Category Archives: Christian Living

How to Fail at your New Year’s Bible Reading Plan

 

Repost from Jan. 2, 2013

This time of year many people will begin a Bible reading plan of some sort, some choosing predefined plans, others planning simply to start with Genesis and read straight through.  I can’t count how many times I began reading through the Bible at the beginning of the year only to fail time and time again.  It can then lead to frustration, feelings of failure, or generally putting the Bible back on the shelf for months, or until the next “New Year’s” reading plan.

Before looking at a few ways or reasons why failure so often occurs, I’d like to offer an encouragement to every Christian to read through the Bible at some point.  To neglect this is to say that all of God’s Word is unimportant.  Fundamentally it’s a failure to take God’s Word as a whole, seriously.   Another reason I want to encourage you to read through the Bible is for witnessing.  I remember a couple of years ago a man wandered into the back of a church I was teaching at and began asking me questions about the Bible.  Admittedly, he was intoxicated and may have been looking for someone to argue with over the Bible.  I began pointing him to Christ and sharing the Gospel with him, despite his claim to be a Christian, though with highly suspect views on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The questions he asked were standard really, “If God is good, why do bad things happen?” and “How could God order Moses [Joshua] to kill ‘innocent’ women and children?”  But then, he asked if I had ever read through the Bible.  Reluctantly, I admitted that I hadn’t.  Now bear in mind, I had probably read through the New Testament a couple of times and probably at some point collectively through 85-90% of the Old Testament , yet I really couldn’t point to a specific time with certainty that I had read through the Bible completely.

Here I was, a teacher of God’s Word and I was being convicted by an intoxicated, seemingly unchristian man.  It cut straight to my heart and I immediately realized that to go on not having read the Bible through was completely unsatisfactory and largely sinful.  A friend and I began reading the Bible using a 3-month plan he had created.  1 newborn baby and 3 extra months later and I had read through the Bible completely.  You do not have to read through the Bible in 3 or 6 months, or even a year, but you really should read through it.  God in His sovereignty has put all 66 books there for our good and we should rightly, humbly, and passionately read what He has for us.  Now on to some common reasons for failure to help you avoid getting frustrated and shelving your Bible for another year.

1.Reading “In Order” (or failure to plan properly) – This is perhaps the biggest (surface) reason I’ve experienced and observed reading plan failure in the lives of others who start off the year gung-ho to read through the entire Bible.  Let me first say that it is certainly ok to read the Bible straight through from cover to cover, however, there is no written rule that says the Bible must be read from Genesis to Revelation in the 66-book order that most Bible’s have.

It may even be a misconception that you have to read it straight through (side note: you should always read individual books straight through in your plan, for context and consistency).  Yes there is a logical reason why the Bible has been arranged the way it has  (let’s not discount God’s providence here either), but the Bible is not arranged chronologically, so you shouldn’t feel as though you can’t skip around.  What I’ve seen and experienced is that enthusiasm and desire to “stay on track” with reading plans can largely carry someone through Genesis, especially since most Christians are familiar with the stories.  I’d say the latter part of Genesis is where frustration starts to show, but determination likely kicks in and most people finish Genesis and proceed into Exodus.  Riding on the “high” of finishing 1 book of the Bible can carry some people through Exodus, but the large majority then collapse and fail in Leviticus, probably around the beginning to middle of February.

An alternative to reading straight through and getting bogged down in the Torah (Law; First 5 books in the Bible) is to alternate Old Testament books with New Testament books or to read a couple chapters out of both, each day, until you’ve finished the particular book.  I’ll provide some links to plans below that have various alternatives to reading straight through, but for now for those who simply must read straight through, let me suggest the NKJV, The MacArthur Daily Bible, Paperback: Read Through the Bible in One Year, with Notes from John MacArthur  Generally speaking, this yearly plan keeps you on track with 2-3 Old Testament chapters (Beginning in Genesis), a section of a Psalm, verses from Proverbs, and a 2-3 chapters from the New Testament (Beginning in Matthew) each day and probably will take you 15-20 minutes.  It’s doable and you don’t feel like your sinking in what may seem like mundane, unimportant details of the first 5 books of the Old Testament.  This brings us to #2.

2.Not Understanding what you Read – Those seemingly mundane and unimportant details of the Old Testament (even New Testament, i.e. genealogies) are actually extremely important details in revealing the character of God and ultimately point forward to His Son Jesus Christ.  So it is that the deeper reason behind the failure of point #1 is that most of us do not understand what we are reading.  Pride is largely to blame here, because the trap of, “I can read the Bible on my own without outside help” largely ignores all of the teachers whom God has given sound biblical wisdom to, both now and throughout Church history, to help us read better and become more knowledgeable about God’s Word.  3 sources can really help here: 1) A good study Bible. 2) A whole-bible commentary 3) Old Testament and New Testament Introductions.

Listen, if we are going to take the Bible seriously, it takes effort and prayer to understand His Word and God will reward those who diligently seek Him.  A good study Bible, like the ESV Study Bible, ESV MacArthur Study Bible, Personal Size, or Reformation Study Bible (2016) NKJV, Crimson Hardcover, to name a few, will help your understanding, not only of individual verses (I would caution against leaning too much on these to start with), but even better they will help by providing background into the book of the Bible, i.e. the author, audience, time period, reason for writing, interpretation difficulties, history, etc.  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of knowing the context of what you are reading.  A whole-bible commentary, such as Matthew Henry’s Commentary One Volume, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Second Edition, or The MacArthur Bible Commentary, can help supplement your study Bible and provide additional notes and helps on particularly difficult verses.

Finally, a largely overlooked resource is Bible Introductions.  Some of these can be overly technical, but others are straightforward and provide an invaluable amount of depth into the context of the Bible.  Usually, you’ll find these grouped into Old Testament Introductions and New Testament Introductions.  A few to take a look at would be Encountering the Old Testament: A Christian Survey (Encountering Biblical Studies) by Bill T. Arnold, The Old Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content by Peter Craigie, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition by Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the New Testament by Carson and Moo, The New Testament: Its Background and Message by Lea and Black, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament by J. Julius Scott.  Now lack of understanding what we read can no longer be an excuse.  The resources are there to help you.

3.Overwhelmed by volume – Cover to cover reading and lack of understanding aside, the Bible by volume and depth is a lot to chew on.  It’s all too easy to look at the 66 books, 1,189 chapters, over 31,000 verses and become overwhelmed.  Even more overwhelming if you have one of those massive coffee table Bibles that sit 5+ inches in thickness.  But volume cannot be your excuse, so you will need a plan that offers enough reading that it doesn’t take 5 years of drudgery to complete, but also doesn’t try to make you drink from a firehouse of volume each day.  3-6 chapters a day will probably suit most people early on, but that will likely grow as a desire and hunger for God’s Word develops.

4.Creating a Burden – For years I avoided “cover to cover” reading plans because they seemed to become a self-imposed burden.  Don’t let this be your excuse.  Granted, it is easily to fall into the trap of “having to read” in order to check a little box each day and that is the wrong motivation.  But it is equally wrong to look for easy ways for quitting or avoiding a plan.  In the end, don’t let your reading plan become a legalistic burden and be your motivation for reading.  Christ should be your motivation and a desire to know God more deeply should fuel you.  Not a little chart that says, “I completed my reading on this day.”  Missing a day will invariably happen, but don’t let it create a schedule burden for you in which you now have to read 3 days worth in order to get caught back up on the schedule.  This makes you a slave to the schedule and it may even be legalistic in trying to finish neatly in a year (or other timeframe).  Becoming burdened by the schedule will also take your joy away from wanting to read God’s Word.  Finally, it can lead to reason #3, which then creates too much reading to understand at one time (#2).  More important than “obeying” a schedule is that you are obedient to God in reading and hungering after His Word.

5.Reading Alone – Accountability is generally a good idea and reading the Bible together with a friend or family member not only will help you stay on track, but it will put you in a position to discuss what you’re reading with someone else.  This way, if you miss a couple of days rather than being discouraged and quit, your friend can help point you toward the reason you began reading in the first place (to know God and His Word and through that to become more like Christ through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit).

These aren’t hard and fast rules, just observations from my own experience, but maybe they will at least serve to help encourage you toward completing the Bible reading plan that you start.  If you hadn’t planned to start a reading plan, start today.  Just because it’s January 2, doesn’t mean that you can’t begin the New Year with a reading plan.  If you think it has to begin January 1, then you’ve largely missed the point and have become obedient to a schedule (see #4 again).  In the end, reading through the Bible takes hard work, diligence, and perseverance.  For those reasons, you should bookend your reading times with prayer for understanding and faithfulness to continue.  After a month or two, by God’s grace, daily reading should become a necessary part of your everyday life.

Potential Reading Plans (I would encourage looking at several, praying about it, and even modifying one to meet your needs/schedule):

http://www.ligonier.org/blog/bible-reading-plans/

Many of the same can be found here, but it also has a helpful chart and overview of biblical history:

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2012/12/27/reading-the-bible-in-2013/

Sinful Indulgence

 

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! Psalm 139:23-24

In Thomas Watson’s penetrating book The Godly Man’s Picture, the Puritan arrives at a section along his journey of identifying the characteristics of a godly man which he entitles, “A Godly man does not indulge himself in any sin.”

He begins this section by means of question and answer propositions beginning with, “What is it to indulge sin?”  Watson provides two answers, the first of which reads, “To give the breast to it and feed it.  As a fond parent humours his child and lets him have what he wants, so to indulge sin is to humour sin.”

His second answer gives us insight into our affections for these sins, “to indulge sin is to commit it with delight: ‘they had pleasure in unrighteousness.’ 2 Thess. 2:12”

Those sins in which we indulge may be called pet sins.  They are the sins which are dearest to us, the ones toward which we run so often and so quickly.  They are the ones which have the deepest roots that are most difficult to hew out, in fact, we may be less likely to address them at all because of their intertwining nature.  In this respect they may also be the most dangerous of sins because of the ease with which they hinder us.   These are the sins from Watson’s analogy which we coddle and nurture.

Watson identifies for his audience four sorts of sins which a godly man will not allow himself to indulge.

  1. Secret Sins
  2. Gainful Sins
  3. A Beloved Sin
  4. Those sins which the world counts lesser

As to the first, secret sins, he writes, “Some are more modest than to commit gross sin.  That would be a stain on their reputation.  But they will sit brooding upon sin in a corner.  All will not sin on a balcony but perhaps they will sin behind the curtain.”  Watson then details three reasons why, “a godly man dare not sin secretly”.  First, a godly man knows that “God sees in secret.”  Secondly, because “a godly man knows that secret sins are in some sense worse than others.  They reveal more guile and atheism.  The curtain sinner makes himself believe that God does not see.”  Third, “a godly man knows that secret sins shall not escape God’s justice.”

Next, Watson turns his focus toward the second type of sin in which a godly man will resist indulgence, gainful sins.  These he describes as “the golden bait with which Satan fishes for souls.”  He points out that it was this type of sin that Satan tempted our Lord with, though Christ was quick to see the hidden hook and resist him.

The third sin, beloved sins, are central to his entire focus of sins in which we indulge and it is the one that rightly deserves the expansive treatment that Watson devotes towards it.  He writes, “There is usually one sin that is the favourite, the sin which the heart is most fond of.”  It is this type of sin, perhaps above the others described here, that is most nurtured in the bosom of man.  Therefore it becomes all the more critical that the godly man recognize his particular affinities and kill them.  “If we would have peace in our souls, we must maintain a war against our favourite sin and never leave off till it is subdued.”

Further unpacking this particular peccadillo, Watson asks, “How shall we know the beloved sin?” before expanding on six answers which are summarized below:

  1. The sin which a man does not love to have reproved is the darling sin.
  2. The sin on which the thoughts run most is the darling sin.
  3. The sin which has the most power over us and most easily leads us captive is the one beloved by the soul.
  4. The sin which men use arguments to defend is the beloved sin.
  5. The sin which most troubles us, and flies most in the face in an hour of sickness and distress, that is the Delilah sin.
  6. The sin which a man finds most difficulty in giving up is the endeared sin.

Summarizing this section on beloved sins, Watson concludes, “The besetting sin is a God-provoking sin.  The besetting sin is of all others most dangerous.  A godly man will lay the axe of repentance to this sin and hew it down.  He sets this sin, like Uriah, in the forefront of the battle, so that it may be slain.  He will sacrifice this Isaac, he will pluck out this right eye, so that he may see better to go to heaven.”

The fourth sin, according to the Puritan, is those sins which the world counts lesser are defined as sins of omission, vain oaths, and slander.  Which brings us to how Watson concludes this section, namely with nine consequences for indulgence in sin:

  1. One sin gives Satan as much advantage against you as more sins.
  2. One sin lived in proves that the heart is not sound.
  3. One sin will make way for more.
  4. One sin is as much a breach of God’s law as more sins.
  5. One sin lived in prevents Christ from entering.
  6. One sin lived in will spoil all your good duties.
  7. One sin lived in will be a cankerworm to eat out the peace of conscience.
  8. One sin allowed will damn as well as more sins.
  9. One sin harboured in the soul will unfit us for suffering.

“If, then, you would show yourselves godly, give a certificate of divorce to every sin.  Kill the Goliath sin: ‘Let not sin reign’ (Rom. 6:12).  In the original it is ‘Let not sin king it over you’.  Grace and sin may be together, but grace and the love of sin cannot.  Therefore parley with sin no longer, but with the spear of mortification, spill the heart blood of every sin.”

Unlike other sins, those in which we so easily indulge ourselves are like the invasive species of plants, which if left unattended will not maintain the status quo, but will grow and spread quickly and without warning.  Therefore it becomes all the more critical to stay on top of our eradication of this species of sins.

Let us concur with the author of Hebrews, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

 

Deliver us from the Evil One

 

In so called reformed circles, it is sometimes common to hear of spiritual warfare that downplays any opposition to the devil or his minions.  Typically, this type of spiritual warfare focuses on the enemy within, namely sin, and poo-poo’s any battle with the evil one, because it is generally assumed that he has bigger and better things to do than cause your car not to start or give you a cold.  I say this last statement a bit tongue-in-cheek because there is another approach to spiritual warfare, that typical of the charismatics, that blames everything on the devil, from a flat tire to spilling your coffee on the way to work.

So what is the biblical approach to this?  Does the devil come against us either personally or by way of a second-tier demon, as in say The Screwtape Letters?  Or is there little to no evil activity by way of the evil one that is directed our way?

The first passage we will look at is a familiar one, though the proper translation is not as familiar, at least not familiar to most of us who memorized the KJV.

Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. Matthew 6:9-13 ESV

The ESV, cited above, is in line with the King James Version on the translation of this passage, particularly verse 13 and the phrase, “deliver us from evil.”  Interpreted in this way, it would seem that our prayer should be for deliverance from general evil, which may come in many shapes, sizes, and forms.

However, this is not the best translation.

The NKJV gets this phrase right when it translates, “But deliver us from the evil one.”  How can we conclude that this is more accurate?  The Greek word for evil here is the word ponerou and it is an adjective.  Translating this word would leave us with the English equivalent for evil, however, as we can see in the ESV translation, it is functioning as a noun (technically a direct object).  How can an adjective function as a noun in the sentence?  Because it is functioning as a substantival adjective, meaning it acts as a noun in the original Greek grammar.  So wouldn’t this simply mean that the ESV translation is correct and our prayers should be to keep us from evil (note that the ESV recognizes the possibility of “evil one” in its footnote)?

Not necessarily, because not only is this word functioning as a noun, but it has a modifying article tou which when put together in its context would be more accurately translated, “the evil one” (tou ponerou).

This isn’t simply an academic exercise throwing around Greek words and phrases to impress or confuse, but has profound application in our prayer life and the direction toward which we should approach spiritual warfare.  It gives us a crystal clear statement that the devil, whether by secondary means or not, is in opposition to believers and that God is willing and able to protect us from the evil one (Luke 22:31-32).

Though outside of Matthew’s usage, similarly, this exact phrase is translated as I’ve just described in 1 Thess. 3:3

“But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.” ESV

Here the ESV has chosen to translate the phrase “the evil one” while again offering a footnote for an alternative, this time for “evil”.  In this context, the Apostle Paul is concluding his second epistle to the Church at Thessalonica, by contrasting the faithless with the faithful Lord and stating His willingness and ability to guard them from the evil one, seemingly a related restatement of the passage from our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount cited above.

Additionally, John 17:15, in the midst of Christ’s High Priestly prayer we read

“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” ESV

Again the translation choice of the ESV is towards a specific “evil one” and not a general concept of evil.  Context again shows a petition made that God would keep His saints from the evil one, and He will.

Summarizing this brief survey we may conclude several points:

  1. Satan is active in opposition towards believers.
  2. God is sovereign over Satan.
  3. Believers are to pray for God’s protection from the evil one.
  4. Christ intercedes on behalf of the saints for protection against the evil one.
  5. God is ready, able, and willing to protect them from the evil one. And He does.

Of particular interest is that in these passages we do not see any command or instructions on engaging in personal combat with Satan, as some charismatics would have us to believe.  Likewise, we see nothing of the diminishing attention that Satan gets in some reformed circles.  Perhaps in a future post, we’ll look at several passages that give us more insight into the operations of the devil in the lives of the believer and how we are exhorted to resist him, which is rooted and grounded in our Lord’s resistance of Satan 3 times in Matthew 4 and His subsequent death and resurrection (1 John 3:8).

 

See also: Ephesians 6:11, James 4:7, 1 John 2:13, Luke 22:31

For more on this translation discussion see Daniel Wallace Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pg. 233.