Did Jesus send a mixed message about repetition in his teaching about prayer?

This question was asked in a comment on my post, “Do our prayers really get through to God?”

Q.  I appreciate this post and I had a bit of a follow up question. Over the years I’ve struggled with what I see as a mixed message in the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” But in the Parable of the Friend at Midnight and in similar parables, Jesus seems to be saying that we should essentially pester God and repeatedly bug Him until we get what we are after. He also gives us the “Lord’s Prayer,” which seems quite fixed in its order and style. How do you understand this apparently mixed message? Do you think that a lot of the prayers we commonly hear in church are made up of the “empty phrases” Jesus warns against? Phrases like “be with us,” “protect us,” “watch over us,” “bless us,” “forgive us,” etc. Often unthoughtful catch phrases . . .

Actually, I think Jesus is talking about different things in these two teachings.

When he warns in the Sermon on the Mount against “heaping up empty phrases,” he’s specifically saying that we shouldn’t expect God to hear us and grant our requests based on how many words we’ve said—that is, how much time and energy we’ve put into saying long and repetitive prayers.  This is really a form of “works,” of trying to earn something from God by our own efforts.  Jesus directs us instead towards grace:  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  What we receive from God in prayer is an expression of His love and goodness towards us, not our efforts.

On the other hand, in parables like the one about the Friend at Midnight, the Persistent Widow, etc. Jesus is saying that once we have become convinced that something will advance God’s purposes in our lives and in the world, we should pray for it with a persistent, relentless faith.  We shouldn’t pray one or two half-hearted prayers along the lines of “Well, if you think you might want to do this, and you could maybe get around to it, we’d appreciate it.”

Rather, the kind of persistent prayer Jesus describes in these parables is what the author of Hebrews calls “boldly approaching the throne of grace.”  But note that in this case as well the answer to prayer comes as a result of God’s grace, not our efforts.  Hebrews makes clear that it rests on Jesus’ own high priestly intercession for us.  And it begins with a revelation to us of God’s purposes in the world; we then join in those purposes through our prayers, with the faith God gives us to pray them and believe for their answers.  (I suggest in my study guide to John, for example, that Jesus turns the water to wine at the wedding in Cana because “Mary’s persistent faith and implicit trust show him that God is powerfully at work at this very moment.”)

As for the Lord’s Prayer, I think it’s important to recognize that this was Jesus’ response to his disciples request, “Lord, teach us to pray,” after they had seen him at prayer.  When we see it as a teaching, we realize that the Lord’s Prayer is designed to show us what the themes and priorities of our own prayers should be:  for the advancement of God’s kingdom first, and then for our own needs in the context of our participation in that kingdom, as well as for forgiveness and deliverance from temptation.

The Lord’s Prayer is, therefore, a model prayer that we are meant to imitate but not necessarily to repeat verbatim over and over again (as by trying to do “penance” by saying “ten ‘Hail Marys’ and ten ‘Our Fathers’”).  However, I think the Lord’s Prayer can nevertheless be used very effectively in liturgical settings.

For example, when I was a pastor we realized that even in our small church we had speakers of a dozen or more languages—African, Asian, European, etc.  So one week, at the time when we usually shared the concerns of the congregation and prayed for them together, we instead had people take turns simply saying the Lord’s Prayer in their own native languages.  This was a powerful and beautiful experience that people talked about long afterwards.

Another time we were visiting one of the great British cathedrals, York Minster.  At noon a voice came quietly over the public address system reminding us that this was not just a historic building, it was a house of worship, and that it had been that since the early 600s.  And so we were all invited to join in a brief moment of worship by saying the Lord’s Prayer together, once again in our native languages.  This, too, was a powerful experience that illustrated the unity of God’s people through space and time by means of shared liturgical material.

Finally, as for the “empty phrases” that can creep into our prayers (“bless them, Lord”—how, exactly?), I think you’re right, we need to take an extra moment to think about what we really mean to say, rather than fall back on platitudes.  This is one more good warning to take to heart from Jesus’ multifaceted—but not mixed, I would say—teaching on prayer.

John Everett Millais, “The Parable of the Unjust Judge” (= the Parable of the Persistent Widow)

Can Christians do “magic tricks” with cards?

Q. Do you think it is acceptable to do card tricks if this doesn’t involve calling on spirits, foretelling the future, etc.? I have studied it for a few months and hope it may further my personal development. However, there are several things that make me uncertain whether it’s ok to practice anymore now, as I have to do the following two things in order to succeed in card tricks:
1) Telling lies to misdirect spectators
2) Keeping card trick secrets.

Actually, I think you can definitely keep doing card tricks, even as a follower of Jesus, if you just give a disclaimer before you perform them.  You can say something like, “What you are about to see is an illusion intended for your entertainment.  There’s no magic and nothing occult involved.  What I say during the performance is designed to support the illusion and it may not all be true.” That way everyone has fair warning and the right expectations.

In fact, if this would be appropriate for your audience (for example, in a church setting), you can even say, “As a follower of Jesus, I’m careful to follow the Bible’s teaching not to be involved in magic or the occult.  What you are about to see is an illusion . . . ,” etc.

I agree that practicing and performing card tricks could be good for your personal development.  It will help with things like hand-eye coordination, concentration, memory, logic, and public speaking.

There’s no necessary connection between doing illusions or slight-of-hand tricks and the occult.  See this recent article about how a group of Christian magicians has defended itself as not being involved in the occult.  You may want to see whether you can get involved in a similar group where you live, such as the Fellowship of Christian Magicians or ChristianMagicians.org.  (I am not familiar with either of these groups first-hand and so I cannot give them an informed endorsement, but I mention them as examples of how magicians in many places are using their art to share the gospel in memorable and appealing ways.)

You may wish to read my post on the topic, “Should Christians read books and watch movies that have magic in them?”  It explains how even Christian authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have legitimately used magic as a literary device in their writings, but it also explains the possible risks and dangers of suggestions of magic.

Best wishes as you continue to develop your craft and use it in positive ways!

Card tricks can be used in positive ways: Here a man does a trick to propose marriage to his girlfriend! (Click on picture for link to video.)

Why did God make people and angels who would fail and fall away?

Q. I have a friend who is wrestling with understanding how so many people and even angels could turn their backs on God. When you consider all the great names of the Bible, they usually come with some failures; 1/3 of the angels fell; Judas turned away from Jesus. My friend wonders not just at the failure and what that means for us who have never even walked with God like our forefathers, but also why God chose to create such fallible creatures, knowing He would have to destroy many if not most of them? He also asks why God didn’t protect Adam and Eve in the garden. Instead, He permitted Satan to hang out there. My friend is asking some honest questions that many people wrestle with, I think. I came across this blog and enjoy the well thought-out answers that you’ve written, so I thought I’d throw in these questions and see what comes back.

Thanks for joining in the discussions on this blog!

You said that you thought many people wrestled with the same honest questions as your friend, and I’d have to agree with you, as I’ve already had the challenge on this blog of trying to respond to some questions very similar to the ones he’s asking.

For example, he was concerned about why God would choose to create such fallible creatures, knowing He would have to destroy many if not most of them.  I’ve shared my thoughts on essentially the same question in this post entitled, “Why does God make people He knows are going to reject Him?

Your friend also asked why God didn’t protect Adam and Eve in the garden, rather than permitting Satan to hang out there.  I address that concern in my post entitled, “Why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

And as for why people who walked with God, and even angels who saw God face to face, could still fail and fall away, see these posts, for example:

How could God call David a “man after his own heart” when he committed adultery and murder?

Why did God create Satan?

Perhaps you and your friend can both read these posts and then discuss them together.  Maybe that will help address his concerns.  But please write back with any follow-up questions you have afterwards.  Thanks again for joining the conversation here.

What’s your take on Adam Hamilton’s “Making Sense of the Bible”?

Q. I am reading quite an eye opening book called: “Making Sense of the Bible” by Adam Hamilton. I have some issues with it, but I am enjoying it! What is your take on this book!

I’m sorry to say that I haven’t yet had the chance to read this book, but from what I can find out about it on line, it looks very intriguing.  According to the publisher’s information, it takes up some of the very issues I’ve had the chance to discuss on this blog in response to readers’ questions, such as:

  • Were Adam and Eve real people?  (See this post.)
  • Why is God so violent in the Old Testament? (See this post.)
  • Why would Paul command women to “keep silent in the church”? (See this post in its series)
  • Is Jesus the only way to salvation? (See this post.)
  • How does God view homosexual people? (See this post and the series it begins.)
  • Is the Book of Revelation a guide to the End Times? (See this post.)

I thank you for bringing this book to my attention and I look forward to reading it for myself.  Once I have, I’ll post a more detailed review.  Stay tuned!

Does God know in advance who will be the Antichrist?

This question was asked in a comment on my post entitled “Why Did God Create Satan?

Q. Wow I really love this article. For years I’ve been trying to make sense of two somewhat conflicting beliefs, (1) that we are made as an expression of God’s love and (2) that God made Satan knowing that he would turn on him and tempt Eve. I’ve often wondered if God makes the deliberate choice to not know what choices we will make. Being God he certainly has the option to make that choice if he wants to. My only thought that would seem to contradict this theory is that the Bible talks about the future Antichrist and it’s pretty clear about what choices he makes. What are your thoughts on this?

If God does know in advance what choices we’re going to make, then the creation of Satan certainly raises a great problem for the idea that God loves us and wants the best for us.  How could God create “such a monster,” as the questioner behind my original post put it, knowing what havoc he would wreak on humanity and the creation?

The solution I suggest is that God created not Satan but Lucifer, a great and glorious angel who had tremendous potential for good.  Because Lucifer had the freedom to follow God or not, what he would eventually choose was not knowable in advance—at least according to my understanding of freedom.  And not knowing what cannot be known is not a deficiency in omniscience or foreknowledge.

You’re suggesting a different solution:  God could know every choice in advance, but God chooses not to know, perhaps for the same reasons I describe in my original post, to allow true freedom so that true love will also be possible.  (Love that is compelled is not love.)

I think that both of these approaches work, so I just need to address what you’ve raised as a potential counterexample:  Isn’t it clear from the Bible that God knows in advance what moral choices the Antichrist is going to make—another “monster” whose choices will wreak havoc?

I’d say in response that I think we need to examine critically what we’ve been led to believe about what the Bible predicts regarding the Antichrist, that is, the person who will lead a worldwide rebellion against God at the end of history.

For one thing, the term “antichrist” is not used in the book of Revelation or in any of the other biblical passages that are typically understood as predictions of the end times.  It is used only in the letters of First and Second John, where it is defined as anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.  This, John writes, “is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”  In other words, for John, “antichrist” is not so much a future person, it’s a spirit that has already arrived.  We need to be careful not to come under its influence ourselves, but this does not mean that God knows in advance which specific people will choose to give in to its influence, not if their choices are truly free.

The Bible does speak under other names of a person whom interpreters often identify with a future “Antichrist.”  In Revelation he’s called the “beast.”  This seems to be an echo of the way this same figure is described in Daniel as one of the “kings” of a “kingdom” that’s represented symbolically in his vision as a “fourth beast.”

But I think it’s important to recognize that the initial application of the prophecies in both Daniel and Revelation must be made to the near future from the standpoint of those books, that is, to the time when they were written, or shortly afterwards.  This is simply responsible biblical interpretation, to ask first what a text would have meant to its author and its original audience.

In that light, as I explain in my study guide to those two books, and in this post, Daniel’s references to the “tenth horn” of the “fourth beast,” equivalent to the “little horn” of his next vision, must be associated primarily with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who desecrated the Jerusalem temple in 167 BC.  Similarly, as also I say in the guide and in this post, Revelation’s frequent references to the “beast” must be understood as referencing initially the Roman emperor Domitian, who persecuted the followers of Jesus late in the first century AD.

At least according to the “preterist” approach I take to Daniel and Revelation (see the explanation of that term near the end of this post), any further fulfillments of these prophecies will occur in the future by analogy and redemptive-historical “deepening.”  (This is precisely the way that Jesus, according to Matthew, “fulfilled” Old Testament prophecies—not so much literally as typologically.  See this post for a discussion.)

As the conflict between good and evil reaches its culmination at the end of world history—the Bible certainly envisions that happening—somebody will take the lead in opposing God, and that person will gather followers from all over the world.  But I’m not convinced that it’s knowable right now who this person will be, as countless people will make innumerable choices between now and then.  Rather, as Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.”  In other words, the leading astray may be inevitable, but the actual person who leads astray remains indefinite (“anyone”).

As a result, I don’t believe the Bible actually predicts which specific person in the future will lead the opposition against God at the end of history.  And so what the Bible says about this future figure is not a counterexample to the idea that God does not know moral choices in advance because they are truly free and thus unknowable.  What we need to come to grips with is not God knowingly creating a monster, whether Satan or Antichrist, but God endowing us with such beautiful, terrible freedom.

“The Beast from the Sea,” medieval tapestry illustrating figures from the book of Revelation. This “beast” is typically identified with the Antichrist.

Do the souls of believers “sleep” after death until the resurrection?


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Q. Some people say that if you are going to heaven, you go right away after you die. Others think that you just “sleep” until the second coming. (One snag in this idea might be Jesus saying to the thief on the cross, “Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.”) What do you think?

You’re actually asking about an issue that has been the subject of continual debate throughout the history of the Christian church. References to controversy over the subject extend back to at least the AD 240s. The debate remains lively today.

The actual issue is whether the soul is immortal, in which case it survives death, or whether it is mortal, in which case it dies with the body and is resurrected with the body, or else it “sleeps” until the body is resurrected (perhaps “dreaming,” as some have suggested, of life in the person’s future ultimate state). There is, of course, no philosophical discussion in the Bible as to the mortality or immortality of the soul. (The Bible isn’t that kind of book.) So we have to try to come to some conclusion about this based on what the Bible does say.

Without intending any disrespect for the view that the soul is mortal, since this view has a long and venerable pedigree in Christian theology, let me nevertheless cite some passages in the Bible that lead me to believe that the soul is immortal, and that believers who die therefore pass directly and consciously into the presence of God:

• The author of Hebrews writes that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” I believe this means more than that the lives of faithful people, catalogued just before this statement (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, etc.), are witnesses and inspiring examples to us. I believe the author is saying that such people are currently witnesses of our lives, so that we should “run the race” in the awareness that they are in the grandstands, as it were, cheering us on. But this means that they would have to be conscious and aware, looking on from a heavenly vantage point.

• In several places the psalmists express what seems to be the lively expectation of going immediately and consciously into God’s presence when they die, for example:
- In Psalm 16, “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead . . . you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand”;
- Near the end of Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”;
- Perhaps best known, in Psalm 23, “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

• As you mentioned, Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him “today” in Paradise.

These are only a few of the passages that could be considered in support of the immortality of the soul.  I don’t doubt that proponents of soul mortality would counter with some passages of their own. This is, in short, a question on which people of good will who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures have long disagreed. So we each need to be “fully convinced in our own minds” but respectful of the other position.

Still, as I said, all things considered, my overall sense from the Bible is that the soul of a believer does pass directly and consciously into the presence of God upon death.

Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief,” c. 1566

Has the Holy Spirit ever taken on human form?


Francesco Albani, “The Baptism of Christ” (detail). The Holy Spirit appeared in material form, as a dove, at Christ’s baptism. But has the Holy Spirit ever appeared in human form?

Q. I know God and Jesus have taken human form before, and I was wondering, has the Holy Spirit ever done so? I don’t remember any passages where He does, but are there any?

(This is the second part of a question whose first part is answered in this post.)

I’m not aware of any biblical passages that describe the Holy Spirit taking on human form quite the way Jesus did in his incarnation, or the way God the Father did on several occasions in the Old Testament when He appeared as the “angel of the LORD” (that is, “the angel of Yahweh”). In some of those episodes, the so-called “angel” is identified directly with Yahweh. For example, after the angel of the LORD’s very first appearance in the Old Testament, to Hagar, we read that she “gave this name to Yahweh who had spoken to her: ‘You are the God who sees me.’”

However, there are at least a couple of places in the Bible where the Holy Spirit appears in material form. Luke tells us in his gospel that when Jesus was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.” And Luke tells us in Acts that “what seemed to be tongues of fire” came to rest on each of the disciples as they were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

Beyond this, there are three very intriguing occasions in the Old Testament when the Holy Spirit is said to put on the body of an existing human being as if it were clothing, in order to speak and act on earth.

Before I discuss these places, I need to say a word about Hebrew grammar so that I can quote from the original language without being misunderstood. The word for “Spirit” in Hebrew is feminine. This doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is a woman (biologically female), any more than the masculine pronouns that are used conventionally in Hebrew and Greek (and typically in English) for the first person of the Trinity, whom Jesus taught us to call “Father,” mean that this person is a man (biologically male). Rather, “Spirit” in Hebrew is feminine because it’s the same word as “wind,” and natural forces (sun, fire, wind, etc.) are conventionally feminine in Hebrew. But the Holy Spirit is a person, not a thing, and so the Spirit should definitely be given a personal pronoun, not an impersonal one (“it”). For this reason, when translating directly from the Hebrew, I say “she,” “her,” and “herself” for the Spirit.

Now here are the places in the Bible where the Holy Spirit is said to put on the body of an existing human being.

First, in the book of Judges, after God called Gideon to deliver the ancient Israelites from Midianite domination, “the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon” and he gathered an army to fight. The Hebrew text says literally, “The Spirit of Yahweh clothed herself with Gideon.” The text is saying that the Spirit put on Gideon as if he were a garment, in order to be the one who was really acting to bring victory and liberation in this situation.

The next episode took place when David was living in Ziklag after he’d had to flee from Saul. Some men from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah came to him there and offered to join him. David couldn’t be sure whether they were sincere or whether they were trying to trick him and turn him over to Saul. So he told them, “if you have come to betray me . . . may the God of our ancestors see it and judge you!” In response to this challenge, which really amounted to a curse if the men were insincere, “the Spirit came on Amasai,” who would become one of David’s most trusted commanders, and he made an impassioned poetic protest of their loyalty and sincerity:

“We are yours, David!
We are with you, son of Jesse!
Success, success to you,
and success to those who help you,
for your God will help you.”

Once again, the Hebrew text reads literally, “The Spirit clothed herself with Amasai.”

Finally, some centuries later in the kingdom of Judah, when the formerly godly king Joash began to worship idols, “the Spirit of God came on Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest” and he warned the people that they would not prosper because they had forsaken Yahweh. In this instance as well, the Hebrew text says that “the Spirit of Elohim clothed herself with Zechariah.”

So although the Holy Spirit has apparently never taken on human form in the sense of appearing on earth as if human, on three occasions the Spirit has put on the body of an existing human being as if it were clothing, in order to speak and act to bring deliverance, affirmation, or judgment in a situation.

Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

Q. Today in my Quiet Time I read in Genesis about God wrestling with Jacob. I was really puzzled where it says, “When the man saw that he could not overpower him . . .” I don’t understand how God could not overpower a human being. God took on human form, but didn’t He still have the strength God would have? What do you think it means?

Also, I know God and Jesus have taken human form before, and I was wondering, has the Holy Spirit ever done so? I don’t remember any passages where He does, but are there any?

Eugene Delacroix, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel”

The so-called “man” in this episode who wrestles with Jacob is just like the “angel of the LORD” who appears in other Old Testament passages, though he’s not specifically called that here. He is a “theophany” or manifestation of God on earth. Jacob recognizes this and says, “I have seen God face to face” (in human form, at least).

It’s clear that this “man” has supernatural powers available to him, because to bring the wrestling match to an end, he’s able to wrench Jacob’s hip out of its socket simply by touching it. But he has apparently chosen not to use these powers over the course of the match, in order to demonstrate something. (This is analogous to the way that Jesus, to provide an example and model for us, “emptied himself” of his divine powers such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in order to live a perfect human life through obedience to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.)

So what was God trying to demonstrate in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers? When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him. (In my Genesis study guide, I show how Jacob was not only reconciled with his brother Esau shortly after this, he also made restitution for much of what he’d stolen from him.)

In his reflections on “The End for Which God Created the World,” the early American theologian Jonathan Edwards observes that since God’s perfections are “in themselves excellent,” it was also “an excellent thing” for them to become known. It seems to me that in the same way, God considers it “an excellent thing” for the character qualities Jacob has developed to become known, and so he arranges (personally!) for a demonstration of them, in the form of this wrestling match. (We might similarly see some of our struggles in life as an opportunity that God is giving us to demonstrate the character we have been developing.)

We can only speculate about how the match ever got started. Perhaps the man blocked the route that Jacob wanted to take and Jacob had to try to wrestle him out of the way. Or perhaps Jacob sensed who he was from the start and grappled with him in order to obtain a blessing (just as he says at the end, “I won’t let you go until you bless me”).

But however the match began, it’s probably more significant to ask exactly what the man means when he tells Jacob, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” How can a person “overcome” God? I don’t think it just means, “You wrestled God to a draw when God decided to use only human powers.”

Rather, I think it means that Jacob, in a desire to get back home from exile (something only God could make possible), determinedly worked through everything in his life that would have kept God from letting him to go back. When he was finally heading home, he testified to Laban about the honesty and integrity he had developed: “I bore the loss myself,” he said, if any of Laban’s flocks were torn by wild beasts or stolen. So we might say that Jacob was “wrestling” with God all those 20 years in exile, striving to become the kind of person God could safely send back to Canaan to continue the line of covenant promise. The wrestling match just before he got back home was a dramatic demonstration of what had been going on all along. God took on human form and limited powers in order to make that demonstration.

I’ll answer the second part of your question, about whether the Holy Spirit ever took on human form, in my next post.

Referencing the Bible without using chapters and verses

Readers of this blog will have noticed that in my posts I never reference the Bible by chapter and verse.  That’s because the original purpose of this blog was to be a resource for individuals and groups who were using the Understanding the Books of the Bible study guides from InterVarsity Press.  Those guides were designed to be used with The Books of the Bible from Biblica, an edition of the Scriptures that takes out chapters and verses and instead presents the biblical books in their natural literary forms.

This blog’s readership has now expanded well beyond the circle of the users of the study guides, as others have been reading along and asking their own questions.  I’m very glad to have everyone aboard.  But I’m sticking with the original format of no chapters and verses for some very important reasons.

Chapters and verses are late and artificial additions to the Bible that distort our understanding of the literary structure and genre of its books.  By making all the books appear to be look-it-up reference material, they suggest the wrong answer to the question, “What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?”  They make it only too simple to zip in and out of the Bible, looking at statements without regard to their literary and historical settings.  (I explain much more about this in my book After Chapters and Verses.)

For all of these reasons, I reference instead by content and context, which I find much more meaningful and more respectful of the Bible.  In this recent post, for example, I refer to how Paul in 1 Corinthians “applied the law about not muzzling an ox to his own right to receive support as an apostle.”  This kind of referencing encourages greater biblical literacy: once you learn even a little about 1 Corinthians, you can find that place without difficulty, whether or not your Bible has chapters and verses in it.

This is actually how Jesus and the apostles referenced the Bible.  For example, when disputing with the Sadducees about the resurrection, Jesus referred them to a particular passage by asking, “Have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush . . .?”  And in Romans, Paul refers to “what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel” before he quotes Elijah’s words at Mount Horeb, ““Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars . . .”

And when it comes to referencing the Scriptures by content and context, we today enjoy one great advantage that Jesus and the apostles didn’t: hypertext.  If we are writing online (or in any other format that supports hyperlinks, including even email), we can link our descriptive references directly to the actual text of Scripture on an online Bible site. (When I do this, as you can see in the preceding paragraph or in any of my previous posts, I choose a key word or phrase in my context-and-content reference to serve as the link.)

There are many good Bible sites out there to choose from; I’ve always linked my blog posts to BibleGateway because it’s my personal favorite for online Bible reading, searches, and so forth. So far, over the life of this blog, readers have clicked through to BibleGateway many hundreds of times to read the actual text of the passages I’ve been discussing.

Here’s what I hope will happen when they do, so that we don’t perpetuate that zip-in-and-zip-out mentality.  I try to provide as much of the immediate context as possible for each reference.  However, if a statement might be hard to locate, I may cite it alone.  Either way, I hope that readers will use the “expand” button in the middle of the BibleGateway toolbar just above the text, to call up an even wider context.  And I also hope they will use the “Page Options” button to turn off verse numbers and headings.  That way they will be reading the Scriptures as this blog has intended to present them from the start, as they appear in The Books of the Bible.

I encourage all of you to get into the habit of referencing the Scriptures by content and context and then providing hyperlinks to the actual text in your own writings about the Bible.  This will be more meaningful and respectful, and still allow the same ease of access as chapters and verses, but without endorsing them as if they constituted the real structure of the Bible.

Full disclosure:  I was already planning to write this post when I received an invitation to become a charter member of the Bible Gateway Bloggers Grid.  Its members are asked to link the Scripture references in their posts to Bible Gateway—something I had already been doing from the start.  They’re also asked to put in a good word for the site from time to time, which is also something I’d been doing already (as in this post). It’s something I’m happy to do because, well, I’m a fan.  In return, BibleGateway will promote my posts from time to time, particularly when they have some direct connection with the site.  I’m very pleased to have this new association.

Sample page from BibleGateway with "Page Options" used to turn off chapter and verse numbers.  The "Expand" button (four horizontal lines) is in the center of the toolbar just above the text.

Sample page from BibleGateway with “Page Options” used to turn off chapter and verse numbers. The “Expand” button (four horizontal lines) is in the center of the toolbar just above the text.


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