“Who do you say I am?” – Answers and Reflections

Matthew 16:13-20

The What?

“Caesarea Philippi” is mentioned twice in the Bible – in Matt. 16 and Mark 8. However, in both the Old and New Testament times, it was infamously known as the center for pagan worship. It was in this region that Jeroboam, the first Israelite king of the northern kingdom, led the Israelites into idolatry (1 Kings 12:25-33).
 
Caesarea Philippi, currently known as Banias, is located at the base of Mt Hermon in the Golan Heights, 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It was originally established by the Ptolemaic Greeks as the center of worship for the god Pan. It was named Panium or Paneas, from which the modern name Banias was derived. In 2 AD it was renamed to Caesarea Philippi by Herod Philip in honor of Caesar Augustus, incorporating “Caesar” and “Philip” in the name, and to also distinguish it from Caesarea on the Mediterranean.
 
The city was built against a large rocky cliff that was known as the “Rock of the Gods” because it contained multiple shrines that were hewn into the cliff, holding images of the gods Pan, Hermes and Echo. The cliff featured a very prominent cave that was known as the Cave of Pan. A stream used to flow out of the cave, feeding into the Jordan River. Today, the stream flows underground due to an earthquake that had shifted the rock formation. Josephus wrote that the cave contained a vastly deep precipice of unmeasurable depth that held a massive body of water. Because of this immeasurably deep abyss that held water and seemed to extend into the depths of the earth, it was believed to be the gateway to the underworld, and that Baal would use it to descend into the depths of the underworld, and the place of the dead (“Sheol” in the Old Testament, and “Hades” in the New Testament). Baal was also known as the Sun God, Zeus, the king of gods in Greek mythology. At the time of Jesus, the “Gates of Hades” could have literally referred to this perceived gateway to the realm of the dead and the underworld.
 
Worship at this pagan site involved animal sacrifices, and sometimes human sacrifices. If you visit this site today, you will find a sign at the entrance to the cave that reads:
 
“THE GROTTO OF THE GOD PAN: This cave is the nucleus beside which the sacred sanctuary was built. In this ‘abode of the shepherd god,’ pagan cult began as early as the 3rd century BC. The ritual sacrifices were cast into a natural abyss reaching the underground waters at the back of the cave. If the victims disappeared in the water this was a sign that the god had accepted the offering. If, however, signs of blood appeared in the nearby springs the sacrifice had been rejected.”
 
Other pagan worship at this site involved bizarre and vile sexual rites that the people of the day performed as offerings to the gods of fertility. The worshippers also believed that they would be rewarded with special revelations. Please see Caesarea Philippi for current pictures of the site and note the illustrations of how it might have looked like at the time of Jesus.
 
It is important to understand that Paneas would have been completely shunned and avoided altogether by the Jews who would have considered it as a vile, blasphemous and defiling place. No devout Jew would visit this place. Yet, both Matthew and Mark write that Jesus deliberately went out of the way (a day’s journey at the time) to bring His disciples to the very center of pagan worship and the believed gateway to the underworld in order to ask them “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
 
At this place of false revelations and center of demonic activity, Peter received a very significant revelation from the “Father in Heaven,” from the LIVING GOD (as compared to the dead gods and their focus on death). The LIVING God, the FATHER in HEAVEN (as opposed to the dead so-called “king of gods” who goes back and forth into Hades) was the ONE who blessed Peter with the revelation about Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of the Living God – the SON GOD (as opposed to the false sun god).
 
Jesus draws on the symbolism of that location, using intentional puns regarding the “rock” and further enlightening His disciples about who HE is, and grounding it all in HIM and HIS redemption. Let’s look at the “rock” in this passage.
Remember that they were most likely within sight of the cliff known as the “rock of the gods.” The Greek here uses a masculine and a feminine version of the word “rock.” “You are Peter [petros – masculine form and meaning “small stone”] and on this rock [petra – feminine form and meaning “foundation stone or boulder”] I will build my church.” The Roman Catholic Church believes that Jesus was literally talking about Peter being the foundation on whom He would build His church. Peter’s name means “rock” and this is seen by Catholics to refer to him as the church’s foundation. Further evidence is based on Eph. 2:20 – “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets…”
 
Looking at the full verse of Eph. 2:20f – “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the Chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” In Acts 4:11f, and 1 Cor. 3:11, Jesus is the foundation. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Jesus is also the Head of the church (Eph. 5:23). So, Peter is not the foundation of the church; Jesus is. However, Peter and the apostles were indeed used by God to build up the church. In 1 Pet. 2:4f, Peter himself writes “As you come to Him, the Living Stone … you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…” In Christ, and based on Christ, the cornerstone (boulder stone), we become the living stones of the church.
 
So, what is a reasonable understanding of Jesus’ words “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it?” Jesus was more likely using a pun in view of their location to refer to the foundational truth pronounced by Peter. Peter, a little rock (petros), declared a profound cornerstone (petra) truth. Peter received a divine revelation about Jesus as THE redemptive (Messiah – Savior) Son of the Living God. THAT is the foundation of our faith. Jesus becoming flesh, and redeeming us unto our Heavenly Father. And the Gates of Hades (in view of their location), will not overcome or overturn it. The realm of the dead, along with all its dead gods (displayed at their location) will not conquer the living stones of the church. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 15:54f, “Death is swallowed up by a triumphant victory! So death, tell me, where is your victory? Tell me, death, where is your sting?” Jesus, as the chief cornerstone, through His own death and resurrection, destroyed death. This becomes clearer as we read further in this same chapter of Matthew 16. Immediately following Peter’s profession of Christ, Jesus prophesies His death and resurrection (see Matt. 16:21-23). The same Peter who had received that divine revelation is rebuked by Jesus for expressing Satan’s agenda – “You must never let this happen to You!” (v. 22).
 
Now we come to the often misunderstood words “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be (or shall have been) bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be (or shall have been) loosed in heaven” (v. 19). The Passion Translation (TPT) puts it this way, “I will give you the keys of heaven’s kingdom realm to forbid on earth that which is forbidden in heaven, and to release on earth that which is released in heaven.”
Some interpret the binding and loosing to refer to spiritual warfare and the overcoming of demonic forces. While it is absolutely true that believers have the authority in Christ to “bind” or exorcise evil spirits, that is not the meaning of this particular passage.
 
The words “bind” and “loose” would have been very meaningful to Jesus’s disciples. The rabbis of the day specialized in binding and loosing, which meant determining what was forbidden (bound) and what was permitted (loosed). For example, what did it mean to keep the Sabbath? What constituted work? See Matthew 12 as an example. It was the job of the rabbis to interpret and determine what the Law allowed (loosed) or what it forbade (bound). In the process, they added to the burden of the people. See Matthew 23:4.
 
The words of Jesus about the keys of the kingdom of heaven, binding and loosing must be read within the context of the revelation that was just expressed by Peter. Christ’s redemptive work has freed the believer from the legalistic chains of the Law and the fear of angering God. They do not need a rabbi to teach them righteousness, but will have the Holy Spirit who will teach them all truth (John 16:13). They will be so one in Christ that they will have that same authority through the Holy Spirit to make decisions (what is right and what is wrong) and will be able to establish that which was already established in heaven. To have that mind of Christ in them (Phil. 2:5) gives them the authority and freedom to make heavenly decisions that already have God’s approval and blessing because they would have emanated from Him.

The So What?

The location was significant to the context. At the time, it would have taken Jesus and His disciples a day to get there. To put it in today’s world, it would be like driving eight hours to have a conversation! Therefore, the “why” is important here.
 
From the disciples’ perspective:
  • While the Pharisees and Jewish leaders of the time would have avoided this place and told their people to do the same, Jesus was deliberate in taking His disciples there. For Matthew, the tax collector, this would have been profoundly meaningful. Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees soon after calling Matthew: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt. 9:11). Jesus responded: “It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12f). Tax collectors, like Matthew, were despised and considered to be among the worst sinners. Not only did Jesus accept Matthew, but He called him to be a disciple. And, now, Jesus has led him and the other disciples to the center of paganism, where sin abounds. His presence there was a lesson and reminder to the disciples that He came to show mercy and to save these sinners.
  • In the center of pagan sacrifice, Jesus taught His disciples that HE would be the ultimate sacrifice, and that He would suffer and die for mankind.
  • In the place of false revelations, Jesus demonstrated how God the Father can overrule all false gods and reveal the Savior of the world. Peter received the living foundational truth and revelation that would become the ROCK of our faith (as opposed to the “rock of the gods” that were false and dead).
  • In a place where pagan worshippers sought revelations and answers to their questions from false gods, Jesus taught His disciples that they would have authority in Him and through Him, and by the Holy Spirit would be able to discern the truth – that which was allowed and good, and that which was not. The Holy Spirit would empower them with this authority and reveal the mind of God to them. They would receive answers from the Living God. Remember our previous study from Rom. 12:1-2.
  • This would have been completely transformative to the way the disciples thought and understood God. Jesus was teaching mercy, love, redemption, healing, restoration and a walk of power and authority that is led by the Holy Spirit, based on His redemption.

The Now What?

Let’s stop and think of all the above. No sin is beyond Christ’s saving and forgiving grace. If you are in a dark place and cannot find your way, Jesus is that light that can pierce the darkest soul. He loves you where you are. And He can rescue you from guilt, sin, and the false gods in your own life. He can break all your chains and set you free. He can give you LIFE and life to the fullest (John 10:10). Hand Him your life and let Him make you a new creation. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
 
As followers of Christ, we are called to go to the afflicted, the sinners, the broken, and to become instruments for healing, deliverance and salvation. We must not behave like the Pharisees and avoid the sinners, cutting them off from our fellowship. Let us remember that we also need God’s grace and mercy, and are called to show the same to those around us. Jesus was criticized severely for being in the midst of sinners, but He was there to bring them healing, mercy and hope. Let us also reach out to those around us. Let us show them mercy, not judgment. Love, not hatred. Let us be brave to be that light in their darkness. We have the authority in Christ. We have the leading of the Holy Spirit. And we have His calling to go out and “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18-20).
 
What else is the Holy Spirit teaching you about this passage? Share it with those around you.

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“Who do you say I am?” – Worksheet

Matthew 16:13-20

 
The Gospel of Matthew is attributed to Matthew, one of the 12 apostles, also known as Levi the tax collector (Matt. 9:9-13). The Gospel was written in Greek and seemed to target a primarily Jewish audience. Matthew references the Old Testament more than any other New Testament author. His goal is to prove to the Jews that Jesus is their awaited Messiah. This week, we will study Matthew 16:13-20.
 

The What?

  • Do some research to learn about Caesarea Philippi. What can you find out about its location and history?
  • Why would Jesus take His disciples to this place to have this conversation with them? 
  • What did Jesus mean by “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church?” What is the “rock” here? Is it Peter (see also Eph. 2:20), or something else? Read this passage in other translations, and try to determine what Jesus is saying here.
  • What is the “church” in this passage? What would it have meant to Jesus’ disciples?
  • What are “the gates of Hades?”
  • What are “the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” and what did Jesus mean by this?
  • Binding and Loosing – What does this mean?

The So What?

Based on what you have researched so far, what difference would this have made to the disciples? Think of the overall significance of Jesus’ words and their impact on His disciples and their testimony.
 

The Now What?

Who do you say Jesus is? How can you apply this passage in your own life today?
 
 
 

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A Living Sacrifice – Answers and Reflections

Romans 12:1-2 (NIV)

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.”
 

The What?

  • The Book of Romans is a letter, written by the apostle Paul (Rom. 1:1).
  • Paul wrote this letter to “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). This refers to the church at Rome who were mostly Gentiles (non-Jews). The Roman Church also included a Jewish minority (deduced from Rom. 4:1; Rom. 9-11).
  • According to Rom. 15:25-27, Paul was on his way to Jerusalem. He had received a collection or offering from the churches in Macedonia and Achaia “for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:26). The believers in Jerusalem were very poor, and Paul was personally delivering the collection he had received for them. Based on Rom. 15:28, Paul was planning to go through Rome on his way to Spain after his visit to Jerusalem. Based on these events, and the mention of Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), Gaius – Paul’s host (16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14), and Erastus (Rom 16:23; 2 Tim. 4:20), the most likely place of writing is believed to be Corinth or neighboring Cenchrea in early A.D. 57. See also Acts 20:2-3.
  • Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Church:
    • To prepare for his visit to Rome and mission to Spain (Rom. 1:10-15; 15:22-29)
    • To present the message of salvation to the Roman Church (Rom. 1:14-17)
    • Based on Rom. 14:1-6, the Jewish believers still felt obligated to observe the feasts and dietary laws, causing friction between them and the Gentile believers. Paul explains that in God’s plan of redemption there is “no difference between Jew and Gentile” (Rom. 10:12).
  • The overall theme of Romans is the message of the Gospel – God’s plan of redemption and righteousness for all mankind (Rom. 1:16-17).
  •  “Therefore:”
    • When we run into the word “therefore,” it is important for us to understand why it is there for. This always matters for the immediate context.
    • Rom. 12:1 opens with “Therefore,” letting us know that what follows represents a logical sequence to the preceding discussion.
    • In chapters 1-11, Paul presented the Gospel. In a manner of speaking, he had presented his “what” and “so what.” Beginning with chapter 12, he presents his “now what.” We’ll revisit this shortly.
  • God’s mercy:
    • See Rom. 8:35-39, 9:15f, 11:30-32
    • As mentioned above, leading up to Rom. 12:1, Paul has been presenting the message of God’s salvation. At its core is God’s love, compassion and mercy for us.
    • Here, Paul is saying: “Because of God’s mercy for us, …” Another way of saying it: “Since God has shown us so much mercy through His plan of redemption, …”
  • PARISTEMI – Potential meanings of the word in the New Testament:
    • “to make available,” or “to put at someone’s disposal” (e.g., Matt. 26:53).
    • “to present someone or something to someone” (e.g., Luke 2: 22, Col. 1:22)
    • “to arrive” or “to come” (e.g., Mark 4:29)
    • “to stand near” or “to be present” (e.g., Mark 14:47)
    • “to give help” (e.g., Rom. 16:2)
    • “to oppose” or “to take a stand” (e.g., Acts 4:26)
    • “to prove” or “to present evidence” (e.g., Acts 24:13)
    • “to stand trial before” (e.g., Acts 27:24)
    • “to bring near” or “to place beside” (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:8)Of these, what fits the context best are either “to put at someone’s disposal” or “to present someone to someone.” It can also be a combination of the two. Paul was exhorting his readers to give themselves over to God, to put themselves at His disposal. See 1 Cor. 6:19f.
  • “Living sacrifice” – The word “body” is perhaps best understood as “being” or “persona.” It is not just referring to the physical body, but the whole person (mind, spirit and body). The word “living” is a continuous form of expression. The idea here is an ongoing, repeated and continuous dedication of the whole being to God. In contrast to the Old Testament worship that involved the sacrifice of bulls and goats, believers are to continually offer to God all that they are – to place their fullness at God’s disposal every living moment, to give themselves to God completely and in every way.
  • “true and proper worship” – There is considerable debate about the meaning of this term. Paul seems to say that believers truly worship God (“in spirit and in truth” – John 4:23) when they fully give themselves over to Him on an ongoing basis. Worship is not simply external (old sacrificial system, singing, praising, reciting psalms, going to church, etc.), but holistically involves the full being (attitude, mind, heart, motives, actions, etc.). Believers that live their lives fully dedicated to God and His Lordship, live a life of worship.
  • “conform to the pattern of this world” – The Greek word for “conform to the pattern” here is suschematizo, which refers to forming out of a mold. Think, for example, of pouring hot metal in a mold to form a defined shape. And, the Greek word for “world” here is not kosmos, but aion which refers to “age.” In Richard Trench’s book, “Synonyms of the New Testament” (pp. 229-230), Trench writes: “…Aion includes all the thoughts, opinions, maxims, speculations, impulses, and aspirations present in the world at any given time…” The Message translates this as: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit in to it without even thinking.” In other words, don’t become indistinguishable from the unbelievers by believing, acting and living as they do.
  • “be transformed” – The Greek word used here is metamorphoo, from which we get our English word “metamorphose.” Think of the metamorphosis of a butterfly. That is an utter transformation. It is a visible, drastic, startling and total change from one state into a new one.
  • “renewing your mind” – Inner transformation begins with mind transformation. It is a new mind, one that is not based on a worldly mold, or on old ways of thinking, but one that is upward focused. Paul writes to the Colossians (3:1-2): “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
  • This new heavenly mind-focus will lead to renewal and transformation. One cannot think in the old ways and expect to be transformed. For example, a “dog-eat-dog” mindset does not lead to transformation. Responding hatefully, angrily, vengefully does not bring about inner change. As long as we hold on to the old ways of thinking and behavior, we cannot experience transformation.
  • The single Greek word, dokimazo, is translated to “test and approve” in NIV. In a manner of speaking, it involves authentication and validation as a jeweler would examine a precious stone to determine if it is a genuine jewel and to establish its quality. In this verse, Paul is saying that a renewed mind that leads to inner transformation is required to discern God’s will as it pertains to the transformed believer’s present reality. A mind that is not set on God cannot discern or accept His will, desire and purpose. On the other hand, a mind that is fixed on things above can scrutinize the leadings and promptings of the Holy Spirit and recognize them as the genuine will and guidance of God.

The So What?

  • In Rom. 1-11, Paul presented the Gospel to the Romans. He outlined God’s plan of redemption, His love, His mercy, His forgiveness, His righteousness and His holiness. He explained what was meant by John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” In Rom. 5:8, Paul wrote: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man… But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” These words are profound. Pause and think about them for a moment. Would you lay down your life to save a good friend that you love? Maybe. Now, would you lay down your life to save a murderer? Would you allow an only son to lay down his life for a murderer? Paul was explaining how God had done just that for us – not when we deserved it, but when we were least deserving. That demonstrates His love and His mercy for us. Given all that He had done, how should we respond? “THEREFORE, … in view of God’s mercy …” Beginning with Rom. 12:1, Paul talks about how we should therefore respond to God’s amazing grace. Paul urges the believers to give their entire beings over to God, to let Him rule them completely, to put all that they are at His disposal – not just once, but continuously, iteratively, every living moment of every day. God sacrificed His Son for us. We are strongly urged to sacrifice our desires, wants, needs, plans, hopes, aspirations, work, family, our all by surrendering completely to God’s ongoing, daily rulership. Paul wrote to the Colossians (3:17): “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus…”
  • Ancient Rome was pagan. They followed many gods. Believers were seen as cult members, anti-social, anti-Roman. Christians were tortured and systematically murdered. It would have been a drastic and very dangerous change for a Roman to become a Christian. And, it could have even been deadly for them to not conform to the Roman way of life and to stand out as transformed believers. Paul still called upon them not to conform to the worldly mold, to renew their minds, to be transformed, and to respond to God’s mercy and grace by giving themselves over to God.
  • Without mind-renewal and life-transformation, it is not possible to know the will of God and discern His ways. Knowing and discerning the will of God requires the surrender of our will to God’s rulership.

The Now What?

What really hit home for me this week was the message of transformation and its foundation on giving my life over to God completely and renewing my mind.

Real transformation is:

  • Metamorphic. In a manner of speaking, it is molecular in nature. It is drastic. It encompasses all that we are. A transformed butterfly is a new creation. God calls us to be transformed. This transformation results in a new mind, a new life, a new purpose, and a new creation.
  • Not of the world. This transformation goes against the worldly mold; it is not compatible with it at all. A renewed mind cannot feed on lust, anger, hatred, vengeance, self-gratification, self-righteousness, self-glorification. A renewed mind feeds on the Holy Spirit, God’s word, God’s love, God’s mercies, God’s ways, God’s Person. It is a mind that is constantly discerning and confirming the genuine will of God.
  • Highly visible. You cannot be transformed in secret. Someone who once saw a slimy worm will now see a beautiful butterfly. You cannot hide real transformation. It will burst through you like light bursts through a dark room. You become “the light of the world” (see Matt. 5:14-16). That is when those around you will notice and ask you to explain the new you. Evangelism is the living out of a truly transformed life.

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A Living Sacrifice – Worksheet

Romans 12:1-2 (NIV)

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.”

For our first study, we will look at Rom. 12:1-2. There is so much depth here, and I strongly encourage you to take the time this week to unpack these verses, think about them, and listen to what God is saying to you throughout the week. Write it all down, regardless of how long or short it may be. There is something about disciplining yourself to actually write down your answers and thoughts. It will be that much more effective for you. Go with me on this journey and try it out, and let’s compare notes at the end of each week. You have a full week to work through it, so take your time and enjoy the process. I will publish my answers every Monday, one week after I post the questions. Feel free to reach out to me anytime if you have any questions or get stuck.

The What?

  • What is the Book of Romans and who wrote it?
  • Who was the original audience (recipients of the writing)?
  • When was it written and where was the likely place of writing?
  • What was the likely purpose/reason for the writing?
  • What is the overall theme of Romans?
  • What is the significance of the word “Therefore” at the beginning of this passage?
  • What is meant by “in view of God’s mercy?” What is the significance of mercy here?
  • In Greek, the word “offer” is paristemi (transliterated). Try to research the potential meanings of this word as used in the New Testament? What does it really mean in the context of this passage?
  • What did the following phrases mean to the audience at the time of this writing? Think about these phrases from their perspective.
    • “living sacrifice”
    • “true and proper worship”
    • “conform to the pattern of this world”
    • “transformed”
    • “renewing your mind”
  • What was the connection between “renewing your mind” and being “transformed?”
  • What did it mean to “test and approve” God’s will? Look it up in other versions and research it.

The So What?

  • Why did it matter to understand the importance of the word “Therefore” here? How does that add to the immediate context of these two verses?
  • Given what you have learned so far, what did it mean for the original readers not to be conformed to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of their minds (importance and impact on their lives)?
  • Based on your research, was the author helping his audience discern God’s will for their lives?

The Now What?

  • List the top 3 ways that this passage spoke to you this week?
  • Pick at least one of these and think about how you would go about living it out in your life.
  • Do you find yourself going along with the ways and teachings of the world? If so, how, and what should you do about it?
  • What does it mean to you personally to be transformed by the renewing of your mind?
  • Based on what you have learned and what the Holy Spirit has placed on your heart this week, what must you do to align with the will of God in your own life?

If you have questions or suggestions, please let me know. May God bless you this week as you study His word.


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How To Read The Bible

Language is one of those things we often take for granted. We use it every day, whether in written form, verbal or artistic expression, or what we call “body language,” or physical interaction. It embodies history, culture, background, peoples, traditions and lifestyle. In fact, it is considerably more complicated than we often realize. Let’s take English and look at a few examples of word combinations and their meanings.

  • Same three basic words with three different meanings based on their combinations:
    • “There you are!” (I’ve been looking for you and have just found you)
    • “You are there.” (You are in a specified location, place or position)
    • “Are you there?” (Questioning your presence, or your location)
  • Cultural, historical or technical impact:
    • “Elvis has left the building.” Before Elvis’ time, this would have been a simple statement that a person by the name of Elvis had literally left the specified building. Today it means “it’s all over” or “the show has come to an end.”
    • “Google it” or “Bing it” were meaningless before the Internet and search engines. And so was “ungoogleable.” That is a modern word. Look it up.
    • “Corinthianize” – Be immoral. Based on the old city of Corinth and its immorality.
  • Expressions or Idioms:
    • “A hot potato” can literally refer to a potato that is hot, or it can refer to a controversial or highly disputed issue or topic, or to a situation that nobody wants to handle.
    • “A piece of cake” can literally refer to a slice of cake, or it can refer to an activity that is simple or easy.
    • The man is “sitting on the fence” can mean that the man is literally sitting on a fence, or that the man cannot make up his mind about a given topic or decision.
 
The above word combinations are only a few examples of thousands that make up our English language today. How do we know what is meant by a given statement or expression? We rely heavily on context. For example, if someone hands you a plate with a potato on it and says “It’s a hot potato,” you would hear “The potato on the plate is hot. Be careful with it.” If, on the other hand, in the middle of a conversation, that same person said “It’s a hot potato,” you would hear “It’s a controversial topic or difficult issue that nobody wants to address.” The context clarifies the meaning and intent of the language. Without it, the meaning may be ambiguous. And that is using our current spoken mother tongue.
 
The languages of the Bible are many centuries removed from us. Just as our English language encapsulates culture, tradition, and history, ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek were similarly shaped. To isolate the language from its history can lead to drastic misinterpretations and misunderstandings. To complicate matters, we also have to consider multiple other factors, such as transcription (how the manuscripts were copied and preserved), and interpretation. That is one reason we have multiple versions today (KJV, NIV, NAV, etc.). Ancient manuscripts had a single continuous string of characters without any punctuation, sentence breaks, paragraphs, or titles. As an example, see the picture linked to this post that shows Papyrus 46, an ancient Greek Manuscript of 2 Cor. 11:33 – 12:9. As an illustration, let’s take this very simple English continuous string: “GODISNOWHERE.” You can read it as “God is nowhere” or as “God is now here.” How do we determine the author’s intent? Context is again a primary factor for interpretation.
 
Given the above (and more), it is understandable that we sometimes struggle to interpret and understand the Bible today. As a new believer in 1979, I struggled to understand the meaning of Scripture and did not know how to read and understand the Bible. I had decided to read the Bible from start to finish, but then quickly got overwhelmed when I got to Leviticus.
 
A few examples:
  • Lev. 19:19: “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” Most of my clothes were of mixed fabrics (20% Polyester, 80% Cotton and so forth). Was I going against God’s word by continuing to wear these clothes?
  • Lev. 19:28 speaks against tattoos. I had Christian friends with tattoos of crosses and “Jesus is Lord” on their arms. Were they sinning by having a “Jesus is Lord” tattoo?
  • Amos 4:6: “… I have given you cleanness of teeth…” Does this mean I do not need to worry about my yellowed teeth?
  • Hosea 10:8: What is meant by “high places?”
  • Hosea 10:9: What is a “trained heifer?”
  • Gen. 49:29: What does “gathered to his people” mean?
  • And, even in the New Testament, 1 Cor. 11:13 – “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head covered?” Does this mean that all women should cover their heads in church, or even when they pray? Why?
At the time, I did not know that “cleanness of teeth” was actually an idiom or saying that referred to starvation as opposed to a blessing. It was a judgment that people’s teeth would remain unstained by food because they would not have food to eat. Like many of my peers, I simply read the Bible at face-value and glossed over the difficult parts that I could not understand. I even thought that by asking questions, I was possibly showing a lack of faith, and that I simply needed to read the passage, believe it and act on it. But, this became an unsustainable model for studying the Bible.
 
I did not know if I was correctly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). I struggled with 1 Peter 3:15 – “… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…” How could I give a good answer if I did not have the answers to my own questions?! Then, that same verse hit me hard. “Always be prepared” meant that I had to do something to prepare myself. To what purpose? “To give an answer to everyone who asks.” That meant three things. First, it implied that asking was not only acceptable, but expected. Secondly, it implied that the question should be answered. Thirdly, it clearly stated that I needed to “be prepared” which implied digging, asking questions, searching, studying, discovering and truly being a student of God’s word.
 
In the early 1980’s there was no Internet, no Google or Bing, and I did not have easy access to resources. I did not even have a concordance until the mid-1980’s. But, I poured into the Bible, cross-referencing verses and passages, talked to other believers, and read what I could find. Over time, I realized that I could miss so much by simply reading the Bible at face-value, or by not using the brain God had given me. A system of study developed that I still use today, and it is centered around CONTEXT.
 
Before I explain the system, let me just say that Scripture is multi-dimensional. This means that God can take any part of His word and use it to get our attention. We do not need to be scholars or multi-lingual to be blessed by God’s word. God’s word is alive and active (Heb. 4:12) and will accomplish what God desires (Isa. 55:11). Do not be afraid of reading the Bible, or of asking questions. “… The Holy Spirit … will teach you all things…” (John 14:26). Here are a few simple suggestions to help you:
  • Before you start reading, say a simple prayer “Lord, please help me understand your word and apply it in my life every day. Open my eyes to see, my ears to hear and my heart to receive what You have to say to me today.”
  • Turn off your phone, your TV, and block distractions and spend time reading the Bible.
  • Get a notebook and use it as a journal of sorts. Use a new page for every day, date it, write down the Bible chapter and verses, and then jot down any thoughts or questions that come to mind while you are reading.
  • Pray
 
You do not need to be an expert scholar to follow the above steps. God will draw near to you as you draw near to Him (James 4:8; Heb. 10:22).
 
Having said that, please keep in mind that the Bible that you are reading, regardless of version, is based on a lot of hard work to interpret and translate from the original Biblical languages, taking into account factors like culture, linguistics, history, geography, archaeology, and much more. And that in itself is relying on the scholarly interpretation that went into the English edition that you now have. It is therefore important to ask questions, dig deeper, and search the meaning of verses. Why? This will deepen your own understanding of God’s word and who He is. It will help you appreciate the significance, background, history and fuller meaning of what you read. And, the more you understand, the better you will be able to apply it in your own life. Ultimately, that is the end goal. It is not about amassing head-knowledge, but about applying God’s revelations in our daily lives.
 
To that purpose, I will now share my system of study that can also help you with your understanding of Scripture and its application in your life. Whenever I read any Biblical passage, I always ask three primary questions and then use a methodical approach to unpack each question for that passage.
 
WHAT?
 
This question seeks to uncover the background, history, geography, people, culture, language, terms, sayings and purpose. I ask questions such as:
  • What is this writing?
  • Who wrote it?
  • Who was the audience?
  • Where was it written or sent to?
  • What was going on at the time?
  • What do we know about the location (geography, culture, economy, history, traditions, etc.)?
  • What did the words mean (example: “white teeth” refers to starvation)?
  • Why was it written?
  • What else can I learn about the time, people, history, background, etc.?
 
These are not exhaustive questions. I’m sure you’ll think of other “what?” questions. Ask them. Then research them. Look online or use reputable references to search for details. In the process, weigh what you read. Not everything published is accurate and true. Look for multiple sources and consolidate your answers to give you a good synopsis of the “WHAT?” as described above. If you are still unclear, seek help from others. Compare notes. Reach out and ask your leaders. Don’t give up on finding an answer. And don’t get discouraged.
 
SO WHAT?
 
This question takes what you learned above to the practical level at the time of writing. By combining the WHAT and the SO WHAT, you uncover the CONTEXT of the writing. I ask questions such as:
  • What was the outcome of this writing at that time?
  • What difference did it make to the people who read this back then?
  • How did the audience interpret and understand this passage with respect to their circumstances and environment (as learned from the WHAT above)?
  • How did it change their lives? What did they stop doing? Start doing? Continue doing?
  • What was the significance of the writing to their faith and its development?
Again, these are not exhaustive questions. The main point is to grasp the broader context of the writing. This is very important because it will guide you in correctly handling God’s word, both in studying and in teaching (2 Tim. 2:15).
Let’s use a silly English language example to illustrate this point. If someone tells you “I’m going to let the cat out of the bag,” do you yell at them for being cruel to the cat by keeping it in a bag?! Of course, not! You don’t, because you understand the CONTEXT of what was said. You understand that it’s not literal, but an expression that means “I’m going to tell you a secret.” In a similar way, when you grasp the full context of Scripture, it helps you in interpreting and understanding its meaning. To go back to the “white teeth” example, once you know that it refers to starvation, you will never use that passage as an excuse for not going to the dentist. Believe it or not, I’ve actually been told that by someone who had completely misunderstood the meaning of this expression!
 
As a rule, teach yourself to think contextually, and not in isolation. When you see a lone verse, look it up in its full context. It will significantly deepen your understanding and application of the Bible.
 
NOW WHAT?
 
Once you have the context defined and understood, you can then apply it to your own life. I ask questions such as:
 
  • How does this passage apply to me today?
  • Based on the full context of this passage, how can I apply its principles and grow in my own life?
  • What do I need to change in my own life? Stop doing? Start doing? Continue doing?
  • What is God saying to me through this passage?
  • How do I overcome the challenges that this passage addresses directly and that the original audience struggled with in their own way and time?
  • What are the principles that I can apply in my life every day based on what I have learned in this passage?
  • How do I pray through this passage?
 
Don’t be afraid of digging, searching deeper, reaching out for help and asking God to help you. “… Seek and you will find…” (Mat. 7:7).
 
“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing His will, and may He work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Heb. 13:20f).
 

Highly recommended reading:
“How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.        


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