Prayer Partner and PrayerMate: A Person and an App That Have Bettered my Prayer Life

By | October 17, 2021

“There’s my prayer partner,” said an older lady at church to me. “I pray for you every day.”

These words of faithful prayer on my behalf were so encouraging to me as you can imagine. What I was really suddenly struck with as I thought on her words, though, was the spiritual accountability for my day that her prayers placed upon me. Obviously every moment of my day is accountable to God, but to know that every day L**** is praying for me, made me feel that my day should not be wasted.

As I continued to think about her words, I thought specifically about her calling me her “prayer partner.” At first I thought she was talking about someone else, someone that she prayed with regularly, but I realized she was talking to me. I thought about the phrase as we often hear it. Missionaries will talk about churches partnering with them in ministry financially as well as partnering in prayer. In that sense, I think L**** was telling me that she was partnering with me in my day by praying for me.

Isn’t that just the loveliest, most encouraging thought? Sometimes we can feel so alone in our daily lives. Sometimes the mundanity of everyday life can be overwhelming. Or it can cause us to fritter away our time. Or reduce the importance of little moments. But to know that someone is partnering with you means you are not alone. They are invested in you. They care enough to spend time before the throne on your behalf.

That being said, within the past few months I have discovered an app that has revitalized my prayer life. I have found prayer a very difficult thing to be consistent at. If I don’t have a system I fail miserably at consistency. I don’t like prayer journals, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and don’t like not being able to rearrange things. And I don’t like paper sitting around.

Enter PrayerMate. This app is wonderful. It has a basic layout that allows you to pray for family, church, missionaries, etc. It can sync with the contacts on your phone to make it even simpler. You can upload photos to add a face to your prayers. You can add categories. It includes prayers from the Bible to pray, and it has many options.  I now regularly pray for everyone in my church, along with our missionaries, other ministry couples, friends, and extended family on a regular basis.

Not only has this been an area of growth for me, but I have seen how it has been an opportunity to encourage others (along the lines of being a prayer partner). I will often take a screen shot of the person I prayed for, along with the list of the specific things I’ve added to his/her name and text/message the person I prayed for, letting them know that I prayed for them that day. This has seemed to be very encouraging from the feedback I’ve received.

As an extra bonus, it has also given me a great “small talk” question that opens the door to talk about deeper things. I’ve started several conversations with people that look a bit like the following: “Hey, I’ve got an app on my phone that I use to pray for people. If you ever have a specific request that I can add to my prayer list for you, let me know.” And I believe every time I’ve said that, the individual has immediately given me a request and opened a door for a good conversation.

Prayer is such a multi-faceted experience. We bring our requests to a God who commands and desires to hear them. He graciously answers, according to his will, giving only good gifts. We depend on God to meet our needs. We partner with others before God for their needs, which in turn glorifies God and encourages others.

“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2).

Ways to Help Your Passage-by-Passage Study of the Bible (for Teachers or Christians in General)

By | September 29, 2021

What follows below is some simple advice for reading your Bible and specifically how to understand a specific passage in depth. This advice is specifically geared towards teachers and similar to how I myself prepare to preach for our church. This post obviously does not say everything that could be said about Bible study, but it’s least a start. I hope it’s a help to the folks at my church and anyone else who reads it.

  1. First, understand the passage in its broader context.

Whatever the passage may be, gain a preliminary standing of the whole book that you are studying. Read introductory sections in study Bibles or introductions to the OT or NT that summarize and outline the book that you want to study. Know as much as you can about the author, audience, setting (time and places of author and audience), etc. Read the book for yourself several times, and outline the book passage by passage. If possible, identify key verses in which the author states his purpose for the whole book.

  1. Second, understand the passage itself.

If the passage is short enough, write it out by hand word for word. Narrative passages make this step difficult if the passage is longer, but reading it several times and taking notes can still be helpful. Once written, jot more notes next to your hand-written passage to identify each part of your passage and how its parts relate to others: (1) words – if a word could have multiple meanings, what does each word mean in this particular context? Are there connector words that tie what follows to what has gone before? (2) phrases – e.g., prepositional phrases – what word does this phrase modify? Are there parallel phrases that act as a series? A list? A progression of actions? (3) clauses – Is the clause subordinate to another clause? Is the clause independent (it makes for a sentence by itself)? Are the clauses assertions, commands, questions, etc.? (4) paragraphs – How does one figure out when the paragraph begins and ends? Are there repeated words? Commands? A theological theme? Are there transition words that begin one paragraph to the next? Usually what we think of as a “passage” is often a paragraph of Scripture, especially in the letters of the NT. (5) units – Do multiple paragraphs fit together? (6) whole Books – How does a paragraph or unit bring out the theme of a book? (7) testament – How does this passage and book fit within the storyline of the gospel in its testament? What time was this book written? Was it written before or after other books? (8) whole Bible – How does this passage and book fit within the Bible as a whole? How does it touch upon the gospel? What does it tell us about God’s rule over us and His desire to fellowship with us forever? Recognize if your passage touches on a theological theme that other parts of Scripture mention as well. How does this passage contribute to a broader theological theme? The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is a great reference tool that is helpful for finding similar passages can be bought or found online for free.

  1. Third, if preparing to teach through the passage, make an outline of your passage and then make a succinct statement that captures the big idea of your passage.

Now that you have a good understanding of the passage for yourself, read a sound, exegetical commentary or two on your passage. Use Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias to look up names, key words, etc. Study Bibles will often give concise interpretations for difficulties in a passage. The MacArthur Study Bible is the first that I would recommend.

  1. Fourth, if preparing to preach through the passage, turn your big idea statement into something that people can hear and get the idea of the passage right away.

Turn your outline is to something easy to hear and follow – use alliteration, key words, etc. Figure out a title for your sermon that memorably captures the big idea in just a phrase. Then make your notes in such a way as to explain the text to someone who has never heard it before. Finally, practice and time yourself. Nothing quite matches the experience of actually standing before God’s people and preaching, but practicing and preparing always helps. As Paul told Timothy with reference to Timothy’s Bible study, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV).

Your fellow Christians will notice your hard work and appreciate what you have prepared for them. They are not looking for perfection, but they can see progress. So, in both understanding what you study and doing the best to live out its truth in your own life, Paul has this to say as well: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:15–16 ESV).

Key Books and Resources to Read to Help Someone Teach or Preach without Seminary Training

Books of the Bible differ in how they are written. Some books are narrative and tell stories. Others are didactic and directly teach truth. Some are poetic, and others prophetic. Two books that help us know how to read through a given book and understand how that book presents God’s truth are…

  • A shorter book: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.
  • A longer book: Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard Patterson. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011.

If you wanted to take it a step further, you could even add these helpful three books to your reading:

  • Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Fourth Edition. Douglas Stuart. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
  • New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Third Edition. Gordon D. Fee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
  • Exegetical Fallacies. Second Edition. D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996.

A website that offers multiple videos for how to relate the parts of a passage together is BibleArc.com. This is John Piper’s arcing (pronounced ark-ing) system that he uses to relate words and parts of a passage together. Grammatical terms are explained and help identify the various parts of a passage and then relate them to others.

Two books that I recommend for learning how to preach and teach are as follows (and read them in this order if possible):

  • Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Haddon Robbinson. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
  • Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance. Donald Sunukjian. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007.

When it comes to understanding the broader themes of Scripture, I highly recommend this set of books, written by one of my professors:

  • A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity. 3 Volumes. Rolland McCune. Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010.

A great cross-reference resource for finding passages with similar thoughts to the passage that you are studying:

  • Blayney, B., Thomas Scott, and R.A. Torrey with Canne, John, Browne. The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, n.d. (This book is in the public domain.)

I cannot keep up with the amazing Bible software that Christians have created to aid Bible study, but here are at least two that can be installed on a computer or on your smartphones via their apps.

  • Logos: https://www.logos.com/ – I use Logos all the time, but it requires a good deal of money over the long haul to purchase resources. They have a vast website, however, complete with a trove of videos to teach you how to use the program.
  • e-Sword: https://www.e-sword.net/ – e-Sword is another platform that allows you to download and add many resources, especially a trove of public domain resources. If you have limited funds, this resource is especially helpful. I used this platform during college and then discovered Logos in my seminary days.

Commentaries: For commentary recommendations, I lean on others and their good recommendations. Here are two good lists:

Don’t get overwhelmed by the above. If you are just beginning to teach or preach in your church and have only one to two hours to prepare each week, here is what I would recommend:

  1. Read How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and Biblical Preaching.
  2. Study the passage to the best of your ability.
  3. Use the MacArthur Study Bible and its notes to help understand your passage better.
  4. Use e-Sword and whatever sound resources it provides to help you study your passage further. If you don’t mind spending some money, buy Logos.
  5. Prepare well, and make the most of your teaching opportunity.
  6. Make use of your pastors. Ask them about your passage and check your conclusions. Having asked you to assist in teaching the Word, I would hope that they would be glad to help you rightly divide the truth among the flock that they shepherd!

Last updated: September 30, 2021

Healing in James 5:13–16 – Physical, Spiritual, or Both? And What Does This Passage Mean for us Today?

By | September 26, 2021

James 5:13–16 ranks among Scripture’s most difficult passages to interpret. Charismatics use this passage to promise healing to the sick when a Christian believes as he ought when he prays. Catholics use this passage to teach “extreme unction” whereby they anoint someone with oil and say prayers for someone who is at the point of death. Even among sound interpreters, the healing in this passage is said to be either physical or spiritual, resulting in very different interpretations. Should the elders be called to pray for the spiritually sick who suffers from sin? Or should the elders be called to pray for the physically sick whose sickness may or may not be from underlying sin? The last of these options seems best for the reasons given below.1

First, the word for sick in James 5:14 (astheneō) is used to refer to both physical (e.g., Matthew 10:8) and spiritual (e.g., Romans 4:19) matters in the NT, so being “sick” could refer physical suffering. Some tie the sickness in James 5:14a to the spiritual suffering of James 5:13 (cf. James 5:10 with 2 Timothy 2:9; 4:5). But, just as James shifts from suffering to cheerfulness in James 5:13, so also he could shift topics again from cheerfulness to physical suffering in James 5:13b–14a. This is not to say that physical sickness is always unrelated to spiritual matters (cf. 1 Samuel 5:6–12; 1 Corinthians 11:30), but this is to say that, whether sin is involved or not (cf. James 5:15b), the sickness in James 5:14 could be physical.

Second, just as anointing someone with actual oil and his healing is physical in Mark 6:13, so also it is likely the same here in James 5:14. Granted, the elders who pray in James 5:14–15 are not apostles, but in both situations, it is the ultimately the Lord Jesus who heals the one anointed with oil (cf. Mark 6:7; James 5:15b). Some hold that oil is a metaphor for the uplifting ministry of the elders whose ministry mitigates spiritual sickness (cf. Psalm 23:6; Isaiah 1:6), but oil is otherwise always physical in the NT and indeed so in a very similar context in Mark 6:13. It could be used medicinally (cf. Luke 10:34) and could have thus symbolized the greater healing that only the Lord could do in a dire situation.

Third, “the prayer of faith” seems to refer to something miraculous. James gives certainty that this prayer indeed “will save” the one who is sick. The faith that accompanies this prayer is thus the faith beyond saving faith that is necessary for miracles, and the healing is then the miraculous healing that comes with this kind of faith. This kind of faith and its accompanying healing are listed as spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:9. They are apparently not granted in every occasion, even to apostles (e.g., Philippians 2:27; 2 Timothy 4:20).

Fourth, though used only one other time in the NT to refer to spiritual weakness (Hebrews 12:3), the verb behind “the one who is sick” (kamnō) was used in Bible times to refer to physical weakness and even death. This word, too, could refer to physical sickness.

Fifth, like the words for sickness above, “save” (sōzō) can also refer to physical salvation. It is commonly used to refer to both spiritual and physical salvation in the NT (e.g., Matthew 1:21; 8:25). Admittedly, this use of “save” would be James’s one use of the word for something physical (cf. James 1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20), but it is possible to understand this use to be salvation from physical illness.

Sixth, it is only possible that this sickness is related to sin. In addition to physical salvation, James adds, “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:15). But that is only “if” sin is involved and causing his physical sickness. Sin might not be involved in the matter at all.

Seventh, “heal” (James 5:16, iaomai) can refer to physical healing. It can refer to either spiritual or physical healing (e.g., Matthew 8:8; 15:13), and, as it does most of the time in the NT, it seems to refer here to physical healing. In James 5:16, this healing comes immediately after James mentions the confession of sin, again indicating that physical sickness may result from sin.

Putting together everything above, the elders in James’s day (the era of the apostles) could be called to anoint the physically sick person with actual oil, pray a prayer with extraordinary faith that knew the person would be healed, and then the Lord would certainly heal this person. What does this passage with all of its particularities mean for us today?

First, if the exercise of miraculous faith and gifts ceased with the apostles (cf. Acts 1:21–26; 2 Corinthians 12:12), so also did this healing and its extraordinary faith. However, the sick may summon his elders for prayer and a symbolic anointing with oil if desired, and it may be that the Lord grants healing in response to their prayers. The healing may even be miraculous, but without special revelation, neither the elders nor the sick would ever know.

Second, we are both physical and spiritual beings, and physical sickness may be due to unconfessed sin. David gives testimony to this phenomenon in Psalm 32:1–4. Scripture also indicates that the Lord at times strikes the sinner with sickness as judgment for his sin (cf. 1 Samuel 5:6–12; 1 Corinthians 11:30). It may be that, as the elders minister to the sick person, he confesses sin and finds physical healing as well.

Third, as this passage could involve elders ministering through prayer to someone with unconfessed sin, certainly the elders should rally with prayer around the spiritually discouraged. In fact, James addresses all of the brothers in the next two verses (James 5:19–20) and encourages them to bring spiritual wanderers back to the truth. All Christians are responsible to restore transgressors to a righteous way of living (Galatians 6:1) and to help the spiritually weak (1 Thessalonians 5:13–14).

Fourth, this context is a private setting in which the sick summons the presence of his elders. It is not an assembly of the church. Healing by faith in the apostolic era never drew inordinate attention to itself as do the so-called faith healers today.

Fifth, this context involves serious sickness which may include but is not limited to death. Extreme unction or last rites misunderstands and limits this passage to a very specific situation that James would not endorse.

  1. For contrasting viewpoints among sound interpreters, see D. Edmond. Hiebert, James (Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 1997) and John F. MacArthur, James (MacArthur New Testament Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1998). My view is close to what is found in John Calvin’s commentary on James. See https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom45.vi.vi.v.html. []

Preaching, Providence, and the Work of God

By | September 19, 2021

After Israel returned to her land from a seventy-year captivity (Ezra 1–2), the nation began to rebuild the temple. The return was in 538 BC. Rebuilding began in 536 BC, the year that Israel finished the temple’s foundation (Ezra 3). However, foreigners in Israel opposed and halted the work (Ezra 4:1–5). Foreigners beyond the borders opposed the work later as well (Ezra 4:6–23).

When Darius replaced Cyrus, however, the work began again in 520 BC (Ezra 4:24). Haggai and Zechariah prophesied and spurred Israel to complete the temple as led by Israel’s governor Zerubbabel and high priest Jeshua (Ezra 5:1–2). Resistance came again (Ezra 5:3–17), but the Jews did not stop this time (Ezra 5:11–16). In fact, Darius acted on the decree of Cyrus, funded the rebuilding, and provided for Israel’s worship, threatening death to anyone who would stop the work (Ezra 6:1–12). Israel finished the temple in 516 BC.

Ezra 6:14 summarizes: “And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia.”

The rebuilding “prospered through the prophesying” and “they finished their building” by the various decrees or commands. Cyrus commanded Israel’s return, funds to help the rebuilding, and the return of the temple vessels (Ezra 1:1–4). Darius commanded funds and resources as well (Ezra 6:1–12). Artaxerxes would stop Israel from rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls (Ezra 4:7, 12) but would later command Ezra and Nehemiah to aid the temple and rebuild the walls (Ezra 7; Nehemiah 2:1, 8). God’s decree was to command the work through His prophets all along the way (Ezra 6:14; cf. 5:1–2).

Like Israel then, sometimes opposition to God’s work gets the best of us. As they stopped working (for sixteen years!), so also we sometimes falter due to people who frustrate us today. But, just as God spoke through the prophets to revive the work then, so also does He move us through His Word to carry on today. The written and preached Word of God encourage us to persevere. And, just as God used pagan kings to aid the temple work, sometimes we find that God uses remarkable providences to help us as well. Whether we find out in this life or the next how God works out each difficulty for our good, we can at least know that He has worked out our greatest need (salvation through Jesus Christ) and is therefore good and wise in working out everything else. Christ will build His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. So do the work of the Lord!

Praise God for His rule, love, and wisdom to Israel long ago, a reminder that His rule, wisdom, and goodness to each of us and the church as a whole today.

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Why We Do What We Do When We Meet to Worship

By | September 12, 2021

Some churches host elaborate programs to entertain an audience. (Or some churches try this but do it very poorly.) Other churches have a liturgy so formal that only its ministers understand what is going on. Yet other churches may sing hymns, read Scripture, and do biblical things, but only for the sake of connecting with a tradition and not from a love for the gospel. At our church, we seek to obey the Scriptures in simplicity when we meet together, and I hope and pray it is because we truly want to worship the Almighty God who has saved us through His Son.

A handful of passages indicate what we do when we meet together. In short, we do what the Scripture tells us for the sake of building up the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:5b, 12, 26b, 40). Unbelievers are certainly welcome to attend our services, and we hope that God uses His truth and our love to draw them to saving faith in Christ (cf. John 13:34–35; 1 Corinthians 14:22–25).

First, Hebrews 10:24–25 commands us to encourage one another when we meet the together. We do not abstain from meeting together but physically meet together in order to stir one another to love and good works. Our time with one another in the aisle and lobby is important.

Second, 1 Timothy 4:13 commands Timothy in his capacity as a pastor to lead the church in reading Scripture, exhortation, and teaching. So, our pastors offer a pastoral prayer, read the text from which to preach, and use this text for teaching and exhortation. Men in general may participate and help in leading the assembly (cf. 1 Timothy 2:8, 12), so we extend our Scripture readings and prayers to the men.

Third, Colossians 3:16 commands us to teach and admonish one another in song. We obviously sing first and foremost to the Lord, but we do so as a congregation. Music is not meant to entertain but to worship God and build us up in the faith.

Fourth, Acts 4:35, 37 and 5:2 each mention public contributions to the church’s financial needs (i.e., laying funds at the feet of the apostles as they stood before the congregation). This public practice of collecting funds was apparently for all the churches on the first day of the week (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1–2). We give from the heart and according to our means as an act of worship to God (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:3; 9:7).

Fifth, we observe the two ordinances. We baptize those who come to the faith and observe the Lord’s Supper together. Jesus commands us to make disciples, baptizing them as they are made (Matthew 28:19), and the apostles instructed us to remember our Lord’s death by observing what we call the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17–34; cf. Matthew 26:26–30a).

More could be said, but these texts at least give an introduction and overview to what we do as a church.

Jeremiah’s Prophecy of Judah’s Exile in Babylon for Seventy Years

By | September 6, 2021

Babylon took Israel captive “until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths… seventy years,” a promise made “by the mouth of Jeremiah” (2 Chronicles 36:21; cf. Ezra 1:1).

What was Jeremiah’s prophecy, and what were these Sabbaths that were equivalent to seventy years?

Jeremiah 25:11–12 states, “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste.” Jeremiah 29:10 repeated, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”

Zechariah spoke in retrospect of these seventy years (520–518 BC; cf. Zechariah 1:7; 7:1). Their duration was a time of God’s anger, and their end was due to His mercy (Zechariah 1:12). The people fasted during these years, perhaps mourning the siege, breach, and destruction of Jerusalem, as well as the murder of Judah’s governor Gedaliah (Zechariah 7:5; cf. 8:18–23; 2 Kings 25:1–4, 24–25).

Each of these “Sabbaths” (2 Chronicles 36:21) was “a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land” that was to have taken place every “seventh year” after “six years” of farming (Leviticus 25:3–4; cf. 25:1–7). Israelites were also to cancel debts (Deuteronomy 15:1–11) and free slaves in this year (Deuteronomy 15:12–18; Exodus 21:2–6). If seventy years were necessary to recover these Sabbaths, Israel apparently failed to observe the Sabbath year seventy times, indicating disobedience for 490 years.

Daniel confirms this understanding with a prophecy four years before the end of these seventy years (cf. Daniel 9:1). Daniel referred to Jeremiah’s “seventy years” as the “the number of years that…must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem” (Daniel 9:2). Interestingly, in response to Daniel’s prayer of repentance for the nation’s 490 years of disobedience (cf. Daniel 9:3–19), God told Daniel of seventy “sevens” of years to come, another 490 years. Sixty-nine of the seventy “sevens” (483 years) took place (cf. Daniel 9:20–27) and ended when the Messiah was “cut off” on the cross (Daniel 9:25–26a). The final “seven” of years will come when the Antichrist makes a covenant with Israel, breaks it, and persecutes the nation. Thankfully, Christ wins the day in the end (Daniel 9:26b–27; 2 Thessalonians 2:8). The gap of time between Daniel 9:25–26a (483 years) and Daniel 9:26b–27 (seven years) is similar to the gap of time between Isaiah 61:1–2a and Isaiah 61:2b (cf. Luke 4:18–19).

So when exactly were these seventy years?

King Nebuchadnezzar sieged Jerusalem and took many people captive in 605 BC (2 Kings 24:10–17; cf. Daniel 1:1). Nebuchadnezzar then destroyed Jerusalem and its temple and took more people again in 586 BC (2 Chronicles 36:11–23). Using 605 BC as the first of Jeremiah’s seventy years, when the Persian king Cyrus commanded Judah to return to her land in 539 BC (2 Chronicles 36:22–23; cf. Ezra 1:1–4), and they did so in 538 BC, we could identify two years later in 536 BC as the end of these seventy years when Israel “made a beginning” of rebuilding the temple (Ezra 3:8–9). If reentry into the land is the end of exile and thus cuts the seventy years short by two, then perhaps God in His sovereignty cut those days short for the sake of His nation, similar to how He will cut short future judgment for the sake of His elect in Matthew 24:22.1

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  1. For a helpful discussion of the above texts, see F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982); Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979); and John A. Martin, “Ezra,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985). []

A Great Commission Challenge from Israel’s Prophets for Us Today

By | September 5, 2021

After 70 years of captivity, Israel returned to her land in 538 BC (Ezra 1:1–4). The nation began to rebuild the temple in 536 BC. When the foundation was complete, some people shouted for joy, but the old men wept because the remembered the first temple and knew that this one was not the same (Ezra 3:10–13). Couple this response with foreign opposition (Ezra 4:1–24), and we understand why Israel stopped working on the temple for 15 years.

But what got them working again? God raised up Haggai and Zechariah to prophesy in 520–518 BC in order to motivate Israel to finish the temple. Moved by the prophets, Israel’s governor Zerubbabel and her high priest Jeshua arose and led the people to finish (Ezra 5:1–2; cf. 6:14).

And just what did Haggai and Zechariah say to the people? And just what might we learn from this message to motivate us when we are discouraged from ministry by other Christians and enemies of the cross?

A verse from each prophet captures at least one of the lessons that we need to remember as well—the work of the Lord may seem small to us, but it is glorious in the eyes of God.

Haggai may have been among the old men, but he was not one of the ones to weep. Instead, he gave a rebuke: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” (Haggai 2:3). Zechariah noted this crowd as well and said their attitude would change: “whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice” (Zechariah 4:10).

And what would move these people to joy? In short—the presence of God. Zechariah promised, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). Haggai promised the same: “My Spirit remains in your midst” (Haggai 2:5). With God on Israel’s side, the nation was told to fear not, be strong, and work (Haggai 2:4–5). These prophets spoke God’s Word from 520 to 518 BC, and Israel completed the temple in 516 BC. Their attitude had changed. Israel “celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy” because “the Lord had made them joyful” (Ezra 6:16, 22).

Like those who compared the temples, we, too, can sometimes have nostalgia and weep because what is now is not what was then. But, if we are faithfully carrying out the Great Commission, we can also know that God is with us through Christ and the Spirit to do His work today (Matthew 28:18–20). And what we think was better than the present may not be quite what we thought it was.

Whatever the past may have been, we know God is with us today. In light of the Great Commission, fear not, be strong, and work!

An Overview of Ezra

By | August 30, 2021

Ezra wrote the book that bears his name approximately 450 BC. Similar to Luke’s writing of Luke-Acts, Ezra writes history in the third person and then shifts to first person when he is part of the story (cf. Ezra 7:27–28). Ezra 1:1–3a echoes 2 Chronicles 36:22–23, indicating that he perhaps wrote the Chronicles. He likely wrote Nehemiah as well.

As to its contents, Ezra is a story of rebuilding and reform. Chapters 1–6 recall how Israel rebuilt the temple. Cyrus decreed it (Ezra 1:1–4), provided the resources for it (Ezra 1:5–11), and allowed people to go do it (Ezra 2:1–70). These people were led by Zerubbabel and made up the first return from Babylon to Jerusalem (538 BC). From roughly 536–516 BC, they built the temple in spite of opposition (Ezra 3:1–6:12) and celebrated its completion (Ezra 6:13–22).

Chapters 7–10 tell of reformation. Ezra led the second return from Babylon to Jerusalem in 458 BC (Ezra 7:1–8:36), and once there, the people already present confronted Ezra with the problem of Jews having married pagan wives. This sin included priests and Levites. This unique situation required a unique solution (putting these wives and children away), and Ezra brought about reform (Ezra 9:1–10:44).

Theologically, Ezra is an amazing story of the faithfulness of God. Based upon His promises to Abraham (cf. Genesis 12:1–7), God sustained the nation and returned to the land those who were willing to come. Based upon specific promises through Isaiah, God raised up Cyrus to repopulate Jerusalem and rebuild the city and its temple (Isaiah 48:24–45:13).

Ezra is also a story of the sovereignty of God. In showing Himself faithful to Israel, God turned the hearts of the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius to give decrees to help His nation (Ezra 1:1; 6:22; cf. Proverbs 21:1). He stirred the spirits of his servants and the people as a whole (Haggai 1:14). “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” was how the Israelites completed the temple (Zechariah 4:5; cf. Ezra 6:13–22).

Ezra is also a story of the mercy of God. Israel’s first deportation to Babylon took place in 605 BC. Two more would take place in 597 and 586 BC. Jerusalem would be destroyed, its temple razed, and its people taken away (cf. 2 Chronicles 36:15–23). In keeping with the prophecy of Jeremiah (Ezra 1:1; cf. Jer 25:11–12; 29:10), God ended Israel’s exile and began to return His people to their land after seventy years of exile were over.

In the Bible as a whole, the Abrahamic Covenant promised help to Israel, and Isaiah anticipated Cyrus and his decree. Sadly, however, Israel murdered her Messiah. Nonetheless, a happy ending will come. Just as God in Christ is faithful to us in our salvation, so also “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26; cf. Romans 9–11). When all is said and done, the Father and Son will be the temple in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:22), and Israelites and believers from every tribe and language and people and nation will worship God forevermore.

 

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Read-Aloud Revival Premium Membership: Is it Worth It?

By | August 28, 2021

Several years ago when my oldest 2 were very little, I subscribed to the Read-Aloud Revival email list so that I could  get a recommended list of books sent to me. At the time, I didn’t really have much of an idea of what good children’s books were, except for any book that I had myself encountered as a child. The list was and is wonderful, and it was so helpful to me at the time to be able to find great books to read to my kids.

Sarah Mackenzie, a homeschooling mom of 6, created the website to encourage other parents in how to help their children love reading. The more I looked at her website and saw what she and her team offered, the more I was able to see how helpful and fun her website is. There are many ways to advantage of the good stuff for free: podcasts, monthly booklists, and blog.

About a year and a half ago, however, I decided to “take the plunge” and join Read-Aloud Premium, only open to new members at select times throughout the year. I initially joined with a monthly membership at $15/month. This way, if I didn’t think it was quite worth the money, I could cancel at anytime without losing much. After a few month, I chose to switch to a yearly renewal of $149/year (saving $31 total compared to a monthly renewal).

I will be honest and say that I initially was still not sure whether it was worth it for me. I loved everything that was offered, but I just wasn’t using it like I could. So, I decided to work hard at taking advantage of more that premium membership offers, and I am really glad I did.

Let me share my favorite aspects of premium:

  • Ralph Masiello (ralphmasiello.com). Ralph is a children’s book illustrator, and Sarah often has Ralph do drawing workshops for the kids. I love to do the workshops right along with him, because it is so fun. He is funny, patient, and encouraging. He gives the kids time to catch up or reminds them to pause the video (Every live-stream video is recorded to be viewed later by premium members).
  • WOW (Writers on Writing). Sarah regularly invites children’s authors to present a workshop for kids on writing. Some have been more interesting and fun than others, but they’ve all been helpful and a great supplement for teaching creative writing.
  • Author (or Illustrator) Access events. After a family book club, in which Sarah recommends a picture or chapter book for everyone to read or a mama book club for the moms, she often has an interview with the author or illustrator. This is so much fun to feel like you’re meeting these people and gaining insight into their books. Kate DiCamillo, Tomie DePaulo, Lois Lowry, Andrew Peterson. . .
  • Master Classes for homeschooling moms. You could totally be a non-homeschooling mom and enjoy the benefits of premium membership, but this has probably clinched it for me. Either Sarah or a guest will speak for about an hour about some aspect of homeschooling, and this has been such an encouragement to me.
    • I’ve been encouraged time and again that “getting everything done is not the goal.” She speaks about setting ultimate goals for your homeschool (eg., I want my kids to look back and say **this** about homeschooling) and actually going about accomplishing them.
    • She gives tips for how to start your year (a little at a time), how to evaluate your year, etc.
    • She invited a guest that discussed your and your children’s personalities, and how they play a big part in how you homeschool (and parent actually).
    • She invited a voice actor that gave tips on how to read with different voices for various characters. So fun and helpful!
    • She has a God-centered focus. She will tell you that she grew up in a Protestant minister’s home, then converted to Roman Catholicism after much study. I do not know what she believes about the Gospel itself, and I understand that her particular beliefs about salvation are likely different than what I believe the Bible teaches, but I do not recall her saying anything yet that is unbiblical. She encourages prayer and Scripture as she speaks, and I can be encouraged by that, even if I am not agreeing with her theology.

There are even more ways to be involved in Premium, especially if you like to interact with others on the forum. Any member can start a discussion and interact with others. I’ve never seen any comment that is rude or snarky, and that is saying something! Everyone is always kind and encouraging and helpful. I do not interact much on the forum, but it’s there if you like it.

All that to say, that I have come to the conclusion that RAR Premium is worth it for me. The reason I thought I’d share this now is that the price is going up starting October 1. Membership is currently open right now as I write, so if you join in now, you can lock in your price before it goes up. (If you join the monthly renewal and then decide to switch to yearly as I did, you must do that before the price goes up to lock in the lower yearly price.)

You can get a lot more info and testimonials right here: https://readaloudrevival.com/become-a-member/.

Happy Reading!

 

The ABC’s of Confrontation

By | August 23, 2021

Forgiveness has been the theme of my posts these past few weeks. Last week we explored when Scripture compels confrontation, repentance, and forgiveness. This week is a biblical and practical look at the confrontation itself. How should it take place? What do we say, and how do we say it?

What follows below are some “ABC’s” that try to capture some basic wisdom necessary when confrontation takes place.1

To the one who confronts the sinner:

Affirm your affection. If you are truly being faithful as a friend to openly rebuke a fellow Christian, state the obvious. Affirm your Christian affection for the sinning party with words. Don’t take it for granted, and don’t let your conservation be only about the sinner’s sin.

Be prepared to be wrong. You might state your case and find out from the would-be offender that you are mistaken concerning the facts or your brother’s intentions (Proverbs 18:17). Two or three witnesses might encourage you to drop the matter instead of bringing it before the church (cf. Matthew 18:16).

Communicate carefully. Say exactly what the issue is and then say no more. Choose your words wisely. Always avoid “always,” and never say “never” in your rebuke. The sinner most likely does not always commit this sin or never do what is right. Even in rebuke, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).

Do it right. Involve the right people—the sinner himself (Proverbs 25:9–10; Matthew 18:15) and only others as necessary (cf. Matthew 18:16–17). Use the right manner—be gentle and gracious with your words (Proverbs 15:1; Colossians 4:6). Do it for the right reason—for the other Christian’s good and not for personal vengeance (Romans 12:17–21; 1 Corinthians 13:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 1 Peter 3:9).

Expect a little but hope for a lot. Don’t assume that the conversation will play out perfectly as you might picture it in your mind. Confrontations are often like a maze. You can see the entry and the exit, but the twists and turns along the way might keep you from reaching your destination. At the same time, if both parties are truly Christians, they will walk in the Spirit and avoid reactions and distractions that would keep them from their goal (cf. Galatians 5:22–26).

Forgive. If your rebuke is warranted and goes well, your offender repents and asks for forgiveness. If so, forgive and let the matter go. Perhaps there are consequences that you cannot avoid. Perhaps the matter is civil, and legalities must run their course. But that does not mean that you can do your best to put the matter behind you and remember it no more (cf. Hebrews Jeremiah 31:34; 8:12; 10:17).

To the one who is caught in sin:

Apologize. If you have sinned against your brother, repent and ask for his forgiveness (cf. Luke 17:3–4). Be diligent to put your sin to death and live righteously instead.

Be thankful for the wounds of a faithful brother. Serious sin needs rebuke, and this rebuke is Christ’s love through him to you (cf. Revelation 3:19). His love endures in adversity, and he remains faithful to you in spite of sin (Proverbs 17:11; 27:5–6).

Communicate carefully as you respond. As above, be wise in what you say. Specifically…

Don’t become defensive. Embarrassment, surprise, shame, or shock—in the moment, receiving a well-deserved rebuke can activate our adrenaline and produce all sorts of responses. As difficult as it may be, we should not become defensive. That might only heighten the tension of the situation and likely lead to more sin.

Expect a rebuke here and there. The power of sin is broken for Christians, but we still sin from time to time. Sometimes we sin against others or are exposed for habitual sin. Whatever the sin may be, we will need an occasional rebuke from another.

Fellowship again. Don’t merely apologize and walk away, never to return to fellowship again. In fact, your fellowship should be all the better because you’ve seen the faithfulness of your friend (cf. Proverbs 27:5–6). Rather than being offended and unyielding (cf. Proverbs 18:19), your brother responded with love to your sin. Friends like that are few and far between. Let your fellowship continue.

  1. Many thoughts in this post are gleaned here and there from Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008) and John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998). []