The Power of Prayer

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“We Believe in Prayer” – Part 1

While I have been in Dallas for these past two months, I have been attending Crossroads Christian Church in the nearby city of Grand Prairie, Texas.  I have enjoyed the worship and the teaching at this church.  The membership is in the thousands, and so they offer three morning services as well as having a Wednesday night teaching service.

It can be difficult for me to attend church with the muscle disease that I have, but thankfully the building is relatively flat, including their main sanctuary.  In the sanctuary they have very comfortable theater style padded chairs that don’t hurt my legs.  The church also offers multiple Sunday School teaching classes during each service.  Again, I am thankful that their smaller Chapel room, which can seat over a hundred people, has nicely padded pews. So I have been able to attend a class in there too.

Right now, the church is proposing an amazing building expansion that will focus just on Children’s Ministries.  It is a huge step of faith to believe that they can accomplish this over the next year, but it has the potential to reach thousands of kids in the surrounding areas.  And so they just had a church-wide emphasis on prayer.  I would like to share the summaries of the lessons taught on prayer over the next four weeks in my Thursday postings.

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Lesson Overview:  “Jesus never questioned whether or not if believers should pray. In Matthew 5:6, he said, “When you pray…” Paul knew how essential prayer was. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul reminded believers to “pray without ceasing.” Still, most believers will tell you that they do not pray enough and many will confess their lives are almost completely without prayer.”

The key text that our leader focused in on during this first lesson was Acts 12:1-19. The background to the story in this chapter is that the church in Jerusalem was flourishing well in the months that followed after Christ’s death and resurrection. The Jewish political ruler at this time was another King Herod and he tried to keep the Jewish leaders happy as well as the powerful forces of Rome which occupied and governed Palestine.

In order to do this, King Herod started to persecute the early church and even had one of its leaders killed, James the brother of John. This pleased the Jewish leaders, and so King Herod went on and had Peter arrested and put in jail. This galvanized the Christian believers into action as we can see from verse 5, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” Let’s now consider the main points that we can learn from this story in Acts 12.

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1.  “They were praying for the impossible.”

Looking at Peter’s situation from a human perspective, there was really no hope of Peter being released. Remember that Jesus had been arrested, put on trial, and killed in less than one day. The text also implies that James was immediately put to death. And to make sure that no one was able to come and rescue Peter, Herod put four squads of four highly trained Roman soldiers to guard him at the jail. And yet, the church’s immediate response to the situation was to gather the believers and pray.

2.  “They were praying specifically.”

It is possible that the Christians prayed about other things, but the text is very clear that they were earnestly praying to God concerning Peter. Looking at the Greek verb here, we also learn that this was not just a single prayer offered up, but they were continually, constantly praying to God. This sounds similar to the “Persistent Widow” in the parable found in Luke 18:1-8. That passage teaches us about the importance of persisting in prayer and then seeing the request being granted. The question for us to consider is whether we practice this kind of praying.

3.  “They were praying corporately.”

Verse 12 of our key passage tells us that “many people had gathered and were praying.” I believe there is an important lesson to be learned here. Think about what we do today. When we hear about a critical situation that needs prayer, what do we often do? Nowadays, we will usually get the news through an e-mail or perhaps by a telephone call, which does make it harder, but is our first thought to gather with other Christians and to pray together about this matter? Sadly, it is not.

4.  “They were surprised at the answer.”

I think this is the most amazing aspect about this story. The church responded quickly, decisively and specifically in prayer when the crisis happened. God answered their prayers and Peter was standing at the door outside, but the people did not believe this report of the servant girl that Peter was alive and standing at the door. For me, this actually makes the story more believable because it shows how human the early Christians were.

This raises the biggest question of all for us as believers. When we pray, do we not expect God to answer our prayers? Are we perhaps more similar to Thomas then we care to admit? Remember how Thomas heard the reports that Jesus was alive but it wasn’t until he saw Jesus with his own eyes that he believed.

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Recall what Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” and also 11:6, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” And finally, grab hold of and believe what Jesus said in Mark 10:27, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Dear reader, it is my hope that you will not only pray regularly to God yourself, but that you will seek out other believers to pray together with and truly experience the power of prayer.

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God’s Perspective (Phil. 1:12-18a)

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Looking At Things From God’s Perspective

Philippians 1:12-18a  Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.  But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

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In our study of Philippians, it was hinted at in verse 7 that Paul had suffered imprisonment for the sake of the Gospel.  Now he makes it very explicit that he in fact is a prisoner, and it is because he preached Christ that he is in chains and being called on to defend publicly the claims of Christianity.  Meanwhile, there are some Christians who continue to preach Christ, but not out pure motives, but out of selfish motives which are causing a disturbance among the true believers of Christ.

For this fledgling church in Philippi, things seem to look very bad.  The founder of their church, and the man who could be the most encouraging to them is in jail.  And there are glory-seekers and hot-shot “preachers” who appear to be causing trouble for this small, but growing Christian movement.  From their perspective, everything looks bad.  And so Paul writes these verses to show them that in reality, what looks bad, is in effect really a good thing.

Consider this quote, “The letter to the Philippians was written in part to address their concern for his circumstances in prison and its affect on his ministry. From their perspective, imprisonment meant a huge setback. Paul shatters this notion in 1:12, claiming that his circumstances actually served to advance the gospel rather than holding it back.”  (Runge, S. E. (2011). High Definition Commentary: Philippians. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)

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I think this is an important spiritual principle of life for us to learn well.  What we may consider to be bad and detrimental to the advance of the Kingdom and God’s work, can actually be something that God can use in a more powerful way than we can ever imagine.  Romans 8:28 promises us that God can bring good out of every situation.  I have seen that to be very true in these last three years of my ministry and life.

At the beginning of 2008, I felt like I was on top of the world in my ministry experience.  And in fact, I was being asked to help with training nationals in East Africa, to return to Papua New Guinea on a regular basis as a translation consultant, to help open up a new field of work in the subcontinent of Asia, to teach new missionary recruits in the States, and to be the head of our mission group in Canada.  And then this muscle disease hit.

I literally went from being a globe-trotter to barely walking across our living room floor.  Over the coming months of 2008, every aspect of global ministry had to be released and let go except for occasional trips to PNG to do consultant checking work.  I thought that it was the end of my ministry life.  But instead, as I trust God to give me strength, I have seen God bless others in mighty ways that I might never have seen happen before as they witnessed God’s power working through me to get this work done.

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The second thing that discouraged the Philippian believers was seeing many other people “preaching the gospel” but in such a way that these people were getting all the attention and glory.  Paul talks about these kinds of people and he uses the Greek word “eritheia“.  This is a strong word and can be translated as “rivalry” or perhaps better “selfish ambition”.

The “Translator’s Notes on Philippians” says that “Paul meant that these people wanted to be important. They wanted people to respect them and obey them rather than Paul, so they tried to get more people to follow them than Paul had.”  Do you remember the evangelistic fiasco of Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker?  Or the scandal caused by Jimmy Swaggart?  What shame they gave to true Christians.

And then I recall meeting a missionary in the back hills of Honduras in 1979.  He spoke of all the thousands of dollars that he had gotten churches to donate to his work of planting churches.  Meanwhile, he had built himself a virtual rustic mansion as he did his work of “ministering” to the nationals.  I heard a few years later that his financial “irregularities” caused him to resign and fade back into American life.

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So what are we to think about these kinds of Christians who speak about Christ, but are often in it more for the money and the glory?  Paul says in verse 18, “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.”  I must say that I feel bad for those who were hurt or disillusioned by these Christian hot-shots.  But then I also have to recognize that there were still many true and lasting decisions for Christ made under the Bakker’s work or under Swaggart.  And there are still some good functioning churches up in the hills of Honduras.

So the bottom line is this:  we are to serve our God with integrity and honesty.  And we are even to be thankful for the fruit that is borne even by these masquerading Christian leaders.  Above all else, we are to give thanks to God whenever the name of Jesus is exalted, whatever the motive might be.  We are to rejoice in this, just like Paul did while he was in prison.

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Partners In The Gospel (Phil. 1:3-7)

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Sharing in the Work of the Gospel

Philippians 1:3-7 Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God.  Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now.  And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.  So it is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart. You share with me the special favor of God, both in my imprisonment and in defending and confirming the truth of the Good News.

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It is very clear that Paul had a close and special relationship with the believers in the church at Philippi.  He prayed for them, often.  And it says here that he gave thanks to God whenever he remembered them, and in his prayers for all (not just some of them, but all of them), he was filled with joy as he prayed.  And note how he says, “for you have a special place in my heart.”

We must ask ourselves, why did Paul has such a strong and positive emotional attachment to these people in Philippi?  If we look back into the book of Acts (chapter 16), Paul spent a very short time in Philippi, probably a few weeks or so.  And the highlight of his visit there was spending a night in a dirty, dingy jail.  Or was it?

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We are fairly certain that there was no active worship building, like a synagogue for the Jews.  Paul and his companions had to go outside the city to the river where they found only a few woman gathered there for a time of prayer (Acts 16:13).  By the time Paul left Philippi, he had preached the gospel and we know that Lydia and her household, plus the jailer and his household had accepted Christ and were baptized.

There may be more who joined the fledgling church when Paul was there, although we don’t know who they were.  But what we do know from the book of Philippians in this short passage is that Paul says they were “partners in spreading the Good News about Christ.”  And in 4:15 he says, “you Philippians were the only ones who gave me financial help when I first brought you the Good News and then traveled on from Macedonia. No other church did this.”

To fully appreciate what is going on here, we want to exercise the skills I introduced a few articles back about doing an Inductive Bible Study.  There are a few very interesting key words in these verses that are worth taking a closer look at.  Specifically, I want to examine “partners”, “defending and confirming”, and “special favor of God”.

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Partners:  In other versions, the term for “partners” has also been translated as “partnership” or “participation”.  Upon reflection, it suggests to us that there was a close relationship between Paul and the people in Philippi in evangelizing the city.  It was not as we might think today of a “business partnership” where the executives decide how the employees should do the work, but they themselves do not get involved.

The partnership in mind here is the shoulder-to-shoulder “let’s go out and get this work done together”.  Now the reason why I find this word so interesting is that it comes from the Greek work “koinōnia“.  And this word is quite often translated as “fellowship”.  In one Bible dictionary, this word is explained as “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement”.

The key for me here is that “Christian fellowship” is meant to have an emphasis upon “involvement” with others and in other’s lives.  Don’t get me wrong, I love when we have potlucks at church, but I wonder how deep the thought is when we say, “Let’s stay for the potluck fellowship.”  I think it often just means to people, let’s chit-chat and fill our bellies with food.

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Defending and Confirming:  This leads us to consider in verse 7 what it was exactly that Paul was doing, and that which the Philippians were partnering together to do.  We have already said that they were “spreading the Good News“, but in this verse, Paul says that he was defending it and confirming it.  And the implication in this passage is that Paul was engaged in doing this activity whether he was free or whether he was in prison.

Both of these key words are Greek words which carry a legal courtroom-like aspect to them.  The first one “apologia” means to “defend publicly that something is not wrong”.  We get the word “apologist” and “apologetics” from this word.  And many 1st and 2nd century Christian leaders were called apologists as they stood up and declared that Christianity was not a false religion, but was the very Truth of God.  And that is the other side of what they did, they were “confirming the Truth of the Good News“.

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Special Favor of God:  Now I don’t know about you, but I must admit that there are many times that I feel awkward and embarrassed to share my faith.  But Paul tells the Philippians that it is a “special favor of God” or “grace” (the literal Greek) to be serving God by publicly standing up for the faith.  And if that is the case, then God would provide the courage and the words to be His spokesman or spokeswoman.

And Paul says here that for these kinds of people, those who count it a privilege to be followers of Christ and let others know publicly about it, he has a special place in his heart for them.  Just as Paul is bound or “united” with Christ in his faith, so he is also bound intimately with those who are willing to share their faith with others.

So how about you?  Do you feel the same kind of passion as Paul had, to be willing to live out your faith in public?  And even to suffer because of it?  Then you stand as a partner with Paul, and are in true fellowship with the apostles and prophets, and are united (stuck) to Christ, who grants us His grace / favor to do this awesome and important task.  May God bless you as you live for Him.  Amen.

Powerful Opening (Phil. 1:1-2)

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Greetings & Blessings

It is easy to read the first two verses of Philippians and just pass over them quickly.  We see that the book (actually a letter) is being sent from Paul and Timothy to the church that was in Philippi.  And the blessing of “grace and peace” from God and from Jesus to the believers sounds just like any other of Paul’s opening words to the other churches that he wrote letters to as well.

But I believe we do ourselves a disservice if we rush by these two verses too quickly.  There is much more here that is worth looking into than meets the eye on the first glance.  Now recall from the article I wrote last week (click here) that I outlined four stages to doing a good inductive Bible study.  They are:

  1. Do a text comparison.
  2. Review the Greek text.
  3. Check out Commentaries and Lexicons.
  4. Do a concordance check on significant words.

In this short opening section of two verses, it was not very hard to write up a summary sentence for the section, or to give the section a short title that covers the main idea of the passage.  We did that on the last article.  Now we want to look into some specific words and phrases to discover some of the richer and deeper meaning that is contained within these words and the context where they are found.  Now we get into the meat of doing Inductive Bible Study.

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At our small group study last week, we did the text comparison step and looked for any vocabulary or wording that was significant, yet different, in four different translations.  We looked at this short passage in the New Living Translation, the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version.  We saw the following slight differences in the versions:

  • “slaves” / “servants” / “bond-servants”  (v.1)
  • “holy people” / “saints” / “those who belong to Christ”  (v.1)
  • “elders” / “overseers”  (v.1)

And we noticed that this letter was a) meant for “all” the believers in Philippi, including the church leaders, and b) that “grace and peace” come from “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.  One further thing that caught our attention was the phrase “in Christ”.  Looking ahead, an alternate wording for this phrase is “in the Lord”.

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Taking a quick look at an Interlinear Greek Text, we saw that the key words we had found above were also used in the Interlinear text.  Now we needed to do a little research to see if any of these differences would bring out any new or significant meaning to the text.  The first one that caught just about everyone’s attention was the contrast of “slave” / “servant” / “bond-servant”.

It was not surprising to find that the term “slaves of Christ Jesus” made us uncomfortable.  Doesn’t it sound better to be a servant than a slave?  And yet, when we consider as we see in verse 2, that Jesus Christ is our Lord, then we ought to be fine to be called slaves, for He paid our debt of sin by dying for us, and in return, we give our lives over totally to Him as His people.  And that led us to consider the term “bond-servant”.

This is a special term that relates to first century culture.  There were many actual “slaves” in Paul’s day.  Some of them could earn or buy their freedom from their owners.  But if a slave loved his master enough, then he could choose to voluntarily be a servant for life to his owner.  He then became a “bond-servant”.  He literally “bound” himself forever to his owner and willingly served him.

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Isn’t that a tremendous picture as we hear Paul call himself a “bond-servant”? And we too can choose to be willing and obedient servants to Jesus Christ.  And this is where we picked up on the phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord”.  These two phrases (plus two more variants) are used 22 times in this letter to the Philippians.  It must be important.  And indeed, we found this phrase to be very rich in meaning.

After looking into some commentaries and translation helps, we found that the phrase could be translated as “union with Christ”, “united with Christ”, or “bound together with Christ”.  In fact, in one language group that I worked with, the literal back-English translation for this Greek phrase was translated as “stuck to Christ”.

I thought that was such a powerful picture, that when we are “in Christ”, it is like we are so closely bound to Him that we are in a sense “super-glued” to Christ.  So even as we open up the book of Philippians, we see that Paul, and by his example, Christians are to be willing, obedient servant-slaves of Jesus, and super-glued to Him so that when people see us, they see Jesus in and through us.  Pretty cool, eh?

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One more thing that our study group discussed was that we should not dismiss this greeting of Paul’s so quickly and just say, “Oh, that is how Paul greeted everyone.  He was just saying ‘Hello’ in his letter.”  No, we felt that there was power in the words he chose to use in his greeting.  He wanted God to bless his readers with “grace and peace”.

These words carry the essence of the Gospel.  We are saved by grace.  And when we experience the true grace of God, then the fractured relationship that was once there between us and God is gone, and we can truly experience deep spiritual peace with God.  And we can extend that peace to our relationships with others around us.

And so we considered the idea that we as Christians may want to model Paul’s greeting to fellow believers when we meet them.  Wouldn’t that be interesting if on Sunday morning, instead of just saying, “Hi, how are you?”, we would greet our brother or sister in the Lord and say, “Hello Dave.  God bless you with the His grace and peace this week.  And how are you doing today?”

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Discovering Philippians (1:1-2)

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The Opening Greetings

Last weekend was Easter weekend.   So instead of our Bible study group meeting on Thursday, some took the opportunity on that Easter Thursday to go to a special service to prepare their hearts and minds to reflect upon the greatest historical events, the death of the man-God Jesus on the cross, and the victorious resurrection of our Lord and Risen Savior, Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately I was not able to go.  But I still rejoiced in my heart as I individually had my own time of reflection.

And so, we did not meet to look into the first chapter of Philippians in greater detail as planned.  Which turned out all right from my perspective as I was not totally ready last week to begin.  It has taken me quite a while to figure out how to go about doing this group Bible study.  And I think I might finally have what I want that will hopefully be helpful to others as I present one way to study Scripture from an inductive and self/group-guided process.

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The process I developed for the study of Scripture has four main components to it.  The four stages for studying Scripture that I will use just happen to match some of the main language software tools I have on my computer, and which I use extensively when I am preparing for my translation consultant checking work.  The following then is a summary and some breakdown of the Four Stages to Doing Inductive Bible Study:

A.  Text Comparison:  the idea here is to take at least two, or up to four, different English Bible versions and read slowly a section (a portion from one section title to the next) to get a grasp of the main ideas of the section, and to see the similarities and the differences between the various translations.

This screen shot is from Logos Bible Software shows four translations of Phil. 1:1-2.

B.  Review the Greek Text:  This step may sound too difficult to the average reader of the Bible, but today there are so many ways to assist people, especially in this electronic age.  Now a person can find an Interlinear Greek to English Bible in book format, but not only is it easier to navigate in a computer program, but usually the Greek words are linked to English study tools such as we will mention in the next stage.  To get an idea of what I am talking about, let me put up another print screen picture.

This screen shot is from a linguistic program called Translators Workshop.

C.  Commentaries and Lexicons:  there are so many, many commentaries on the open market, as well as a good number of Lexicons (another word for dictionaries).  A good idea would be to talk to a sales person at a Christian book store, or to a pastor, or to a Bible college professor to get suggestions as to what commentaries and lexicons would be best suited for you.  And as some of you may have read in my last blog, I now have a way to help readers obtain good books.  (Go back and read that article if you would like my help.)  These are the tools that can help you get into and understand the meaning behind critical key words and phrases in your studies.

D.  Concordances:  and finally this tool can help you a great deal, especially if you are trying to do a word study in Scripture.  A good commentary tells you how many times the word you are studying appears in the Bible, what the references are to each usage of the word, and some even help provide the shades or ranges of meaning of a word, based on biblical context.

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So after reading the opening little paragraph to the book of Philippians (1:1-2), I took these principles of good Bible studying and applied them to this little section.  I read and reread the two verses in th four translation versions that are listed above.  And from that Text Comparison, I gave the section my own title, “Greetings and Blessings to the Philippian Believers“, and I wrote out a summary sentence in my attempt to capture the main idea of this short section.  It goes like this:

Paul and Timothy greet the church at Philippi and extend blessings from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Doing this process of reading a section (now most sections are much longer than this two verse opening section we see here in chapter one), we will generally get a good sense as to what the whole section or main idea is all about.  After all, the people who have introduced the section divisions must have felt there was a good reason as to where they made the divisions.

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But just thinking about what the passage/section is about is not really good enough if we are on a quest for knowledge and understanding of what God’s word says and means.  No, I believe that it is when we try to write out a summary sentence, and to write out a new Section Title, that we have to wrestle with the text until we “get it”.  Then while the moment of clarity of understanding arrives, that is when we need to write our thoughts down.  This reinforces what we just discovered, and it leaves a permanent record of what we have learned to which we can turn to later.

Okay, well, we did not get very far into the book of Philippians, but that is okay.  We are setting down good principles by which we can study and learn from God’s Word.  Next week (Thursday) I will continue with what insights and thoughts I have gained after studying chapter one of Philippians.  I pray you will join me then.  And until then, may God bless you and keep you safe from all harm.


Discovering Philippians

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A Fresh Way to Study Scripture

Two weeks ago, our church small group was meeting and we were trying to decide what we wanted to study during the next five weeks.  After that, it would be Spring (hopefully) and people would be starting to travel more and enjoy the good weather.  At least that is the plan…good weather…travel…enjoy.  But in Canada, and especially Calgary, being next to the Rocky Mountains, you never know what to expect.

But back to our Bible study group.  Most of us wanted to take a look at a book of Scripture, but how much can you do in just 5 weeks.  So the suggestion was to look at a small book like Paul’s letter to the Colossians or to the Philippians.  We went with the second suggestion.  And I mentioned to the group that I had just done a consultant checking session on Philippians for a PNG language group in February.

As we talked about it, I made the offer to help provide some guidance into looking deeper into the book.  I wanted them to know that I do not consider myself in any way an expert in the Greek language, but I do know how to use these wonderful computer tools which can help explain the meaning of the original Greek text.  And so I was nominated to help lead a five-week study on Philippians.

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And that was fine.  But then I started thinking, how exactly should we start into our study of Philippians.  It’s been a long time since I have actually been the leader of a Bible study group.  I was comfortable with the idea of helping out, but I needed to come up with an approach that would be helpful and meaningful to everyone.

And then a thought came to me.  Why not try to approach the book in a way that is similar to the way I approach getting prepared for doing my consultant checking, and also how we actually conduct our checking sessions.  Now of course, we are not attempting to translate the book of Philippians, but we can still ask some of the same questions that we do in translation sessions.

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So let me now explain how we got started on Philippians this past Thursday and how I think it might go over the next month.  We had a good turnout on Thursday with almost everyone able to come.  Just one couple was sick with a cold.  We all enjoyed the usual chitchat of friends catching up on the latest happening, and getting our cup of tea and a snack.  And then we settled down for the evening study.

After introducing myself again and what we were going to do in general for the next month, I asked everyone to tell me what English version/translation of the Bible they had brought.  And it was interesting to see the variety of versions that were represented among the eight of us.  We had the following:  4 New International Versions, 1 New Living Translation, 1 Jerusalem Bible, 1 Message Bible, and 1 New King James Version.

And that immediately brought up the discussion about the reason and the benefit of having so many English translations of the Bible.  I shared with the group my perspective, that as a Bible translator, I consider it to be a great blessing that we have so many translations.  Consider how many language groups around the world that do not even have one verse of Scripture translated into their mother-tongue language.  (Just over 2,200 language groups still waiting as of today.)

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And it was at this point that I brought out an interesting principle of doing good Bible study (or doing good Bible translation).  If we will take the time to read a passage of Scripture from 2 or more translations at the same time, it isn’t long before we see some differences in how parts of verses are translated.  Does that mean that one or both of them are wrong?  Not at all.

There are two important factors in play going on at the same time.  First of all, every human language is so rich, that when you try to express something in that language, there are almost always two or more ways to express the same truth.  So having different English translations at hand can give us a fuller and richer understanding of the original Greek, simply because there is more than one way to express it.

But more importantly, when it comes to doing translation from one language to another language, there is never a complete one-to-one correspondence between the words in one language and the words in another language.  And so we do not do a word-by-word translation, but rather a concept-by concept translation, trying to capture the essence of the meaning of the original text into equivalent terms in the target language.

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So how did this help our Bible study group.  What I finally decided might be a good idea, was to do what I call a “slow-reading” of Scripture.  We read the entire book of Philippians (in about 25 minutes), at a nice moderate pace.  And as it was read, we were to write down words, or phrases, that stuck out to us as important or repeated key themes and ideas in the book.

And it was wonderful.  We had words like: courage, servant, unity, humility, sacrifice, prayer, partnership, joy, grace, wisdom, and many more.  And even just by doing this one exercise we were able to see that the book of Philippians is going to be a rich study.  Especially as we recall that Paul wrote this book while he was a prisoner in chains.  That makes some of these key words stand out even more.

So I think we have started out pretty well.  We will now slow down to look more intently at one chapter per week.  And as we surface the key words and phrases of each chapter, we should find we will have lots to discuss, and lots of ways that we will be able to apply the truths of Scripture to our lives.  I’m excited.  And I think the group is too.

Matthew 24:20 – Be Prepared

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Bible Study Principles

Recently, I was asked to help explain what Matthew 24:20 was talking about, especially the part about hoping not to have to escape “in the winter”.  This verse is usually translated into English along these lines:

“And pray [that your flight will not be] / [that you do not need to run away] in winter or on the Sabbath.”

To be able to understand this phrase, we need to try our best to understand the meaning of the Greek in the original setting.  After we have understood the context within which this phrase was spoken, then we need to seek out what the message is for us today and apply the message to our everyday living.  This may seem to be too great of a challenge for some people, but it need not be so if we apply some basic Bible study principles.

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First, we need to look at the word or phrase itself.  One quick and easy way for people to do this is to take multiple translations and compare them to each other.  We are fortunate to have many English translations today.  In this instance though, after looking on the site www.BibleStudyTools.com , and searching for comparisons of this phrase, I found all 28 English versions use “in winter” and I’m fairly certain the French, Spanish and German translations do as well.

So then I turned to a good Greek Lexicon, a tool where you can look up the basic meaning of Greek words used in Scripture.  My favourite lexicon is Louw & Nida’s “Greek-English Lexicon of the NT Based on Semantic Domains.”  That’s a fancy way of saying, what is the central meaning of a Greek word as compared to other Greek words which have similar usage and meaning?  In this case, we find that there are two closely related ways to translate the Greek word here, either as “winter” or as “bad weather”.

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I checked six different translations of Mt. 24:20 into Papuan languages to see what they did and I found that it was an even split with three of them translating “winter” as “the time of cold” and three of them translating it as “the time of rain/wind”, i.e. “in the rainy season”.  Each translation took into account the “general meaning” of the Greek word and applied it to their culture in appropriate ways.

Interestingly, every one of these Papuan translations clearly kept the Jewish cultural aspect intact when they referred to “or on the Sabbath”.  They translated this as “Sabbath” (i.e. just borrowed the word), or “Jewish day of rest / Jewish day of praying” (i.e. the concept of Sabbath).  So whereas “winter” can be translated and interpreted according to a variety of local cultures today, the “Sabbath” is a Jewish specific cultural idea and must be preserved carefully in all translations regardless of local culture today.

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Now, another important step in good Bible study practices is to look at the biblical context that surrounds a given verse.  Matthew 24:20 is found within the context of Jesus’ answer to the disciples regarding the signs of when the temple would be destroyed, as well as the larger context of chapters 24 and 25 that speak about followers being ready for Jesus’ return at the end of time.

I think this is what makes portions of Mt. 24 and 25 difficult to understand, because within one long speech, Jesus moves his focus from one specific time (i.e. the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD) to a second non-specific time (i.e. the return of Christ).  In wanting to understand the larger context of Mt. 24:20, I looked at a good commentary, such as Leon Morris’ Commentary on Matthew.  He says about these two chapters:

“The last of Jesus’ major discourses in this Gospel is largely concerned with judgment and the conduct expected of the follower of Jesus in view of the coming judgment. There is a problem for the student in that sometimes what Jesus says refers to the coming judgment on Jerusalem, a judgment that was consummated in the destruction of the city in A.D. 70,  and sometimes what he is saying refers to the judgment at the end of the age.

We may well argue that there is a theological unity between the two judgments, and that some of what Jesus says could apply equally well to both. The first of these is a judgment that followed the rejection of Jesus in his earthly ministry, and the second is the judgment that will follow the preaching of the gospel throughout the world.

But we should not approach these chapters with the conviction that everything in them applies to only one of these judgments.  The intermingling of prophecies referring to the events leading up to A.D. 70 with those applying to the end of all things makes this discourse particularly difficult to interpret.

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And so this brings us to the third important principle of good Bible study.  To summarize all that is above, the first question to ask is “What does the text say?”  The second is, “What does the text mean?”  And now thirdly, “What does this text say to me today?”  In other words, what is the message that is God’s message for all people of all times, and how do I apply this message to me today?

We know now that Mt. 24 and 25 are dealing with God’s coming judgment.  At one level it was a message for Jews of the first century, but it is more importantly (within the larger context) a message to all people to be ready for the time when God will put an end to time itself and His Son Jesus will come back to judge all people, punishing those who are not his true followers, and rewarding His true people with the blessings of an eternal heavenly banquet.

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Back to Mt. 24:20, one more specifically first century aspect is that since the Jewish people would not know when this disaster would come, just the fact that it was coming, they were to pray that there would not be any extra difficulty to face on that day such as bad weather or a day that was religiously and ceremonial guarded as the day of rest.

But by application, and by looking at the larger context, especially the parables of ch. 25, Jesus warns all true believers to be vigilant and not be caught off guard when the last final day would come upon mankind.  And so I believe we can say the main message here is this, “Destruction is coming!  Are you ready?”

And we know today that as long as we have placed our faith in Christ, then we can be assured that even though we do not know the final day, still we do not need to fear it.  God will say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”  (Mt. 25:34)

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