I have rarely talked to a fellow Christian who hasn’t expressed a desire to improve the amount of time he or she spends reading the Bible. And that is a worthy goal – we should continually be devoted to reading the Scriptures.
Reading God’s word is important, as Paul tells us in 2 Tim. 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness.” It also keeps us from being led astray, as Jesus warns in Matt. 22:29: “You are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Acts 17:11 echoes this, where we read that after hearing Paul’s teaching, the Bereans searched the Scriptures daily to see if he was telling the truth.
The Bible is written is such a unique way that even devout Christian scholars who have been reading it for 50 years delight in finding new insights in it.
It seems increasingly rare, though, to find a Christian – even one who has spent decades in the faith – who has read the entire Bible. Some have admitted that they’ve never read the Old Testament. Many have haphazard reading patterns of a few days of intensity followed by a month of never cracking the cover. For many Christians, it seems, their entire Bible reading plan consists of the Verse of the Day from a Bible app and reading along with the pastor on the handful of verses he projects onto a screen during his sermon.
Why do so many Christians not make Bible reading a regular part of their day?
So if the Bible is important, if it holds decades’ worth of insights and most Christians desire to know more, why do so many Christians not make Bible reading a regular part of their day?
There are several reasons, one of the biggest being that reading in general has fallen out of favor with most Americans. Many people say, some with chagrin and some with pride, that they’ve only read one book in the past year – or maybe none. Christian comedian John Branyan says, in a hilarious retelling of the Three Little Pigs, that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 55,000 words; the average American has a working vocabulary of 3,000 words. So we’re much more likely to look for a theatrical version of a story on DVD than picking up a book.
But on Jan. 1, many well-intentioned Christians will select a Bible reading plan, determined that this year they will read all the way through the Bible. I can tell you when most of them will be waylaid – in about the middle of Leviticus. Some will get bogged down by the middle of Exodus, some will dutifully, possibly with glazed eyes, fight their way through Numbers and even Deuteronomy. But the majority won’t make it into April with their Bible reading.
But if you really want to achieve your goal, here are a few tips, and a link to my own Bible reading plan.
Set aside time each morning: Yes, mornings can be chaotic, especially for those with school-age children. But getting up just 20 minutes earlier can give you some peace and quiet to read God’s word before the chaos commences. Giving up sleep is hard but, believe me, that time reading will be more refreshing than the extra bit of shuteye.
You can try other times of the day, but I’ve found that it is far easier to put off the reading later in the day than getting up earlier intentionally to read.
Just read: Often people assume that they need to discover deep meaning in every verse they read, so they plod through them slowly, pondering each one. Soon they’re consuming an hour to read three chapters. Instead, just read. You may read three chapters and go, “Huh, I didn’t get much out of that.” That’s perfectly OK, because there will be plenty of mornings when you find juicy nuggets.
Just reading also helps you see the broader picture of the Bible.
One thing I’ve found is that each time I read through the Bible, I notice new things. That information had obviously been there the previous year when I read the Bible, but my mindset a year later is different, and different passages will mean more to me.
Just reading also helps you see the broader picture of the Bible, and how it all forms a complete narrative, rather than just seemingly random sections of words.
Find a readable translation: Many readers get bogged down by feeling they have to read the Bible in the King James Version. There is nothing wrong with the KJV; it’s just harder for the average American to grasp (remember, it was written at the time of Shakespeare, when people had a much broader vocabulary, plus used words that didn’t mean the same as they do today). There is a wide array of translations available today, ranging from word-for-word translations to ones that merely translate the meanings, with many variations in between. I personally feel the Holman Christian Standard Bible (recently renamed the Christian Standard Bible) is a great mix of readability and accurate translations. The New International Version (NIV) is also popular for its readability, although I find it is sometimes a bit loose in the translation. The English Standard Version (ESV) and New American Standard Bible (NASB) give more word-for-word translations that are still relatively easy to read through.
Give yourself some grace: Most reading plans break the scriptures into 365 sections – read one section per day and you’ll make it through the entire Bible in a year. But what if something unexpected happens – a hospital stay, out-of-town guests for the weekend – or even planned events like a vacation keep you from reading? Often, a day or two or even three or four can pass without getting to your daily reading plan. Then once you return to it, you’re faced with the daunting task of reading eight or 10 or more chapters to catch up. You fall behind, and then further behind, and soon you give up.
My reading plan offers a little more forgiveness – it is based on 338 days. You could miss almost a whole month of reading and still finish in a year. You could even start in the middle of January and still easily finish in a year.
If you miss a couple of days, there’s no catching up to do.
It is also not based on the actual calendar date. If you miss a couple of days, there’s no catching up to do. Just pick up where you left off.
I also tried to base the daily reading on a similar number of verses. Sometimes that means reading just one chapter but other times it could be six chapters – although the most common amount is three chapters. But it is essentially the same length of reading per day, about 20 minutes. That allows you to easily slot it into your daily routine.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect plan, and there are many other good Bible reading plans available. But I do think it’s a good way to get started that makes reading the Bible a bit of an easier task.
Joy to the world! It’s a popular expression at this time of year as we focus on celebrating the birth of Jesus.
We sing about joy in song, post it on walls and send it in Christmas cards. Joy is all around us. Right?
Unfortunately, not always. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Years Day, can be a tough time for many people. (Although it is frequently reported that suicides increase during this time, statistical analysis shows that the rate actually declines right before Christmas.) People dealing with their first Christmas following the death of a loved one, losing a job, dealing with exes and step-children during the Christmas week, going into debt to buy gifts, negative family situations – all of these and more can leave people feeling anything but joyous at the holiday season. This is even true for many Christians.
So why doesn’t the joy from the Christmas carols translate into real lasting joy?
For starters, many people rely on their circumstances or their relationships to bring them joy. At this time of year, they also hope to derive joy from the songs, sights and traditions of the season.
According to scripture, we can be full of joy even when our circumstances are less than ideal.
They are, however, confusing happiness with joy. Happiness depends on things going well for us. But according to scripture, we can be full of joy even when our circumstances are less than ideal.
Jesus and the apostles often talked about joy in the midst of persecution and suffering. Jesus endured the suffering of the cross because of the joy he knew would result from it (Heb. 12:2); the Macedonian churches exhibited great joy during affliction and deep poverty (2 Cor. 8:2); the Hebrew churches accepted with joy having their possessions seized from them (Heb. 10:34); and Peter urged his readers to rejoice when suffering for Christ (1 Peter 4:13).
So if not the circumstances, where does the Bible tell us to find our joy? Surprisingly, it’s not in the birth of Jesus, which is when we most commonly think of joy. Not that we aren’t to rejoice at his birth – the wise men were overjoyed beyond measure when they saw him, and the angel told the shepherds that Jesus’ birth signaled great joy for the world.
But other than the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ birth is never mentioned again.
Instead, we read that we derive joy from entering into the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13:34), serving God faithfully (Matt. 25:21), the repentance of sinners (Luke 15:4-10; Acts 15:3; Rom. 4:7-8) and living out our faith (Phil. 2:2; 1 Peter 1:8-9).
Jesus’ birth was the promise of joy; his death and resurrection were the fulfillment of it.
Primarily, though, our joy is in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this fact that makes our salvation possible, gives us our entrance into the Kingdom, empowers us to live out our faith and offers us hope for eternal life after death. Jesus’ birth was the promise of joy; his death and resurrection were the fulfillment of it.
Notice that the death and resurrection is a fact. We don’t hope that Jesus will die for us and then be raised to life. It already happened, in a specific time and place, nearly 2,000 years ago. It validated everything Jesus said and did.
And because it already took place, we know that we already have all the things Jesus promised (2 Peter 1:3-4).
Since that is true, we can live life in great joy, no matter our circumstances. Whether we have abundance, health and are surrounded by loved ones, or we’re persecuted, destitute and bereft of close relationships, we still have the same source of joy anchored in a fact that already happened. That source of joy can never be revoked or taken away from us.
People and situations will eventually disappoint us. Jesus never will.
That is so much better than relying on circumstances or relationships as a source of joy. People and situations will eventually disappoint us. Jesus never will.
The fourth verse of the hymn Joy to the World says, “He rules the world, with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.”
The wonder of his love is not just that he came into the world, born in a stable, but that he died to cleanse us of sin, and rose again to give us new life in him. That truly is joy in our world.
In a few weeks we’ll celebrate the birth of Christ – some children will even innocently celebrate it as Jesus’ birthday. But there is still an element of the unknown about the exact date when this event happened. About the only thing we’re certain of is that it definitely did not occur on December 25, in the Year 0.
For starters, there was no Year 0; in fact, there was no specific dating system then. Dates back then were measured by the year of a king’s reign, which would have varied from country to country. The Jews currently do have a specific dating system that puts us in the year 5778, which would have Jesus’ birth around the year 3760. But even this has a flaw, since the Jewish calendar doesn’t line up exactly with our current calendar.
The dating system that we use today was divided into two periods – B.C., or Before the birth of Christ, and A.D., Anno Domini, Latin for the Year of the Lord, meaning after his birth. This dating system came about long after the fact, in about 525 A.D. although it wasn’t widely used until 800 A.D. In this dating system, we have the year 1 B.C. followed by the year 1 A.D. – no Year Zero. So, at best, Jesus would have been born in 1 A.D. But that is also not the case.
Herod died in March or April of what we now call 4 B.C., meaning Jesus was born at least four years Before Christ.
We know that, according to Matthew 2, that King Herod was still alive when Jesus was born. Herod died in March or April of what we now call 4 B.C., meaning Jesus was born at least four years Before Christ. Hmmm.
But it may have been even earlier. We don’t know when the wise men from the East visited the baby Jesus. While some have speculated it could have been up to two years after his birth, Matt. 2:8 suggests that he was still in Bethlehem. Since Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth (Luke 2:4), it is likely they would have made their way back home within a few months after the birth.
We also don’t know how long the wise men stayed, or how long it took Herod to figure out that they’d tricked him. Long enough, it seems, for Joseph to gather his family to flee to Egypt. Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys in the area ages 2 and under “in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men.” That does seem to indicate that Jesus may have been a toddler by this time, or it may mean that Herod just wanted to make really sure he got the right kid.
But what day was Jesus born on if he wasn’t born on Dec. 25?
So, at the very least, Jesus would have had to have been born at the very beginning of 4 B.C., but more likely in 5 B.C. or even as early as 6 or 7 B.C.
But what day was Jesus born on if he wasn’t born on Dec. 25? Since the shepherds were in the fields with their flocks at night (Luke 2:8), the angelic visitation would have occurred between April and October (the other months would have been too cold to keep the sheep out at night). Some scholars have used the knowledge of the priestly cycle of service to determine when John the Baptist was likely born, and then been able to extrapolate from that a date for Jesus’ birth. The best guess currently is that Jesus was born sometime in the last half of what we now know as September. If that was in 5 B.C., he would have been around six months old when King Herod died, or 1-1/2 if he was born in 6 B.C.
The first record of a Christmas celebration is Dec. 25, 336 A.D.
So why has Dec. 25 been recognized as the day for Jesus’ birth? No one knows for sure. For the first 300 years the early church didn’t celebrate his birth at all, focusing instead on his crucifixion and resurrection. The first record of a Christmas celebration is Dec. 25, 336 A.D., ordered by the Roman Emperor Constantine after his conversion to Christianity.
Dec. 25 may have been chosen because it coincided with pagan winter solstice celebrations, or aligned with the Jewish Hanukkah festival. Early Christians speculated that, based on the date of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary conceived on March 25. That meant that if her pregnancy went exactly nine months, he would have been born on Dec. 25. Eastern churches, however, calculated that he would have been born on Jan. 6 and celebrated Christmas on that day. Some groups, like the Amish, still celebrate Jan. 6 as Old Christmas. It is also the 12th day of Christmas.
Over the years, Dec. 25 became a convenient time in Western Europe and America to celebrate Christmas because it was too cold to engage in any farming. They had more time to plan a celebration. For many people today in northern countries, the cold and shorter days mean more indoor time, so it is still a convenient time for celebrations.
We’ll all feel very blessed this year as we celebrate the Savior’s birth on Dec. 25. But if you really want to get Jesus a birthday cake, the more realistic time to do so would be around September 25. And add four or five candles since he was born at least several years before 1 A.D.
It’s the beginning of December, the time of year to remember the suffering of our Lord.
Wait, what did I just read? Did this guy accidentally post an Easter column by mistake? This is the season of joy to the world, of peace on earth, of angels and shepherds, gold, frankincense and myrrh. It’s the season of the birth of a beautiful baby, not of a grown man being cruelly crucified to a cross.
True. But let me ask this question: When did Jesus’ suffering begin?
Before answering that, let me start with a sort-of parable – suppose you have been selected to be the savior of the earthworms. You are zapped into the body of an earthworm, although you still have access to all your human senses, thoughts and memories. Your mission now is to tunnel daily through the dirt, bringing the words of salvation to the earthworm population. Eventually you are sacrificed on a cruel hook and dropped into the water, where a large fish swallows you, and the earthworms have their salvation.
At what point do you think your suffering would begin? Only when the hook pierced your body?
No, I think your suffering would begin the moment you left the world of humans and entered into the earthworm body. Still being fully aware of your humanity, it would be humbling and true suffering to now be confined to a body that had so little mobility and ability.
He entered the confines of not just a human body, but an infant human body.
Jesus was fully God, a partner in the creation of the world, with all the power, omniscience, glory and other aspects of the Father. And then he entered the confines of not just a human body, but an infant human body. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t walk and he had to depend on someone to change his diaper. We can’t begin to imagine what kind of suffering that was for him.
Even when he became an adult, he was still shackled to the most basic of human needs for food, shelter, sleep and bowel movements. He was tempted in every way we are, with pride, lust, anger and fear, yet successfully overcame succumbing to any of them.
Jesus had to endure the plodding simplicity of the humans around him – even the wisest, most educated human being was little more than a doddering fool in comparison to his wisdom. Even in his last hours on earth, he had to face the inevitability of human death, even though he was immortal God.
This is how Paul described Jesus’ sacrifice in Phil. 2:6-8:
“(Jesus), existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—even to death on a cross.” (HCSB)
There is no doubt that Jesus’ birth, eventual death and his resurrection gave us the opportunity to experience joy and peace on earth. We can celebrate that birth with joy. But I think it is good for us to remember how much that joy cost God the Father and God the Son. It’s when we realize that Jesus willingly placed himself in a position of suffering in human form because of his great love for us that we can truly rejoice in the true Christmas spirit.
For the past few months, our nation – our world, really – has been reeling from one tragedy after another. A mass shooting in Las Vegas, shootings in churches in Tennessee and Texas and trucks driven by terrorists plowing over people in New York City and Barcelona.
But it isn’t always a deliberate attack causing tragedy – back-to-back hurricanes hit the United States, while at the same time an earthquake caused mass death tolls in Mexico, and fires burned homes and took several dozen lives in California. All the while, car accidents, home mishaps and life in general exerted their toll.
In the wake of these tragedies, people around the world – including many Christians – ask, “Where is God in all of this? How can a loving God allow tragedy like this? If God is really love, wouldn’t he have stopped this?” Others have asked, “Is this God’s way of punishing our nation (or world) for all the sinful acts we allow?”
This generation is hardly the first to ask those questions. In fact, the oldest book in the Bible, Job, asks this question. Many of the Psalms resonate with us because the writers ponder these same questions. And in Luke 13, we find Jesus confronted with these questions as well.
Some people, who aren’t identified, asked Jesus about what must have been a relatively recent tragic event in Jewish history. Pontius Pilate, the same man who would later condemn Jesus to the cross, had killed some Galileans. The incident is not recorded in history, but the Jews at that time had a history of revolt and we know from Acts 5:37 that at least one of the revolutionaries came from Galilee. It is probable that the incident mentioned was the Roman response to such an insurrection.
We aren’t told the specific question the people asked Jesus, but based on his response, it was probably along the lines of, “Why would God have allowed that to happen? Is it punishment for their sins?”
According to the people who questioned Jesus, Pilate had killed a number of Galileans, probably including a number of innocent people, as a warning statement, then had mixed their blood with the Jewish sacrifices. This not only defiled the sacrifices, but went against God’s prohibition of offering humans or blood as sacrifices. Pilate did this as a way to demoralize the people, not unlike terrorist attacks we face today.
We aren’t told the specific question the people asked Jesus, but based on his response, it was probably along the lines of, “Why would God have allowed that to happen? Is it punishment for their sins?” Perhaps even, “You say God is a loving God, but how could a loving God allow this to happen?”
They certainly asked the right person; if anyone could give the right answer, it would be the Son of God.
But Jesus’ response not only doesn’t answer the question, it doesn’t really come across as very comforting.
“Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well.”
The questioners must have wondered how this got turned around to be about them.
Then he brings up another incident, possibly some type of construction accident.
“Or those 18 that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed – do you think they were more sinful than all the people who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well.”
Jesus does seem to answer the question about whether this is punishment for sin – no – but then he calls on the questioners to repent before the same thing happens to them. The questioners must have wondered how this got turned around to be about them.
What Jesus is saying here is that we shouldn’t spend our time worrying over something that happened, how it happened or why it happened to those particular people. We should instead make sure our hearts are prepared for eternity so that if physical death happens we won’t also die spiritually.
Death is inevitable. Except for Jesus and a couple of Old Testament saints (Enoch and Elijah), everyone who has ever lived has died or will die. Even Lazarus, after being raised from the dead, eventually died again.
Is the tragedy any less real for parents who lose a child to brain cancer than those who lose a child in a shooting?
Jesus seems to be saying that the method of death is not what’s important. And, in some ways, that is true. Is the tragedy any less real for parents who lose a child to brain cancer than those who lose a child in a shooting? Is death any less real for the loved ones of someone killed in a car accident than for those of someone killed by a terrorist driving into a crowd?
Jesus’ point is that, death is death and it is inevitable. What isn’t inevitable, though, is where you will spend your eternity. You have a choice – accept the loving forgiveness of Jesus’ death on the cross and the new life he provided through his resurrection, which leads to eternal life, or reject him and receive the wrath of God, which is an eternity of pain and dying without relief.
Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, and we grieve for these losses as well.
This doesn’t mean we’re callous toward these tragedies – Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, and we grieve for these losses as well. We don’t become foolish, either. We take measures to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and take steps to prevent such tragedies from happening to others. But we also can’t let tragedy alter our belief in God. Instead, these should be wake-up calls to examine ourselves, our own relationship with God, and serve as an impetus for Christians to reach out with Jesus’ love and salvation to those around us.
We may never be able to answer the question of how a loving God can allow such tragedies. But we can state with joy and confidence that a loving God has provided a way to not only transcend such tragedies, but to transcend death itself.
With a couple of strokes of a hammer 500 years ago, history changed – in Christianity and, ultimately, the whole world.
It was on Oct. 31, 1517, that a Catholic priest named Martin Luther allegedly walked up to the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed a big sheet of paper to the door. On it he had written 95 “disputations” he had against how the Catholic Church was operating. It eventually led to what is now known as the Protestant Reformation and to the distinction between Catholic and Protestant churches.
Luther was well-educated in philosophy and law but in fulfilling a vow he made in 1505, when he was 21, he became a monk. A few years later he was asked to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg, and a few years after that to become a vicar who visited the local Catholic monasteries.
To raise money, the Pope had representatives sell indulgences – basically, “get out of Hell free” cards.
It was during this time that Pope Leo X wanted to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To raise money, the Pope had representatives sell indulgences – basically, “get out of Hell free” cards. The idea was that people could buy forgiveness for their sins. Half of the money went to Rome, the other half was the “commission” of the man who did the selling of indulgences.
Luther, a huge fan of the book of Romans, objected to this practice since only God can forgive sins and give grace. He wrote a letter to the Pope with 95 points about why this was wrong, which became known as Luther’s 95 Theses. For centuries the story was that he nailed this letter to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, although scholars now believe he simply sent the letter to the Pope.
Regardless, the Pope was not pleased and insisted that Luther take back what he said. Luther had a hearing to make his case and refused to change his mind. He was branded a heretic and in 1521 was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
A few months later he appeared at the Diet of Worms, which has nothing to do with a fad weight loss program. A diet was a general assembly and it was held in Worms, Germany. There Luther was again accused of heresy, but he steadfastly refused to change his mind. After defending his beliefs, Luther concluded with, “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” Then he raised his hand in the traditional salute of a victorious knight – the equivalent today of a mic drop.
It was considered a crime in Germany for anyone to provide Luther with food or shelter – and they could kill him without any legal consequence.
Despite his eloquence and victorious gesture, the Diet branded him a heretic and outlawed his writings. It was considered a crime in Germany for anyone to provide Luther with food or shelter – and they could kill him without any legal consequence.
However, a local nobleman name Frederick III supported him and gave him shelter in his castle. There Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German (it was also illegal at this time to have a Bible in anything other than Latin) and penned more critical articles against the Catholic Church, developing further the themes of grace, love, patience and charity.
His writings led to a revolt among peasants, who believed that this new theology gave them a right to attack the ruling classes, who were usually favorites of the Catholic Church. Luther opposed the revolt, citing Jesus’ command to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. However, he did help smuggle 12 nuns out of a convent in 1523 by hiding them in herring barrels. He ended up marrying one of the nuns, which flew in the face of the Catholic Church’s prohibition of marriage among priests, one of the many changes he advocated.
From 1525-29, Luther worked on establishing a new church, one that reformed Catholic teachings. Because it was a protest against Catholicism, it became known as the Protestant Reformation. Members of his church became known as Lutherans, although he insisted they should be known only as Christians or Evangelicals.
Luther went on to translate the entire Bible in German (translating directly from Greek rather than from the Latin) and also wrote a number of hymns, including the classic, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
Luther’s fortitude to stand up to the Catholic Church inspired other reformers.
Luther’s fortitude to stand up to the Catholic Church inspired other reformers, among them John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and Conrad Grebel, who broke even further from Catholicism in the 1520s and ‘30s.
Whether Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door was actual or metaphorical, there is no doubt that it changed Christianity. Most Protestant and non-Catholic churches today can trace their roots to Luther or one of the other reformers of that period.
Gary Kauffman is a freelance writer, graphic designer and photographer, and a Bible teacher, living in North Augusta, S.C.
As I mentioned in a previous post, lately, I’ve recently seen a number of memes along these variations: “Jesus spoke more about money than any other topic” or “Jesus spoke more about money than (three or four subjects) combined.”
The implication is that if Jesus thought money was important enough to devote so much of his time to, then it’s important to us and we are justified in thinking about it.
His parables, though, aren’t about money; he just uses money sometimes as an illustration of a heavenly concept. Read my previous blog here.
Jesus does, however, speak pretty plainly about money – it’s just not anything we really want to hear, because he doesn’t often speak of it favorable terms.
When actually speaking about money, and not using it as an illustration to make a point about a different issue, here are the things Jesus had to say: the poor will be blessed, but woe to the rich; don’t take any money or provisions on a mission trip; give away everything you have so you can follow him; that only through God’s miraculous intervention can the rich enter heaven; and don’t worry about money, because it is God’s job to provide for your needs. Then he also went on a rampage in the temple against those who were selling animals there, including dumping the money all over the ground.
Did he speak positively about money? Sort of. He defended the woman of ill repute who anointed him with expensive perfume; he praised Zacchaeus when he decided to give half his wealth to the poor and repay those he’d cheated, with interest; and he honored the faith of the poor widow who gave the only two small coins she had to the temple treasury. He also approved the paying of both the temple tax and the government’s taxes.
Then there was his enigmatic story in Luke 16 about the shrewd money manager, where Jesus appears to be telling people to use money to win friends and influence people (16:9). In context, though, he probably meant something a bit different, since he designates worldly wealth as unrighteous and the Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at his teaching (16:14). I believe he is illustrating the importance of the true riches of heaven as opposed to the money the world reveres, and that we can’t misuse something of the world and expect to then be trusted with the real riches of the kingdom.
“You cannot serve both God and money.”
The bottom line for Jesus, though, can be found in Luke 16:13 and in Matthew 6:24, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. He says quite clearly that we have a choice to make when it comes to our wealth: “You cannot serve both God and money.”
The word translated as money is the Greek word mamona (translated in the KJV as Mammon). But more than money, it can mean wealth or assets. It has a sense of being an animate object, of being almost godlike. You could call it Mr. Money.
Mr. Money is a nice-looking guy, with a $200 haircut, Armani suits and Italian loafers. He has promised to care for your needs, to give you all the happiness and comfort you desire. He even gives you some nice bonuses, like the occasional filet mignon dinner and a cruise to the Bahamas. However, he is a demanding taskmaster, requiring your exclusive services or you don’t get the things you desire. He has no patience for you having outside interests, like God.
Before long, you find yourself in the exact situation Jesus described – choosing which master to serve.
Does God ask you to be more involved in church? Mr. Money says, no, you need to work overtime or you won’t be able to take that Disney World vacation. Does God want you to help someone in need? Mr. Money says, no, you won’t be able to make the monthly payments on your 4,000-square-foot house, that shiny new car and the jet skis. Has God asked you to take a stand on an issue? No, Mr. Money says, that could cause you to lose your job and then you’ll have to take your kids out of the private Christian school.
Before long, you find yourself in the exact situation Jesus described – choosing which master to serve.
You think, I could still give time and money to the church and have money for myself, right? It just wouldn’t be as much money and as much time for God, but still, it’s better than nothing.
No, it isn’t. Because Jesus calls us to give all our allegiance to the Father, and partial isn’t all. We really do have to choose between God and Mr. Money, two beings who require our full devotion. We can’t split it.
Jesus has little to say about earning money. In fact, he says virtually nothing about having a job or making a good income, and storing up treasure for the future, like retirement, is viewed as foolish (Luke 12:13-34). He does, however, talk about the importance of relying on God for our needs and storing up treasure in heaven, the kind of treasure that is gathered while following Jesus rather than anything monetary.
And, for the record, I don’t believe that Jesus spoke more about money than anything else.
I don’t believe that Jesus thinks earning money is wrong, or that he doesn’t want us to have jobs. And I do believe God does reward some Christians with wealth, knowing that they will use it for the greater good of the kingdom rather than greedily for themselves. The bottom line always is, where is our allegiance? With God, or with Mr. Money?
And, for the record, I don’t believe that Jesus spoke more about money than anything else. Without quantifying it numerically, I would guess that the majority of his teaching revolved around the theme of what is inside a person – the heart – matters more than outward appearances. He also spoke a lot about the kingdom of God and the radical lifestyle it requires. And he spent a good bit of his time talking about faith – praising those who exhibit it and criticizing those who don’t.
Money was a frequent subject, but more often than not, he spoke of the benefits of ridding ourselves of its influence, and never about making or having more of it.
Instead, Jesus commands us to be fully devoted to serving God and God will take care of providing for whatever physical needs we have. Mr. Money can take a hike.
Money – getting more, investing it for later, giving it away and, of course, spending it – is top of mind for most Americans. We work 40-plus hours a week, 80-plus if both spouses are employed, to move one step ahead of where we are and one step closer to where we believe we ought to be.
So it’s no surprise that Christians turn to the Bible for advice on money. And that’s also why, lately, I’ve seen a number of memes along these variations: “Jesus spoke more about money than any other topic” or “Jesus spoke more about money than (three or four subjects) combined.”
The implication is that if Jesus thought money was important enough to devote so much of his time to, then it’s important to us and we are justified in thinking about it.
I did a little research, something you should always do when faced with these “facts” (and I hope you don’t believe that everything contained in a meme is a fact). First, I looked to see what research people on the internet had already done. I found a wide range of thoughts.
Jesus did indeed use money and financial situations in his parables, but his parables were always about something heavenly.
One commentator on the internet averred that 16 of Jesus’ 38 parables were about how to handle money; another assured us that 11 of the 39 parables Jesus tells are about money. It was interesting that there wasn’t even an agreement on the number of parables, let alone how many dealt with money.
So then I turned to the actual words of Jesus. And here’s how many parables I found dealt with the wise use of money – zero.
Wait, you may say, you know at least one of them was, the one about the wise stewards. And what about the woman sweeping her floor looking for a lost coin?
Jesus did indeed use money and financial situations in his parables, but his parables were always about something heavenly – the kingdom of God, the end times, God’s celebration of the lost being found or right living. He used farming, shepherding, harvesting, weddings and other every day earthly situations, including finances, to illustrate those heavenly concepts.
Jesus is not talking about an investment strategy to beef up your portfolio.
Let’s take the story of the wise stewards, for example, most famously seen in Matt. 25:14-30 (also in Luke 19). I have heard Christian money managers and investors use this story to illustrate that Jesus, indeed, is a proponent of the stock market, at least of mutual funds. I have nothing against Christian investing or money managers, but context is very important here to understand that Jesus is not talking about an investment strategy to beef up your portfolio.
In chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew, Jesus is talking about the end times, including some of the signs to watch for when the time is growing near. Then he uses a couple of parables to illustrate the importance of being ready when the he returns.
He starts with a homeowner who was not watchful and let a thief break into his home, then a slave who was put in charge of other slaves and treated them cruelly, followed by a story about 10 virgins who went to wait for the groom, but only half of them were smart enough to take enough oil to keep their lamps lit the entire night. After that comes the parable of the wise stewards, which is followed by an illustration of separating sheep from goats.
In that context, the parable of the stewards is simply about being wise about your time on earth so that you are ready when the Lord returns. If you use the parable of the stewards to say Jesus is teaching about the wise investment of money, then you’d have to say the other parables are teaching about the need for adequate home security, good leadership, astute wedding planning and building separate pens for animals.
No, all of them, including the parable of the stewards, are about being prepared for the second coming of Christ.
I’ve written before about the principle of interpreting a Bible passage by the context it appears in, and in the larger context of the entire Bible itself. If not, we can end up with some faulty theology. The parable of the stewards – and Jesus’ view of money in general – can lead to some skewed viewpoints if not seen within the context of the whole Bible.
Read further about Jesus’ view on money here.
In case you missed it, this past Saturday (Sept. 23) the world was supposed to come to a screeching halt. A biblical numerologist (how do you get a job like that?) had figured it out, based on passages in Luke and various numerology codes.
Since I’m writing this the following Thursday, he was obviously wrong. Just as the hundreds of people before him were when they picked a date for the end of the world.
Even though they may not have a specific date in mind, many people today see the signs of the end times in the world events around them – wars and rumors of war, hurricanes, celestial events, the increasing decadence of the human race. Just as people did 100 years ago, and 200 years ago and 500 years ago and especially at the end of 999 A.D. when many people quit working and sold property for the expected return of Christ on Jan. 1, 1000.
Even the apostles, in their various letters, alluded to the end times being near. Yet here we still are.
One thing I know for sure – eventually someone will be right. The world will come to an end at some point.
I rarely think about the end times, primarily because I have no control over the end of the world, nor do I expect God to consult me on what might be a good time for it. However, the prediction from this past week, some comments my pastor made during a conversation and reading Jesus’ words about the end times in Matthew 24 and 25 during my daily Bible reading caused me to think about it more than normal.
All of us will face an end time, when death claims us and our life on earth ends.
So here’s what I predict: Since I am almost 59, I predict the end times to happen within 40 years or so. If you’re 40, I predict the end times within 60 years, and if you’re 20, I’d say the end will come in about 80 years.
Because let’s face it, whether Christ returns in all his glory tomorrow or a thousand years from now, all of us will face an end time, when death claims us and our life on earth ends.
In Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus’ message is that we need to be prepared for the end because we don’t know when it’s going to happen. We don’t know when our end will come, either. But we need to be prepared for the end, whether it’s the cataclysmic last gasp for everyone, or simply our own dying breath.
Every day people all across our country die suddenly in car accidents, of heart attacks and strokes, are murdered or expire in some other tragic fashion. Obviously, they didn’t know their end was coming any more than we know when Christ will return. But even people who are terminally ill don’t know the exact day or hour their body will cease to function.
So we need to be prepared at all times, so that when we meet Christ face to face he can say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
People speak about the end times darkly, because of the promised hardships and pain. But Jesus promised an abundant life, which began on earth the moment we received God’s grace and started following him and continues throughout eternity. We can live life full of joy here knowing that whenever the end times come we will receive an abundance of riches through Christ in the heavenly places.
A friend of mine was excited about his trip to the doctor’s office for his annual checkup. During the previous year he’d become involved in a strenuous workout program. He’d had to buy smaller-sized clothes on several occasions. He couldn’t wait to see how much weight he’d dropped in that year.
As he stepped onto the scales he wondered what the numbers would show. At least a drop of 20 pounds. Maybe even more. And then the readout displayed – exactly the same weight as the previous year.
He thought he was being pranked. How could he possibly weigh the same? It was then that he realized that while he had dropped significant amounts of fat and wore smaller clothes, he had also bulked up with muscle. So despite the scales showing exactly the same weight as the previous year, he was much fitter, much healthier and much better able to function. He learned that numbers may have very little to do with actual health.
Like with my friend’s weight, numbers may have little to do with the actual fitness of the church.
Many churches, especially smaller churches, need to change their focus in the same way. Thanks to the rise of megachurches, many Christian leaders have become obsessed with numbers and growth. But like with my friend’s weight, numbers may have little to do with the actual fitness of the church.
Seeking an increase in the number of people attending church is not listed anywhere in the Bible as being one of the pastor’s duties, or even being a church goal. The only reference to a growing church is in Acts 2, but it specifically takes the burden off the church leadership: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47)
That should be a big relief to church leaders everywhere. It isn’t their job to add to the numbers. That responsibility belongs to the Lord.
And then there’s the example of Jesus. After three-plus years of ministry, preaching to tens of thousands, the “church” at the time of his ascent into heaven was about 120. Not exactly a megachurch.
Taking the pressure of numbers off the responsibility list leaves the church free to pursue what God has called it to – becoming fitter and healthier to carry out God’s mission.
After three-plus years of ministry, preaching to tens of thousands, the “church” at the time of Jesus’ ascent into heaven was about 120. Not exactly a megachurch.
But what does that mean? Here are a few steps church leaders and their members can take.
Thank God. Start out by being thankful for who you already have in your church. Realize that God may have a reason for keeping your church small. Acknowledge that He and He alone will create genuine growth.
Discipleship. The call for all Christians is to make disciples – not just evangelize, but to create an ongoing discipleship process that builds mature Christians. Church leaders should have discipleship groups which in turn disciples others, which disciple others, etc.
Shepherd your flock. God has entrusted church leaders with the people in their congregation. They should be the first priority whether or not any growth ever happens. Leaders shepherd by example – how they live out their faith, how they pray, how they study the Bible and the evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives – which will do more to build the congregation than any sermon.
Stay humble. Why do you desire a bigger church? Is it so that you’ll look better in your own eyes and in the eyes of other pastors? Is it so you can create better programs or produce better funding? If it is for any reason other than to bring glory to God, then you’ll need to change your focus to see your church the way God sees it.
Focus on maturity. When you’re working out, you can see a visible difference in your muscles and fitness. When members of your congregation begin speaking up about insights in their personal Bible study, when they take the lead in offering to pray for a situation, when they ask about starting a ministry God has put in their hearts, you’re seeing your congregation flexing its spiritual muscles and fitness.
Delegate. The temptation in a small church is for the pastor to do everything. Begin developing leadership in your congregation and delegate tasks appropriately to their skills and gifts. As they prove faithful in small things, give them bigger items to manage. The pastor’s job in shepherding the flock is to make sure everyone is taken care of. He can’t do that if he is also running every meeting, organizing every event and sweeping the floors. Delegating allows pastors and leaders to focus on people rather than the programs.
Encourage. Speak positively about the congregation, praise effusively and celebrate successes. Celebrating and encouraging are biblical principles.
Point to God. Always stay aware and keep the congregation aware that everything the church does is for the glory of God and should point people to the Kingdom of God. “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?’” (Deut. 4:5-7)
When you take your eyes off the numbers and begin focusing on these things, you’ll develop a stronger, fitter, healthier congregation that is mature in serving the Lord. But you’ll probably also start to see something else happen – growth. Christians who are mature in the Lord will reach out to other people and begin telling them about what He means to them and why they serve Him.
But even if the “scales” show the same number, as they did for my friend, you’ll know that you’re much healthier and stronger than before.
Gary Kauffman is a freelance writer, photographer and Bible teacher in North Augusta, S.C.