A recommendation for Bible study

If you’ve been going through the three year Bible reading program with us, then you just finished Joshua.  That’s filled with passages like:”then the boundary turns westward to Aznoth-tabor and goes from there to Hukkok, touching Zebulun at the south and Asher on the west and Judah on the east at the Jordan” (Joshua 19:34). Huh?

Unfortunately, most Bible atlases aren’t much help when it comes to visualizing what the text says.  I came across one of the best when I was in seminary, and I would like to recommend it to you here.  The “Macmillan Bible Atlas” is an invaluable resource when it comes to figuring out the Bible text.  It includes hundreds of maps for both the Old and New Testaments.  Here is an example:

Although I cannot say that the resource will present a conservative understanding of some dates and routes, you can still see why maps like this would be invaluable, especially for Old Testament study!  And the best news is that you can find it used for around $10, and than includes shipping!  Just check out the following links:



Of course, if you want the newest and best version, you can spend 5 times that amount!

Happy Bible study!

A Good Friday devotion!

In his book “The Cross of Christ,” John Stott shares a story to illustrate God’s love. 

There are billions of people seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrink back, while some crowd to the front, raising angry voices.

“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?” snaps one woman, ripping a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror… beatings… torture… death!”

Other sufferers expressed their complaints against God for the evil and suffering he had permitted. What did God know of weeping, hunger, and hatred? God leads a sheltered life in Heaven, they said.

Those devastated by Hiroshima, people born deformed, others murdered – each group sent forward a leader. They concluded that before God could judge them, he should be sentenced to live on Earth as a man to endure the suffering they had endured. Then they pronounced a sentence:

Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Let his close friends betray him. Let him face false charges. Let a prejudiced jury try him and a cowardly judge convict him. Let him be tortured. Let him be utterly alone. Then, bloody and forsaken, let him die.

The room grew silent after the sentence against God had been pronounced. No one moved, and a weight fell on each face.

For suddenly, all knew that God already had served his sentence.

Some people can’t believe God would create a world in which people would suffer so much. Isn’t it more remarkable that God would create a world in which no one would suffer more than He?

God’s Son bore no guilt of His own; he bore ours. In His love for us, God self-imposed the sentence of death on our behalf. One thing we must never say about God—that He doesn’t understand what it means to be abandoned utterly, suffer terribly, and die miserably.

That God did this willingly, with ancient premeditation, is all the more remarkable.  This Easter lets thank God for the great love that He has shown to us!

{adapted from Randy Alcorn}

Reflections on Job (the book!)

I just finished going through Job in my daily Bible reading, and I thought that it would be appropriate to post some comments on it.  Perhaps what is happening in our community is influencing me, since I know of a young teenager who is currently struggling with cancer.

Some people draw the conclusion that Job doesn’t really get an answer from God as to why he is suffering.  We’re the ones who are let in on the secret through the prologue — that Job is an object lesson of sorts to Satan.  The challenge is whether or not Job will remain faithful even through difficult times.  Job does, but he suffers, whines, and cries out to God throughout his suffering.  There are several lessons that are taught by pastors from this book.  One is that we can cry out to God in suffering — it’s expected and He can handle it!  Another lesson is that we don’t always know why we are suffering, but we should still trust in God.  Neither one of these lessons is wrong, but I sometimes wonder if we’ve missed the point.

During his suffering, Job wants to have an audience with God.  He wants to be able to lay out his complaint face to face.  He wants an audience with the Almighty.  While he wait, he pours out his anger and his despair.  I wish I was dead!  I wish that I had never been born!  I don’t understand!  This is unfair!  Answer me!

Job gets his wish.  He gets an audience with the Almighty.  During that encounter Job says two things:  “I lay my hand over my mouth,” and, “I…repent in dust and ashes.”  That’s the sum total of his argument.  After railing and crying and demanding, Job doesn’t even defend himself!  Why?  Because, when Job finally got a vision of God in all His glory, it was enough.  He didn’t need any more answers.  He was content.  And this is the lesson for us today as well.

Regardless of what is going on in our lives, or how tough or unfair that we think it is, if we have a proper understanding of the glory and majesty of God, who He is and what He has done, then we can make it through even the hardest times.  Listen to what Job says in 42:1-6: “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.  You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  Listen please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’ I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.  Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

We know that God is almighty.  We know that He is glorious.  We know that He is holy.  We also know that He is merciful, and compassionate, and loving.  Whenever we have a problem in our lives, we should remember that God is there, that He is in control, and that He has promised us a glorious future and home with Him because of what Jesus Christ did when He died on the cross for our sins.  When we know Jesus, we have that glorious vision of God that helps us to trust Him even in the hard times.  Even when we don’t understand.  Even when life seems unfair and unjust.  That vision of God’s glory helps us to make it.

Zechariah vs. Mary

We’re going through the life of Christ on Sunday evenings, and we just finished talking about the angelic announcement to Zechariah about the birth of John the Baptist.  When Zechariah is told that his wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby, he is incredulous (we’re told in the passage that she is barren and advanced in age).  As a result, he is punished because of his unbelief, and can’t speak until the baby is born.

That evening someone asked an insightful question, that neither I nor the rest of the class did a very good job of answering.  I think that we got part of it right, but missed an important element.  The question was this: why was God so merciful to Mary in her disbelief, and so harsh to Zechariah?

Part of the issue is certainly that Zechariah should have known better.  He was a priest, performing the most holy duty of his life.  He was getting to burn incense in the temple, presumably a once in a lifetime event.  Sure,  an angelic announcement wasn’t a common everyday occurrence, but if it was going to happen, you’d think it would happen then!  Mary, on the other hand, was just a young lady, and not a priest.  How would you expect her to react!

But, upon reflection, I think that there is even more to the story.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were finally going to experience the joy of having a child.  The disgrace that they experienced as a result of Elizabeth’s barrenness was finally going to be removed (Luke 1:25). Zechariah should be overjoyed!  The angel found his response less than overwhelming.

Mary, on the other hand, was a young lady.  She was unmarried, but betrothed.  Something in the angels announcement gives her pause.  She basically says, “I haven’t had sex!  How can I have a child?”  The angel very graciously explains it to her.  Why is he so gentle?  Well, besides being stunned, Mary is dealing with a virtual impossibility in her mind.  She can’t be pregnant!  And if she is, how could any of this be explained to her family, friends, and neighbors?  Can you blame her for being fearful?  The angelic announcement to Zechariah would remove disgrace, but the announcement to Mary could bring considerable disgrace!  And that, I think, is why you find Gabriel dealing much more gently with Mary than with Zechariah.

Honesty in Prayer

Since we are in the midst of the Easter season, I want to take one event from Easter week and discuss it a little bit.  This event occurred when Jesus was in the garden praying about what was about to happen.  We read that he was troubled and deeply distressed.  He even says, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.”  Jesus then goes off by himself to pray, and what he prays is remarkable.  He prays, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.”

Why is this remarkable?  Well, because Jesus is the creator of the universe.  He is God incarnate.  He is the second person of the Trinity.  He is Lord!  And He’s been singularly focused — He was on His way to Jerusalem, knowing what was going to happen.  Remember that he taught them, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  He knew what he had to do.  In fact, that was the whole reason He came to earth!  The angel told Joseph that Mary would “bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  And yet, he prays to God and says, “Remove this cup from me.”  How do we explain this?

Jesus endured pain and suffering while here on this earth.  He was mocked and rejected.  He experienced emotions just like we do.  We read that he was sorrowful, even to death.  In the midst of that, would we expect Him to do anything different?  In the midst of His despair, and in the face of His suffering, He cried out to God. He was honest about the pain He was experiencing.

I don’t know what you are going through this Easter season.  Maybe you’re having trouble experiencing the joy of the resurrection because of what’s going on in your life.  Perhaps you’ve been experiencing a difficult time.  Perhaps you’re angry, or confused, or in pain, or all of the above.  Remember that you can cry out to God, and that He wants you to be honest with him.  He wants you to communicate all your cares and worries to Him.  For it’s only when we share them with Him that He can calm our hearts, ease our worries, and carry our pain away.

And hopefully we can all get to the point where Jesus was in His relationship with the Father.  Jesus, even in the midst of His pain and suffering, even in the midst of His brutal honesty, still exhibits faith and acceptance.  He calls God “Father” and finishes his prayer with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  It is my hope this Easter season that we will all exhibit Jesus’ maturity, honesty, faith, and acceptance.  To God be the glory!

The Cringing Pastor…

All right, I admit it.  The blog post a week hasn’t been happening, but that will change, simply because some people have asked to have access to my sermon outlines so that they can fill them in while they are listening to the sermons online!  So now I’ll have at least a blog post a week, but before we get to that I do have some thoughts to share…

It happened a few weeks ago.  I was passing by someone in the church hallway on Sunday morning, and they called me “Pastor.”  Not an uncommon occurrence, since so many people call me “Pastor Mark.”  However, this time there was that note of reverence, respect, and awe that, quite simply, made me incredibly uncomfortable.

Now, I understand why this happens.  Scripture tells us to “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17), and “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).  I suppose that it’s not a bad thing that the teaching pastor of a church receive some respect!  But other Scripture passages come to my mind as well.  Passages like Matthew 23:8-12:

But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

There are plenty of passages that are similar to this one, but there is one that pertains to church leadership that is a sober reminder as well. 1 Peter 5:1-4 is one of my theme verses for ministry, and it states:

The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.

I guess that the bottom line is that, regardless of how people respond to me, I need to be humble.  The apostle Paul knew how to do that.  He was able to say: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Pride is the constant enemy of the Christian, especially those who serve in leadership positions.  And we all have to be careful, or we’ll be chastised like the church in Laodicea: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…” (Revelation 3:16-17).