Improving Our Bible Studies


What is a Bible study?

The term “Bible study” could refer to lots of different activities. But it’s commonly used to describe a fairly small group of people (a dozen or fewer) getting together to study a particular passage of the Bible, under the oversight of a study leader using a question-and-answer method. That’s what “Bible study” means throughout this post.

Why do a Bible study instead of listening to someone give a talk?

Although preaching should be the church’s primary means of delivering Bible teaching (see 2 Tim. 4:1–2), a Bible study is a good additional method. Its special value is that it gives people the experience of discovering truths from the Bible themselves, rather than being told those truths by someone else. You could say that a sermon gives everyone a pot of honey to eat from, while a Bible study encourages people to go to the beehive and gather honey for themselves. Or to use another picture, a sermon shines a flashlight into people’s minds, while in a Bible study the aim is for a lightbulb to turn on in those minds by itself.

I’ve been invited to lead a Bible study. How should I prepare?

As said above, Bible study leaders use a question-and-answer method. For this to be done well, the study leader needs both a deep understanding of the passage (steps 1–4 below) and carefully-composed questions that are “simple yet succulent”—simple enough to be understood right away, and yet succulent enough to attract an answer, because no one enjoys answering dry, overly-basic questions (see step 5).

Step 1: Pray

The first thing to do is to pray for God’s help, because without it we cannot expect to understand the Bible’s meaning: “Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).

Step 2: Look Closely

Next we’ll need to spend a significant amount of time looking closely at the passage, thinking carefully about it, and consulting resources such as the ESV Study Bible and a commentary (try this site for recommended commentaries on Bible books). Paul says to Timothy: “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Timothy 2:7). We can’t expect the latter unless we do the former.

Begin by seeking the original meaning, which is the author’s intended meaning at the time of writing. In order to apply the passage correctly to our own time and place, we must first gain a clear understanding of the originally-intended meaning—we need to “go back to Corinth.” Five key words to aid this process are Context, Repetition, Aim, Mood, and Structure (the first letters form the memory-aid CRAMS, which is fitting because God crams Bible passages full of meaning).

Ask yourself: what is the Context, i.e. the background meaning supplied by the text surrounding the passage? For example, Isaiah 53:3 refers back to 49:6-7, which refers back to 9:1-2. Those background connections are highly significant. Ultimately, the context of any single passage is the whole of the rest of the Bible. Hebrews 11:17-19, for example, helps us understand Genesis 22:10. Isaiah 8:14, Psalm 118:21-26, and Daniel 2:34-35 help us understand Matthew 21:44. So Bible study leaders should strive to grow in their understanding of all the Scriptures. The better we understand the Bible as a whole, the better we’ll understand individual passages within it.

Ask yourself: is there any Repetition in the passage? People generally repeat themselves when they’re trying to emphasize something important (“Just don’t forget what I said earlier about feeding the cat”). Ephesians 2:1-10 and Matthew 5:17-18 are examples of passages with significant repetition.

Ask yourself: does the author of the passage state what the Aim is, either the purpose of the passage itself or the purpose of the book in which the passage is found? If so, that will be very relevant! John 20:30-31 is a famous example, which helps us understand the whole of John’s gospel. Psalm 73:1 sets out the teaching point that the rest of the psalm explores. In 1 Peter 5:12, Peter explains why he’s written the letter; Jude does the same in Jude 3; John does the same in 1 John 5:13. Exodus 9:15-16 reveals God’s purpose in the chapters dealing with Pharaoh and the plagues. Genesis 50:20 gives us the right perspective on all the Joseph narratives. We won’t always be able to find a verse that reveals the aim of a passage, but when a purpose statement is present, it’s important to give it due weight.

Ask yourself: what is the Mood of this passage? If a passage has a cheerful mood you should expect a joyful, encouraging meaning. A passage with a sad, melancholy mood will probably have a meaning that draws attention to our sinfulness or reveals something of the world’s fallenness. An example of the latter is Luke 17:11-19, which describes a miraculous healing and yet closes on a melancholy note—which would need to be acknowledged in the study. In contrast, Matthew 13:44-45 is a joyful passage, and so it wouldn’t be right to highlight the negative side of “selling all you have.”

Ask yourself: does the Structure of the passage help to reveal its meaning? Just as we split up knives, forks and spoons in a kitchen drawer to avoid confusion, so authors often split up the different points they’re trying to make. Noticing the structure helps us understand these different points. In Psalm 19, for example, the author makes one point in the first six verses, another point in verses 7-11, and a third point in verses 12-14. Another structure that’s used by Bible writers is “sandwiching” or “bookending.” This is when the same point is stated at the beginning and end of a passage, thereby indicating that all the material within the bookends should be considered in light of those bookends (see, for instance, Matthew 5:3-10, where the same phrase, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” is found at the beginning and end of the passage).

Step 3: Bridge the Gap

Once we’ve understood—with God’s help—the original meaning, we’re in a position to work out the meaning for today, but watch out! There’s a gap between the first readers and ourselves, which must be bridged with great care. To bridge the gap properly we need to have a good grasp of the successive periods of salvation history, and the differences between them. God’s requirements for his people change from one period to the next: under the new covenant, for example, we’re permitted to eat bacon, whereas doing so in earlier periods of salvation history would have disqualified someone from membership of God’s people. When we’re studying an Old Testament passage, our objective will be to find truths and principles that are still meaningful and valid in our own new covenant period of salvation history (see diagram).

principlizing bridge.jpg

Step 4: Apply in a Gospel-Friendly Way

A Bible study must consider the potential impact of the passage on our lives. God wants our lives to be transformed (Romans 12:2). But there’s a danger here. People can often slide into a “works righteousness” approach to their relationship with God. We easily find ourselves thinking that doing good works is the way to gain God’s favor. While it is true that our good works please God, and our sins grieve him, these victories and defeats do not alter the fact that we’re saved by grace, through the righteousness God gives us when we trust in the atoning blood shed by Jesus (Romans 3:21-4:8). So we must apply the Bible to our lives in a gospel-friendly way that doesn’t undermine the good news of God’s free gift of righteousness. We seek to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:20) because we love him and want to bring him glory, not to store up salvation merit points. A final thing to keep in mind is that the Bible transforms us not only when it specifically addresses our human situation (through commands to obey, promises to claim, etc.), but also when it reveals truths about God and his character. These truths will fill us with fresh praise and adoration, and they will shape our relationship with God.

Step 5: Compose “Simple Yet Succulent” Questions

There are two types of Bible study question: observation questions and significance questions. Observation questions have answers that are gettable-from-the-text. They could be described as “eyes down” questions. For example, an observation question in a study on Mark 9:1-14 (the transfiguration) would be: “What three extraordinary things happen in this passage?” That kind of question forces people’s eyes down towards the page. Significance questions, on the other hand, deal with issues raised by the text, and could be termed “eyes up” questions. One useful exercise when preparing Bible study questions is to put (O) for observation or (S) for significance after each question.

A good rule of thumb is that there should be more (O) questions than (S) questions overall, because there’s always a lot of information to take in from the passage. Remember, the objective is for people to gather honey from the hive themselves, rather than receiving a pot of honey from the study leader. That process depends on (O) questions. We want people to experience the joy of gaining understanding through their own God-facilitated reflection on the text. So, to use a different image, our questions should be like sheepdogs herding sheep into a pen. Sheepdogs prevent sheep from wandering off-track. Yet they don’t pick the sheep up and throw them into the pen, they try to get the sheep themselves to do the work of getting into the pen. In a similar way, our questions should guide people towards the main points of the text, and yet the questions shouldn’t give away the answers, because that would stop people thinking for themselves about what God is saying in his word.  

When I ask a question, tumbleweed drifts across the room. What’s gone wrong?

This may be because your questions aren’t simple enough, or they’re simple but not succulent. Put yourself in the shoes of the people in your study. Imagine what it feels like to be asked the questions you’ve prepared—maybe even say those questions out loud to yourself in a kind of role play exercise. A long and complicated question will leave people bamboozled and unable to answer, e.g.: “In verse 3 how does Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees contrast with what we saw earlier when Jesus was on the other side of the Sea of Galilee after he healed the man with leprosy?” And yet a too-easy question such as “What does Jesus say in verse 3?” will also lead to nothing but crickets in the background. No one has an appetite for answering a question like that.

One way to ask an observation question which has some succulence is to say, “How would you put what Jesus says in verse 3 into your own words?” or, “How would you summarize Paul’s request in verses 3 and 4?” That kind of question will bring about the desired observation while making the question more attractive to answer. People often respond well to an invitation to be creative, such as, “If you were present at this scene with a smartphone, what Instagram pictures would you take to capture what happens?” Or, “If you had to come up with an eye-catching headline for this passage, what would it be?” Or, “If this passage were a movie, what would its title be?” Or (to aid observation of the mood of a passage), “What kind of background music would you choose for the events in verses 1-5?” Sometimes combining observation with significance can make a question more succulent: “What’s the most important thing that happens in this passage?” The Bible contains many surprises, and a question such as, “What’s the surprise in verses 13-14?” will often work well. It’s also worth keeping in mind that sometimes things will move along better if you give information to the group yourself. We shouldn’t feel that everything needs to be communicated via questions and answers. One final way to get rid of tumbleweed moments is to prepare “supplementaries” in advance, that is, an alternative question in case the initial question doesn’t get a response. If you have supplementary questions up your sleeve, the awkward silences won’t last for long.

Is it OK to tell someone they’re mistaken?

A post on the Gospel Coalition website answers that question wisely:

I remember sitting in one Bible study where the leader compassionately announced, “Not only are there no stupid questions here, there are no wrong answers.” Her goal, of course, was to put women at ease and promote uninhibited discussion. She rightly wanted the women who didn’t know much about the Scriptures to feel comfortable expressing their opinions. However, in the process she jettisoned the objective truth of the Bible. In fact, there are right and wrong interpretations. Group Bible study is a place where we search together for the right interpretations—the truth of the passage.

— Keri Folmar, 7 Mistakes We Make in Women’s Bible Study

If everything that everyone says in your Bible study group is greeted with a thoughtful nod and implied approval, your study times are dangerous. In that kind of group, false teachers such as those described in 2 Peter 3:16 would have an open door for introducing their errors. All Bible interpretations are not equally valid and acceptable, and it’s the task of the study leader to make that clear to the group. Sometimes a friendly yet firm correction—together with a clear explanation—is necessary.

We get sidetracked a lot, and we rarely have time for application. Any suggestions?

The Bible is meant to be transformative. In our studies we must reach the point of applying the Bible passage to our lives, while keeping everything to a reasonable time. We simply don’t have the luxury of going off down every intriguing byway, and so we’ll need to steer people politely back to the main road of the study. A Bible study is badly inadequate if it doesn’t include an application question such as, “What difference should this make to our lives in New York this week?”

I’m a study leader who’s always busy. I don’t have time for much preparation. Can’t I just show up on the day and trust God to make good things happen?

It’s fair to say that small group Bible studies are often poorly led, even when the leader is thoroughly sound theologically and gifted as a Bible teacher. This is probably because it’s easy to avoid a shockingly bad experience, since everyone usually comes to a Bible study with a positive attitude, and they’ll chip in with helpful contributions. We feel confident that we won’t have an embarrassing failure, and so we don’t safeguard the time necessary for proper preparation. But with Bible studies, as with so much else in life, if we fail to prepare we prepare to fail. A study might not feel like a disaster and yet nonetheless fall far short of the burning-heart-producing, eye-opening, joy-kindling experience that it could otherwise have been. Bible studies like that will generally only happen when the leader is “prayed up and prepped up.”

Jesus says, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word” (Matthew 12:36). How much more will we give account for those potentially life-changing times when we led a group of his beloved people in a Bible study? A good target to aim for is at least two clear hours of prayerful preparation for each study. Spend one hour reflecting on the passage, consulting a commentary and scribbling down some rough questions. Come back later (maybe on a different day) and spend a second hour polishing those questions. Time spent prayerfully studying God’s word and preparing questions is time very well spent.

Image credits:;

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Who Am I?


“There is, therefore, a great need for discernment in our self-understanding. Who am I? What is my ‘self’? The answer is that I am a Jekyll and Hyde … having both dignity, because I was created and have been re-created in the image of God, and depravity, because I still have a fallen and rebellious nature. I am both noble and ignoble, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, upright and twisted, image and child of God, and yet sometimes yielding obsequious homage to the devil from whose clutches Christ has rescued me. My true self is what I am by creation, which Christ came to redeem, and by calling. My false self is what I am by the Fall, which Christ came to destroy.

“Only when we have discerned which is which within us, shall we know what attitude to adopt towards each. We must be true to our true self and false to our false self. We must be fearless in affirming all that we are by creation, redemption and calling, and ruthless in disowning all that we are by the Fall …

“Standing before the cross we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of his love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing him to die.”

John Stott, The Cross Of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1989), p. 285.

Photo credit: safran83 via flickr

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What Were Jesus’ Last Words?

We all know the faith-filled last words that Jesus spoke on the cross: “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). But what were the last words Jesus spoke while physically present in this world, after his resurrection but before his ascension? This is more than just a point of Bible trivia, because it packs a big punch to be able say, “Jesus’ last words while here in this world were…”

This will take us a while. At the end of Luke’s Gospel we read, “Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). So Jesus’ final words were a blessing of some kind. Keep that in mind.

Now consider what we’re told in Acts 1:7-9: “He said to them: ‘…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Are those words Jesus’ last words? The ascension took place after Jesus said them, but not necessarily immediately afterwards. In Luke 24:51 we’re told Jesus blesses the disciples while in the very act of ascending, and it would be difficult to characterize the words in Acts 1:8 as a blessing. So the search goes on.

At first sight the words of the Great Commission, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, seem to be out of contention because Matthew 28:16 speaks of a mountain in Galilee, rather than the Mount of Olives (pictured above), which was the site of the ascension according to Acts 1:12. But a closer look at the text shows that Matthew 28:18-20 doesn’t necessarily describe the same resurrection appearance as 28:16-17. Verse 18 begins, “And Jesus came and said to them…”, which could easily be the introduction to a new appearance. (Imagine a gap above verse 18 separating 18-20 from 16-17, and imagine the translators’ heading “The Great Commission” sitting above 18-20 instead of 16-20. You wouldn’t necessarily assume we were still in the same geographical location in 18-20 as 16-17, would you?) With Matthew 28:18-20 now back in the running, it’s possible to make a strong case for those verses being Jesus’ final words. They finish with a blessing (“I am with you always, to the end of the age”), as required by Luke 24:51; and the command to go makes them more “last wordsy” than the factual information given in Acts 1:8.

So here they are: Jesus’ last words while physically present in our world. Are you playing your part in this glorious global project?

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Awaiting Further Light


“If we find difficulties in the Bible that we cannot explain, a degree of modesty on our part would lead us to say, ‘If I knew a little more, I might be able to explain this difficulty,’ rather than, ‘This book that contains a difficulty which I cannot explain surely cannot be from God.'”

R. A. Torrey, Talks to Men (1904; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955), p. 108.

Sometimes when we encounter things we find problematic in the Bible, such as apparent contradictions, or commands that are hard for us to swallow, we may need to file it in what my friend Greg Bannister calls our ‘Awaiting Further Light folder.’ Doing that requires humility (as R. A. Torrey points out in the quote above), patience and trust. And to do that with integrity will mean prayerfully and expectantly revisiting the AFL folder at a later date, rather than permanently shelving it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Christianity and Political Change


I recently came across this quotation from George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796), which seems very relevant to the political situation on both sides of the Atlantic:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Washington argues that ‘religious principle’ is essential for ‘national morality.’ In other words, a nation cannot reliably know the difference between right and wrong without religion. It’s possible that he had the recent French Revolution in mind, which rejected France’s Christian heritage, and quickly gave way to the horrific mass executions of the Reign of Terror. Washington has since been proved right, time and again, on every continent. The words of Harry Wu, imprisoned for nineteen years in China’s system of labor camps, have stuck in my mind ever since I read them. One day during his imprisonment he realized, ‘Human life has no value here. It has no more importance than cigarette ash flicked in the wind.’ God’s laws are designed for our protection and our good; when nations reject them, anything goes.

But of course there are many in the West today who say that lawmaking shouldn’t have anything to do with Christianity. One example is the British judge Lord Justice Laws, who made the following argument when rejecting Gary McFarlane’s appeal against his dismissal as a relationship counselor (he had refused to advise gay couples on their sex life):

The conferment of any legal protection or preference … on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence.

This kind of thinking forgets the truth that Washington grasped: ultimately, morality depends upon religion. Lord Justice Laws talks of ‘objective grounds,’ and (elsewhere in his ruling) ‘reason,’ as if human beings are perfectly capable of determining what is best when left to themselves. Yet in reality people can justify anything on the basis of ‘objective grounds’ and ‘reason’ – the atheistic regimes of the 20th century did, as they sent millions to their deaths. Those who look for justice to spring from mankind ignore history, which demonstrates so clearly the truth of Jeremiah 17:9: ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.’ Mankind can only be kept in check by reverence for God’s commands. ‘Where there is no revelation people cast off restraint’ (Prov. 29:18). Human laws are best when they reflect God’s ‘perfect law’ (James 1:25), which Paul insists is not designed simply for the Christian community but for everyone (1 Tim. 1:9).

Many Christians are calling for the Church to stop fighting so-called culture wars and simply spread the gospel. It’s true that by far the best kind of social change comes when the gospel has been widely received. But that insight shouldn’t stop us from speaking out on moral and legal issues. Paul urges us to do good to everyone (Galatians 6:10) and improving a nation’s laws certainly has that effect. Here are some specific things that Christians can do: 1) Let’s work on our arguments. Putting them in the form of a question makes it easier for people to adjust without losing face: e.g. ‘How would you feel about your daughter being taught at school that she can marry either a boy or a girl when she grows up?’ People can be persuaded. 2) Support a Christian organization that lobbies politicians – in the UK the Christian Institute is superb. 3) Pray regularly for those in authority, and make sure that your church does too (1 Tim. 2:1-4). 4) Pray for Christians in politics whom you know personally and send them an encouraging note once in a while. 5) Write letters to those in authority, and (in the UK) consider visiting your MP. Imagine being a politician and only ever receiving letters and visits from those on the unbiblical side of the issues.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Idleness


“Our thoughts are so active and restless that they will be doing something or other, and like unruly soldiers, if others do not employ them well, they will employ themselves ill. God has therefore in mercy appointed us callings to take up our thoughts, that they may be not only innocent but profitable to ourselves and others. Paradise had employment, and Heaven also will not be without it. Idleness is an hour of temptation; and we can have no excuse to stand idle in the market place when God himself offers to employ us… the best way to free our hearts from evil thoughts is by good employment.”

Ralph Venning, The Plague of Plagues (1669; repr., London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 234-235.

Hat tip: Kairos Journal (


Filed under Uncategorized

Five Reasons Why God Exists (Pt 1)

Reason 1: A Fully Functioning World


If all the separate parts of a car were strewn about on a factory floor – the four wheels, windscreen wipers, engine, exhaust pipe, car doors, steering wheel, hood, oil, petrol, battery, and so on – could chance alone ever fix them together in a roadworthy way? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a truly infinite amount of time is not available (it rarely is). Surely the answer must be no.

When we look at our world suspended in space, it could be compared to a fully functioning car. Just as petrol keeps a car running, the sun fuels all activity on earth. But like the battery inside a car, within the world there are additional energy sources: oil, coal, wood, and others. As a car’s engine turns the wheels, so the extraordinary phenomenon of life powers growth, motion, and reproduction. The parts of a car are tightly screwed into place, and similarly everything in the world holds together: a protective atmosphere, tidal oceans, rain-bearing clouds, soil-covered land, and fresh water rivers. The warning lights on a car’s dashboard could be compared to the invaluable advance signs of changing weather patterns. The complexity of a car’s cooling system is surpassed by the earth’s water cycle, which even oscillates successfully between salty and fresh.

So if we agree that the components of a car could never slot together by accident to form a roadworthy vehicle, shouldn’t we also agree that raw chance couldn’t fix the components of our world into a fully functioning unit?


Filed under Uncategorized

What Is the Book of Acts About?

It’s always worth trying to figure out the purpose of a Bible book. For example, there’s a lot to be gained from remembering that John is ‘written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (20:31). That overall purpose has an impact on how we understand particular passages along the way. Or take the Song of Songs: is its primary purpose to celebrate romantic love between a man and his wife, or to teach us about the relationship between Jesus and the Church? That needs a clear answer. Think how different a pastor’s sermons on the Song of Songs will sound according to which of those two views he takes. So it’s good to ask what Luke had in mind when he picked up his pen to write Acts. Understanding his purpose will allow us to ride in his slipstream throughout the book, like cyclists in an Olympic race. At first it seems Luke will tell us immediately: ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven …’ (Acts 1:1-2). It looks as if he’s about to tell us the purpose of his latest publication. No such luck. He dives straight into his story without further ado.

Three options

1) The purpose of Acts is to tell us the inspiring story of the apostles and their deeds

The book’s traditional title is ‘Acts of the Apostles,’ but that title doesn’t actually come from Luke. The earliest known use of it is in a second century work by Irenaeus. At first sight this view of the book’s purpose seems hard to disagree with. The apostles stay in the frame all the way through. When picking an image for this post I chose the one above because it has such an obvious connection to the book. But I think there’s a powerful theological argument for ruling out this suggestion. The Bible doesn’t glorify human beings. The apostles obviously have a huge role to play in the book, but I can’t believe Luke would set out to promote hero-worship. ‘Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory’ (Psalm 115:1).

2) The purpose of Acts is to explain how Jesus’ ministry continued after his ascension

I’ve heard this view in at least one sermon, and have also found it in commentaries on Acts, and in the ESV Study Bible. It’s based on Luke’s use of the word ‘began’ in the first verse of the book: ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach …’ The implication, so the argument goes, is that Luke’s follow-up book will be about everything Jesus continued to do and teach after his ascension, through his apostles. But the evidence seems shaky. New Testament writers have a habit of combining the Greek verb meaning ‘to begin’ with other verbs, even when they aren’t stressing the start of an action. For example Mark 6:7 literally says: ‘He began to send them out two by two;’ and Mark 14:65 says: ‘Some began to spit at him.’ In each case there’s clearly no particular significance in the beginningness of the action described, nor any suggestion of a later continuation. Now we’ve dipped our toe into Greek waters, it would be a shame not to look at another Greek word in Acts 1:1: ‘men’ (it’s the second word of 1:1 in the Greek). There’s no direct equivalent in English, which is why you won’t find the word reflected in English translations of 1:1, but men usually signals that a contrast is on the way, a bit like the English phrase ‘on the one hand.’ So Luke’s use of men in Acts 1:1 might well indicate that he’s contrasting his first book with his latest book – which would mean Acts is definitely not Jesus’ Ministry Vol. II.

3) The purpose of Acts is to show how the Holy Spirit oversees the spread of the gospel

This third option is represented by the fourth century church leader John Chrysostom: ‘The Gospels, then, are a history of what Christ did and said; but the Acts, of what that “other Comforter” said and did.’ Chrysostom’s view seems to have an excellent fit with the opening of Acts. According to a  commentator called Robert C. Tannehill, Greek authors at the time commonly introduced a new book with (1) the dedication (i.e. ‘O Theophilus’), (2) a short summary of their previous book, and (3) a preview of the new book’s subject matter. Tannehill argues that in Acts (3) is woven into the beginning of the narrative: ‘The preview of the book that is beginning appears … as part of Jesus’ speech.’ In that speech (1:4-5, 8), Jesus repeatedly mentions the Holy Spirit: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised … you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit … you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.’ The rest of Acts also supports the Chrysostom View. The Holy Spirit is mentioned fifty-five times – averaging twice a chapter. No other NT book mentions the Spirit nearly so often. And at key turning points in the book, such as the spread of the gospel to Europe, it’s the Holy Spirit who’s in control (Acts 16:6-10; see also Acts 8:29,39; 9:31; 11:12; 13:2,4; 15:28; 20:22,28). Now, since the Spirit wants to see Jesus glorified (John 16:14), and works in complete trinitarian unity with Jesus; and since he empowers the apostles to carry out great works of gospel service, the Chrysostom View doesn’t actually lead us very far away from the other two options. But that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. As well as helping us to understand Acts better, it also has multiple applications for evangelism. The Holy Spirit is still present in the world (John 16:7-11), powerfully overseeing the spread of the gospel today, just as he was in the time of Acts. That reminds us to depend on his power as we seek to share our faith. We can ask for the Spirit’s help in meeting non-Christians. We should seek his help in discerning when it might be appropriate to talk about Jesus with non-Christians, because it’s not always appropriate. We certainly need his help in soul-winning or ‘clinching the deal.’ He can help us find out more about world mission and the different ways we can get involved with it. Surely a further application is that we should be careful not to adopt evangelistic strategies without prayerfulness and a sense of the Spirit’s leading. In short, the spread of the gospel is the special project of the third person of the Trinity. Many benefits flow from keeping that in mind.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Three Takes of Guidance

Which way?


God is a guiding God. All through the Bible he guides his people. He is the God of the pillar of fire and column of smoke, leading his people through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21). He is the God of the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30, Numbers 27:21, and 1 Samuel 23:9-12), a mysterious source of direct divine guidance. He guides people in New Testament times too, as seen in the Book of Acts (e.g. Philip’s and Paul’s movements in 8:26-40 and Acts 16:6-10). If our minds are renewed through God’s word (Romans 12:2); if we pray for his wisdom (Philippians 4:6); and if we submit to his commands in all our ways (Proverbs 3:6), we can be confident that he will honor his promise to make our paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).


Other people know the Bible better than we do – and perhaps they also know us better than we know ourselves. Proverbs 20:18 says “Make plans by seeking advice.” So to make significant plans without seeking advice is dangerously unwise. When asking people for advice, don’t choose flattering friends who’ll say what you want them to say (Proverbs 29:5). Ask people from different churches and different backgrounds, ask old and young, ask people who would be upset if you didn’t ask them. Proverbs 3:5-6, which speaks of God making our paths straight, is probably the most famous passage on guidance in the whole Bible. But the very next verse is relevant too: “Do not be wise in your own eyes” (3:7).


Putting the first two “takes” into practice requires time. Proverbs 21:5 says “haste leads to poverty” and hasty decision-making does so often lead to poorer outcomes than might otherwise have been the case. Sinclair Ferguson says: “God’s guidance will require patience on our part. His leading is not usually a direct assurance, a revelation, but His sovereign controlling of the circumstances of our lives, with the Word of God as our rule. It is therefore, inevitable that the unfolding of His purposes will take time – sometimes a very long time.” (I’m told that quote comes from his book Discovering God’s Will.) Attempting to short-circuit the slow unfolding of God’s purposes by impatiently making a decision is a recipe for regret in the long term.


Everyone reading this post will have made bad choices in the past. We always need reminding both of God’s forgiveness and his sovereign control. Just as the genealogy leading up to the birth of Jesus includes immoral relationships (see Matthew chapter 1), so God’s plan for the world incorporates our regrets, mistakes and sins, and similarly leads towards the glorifying of his Son. There is great comfort in this – if you’re more concerned with Jesus’ splendor than with your own self.

Recommended reading: “Thou Our Guide” (a chapter on guidance in Knowing God by J.I. Packer)


Filed under Uncategorized

Feed Me Till I Want No More

Did you see a nativity play in the run-up to Christmas? Perhaps you have a child or grandchild who had a lead role – or the humble job of acting as the hindquarters for one of the stable animals. The most memorable nativity play I’ve ever seen was put on by York University students at their Christian Union carol service. At the beginning, Mary and Joseph stood in front of us looking lovingly at the bundle in Mary’s arms. Then they went up and down the aisle of the church showing their newborn child to certain people – who made all the right noises in response. Mary and Joseph then returned to the front, accompanied by the people in the audience who had seen their baby. At that point Mary took the unusual step of unravelling the swaddling clothes. When she’d finished, everyone could see that the swaddling clothes had been carefully wrapped round a large French-style loaf of bread. Then Mary began passing chunks of the bread to the people gathered with her at the front, who all started eating her baby.

The students weren’t being unconventional just for the sake of it. Jesus himself says to a huge crowd of people, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever’ (John 6:51). He’s calling on people to eat him! These striking words deserve a closer look.

Hungry People

Jesus is teaching people who haven’t eaten all day. They last ate when Jesus fed them all, a crowd of five thousand, with just five small loaves of bread and two small fish. He gave them ‘as much as they wanted’ (6:11), but that was yesterday and this is today and so they’re hungry. In fact, Jesus points out that they’ve only followed him to Capernaum on the other side of Lake Galilee in the hope that he’ll feed them again: ‘I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils’ (6:26-27). They should be looking for Jesus because he’s the long-awaited Prophet, as they themselves recognised after the miracle (6:14). They should be asking him all kinds of questions about God and his plans. But instead they hunt him down because they want seconds. They want more pie. The trouble is, it will never satisfy them in a lasting way.

Hollow Pie

My guess is that after Christmas lunch you were so full of turkey, roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts and plum pudding that all you could do was move slowly to the sitting room, take a comfy chair, sit down and for a while simply concentrate on breathing. But if you’re anything like me, by 7 pm you were definitely ready to attack the leftovers. Food doesn’t deliver lasting satisfaction. It quickly leaves us empty and wanting more. That’s why every pie is ultimately hollow. And that could be said about everything in this world, not just food. The movie comes to an end – you have to leave the theater and that source of satisfaction is over. The holiday comes to an end – you have to fly home and swap a golden beach for the daily commute. The relationship comes to an end – because of a break-up perhaps, or in due course because of a death. Nothing in this world provides permanent satisfaction. Everything is ultimately hollow pie. Or, in Jesus’ words, ‘food that spoils’ (6:27).

Heavenly Plateful

The dark truths above provide the backdrop to Jesus’ stunning claim: ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry’ (6:35). While everything else is hollow pie, Jesus provides never-ending satisfaction. But how do we ‘eat’ Jesus?

Roman Catholics say that the way to feed on Jesus is to attend Mass regularly, but that turns Jesus’ teaching on its head. His whole point is that life isn’t gained through what we put in our mouths but through trusting in him. He says, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent … everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life’ (6:29, 40). So when he says, ‘the one who feeds on me will live because of me’ (6:57), ‘feeds’ must be closely related to ‘believes’. And yet Jesus’ flesh and blood do count as true food and drink (6:55), because believing in his atoning death (6:51) truly nourishes us, keeping us alive beyond the grave. So feeding on Jesus is a way of talking about receiving eternal life through faith in him. It begins when we first trust in him, and continues as we enjoy the experience of knowing him – which is how the Bible defines eternal life (see John 17:3).

There are three reasons why feeding on Jesus satisfies while everything else in the world ultimately leaves us empty. First of all, Jesus ‘comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’ (6:33). Unlike his hollow rivals, Jesus isn’t from this world. He came down into it from outside, ‘from heaven’, and bread that comes from heaven isn’t hollow. The next reason why Jesus satisfies like nothing else is because what he offers ‘endures to eternal life’ (6:27). If it came to an end it wouldn’t ultimately be satisfying, but it doesn’t. The third reason is simply because he’s greater, better and more wonderful than everything else. We’re told, ‘On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval’ (6:27). Jesus deserves, and gets, the highest praise on offer. No wonder his people never get tired of knowing him.

Do you find satisfaction through feeding on Jesus? Or in your heart and in your actions are you chasing after hollow pie? If you’re conscious of drifting from Jesus perhaps you need to remind yourself that he alone can satisfy. Take a chunk out of that glorious bread and get chewing.


Filed under Uncategorized