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).

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