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What Makes a Christian Strong?
More than 2,000 years ago, the last of the Old Testament books was written. By the time of 200 BC, there was agreement that God was no longer speaking through the prophets–the Old Testament books were complete and agreed upon.
Scribes before and after the time of Christ undertook translation of the Old Testament into Greek so that Jews throughout the Roman Empire could read God’s Word. And when Jesus came, God sent prophets and apostles to the Church, and the New Testament letters were written.
These were finished by the mid-90’s AD. Some took awhile to spread through the Early Church, but by the next century, the Bible you hold in your hands is exactly what Christians back then accepted as the Scripture. The difference is that very, very few of them ever held a complete copy in their hands. There were few full copies available, because everything was hand-copied until the 15th century.
The Chinese were the first to invent movable type presses around 1045 AD, but it was Gutenberg’s Press in 1450 that first began to print Bibles. You could hand copy 5 to 10 pages per day, but a Gutenberg Press could produce about 3,600 pages per day. By 1500, printing presses had produced more than 20 million books.
It was not until the spark of the Reformation in the mid-1500s that Bibles began to be mass printed–before that they were crazy expensive. You would spend more than you earned in a year to buy one. Small churches were often unable to afford one. But as the Reformation spread and the cry of “Sola Scriptura” grew louder, more and more Bibles were printed, and the cost dropped lower and lower.
Even before it was legal for people to own a Bible in their language, the gospels and other portions of Scripture would be printed and smuggled into countries. Then whole Bibles would infiltrate, and over time a Bible in people’s common tongue would become legal–and people who were illiterate would seek tutors in order to be able to read God’s Word on their own.
In 2012, a national survey revealed that around 85% of homes in America own a Bible, and the average number of Bibles per household is four. We have an amazing, amazing treasure in our laps–something people died trying to acquire, something people were killed for printing. But what’s more spectacular than the history of it is the contents. In your lap or in your hand or under your chair is the very words of God to mankind.
I don’t know if you really heard me here–the God who made the WHOLE UNIVERSE has SPOKEN. And He cared that you would hear Him, so He supernaturally preserved His Words. That is the BIBLE. You have in your hands more knowledge of God than any Christian possessed when Jesus walked on Earth. You have in your hands something which has been largely unavailable to the majority of Christians throughout all of history. You have in your hands a more complete record of God’s redemptive plan than most Christians have ever known.
You have God’s commands clearly revealed and explained.
You have all of God’s promises written out and made clear.
You have all that God wants you to know of Heaven so that you will long for it.
You have an INCREDIBLE TREASURE in your hands . . .
And my question to you this morning is, what do you do with this amazing treasure?
Do you realize the value and worth of what you hold? On a daily basis, do you give consideration to the riches you have in your hands? I am not exaggerating when I say that the Word of God is the key to the Christian life. What will ensure your entrance into Heaven is your attention to the Word of God.
Without the Bible, you cannot be sure if you’re saved.
Without the Bible, you cannot know who Jesus is.
Without the Bible, you can know enough of God to condemn you, but not enough to save you.
Without the Bible, you cannot be sure if you are living in a way that pleases Him.
But the more you read it, the more you listen to it, the better you understand it–the more clear and confident you can be that you know God and understand His ways.
If you want to be steadfast and unmoved by the pressures of life . . .
If you want to be strong and mature in Christ . . .
If you want to find true prosperity in this life . . .
If you want to find true joy in your heart . . .
Look to the Word. And this is not just me saying this–that is the message of the very first psalm. If you have your Bible with you, open up to Psalm 1. In this psalm, the righteous and the wicked are contrasted. This psalm introduces the whole book of Psalms, telling of the righteous and wicked, their ways and their rewards. It separates all people into two categories–those accepted by God and those who reject God. This morning, I just want to look with you at the description of the righteous.
Psalm 1:1 to 3, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”
Now you might think when you read this . . .
I should avoid the counsel of unbelievers.
I need to steer clear of sinners.
I need to watch my heart against boasting and mocking.
These do show three degrees of departure from God. You accept the world’s advice, you join its ways, and you will eventually scorn God. But if you are successful enough to avoid those things, that doesn’t make you righteous. Avoiding certain evils doesn’t make you pleasing to God. Fleeing certain sins is not the key to blessing and happiness in your life. Those three actions are not going to be habits of the believer. But the believer is positively marked by two other actions.
Verse 2, “His delight is in the Law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The man of God/the woman of God DELIGHTS in and MEDITATES on the Word of God. The believer is to delight in hearing God speak–not some inner voice, but in His Word. The believer is to meditate on what God has said.
In this passage, “the law of the Lord” is used broadly to describe all that prophets had recorded of God to this point. You hold in your lap the Bible, a more complete revelation of God than the psalmist had. Do you delight in it? Do you meditate on it? Maybe I should ask–when did you last read it?
Verse 3, “The person who delights in the Word of God is like a tree planted by fresh waters.” They are fruitful, and a blessing to others. They do not wither in the face of trial, temptation or trouble. The Lord is with them, and blesses them. And like the growth of a tree, this growth in your life is gradual, but wholly dependent on the Word.
In our old neighborhood, a few years back during the recession, there were homes where people turned off the water. The grass would shift from green to yellow to brown. Weeds would appear around the edges, and then die off. And the trees would last the longest. But eventually, as foreclosures dragged on, the trees in the middle of the yard would drop their leaves. It was not fall, but early summer. The trees were only a couple years old–and they would eventually just be dry, brittle sticks.
The reason for this was simple–their nourishment was cut off. The trees could not live without water. And no Christian can live long without the Word of God. Most people can only survive without air for a few minutes. The very longest has been a bit over an hour, due to extreme hypothermia. Most people can only survive about three to five days without water, though some have made it to ten. Some people can go three weeks or more without food, even up to six weeks.
But some Christians think that they can go for even longer stretches without consuming the Word of God. The metaphor of the tree in this psalm is purposeful. It is planted by a stream–it is able to drink consistently and regularly. It draws its life there. You need that same level of ongoing, continual nourishment from the Word of God. You need to drink deeply from it–when you’re at church AND when you’re at home.
Here is why–this is the point of this whole psalm. Whatever shapes your thinking will shape your life and your destiny. According to verses 5 and 6, the righteous are known by God and will not cower in judgment–why? Because the Word of God has informed and affected their whole life. In the same way that the wicked have lived by the wisdom of the world, so the righteous have had their thinking informed by the Word of God.
The avoidance of sin and pursuit of righteousness is learned. It is the result of a personal delight in and meditation on the Word of God. And this is the simple truth I want you to grasp–whatever most informs your thinking will shape your life and future. Are you giving regular, habitual consideration and thought to what God has said in the Bible?
Many Christians consider the Bible more like broccoli than water. They know that its healthy for them, they know that it will help them grow–but the trouble of cooking something up and even the taste of it is not their favorite thing. Right–this is how you feel about broccoli, or Brussels sprouts, or squash. So instead you grab a rotisserie chicken and some rolls and call it good. And you think the Bible is like that. It would provide you with more nourishment, but you can get by with skipping it. You take vitamins like good Christian books–it’s close enough.
But friends–reading the Bible is not like eating a vegetable. It is not something optional. It is not merely a healthy, growing food. The Bible is air and water to the Christian. It is life-giving–without it, your soul declines and shrivels. Do not think of the Bible as broccoli any longer. The Bible is your air. The Bible is your water.
Jesus says much the same thing to the devil. When being tempted by the devil, in a dark hour of need, Matthew 4:4, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” When Jesus was completely famished, and offered a meal by the devil, He says we are to look to the Word of God for sustenance, even more than we do our food. We are to delight in the Word of God even more than we do our food.
And if you’re a foodie, think about this. I’ve seen your Instagram pics–some of you love good food. You delight in it, you post pics of it, you extol certain restaurants. Our delight in food should be a shadow of our delight in the Bible. It has more value to your body. It has more worth to your soul. It can be more satisfying than the best food available. Let me show you just three benefits of consuming the Word regularly–the first two are found in . . .
Second Timothy 3:15 to 17, “From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Timothy had been learning from the Old Testament Scriptures since childhood. He had drunken deeply from them and knew their value. There are two benefits Paul lists here from consistent meditation on the Scripture.
#1 They are “able to make you wise for salvation” Verse 15
Consuming Scripture’s truths is the means of salvation. Paul here is talking about the Old Testament Scriptures. And he says they were able to help Timothy come to faith by understanding man’s sinfulness and complete rebellion towards God. The Scriptures had shown him his own need for a Savior, and how he was unable to save himself.
Though raised in a Greek household, Timothy had understood the real meaning of the sacrificial system, the Passover lamb, and all the prophecies that had pointed to Jesus. He had read of Abraham being accepted by God for his faith, rather than his works. The Scriptures had shown Timothy how salvation was found in Christ alone, as the perfect sacrifice of God for our sins. They were the foundation of his salvation.
#2 They can make you “complete/mature, equipped for every good work” Verse 17
Consuming Scripture’s truths results in sanctification–because the Bible is the very words of God, being breathed out from Him. Because it is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for correction and for training in righteousness, it will sanctify you and make you holy. It will transform you, fixing all the holes in your life.
Paul here uses two different words that each have the meaning of “equipped”. The Scriptures will thoroughly equip you for life and all that God has planned for you. By careful study of the Word and application of its truths, you will be transformed into the image of Christ. The Spirit of God will use the Word of the Father to make you like the Son.
Psalm 119:9 to 11, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your Word. 10 With my whole heart, I seek You; let me not wander from Your commandments! 11 I have stored up Your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against You.”
1) Consuming Scripture’s truths is the means of salvation.
2) Consuming Scripture’s truths results in sanctification.
3) Consuming Scripture’s truths brings blessing.
There is an interesting verse on the life of Ezra. Ezra was a scribe and priest during the exile, when Israel had been taken into captivity. He was a descendant of Aaron, and led the second return of the Jews from Persia. The reason that he excelled as a leader in both Persia and Israel, and later was the organizer of Jewish religious life, is stated in Ezra 7:9 to 10, “For the good hand of his God was on him. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”
Why did God bless him? Why was God’s hand upon his life? Verse 10 tells us–it says, “FOR” these reasons–because Ezra studied the Law of God, and he practiced the Law of God, and he helped others to understand it. Ezra delighted in and meditated on the Word of God. It wasn’t just information to him–it was life-changing. He lived out what he learned. It was so important to him that he talked to others about it, teaching them what God says.
And notice the verb at the beginning of verse 10. What did Ezra do? He “set his heart” to do those things. He determined within his heart that he would faithfully commit himself to the habits of study, practice and articulation. It’s the same thing that Psalm 119:10 said. “With my whole heart I seek you.”
You may feel stuck, and even apathetic, about your time in the Word. Maybe it hasn’t felt alive or like it matters. You’ve tried to read and it has felt dead and cold to you. Let me read a passage that speaks to this. First Peter 2:2, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the Word.”
What’s the command here? LONG for it! The Greek word simply means “desire”. If you feel stuck, stop it! God wants you to get the desires you don’t have. Change your attitude–change your heart! This is exactly what Christians are called to do. You set your heart to study, practice and talk about the Word of God. If you have felt like the Bible does taste a bit like Brussels sprouts, then you need to hear this. The way to move from distaste to delight is to commit your heart and pray for help.
And in this season of New Year’s resolutions, I can think of no better thing to resolve. Do something very specific this afternoon or evening. Plan a time, plan a place, plan a way to read the Bible every day in 2014. If you don’t make a plan, it will not happen. Be purposeful. Figure out where, when and what you can read. This is better than broccoli. This is more necessary than vitamins. This is your water as a Christian, and some of you are severely dehydrated. This is your air as a Christian, and some of you are on respirators.
You need to recognize your need for the Word, cry out to God for help, and then commit to change your habits. You see, there are promises to you back in Psalm 1. For those who delight in the Word . . .
Verse 3 God will prosper you
Verse 3 to 4 God will not let trials destroy you and drive you away
Verse 5 You will not be numbered among the wicked, but will stand with the righteous
Verse 6 God will know and care about your ways
If you don’t respond well to commands, then look at these amazing promises! God is trying to entice you. He wants you to read and find pleasure in His Word. I pray that your heart’s cry would mirror the psalmist in Psalm 119:97, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.”
And I pray this for myself as well. My heart’s inclination isn’t always for the Word first. I do miss days–sometimes due to circumstance, and sometimes due to neglect. But I believe that God wants me . . .
consuming His Word in my personal reading
praying through His Word with Him
listening to His Word preached
. . . with the goal that I hear Him and respond to Him. That is what He wants for each of us. Now I know that some of you have never really known what to do when you read. Maybe you tried to start on page one and read to the end, but it didn’t make much sense by the time you hit Leviticus. Maybe you tried a Bible reading plan, and missed so many days that you never caught up. Maybe you just open up somewhere, but you never seem to get much out of it.
Let me try to help you a little bit. I believe that God was intentional about leaving out a precise study plan in the Bible. There are internal guides to interpreting the meaning of the Bible, but God did not tell everyone how to have a quiet time. There is nothing hidden away in 2 Chronicles that tells you what to do. So the process that you use and benefit from may be different from your spouse, your parents or my own. But here is some general advice.
Have a goal for your reading. You can decide to read through the Bible in a year. Maybe you just want to make it through a particular book of the Bible. Or there’s a topic you want to better understand and give thought to. But have a goal. Have a reason for reading, other than “God wants me to.”
Choose in advance what you’re going to read. Don’t sit down and flip to a random spot. Then the next morning, you sit down and flip to a whole new spot–that’s not Spirit-directed. That’s a certain path towards misunderstanding God’s Word. Have a plan before you start. Know what you’re going to read. Get advice. Figure out what you want to learn about–worship, assurance, wisdom, Christ, the Gospel.
Decide in advance when you’re going to read. Don’t think that time for it will just happen during your day. Maybe it’s in bed before the kids wake up. Maybe it’s in your car during your lunch break each day. Just choose a time that you can be consistent in. Choose a place where you can think and listen. Very, very few people can remember what they’re reading when their children are approaching them every ninety seconds with a new question. Nor will you fully engage when your email and your cell phone keep buzzing in, distracting you. Find some solitude, even if it’s temporary.
Read enough of the passage so that you understand what’s being said. That might be a chapter, it might be a whole epistle, it might be a paragraph.
Don’t read so much in one sitting that you can’t remember what it said when you started. When you are walking through a rose garden, do you sprint? When you enter Disneyland, do you race down Main Street, circle the Walt Disney statue and streak out the exit gate? No! Read carefully, not quickly.
Write something, if you want it to stick. You may find that writing down the passage with pen and paper helps you think and mull over what’s written. Don’t type it. Don’t use Siri. Take one of our Bic pens, if you need it, then get a piece of paper—or even better, a little journal, and make your own handwritten Bible. You will think much more about what you’re writing. Write out the passage, or write out a summary of what’s said, or write out what you learned, or what you want to change. Write something.
Expect to find application to your life in what you read. Now, understand, the Bible is not all about you. It is instead written to reveal Christ and our need for Him. The Bible is about Him–but as you read it each day, ask these three questions as starting points . . .
What do I learn about God from this passage?
What is the sinful condition of my heart that this passage speaks to?
What answer does this passage give to the sins it speaks about?
There will be other things that come up, and other ways to apply the Word, but these are a good starting point.
Pray through the Scriptures. Tell Him what you learned, what you didn’t understand, what you want to remember and how you want to change. And ask for His help to do those very things. Don’t only listen to Him, but also talk to Him!
Take something with you. Figure out a way to keep one thought or one verse with you for the day. Try to memorize a phrase, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”–or even a whole verse. Or you can write it on a 3×5 card and take it with you through the day, glancing at it to help you remember. My wife sets reminders on her phone. I sometimes keep them in my task list program. Just try to find a way to take the Scriptures with you to meditate on them through the day.
Time with God is not optional. Just like air and water, you need this for life as a Christian. You need a regular encounter with God through His Word. You need it more than you realize, and you have an unprecedented opportunity to read it.
From 1611 through the late 1800s, there was mainly one English Bible that people used. And it was not until the 1960s that the diversity of English translations began to appear. Amazon now sells about thirty different English Bible translations. Some are better than others, but guaranteed–you can find one you’ll understand.
Christians have never before had the sort of access to God’s Word that we take for granted. And to whom much is given, much will be required. I think that we will have to give a greater accounting to God than Christians from the Middle Ages. We have way more access to the Word of God, we have better preaching of the Word, and we have the ability to read it in our own language.
You hold a treasure in your hands–one that people died for, one that people longed for. Do not neglect it. I like how John Piper put it, “If you don’t read the Word and memorize the Word and meditate on the Word daily and delight in the Word and savor it and have your mind and emotions shaped by the Word, you will be a weak Christian at best. You will be fragile and easily deceived and easily paralyzed by trouble and stuck in many mediocre ruts.
“But if you read the Word and memorize important parts of it and meditate on it and savor it and steep your mind in it, then you will be like a strong tree planted by streams of water that brings forth fruit. Your leaf won’t wither in the drought and you will be productive in your life for Christ.”