THE POWER OF
If you’ve ever felt far from God—like you’re wandering through life without purpose, you are not alone. In fact, one of the most influential Christ-followers in history started out as a wanderer—unsure of the meaning of life. Today we will explore his story.
He was born in a small town in North Africa to a laid-back pagan father and a passionate Christian mother. When he was older, he moved to the capital city of Carthage to pursue his studies. Though he was a brilliant student, he also threw himself into a lifestyle of partying and promiscuity, but deep inside he was hungry for something more. As he stumbled through his search for meaning, he began following one of the popular religions of his day and devoted himself to a deep study of Neoplatonic Philosophy.
By the time he was in his early thirties, his inner life was starting to unravel. His pleasure-seeking, sexualized lifestyle had led him down a path to deep depression and despair. Years later he would look back and describe this season of his life as a “whirl of vicious lovemaking”—but in this whirlwind, he found it impossible to master his passions or discover his purpose.
Through a series of events, he was exposed to a brand-new type of Christianity—one that challenged him intellectually and inspired him morally. He began to long for deep personal transformation in his life. As part of his journey, he started to re-examine his mother’s faith that he had abandoned long ago, but in spite of his searching, he simply could not escape his doubts and embrace Christ. Around this time, he moved to Milan to become a professor. From the outside, he looked like he had it made. His career was taking off—and yet inside, he was falling deeper and deeper into despair.
And then it happened.
One day he was walking through a garden in Milan. He had brought a Bible with him that day, hoping it would speak to him, but as he stared at the pages, he couldn’t make any sense of it. He laid it down on a park bench and began to pace back and forth. As he was walking, he heard the sound of a child’s voice at play nearby saying, “Take up and read.” In a way he couldn’t explain at the time, he heard the voice of God through the voice of this child—and felt compelled to return to the bench and pick up the Bible and start reading. When he did, his eyes fell on the following passage:
Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. Romans 13:13–14
In that holy moment, the words of Scripture jumped off the page with power. It was as if the dark clouds of his depression were suddenly pierced with a bright light of hope. His deep sense of despair suddenly vanished—and in its place came peace.
He would later describe this pivotal moment with these words:
Instantly, as I reached the end of this sentence, it was as if the light of peace was poured into my heart, and all the shades of doubt faded away.
He was only 32 years old at the time—but his life would never be the same.
His name was St. Augustine.
He went on to become one of the most respected and influential Christ-followers of all time. He would guide the ancient Church through the fall of Rome in 410 AD, and his writings would inspire the leaders of the Protestant Reformation who revitalized the Church over 1000 years later. And this amazing journey—one that caused a ripple effect throughout eternity—all started when the Word came alive and spoke to him with power.
In a sense, this is true of all Christ-followers. Like with Augustine, it is through the Word that we are born anew and given fresh eyes to recognize truth, to learn, to change and to impact the world. The Apostle Peter writes,
You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 1 Peter 1:23
In this week’s study, we will explore the power of the Word and the way the God uses it to lead, guide, and transform our lives.
In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul describes God’s vision for our lives—and what it requires:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:2
Paul says God has a vision, a “will” for our lives—just like he did for St. Augustine. It’s good, pleasing and perfect. But to experience it, we have to be transformed—and that, in turn, requires the renewing of our minds. As Christ-followers, learning to read the Bible on our own (not just in church) is one of the most important steps we can take in this process. If we don’t learn this skill, we can never become a “self-feeding Christ-follower”, and as a result we will live emaciated lives. Even worse, we will miss out on the life-giving transformation and deep personal connection with God that comes through His Word.
If you’ve ever felt like you are wandering, empty or staring at blank pages of the Bible like St. Augustine, you must ask God to reveal Himself to you, to change the way you think and to renew your mind through His powerful Word. You may or may not have a single, dramatic, life-changing moment like Augustine. But one thing is certain, if you call out to God wholeheartedly and ask Him to reveal Himself through His Word—ready to obey—He will respond.
The words St. Augustine heard that day are the same words God speaks to us this day:
Take up and read.
Can you remember when the Word first came alive and began to speak to you in a personal way? If so, what were the circumstances and what impact did this have on you? If not, what do you think is standing in your way?
How confident are you when it comes to studying the Word on your own? Does this come fairly easily, or is it more of a challenge?
Write a prayer asking God to help you understand the vital role the Word plays in your personal transformation and relationship with God. Ask Him to create a fresh hunger for the Word in your life as we go through this study.
JESUS & THE WORD
When we read the Gospels, one thing is clear—Jesus loved the Word. After all, His whole life—including His birth, early years, His ministry, His death, and resurrection—were all prophesied in the Word. When He was only twelve years-old, Jesus spent time with the religious leaders of Israel listening, asking questions, and learning about the Word (Luke 2:41-52). By the time He launched His ministry, the Word permeated every area of His life and deeply impacted His teaching.
One time, early in His ministry, some questioned whether Jesus’ ministry aligned with God’s Word, since it seemed so radically different from the other teachers of His day. When attacked, Jesus clears up this confusion immediately—in the strongest of terms:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Matthew 5:17-18
Time and again we see Jesus defending the Word like this—with ferocity. Once when He was having a debate with the religious leaders, He appealed to the Word and said “. . . the Scripture cannot be broken”. (John 10:35, NIV84)
In His personal life, we see the Word sustaining Jesus. For example, in Matthew 4, Jesus has been fasting for forty days. In His weakest moment, Satan attacks with a series of compelling offers. And how does Jesus fight back? With the Word. With each new temptation, Jesus quotes a passage (from memory) from Deuteronomy—a book which describes Israel’s testing. From this encounter, it is obvious that Jesus knew the Word inside and out and was prepared to use it as a defensive weapon against the schemes of the Enemy, even in His weakest moment (Ephesians 6:10-17).
This wasn’t a one-time occurrence; we see this all throughout Jesus’ ministry. Whenever He was attacked by His opponents, He would respond with Scripture—and often with an obscure, but profound passage. From His teaching and these interactions, it is clear—Jesus invested a lot time learning the Word and reflecting on it to prepare for His life and ministry.
It is easy to assume Jesus knew the Word because He is God, but it’s important to remember that He is also 100% man. This means He had to learn, to grow, and to mature in wisdom—just like the rest of us (Luke 2:40-42; Hebrews 5:10). This may be difficult to understand practically, but it’s important to keep in mind as we study Jesus’ life and apply it to our own.
In Jesus’ teaching, we see Him emphasize the role the Word plays in our freedom, our fruitfulness and our spiritual warfare with the Enemy. Here are three examples of these principles from the Gospel of John.
In John 8, Jesus is counseling some new believers. He tells them,
If you hold to my teaching [literally “my word”], you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:31–32
Notice two important things in this passage. First, Jesus says the mark of a true believer is to “hold to His teaching”. In other words, we don’t just listen and let it go—we listen and follow it. Second, notice what He says will happen when we listen and follow––it will set off a spiritual chain-reaction. The Word will lead us to truth, and that truth will set us free.
In John 15, we step into the middle of a long conversation Jesus is having with His disciples on the night He is arrested. It is His last opportunity to prepare His disciples to lead His movement. He gives a powerful analogy, which still holds true for us today. He tells His disciples He is like a grapevine, they are like the branches, and His Father is the gardener. As long as they stay connected to Him, He explains, they will produce great fruit. But, if they become disconnected, they will wither and die, like branches cut off from a vine.
In this analogy, He promises His Father will “prune” them in the future to remove anything that would stunt their growth and reduce their “fruitfulness”. But Jesus says, for now, they don’t need any more pruning. He has already pruned them, and they are clean. This raises the question: How has Jesus pruned them so they can be productive? What tool has He used? The answer is the Word. Jesus says,
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
For the last three years, Jesus has been pruning them to prepare them for this day—and the tool He has used is His Word.
The third passage is John 17, which describes a later scene from the same evening—the night Jesus is arrested. This time Jesus is praying and asking His Father to protect His disciples from the “evil one” after He leaves. Jesus knows He is sending His disciples out into a hostile environment and is keenly aware that Satan will try to derail them from their mission. Jesus asks the Father to “sanctify” them—which means to purify them and set them apart. And what tool will the Father use to purify His disciples and empower them for their difficult ministry ahead? Once again, the answer is the Word. Jesus prays,
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. . . . Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. John 17:15, 17
Your word is truth. It is the truth that sets us free, the truth that prunes us so we can thrive, and the truth that protects us from the evil one and prepares us for impact. This is why it is so important we learn how to read and study the Word in our lives. Jesus clearly saw it as the key that unlocks so many doors in our spiritual life. If we learn how to “hold on to His Word”, this will lead us to move into a future that is full of freedom, fruitfulness and power.
Read Luke 2:41-52. Sometimes it’s easy to assume that Jesus simply “knew” the Word because He was God, but we see in this passage that Jesus learned, grew and matured—as we do. What are the implications of this for your life?
Spend some time reading John 15:1-17. What lessons does the grapevine analogy hold for your life? Have you experienced times when you’ve become disconnected from the “vine”? What impact did it have on your life?
Jesus says when we listen and follow the Word, it leads us to the truth, which in turn, sets us free. Have you ever experienced freedom in your life as a result of obedience to the Word?
Write a prayer asking God to teach you how to connect with His Word. Ask him to use His Word to equip you for growth and empower you for impact.
THE SPIRIT AND
The last three days had felt like a terrible nightmare—except this nightmare was real. It began when Jesus told them He was leaving. It was hard to believe. What was He talking about? This is not how the story was supposed to go.
Then it all started.
The long walk to the garden. The late night arrest. The mock court case. The brutal beatings. The gruesome execution. And there they stood—devastated, terrified, and then running and hiding for fear of their lives.
And then—as quickly as it had started—it suddenly was over.
Jesus was back.
They will never forget the moment: when He walked in. At first all they felt was shock. Then came the fear. (Was He a ghost?) Then came the sudden rush of joy and relief. Jesus was alive! But of course, they had so many questions. The disciples had studied the Scriptures their whole lives—and this didn’t make sense. How did this align with God’s plan? What did Jesus’ resurrection mean?
In that moment, Jesus saw their confusion—and what did He do? He slowed down. He took the time to patiently explain the ancient prophecies that specifically predicted this surprising turn of events.
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. Luke 24:44–45
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
The disciples knew the Scriptures—but they didn’t understand the Scriptures until Jesus opened their minds. Once He did, it changed everything.
The same is true for us.
Like Augustine, pacing back and forth in the park, we are incapable of understanding the Scriptures on our own until Jesus opens our minds. Understanding Scripture is more than an intellectual exercise; it is a spiritual experience. If we want to understand the Scriptures—not just mentally, but spiritually—we need to ask Jesus to give us understanding through the Holy Spirit.
We see this principle all throughout Scripture. For example, the Psalmist prays,
Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.
Here we see that the Psalmist knew there are wonderful things to be seen in the Scriptures—but he also acknowledges that unless God opens his eyes, he won’t be able to see them. This highlights one of the most important ways the Holy Spirit works in our lives: He takes the Word of God and empowers us to see and experience its life-giving truth. This work of the Spirit starts when we first come to Christ. In I Peter 1, the apostle Peter writes,
You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 1 Peter 1:23
This is where our relationship with God starts—when the Spirit opens our eyes to the truth described in Scripture and we are empowered to see it in a fresh light. And this is not a one-time experience when we first come to Jesus; it’s an ongoing relationship between us, the Word, and the Holy Spirit. The more we listen and follow, the more He will continue to open our eyes to spiritual truths (1 Corinthians 2:12-14).
At the beginning of our walk with God, one of the first things the Spirit reveals to us is that the Bible is the Word of God. There are a many sound reasons to believe this—including the evidence of archaeology, fulfilled prophecies, its unified message, its power to change lives (like St. Augustine’s), and the accuracy of its manuscripts. But for the Christ-follower, the most important evidence is the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. As Jack Deere writes in Surprised by the Power of the Spirit,
Orthodox theology has long held that the authority of Scripture does not rest on miracles. The authority of Scripture rests on its Author. Although there are a number of factors that help convince us of the authority of Scripture, we are ultimately persuaded of its authority by the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. Jack Deere
This personal experience of the Spirit revealing the authority of Scripture to us is an important first step in our relationship with the Scriptures. But if we want to continue to grow and be transformed, we need the Spirit to continue to enlighten us with the truth of Scripture every step of the way. In theology we call this the Illumination of the Word. Tim Challies describes this in one of his blog posts titled “Revelation, Inspiration Illumination”:
Illumination refers to God’s work in the lives of believers to make us able to believe and understand the words of the Bible. This does not mean the Spirit gives us new revelation — rather He applies to our lives the truths contained in His existing revelation. . . . Illumination is what separates believers from unbelievers when we read the Bible. An unbeliever may read the Bible and view it merely as a religious or historical document, much like I would read the Koran or the Book of Mormon. But when a Christian reads the Bible, the Spirit guides him to see not merely history and religion, but the very words of God. And even more important, He allows the person to apply the great truths of the Bible to his life. He initiates change through the words of the Scripture. Tim Challies
Every time we read the Bible, we need God to illuminate the Scriptures for us so we can understand them fully—and grow as a result. This is such a fundamental principle to understand as we move forward. In the coming days, we will start learning how to read and interpret the Bible on our own. We will explore many important principles to guide us along the way. But it’s important to remember that without the illumination of the Spirit, all our study will be in vain. The Bible will never speak to us with supernatural power without the work of the Spirit.
Let this be the prayer of our hearts, each time we open the pages of the Bible:
Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.
Take a moment and ask God to reveal His truth as you read the following Scriptures: Psalm 119:18, 33-34, 124-25, 129-130, 144. As you read, jot down some notes on what these verses teach about God’s word.
Which of the passages speaks to you the most and why?
Have you ever experienced reading a familiar passage—but then the Holy Spirit opens your eyes to a new and profound truth? If so, describe that experience.
Write out a prayer based on the themes of the passages in Psalm 119. Ask God to help you recognize when the Holy Spirit is opening your eyes to new truths—so you can listen and obey.
THE BIG THREE
This week we’ve learned two vital lessons about the Word. The first is the Bible is a supernatural book that has the power to transform our lives. The second is we need the Holy Spirit to illuminate the Word if it’s going to impact our lives. Now that we’ve laid this firm foundation, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start learning how to read and study the Bible on our own.
Today we will introduce a simple three-step Bible study process to help you study the Word in a way that leads to renewal, transformation and a deep relationship with God. The three steps are: observation, interpretation, and application. We will introduce them briefly today, and then start unpacking each one in more detail during the next two weeks.
The first step when studying the Bible is to pay close attention to what it actually says. The goal of this first step is simply to observe the facts: Who wrote this passage? When and where is this happening? Who are the main characters? What are they saying or doing? What topics are being addressed? And so on. In this first step, we are not doing any interpretation or application. All we are doing is observing.
The second step is interpretation. Once we have read the passage carefully and observed the facts, we’re ready to start to interpret those facts. The goal here is simply to discern the author’s mind, follow his logic, and understand his message. At this point, our goal is still not to apply the passage to our lives.
The final step is application. This is the most important step. Life application is the main reason why we study the Word. We need to learn God’s truth and to hear God’s voice to renew our minds and transform our lives.
In Pastor Rick Warren’s book Bible Study Methods he writes,
The ultimate goal of dynamic Bible study is application, not just interpretation. We do not want to settle for understanding alone; we want to apply the biblical principles to our daily living. Dwight L. Moody, a great evangelist and Christian educator of the late-nineteenth century, used to say, “The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge, but to change our lives.” It was given to change our character and bring it more into conformity with Jesus Christ. All our efforts in Bible study are valueless if in the final analysis we do not change and become more like Jesus. We must “not merely listen to the word,” but we are to “do what it says” (James 1:22). Rick Warren
This is so true. If we want the Bible to permeate our lives and renew our character, we need to put it into practice. In Week Six of this study, we will learn how to do that, but before we get there, we need to invest some significant time learning how to observe and interpret the Word. It is vital to get these two steps down before we apply the Word to our lives. Otherwise, it is easy to jump to conclusions based on our own opinions and life experience, rather than the actual message of the Bible.
Keep in mind when we are studying a passage, these three steps (observation, interpretation and application) often overlap or even occur almost simultaneously. For instance, as you are observing a passage, an insight into the author’s original message may jump out at you—which leads to an immediate application for your life. When this happens, it’s great! But keep in mind, you need to continue your study to confirm your insight is consistent with the rest of the passage.
There are also times when the Holy Spirit may apply a particular verse to your life in a very personal and powerful way apart from its original context. Mark Batterson describes this in The Circle Maker:
I believe that every word of Scripture is inspired by God, right down to the jot and tittle. And while chapters like Psalm 23 or verses like John 3:16 top the memorization charts, there are also moments when the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of Scripture will inspire the readers of Scripture with an unlikely jot or tittle. Some word or phrase may jump off the page and get into your spirit. Mark Batterson
When you sense the Holy Spirit speaking directly to you through a passage, it’s a beautiful thing. It may be a word of promise, encouragement, direction, or warning. This can be a powerful, even life-changing moment. However, whenever this happens, we need to “weigh” these “words” to confirm they line up with the rest of Scripture, because we know the Holy Spirit will never lead us in a way that violates God’s Word. When evaluating an insight from God, here is a rule of thumb: if it truly is a word from the Lord, it will always lead to a deeper passion for Jesus and higher character in our lives.
Keep in mind, this is not the typical way the Holy Spirit uses the Word in our lives. Usually, He opens our minds to the truth of Scripture as we follow this three step Bible study process—and as we do, we are changed.
Have you ever made the mistake of jumping to conclusions when interpreting a passage without taking the time to observe what it says and discover the author’s original message? What are some of the dangers that can happen when we do this?
Do these three steps of observation, interpretation, and application seem natural or unnatural to you—and why?
Read II Peter 3:16. Peter describes certain people who were “distorting” the Scriptures. What are some ways we can “distort” the Scriptures today—even if we don’t mean to?
Write a prayer asking God to help you learn how to interpret His Word in a way that leads to life-changing application.
Yesterday we introduced the three steps of Bible study: observation, interpretation, and application. Starting today we are going to take a closer look at each of these, one at a time. The first step of Bible study is observation.
When we start to study a new passage, the first step is to read it very carefully. We need to give it more than a quick glance and not jump to interpretation and application. Instead, we need to approach it like a detective. Consider the quintessential detective—Sherlock Holmes. What is he famous for? He is most known for his keen ability to collect, sort and interpret data, and then draw accurate and brilliant conclusions. But in order to do this, he becomes the ultimate observer who hones his senses, meticulously searches for clues, and deeply studies each case. In many ways, this is exactly how we need to approach the Bible—like a detective.
Our first task is simple—to pay close attention to what the writer is actually saying. Our job is to gather as many clues as we can to help us unlock the meaning of the passage. If we don’t pay close attention to the facts, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and misinterpret and misapply the passage. One way to discover these clues is to ask the six famous questions of the news reporter: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
For example, let’s say we are studying the first chapter of the letter of Philippians—which we will do shortly. The first step is to read the text carefully and start looking for the facts. Who wrote this letter? To whom? Whoare the key characters? What is happening in their lives? What topics is the author addressing? Where is this taking place? When did he write it? Why is he writing? And so on.
Sometimes the answers to these questions will be obvious. Sometimes not. Other times, the answers will become clearer as we read through the rest of the letter. But often there are many more clues there than we realize if we simply look for them—and listen carefully to the author’s side of the “conversation.”
We have all had the experience of walking in on a friend when they are on the phone. Even though we don’t know who they are talking to or what they are talking about, we can often deduce a lot just by listening closely to one side of the conversation. We are actually really good at this! What we need to do is to take these well-honed “listening” skills and apply them to our study of the Bible.
For example, when you read the letter to the Philippians, you are “listening in” on one side of a conversation—the author’s side. But if you pay close attention to what he is saying, you can often figure out what’s happening in the lives of his readers on the other end of the line.
In the first chapter of Philippians, for example, the author will introduce himself and identify his readers and where they live. Towards the end of the chapter, he encourages them to be courageous for their faith. He challenges them not to be “frightened in any way by those who oppose you” (1:28). When you read that, what does it sound like? It sounds like they are facing persecution, right? This call to be courageous is a clue about what’s happening in their lives. As we continue to read further in Philippians, we can follow that clue and see if it’s confirmed by the rest of the letter.
The point is, when we’re reading the Bible, our first goal is simply to pay close attention to what the author is saying. This is so important because if we don’t take time to notice the facts, our interpretation and application will often veer off track.
So, the first step of Bible study is observation—to put on our detective’s hat, ask the reporter’s questions, and start gathering clues.
Now it’s your turn. It’s time to practice.
Take 15 minutes and read Philippians 1. Jot down any facts you discover about the author, his audience, their relationship and what’s happening on both sides of this “conversation.” Use the six reporter’s questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? As you do this exercise, here are several things to keep in mind:
Remember, your assignment is to jot down only the facts and clues you discover––NOT to interpret or apply the passage to your life.
Only use the Bible (no study Bible notes, references, Bible Dictionaries, etc.)
Jot your facts and clues in your journal to share with your Life Group this week.
Return to this “Daily Response” when you’re finished and answer the following questions:
How did this exercise go? Was it easy or hard? Natural or unnatural? Why?
Are you surprised by anything you learned by focusing on the facts?
Did anything speak to you personally—even though you were not looking for personal application? If so, write a prayer to God based on this insight.