let themselves be driven along. -Acts 27:17

 John MacArthur describes this: “They would throw ropes around during the midst of the storm. throwing ropes around and securing and tightening and...with winches, to literally tighten the boards together so the whole ship wouldn't fall apart.” In classical Greek this word was used of the device used to make a ship secure, to help in times like Paul experienced.

And the author of Hebrews uses that same word, a word that gives the picture of making a ship secure by supporting cables, to describe the help God gives when we are tempted.

What are our supporting cables? Mercy and grace. Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.

Jesus comes to our aid to relieve and rescue us from temptation – He knows what it is like. When the temptation builds, He provides the way out. (1 Cor. 10:13) However, there are other times when we need more than a way out. We need to be literally be held together! We need to be saved from falling apart due to our weakness. In those times He wraps His “supporting cables” around us to give us the two things we need most when we come face to face with our weaknesses: Mercy and grace.

I know God’s grace is there for my temptation – but sometimes I think my weaknesses don’t deserve it. Sometimes weaknesses aren’t even sins – physical illness; limitations due to disability; fatigue from having too many toddlers pulling at you all day; the demands of work and family life. At those times, I don’t just need “succor”. I need His supporting cables of mercy and grace to hoist me up out of myself so I can see the throne of grace – the throne where He waits with nailscarred hands to welcome me to His table.

We can be strong when weak, because He supports us. In the storms of life, He puts His supporting cables around us, lifts us up, and undergirds us with mercy and grace. Baldwin Hall Bible Study describes it this way: “For those who have trusted Christ for salvation, mercy and grace are available in these tempests. Instead of being beaten by the waves and taken away to isolation in the deep, the grace of God secures us in place. A rope has been tied to our boat to secure us so we do not drift away in the storm. We are helpless on our own, but the grace of God keeps us from sinking or wandering away. His grace does not promise that the storms will not come, only that He sovereignly keeps us through them.”
Are you facing a storm today? I hope this lesson God has taught me resonates with you.

Monday, October 19, 2015

How to Abide

In John 15 Jesus exhorts us to "abide in Me". We often hear teaching on this that points out the truth that this is "our part" - that the fruit-producing is up to Him, while our part is to abide. Did you know, however, that John also teaches us HOW to abide? Consider these principles:

We abide by receiving Jesus. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. (John 6:56). "Eating" and "drinking" is a vivid picture of partaking of or receiving Him, as John noted in John 1:12 "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name."

We abide by obeying Jesus. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. (John 15:10)

We abide when His Word stays with us. As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. (1 John 2:24)

We abide by loving other believers. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. (1 John 2:10)

We abide by confessing who Jesus is. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:15)

Whatever we are going through, wherever we are in life, God desires that we seek Him. In the middle of a serious attack by the enemy, David heard a command from God: "Seek my face." (Psalm 27:8). Out of all the things he could ask in that difficult day, he said the one thing he wanted most was to "dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life" (Psalm 27:4). Only after seeking the Lord is he prepared to learn from Him ("Teach me your way", Psalm 27:11) and pray for deliverance (verse 12). The same principle is seen in John 15. Only when we abide do we know how to pray (John 15:7).

So it comes back to this: Learning to abide. John has shown us the way.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bible 101, Question #7: The Word of God in the Church of God

Here we are - the last post of yet another series. When I initially planned this series I intended on six posts:

 1. Is the Bible the inspired Word of God? If so, what are the implications for its inerrancy and authority?

2. What texts should be considered Scripture?

 3. Why are there differences in translations?

4. What is the purpose of reading and studying the Bible?

5. How should I approach reading the Bible?

6. What are some basic principles for interpreting Scripture?

However, as is often the case, God showed me that the plan was incomplete. He had more to teach us -- to teach me -- about His Word. I hope you've learned as much as I have through this study. But I ask you to bear with me for one more lesson - one that I wasn't expecting to learn, but has turned out to be the most significant lesson of my personal study.

The Bible is not just for your personal growth
Maybe this is an "aha!" moment for some of you, as it was for me, but God didn't give His word to individual believers. He gave it to the community of believers. Whether the commandments imparted to Moses on Mount Sinai for the believers below, the words given to the prophets that became the Old Testament, or the words inspired to the apostles for the new church ... God's Word was inspired in the context of community. We lose a lot of this in modern English, because our plural for "you" is "you" (unless you are Texan like me, then you get to use "y'all"). The King James Version captures the difference in many cases with the old plural form "ye". As you read the New Testament you will see many of the teachings we often take as personal in our individualistic culture are, in fact, plural - for the church! Examples abound but I will just give one - 2 Peter 1:1-11. The "you's" are plural - something you don't have to know Greek to know, as you see references to the church sprinkled throughout.
2 Peter 1:1-11 NIV 1 Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours: 2 Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. 10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Rather than pulling out a personal to-do list from this passage ("OK, I have faith, now I need to be good. OK, now let me grow in knowledge..."), this passage gives corporate encouragement and guidance for how the church should be characterized, and how the church can be characterized. Now, it is true that individual believers should have faith, be known for goodness and self-control, and persevere. But Peter's implication is that we will do that together. The Holy Spirit in each of us individually works in a unique way corporately.

In light of this series focus on the Word of God, then, what does that look like where the Bible is concerned? It's always been easy for me to understand corporate worship, prayer, and mission. But God has taught me the past few years about the word of God in a corporate context, taking me beyond my personal Bible study into a deeper understanding of His purposes for the word of God in the church of God. I won't even attempt a comprehensive look at this subject; instead I want to focus on two main areas where His word functions within His church.

Probably the most obvious way we see His Word in most evangelical churches today is in the sermon. Preaching is unique from all other methods of studying the Bible that I discussed in the last post. While I can learn a lot from in-depth study, Bible reading, and even listening to the Bible, there are specific benefits from preaching that I continually need throughout my Christian life:
Romans 10:14-17 ESV 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?" 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
We can't take verse 17 out of its context: Paul is speaking of the proclamation of the Gospel. In the overall context he is talking about those who have not heard the Gospel; a broad look at the full context of Scripture assures us that the Gospel is relevant not only for unbelievers but for Christians as well. Faith is birthed through the proclamation of the Gospel, but the continued proclamation of the truth of the Gospel to believers strengthens that faith and yields joy, as John so beautifully puts it:
1 John 1:1-4 ESV 1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us-- 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Luke 8:18 gives a profound warning. In the context of the lesson of lighting a lamp so it can be seen, Jesus gives this caution: Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them." This is given in the context of proclaiming truth. Jesus warns us to be careful how we listen to truth, because what we do with the truth we have is connected with receiving more truth.

What does that mean in the context of listening to a sermon? Assuming your pastor is preaching from Scripture and has a high view of the word of God, not denying any essential doctrines, you can approach each sermon knowing that he has been seeking God and that God wants to speak through him to your church. He might even have a personal word for you! Here are some tips I've learned over the years to maximize my ability to hear from God through my pastor's sermons:
  • Expect to hear a word from God. Going into the sermon with the expectation that God has something to say to me is the single most important step I take to "listen well."
  • Stay in the Word during the week. My ability to discern what God is saying is enhanced to the degree that I'm in the word personally. Often the sermon serves to reinforce something God is already teaching me.
  • Take my pastor seriously. God has given him a huge job. He is responsible to God to give an account for my soul (Hebrews 13:17) and faces a more severe judgment because he teaches the word (James 3:1). Therefore, when he says "Read over this chapter this upcoming week", I need to read the chapter. When he says "Take this to the Lord in prayer", I need to pray about it. These are not just sermon fillers. These are important steps in the care of my soul
  • Know my learning style. It's a simple thing, but knowing my learning style has greatly enhanced my understanding of Scripture. I'm a tactile learner, which means I have to write it down! I take notes during the sermon, then I come home and put a sermon summary on Facebook (part of communicating it to others, as we discussed in the last lesson). I may never open those notes again, but the act of writing cements it in my brain. You have your own learning style. Find away to connect it to the sermon. If it's auditory - you can learn just by focusing on the individual words. Visual learners might try picturing the story. Kinesthetic learners, who often have to be fidgeting or moving to learn, might consider volunteering to be an usher or greeter - these people often stand through much of a service and therefore have an excuse to move around. The ideas are endless. The key is to understand yourself and seek God's wisdom for how that can impact your ability to get the most from the message.
  • Stay focused on the main thing. Your pastor might say some things that distract you. Maybe he tells corny jokes. Perhaps his story about the day his dog treed a squirrel means nothing to you. With all due respect, give the guy a break. He is teaching a hard passage of Scripture (they are all hard in some way!) to a group of people ranging from unbelievers to seasoned saints who have heard the passage dozens or hundreds of times. There are founding members of your church alongside newcomers. He is trying to break it down for the maximum benefit of everyone involved, trusting the Holy Spirit to do something with what probably feels to him like loaves and fishes. Often God is working on him even while he is preaching the sermon. Laugh at the jokes, latch on to the illustrations that help you, make note of questions that arise about his teaching and follow up later, and most importantly ...
  • Pray for your pastor. During the week, pray for the message. During the message, pray for the message. After the message, pray for the message. Through it all, pray for the messenger. You get the idea! As you pray for him, you will be more connected to what's happening on Sunday morning. If you notice that he consistently starts rubbing his eyes, pray about that. Make note of the Sunday he doesn't rub his eyes at all and thank God for answered prayer. BE ENGAGED!!
Relationships Between Believers
Another key way that God's word works uniquely through the church, in a way it does not work from a solely personal perspective, is the relationship between believers. Hebrews 10:24-25 gives the classic purpose of gathering with other believers: And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. When we are in relationship with other believers, particularly in the local church where we meet together, we have regular opportunities to strengthen and encourage each other. It's said so much we often overlook its truth: When you have a bad week, you need the church. When you have a good week, the church needs you.

Every believer has one or more spiritual gifts (Romans 12) that always operate within the bounds of Scripture. The more we interact with each other, the more opportunity we have to exercise those gifts and see others exercise their gifts!

Finally, Scripture even tells us that our conversation should be laced with the words of God, as "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" become a way that the word of Christ dwells richly within us and we impart wisdom and admonishment to each other. (Colossian 3:16).

There is so much more that I could say on this topic, and on the word of God in general. My prayer is that this series has sparked your interest to go deeper into His Word and its riches. May we join Paul in praying "that the word of the Lord spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was among you." (2 Thess. 3:1).

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bible 101, Question 6: Principles for In-Depth Bible Study

Assuming you have been with me through this series, you know why I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the Bibles we hold in our hands are accurate texts of the words God inspired, that the differences in translations should not trouble us, and that the Bible should have a place of priority in the life of a believer. The last post covered some ways to start making the Bible prominent in your life. In this post I want to zero in on one of those suggestions: In-depth Bible study.

What is in-depth Bible study?
When I use the phrase "in-depth Bible study" I'm not referring to a particular method or style. In-depth Bible study is any form of detailed Bible study that requires you to look seriously at the text and spend significant time understanding what it says (observation), what it means (interpretation), what it means in your life (application), and how to communicate it to others (proclamation). This can be guided, with a workbook or a teacher, or it can just be you and the Bible. The key to in-depth Bible study is that the Bible itself, not commentaries or other resources, always remains central. In-depth Bible study honors the inspired text of the Bible by making it the primary textbook. There are a number of excellent "How to study your Bible" books out there; rather than re-invent the wheel I am just going to touch on each of these four elements in an overview fashion to get you started and encourage you to follow the Holy Spirit's leading from there.

The first step is to pick a book to study. For simplicity I am going to refer to the book of Philemon as an example. This is a one-chapter book that is rich in treasures when we take time to dig them out. Don't rush it - you will complete this study over several days or even a couple of weeks. The more time you allow for study, the deeper you can go into the words of the Word. OK - grab a Bible, pray for spiritual insight, and let's get started!

Observation - what it says
Observation always comes first. You absolutely cannot understand accurately what a text means if you don't know what it says. So let's turn to Philemon (the book right before Hebrews) and follow the first step of observation: Read the text. Right now, read the book of Philemon at least once. (If you have a study Bible, resist the urge to look at its notes.) Before you are finished with observation, you will want to read it multiple times, possibly in different translations. I always like to read out loud, especially the letters since they were written to be read aloud. And often my final step in the reading phase of observation is to listen to the text read aloud (many Bible apps have audio versions). This is the one step of the process you can't really overdo. My pastor spoke Sunday of one pastor who reads the text 30 times before preparing a sermon.

Done reading? OK, let's go to step two. Look for key words and ideas. Having spent so much time in the text, you should be able to see recurring themes. What words, phrases, or ideas occur over and over? Find a way to note these - you can mark them in unique colors in your Bible, or make a list in a notebook. Somehow though, you want to be able to record what key ideas occur in the passage. In Philemon I noted words like love, appeal, slave, refresh, and useful. Some of these might not occur a lot, but in a very short book even one or two significant verses can make a theme important.

Once you have your key words, you want to start looking at significant transitions in the text. The "connecting words" of Scripture are big clues here. Words like "therefore", "so", "but", "for" signal potential shifts in thought or logical connections. These transitions will bring you to an outline of the text. Since paragraphs and verses are man-made, not inspired, don't feel like your outline has to correlate to the paragraphs in your Bible. It can even be helpful to do this initial observation on a printout of the Bible verses with no paragraph markings. In Philemon, I notice two major sections: verses 1-7, and verses 8-25. Within those sections are five paragraphs: verses 1-3; verses 4-7; verses 8-20; verses 21-22; and verses 23-24. How does that line up with what you observed? Don't worry about filling in paragraph descriptions or any outline details - that will come.

By the time you complete these three steps -- multiple read-throughs; key words and ideas; and an outline -- you will have a good idea of some basic questions to answer. Through your observation, answer the following questions:
What type of literature is it? Differences in genre will significantly affect the interpretation of the text. Some of the common Biblical genres include historical; biographical; poetry; proverbs; prophecy; epistles (letter); or a combination of genres.
WHO are the important characters in the book? Think not only of the author but of individuals featured prominently in the text of the book.
Where does this occur? Are there any geographical references?
When does this occur? What about timeframe? This will rarely be an exact year, but you will often see references to other events with words like "before" or "after" or "during".
What is the purpose of the book? Does the author state a reason for writing?

These are just a few questions. You can come up with your own. This of "who, what, when, where, why, how" to get you started asking questions of the text. Record all your answers and note where in the text you find them. In Philemon, you probably noted that this is a letter, written by Paul and Timothy to Philemon, Apphia, Archipus, and the church in their home (verses 1-2). The purpose of the book is stated in verse 9 - to make an appeal on behalf of Onesimus, who was formerly a slave but whom Paul is sending back with this letter asking Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in the Lord (v 16).  I won't give away all the answers, but that should be enough to give you the idea.

By the time you finish with observation you will have done a good day's or week's work! You might feel you are done because you will have a solid stack of notes. But this is where the fun really begins!

Interpretation - what it means
Once you understand the author's purpose in writing the book and have a solid foundation for what it says, you are ready to begin to interpret what it means. Think of observation like flying over a forest to get a broad look at the trees and flora. Now, in interpretation, we are going to land the plane and start looking at individual leaves, bark, grasses, etc. Ready? Keep in prayer, grab your Bible and notebook, and let the fun begin!

Taking your outline divisions one segment at a time, begin to focus on the individual words. Make a list of your key words and phrases and begin to list out what is said about each one. Pay special attention to what you learn about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Let the words draw out their meaning for you. Keep a separate page of questions that you need to find answers to. As you study a section, fill in the outline with a sentence stating the main point of that section of text.

As you seek to interpret the meaning of a text, there are a few key principles of Biblical interpretation to keep before you. It is easy to do "eisegesis" - that means to read something INTO the text. Anyone can make the Bible say anything they want it to, if they ignore the context. But "exegesis" - drawing out from the text what it says, without preconceived interpretations - is a lot harder. These principles of exegesis help you in your task:

1. Context rules! Always keep a verse in the context of the section you are in, the chapter you are in, the larger book you are in, and the larger body of that author's work, as well as the entire Bible. You want to ensure that you understand who the author was writing to, what the problem seems to be, what the historical or cultural context is, etc. If you spent ample time in observation, you will have a decent idea of the context before you do any interpretation.

2. Compare Scripture to Scripture. Always let God's word interpret God's word. For example John 15:7 says "ask whatever you wish and it shall be done for you." This verse has been sorely mishandled by people who failed to bring into their teaching other things in scripture about prayer. 1 John 5:14 tells us we have to ask in accordance with God's will, and James 4:3 says our motivation has to be right. Using a basic concordance will allow you to easily look at other passages about the subject you are considering.

3. Scripture will never contradict Scripture. Sometimes you will come across some hard things in the Bible. However, knowing that the Bible is the fully inspired word of God and that His truth is eternal, we know that He will not contradict Himself. Therefore, any apparent contradiction is a misunderstanding on our part, not a contradiction on the Bible's part.

4. Let clear Scriptures shine light on unclear Scriptures. Don't base doctrine on a random, obscure verse. Everything important in Scripture is repeated multiple times, sometimes hundreds of times. In almost 19 years of in-depth study I have found that when I stay focused on what is clear, over time God sheds light on unclear things. He knows I cannot handle it all at once!

5. Look first for the clear, literal, plain meaning of Scripture. Understanding the purpose of Scripture is for God to reveal Himself to us, we can assume that He inspired it in a way that is understandable! Don't fall for distracting teachings that complicate the simple words of God. Take it at face value, as the straightforward words of God, within the bounds of the genre. Does that mean there is nothing figurative? Of course not! Figures of speech are to be interpreted as such, just as poetic language is to be factored in. God doesn't literally have wings, for example, though Psalm 91:4 mentions Him covering the psalmist with his wings. But interpreting Scripture by Scripture, we can look at Jesus' words in Luke 13:34 and realize that God uses a similar image to speak of His desire to gather and protect His children just as a bird gathers and protects her young.

6. Look for the author's intended meaning of the passage. This is closely related to the idea of context. In the author's day, what was the purpose of this passage?

7. Utilize appropriate resources, such as word study tools and commentaries, only after doing your own research. There is definitely a place for study tools! I have word study books, concordances, books, and other resources that help me. Taking your understanding back to these sources is a good way to make sure you are not way off base. You don't even have to have a lot of resources! Just visit Blue Letter Bible and click on "Tools" next to any verse. You'll get a popup menu of word study tools, commentaries, sermons, etc. Use these with discernment, and only after doing your own interpretation, and you will be amazed at how much you've learned!

Those are just a handful of Bible study principles to get you started. For more indepth study on how to study the Bible, check out some of the books in the Bibliography.

Application - What does it mean to me?
Once you understand what the Word says and what it means, you can begin personal application. Again, questions are key to drawing out more than general points. Stay in prayer and ask God to show you what to do with the light He's given you in His word. Ask if there is a truth to be believed, a command to be obeyed, a warning to heed, a change to make. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that "All Scripture is inspired by god and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." Application is incredibly personal, but any application truly guided by God will teach you, reprove you (revealing areas that don't line up with Scripture), correct you, and/or train you in righteousness.

In Philemon, one of my personal applications was a truth to be believed, from verse 3: We live in a context of grace and peace! Another was from verse 6: The more I understand what has been put in me for Christ's sake, the more effective I am in my faith. This gives me motivation to stay in the word to understand what He has equipped me to become! And from Paul's example in verses 8-10 I learn that a Godly leader will appeal to love instead of issuing a command when possible. You get the idea!

Proclamation - How can I communicate this to others?
This final step completes the circle of revelation. You see, God didn't give us His word for us to horde to ourselves. He wants us to be part of His great task of telling the nations of the glory of Jesus! So anything we understand in the word of God is meant not only to transform us personally, but to strengthen us corporately and impact the world in our circles of influence. We'll talk more about the corporate aspect of the word of God in the next (and final) post of the series, but for now I just want to put out the idea that your Bible study isn't complete until you have somehow shared it with someone else.

At the most basic this would be praying for God to give you a chance to share a verse or a truth with someone. It doesn't even have to be a "chapter and verse" quote. Speaking truth into a situation is powerful, even if the person doesn't know the source. But it does open a door when you share something and the other person asks where you got that idea, or why you believe that to be true.

Other ways to communicate Scripture to others abound. In our social media-centered world, you can be a voice of truth sharing your daily Bible study insights. You can disciple a believer younger in the Lord. If God seems to have so gifted you, you can help out in your church teaching children's church or women's/men's studies (under the authority of your pastor, of course). The most important thing to remember is to keep your eyes and heart open to how God would have you share with others the truth He has taught you!

There you have it - some basic steps in the four-step process of in-depth Bible study. However you approach it, understanding these four steps will strengthen your study. Please see the resources below if you want to go deeper!

Select Bibliography
Arthur, Kay. How to Study Your Bible. Harvest House, 1994.

Fee, Gordon, and Stuart, Douglas. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Zondervan, 1993.

Graham, Mary Creswell. Inductive Bible Study Explained. Printout provided by William Carey International University for students in graduate program.

Morey, Earl Wesley. Search the Scriptures. Agape Ministry, 1993.

Piper, John. Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Original Meaning of Scriptural Texts. Desiring God Ministries, 199.

The International Inductive Study Bible, Harvest House, 1992.

Wald, Oletta. The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study. Augburg, 1975.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Danger and Legalism of Unnecessary Sacrifices

Legalism can be so subtle.

We think of obvious types of legalism - the false gospel of works-based salvation Paul challenges in Galatians, the added rules of the Pharisees that burdened the people in Jesus' day. Recognizing those extremes is really not difficult when we have a working knowledge of the New Testament.

It's the subtle legalism that trips up so many of us. The idea that we can make God love us less or more. The pride that creeps in when we think we have something figured out that others are missing. The "ideal _______ (man, woman, marriage, child, pastor, church, etc.)" that goes beyond Biblical parameters to apply personal preferences. And ... unnecessary sacrifices.

This one took me a long time to see. I heard a pastor years ago say "Don't make any unnecessary sacrifices". I took it as an encouragement, but as I've grown in the Lord and in the understanding of His Word I realize how much wisdom is in that sentence. Unnecessary sacrifices can be dangerous and often have a root of legalism.

Of course, God asks us to bring spiritual sacrifices. The sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15), doing good and sharing with others (Hebrews 13:16), sacrificial giving (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2), and even being willing to die for the sake of the call (Philippians 2:17) -- all these are right and good sacrifices for the Christian.

But unnecessary sacrifices? Those can be downright dangerous. Consider the example of Saul, when he asked his men to fast during a major battle: 
Now the men of Israel were pressed to exhaustion that day, because Saul had placed them under an oath, saying, "Let a curse fall on anyone who eats before evening--before I have full revenge on my enemies." So no one ate anything all day, even though they had all found honeycomb on the ground in the forest. They didn't dare touch the honey because they all feared the oath they had taken. But Jonathan had not heard his father's command, and he dipped the end of his stick into a piece of honeycomb and ate the honey. After he had eaten it, he felt refreshed. But one of the men saw him and said, "Your father made the army take a strict oath that anyone who eats food today will be cursed. That is why everyone is weary and faint." "My father has made trouble for us all!" Jonathan exclaimed. "A command like that only hurts us. See how refreshed I am now that I have eaten this little bit of honey. If the men had been allowed to eat freely from the food they found among our enemies, think how many more Philistines we could have killed!" They chased and killed the Philistines all day from Micmash to Aijalon, growing more and more faint. (1 Samuel 14:24-31 NLT)
By this point in the narrative we know that Saul acts irrationally. His request for an unnecessary fast - an act intended to be a sacrificing of food in order to draw close to God - put his soldiers at risk. God still gave them victory, but they were weaker than they had to be. Jonathan's strength is a direct contrast after he feasted on the honey God provided. Saul's example gives one factor that leads to unnecessary sacrifices - a false idea that we can earn God's favor by an extreme act of devotion.This is a key sign of legalism.

Another reason for unnecessary sacrifices is a lack of desire to do what God asks. Sometimes we simply just don't want to do what He's clearly said. A sacrifice of our own choosing, however hard, seems easier.
What can we bring to the LORD? What kind of offerings should we give him? Should we bow before God with offerings of yearling calves?Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8 NLT)

Sometimes unnecessary sacrifices are motivated by selfishness - trying to impress God while really pleasing ourselves.
'We have fasted before you!' they say. 'Why aren't you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don't even notice it!' "I will tell you why!" I respond. "It's because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me.You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD? No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. (Isaiah 58:3-7 NLT)
All of these unnecessary sacrifices - and many others - have a dangerous root of legalism.

So how can we know our sacrifices are genuine spiritual sacrifices? As we learn to walk with the Lord and hear His voice we will know when He is calling us to a hard thing. I see four principles in Scripture that help me recognize His call instead of my own subtle legalism:

1) The sacrifice is Biblical.This should be obvious but it can't be overstated: Make sure that what you think you are being asked to sacrifice is a Biblical request. One of the ways legalism creeps in is to ask for sacrifices that are outside the lines of Scripture. This is, frankly, spiritually abusive. For example, God doesn't ask you to sacrifice your marriage for the sake of ministry. He might ask you to give up some time you had planned to spend with your spouse or something similar (you should always seek for unity in such a decision), but He won't ask you to leave your spouse to have more time for ministry. Immerse yourself in the Word and sit under sound teaching, and you'll have good sense of Biblical parameters for sacrifices.

2) The sacrifice is given freely and willingly. 2 Corinthian 9:7 tells us: "Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." While the immediate context speaks of financial giving, the passage applies the Old Testament principle of freewill offerings to the church. Money, time, fasting, our favorite shirt -- whatever we sacrifice should be given freely and willingly. 1 Peter 5:2 even goes so far as to apply this to church leaders! "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve;"

So what about times God clearly calls you to sacrifice something that you struggle to hold on to? You know this sacrifice lines up with Scripture, and you know when God's asking something of you - but you are struggling with the 'freely and willingly' part.
Maybe you've heard it said that "God loves a cheerful giver but He'll take it from a grouch." I don't see that concept in Scripture. Sure, a "grouch" can hand over a sacrifice, but God looks on the heart. I've faced a few of those situations in my life (who hasn't) and here's what I've learned: The answer to get me to the point of "freely and willingly" is the same as anything in Scripture -- look to Jesus. Keep my eyes on Him, and ask the Holy Spirit to help me. As Christians we already know the power of God to change hearts, to make dead men live. If He can do that, then He can make unwilling hearts willing. Before giving the sacrifice, I take it to God and ask Him to change my heart, to bring it in line with His. Often I don't get the "feeling" until the moment I put my hand to the step of committing to the sacrifice (sending that email, writing that check, etc.) -- but inevitably, when God is behind a sacrifice, before it's actually made He makes me willing. I just have to seek Him more sometimes than others. :) 

3) The sacrifice is prompted by faith. 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says, "May God fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith." This is great encouragement for those times we aren't sure if something is a direct call from God or the good act of a Godward believer. Any good purpose -- and any sacrifice -- should be prompted by faith. This is crucial, because faith-prompted acts are not based on guilt ("I should do this") or manipulation ("You should do this"). They're not driven by fear or pride or selfishness. Instead. they are full of faith from the beginning. 

4) The sacrifice is motivated by Christ's love. Paul wrote to Corinth: "If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died." (2 Corinthians 5:13-14). Everything that Paul did was motivated by the love of Christ. The word "compels" literally means "controls" or "held together with restraints". It's used of prisoners being arrested and cattle being squeezed into a location to receive medication. Paul is essentially teaching us by His example that the only thing that should press any sacrifice or act of faith upon us is the love of Christ. The biggest danger of legalism is that it gives someone or something else a level of control over us that belongs only to Christ.

So there you have it - 3 examples of the danger and legalism of unnecessary sacrifices, and four Biblical guidelines for discerning the difference. May God give you grace for everything He calls you to do, and may He direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance when things get tough (2 Thessalonians 3:5).  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bible 101, Question 5: Getting started: Approaches to reading the Bible

So far in this series we have established that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the Bibles we hold in our hands are accurate texts of the words God inspired, that the differences in translations should not trouble us, and that the Bible should have a place of priority in the life of a believer. If you're with me this far, I assume you are ready to get started, or restarted, making the Bible prominent in your life.

But how? Where do you begin? You might have heard the old joke about the man who had a random approach to reading the Bible. The story is told here:
The first verse he happened to turn to was Matthew 27:5 which says Judas "went and hanged himself." Since he was not sure how this verse applied to himself, he flipped to another passage and the Bible fell open to Luke 10:37: "Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise." The man was quite upset and he did not know how he could ever obey that, so he decided to turn to one more place. Again he opened the Bible at random and to his horror his finger fell upon John 13:27: "Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly."
It's easy to see the pitfalls of that method! So what's a Christian to do instead? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I've included some approaches to the Bible that I personally have found helpful over the years. I hope one or more of them works for you!

Reading through the Bible
My personal opinion is that every Christian benefits enormously by consistently working on a Bible read-through. It's the only way to be exposed to all of Scripture on a consistent basis, and God never fails to teach me something new every time I go through. There are so many ways to do this. Many Christians do a "through the Bible in a year plan"; your church might have a guideline for that. My grandfather's plan was two chapters of Old Testament and one of New Testament every day. Chronological Bibles set up daily readings across several books so you don't flip back and forth.

Personal confession: I've read through the Bible 6 times, working on 7th, but I've never read through the Bible in a year. I'm so task-oriented that I get focused on "checking off my list" and the words zip past me. Instead, I read a chapter a day, or occasionally two because when I'm in Psalms I typically continue in my other reading as well. It takes me 3 years to read the 1189 chapters of the Old and New Testaments; if I didn't double up on Psalms it would take about 3 1/4 years.

Each time I read through the Bible I try to use a different translation, or one I haven't used in a while. This gives a different "flavor" to the familiar words and forces me to slow down and pay more attention. I also keep notes of what God teaches me in each chapter. Some read-throughs I have challenged myself to focus on different things: Chronology of event, Attributes of God, Jesus in the text, and my personal favorite challenge was a personal application from every chapter of the Bible. Boy, was that fun in Chronicles and Leviticus! I still remember one lesson from the detailed description of priest sacrificial offering requirements: "Ministry is messy."

I also take a break from my read through every Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Easter) to read the Passion Week accounts in my Harmony of the Gospels. On Palm Sunday I read the Palm Sunday events; Monday the Monday events; and so forth. It focuses my attention on that week in a way nothing else does.

Devotionals are short readings, often from Bible teachers or pastors (but not always), typically arranged in some sort of thematic fashion. Devotionals can be a helpful tool in establishing a daily quiet time, and provide a great resource for those whose time is truly limited (moms of toddlers come to mind!). Devotionals are most helpful when used in conjunction with the recommended reading for each day. If there is not a suggested reading, then reading the chapter from which the devotional passage is taken is a helpful tool.

Personally, I find devotionals of most value as a supplement to my Bible reading and study. My husband and I read a daily devotional together at breakfast, after we have each had our quiet times. It often reinforces what God is speaking to each of us individually.

In-Depth Study
By "in-depth study" I don't mean a particular method, but any intentional, systematic study of a portion of God's word. This can be an inductive study of a book; a topical study; a character study; and much more. There is a wealth of options for guided in-depth Bible studies, some with video and audio components plus a workbook; others with workbooks alone. I have done many such studies and typically always have one going that I do each day in addition to my Bible read-through. If you choose to do an in-depth study, I recommend that you talk to your pastor or Bible teacher at church for suggestions to start with. Then, as you continue you can branch out to other authors. At some point you will encounter teachings that might be different from what your pastor teaches. I would encourage you to talk to him about those differences. You will find that in the vast majority of cases the differences are on non-essential aspects of the faith.

Another way to do an in-depth study is to learn how to study the Bible inductively on your own. I'll go into more details on Biblical interpretation in the next post, but for now I will just recommend Kay Arthur's "How to Study Your Bible" as a starting point. The companion "Inductive Study Bible" has been an invaluable resource for me for almost 20 years; my notes fill its pages and I've learned so many things through my own studies.
Memorizing Scripture
I wasn't raised on Scripture memory. I tucked away John 3:16 and Psalm 23, and that was about it, until I started doing in-depth Bible study. One study challenged me to memorize a verse a week. Other verses stuck in my mind simply from continual contact with them in the course of a week's study. A few years ago, though, God prompted me to become more intentional about Scripture memory. I memorized some longer passages and an entire chapter (Isaiah 58). It was after memorizing the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) that I was hooked. I find that I learn so much from the repetition. As I consider the verse for the purpose of memorization, I understand the meaning more. Remember, our books were initially read aloud, so reading or memorizing out loud gives a cadence that we often miss in reading silently. Now I am always working on some significant chunk of memory work.

There are as many ways to memorize as there are learners. I'm a tactile-kinesthetic learner. I have to take notes to remember anything from a sermon; I have to write things down; etc. The way that translates to my scripture memory is that I write out the verses on spiral note cards, then learn them while walking our dog (I joke that she knows more scripture than any dog alive!). I review them while driving, swimming, anything that involves movement. I review them when falling asleep, usually not getting very far but often waking up during the night and picking up the next verse. The passage really becomes part of me in a unique way.

So there you go - four different approaches to being in the Word. Each of these are part of my life on a daily or almost daily basis. As you begin or continue your journey in God's Word, I hope that my experience can help you grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bible 101, Question 4: Why is the Bible important?

Once we have established the authenticity and inspiration of Scripture, and determine the best translation for our purposes, often we still need motivation to make Scripture prominent in our lives. Let's face it: It takes time to read the Bible, listen to a sermon, work on a study. Why is it important that we carve out some of our valuable time to spend in the word of God? Here are 10 answers, straight from Scripture. I pray they will encourage you to press forward in your Bible reading and study. (All passages English Standard Version.)

The Bible is God's means to guide us through life.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)

The Bible gives us hope as we learn from the lives of others.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:14)

The Bible is living and active, and reveals what is really in our hearts.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

The word of God is at work in believers.
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.(1 Thessalonians 2:13)

The word of God tells us about Jesus.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me (John 5:39)

God's word is essential for true life.
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (John 6:63).

God promises that His word always accomplishes His purpose.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

God's word has a sanctifying effect in our lives.
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11)

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.(2 Peter 1:3-4)

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.(John 17:17)

God's words keep us free of shame and full of joy.
Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.(Psalm 119:6)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:7-11)

The word of God will outlast anything on this earth.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.(Isaiah 40:8)

Friday, July 31, 2015

Bible 101, Question 3: Why are there differences in translations?

Many of the questions I get about the Bible are related to translations:
  • "What translation do you use?"
  • "What is the most accurate translation?"
  • "What's your opinion about ______ translation?" 
  • "Why is there a difference in this translation? 
Along with the spiritual gift of teaching comes a heavy responsibility, so I don't take these questions lightly. Translation differences have caused too much division in the body of Christ, and the simple fact is that this is an area where it's easy for people deeply committed to the authority of Scripture to jump to conclusions. I saw a recent post on social media about a translation that "leaves out the following scriptures", followed by a list and exhortation to check it out. Of course there was a grain of truth in that post, but there was absolutely no context to explain why some verses are disputed, nor was there an acknowledgment that any solid translation that omits those verses will include them in a footnote. And we've all heard the joke about the woman who, when asked about her Bible translation, emphatically declared that if her traditional English translation was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it was good enough for her!

With all this in mind, I have a little bit of the feeling that with this post I am jumping into the deep end without a life jacket. I realize many of you reading this will have firm opinions one way or another. I only ask that you receive this post in the spirit I intend it: As information that I have gathered in my own journey, that I'm sharing in the hopes it will be helpful to someone else. As always, if anything I say contradicts your pastor, please talk to him and do your own research. My overall goal in this series is to make Bible study more accessible and approachable by de-mystifying some of the big questions that sometimes cause us to keep the Word of God at a distance. If this series results in you picking up the Bible and studying it for yourself, then I have accomplished my goal.

Ok, are you ready? Let's climb up on that 10 foot ladder together and take a leap!

Textual Criticism
First, a word about textual criticism. The word "criticism" can throw people off but it is really an academic term that refers to the study of ancient documents to determine the accuracy of a word choice. It's a necessary step in the translation process when the originals are not available, as is the case with the Bible. From the first translation textual criticism has been part of the church's approach to the Bible.

Note: there is a branch of textual criticism with the goal of breaking down the Bible into parts that the researchers deem "authentic" and parts deemed "inauthentic". This is called "higher criticism" and its practitioners frequently approach the Bible more as literature than the inspired word of God. Thus, this type of criticism has bred unbelief and the elimination of many passages as "inauthentic", despite their presence in the ancient manuscripts. A summary of higher criticism is found here, but in this post I use the phrase "textual criticism" to refer to the necessary task of studying ancient documents for accuracy in translation of the inspired word of God. The phraseology is unfortunate and I use it sparingly. Please understand that "textual criticism" as used in some of the links I provide is not criticism in a negative sense, but simple applying critical thinking skills to evaluating the word of God.

Textual criticism is invaluable because of the vast number of copies of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. This summary is rather technical (this is, after all, a science) but even a quick scroll down the page will show you why there needs to be rhyme or reason to the decision-making process. We could have no faith in a translation that depended on the translator's personal whims!

When all the variations in manuscripts are compiled, four major "families" emerge (Holman 104-105 & this link):

1. Byzantine (or Majority Witness) - comprise 80% of the available texts. These texts stem from the Byzantine Empire and flourished throughout the Middle Ages. Geographically these came primarily from the Eastern Mediterranean. The earliest documents in this family are from the mid to late fourth century. While this family has the most representation, many of them are from later years and where differences in other texts occur, most of these texts agree only with each other. This is the text captured in the first printed Greek New Testament (Erasmus in 1516), and on which the King James Bible and New King James Bibles are based. While there is an understandable "majority rules" tendency among many, there are also highly legitimate reasons to question these texts. These reasons include the likelihood that earlier versions copied closer to the original were less likely to include errors, and the demonstrated tendency of scribes to incorporate any questionable passage out of a reluctance to accidentally omit a verse of legitimate Scripture.As a result this group has the most texts that are in question based on their absence in other families.

2. Alexandrian manuscripts are primarily out of Egypt and represent about 5-10% of the available texts. Most modern translations, includes NASB, NIV, and RSV, are based on these manuscripts. The earliest of these manuscripts dates to about 180 A.D. Many of its readings that vary from other texts are supported by internal evidence within the manuscripts. These texts are less consistent with each other than the Byzantine. These texts are more likely to not have the questioned texts commonly found in the Byzantine.

3. Western manuscripts, comprising about 5% of texts, were found in the Western Mediterranean. These commonly have the questionable texts. No entire translation is based on Western manuscripts, but they are used as a reference point.

4. Some scholars also recognize a "Caesarean" manuscript stemming from Caesarean but this classification is disputed.

It is important to note that, while many variants in the passages do exist, most are simple spelling or grammatical matters, word order, etc. Only about 2-5% of the text is seriously debated. No major doctrines are affected, because the Bible has a "built in redundancy" where every major doctrine is repeated throughout many chapters, books, and even testaments. For example, one disputed verse is 1 John 5:7-8. The Byzantine text as translated by the King James Version reads: For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. Most modern translations, based on the Alexandrian, read: For there are three that testify:the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. Although the verses differ because of the underlying source text, the doctrine that is in the disputed passage - the Trinity - is reflected throughout Scripture, from the first chapter of the Bible. Also, no entire books or even chapters are disputed; the largest sections are 12 verses in Mark (16:9-20) and 12 verses in John (7:53-8:11). If you are learning about these textual differences for the first time, there is absolutely no need for your faith to be shaken! 

Translation Theory
When scholars approach the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts, they have to draw some conclusions. Some of their questions they ask in developing their theories include:
  • Should we trust the older texts or the texts with the most copies?
  • Does a literal word-for-word translation, or a thought-for-thought approach, or even a paraphrase, most accurately reflect the meaning of the original language? 
  • Where there are textual differences, is there internal evidence indicating why the change occurred? 
  • Is one reading more difficult to explain,  (such as an apparent contradiction) and therefore possibly something that a scribe would have tried to "fix"? 
  • Does one reading best explain the origin of the others? 
There is no one "right" answer to these questions. There are legitimate reasons for the different translation theories. For example, let's look at the "word for word" vs "thought for thought" question. Anyone who has learned a second language knows that sentence structure and word order varies between even similar languages. A literal "word for word" translation would be unreadable for anything other than scholarly purposes. Don't take my word for it. Check it out yourself in the Interlinear version of Genesis 1:1-2. The English translation appears in its most literal form possible under the Hebrew.

Obviously, then, even the most literal translations do some sort of "thought for thought"- type approach, because as you proceed through Scripture judgment calls have to be made about where certain words are placed. For example, different versions of Revelation 13:8 exist, not because of any textual differences but because of different approaches to the placement of the phrase "before the foundation of the world." Does it modify "lamb slain" or "names written in the book of life"? Or is it one of John's famous "double meaning" words, intended to apply to both? This is a decision translators make.

You and I are not Bible translators. We cannot be expected to determine our own translation theory. So what's a Bible-believing Christian to do?

Choosing a Translation
First, be aware of the translation theory behind your preferred version of the Bible. Most of the time that is found in the front matter of the Bible. Before buying a new translation, I always read the translation notes. This will explain which text family they used, or whether they looked all all the available text families. It will tell whether the translators leaned toward a word-for-word, thought-for-thought, or paraphrase approach. These notes will also tell how disputed passages are handled. Any legitimate translation will include the disputed passages in some way, either in the footnotes or in brackets within the primary text.

Second, see who was on the translation team. Some paraphrases are written by one individual; this should be clearly noted, as well as whether the individual is paraphrasing from an English translation or attempting to translate from the original language. Personally I am wary of translations by only one individual. There is too much at stake; the collective wisdom of solid believers can protect a well-meaning individual from errors. See what you can learn about the team. Are they all from the same denomination? That doesn't mean the translation will be bad, but you will want to be aware of any theological biases that might appear in their translation choices. Make sure the team includes language scholars as well as pastors or theologians. (Be wary of translations used solely by cults, however. Some of these were translated by one individual with limited knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. Often these translations will have no notes or insist theirs is the only correct one.)

Third, don't feel like you have to be a one-translation person. There are so many resources online. You can own a primary translation but consult many others for study or where your translation calls a passage into question. Remember that God inspired the original text but every translation is done by humans who are imperfect. I know some people question the need for more translations - and I agree there is a point where it is unnecessary - but since language changes, it is important that we are communicating God's eternal word in a way that people can understand at the heart level. (Just try reading Wyliffe's first English translation and you will understand why updates have to occur!)

Fourth, whatever translation you choose, please be respectful of others who prefer different translations. Individuals with high views of the inspired word of God do not intentionally "leave out" or "add to" Scripture by their translation choices. Many factors go into the decision, including familiarity with the text, the person's reading level, and much more. My father prefers the King James not because he thinks it's the best translation, but because he wants to honor the many men who died in order to bring an English translation to fruition. Please apply Romans 14 and give liberty to others in their translation choices.

Finally, always, always remember that God's word is eternal, written in the heavens. He inspired His word, He protects it, and most importantly, He wants you to understand it. You don't have to know a single bit of this information for God's word to speak to you. He is looking at your heart, whatever translation you choose.

My Preferred Translations
I hesitate to include these, because I want you to follow the Holy Spirit's leading. Also I don't want to challenge the authority of your pastor in your church's translation selection. However, since I'm asked so frequently, I will include my thoughts on translations for myself.

I lean toward the "older versions" school of thought, so the translations I use most frequently have this bent. Also, I am a big proponent of using a wide variety of translations. Each time I've read through the Bible I've used a different translation. When I prepare a lesson if I am struggling with a verse my first stop is never a Greek or Hebrew dictionary; instead, I simply google the verse and look at it in as many translations as I can find.

With that in mind, here are the translations on my shelf:

English Standard Version (ESV): The Bible my pastor uses, so I take this one to church and use it as a default when preparing lessons for our women's study.

New American Standard Bible (NASB): The study Bible I cut my teeth on. It's the one most marked up and the one I use for inductive studies.

New International Version 1984 (NIV 1984): The Bible I use for memorization. While it's less literal than ESV or NASB, it has the great benefit of being very readable and primarily in Active Voice, so it's easier to memorize.

King James Version (KJV): The first Bible I read through and the one I grew up on. Besides being a great reference because it's based on a different translation theory, it also has the great benefit of using "ye" making the plural "you" obvious in the New Testament, and also contains passages that my mind defaults to such as the Christmas Story in Luke 2.

Amplified Bible (AMP): Based on the Byzantine text, this Bible is a great quick look at the range of Greek or Hebrew meanings in a passage.

New English Translation (NET):  I love this Bible - it's my current read-through text. It contains over 10,000 translators notes that explain why they made the choices they did. They utilized all the textual families so it is pretty detailed. It's available online for free but I love my hard copy. The only thing I don't like is that it really isn't very poetic in some of the places where poetry is called for, so it's less readable in some portions. But this translation has challenged me in many areas by putting translations I'm less familiar with (and explaining the choices). In my opinion it's a must-have for any serious Bible student, at least as a reference point.

The Living Bible: This is a complete paraphrase, but it's the Bible I use when preparing Bible stories, because it really does read just like a story. I don't teach from it, but it makes telling the story as a story rather than a series of verses a lot easier.

Finally, if I could add one translation, it would be the New Living Translation (NLT). So often when I refer to this one online it brings out some of the heart meaning of the text. For example, its translation of Isaiah 53:12 speaks deeply to me, accurately translating the word most commonly translated "transgressors" as "rebels".

I hope this quick overview has been helpful. Remember, God wants to reveal Himself to you through His Word. If this post has helped you in some way with that, then praise be to Him. If it has overwhelmed or confused you, then I haven't been a very good teacher and you can ignore this post. His word never returns void. I pray it accomplishes His purposes in your life.
Dockery, David. Holman Bible Handbook. Holman Bible Publishers, 1992.