Bible Studies For Life
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOD’S NAME
Exodus 3:1-6, 9-15
In the Bible, names meant something. Frequently, people were named based on something they did, or some character trait, or some special event. Hannah named her son Samuel (God has heard) because she had pled to God for a son. God renamed both Abram (exalted father) and Sarai (princess) to Abraham (father of multitudes) and Sarah (mother of many) after His promises were explained to them in Genesis 17. When Simon the disciple made his declaration that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the Lord renamed him Petros (a rock). We know him as Peter.
God Himself is known through His many names. El Shaddai (Gen. 17:1) is translated “God Almighty” and Jehovah-Jireh (Gen 22:14) means “the Lord will provide.” In fact, some scholars claim there are up to 100 different names (or titles) for God in the Bible! But none is more intriguing (or more all-encompassing) than “I Am.” Its origin is found in Exodus 3. The story unfolds in three scenes.
Holy ground (vv. 1-6). First, there is the setting: Moses had escaped his crime in Egypt and fled to Midian where he took a wife and tended his father-in-law’s sheep (v. 1). He was in the desert, far from home and very much alone. The prince had become a pauper. Next came the sighting: a bush was burning. But the sighting became a spectacle. The bush was burning with flames but wasn’t burned up! The entire spectacle was sufficiently bizarre to draw Moses’ attention (v. 2). Next came the speaking: the angel of the Lord who was indeed the Lord Himself (and referred to as God in verse 4) called Moses by name. Moses’ startled reply was met with a sovereign statement. God’s introduction to Moses was clear and direct. Everything that God said here was significant: “Stop; keep your distance; take off your shoes;” for wherever God is (even if it’s in the desert) is “holy ground.” He continued to identify Himself as the God of Moses’ ancestry; of his people, the Jews (v. 6). Moses’ response was most appropriate. In humble submission, he hid his face. The phrase indicates he hid his face carefully and completely. I picture him falling flat and burying his face before God. For reflection: Do some research and find out how long Moses had been away from his native Egypt. Do you think he had forgotten about the God of His fathers? Why or why not?
A holy calling (vv. 9-12). In the intervening verses, God told Moses that His people were never far from His mind; that He had heard their cries and was stepping in to deliver them from the hand of their oppressors and lead them to a land of promise. So far, that must have sounded pretty good to Moses. Then came verse 10. God was sending Moses back to Egypt, back to Pharoah, and back to the people he had abandoned. Notice the change of pronouns: “I am sending YOU, but they are MY people” (v. 10). The significance was not lost on Moses. “Why would you ask me to do such a thing? Who am I?” God’s promise is remarkable. On the one hand, Moses was told to keep his distance, because God is holy. But on the other hand, he was told not to worry, because God would be “with him.” Again, we see God’s transcendence (apartness) and His immanence (closeness), both in the same context. For reflection: Imagine the flood of emotions (and memories) Moses must have felt. Can you understand his reluctance at going back to Egypt?
A holy name (vv. 13). The shift in emphasis is again significant. Moses moved away from who he was, to who God is! The name of God was needed for a couple of reasons. First, the Egyptians were polytheistic. They worshipped a number of different gods, so they would need an explanation as to exactly which one was making these demands. But second, Moses likely needed some assurances as to what God’s being “with him” actually meant. The divine name “I AM” is a form of the word Yahweh, which is normally translated as LORD. The title is both startlingly simple and astoundingly complex. The idea of the “One who is” is simple. He is the one true God. But the connotations are complex. He is self-existing, self-sufficient, immutable, eternal, above all and beyond all. He is the overall and all-encompassing God! For reflection: Read John 8:56 and following. Do you see why the Jewish leaders were so upset with Jesus?
Special Focus Session
November 26, 2023
GOD DESERVES OUR THANKS
The Bible is replete with encouragement to praise God for who He is and to thank Him for what He has done. And no place has more references to those things than the book of Psalms. And no psalmist (in my humble opinion) captures the heart of worship and thanksgiving better than David. What I like most about David’s psalms is his ability to magnify the greatness of God (what we call His transcendence) and at the same time highlight the intimate, personal interaction God has with children (what we call His immanence). As we celebrate this Thanksgiving season, Psalm 65 simply and clearly displays these attributes of God. Three key themes are mentioned.
His presence (vv. 1-4). Verse 1 begins in the silence of anticipation. “Praise is rightfully Yours” is literally, “Your praise is silent.” In other words, it is waiting in silent awe. Zion is a reference to Jerusalem in general and the temple in specific. Hence the picture is one of great anticipation in the halls of the temple as the people of God await the Lord’s grand entrance. Notice the prophetic voice, as the verbs allude to the future. Vows will be fulfilled (v. 1); all the people will come (v. 2); we will be satisfied (v. 4). From David’s perspective, this might be the first appearance of Christ, the One for whom the people prayed (v. 2) and the One who could alone atone for sin (v. 3). Or he could be looking further to the triumphal return of Christ when all humanity must (and will) appear before Him. This dual-prophetic vision can be found in David’s Psalm 24 as well, as the King of glory arrives strong in battle the first time (Ps. 24:8), and as the Lord of Hosts the second time (24:9). For reflection: As we reflect on Thanksgiving, let us be reminded that the God of heaven inhabits both the magnificent temple in Jerusalem and the humble temple of the human heart.
His power (vv. 5-8). No psalmist paints a more graphic portrait of God in creation than David the shepherd. Here there are three emphases. First, we see the message of His power. In verse 5, God displays His righteousness, His salvation, and His hope. Creation is indeed physical, but in it we see the spiritual. Next, we see the strength of His power. What is more formidable than the mountains? Yet they were established by Him (v. 6). What is more tumultuous than the seas? Yet the seas’ waves are “stilled” by Him (see Mark 4:39). In addition to calming the storms of the sea, the Lord even calms the storms that plague the nations (see Job 12:23). Finally, we see the breadth of His power. The mountains tower high above us, the oceans are vast and surround us. Those who watch from afar are astounded by His works, and what about the distance between east and west? Interestingly, if you traveled north, you would eventually pass the North Pole and start heading south. But if you travel east, you will always travel east. Hence, the distance between east and west encompasses the entire globe (for a comparison, see Ps. 103:12). For reflection: As we reflect on Thanksgiving, let us be reminded that our God displays His power in the magnificence of His creation.
For His provision (vv. 11-13). The errant teaching called Deism teaches that God created everything, then stepped away from it, to let it run its course. But the Bible teaches just the opposite! God did indeed create everything, but through His providential care, He maintains everything as well. Notice that even the so-called “natural cycle” of things begins with God and is superintended by God. He gifts the farmer with an abundance of rain. The streams are filled, the soil is soaked, and the harsh crust of bare earth is softened and smoothed (v. 10). Harvest time arrives at the end of the year, and God’s crowning achievement is an abundance of grain (v. 11). My grandmother used to say she would rather look out the window and see a field of standing grain than a grass lawn any day. Apparently, so would David! Picture the shepherd boy looking across the hillsides: the open spaces are filled with wildflowers and the low places filled with grain. Creation itself rejoices in the goodness of God (v. 13). For reflection: As we reflect on Thanksgiving, let us be reminded that our God does all of this for the benefit of His children (v. 9). He deserves our gratitude.
November 19, 2023
IS HELL REAL?
2 Thessalonians 1:3-12
It’s probably no surprise that more people believe in a literal heaven than a literal hell. How many times have we heard someone say, “Well, they’re in a better place now” after the passing of a loved one, regardless of the godless lifestyle they’ve lived and mounds of evidence to the contrary?! But if heaven exists (and it does), then hell must exist as well (and it does). Human expectation tells us there is a heaven and a hell. As Solomon said, God has “set eternity” in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). Deep down, we all believe that 76 years of life is too little. There must be something more, out there, in eternity. As I mentioned last week, human evaluation tells us there must be a heaven and a hell. None of us would buy the ridiculous notion that people like Adrian Rogers and Billy Graham would share the same eternal destiny as people like Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. We all share a certain sense of justice and that extends ultimately to eternal destiny. But most importantly, divine revelation tells us there is a heaven and a hell. The Bible is replete with references to both, and speaks of them as equally real, equally tangible, and equally eternal.
Believe it or not, the context of this week’s passage is to provide encouragement to believers who were being persecuted in Thessalonica. But in his discussion about the judgment of evildoers, the apostle Paul provides insight into the reality of eternal damnation. Three key ideas are highlighted.
Explanation (vv. 3-7). We know that salvation is not based on works. But we also know that one’s outward works provide the clearest evidence of one’s inward condition (see Matt. 7:16). Here, Paul describes the stark contrast between the righteous church and the wicked world that was attacking it. Twice Paul mentions the believers’ steadfast faith. In verse 3, he points out that it was a flourishing faith and a growing faith. This made the church praiseworthy (v. 4); an example to others. Apparently, the church’s godly response to persecution was just as obvious as the overt attacks against it! Then he says it was an enduring faith. It is a biblical teaching that persecution increases faith as much as tribulation increases patience (see 2 Tim. 3:11-12; Rom. 5:3). Verse 5 puts Paul’s discussion in context. Their evidence of strong faith in the face of strong persecution indicates the difference between the church and the world. Moreover, it begs for God’s intervention. That’s what Paul means in verses 5-7. The church is suffering now, but just wait! The righteousness of God demands divine retribution and the faithfulness of God to His children guarantees it. For reflection: Have you ever read Nik Ripken’s The Insanity of God (or seen the movie)? What a great illustration of these things in today’s global context.
Retribution (vv. 7-10). In this section, Paul describes the logistics of God’s judgment. (1) When will it happen? At Christ’s return (v. 7). We should remember that God’s word paints the End Times in very broad strokes! It’s not Paul’s purpose here to establish specific details regarding the End Times, but rather to put things in general perspective. (2) What will happen? Powerful angels and a flaming sword will bring vengeance (v. 8). (3) Who will face this outpouring of wrath? “Those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (v. 8). That’s all lost people in general, and those attacking His church in specific. (4) What is the result? They will be destroyed from the presence (literally face) of the Lord and expelled from His glorious strength (v. 9). In other words, they will be separated from that which God is, and that which He purposed to share with humanity. Verse 10 provides the contrast of those evil-doers who miss out on God’s purpose with the redeemed who fulfill it. For reflection: Some believe that God’s condemnation is temporary and ends in annihilation. What biblical evidence indicates that hell really is real and lasts forever?
Motivation (vv. 11-12). Paul concludes this section with a series of prayer concerns aimed at the church. Four requests are mentioned. First, that they would live up to the holy calling that God had placed upon them. This certainly includes the suffering they were enduring, but likely the ongoing challenges of the Christian life as well. Next, he prays that, with God’s help, they would fulfill all that He desires for them to accomplish. Third, he prays that their testimony for Christ would be magnified, even in the midst of their affliction. Finally, he prays that they too would be glorified by Him. The context would indicate a kind of strengthening in their present situation, but no doubt reminded them of the ultimate glorification that awaited them in heaven. For reflection: Read Rom. 8:18. How does this fit into this week’s lesson? What applications can we make for today’s church?
November 12, 2023
WON’T ALL PEOPLE ULTIMATELY GO TO HEAVEN?
Last week’s lesson focused on the error of pluralism, the old idea that “there are many roads that lead up the same mountain.” This week’s lesson disputes the related idea of universalism, that none of it really matters because “we all go to heaven anyway.” Universalism fails in a number of ways. Logically, it makes no sense. Does anyone really believe that someone like Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler will share the same eternal destiny with someone like Mother Teresa or Billy Graham? And if so, why would that eternal destiny necessarily be some form of heaven? Couldn’t it just as likely be some form of hell? Theologically, universalism makes no sense either. To accept it would mean either accepting that all religions are not only valid but equally virtuous (at best); even those that contradict one another. Or (at worst) that all religions are man-made farces with no relationship whatsoever to the God who made the heaven we will all supposedly inhabit! Fortunately, universalism is firmly disputed by the Bible in general and by the words of Jesus in particular. He addressed the issue in the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus pointed out that universalists accept three faulty assumptions:
False confidence (vv. 13-14). Human nature says to look for the easy way. And in religion, we do the same thing. I remember a church visitor describing his previous church. He said they went in, drank some latte, listened to a band on stage, watched a video clip, heard an encouraging message, and left. “It was great,” he said. “We didn’t have to do anything.” While I can appreciate the modern church trying to reach the modern crowd, do we really want our church logo to be “We don’t require you to do anything?” The picture Jesus paints in these verses is of two gates. While he used the metaphor of a “sheep gate” in John 10 (see John 10:7), in this sermon He is referring to city gates. Notice what they have in common: both see traffic; both are on roads; both provide access to somewhere; both are open. But one is accessed by a difficult (think uncomfortable) road, and the gate itself is narrow. The other is accessed by a broad (think easy) road, and the gate itself is wide; literally as wide as the road itself. The determining factor here is ease of entry. But the final destination is what ultimately counts! The easy way is popular, but it leads to ruin. The difficult way is just that: difficult. But it leads to life. Notice that few will find it (v. 14). Jesus met the false confidence of the easy-way crowd with the harsh reality that most people will not go to heaven! For reflection: If salvation is by grace alone, why would Jesus say that getting into heaven is difficult? What did He mean by this?
False fruit (vv. 15-20). Here, Jesus warned that popular heresy is spread through popular prophets. But prophets of truth are rarely accepted by the world. That makes the average person an easy target for false prophets who preach an easy-to-believe gospel. Verse 15 is the source of the derogatory description, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” And that’s how Jesus described false prophets. At first glance they look like the real deal. But ultimately, they will reveal themselves as the false teachers that they really are. So what are the fruits by which they are to be recognized? Opinions range from the errant doctrines they teach, to the practical results of those errant doctrines, to the flawed character traits of the teachers themselves, to the hypocritical lifestyles those false teachers adopted. Regardless of how they might be identified, the results are the same. Bad fruit indicates bad trees, and bad trees are cut down and burned. For reflection:
Why do you think Jesus inserted this illustration about false teachers between two warnings against universalism? What assumptions can we draw from this placement?
False professions (vv. 21-23). Unlike the false teachers mentioned above, this text speaks about false followers. Let’s face it: many of our church rolls are bloated with the names of people who rarely (if ever) attend. Some churches maintain entire file cabinets dedicated to “Inactive Members.” So how do we handle the multitudes of people who show up at church, make a profession of faith, are baptized into membership, and then disappear? Some denominations wrongly say they were saved but lost their salvation. The Bible teaches otherwise. Here, Jesus was clear that not everyone who works in the church or for the church (or even for the Lord Himself) is truly saved (v. 22). Like the wolves in sheep’s clothing, they look the part on the outside but lack true conversion on the inside. Notice that Jesus didn’t say He once knew them and then lost them. Rather, He said He never knew them (v. 23). Hence, they were never truly saved to begin with. For reflection: Adrian Rogers put it this way: “The faith that fizzles at the finish was faulty at the first.”