What is biblical literacy?

“Apollos…was mighty in the Scriptures.”

Acts 18:24 (NASB)

“Wow, she sure knows her Bible.”

Perhaps you’ve said that about someone, or heard it said. What was it that triggered that response? Was it the command of details about the Bible? Was it a demonstration of extended memorization? Was it the ability to bring additional passages to bear on the discussion? It could have been any, or all, of these.

The fact is, Christians tend to admire someone who can prove themselves knowledgeable in the Bible. Furthermore, many wish that they themselves were more so. If biblical literacy is to be valued and pursued, it would be helpful to determine what it means to be literate in the Scripture.

Far too many Christians are happy with just a cursory knowledge of the Bible. This is more than sad; it can be dangerous. Since there are so many worldviews and doctrines vying for our attention, it would be easy to fall into error without a working knowledge of Scripture.

Often, we are satisfied to find a verse-of-the-day and pop it like a vitamin pill and then spend the rest of the day thinking worldly thoughts. And we wonder why we are weak and ineffective.

On the other hand, our goal for biblical literacy is to go deeper. Whether you go to a Bible college or seminary, attend instructional workshops and classes at your church, or engage in personal study on your own, you should be seeking to dive into the text of Scripture with a mind to understanding the deep truths found therein. This may not be easy, but it’s easily the most rewarding. As John Piper has said in reference to reading, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”

Apollos, a man of the Word

In Acts 18:24, we are introduced to a Jewish believer named Apollos. He is described as “eloquent” and “competent” in the Scriptures (ESV). The word for “competent” in the ESV is perhaps better rendered “mighty,” as in the NASB, or powerful in handling the Word. In other words, he knew his stuff, and furthermore, he was effective in communicating to both believers and scoffers alike.

I believe he is a model of a biblically literate man. We can glean several characteristics about what it means to “know” the Bible through the text that follows.

Skill

In verse 25, we read that Apollos had been instructed in the way of the Lord. This shows us the value of training and both formal and informal education. A student of the Bible must be willing to submit to this training.

Sometimes this means that you must learn new skills in order to dig deep. First, a student of the Bible must be well-versed in language and grammar. As a written document, the Bible opens its truths to those willing to examine the meanings of words and the relationships between phrases and clauses. Linking words such as “for” and “therefore” are the unsung heroes of biblical literacy. Grammar is important.

Secondly, learning to understand literary forms such as poetry and extended metaphor will also enrich your study. You can hardly read the Psalms or Revelation without an appreciation of figurative language. You read and study an epistle differently than you do an historical book.

Finally, having an understanding of the basic tenets of logic and argument will help you draw sound conclusions and avoid errors in reasoning in your study. One unfortunate unintended consequence of dividing the Bible into chapters and verses (verses have only been commonly used for about 500 years) is that we often think of the verses in a vacuum outside of their context, and we lose sight of the overall argument being made. Worse, we may misuse a verse to make it say what it doesn’t. Dan Brendsei wrote, “Scripture is not just a collection of energy packets; it’s a five-course meal. It’s not just a bunch of pearls on a string; it’s a chain strong enough to pull you out of any trial.” In order to obtain a full grasp of a passage of Scripture, you must be able to follow the argument in the “chain” of verses and derive sound logical conclusions.

Accuracy

We also read in verse 25 about Apollos, “being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus (emphasis added).” Perhaps nothing is more basic to biblical literacy than the ability to understand the Bible correctly. Paul instructed his young disciple Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). He contrasts this accurate handling of the Word with the warning to “avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (v.16).

Interestingly enough, we are told in subsequent verses in Acts 18, that Apollos himself was limited in his knowledge – he only knew the baptism of John – and needed further instruction from Priscilla and Aquilla in order to fill out his understanding. But even before that correction, he was described as an accurate teacher. Further truth, or in our case, learning more and more of the Bible and comparing Scripture with Scripture, will make our knowledge correct.

Reason and Synthesis

Apollos, after correction from Priscilla and Aquila, was of great help to the believers. In verse 28 we read that he “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” This follows one of the recurring themes in the book of Acts, namely the need to prove to the Jews first that Jesus of Nazareth, whom everyone then knew about, was in fact the promised Messiah (Greek word, Christ), something the Jewish leadership opposed. Apollos was able to do this by “showing by the Scriptures.” Now, there’s not one solitary, handy verse in the Old Testament that could do this. Apollos would have to show, passage by passage, line by line, what the prophecies concerning the Messiah were, what he would be do, how he would have to suffer, and then he would have to demonstrate how Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of those prophecies. This would be extremely encouraging and helpful to young believers who were in danger of skepticism.

This is what is known in education circles as synthesis, the act of putting parts together to form a whole. Just as in Bloom’s Taxonomy, this is one of the higher order thinking skills. Comparing Scripture with Scripture is not only helpful in our accurate understanding of the passages, it also enables us to formulate a theology and a creed according to that understanding.

Boiling it down to a statement

So, what can we say about this question, what does it mean to know the Bible? If we take these entities of skill, accuracy, and synthesis, let’s say this –

A biblically literate person is able to apply the skills of language, literature, and logic to passages of the Bible, comparing one with another, so that the reader is able to accurately determine the meaning of a passage and to grasp its place in the greater story that God is telling.

Biblical literacy is not becoming a “Bible nerd,” but it is a means by which you may grow in godliness as you grow in the knowledge of our Lord.

The set heart of Ezra


The return of the Jews from captivity

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”

Ezra 7:10

The Old Testament book of Ezra chronicles the return of Jews to their homeland in Canaan from Babylonian captivity, the first group under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 538 BC, and then later a second group under Ezra the scribe. Ezra in particular called the people, who had lived under secular Babylonian culture for over 70 years, to a renewal of holiness and submission to God’s law.

Ezra was described as “skilled in the Law of Moses” (7:6). And his heart for the people is told to us in 7:10 – “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” What Ezra was returning to accomplish for the Lord and his people consumed him. He set his heart on this. There are three infinitives here to tell us what captured his soul, and what ought to capture ours.

1 To study

It was Ezra’s devotion, first of all, to study the law of the Lord. As a scribe, this was to be expected, to not only reverently copy the manuscripts by hand but to become utterly versed in their content. By the time of Jesus, the scribes (along with the Pharisees and Sadducees) were highly thought of in Israel. And though our Lord regularly railed against the hypocrisy of these groups, Ezra rather supplies us with a noble example.

We live in a time that needs more Ezras, men and women who are not afraid to do the hard work of studying the Bible, who are willing to go deep and tackle theological issues. Unfortunately, our time is more characterized Amos’ prophecy – “’Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘when I will send a famine on the land— not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD'” (Amos 8:11). Has there ever been a time of more opportunity to study God’s Word and less actual biblical understanding?

2 To practice

Ezra’s second passion was to put the truth of God into practice. Indeed, to know God’s word and not obey it was the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. But Ezra, as an early example, was of more noble character.

All too often, we are content to have an interest in the things of God, but it is superficial. When the commands of Scripture come to us, we choose to obey the ones that don’t shatter our comfort levels; others we ignore or explain away. Study after study shows that professing Christians have no discernable difference with non-believers in areas like divorce, attitudes toward honesty, and sexual behavior. Shouldn’t we be noticably different than the world?

3 To teach

Finally, Ezra had a fervor to teach the Word in Israel. This was a great need as the Jews had been in captivity in a secular society for over 70 years. They would have forgotten much of the statutes and commands of the Law. And just as during the time of the end of the Exodus (Deuteronomy, the “second reading of the Law”), the people needed to hear again from the Lord.

This happened as recorded in Nehemiah 8, where we find that Ezra read from the Law from “monring until midday” (Neh. 8:3), and the people were attentive. Then Ezra and a numbger of the Levites “helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:7-8). In other words, they held Sunday School!

Many believers don’t think of themselves as teachers. But we are all enjoined to teaching, whether it’s our children, younger believers, or even the church at large. The readers of Hebrews were chastised – “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles” (Heb. 5:12). How many of us feel inadequate to teach because we haven’t done our own study?

Where is your heart set regarding the Bible? I pray that we will be people who are known…for our studying, for our practice, for our teaching.

Why I don’t often ask myself, how do I apply this?

Read any Bible study guide, or any book on how to study the Bible, and you’ll invariably see a directive to ask, how do I apply this passage to my life?

I’m going to go a little counter-cultural here and admit that when I study the Bible, I rarely ask that question of myself.

It’s not that I don’t think the Bible has a practical application; it’s not that I don’t try to apply the truths to my life. I just don’t rush to answer that question. Here’s why –

1 I want to grasp the meaning of the text.

If we rush to the practical application, we can short-change the interpretation stage. This is perhaps the most important step in your Bible study. If you don’t determine what the text says and what it means, then any application you may come up with could be misguided at best, or just plain wrong at worst.

Understanding the text takes work and it takes time. There’s the observation of the text – making note of which words and phrases are repeated or emphasized, seeing the flow of thought in the text, determining word meanings, comparing the passage to others in the Bible. All of this is a concentrated endeavor and is not to be rushed. It can take multiple sessions with a text.

2 I want to savor the richness of the text.

Sometimes, it is in the repeated mulling over of the text that a deeper understanding comes. This is called meditation, and it is commended to us throughout Scripture, most notably in Psalm 1:2 – “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating on the Word, the over-and-over rehearsing of the text in your mind, can open up connections and implications that a quick once-over just cannot do.

A number of years ago, I was memorizing long passages in Ephesians. As I would repeat the text, each day adding a new verse, connections from one part of the epistle to another became clear. For example, in chapter 1 we read that God was “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10).

Later in chapter 3, Paul speaks of the “mystery [that] was made known to me by revelation” (3:3). He continues, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). As I contemplated this later passage, I was able to make the connection to chapter 1 and have a greater understanding of what it means for all things to be united in Christ. This only came after extended meditation on the text.

3 The Bible is a much better applier of truth than I am.

For me to assume that I am the determining factor of whether or not my study and meditation of the Bible will affect my life is seriously short-changing the power of the Word of God. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Bible is not passive as I read; it is “living and active.” Reading and studying the Bible can cause me to say, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) To feed on the Word and then to ask how I might apply it is like eating a 4-course meal and then asking how I might get the proteins and nutrients into my system.

It is the Scripture (coupled with the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit) that will convict me of my sin and instruct me in the way I should go. This happens as I store up the Word in my mind and heart. It may be that in that moment, the weight and import of that passage may not resonate. I don’t sweat that. In time, the Spirit will bring it to remembrance and bring it to bear on my situation. I know this is so because the Bible teaches that this is the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:11b-12), and I know this to be so because I’ve seen it happen time and again in my life.

I fully understand that it is possible that I might become a student of the Bible and miss seeing Christ. But as I pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18), the Bible itself is its own best instructor in how to apply its truths to my life.

Thoughts on Christ’s effective work on the cross

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, he ACCOMPLISHED what the Father had sent him to do, namely secure the redemption of his people. “Tetelestai.” “It is finished (brought to completion).” He did not merely make redemption a POSSIBLE outcome; he actually secured it for his chosen people.

If, as many believe, he only made salvation possible and subject to the “free will” of men as the determining factor, then we must recognize the possibility that no one would be saved. In fact, knowing the depths of the depravity of the human heart, it is more certain that, if left up to the corrupt will of unregenerate man, no one would be saved.

If the redemption that Jesus purchased with his blood only made salvation possible, then on what basis could it truthfully and confidently be sung in heaven, “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth”? (Revelation 5:9-10)

To God be the glory; great things he has DONE!

Sovereignty on the back end needs sovereignty on the front end

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves. See other posts in this series here and here.

A number of us were conversing, and someone noted that God had worked some good things in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, if it also wasn’t true that God had worked to bring the pandemic. As usual, they rolled their eyes and sighed at my theological intrusion. “The same God who has worked good from the pandemic is the same God who could have prevented it, but didn’t,” said I.

We often look at various disasters as bad things, and something about our mindset will not allow us to attribute those to the divine Hand of Providence. We recoil at saying that God brings disaster. But the Bible does not. Amos 3:6 says, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” Such directness is hard for us, who may want to soften the blow by affirming that God may “allow” such disaster but not actively cause it.

We tend to speak in terms of God doing good things, and allowing bad things, all the while retaining for ourselves the right to define what’s good and what’s bad. We even take a promise such as Romans 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”) to mean something like, “here’s this bad thing, and God turns it into good.” Kind of a lemons-lemonade dynamic.

Again, this is not the biblical perspective. One of the greatest examples of a biblical understanding is found in the life of Joseph, whom his brothers planned to murder, sold into slavery instead, and then years later were rescued from starvation by this very brother. In the end, they worried that Joseph, now Pharaoh’s #2 in Egypt, would exact vengeance on them for past wrongs. Instead Joseph said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Not, “you meant evil, God turned it to good.” But, “you meant evil, God meant good.” Equal agency. In fact, I would say that God was the primary agent. The God who orchestrated Joseph’s rise to power in order to save people from famine could have ordained that there was no famine to be saved from.

All this to say that God is sovereign over and ordains all that comes to pass (Ephesians 1:11). The greatest sin ever perpetrated in human history was the crucifixion of Jesus, “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” yet the Bible is clear that he was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). It would be completely unbiblical to say that God only “allowed” the crucifixion of Jesus, and then turned it into something good.

We love the promises and provision of God in the midst of trials, but the sovereign care that comes in trial has been there all along, even over the occurance of the trial. If God is to work all things for good for his people, it is necessary that he be sovereign over all things. Sovereignty on the back end requires sovereignty on the front end.* May we affirm this; may we trust this.

*This is an expression that I’m pretty sure I heard from John Piper. I cannot locate the source.

Is God unjust to save only some?

Whenever the topic of God’s saving of some while condemning others to hell comes up, the accusation is soon made that God is unjust to only save some and not all. Particularly if we look at salvation rightly as the sovereign work of God, we wonder, Why not all?

But, is it unjust to save only some? To have mercy on some and not all? How can God be just and save anyone for that matter? Let’s consider some of these issues.

1 God is not subject to our sense of justice.

As Sovereign Creator, God is not to be judged on our sense what is just. He himself is his own standard for justice, and our insight is both creaturely and fallen. God has revealed himself to be just (Deut. 43:4; Gen. 18:25), but rather than measure up to our understanding of what that means, we see in Scripture his revelation of how God is right and just. We can only begin to grasp it, but we are reminded that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

2 God is just to condemn sinners.

When Adam sinned, he plunged the entire human race into death (Romans 5:12). As a result there is not, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be, a single human being who does not deserve death, condemnation, and hell (the one exception would be Jesus Christ, the perfect God-Man). If God had decided to save none of humanity but instead send us all to hell, he would be just. Habbakuk describes God as, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (1:13). A holy God is just to condemn sinners.

3 God in his mercy saves some.

God, for his glory and by his own good pleasure, ordained that he would save some out of a fallen humanity. Many would call this unjust. But rather than an injustice on God’s part, it is out of his mercy that he saves.

“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.”

Romans 9:14-15

Mercy, by definition, is undeserved. And those whom God shows mercy are not the objects of mercy because they have earned it. This goes against our “fairness” grain. We want to ask, why this one and not that one? There is no answer to that question. “It depends not on human will or exertions, but on God who has mercy.” People assume that we think ourselves special by being a “chosen one.” Those whom God has chosen and saved are special, but not in the sense that they’ve done anything to merit salvation. Being a chosen child of God is not a cause for pride but a catalyst for humility.

4 When God saves, he does not forego his justice.

A simple (but erroneous) understanding of salvation is that God saves by simply forgiving and forgeting the sins of man. If this were the case, then indeed salvation of some would be unjust. But salvation is provided by the death of Jesus Christ, who took the punishment that we deserved in our place. God’s righteous justice is carried out in Jesus for those who believe, thus saving us from wrath. This is the biblical idea of propitiation [wrath satisfied] and it is at the heart of the gospel message.

“All [who believe] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This…was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:24, 25a, 26

Just and the justifier. This is how a holy God accepts the ungodly. Not through a spiritual wave of the forgiveness wand, but through enacting his just wrath on Jesus Christ in our place.

When I consider that I am a recipient of God’s sovereign mercy, and that the price of that was the death of his Son in my place, I am left aghast. I often think, why me? And I have no response but, Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)

Are we in danger of living in a world of Post-Christian Christianity?

I pray for revival, Christian revival. But I do not see the necessary conditions for it to occur, barring a miracle of God, which is what a revival is anyway.

The last widespread nationwide revival that I can recall was the so-called “Jesus Movement” of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was a teenager then, already a believer, but the movement affected me greatly in deepening my faith and zeal for the Lord.

In many ways, it was a simple movement. The gospel of salvation was preached, many young people responded, and it stretched across our land to almost every corner. In my town, the movement showed up in conjunction with the movie, “The Cross and the Switchblade” and a coffee house/Bible study run by a couple of local seminary students.

The main reason why I don’t see the conditions right for that now is that more than ever, when the gospel is preached, we have to ask, “Which gospel?” Is it the gospel of the Bible – Creator God, sinful man, sacrificial Savior, repentance and faith? Or is it something else? A “gospel” that appeals more to our felt needs and exhibits characteristics more of therapy than surrender? A “gospel” that promises “your best life now” as if that’s the best the Bible has to offer? A “gospel” that gets people fired up for Jesus without any sense of who he is or what his Word teaches?

This all boils down to a dearth of biblical knowledge, biblical illiteracy if you will. I don’t mean that you have to know a lot of the Bible to come to Christ, but certainly those of us who proclaim the gospel ought to be well-versed, so that those who respond are in fact believing the real gospel about the real Jesus.

One of the marks of the Jesus Movement was its simplicity. We sat in informal circles, sang simple songs (mostly from Scripture), prayed for one another, and studied the Bible together. You would be hard-pressed to find small groups today whose primary purpose is to study the Bible and systematically build our knowledge.

Voddie Baucham has been quoted: “The modern church is producing passionate people with empty heads who love the Jesus they don’t know very well.” By and large, Christians are just not that interested “contend[ing] for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We’d rather sit in our circles and talk about our experiences with no biblical compass to guide us.

Because of this, we are in danger of passing into a kind of “Post-Christian Christianity.” A time where identifying as a Christian means different things to different people and thus means nothing. This is why I believe that before any true revival can take place, we need to recover the place of content in our Christianity.

I am thankful for the voices that God is raising for biblical literacy. Jen Wilkin is doing amazing things targeted for Christian women that is substantial, unlike what is typically marketed to women. For years, Ligonier Ministries under Dr. R.C. Sproul has been engaging believers in content that bridges the gap between the local church and a seminary education. John Piper, before he stepped away from Bethlehem Baptist Church, preached massive sermon series from Romans and Hebrews (I wrote about that here). May their tribe increase.

And then maybe we can have revival.

John MacArthur on COVID-19, church closures, NT Wright, God’s sovereignty in pestilence

There is a fair amount of posturing and hysteria online these days. As usual, pastor John MacArthur has a biblical, measured response (originally posted 4/23/20) on the issues facing the Church and Christians in these days. Fair warning – there is a small tipping of his pre-Tribulational views. If you don’t buy into that, don’t let that keep you from this excellent analysis. The first 15 minutes or so covers the questions surrounding the closing of churches on the recommendation/mandate of the State. Theological and pastoral.

Thinking Biblically About the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interview with John MacArthur

Embrace mystery: thoughts on Ephesians 1:3-14

The following is a portion of a chapter I have written on Ephesians 1:3-14. It is a part of a book I am writing: Framework: Passages That Teach Theology (working title).

There is mystery in these verses; embrace it! Whenever I discuss the issue of the sovereignty of God with other believers, invariably objections are raised. If God has predestined us for salvation, then what about free will? Why should we share the gospel? Why should I even pray? These are all good questions, but I urge you to pump the brakes a little on those questions and simply meditate on the truths that are plainly stated. “The words speak of a mystery, but words could not be plainer.”

All too often, believers look at a passage like this and immediately go in to denial-mode. “Since I know this is true, then that can’t mean…” And what ends up happening in our thoughts is that the truths about God we see plainly stated are mitigated and softened. And before you know it, we’ve created a mental picture of God that we can be comfortable with but is a distortion of what the Bible reveals.

The closer we come to truths about God, the more mystery there is. We will not be able to “figure it out.” If you can’t reconcile God’s sovereignty with mankind’s being held responsible for their sins, then you’re in a good place! Don’t try to reconcile two irreconcilable truths. Embrace the mystery.