Bible Reading Plans

“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. … I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. … Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”  (Psalm 119:11,15,105 NIV)

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the entire Bible. Fittingly, it is focused on the blessings of knowing and applying the commands and principles of God’s Word. 

Perhaps some of you resolved to read your Bible cover-to cover in 2017. Countless reading plans are available to keep you on pace toward accomplishing that goal.

Through the years, my personal Bible reading plan has grown increasingly ambitious until it now looks like this:

  • One Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) each month
  • Remainder of New Testament: Every six months
  • Psalms and Proverbs: Every six months
  • Remainder of Old Testament: Once each year

Bible reading plans designed to cover the entirety of God’s Word in a year are not without benefits, especially if you’ve never read the Bible cover-to-cover. Following them will certainly help ingrain the discipline of reading God’s Word into your daily routine.

But annual Bible reading plans are not without their pitfalls either. They can lead to reading hurriedly and mindlessly in order to cover the required material for that day without sufficiently digesting, meditating upon, and applying its content. While you might accomplish your reading goal, God’s greater goal of molding you into the image of his Son often suffers.

Recently, I downloaded a devotional Bible to my iPad. Described as a “cover-to-cover journey through the Bible”, it is organized into chapter readings covering six days a week for a full year, with each reading followed by a devotion. One of those daily readings covers chapters 13-17 of John’s Gospel, which detail the events and the compelling teachings of our Lord as he gathered with the disciples in Upper Room on the night before his crucifixion.

Given their importance, I spent two months on those five chapters when I taught the Gospel of John several years ago. While I can certainly read John’s account of the Upper Room Discourse in one sitting, I can’t imagine adequately grasping its content and application for my life in one morning Bible study. A 500-word devotion cannot scratch the surface of the important lessons Christ conveys to his disciples that night.

The written Word is God’s primary means of communication with us. It is too important to rush through in order to accomplish a New Year’s resolution while ignoring its application for our lives. I encourage you to read your Bible daily, but do so prayerfully, patiently, attentively, and systematically. 

Like the psalmist, ask the Lord to open your eyes that you might see and comprehend the wonderful things contained within the Scriptures. (Psalm 119:18) Read with the expectation that God will answer that prayer and respond appropriately when he does. Highlight or underline those passages that particularly pierce your heart. Make notes in the margins or in a separate journal. A marked-up Bible, like the one shown above, is one that has been digested rather than merely read.

As for that Upper Room Discourse in John 13-17, I can’t think of a better place to spend some quality time over the next couple of weeks as we prepare our hearts for Easter, reflecting on the final teachings of our Lord before he went to the cross. I hope you will join me on that journey.

“The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. … Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.” (Psalm 119:130,133 NIV)

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“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV)

These verses are so familiar to me that when I encountered them in my morning Bible reading recently, I almost missed the change that was made in the 2014 update to the New International Version (NIV) of the Scriptures. The word patience had been changed to forbearance. My immediate and instinctive reaction was “There they go again! Why don’t they leave well enough alone?”

Having memorized these particularly verses many years ago, I often quote them in my teaching and in conversations regarding spiritual matters. These traits of the fruit of the Spirit identified by the apostle Paul have provided a useful checklist to gauge whether my inclinations are driven more by my flesh or the Holy Spirit.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I typed those words without looking at the text. They flow together so well and are easily memorized. Replacing patience with forbearance disrupts that flow. I stumble every time I try to quote it now. Why change such a powerful and poetic list?

Then I quickly realized that my negative reaction to this change was being driven by my flesh as the Spirit revealed to me that the word forbearance better conveys his intent when Paul penned his letter to the Galatians. According to my Wycliffe Bible Commentary, the Greek word Paul used literally means long-spiritedness. The King James Version (KJV) translates it as “long-suffering”.

The word patience has a very broad application whereas the word forbearance relates specifically to our attitude toward others. According to Wycliffe, the word Paul used “involves a refusal to retaliate or work vengeance for wrong received”. My KJV Study Bible describes it as “a disposition quietly bearing injury”. Webster’s defines forbearance as “the quality of someone who is patient and able to deal with a difficult person or situation without becoming angry.”

As I reflect on these definitions, it becomes clear that forbearance is sorely lacking in our world today. Perhaps with a little more forbearance, our elected leaders might be better able to work together to develop solutions to the many problems facing this nation. With a little more forbearance, maybe Christians could overcome some of our denominational differences and present a more unified message to the lost people outside our church walls. (Are you listening, Southern Baptists?)

In Romans 3:25, Paul writes “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” (NIV) Aren’t you thankful for God’s forbearance? How can we fail to practice forbearance toward others while enjoying God’s forbearance toward us?

In our fleshly pride, forbearance does not come naturally. While we can sometimes fake some aspects of the fruit of the Spirit Paul identifies in Galatians 5:22-23, forbearance may be our best indicator of who is winning the ongoing battle for the control of our heart – our flesh or the Holy Spirit.

May we all display a little more patience forbearance with those whom God places in our paths this week. (Old habits are so hard to break!)

“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9 NIV)

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Does It Matter?

imageA headline in the online edition of Christianity Today last week caught my attention as it declared “Americans Warm Up to Every Religious Group Except Evangelicals”.

Without getting mired into the details of the Pew Research Study upon which the article was based, (If you’re interested, <click here> ) I will just note that it was based upon a recent survey of 4200 Americans as to how favorably they viewed various religious groups: Jews, Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Evangelical Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Atheists, and Muslims.

The main point emphasized by the article was that every religious group received a notably more favorable rating than it had received in 2014 with one glaring exception – evangelical Christians, who remained steady at 61% favorability.

On the surface, that might not sound so discouraging unless you drill a little deeper into the results. Removing the responses of evangelical Christians, who rated themselves very highly, drops the favorability rating of evangelicals down to just 32% among non-evangelicals. Additionally, the research revealed that respondents from the Millennial generation viewed evangelicals equally favorably as they viewed Muslims and atheists. Take a moment to let that sink in!

Several suggestions were offered concerning the meaning of these results. Personally, I believe there is increasing confusion over the very term “evangelical Christian”. Among the American population in general today, it often carries more of a political meaning than a religious one.

But what concerned me perhaps more than anything in the article was a statement at the end by sociologist Brad Wright, who was quoted as saying,

Ultimately, evangelical Christians might do well not to spend too much time worrying about what others think of us. Christians in general, and evangelical Christians in particular (depending on how you ask the question), are well-regarded in this country. If nothing else, there’s little we can do to change other people’s opinions anyway.”

I can’t help but think that such attitudes might be contributing to those disappointing results revealed above – especially among Millennials. Does it matter what others think of us? Is there anything we can do to change others’ opinion of us? On both counts, I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes!”.

In the span of four chapters in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes three statements that we ought to keep in mind in our daily interactions with those who cross our path:

  • “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” (2 Corinthians 2:15 NIV)
  • “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3 NIV)
  • “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20 NIV)

Taken together, these passages paint a beautiful picture of lifestyle evangelism – the kind of life that prompts questions about the source of our hope. (1 Peter 3:15)

Does it matter what others think of us? … Absolutely! As his ambassadors, what others think of us reflects upon the Christ we represent. As letters from Christ, what others think of us either opens doors for witnessing or closes ears to our message. And the aroma we project will either draw others to Christ or drive them away. If it drives them away, it is probably not the pleasing aroma of Christ we are projecting.

Does it matter? … Maybe we should ask a Millennial.

“When people sense a Jesus-like attitude and spirit from us, it clears the path for relationship; and perhaps for a testimony that just might be heard without defensiveness.” – Dave Desforge

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Remembering Paulette

By Julian Wells

In memory of my dear sister, Paulette Wells Cargile. Born on Valentine’s Day, she was a sweetheart to everyone whose life she touched.

imageDeparted from our presence,

And yet, still so present

In our memories,

In our hearts,

In faded photographs

Preserved in time by her selfless labor of love,

In the character of two daughters

Who continue to grace us with her spirit.

Loved by all who knew her,

Missed by all who remain behind.

Waiting in glory for those who share the Savior

Who gave her life that knows not time.

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:3-4 NIV)

(Note: To learn more about Paulette and the impact she had on my life, <click here> to read A Servant’s Heart.)

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Congregational Diversity

“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” (Acts 2:5-6 ESV)

imageThe words from the pulpit pierced my heart as the pastor challenged us to look around the congregation and notice that the crowd we formed that morning was likely the most “racially homogenous group” we routinely gather with in any given week.

While that might have been a bit of an overstatement, the message was clear. It was also very timely, coming just a week before the start of Black History Month in our nation.

Our text included the verses from Acts that head this post. When the promised Holy Spirit fell that fateful day of Pentecost, the impact was explosive. After Peter’s powerful message, three thousand souls were added to the one hundred and twenty believers that had remained together after Christ’s ascension. In the immediate aftermath of that event, Luke says And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47 ESV)

The Bible describes another day when the diversity of a gathering of worshipers is emphasized. It occurs in Revelation chapter 7 where John describes a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb … and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV)

We live in between these two church gatherings featured so prominently in the Scriptures. As I reflect upon the pastor’s convicting words that morning, many thoughts and questions surface in my mind:

  • Given the emphasis placed on the diversity of these two gatherings, why is the congregation with whom we worship every Sunday usually the most racially homogeneous group we will be a part of all week?
  • What does the fact that I had not even noticed the lack of racial diversity in that particular congregation in my assessment of it as a potential future home say about me?
  • Does being heartened when I see minority visitors in our congregation and making a special effort to greet them mean that I have overcome the influences of racial prejudice that permeated the culture of rural Georgia in the formative years of my youth? Or am I attempting to mask any vestiges of those influences that remain?
  • Should it matter so much that, as Dr. Martin Luther King once famously remarked, 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning remains the most racially segregated hour of the week in our nation? If it does, then what is the best approach toward seeking a remedy in the local church?
  • What message does it send to the unchurched when they see how racially segregated our churches remain in a culture that has made great strides in racial diversity?

While racial diversity can be a sensitive topic, it is a conversation that those of us within the Body of Christ, who have been given a ministry of reconciliation, (2 Corinthians 5:18) should be having as we move closer to that day John speaks of in Revelation 7. Whenever I visit churches where racial diversity is more the norm, inevitably I come away encouraged, anticipating the day when all our differences will disappear in the light of our Savior’s presence.

Clearly, I have presented more questions than answers here. But then reflecting on the questions, whether we can find honest answers or not, is not a wasted exercise. It fosters introspection, helps reveal who we are, and more importantly, who God desires us to become. Scripture is divinely inspired and designed to accomplish that very purpose.

That has certainly been the case with me. Thanks largely to the impact of God’s Word in transforming my mind, today I can confidently echo another more encouraging quote by Dr. King: “I may not be the man I want to be; I may not be the man I ought to be; I may not be the man I could be; I may not be the man I truly can be; but praise God, I’m not the man I once was.”

And I might add, I’m not the man I’m going to be as he who began a good work in me brings it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV)

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