Category Archives: Bible Study

Skip the Verse, Memorize the Book: Andrew Davis on Extended Bible Memorization

After the death of Moses, when Joshua is installed as leader of the Israelites, God commands him, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it” (Jos. 1:8).

Meditating on Scripture means to keep the mind fixed upon Scripture. But how can we keep our mind fixed on God’s Word today when we keep it trapped in our Bibles or on our smartphone apps?

memorization-davisAndrew Davis, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, wants to help encouraging Christians to meditate on Scripture by teaching how to memorize more of the Bible. In his new ebook, An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture, Davis provides daily procedures for memorizing entire chapters and books of the Bible at one time. Davis, a Council member for The Gospel Coalition, has used these techniques to commit 35 books of the Bible to memory over the course of his ministry.

I recently corresponded with Davis about his book, his methods, and why Christians should memorize Scripture.

In an age when most Christians have access to a Bible all the time (e.g., through an app on their smartphones), why is extended memorization of Scripture still necessary?

The beauty of memorization comes in the deeper understanding that results from continual meditation (“day and night” as Psalm 1 puts it) on the Word of God, and from the purifying effects of having a mind that concentrates fully on the Word rather than on worldly things. Memorization is a great way to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:1), because it gives the Word much more concentrated access to your heart. It doesn’t rest lightly but hits you more fully with great impact.

Beyond this, having the Word of God flowing through your mind continually transforms the way you speak: “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12). It provides a ready answer to various life situations: temptation, prayer, witnessing, counseling, sermon preparation (for pastors like me), and so on. Having the Bible on an app is helpful, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. The Bible has transforming power only when it moves through our minds and rests with convicting power on our hearts.

What are some of the biggest benefits to memorizing entire chapters or books of the Bible?

The Word of God comes to us, for the most part, in paragraphs—developed trains of thought that tell a story (narrative, Gospels), unfold a law (Pentateuch), make a doctrinal argument (epistles), make a case against God’s people and their sins or reveal the future of God’s people (prophets), or describe in complex imagery an apocalyptic vision of the future (Revelation). Individual verses do not capture the train of thought and therefore are more likely to be taken out of context.

The fuller the section of Scripture we can memorize, the better. Also, Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Memorizing individual verses usually gravitates to the more “famous” verses and likely misses some precious truths hidden in less familiar verses. Memorizing whole books gives people a sense of the perfection of every word of God. It is a continual learning experience, a journey of discovery in which details come alive with incredible power. I am in awe of the majesty of every word of Scripture, and that has come in great part from 30 years of memorizing less famous verses and seeing the wisdom of God in every letter.

How did you develop this method of memorization?

Over the first few years of seeking to memorize whole books of the Bible, I learned immediately the essence of it: repetition over time. I then developed some simple techniques for repeating the new verses while holding onto old ones. The process that I have written down in the booklet An Approach to the Extended Memorization of Scripture was pretty much intact after about two years of working on it. Details like repeating the whole book for 100 days, and how to memorize larger portions of scripture, and the value of memorizing chapter and verse numbers developed in those first two years.

The last key insight I added was the humble recognition of a practical limit to how much a normal person (like me) can retain at any one time and the need to keep learning new books of the Bible. So I added the advice that after the 100 days, a memorizer should “kiss the book goodbye” in favor of learning a new portion of Scripture.

I do not assert that this is the only, or even the best, way to memorize Scripture, but it has been effective for me.

Which books of the Bible would you recommend a believer start with when memorizing Scripture?

I like to urge people to start with something relatively short that really grabs their heart’s affections. If they have no preference, I point them toward Ephesians, because it is manageable and so incredibly rich for such a short length. Other starting places are Philippians, 2 Peter, Romans 8, the Sermon on the Mount, Hebrews 11, and so on. But I personally like to finish a whole book, so that points toward the epistles.

In your book An Infinite Journey: Growing Toward Christlikeness you say there are two disciplines that a mature Christian will not let a day go by without accomplishing. What are those two activities, and how do they relate to extended memorization of Scripture?

In that book I say that Christians should not let a single day go by without Bible intake (reading or listening) and prayer. These are like two legs on which we walk to make progress in the journey of Christian growth in Christlikeness.

The Word is the food of our faith; without it our faith will shrivel up like a plant with no water. Prayer is essential because every blessing we need in life we should seek from the hand of God. Prayer is a constant expression of total dependence on God.

Scripture memorization helps both disciplines. I would not substitute memorization for other Bible intake. I think one should combine knowledge in breadth (by reading through the Bible in a year) with knowledge in depth (memorizing a book of the Bible) for an optimal diet of Bible intake.

Scripture memorization is a rich form of meditation that feeds the soul throughout the day with God’s nourishing Word. Memorization also deeply enriches our prayer lives by giving us biblical patterns of speech and promises and commands that we can hold back up to God in prayer. One Puritan pastor said that in prayer we should, “Show God his Script; God is tender of his word.” Memorization helps us pray more effectively.

An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture is available as an ebook for just $0.99.

Bible study pen

7 Mistakes We Make in Women’s Bible Study

Jesus wants women to be theologically minded and grounded in the Scriptures. That’s why he commended Mary, who sat “at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:39), while Martha served Jesus and his disciples. Instead of applauding Martha for her service, Jesus approved Mary for choosing “the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Mary chose the one thing that is still necessary today. Women who are students of the Bible, serious about studying it and hearing it taught, choose the good portion, the one thing that is necessary.

Bible study penWomen’s Bible studies can help us get serious about the Scriptures. They spur us on to stay in God’s Word and think deeply about what it means and how it applies to our lives. But, just as Martha became “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40) and neglected sitting at Jesus’ feet, we women can become distracted and lose focus—even when we gather together for Bible study. Here are seven common mistakes we tend to make.

1. We lose sight of the goal.

The goal of a Bible study should be . . . to study the Bible. I know that point seems obvious, but we can get sidetracked by so many other good things. Bible study is not a social club, a counseling session, or a place to meet “felt needs.” Fellowship, counseling, and meeting needs are often the choice fruits of a good Bible study as women get to know one another and are shaped by the Word. But these fruits should never overcome the goal of studying the Scriptures together.

If you keep your goal in mind, you will keep focused on the Scriptures. Tangents will threaten to take you down a rabbit trail, but you will guide them back to the solid ground of the Word. Wrong answers will be offered, but you will arrive at the truth. Real needs will arise, and you’ll be surprised how they are met with Scripture. At the end of an hour or two women will be built up and equipped with the Word.

2. We allow wrong answers.

Since “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:17), every word is true. Each passage of Scripture was written by a man “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21), who intended for his readers to understand the meaning of the passage. So Bible study is using our minds in reliance on the Holy Spirit to understand the meaning the author intended. We can then apply that meaning to our hearts and lives.

I remember sitting in one Bible study where the leader compassionately announced, “Not only are there no stupid questions here, there are no wrong answers.” Her goal, of course, was to put women at ease and promote uninhibited discussion. She rightly wanted the women who didn’t know much about the Scriptures to feel comfortable expressing their opinions. However, in the process she jettisoned the objective truth of the Bible. In fact, there are right and wrong interpretations. Group Bible study is a place where we search together for the right interpretations—the truth of the passage.

As the leader of a Bible study, you certainly don’t need to be a lioness ready to pounce on wrong answers. Someone else in the group may give the right answer, and you can simply affirm it. Or maybe the issue is so small it doesn’t need to be addressed directly. You can just direct attention back to the verse at hand without comment. At the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid of correcting wrong answers. We should be prepared to gently give biblical reasons why some answers are wrong.

3. We rely on the wrong materials.

The primary text required for a Bible study is . . . a Bible. This statement is also obvious, but it is one of which we should continually remind ourselves. There is nothing inadequate about getting together for a discussion through a book of the Bible with just a Bible. Study guides can help, but not all study guides are created equal.

The psalmist does call the Scriptures sweeter than honey, but you don’t want a study guide that gives women a taste for candy that will leave them malnourished rather than giving them a satisfying meal. Many video Bible studies give more heat than light. John Piper has some powerful book studies with video. Nancy Guthrie and Tim Keller have put out excellent gospel-centered Bible studies with video components. The Gospel Coalition, partnering with Lifeway, plans to release two such studies at their upcoming women’s conference. However, an undiscerning diet of video can neglect to teach women how to study the Bible for themselves and leave them thinking they need a dramatic speaker to make the Bible interesting and relevant to their lives.

The best study guides help women dig deeper into the Scriptures without spoon-feeding them answers before they have a chance to think for themselves. They are centered on God and cause women to know him better. They explain verses in context and encourage women to keep the big picture of the gospel in mind. The right guide will lead women to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching. The fruit will be a deeper knowledge of the Savior that causes women to trust him more in their daily lives.

4. We neglect the gospel.

The fact that Jesus Christ died for sinners makes all the difference in the world and in our daily lives. It is the reason we gather to study the Bible, yet we can meet week after week and forget that we are sinners who can only please God by his grace. The gospel is the foundation for every good work of the Christian, and it is our hope whenever we sin. Since Christ fulfills the Law, Prophets, and Psalms (Luke 24:44), we can find him on every page of Scripture. If we’re digging for the meaning of the text, God’s gracious work in Christ will shine through. Believers will be encouraged to live in light of gospel truths, and unbelievers will be challenged to repent and believe.

5. We elevate method over meaning.

I’m a huge fan of inductive Bible study in which we ask observation, interpretation, and then application questions to draw out the meaning of a text and put it into practice. (I’ve written two such studies specifically for women available through Cruciform Press.) However, if the method of Bible study becomes more important than finding the meaning of the text, you can wind up batting around answers to questions, or just observing a lot of facts about a passage, while never arriving at any conclusions about the true meaning of the text. This process leaves some women frustrated and others unaware that there is any meaning to Scripture at all.

Observation of the passage should always lead us clearly to the meaning of the text. The point of Bible study is finding out what the author originally intended to convey. Then we can apply it personally to our lives.

6. We jump to application.

One of the most important things to prevent in a women’s Bible study is applying the Scripture without first understanding the meaning of the passage. One commonly misused passage is in John 6. A boy generously gives his five loaves and two fish to Jesus, who then multiplies them to feed 5,000 men plus women and children. Too often, the moral of the story is, “Give Jesus whatever little bit you have, and he will multiply it!” But the real point of John 6 is so much bigger and more glorious! Jesus multiplied the bread and fish as a sign to show, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). The application is not to give Jesus bread but rather to eat bread, his body; in other words, trust in Christ and have life!

When we neglect the true meaning of a passage and attempt to apply it to our lives, we end up not really applying Scripture at all. Scripture loses its power to renew our minds and transform us and instead becomes a quick fix to an easier life. When we don’t dig in and think hard to find the meaning of a text, we end up trivializing it and become man-centered in our application rather than having our eyes opened to the greatness of God. We must work hard to find the true meaning of texts and then think through how they apply to our lives.

7. We divorce study from the church.

Not all Bible study is church-based. Outreach-oriented Bible studies in a neighborhood, school, or workplace can bear much fruit. However, if you want to see exponential spiritual growth in women, keep your Bible study under the authority of a local church. Women in a local church sit under the same preaching of God’s Word, so they are already becoming united in their theology. When a difficult question arises they come at it from the same foundation and can check their conclusions with pastors and elders. Those elders also provide oversight and advice about materials and leadership, as they care for women’s souls. In addition to individual spiritual growth, a church-based women’s Bible study builds up the entire church as women know one another intimately and form lasting bonds of friendship.

At the United Christian Church of Dubai, I have the privilege of studying the Bible with women from Africa, the Middle East, India, Europe, Australia, East Asia, and North and South America. We come from a wide variety of cultures and religious backgrounds. We speak with varying accents and don’t have the same colored skin. We come to the Scriptures with different views on politics, parenting, and many other secondary issues. Our differences have caused us to dig deeper for universal truth in the Word of God to apply to our varying stages of life and circumstances. We have found it to be true that when women in a local church gather to study the Scriptures together, it promotes unity and ignites spiritual growth.

Studying the Bible together is a great joy! Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet, chose the good portion described in Psalm 16: “The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. . . . You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:5, 11). Mary desired the fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore found in Jesus. Two thousand years later, Jesus is still the source of joy. There is great reward in sitting at his feet and learning from him. When women put distractions aside and pursue Christ in his Word together, they choose the good portion. They become more theologically minded and grounded in the Scriptures as they are enriched and unified along the way.

Editors’ note: The Gospel Coalition 2014 Women’s Conference features nine workshops on theology, Bible competency, and how to teach other women the Scriptures. Teachers include Don Carson, Kathleen Nielson, and Paige Brown. Check out the complete list of workshops and register to join us June 27 to 29 in Orlando.

The Danger of Forgetting How to Read the Bible

In the past month, I learned that two more Christian leaders whom I know have either tarnished or destroyed their ministries. Neither was a friend, in the full sense, yet I’ve been friendly with both men and respected their talents and the fruit of their labors.

young man reading small bibleOnce again, I wonder: How could a man who studied and knew Scripture and taught it faithfully to others, brazenly violate its most basic principle of love and self-control? Even as I ask the question, I know I’m liable to self-destructive sin too. Everyone needs Paul’s admonition: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Self-aware leaders know that we can violate principles we thought we knew.

But how can we repent quickly and keep from hardening ourselves to God’s voice as he calls us back to himself?

Leaders stumble for many reasons, and while I could argue that a zealous seminarian has little in common with a vain or depressed middle-aged leader, there is at least one common thread: My peers and my students can both stop reading the Bible as we should.

Technical and Devotional

A new Christian’s Scripture reading tends to be naïve and devotional. New disciples devour Scripture, underlining word after word in their new Bibles. We often feel that God is speaking directly to us in every word.

After a few years, a budding leader’s reading becomes sophisticated and devotional. We still feel that God speaks to us in the text, but as we learn basic principles of interpretation, we increasingly give our attention to Scripture’s literary, cultural, and historical contexts. We own and use Bible dictionaries and commentaries. We know the translation strategies of competing Bible versions and begin to use that knowledge to get at the original text.

Most future church leaders go to seminary, where we become technical readers. We read Greek and Hebrew and consult scholarly sources. We respect the distance between our world and that of Scripture. Zeal to describe biblical history and theology grows. As we pursue what the word originally meant, we are tempted to neglect what it means today, to us.

When students become interns at a local church they remember that study should edify the church. We continue to read technically, but now we share our findings with others. We become technical-functional readers. Our reading may still be detached, personally speaking, but we store and organize our discoveries so we can offer them to others. While this phase may help us rediscover the proper use of Scripture, we may still be professional readers. We can present God’s truth to others, while blocking his word to us.

Student and pastors need, therefore, to become technical, devotional readers. Here every exegetical skill remains, yet we also read like children, letting the word speak to our hearts again. We can find what Paul Ricoeur called a “second naiveté.” We are both technically astute and spiritually receptive. Our study lets us to explain and apply God’s Word to the church and to ourselves. Then we hear God’s Word, so it does its work in us once again, so we purify our hearts, cleanse our hands, and walk in the ways of the Lord.

The Magi and the Eternal Effect of Our Work

Have you ever wondered what led the wise men to undertake their long, dangerous journey to Bethlehem? What led them to believe that the particular star they followed would lead them to a great king?

What most people know about the Magi comes from popular traditions and Christmas carols, few of which are supported by the biblical text. Matthew does not suggest the Magi were kings, he does not say they were three in number, nor is it likely they were from the Orient.

magiWho then were these Magi, and where did they originate? Craig Chester, past president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy gives the following description of the Magi:

The group of Magi in question came “from the East.” They might have been Zoroastrians, Medes, Persians, Arabs, or even Jews. They probably served as court advisors, making forecasts and predictions for their royal patrons based on their study of the stars, about which they were quite knowledgeable. Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances in order to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects and offering gifts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus’ kingship, or that Herod would regard their arrival as a very serious matter.

The Magi were important, powerful people of their day. The mention of their visit to Jerusalem was Matthew’s way of securing the testimony of top scientific authorities to authenticate the royal birth of Jesus.

There are many references in ancient literature to Magi visiting kings and emperors. For example, Tiridates, king of Armenia, led a procession of Magi to pay homage to Nero in Rome in AD 66. Josephus records that Magi also visited Herod in about 10 B.C. A visit by the Magi to pay homage to a newborn king would not have appeared unusual to the original readers of Matthew’s gospel.

It would not, however, have gone unnoticed. In fact, Matthew 2:3 says that not only was Herod disturbed but also “all Jerusalem with him.” The Magi were such important individuals; they probably traveled with a large entourage that included soldiers, even a small army for protection. So it should not be surprising that Herod and the citizens of Jerusalem were troubled when they arrived.

What Led the Magi to Jerusalem?

The Magi must have seen an unmistakably clear astronomical/astrological message to urge them on such a long, dangerous journey. In Matthew 2:2, the Magi indicated that they saw something in the night sky that was so significant it convinced them to make the trip of more than a thousand miles to Jerusalem to look for this new king.

How could seeing “signs in the sky” inform the Magi that a king of the Jews had been born?

The answer may take us back more than 500 years to the work of one of God’s faithful servants during the Babylonian exile. We read that King Nebuchadnezzar assigned Daniel to the high office of “chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers, and diviners” (Daniel 5:11). In other words, Daniel was appointed chief of the Magi.

The Magi of the first century would have most certainly studied the writing of Daniel and possibly other Jewish writings with which Daniel would have been associated, such as the book of Isaiah. This connection between Daniel and Magi may help to explain why the Magi in question 600 years later expected a Jewish king to arrive in Judea near the end of the first century.

In fact, there is evidence that Daniel’s prophecy of the coming of a powerful Jewish king was well known to many in the ancient world in the first century. Both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about a widely held belief based on ancient writings among the Jews of a great world ruler that would be from Judea. It is likely therefore that the Magi followed the star based on their study of Daniel’s writings.

Because Daniel was faithful in his work, God used him to bring the news of the birth of Christ to both his fellow Israelites and even the some of the most powerful, knowledgeable, and influential Gentiles of the day.

For the Good of the City

In Jeremiah 29, we find part of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).

These exiles, including Daniel, had seen the destruction of their homeland, the death of their family members, and the demolishing of their holiest place of worship. It must have been hard to work for the good of a city that had destroyed his homeland, yet Daniel obeyed God’s call and became “chief of the Magi” and an adviser to the king.

In a way, we too are in “exile,” for we live in a fallen, sinful world and look forward to when Christ will return and restore it. But rather than sit passively, we actively engage in the world because God calls us to “work in the peace and prosperity of the city” here and now.

With Christmas passed and the business year about to start again it is good to be reminded about the effect of our work. God calls us to be faithful in the here and now, even when we can’t always see the result of what we do. We have no idea how God will use it.

Take the story of Edward Kimball, a Sunday school teacher. Concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of his pupils, he never gave up, even though the task of teaching a group of rowdy boys could be mundane and difficult.

It turns out that through Kimball’s teaching, evangelist D. L. Moody came to Christ. In his lifetime, Moody led thousands to Christ, including Wilbur Chapman. Chapman himself became an evangelist who converted the famous preacher Billy Sunday. During his many evangelistic meetings, Sunday led Mordecai Ham to accept the gospel. And who did Ham reach? His preaching led to the conversion of Billy Graham, who preached to more people than any other individual and led untold thousands to Christ.

Today, few people remember Edward Kimball. Yet because of his faithfulness and tenacity, God used his efforts to set off an incredible chain of events that saved millions.

The story of the star of Bethlehem and the Magi does not start in Matthew 2. It extends hundreds of years back to the Babylonian exile where Daniel faithfully answered God’s call to work and engage in the culture—even in the most difficult of times. If we are faithful in this same call, who knows how God will use what we do today to further his kingdom tomorrow.

Four Accounts, One Savior

If you have ever tried to read about the story of Jesus’ birth from one of the Gospels in the New Testament, you will have already discovered two things. First, no one Gospel tells you everything about the birth of Jesus. And second, some Gospels do not tell you anything about the birth of Jesus.

NativityWhat do we make of this reality?

One takeaway should be that the significance of Jesus’ birth is best understood in the totality of his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Whether you have just begun to consider Jesus or already consider yourself a believer in him, let me encourage you to read through the four Gospels this Advent season to gain a fuller appreciation for the significance of his birth.

Here’s a brief description of each Gospel’s unique contribution to our overall understanding of Jesus, followed by a calendar for reading through them this December.

Matthew: The story of Christmas is rooted in history.

Matthew’s account begins with a genealogy, demonstrating the birth of Jesus is not an isolated event but one rooted in history. In other words, the birth of Jesus is not the beginning of the story. To properly understand Jesus’ birth, one must understand the history from which he came.

If we were to consider the birth of Jesus as an isolated event, we could conclude that Jesus is powerful. Surely the virgin birth would require divine power. When we learn from Matthew that the virgin birth was rooted in history and anticipated in prophecy, we learn that Jesus is not only powerful, but also faithful to promises made in history.

Mark: The story of Christmas requires our repentance.

When you turn to Mark you notice that he begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, not the birth of Jesus. John’s ministry was a plea for Israel to repent. In Mark 1:14-15, we are told that John was arrested and Jesus began to preach the same message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent is the key word for Mark. John preached it, Jesus preached it, and Mark wants all of us to remember it. Why?

We cannot properly celebrate the birth of our Savior until we acknowledge the reality of our sin. Until we are willing to repent, all the details that surround Jesus’ birth and life are rendered inconsequential. Otherwise who cares if it was three wise men or wise men bearing three gifts? Or whether he was God incarnate or an angel in human form? Mark tells us news he believes can change our lives. So are we willing to be changed? Are we willing to acknowledge that we are not as we should be? According to Mark, we cannot properly celebrate the birth of our Savior until we acknowledge our need to be saved.

Luke: The story of Christmas invites our worship.

As you turn to Luke, you notice that he gives us the most details of any of the Gospel writers surrounding the birth of Jesus. When people announce that they will read the Christmas story, they are more often than not reading from the second chapter of Luke. It’s striking about Luke’s attention to detail how often he focuses on the worship that surrounded the birth of Jesus.

For example, in Luke 1:46, Luke could have simply said that Mary worshiped God. Instead he records for us details of how she expressed her worship in what we now commonly call the Magnificat. You will notice this detail again in verses 67-79 when Zechariah worshiped God. Then Luke tells us of the heavenly host praising God in 2:13-14 and the shepherds praising God in 2:20. When Jesus is presented in the temple, Luke tells us of Simeon’s worship. Before, during, and after the birth of Jesus there is worship!

Much like the Psalms of the Old Testament, the details of these expressions of worship are not given to simply inform us of past events, but to invite us to join in their expression. When all the facts are considered, as Luke claims to have compiled them, one discovers that the Christmas story is not only true but also glorious.

John: The story of Christmas restores our relationship.

John does not begin with the birth of Jesus, the ministry of John the Baptist, nor does he begin with the history of Israel. John writes, “In the beginning.” The beginning of what? The beginning of everything! According to John, Jesus was with God and was God from before time began. These verses are key the church’s understanding of the Trinity.

As it relates to the Christmas story, we affirm that Jesus was sent from God. The Creator is the Redeemer; the Judge is the Savior. John’s account is similar to Mark’s in that he makes the story immediately personal. Jesus is the unique Son of God who came into the world, so that you and I could become children of God as well (John 1:12-13).

One Conclusion

Four different Gospel accounts and one conclusion—Jesus is sufficient. Intellectually, according to Matthew, the Christmas story is rooted in history. Morally, according to Mark, the Christmas story requires our repentance. Emotionally, according to Luke, the Christmas story invites our worship. And relationally, according to John, the Christmas story restores our relationship with God.

Read the story for yourself.


Advent Reading Plan

You Asked: What’s New About the New Covenant?

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Rick G. from Lempster, New Hampshire, asks:

Since Abraham and the old prophets are saved by grace through faith as we are, why is this then called a new covenant in Christ when it was visible and proclaimed in the Old Testament? What makes it new?

We posed this question to Oren Martin, professor of theology at Northland International University. He is contributing “The Land Promise in God’s Redemptive Plan” to the forthcoming book Progressive Covenantalism, edited by Stephen J. Wellum (B&H Academic).


This question is very important, for it gets to the heart of God’s gracious plan to make a people for himself. This plan begins with Adam and ends with the people of the last Adam from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9). Perhaps a good way to begin, then, is to place it within the overarching storyline of Scripture.

Scripture begins with creation and ends with the description of a more glorious creation. Between these two accounts lies the history of redemption. God’s plan for his people begins with Adam and Eve (Gen 1-2). The creation account reveals the “pattern of the kingdom”: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule (for more along these lines, see Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan). For Adam and Eve to enjoy God and his blessing, they must take God at his word (Gen 1:28-30; 2:16-17). However, they despised God’s word and instead believed the serpent’s, which led to their expulsion from God’s blessed presence (Gen 3). As a result, sin and death entered creation and separated man from God. But his plan did not end, for God made a forward-looking promise that would, in time, undo the effects of sin by the serpent-crushing offspring of the woman (Gen 3:15). The rest of the story, then, focuses on how God’s kingdom will progressively be reestablished.

A crucial means God uses to accomplish his redemptive ends is the covenant. A cursory overview will establish this point. Judgment and death reign after the fall of mankind into sin, and the initial sign of God’s reversing the curse is his covenant with Noah (Gen 6:18; 9:9-17). Noah is God’s representative commissioned to rule the earth, be fruitful and multiply, and bring God’s blessing to the world (Gen 9:1-17). In other words, Noah is another Adam-like figure. But just as Adam failed, so also does Noah (Gen 9:18-29). So sin and death continue to reign and, as a result, God judges the nations in the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). Yet God keeps his promise by calling out another man—Abram—to fulfill his purposes.

Abraham and God’s covenant with him provide the way in which God’s creation promises and blessing will be fulfilled. Through Abraham and his offspring, Israel, God will bring about universal and international blessing. But how, ultimately, will this blessing come? The answer is through a promised son (Gen 15:4-5; cf. Gal 3). And as Genesis 15 makes clear, God will make good on his promise. God alone graciously pledges to Abraham by passing between the pieces that he will fulfill his covenant promise (Gen 15:17; cf. Jer 34:18). Abraham received God’s promise by faith and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6). This interaction is foundational for the NT authors’—and the Protestant church’s—doctrine of justification by faith alone (Rom 4; Gal 3; James 2).

What’s New?

Though glorious and gracious (see Rom 4; cf. Psa 32:1-2), the blessing of justification is not the end of the story. Rather, it was the beginning. In other words, with Abraham God sets out in programmatic form his plan to make a people for himself. In fact, God says, “I will be their God” (Gen 17:8; cf. Rev 21:3).

However, one problem still remained and needed to be overcome. As time went on and history repeatedly demonstrated, sin plagued God’s people and separated them from him. They were physically circumcised as a sign of belonging to God, but they needed circumcision of the heart (Deut 30:6). Whether it was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Israel, David, or Solomon, one thing was for sure: sin needed to be dealt with once for all, for the blood of bulls and goats could not permanently bring the forgiveness of sin (Heb 10:4). Furthermore, God’s commands only exacerbated the problem, for through the law came the knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20). But thanks be to God who used the guardianship of the law until Christ came, so that we all might be justified by faith—both Jew and Gentile (Gal 3:23-29)—and receive God’s covenant blessings. The new covenant in Christ’s blood brings these blessings (Luke 22:20).

So what is new about the new covenant? To be sure, there is similarity with the previous covenants: it involves God’s people (Jer 31:31), emphasizes obedience to God’s law (Jer 31:33), focuses on offspring (Jer 31:36)—particularly on a royal seed (Jer 33:15-26; Ezek 37:24-25; Isa 55:3)—and, in the end, it will fulfill the repeated covenant refrain: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).

Despite its similarities, however, it is not like the previous (Mosaic) covenant (Jer 31:32). First, the NC will not be broken (Jer 31:32). Israel’s history is one of repeated covenant breaking, but in the NC God ensures that it will not. In fact, look at the first-person pronouns in verse 33 that emphasize God’s effectual work. In the NC Christ kept the law for those who are united to him by faith, and God counts his obedience to us. Furthermore, members of the NC are being guarded now by God’s power for their future salvation. Second, the NC will bring transformation of the heart and the permanent indwelling of the Spirit so that obedience will flow from the inside out (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26). Rather than writing the law on stones and scrolls and exhorting the people to internalize it, God will write it on their hearts. Third, every member of the NC will be regenerate—for they shall all know the Lord (Jer 31:33-34; cf. Isa 54:13). Whereas various members under the previous covenants were taught by God and urged to know him, it was not universally the case. The NC includes only those who are taught by God and know him (John 6:45; 1 Thess 4:9; 1 John 2:20, 27). Finally, all of these new covenant blessings will come because God will provide full and final forgiveness of sin (Jer 31:34; Ezek 36:29, 33). Through the inauguration of the NC, then, God will fulfill his promises and secure his redemptive purposes for his people.

The new covenant makes clear, then, that God will finish what he started. In fact, the ultimate fulfillment of the divine promises will come through a suffering servant, an “ideal Israel.” Isaiah 42:6-7 says that the Lord will give his servant as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. Indeed, the servant will be a covenant—the means through which people will come into a covenant relationship with the Lord. This fulfillment would come through a covenant enacted on better promises because of the obedient Son who would fulfill it (Heb 8-10).

Some Implications

So what do we learn from Abraham and the new covenant? At least three things.

First, we are confronted with the necessity of faith. If we want to be made right with God, we must trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of our sins. Abraham is the progenitor of all who believe. Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:4-5). But how does faith come? Faith comes as a gift of God’s grace through the proclamation and reception of the word of Christ (Rom 3:24-25; 10:17). May God strengthen us, then, to be faithful in proclaiming this gloriously good news to all who need to hear and be set free by it.

Second, we learn that since all members of the NC are regenerate, then pastors and churches, to the best of their ability (though admittedly imperfectly), should diligently work to ensure through their church membership process that only those who give a credible profession of faith should become covenant members (yes, I am a baptist).

Finally, we learn that all of God’s promises, including those made to Abraham, find their yes in Christ. Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, so those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance (Heb 9:15). Indeed, all of God’s promises find their terminus in the resurrected Christ who brings to fulfillment God’s redemptive plan, which will end in nothing less than a new creation for all of his justified people—both Jew and Gentile—in Christ.

When Mentoring Exposes Your Idol of Being Needed

Sharing the gospel is inextricably tied to sharing other aspects of life with those we’re mentoring. Consider what the apostle Paul says: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Biblical mentoring requires engaging the whole person for more than just a scheduled time each week or month. It includes meeting for lunch or coffee, showing up for an important event in the life of the woman you’re mentoring, inviting her to be part of your life or family, serving together, and even enjoying together the seemingly “frivolous” activities such as watching a movie or going shopping.

Life-on-life ministry comes quite naturally to many of us women as we love to care, nurture, and share emotional intimacy. Yet as in every other relationship, there is danger that I find my identity in mentoring another young woman and so become enmeshed in an unhealthy relationship. My definition of “unhealthy relationship” is a relationship where one of my idols takes the central place that belongs to Jesus. In mentoring, this can happen when my idol of being needed replaces Jesus as what I am worshiping and serving in our relationship.

Warning Signs

What does this idolatry look like, and how can you establish healthy biblical boundaries? First, identify the idolatry. You may be serving your idol of being needed more than Jesus if you notice the following in your mentoring relationship:

  • Reluctance or refusal to speak the truth in love to her when needed out of fear of losing her approval or the relationship.
  • Rearranging your schedule, neglecting other priorities and responsibilities (such as family and work) in order to spend time with her.
  • Tending to give her advice immediately when she asks for your counsel without asking questions to help her think through the issue for herself.
  • Avoiding sharing your own weaknesses and struggles, presenting yourself as strong and seemingly invincible.
  • Always being available to her regardless of what time she calls or what you are doing.
  • Expressing disapproval of decisions she makes on her own, perhaps even explicitly encouraging her to talk to you first before making any decision.
  • Discouraging her from other influential relationships outside your mentoring relationship or neglecting to connect her to others within your church community.

Second, repent of seeking life outside of Christ, humbly acknowledging that your need to be needed has become an idol in your heart. Repent of allowing this idol to cause you to unintentionally mentor women into people-worship instead of God-worship. Rejoice that you have a God who mentors you (and her) perfectly and even now is restoring you back to himself through Jesus. He is jealous for full-hearted worshipers, and he lovingly redeems you and me from all of our false worship.

Finally, realize that repentance will include setting healthy boundaries in your mentoring relationships. The purpose of setting boundaries is not for your ease and comfort but out of love for God and the woman you’re mentoring. Healthy boundaries flow out of the foundational belief that you both need Jesus more than you need one another. Your goal in mentoring is to help this woman to grow more fully into the unique person God has created her to be in his image, not to recreate her in your image.

Practical Boundaries

Keeping that foundation in mind, practical boundaries might include:

  • Involve others in your relationship. Connect her with other women in the church, serve together with others in the community, invite her over to dinner with your family or roommates, and so on.
  • Appropriately share your own weaknesses and struggles. This is a tangible way of showing that you also need Jesus Christ and that you are not her savior.
  • Ask questions that help her think through dilemmas and decisions she presents to you and support biblical decisions she makes, even if it’s different than what you would have done.
  • Communicate when you are and aren’t available. For example, if she tends to call you later than when you’re normally up, let her know that it’s best for her to call you before your bedtime (or family time).
  • Know your limits. If she is struggling with an issue beyond your ability, time commitment, or experience to handle alone, recommend she talk to a pastor or counselor. Help her find this person and go with her to a few sessions if she’s open to that assistance.
  • Lovingly confront her when necessary, in humility. This is a way of pointing her to Jesus as her Redeemer and together finding grace at the foot of the cross. Remember that you are ultimately serving Christ, not seeking to win her approval (Galatians 1:10).
  • Stay accountable to someone else. Ask a close friend or family member to give you input if you’re unsure of whether you’re fostering an unhealthy relationship with a woman you’re mentoring.
  • Point her to Jesus! This is the obvious point, of course, but it is foundational to a healthy Christ-centered mentoring relationship. Pray together with her when you’re trying to sort through a tough issue. If she calls you at a time when you’re not available for a long discussion, suggest that she spend time praying about the issue and reading Scripture. Verbally remind her (and yourself) that you want to help her to seek Jesus and become dependent on him, not on you. She needs Jesus more than she needs you.

As you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, prayerfully seeking wisdom as you mentor other women, he will give you grace in the moment as you need it. The danger of boundaries for boundaries’ sake is that I would use them to protect my own comfort and selfishness. But biblical Christ-centered boundaries foster increased dependence on Christ for you both.

As you abide in Jesus, he will give you wisdom to know when you should drop what you’re doing to lovingly sacrifice your time or agenda and allow yourself to be interrupted by her needs. He will also give you grace to trust him when you’re not able to be there for her in a difficult moment of need. And most importantly, as you find your security and identity in Christ your Redeemer, you will be able to mentor her into finding the same for herself.

You Asked: Is All Scripture from the Lord?

Editors’ note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Doug L. from Rockwall, Texas, asks:

How do we understand 1 Cor. 7:12, when Paul says, “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord),” when all of Scripture is meant to be from the Lord? How do we make sense of this in light of the debates on inerrancy and authority of Scripture?

We posed this question to Dane Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College), Bible publishing director at Crossway in Wheaton, Illinois, where he lives with his wife, Stacey, and three boys. He is the author of A New Inner RelishDefiant GraceZeal without Knowledge, and Mark: A 12-Week Study. Dane blogs at Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology.


It’s a good question and one that most of us have been perplexed by when we read 1 Corinthians 7. I certainly have. The whole text in question reads as follows:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called youto peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Who Is ‘the Lord’?

The first matter to clear up is what the questioner means by saying that “all of Scripture” is “from the Lord.” In one sense this is true, in another sense it is not.

Most broadly, the whole Bible is certainly from “from the Lord” if by “the Lord” we mean the triune God—the 66 books of the Bible are God’s self-testimony to a fallen world of his identity and his mighty deeds in our space-and-time history for the sake of sinners. Every word is a word from God.

But not all of Scripture is “from the Lord” if by “the Lord” we mean the Lord Jesus in his earthly teaching—and it is Jesus that Paul has in mind when he speaks of “the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 7.

When Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:10 that it is “not I, but the Lord” who declares that a husband and wife should not separate, he is drawing on the words of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 19:4-9). When Paul goes on to say that it is “I, not the Lord” who says that a believing spouse should remain with a contented unbelieving spouse, he is acknowledging that Jesus did not explicitly address such a situation, as the Corinthians are now facing.

Canon Within the Canon?

Of course, this raises a question. Is Paul saying Jesus’ words are more authoritative than his own? Have we created a canon within the canon? Are we saying that if Paul were to buy a Bible today, he’d prefer a red-letter edition?

Nope. After all, the entire Scripture is the Word of Christ, broadly conceived. We cannot hold up what Leviticus or Ecclesiastes says as less authoritative, from a whole-Bible perspective, than the Sermon on the Mount. All three cohere and play their distinctive role in giving us the cumulative message of Scripture—namely, the message of the grace of God in the Son of God for the people of God to the glory of God. At the same time, a ritual food law from Leviticus is not received today by Christians in the same way as it would have been for a Jew 3,000 years ago, because we read such a food law in light of Jesus’ words in Mark 7:14-23, in which “he declared all foods clean” (7:19).

The 66 books of the Bible are unified, but not uniform. The Bible gives us a coherent message, but every text must be read in light of the entire Bible; Leviticus must be read in light of Mark 7. Anything less would be sub-Christian. I don’t read Isaiah the way a Jew would in 50 B.C. for the same basic reason I’m not writing this article on papyrus: it’s not where we are in the Story.

How does all this relate to 1 Corinthians 7? In this way: we are to read 1 Cor. 7:12 as carrying for us the same full authority that any of the words of Jesus carry. There is no canon within the canon. As an apostle, Paul spoke on behalf of the one who sent him, Christ himself. The apostles were formally commissioned to testify to and to pass down to the next generation the authoritative teaching of Christ and the sanctioned significance of his saving work. Paul the apostle therefore speaks with full authority.

Imagine that the king of a foreign land has passed a law that every young man must enter the nation’s military force at age 18. Each man must serve for five years, after which time he is discharged and free. The king himself writes this law into existence, commissioning a given number of officials to communicate and enforce the law on his behalf, and dies shortly thereafter. His personally selected officials are then confronted with the situation, however, that foreign couples are getting married and then entering the nation and living as citizens of this nation. Should these husbands, assuming they are at least 18 years old, be conscripted into the military?

What is relevant here is simply the question of authority. The king had formally sanctioned a specific number of officials to carry out his laws. The officials therefore write a letter to the people explaining their solution. In that letter they explain that the king himself had ordered every male 18 years of age to enter the military. The officials then further explain that, although the king did not explicitly address the unusual circumstance of foreigners becoming citizens, the officials themselves speak on the king’s behalf and with his authority. The people of the land are therefore to receive the officials’ decision just as they would the king’s very words.

Distinction of Source, Not Authority

The point of this imperfect analogy is simply that even when Paul is speaking beyond the actual words of Jesus, he is speaking with apostolic authority. He acts on behalf of the King. It may sound odd, but we receive Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor. 7:12-16 as the very word of God even though it is not the very words of Jesus. 1 Cor. 7:12 is no less inerrant than 1 Cor. 7:10 (or the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, for that matter). For Christians today, Paul’s “I, not the Lord” is not less authoritative than his “not I, but the Lord.” It might be worth remembering also that even the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels are the true voice of Jesus but not the actual words of Jesus. He spoke in Aramaic, but our New Testament recorded those words in Greek. So even in the Gospels, we are dealing with a similar dynamic. We do not view the Greek text of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as inferior in authority to the Aramaic that Jesus would actually have uttered.

In other words, the distinction we today discern in Paul’s words in 1 Cor 7:10, 12 is a distinction of original source, not final authority. Paul is telling us that he is quoting Jesus in 7:10, but not in 7:12. But for us today, both verses have full authority. Perhaps Paul’s apostolic authority in these matters is the reason he reminds his readers that he too has the Spirit of God in the last verse of 1 Corinthians 7.

Not all of Scripture is the words of Jesus. But all of Scripture is the Word of God.

Is ‘Background Information’ Ever Necessary to Understand the Bible?

My answer is a cautious yes: “background information” (which I prefer to call the historical context) is sometimes necessary for understanding the Bible accurately.

I say “cautious” because there are dangers if you answer that question either yes or no.

Dangers If You Answer Yes

  1. Some misuse “background information” in a way that twists the text to contradict what it transparently says. (E.g., see Bob Stein, Clint Arnold, and Doug Moo share concerns about mirror reading.)
  2. Others so focus on “background information” that they end up foregrounding what is in the background and backgrounding what is in the foreground (to borrow language from Doug Moo’s critique of Tom Wright’s new perspective on Paul). And as important as, say, extracanonical Jewish literature is for New Testament studies (see here and here), those studies often illustrate the law of diminishing returns.

It’s important to remember John Piper’s three cautions in The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 34-36:

  1. We might misunderstand the sources.
  2. We might assume agreement with a source when there is no agreement.
  3. We might misapply the meaning of a source.

Dangers If You Answer No

Some argue that “background information” is never necessary to understand the Bible: archaeology and other historical knowledge can confirm that you correctly understand the Bible and enrich your understanding, but it is not necessary. Consequently:

  1. Some discard “background information” as relatively unimportant and thus not worth studying carefully.
  2. Some even view it as a threat to the Bible’s clarity and sufficiency.

Those who hold this view may fail to recognize how much basic “background information” they regularly employ to understand the Bible accurately.

Illustration: Wayne Grudem Answers No

Wayne Grudem illustrates someone who answers the question with a No, but he is not guilty of the two dangers I suggest above. He asserts (“The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Themelios 34 [2009]: 297, bold added),

Historical background information can certainly enrich our understanding of individual passages of scripture, making it more precise and more vivid. But I am unwilling to affirm that background information can ever be properly used to nullify or overturn something the text actually says. In addition, I am reluctant to affirm that additional historical background information is ever necessary for getting a proper sense of a text.

On the other hand, information about the meanings of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in the Bible does have to be obtained from the vast linguistic resources found in extra-biblical literature, resources that I consider God’s good gift to the church for the purpose of enabling us to understand the Bible more accurately.

So what is the difference? I think (but I am not certain) that it is possible to maintain a distinction between (a) lexicographical resources in ancient literature and inscriptions that I think to be necessary for understanding the words of Scripture and (b) resources that provide historical background information (such as archaeological evidence and historical evidence from ancient texts) that I think to be helpful for improving our understanding but never necessary for gaining a correct understanding of the sense of a text. The difference (if it can be maintained) is the difference between what is needed for translation and what is useful for fuller understanding. For example, a translation will tell me that Ezra journeyed from Babylon to Jerusalem (see Ezra 7:9), and background information will tell me what the terrain was like and that it was a journey of about 900 miles (1,448 km). This does not change my understanding of the passage (it still means that Ezra traveled to Jerusalem), but it does give me a more vivid sense of the journey.

I stumble over that bold sentence and the distinction in the final paragraph.

I highly recommend Grudem’s article, and I’m sympathetic with his first paragraph above. Nevertheless, I’d gently push back on that bold sentence. There are at least two reasons to be gentle:

1. I’m not sure what Wayne means by “a proper sense of a text.” If he means “the general message of Scripture,” then I agree with him (see the final section of this article). But I suspect that he means more than that.

2. Wayne tempers his language. He says, “I am reluctant to affirm.” Later he adds, “I think (but I am not certain) that it is possible” to make this distinction (“if it can be maintained”):

  • “lexicographical resources” = “necessary”
  • “historical background information” = merely “helpful” (not necessary)

Here’s my pushback: How can one logically grant language this degree of independence from the historical context? It doesn’t seem possible because the authors use some words to refer to things outside the text (i.e., the words have extra-textual referents) that the first readers would have immediately grasped but that we might not. How can we determine the meaning of words apart from a historical setting?

Here are three examples (which we could easily multiply):

1. How can we determine what a δηνάριον (denarius) is without historical context? (Δηνάριον occurs 16x in the NT: Matt 18:28; 20:2, 9, 10, 13; 22:19; Mark 6:37; 12:15; 14:5; Luke 7:41; 10:35; 20:24; John 6:7; 12:5; Rev 6:6 [2x].)

2. It’s important to understand what a lamb is to understand parts of the Bible, and those passages are part of deeply important typology. But what if someone today (such as an adult in a remote tribe or a child in America) has never heard of (let alone seen) a lamb? They would need some extra-biblical information in order to get “a proper sense of a text” (to use Grudem’s words).

3. D. A. Carson writes this regarding Revelation 3:15 (“Approaching the Bible,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition [ed. D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham; 4th ed.; Downers Grove: IVP, 1994], 15-16):

A fair bit of nonsense has been written about the exalted Christ’s words to the Laodiceans: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (Rev 3:15). Many have argued that this means God prefers people who are “spiritually cold” above those who are “spiritually lukewarm,” even though his first preference is for those who are “spiritually hot.” Ingenious explanations are then offered to defend the proposition that spiritual coldness is a superior state to spiritual lukewarmness.

All of this can comfortably be abandoned once responsible archaeology has made its contribution. Laodicea shared the Lycus valley with two other cities mentioned in the NT. Colosse was the only one that enjoyed fresh, cold, spring water; Hierapolis was known for its hot springs and became a place to which people would resort to enjoy these healing baths. By contrast, Laodicea put up with water that was neither cold and useful, nor hot and useful; it was lukewarm, loaded with chemicals, and with an international reputation for being nauseating. That brings us to Jesus’ assessment of the Christians there: they were not useful in any sense, they were simply disgusting, so nauseating he would vomit them away. The interpretation would be clear enough to anyone living in the Lycus valley in the first century; it takes a bit of background information to make the point clear today.

So historical context may sometimes be necessary to understand the Bible accurately.

Does that Mean that the Bible Isn’t Sufficiently Clear?

No. Here’s how I address that in “Scripture: How the Bible is a Book Like No Other” (p. 66):

Not everything in the Bible is equally clear. . . . But the Bible’s central message about God’s saving work throughout history is unmistakably clear and easily understood. Its basic storyline—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation—is so simple that a young child can easily grasp it. God’s communication in the Bible as a whole is accessible.

This assumes two debated premises. First, the Bible means what God and the human authors intended it to mean. Second, we can understand that meaning. But that doesn’t mean that we can understand everything to the fullest possible degree. Case in point: Can a young child understand Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”? Sure, that’s not hard for a child to grasp. But that same child’s understanding of Genesis 1:1 may continually increase as she learns more and more about the Bible and God’s world. We can’t know anything absolutely (exhaustively or omnisciently) like God, but we can know some things truly (substantially or for real).

If we can understand the Bible truly, then why don’t all humans completely agree with each other on what the Bible teaches? The problem is not with the Bible. The problem is with finite and sinful humans. Were it not for the effects of the fall on our heads and hearts we would interpret the Bible the same way. But the point to stress here is that the Bible’s central message is clear.

[Footnote] Cf. Wayne Grudem’s seven sensible qualifications: “Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but (1) not all at once, (2) not without effort, (3) not without ordinary means, (4) not without the reader’s willingness to obey it, (5) not without the help of the Holy Spirit, (6) not without human misunderstanding, and (7) never completely.” “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009): 288-309.

So yes, “background information” is sometimes necessary to understand the Bible. And this should provoke us to study God’s Word (and his world) more diligently. Thank God for the abundant resources we have today to do that.


  1. Mike Bird reflects on the question.
  2. Don Carson and John Piper discuss the merits of studying hermeneutics and how much time teachers should spend investigating extrabiblical sources:

Should We Expect Politicians to Act Like Christians?

Recently I was asked whether John the Baptist lost his head for expecting a lost politician to act like a Christian. John, you’ll remember, was executed for telling Herod that it was not lawful for the king to have his brother’s wife.

This is an important question, not simply for understanding the background of this particular text. Christians often shrug off questions of public ethics because we say, “Why should we expect lost people to act like Christians?” I once heard a prominent preacher say that it didn’t matter to him if his neighbors went to hell as prostitutes or as policemen; it only mattered that they were going to hell.

In one sense, this is a good impulse. After all, Jesus never acted shocked or appalled by the behavior of the lost people. Jesus spoke with gentleness to the lost sinners around him, but with severity at religious leaders, hiding their sin behind religiosity and using their positions to serve selfish interests.

And the apostle Paul wrote that he didn’t judge “outsiders” but instead that it is those “inside the church whom you are to judge” (1 Cor. 5:12). The gospel didn’t come to achieve a society of morally straight people unreconciled to Christ.

But, if all that’s true, why does John persist in calling out this obviously unregenerate political leader for his sexual behavior? John isn’t incidental to the biblical story. Jesus calls him the greatest of the prophets.

Obligation of a King

This wasn’t really a question of merely personal behavior by an outsider. Herod was clearly a pagan internally, but he held an office instituted by God, an office with obligations for obedience to God. The rulership over Israel, after all, wasn’t the equivalent of the queen of England or the president of the United States. Israel was a covenant nation of priests. The king was to be of the house of David, and he was to model the line of Christ.

In the same chapter of Deuteronomy that the apostle Paul quotes to speak of internal church discipline, the law lays out the qualifications for king. He shouldn’t use the office to serve his appetites for things or for sexual gratification (Deut. 17:17), but ought to meditate on the Word of God and act according to it “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left” (Deut. 17:20).

Not Merely Private Morality

This was a question of public justice, not merely of private morality. Herod’s sin was multifaceted. Yes, it was a private act of sexual immorality, taking as his own a woman he shouldn’t have. But Herod was acting not just as a man but as a ruler.

Herod, of course, was a puppet king, acting as a client of the Roman Empire. He couldn’t have provided what he offered in his sexually ignited boast of giving Herodias’s daughter “up to half my kingdom” (Mk. 6:23). Herod didn’t have the same power as David, but it was the same principle at work. David’s taking of Bathsheba was more than just an immoral use of his private parts, but an immoral use of his public office.

We can all see what this means, even apart from divine revelation. One of the good things the feminist movement has brought to us is the way we deal publicly now with sexual harassment. An employer who pressures an employee for sexual favors isn’t just an immoral person; he is misusing power. When the CEO sleeps with an intern, his offense isn’t just against God and his wife, but is also an unjust abuse of power.

In line with all the prophets before him, John spoke out against the powerful misusing their privilege to exploit the vulnerable. Think of Daniel telling Belshazzar that the “writing is on the wall” for his prideful kingdom’s fall or Isaiah speaking truth to power to those who “rob the poor” and “make the fatherless their prey” (Isa. 10:2). Think of, after John, Jesus’ brother James denouncing the landowners who exploit workers with unjust wages (Jas. 5:4-6).

Judging Outsiders

John risked his neck to speak on this question not just to Herod as king but also to Herod as a man. Paul doesn’t “judge” the pagan outsiders, that’s true. He means that there is no means of holding those outside the church to the accountability of church discipline. But the church can still discern between good and evil. Even as Paul calls out the sin of the church member in Corinth, he compares it to the moral climate of the “pagans” on the outside (1 Cor. 5:1).

Jesus deals gently with tax collectors and sinners. He doesn’t, as he does with the religious leaders, call them whitewashed tombs or turn over their market tables. But he doesn’t refuse to speak to their sin. When he meets the woman at the well, he isn’t shocked by her serial monogamy, but he doesn’t leave it unquestioned either. He asks her, “Where is your husband?”

Those outside the church aren’t our battlefield but our mission-field, that’s true. We shouldn’t rail against them as though they are somehow different than we are, apart from God’s mercy in Christ. But the gospel is to be pressed on all creatures, on every human conscience. And the gospel is a call not only to faith but also to repentance. God now “commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed,” (Acts 17:31), Paul preached at Mars Hill.

We then speak to lost people not only of the historical truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and not only of his grace and mercy in receiving sinners. We also call them to turn from sin, and to agree with God that such sin is worthy of condemnation. Without this, there is no salvation. We speak then, as the apostle did to a pagan ruler, about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25).

Still Accountable

Our lost neighbors might be “pagan” in the sense that they are not part of the community of God, but they are still accountable before God. Their consciences are embedded with a law. John wasn’t the first to say to Herod that he couldn’t have his brother’s wife; this was hardly new information. Herod’s conscience already told him that much, and pointed him to his accountability on the day of judgment. John’s rebuke was an essential part of gospel preaching.

Christians often ping back and forth between extremes. The church of the last generation was often more concerned with a moral majority than with a gospel priority. In our attempt not to fall into that error, we could fall into an opposite, and just as dangerous, ditch. We could assume that all moral norms speak merely internally to the church, and we could fail to speak to unbelievers about such things. Such would be a refusal to love our neighbors, to warn them of what we will face at the judgment seat. But it would also be a refusal to preach the gospel. Without defining sin and justice, we cannot offer mercy.

Guilty consciences don’t initially like that word. None of us did, at first. But that’s the mission we’ve been given. Some of us may wind up with our heads on silver platters. Jesus knows how to put heads back on.