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Introduction to the Bible

For some time now, I have thought it would be useful to have a simple introduction to the Bible handy. I have had a number of conversations with people who have had little exposure to the Bible and don’t know where to start. This is that guide. (I am sure there are other guides, and probably better ones, out there—but as I do not know of them, I hope this will be helpful to someone!)

Note: This is currently a work-in-progress. I am updating it daily as I fill out the various sections.

Overview

The Bible is a single volume, but it is composed of many different books. Most English versions have 66 different books within them.[1] The Bible is broken down into two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament comprises about 75% of the material in the Bible, and spans the period from the creation of the world up until just about 400 B.C. It focuses on the doings of the Jewish people from ancient times.[2] The New Testament, which makes up the remaining 25% or so of the book, focuses on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and then the birth of Christianity out of Judaism, all within the first century A.D.

The books in the Bible start with Genesis and end with Revelation (see below for a full list). Each book is further divided into chapters and verses to make it easier to find one’s place. (Technically, all books are divided into at least verses, and almost all of them are also divided into chapters, but a few are only a single chapter long.) So if someone tells you to turn to Genesis 1:1, they mean to look at the first verse of the first chapter in the first book of the Bible. Likewise, Romans 8:31 is the thirty-first verse in the eigth chapter of the book of Romans, which is the sixth book in the New Testament and the forty-fifth in the Bible. The chapter and verse markings are not always at sensible places—they were added long after the books were written as a navigation tool.

Both Testaments contain a wide variety of kinds of writing (see the section below on genres). Further, both were composed by a wide array of authors, at different times, in different places, with different aims for their own books. The content of the Bible thus ranges from ancient Hebrew liturgical poetry—not as boring as it sounds; the Psalms are many people’s favorite parts of the Bible!—to personal letters from one Christian to another, and from historical narratives to theological treatises. Although the Bible varies widely in terms of authorship, style, genre, and even when it was written (from ~1,400 B.C. to about A.D. 100), it nonetheless presents a coherent picture of who God is and what he is doing in history.[3]

The Books

The books of the English Bible are organized by basic type. In the Old Testament, they are grouped by history, wisdom literature, and prophecy. In the New Testament, they are grouped into “gospels” (which describe the teaching and life of Jesus), letters, and prophecy. Here is a basic outline of the books of the Bible.[4] I have noted where there are well-known groupings within the major groupings.

  • Old Testament
    • History
      • Genesis
      • Exodus
      • Leviticus
      • Numbers
      • Deuteronomy
      • Joshua
      • Judges
      • Ruth
      • 1 and 2 Samuel
      • 1 and 2 Kings
      • 1 and 2 Chronicles
      • Ezra
      • Nehemiah
    • Wisdom
      • Psalms
      • Proverbs
      • Ecclesiastes
      • Song of Solomon
    • Prophecy
      • Isaiah
      • Jeremiah
      • Lamentations[5]
      • Ezekiel
      • Daniel
      • Hosea
      • Joel
      • Amos
      • Obadiah
      • Jonah
      • Micah
      • Nahum
      • Habakkuk
      • Zephaniah
      • Haggai
      • Zechariah
      • Malachi
  • New Testament
    • Gospels: treatments of the life of Jesus by different authors (after whom each book is named)
      • Matthew
      • Mark
      • Luke
      • John
    • Acts: a history
    • Epistles (letters!)
      • Romans
      • 1 and 2 Corinthians
      • Galatians
      • Ephesians
      • Philippians
      • Colossians
      • 1 and 2 Thessalonians
      • 1 and 2 Timothy
      • Titus
      • Philemon
      • Hebrews
      • James
      • 1 and 2 Peter
      • 1, 2, and 3 John
    • Revelation: prophecies, especially about Jesus’ return

Genres

There are about ____ different basic genres in the Bible, along with some variations on these. Knowing what the genres are and what to expect from them makes reading the Bible much easier. The main genres are historical narratives, laws, prophecy, wisdom literature, poetry, genealogies (yes, genealogies!), letters (or “epistles”), and apocalyptic literature. Some books contain a mix of these, and some of the genres sort of blend into each other.

Historical narratives

Much of both the Old and New Testament is comprised of historical narratives. These narratives sometimes round numbers, skip details we might consider important, and otherwise differ from the way modern Westerners write history, but nonetheless are written as true recordings of real historical proceedings.

In the Old Testament, the books of Genesis, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are primarily composed of historical narratives. Exodus, Jeremiah, and Isaiah also contain sections of history, mingled with other genres.

In the New Testament, the Gospels all contain a good bit of history of Jesus’ life, mingled with sections of Jesus’ teaching. They all spend the last few chapters focused on the details of his trial, crucifixion, and resurrection from the dead. Acts is a purely historical book, written by Luke, the author of the gospel by that name. The book traces out some of the history of the early church, focusing on the activities of the apostles Peter and Paul.

Laws

There are a number of laws explained in the first part of the Bible, including parts of Exodus, all of Leviticus, parts of Numbers, and nearly all of Deuteronomy. These laws governed the religious, economic, and social life of the Israelites. Though these are often rather dry reading from a modern Western perspective, they are actually incredibly important to understanding the rest of Scripture. There are a few important things to understand about these laws.

  1. Some of the laws focus on moral issues, whereas others focus on ceremonial issues. All of these were important for ancient Israel, but not in exactly the same ways. Both were designed to mark the Israelites as separate and distinct from the nations around, as a reminder to them that God was separate in important ways from humans and—just as importantly—that he was not like the gods the surrounding nations worshipped. Christians understand the moral laws (against murder, for example) still binding, but the ceremonial laws not, for reasons that become clear in the course of the New Testament.
  2. Many of these laws focus on sacrifices, and especially on sacrifices of “atonement.” These were the ways that God established to deal with sin in the Old Testament. Christians believe all of these sacrifices ultimately point to the sacrifice of Jesus in the New Testament. In any case, understanding them at least a little helps make sense out of what is going on in the rest of the Bible, since the Jewish religious system is in the background of nearly everything else that happens and that is written in both the Old and New Testaments.

Prophecy

[TBD]

Wisdom Literature

[TBD]

Genealogies

You will find a number of genealogies scattered throughout the books of the Bible in both Testaments. These often serve as a way of showing how the current section relates to previous sections or to connect important figures. For example, there are genealogies in Genesis that run from the first man, Adam, to Jacob and his children—who were the heads of the various tribes of Israel. Further genealogies in 1 Samuel and then in the openings of Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels connect first King David and his descendants and then Jesus himself to these earlier figures in history.

Poetry

The book of Psalms is a collection of poems (most or all of them originally songs, but the music is lost). The Psalms range from songs praising God for his character to songs expressing pain, sorrow, and frustration with life and begging God for aid. Among many other topics are thanksgiving, lament, impatience, and hope. Some Psalms express personal interactions with God; others are written as if from a whole group of people. They also include poetic recountings of various parts of the Old Testament and prophecies. Other books include poetry, including some of the historical books, and much of the content of the prophetic books is also poetic in form, though usually with a different focus from the Psalms.

Letters/Epistles

[TBD]

Apocalyptic Literature

[TBD]


  1. Bibles in the Catholic tradition have a few more—I’m a Protestant, so I’ll just stick to the 66 we affirm. The history of these extra books, the “Apocrypha” is complicated and involves a great deal of debate throughout history, so I will leave it aside for now. It is interesting, but not necessary for this post.  ↩

  2. Thus, the Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew Bible, though it is organized somewhat differently.  ↩

  3. This is not to say that there are no areas where Scripture is difficult to understand, or that there are no places with apparent contradictions—only that when such places appear, some time studying the passages more carefully usually (I would say always) reveals a solution.  ↩

  4. I have left out more detailed groupings to keep things relatively simple. There is enough going on in this list as it is!  ↩

  5. Lamentations is not a particularly long book, but it was written by Jeremiah and so is grouped with that book.  ↩

The End of the Beginning

I am making an ongoing discipline out of writing up reflections on my devotions—hopefully a majority of the days each week. This is one of those posts.

Tonight I came to the end of the book of Genesis. (I would have done so last week, had I not gotten sick. Alas.) The last four chapters of the book range from the proasic details of Joseph’s dealings with the Pharaoh and the Egyptian people to the poetic content of Jacob’s blessings for his sons. As far as conclusions go, the book ends, but there is not exactly a sense of denouement: Jacob dies, and then Joseph dies; this part of the story is at an end, but there are so very many promises unfulfilled. Indeed, the ending is something of a cliff-hanger for the attentive reader, who will have in the back of his or her head Yahweh’s promises to Abraham—both that his offspring would inherit Canaan and that first they would be slaves in a different nation. There are other promises, too: of the “offspring” (or “seed”) of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head, of future kingship in Judah’s line, of blessings not only to Abraham’s family but also to the nations.

There are a few passages that highlight the God at work throughout the book as this first section of the Torah comes to a close. Jacob, blessing Joseph’s sons, speaks of Yahweh: “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, / the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, / the angel who has redeemed me from all evil…” Jacob began his journey speaking of God wholly as his father’s God, surprised to find him still present far from his family’s worship. He ended his journey aware that the God of his fathers had watched over him from Canaan to Padan Aram and back again, and then on the trek down into Egypt. Yahweh was no longer only his father’s and grandfather’s God, but his God.1

Finally, of course, one cannot—or at least, ought not!—pass over these chapters without stopping to read Jacob’s blessing on Judah very carefully:

Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
Binding his foal to the vine
and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
he has washed his garments in wine
and his vesture in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
and his teeth whiter than milk.
(Genesis 49:9–12)

This language is evocative in its own right, but how it grows in power as one considers the rest of the Scriptures! The glimpses of fulfillment that come in David and Solomon—too quickly shattered by their fallenness and foibles, and then wrecked almost entirely in the kings that followed in their wake—only make the longing for the real king that much stronger. And right here is the font of so much imagery throughout the rest of the scriptures, both of messianic hope and fearful judgment. It is hard to read of garments washed in wine and in the blood of grapes without thinking of sin staining Christ on our behalf and the pure white garments he has given us instead.

If Genesis ends with the conclusion unwritten, bidding us look forward into Exodus to see what will come next, this particular prophecy still bids us look forward to see what will come next. Jesus has filled it up with meaning, and the Revelation gives us a glimpse of how he will fill it up finally—but that ultimate reality of “the obedience of the peoples” awaits our proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth and his coming again to reign in glory. Genesis looks forward; and so do we.

Maranatha. Lord, come soon.


  1. I believe this is also this very first time that the image of God-as-shepherd appears in the Bible. The way the Pentateuch in general and Genesis specifically establishes the baseline for the rest of the Scriptures is nothing short of amazing: this kind of internal unity and consistency is hard to come by from a single author—still less the dozens who authored the Bible. 

Whose Story Is This?

I am making an ongoing discipline out of writing up reflections on my devotions—hopefully a majority of the days each week. This is one of those posts.

Joseph is an interesting character. I have heard many a sermon on him, ranging from critiques of the way his pride got him in trouble to hagiographies that hold him up as an example to follow (not to mention a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ). What is most interesting to me at the moment, however, is that the text makes little moral commentary on Joseph at all. From his introduction in Genesis 37 until his death at the end of the book, Moses gives us very few direct comments on Joseph’s character.

To be sure, there is much that is admirable about the way Joseph carries himself throughout this whole sequence, especially as we come in a few chapters to his behavior when Potiphar’s wife makes a pass at him. As for his dream-telling at the beginning, I am inclined to let that pass (not least because my wife often tells me her dreams, no matter how crazy they get.) For all that Joseph is a good model for us in many ways, though, and even for all that he does prefigure Christ,1 the central figure of the narrative is not Joseph, but Yahweh.

First, this is precisely the point Joseph makes to his brothers when they meet again in Egypt decades later: what they meant for evil, God had meant for good. Joseph was a player in that story, as were his more-and-less wicked brothers, but ultimately it was Yahweh, providentially orchestrating all things, who was responsible for all that came about. And from a literary perspective, this is also the only way to make sense out of the aside in chapter 38 to Judah’s wretched affair with Tamar in Genesis 38: otherwise, why the sudden turn from Joseph to Judah? Yes, there is a contrast between the righteous brother and the wicked brother, but why is this contrast necessary? We already know Judah is a troublemaker: he was the one who suggested selling Joseph into slavery in the first place! No, there is more going on here.

At least part of that “more” is that it is not the righteous brother that God will use to bring about ultimate salvation, but the wicked one. The kingship went not to Reuben, the firstborn; nor to Joseph, the most favored of Jacob’s sons; but to Judah, the malcontent—and that via his illicit affair with his daughter-in-law as she played the prostitute! God’s plan of salvation does not hinge on righteous men (though he certainly does use such men to bring about good for his people throughout history). His plan of salvation is in the end all about demonstrating that he can use even wicked men to bring about his purposes, and that he is interested in saving even those wicked men. Jesus, it is true, is the new and better Joseph—but he came through Judah.


  1. Jesus, like Joseph, was massively mistreated by his brothers (both his immediate family and his “brothers” in Israel), but God worked that out so as to provide for their salvation. 

The Will of God

I originally posted this in three parts for easier blog-post-style consumption. If you’d prefer it that way, you can find them here: Part I, Part II, and Part III. For your convenience, I’m also making available PDF, Kindle, and ePUB versions—just click below and it will download the selected version.

kindleepubpdf

What is the will of God for my life? How can I know it?

No other question so thoroughly vexes most of the Christians I know. We are persuaded that God has a plan for our lives that we can ascertain, and as such we are responsible to follow it, for two (very good) reasons. First, we want to honor him and we want very much to avoid disobeying the God we love. Second, should we fail to follow God’s revealed will for our lives, we will miss out on the best things he has for us. These two, in combination, make the yearning to know God’s plan profound and urgent, especially when making large decisions. Should I buy this house or stay in my current home? Should I marry this person or should we break up? Should I go to this university or that one, or none at all?

But the will of God in such areas, we soon find, is mysterious. How is it determined—perhaps by a sense of “peace” about the right decision? or by a strong feeling that we ought to follow a particular course of action? or by the idea that springs into our mind, unbidden, as we ponder the circumstances in front of us? or by some other means entirely?

There is, it turns out, an answer. But you’re probably not going to like it. The question, however, is not whether we like something but whether it is what God has said. We must remember, though, that however disorienting it can be to let Scripture upend our ways of thinking, it is always best in the end.

What Scripture doesn’t say

The idea that the Spirit leads us by inner senses of his will has become a shibboleth among evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the charismatic movement. This is unfortunate, because the idea is completely without foundation in Scripture and is deeply unhelpful to the many Christians who live their lives as though it were true. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: nowhere does Scripture teach that the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom on personal decision-making by means of our inner state—our thoughts or feelings.

Now, let it be clear: This has nothing to do with the question of the Spirit’s indwelling presence, for He indwells and empowers all believers. It has nothing to do with the question of whether charismatic gifts continue or ceased after the death of the apostles, for the charismatic gifts were (and if they continue, are) not inner subjective senses but clear external signs. One can believe the miraculous gifts had all ceased by A.D. 100 and also that the Spirit leads us by subjective nudges, or that the gifts continue today but that the Spirit does not lead us in that way.1

So back to my thesis: God does not lead us by “giving us a peace” about things, or by “giving us a sense of what we ought to do,” or by thoughts or urges randomly popping into our heads. I imagine I have ruffled a few feathers, rocked a few boats, and possibly even stepped on a few toes by saying this. (I have certainly overdone it with the metaphors.) Those of you who disagree with me are thinking of all the times in Scripture that the Holy Spirit led people—and so am I! The question of the hour is not whether God communicates to his people, but how he communicates to his people. The most helpful thing for us to do, then, is to survey the Scriptures and see how God spoke to his people in the past, because Scripture is the baseline for how we expect him to speak to his people in the present.

Old Testament

When he spoke to Adam and Eve, he is physically present and speaks audibly. In his interactions with Cain, the two have a conversation. Every time he interacts with Abraham, the text tells us what God said to Abraham (whether or not Yahweh was visible to him in any given encounter). He speaks to Isaac and Jacob. He appears in dreams and gives interpretations thereof to Joseph. He appears in a flame and speaks audibly to (and indeed converses with) Moses over and over again, culminating in the beginning of the revelation of Scripture itself, which Exodus tells us he wrote with his own finger. He speaks audibly to many of the judges, telling them exactly what he would have them do, and Gideon carries on a discussion with him. The signs that God performs for Gideon with a fleece are the result of a conversation. Samuel was confused because he heard an audible voice and thought it must be the other person in the house, until that person explained that God was speaking to him. Various prophets were filled with the Spirit and preached the word of God to the people (even Saul, the king of Israel, at one point). Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah all experience dreams and visions and both Daniel and Ezekiel interact with angels, but there, too, their experiences were explained to them.

What about the ambiguous and mysterious bits? Throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, David is seen making decisions with the Urim and the Thummim. We do not know what these were, but the results seem to have been clear and unambiguous at the least. In the New Testament, we see the apostles making a decision by drawing lots, trusting God’s providence to orchestrate the right decision. Neither of these seems to be open options among evangelicals: we do not have the Urim and Thummim, and no one I know suggests we make decisions with dice, which would be the modern equivalent of drawing lots. Perhaps most mysterious is God’s means of revelation to the prophets, but as with the other means here, it seems to have been quite clear. None of the prophets ever wondered what their message was (though Jeremiah seems to have been rather unhappy about its contents, and for good reason). Certainly the audiences of the messages knew exactly what God’s will was: he spelled it out for them, often in great detail.

Perhaps most famous of all in this discussion—and the proof text for the view against which I am arguing—is God’s interaction with Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 19:9–18). Yahweh, the passage tells us, was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. After all of them was a “the sound of a low whisper” or “a sound, a thin silence” (19:12). First, notice that the “still, small voice” was not in Elijah’s mind: it was a sound. Second, read the next part of the passage:

And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:13)

Then they have a conversation, in which Yahweh comforts Elijah and tells him what he ought to do next. He spoke aloud to Elijah, just as he did to so many others.

In short, the consistent record of the Old Testament is that when God led his people—whether individuals or the whole nation—he did so clearly. The majority of the time, these interactions were audible, though occasionally he used dreams or visions, but always making clear the meaning through someone explaining.

The Will of God in the New Testament

The same patterns established in the Old Testament appear again in the New Testament, though much more broadly applied as of the coming of the Spirit in Acts. Zachariah, Mary, and Joseph all experience angelic visitations with clear messages from God in plain language. John the Baptizer2 preached a God-given message of the coming Messiah in a way that seems to be analogous to the prophecy of the Old Testament prophets. Paul experienced a vision of the risen Lord, who spoke to him directly, and other visions which were explained to him or otherwise had clear meanings. John experienced a revelation which was also explained to him. Many believers in the New Testament were given words from the Lord, and these, too, seem to have been unambiguous and followed the pattern of the prophets of old. The one New Testament prophecy we have directly recorded, in Acts 21, marks someone giving a clear and unambiguous warning to Paul. Above all, Jesus himself came and declared to his followers all the wisdom of God, fulfilling the role of prophet perfectly.

Again, what about the ambiguous or mysterious aspects of New Testament prophetic revelation? In terms of mystery, the Bible does not explain to us the mechanics of the New Testament prophetic gift any more than it does that in the Old Testament. Dreams and visions, when they appear, are explained or understood automatically. Perhaps most ambiguous are two passages in Acts. In Acts 16, Paul and his company were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” What this means is unclear, for this is all the text says.

The other passage worth further consideration occurs in Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council wrote to the Gentile churches about the relationship between Gentiles and Jewish law. In verse 28, their letter includes the phrase, “It has seemed good to the Spirit and to us…” As we read this in the larger context, its meaning becomes clear. The letter has already stated simply “it seemed good to us” (15:25). Luke’s records that “it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church…” to send out messengers with this letter. He records that James’ position carried the day, a position James explained by saying, “Therefore, my judgment is…” This passage is arguably the strongest justification for the evangelical view today, but I actually think it argues the other way. There is no reference to any “sense” or “feeling” in sight. Rather, they simply listened to what was going on, considered the scriptures, and made a decision that seemed best to them as a group. In other words, the church simply trusted that the Holy Spirit was leading them together into wisdom.

At no time, then, does the New Testament suggest that these interactions between God and man manifested in the form of subjective “senses,” especially a sense of “peace” or strong inner urgings. At best one could argue that this might have been the case in some of the ambiguous instances outlined above. Without any other proof, though, that is a very shaky position, especially given the clear evidence of how God did speak in the New Testament.

Interpretation

Through all of this, one common thread should have become apparent. When God speaks, it is always—without exception!—clear that he has spoken. His leading is always unmistakable and unambiguous (save for the dreams, but someone always has a clear interpretation). Given that we do not endorse several means that were practiced in the Scriptures, I am at a loss as to why we make decisions by means that are never mentioned in the Bible. If we are going to allow Scripture to set the norms by which we relate to God, we must admit that we have no reason to believe that our internal “sense” about things is in any way a message from God. (That does not, by the way, make emotions useless or meaningless; they are in actuality a very useful part of decision-making. They simply are not the voice of God!)

Aside: “I just have a peace about it”

I find it fascinating that two of the most misused Scriptures in the New Testament come almost side by side, both from the book of Philippians. Along with the much-abused “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13) we have Paul’s note that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). This is not, however it has been applied, a promise that he will give you a “peace” about the right decision, but a promise that supernatural peace will comfort the believer who prays instead of embracing anxieties and fears. Moreover, this peace is the right of all believers who are walking with Christ—not just those who are making the correct decisions at any given moment. Paul prays this peace for all his churches!

How do we decide, then?

There is one, and only one, passage in the New Testament that explicitly tells us how we will learn to discern the will of God:

I exhort you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God: present your bodies as a sacrifice—living, holy, acceptable to God—as your reasonable worship and do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, so that you may be able to discern what is will of God: what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2, my translation)

As I have argued in my exegesis of this text, Paul tells us here that the way we grow to know the will of God is by pursuing the transformation of our mind as we grow in holiness. This is harder work than learning to lean on our subjective senses of things, certainly, and it really does not offer us the kind of assurance about day-to-day decisions that so many of us are looking for. It fits with the rest of Scripture’s witness, though, and (as I will argue in a moment) is ultimately a liberating reality.

There are a number of other passages which confirm that the Christian way of making decisions is simpler than we have made it. On the one hand, we have the many examples outlined above. Most notably, the Jerusalem council simply reasoned from the Scriptures and made a decision—and this about an incredibly important decision for the health of the whole church. In his epistle, James rebuked his audience for presuming that their days were theirs to plan, but his counsel was not to look for a sense from God about their course of action. Instead, he enjoined them to simply make their plans humbly: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:15). Similarly, Paul would write of his own plans that he would visit the church at Rome if it was God’s will (Romans 1:15, 15:32).

From this completed picture, we learn a basic pattern for discerning the will of God. First, bow to what he reveals unambiguously. For us, this is both first and finally the Scriptures, where God has declared clearly what he wants us all to know, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We thus know that God’s will for us is above all to know him and Jesus Christ, whom he sent into the world. This is what the Holy Spirit is doing above all: sanctifying us and bringing us into the knowledge of God. All his gifts to the body are given so that people will know and worship Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.

Second, if God should speak clearly and unambiguously to us, we should listen! I know one person who has claimed to hear God speaking directly to her about circumstances in her life—and as long as the things this person hears accord with Scripture, I would be far more inclined to grant that validity than any subjective sense, because it does accord with how God acted in the Bible! Any such revelation—whether an audible voice, a prophecy given in the church, or a dream or vision which has meaning clearly understood—must be judged against the final authority of Scripture. I would also suggest that, from my survey of Scripture, God usually speaks in that way not simply for the ordinary circumstances of our lives, but when he is accomplishing something specific to salvation history. To bring that down to earth: I think it far more likely that God would speak in that way for direction to the church than for direction to individuals (though I do not rule it out for the latter).

Third as we pursue holiness and live in close community with other believers, we will be able to come to wise decisions about the courses of action we ought to take. If the church at Jerusalem could come to a decision about a complex issue with massive implications for the future of the church in this way, we can make decisions in our own lives this way!

All of this highlights a reality that I find increasingly liberating. God does not mean for us to discover his plan for our lives and then live it out, but rather to discover it by living it out. It is not that he does not care about our jobs, or our families, or our homes, or any of a myriad other decisions we make day to day. Rather, it is first of all that he cares far more that we know and delight in him, and secondly that he is providentially orchestrating all those things to bring us closer to him.

As a result, I do not have to worry day by day whether I am doing the “right” thing. Most of the decisions in my life are morally neutral, and nearly all of the rest are obviously spelled out in Scripture. (For the remaining few, we have ethics classes at the seminary to think through incredibly complex and difficult issues for a reason.) For all those morally neutral decisions, Jaimie and I ask together, “What seems good to us? What will allow us to glorify God most effectively?” We pray for wisdom. We seek counsel from our friends and family, especially those who are believers. We invite input from our pastors and others with whom we are in fellowship at our church. If God spoke to us audibly, or clearly in a dream, we would listen! Above all, we continually seek to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” as Paul enjoins us in Romans, pursuing holiness.

In the end, we make the decision that seems best to us. The bigger the decision, the more time we will spend on all of those steps—but at no point do we worry about “having a peace” about the decision or look for a subjective sense of what to do. We trust that God is good, and in his providence works all things to good, and recognize that he has not revealed his will for our lives to us, but allows us the chance to grow in wisdom and make good decisions. This is incredibly freeing. More importantly, it is in accord with Scripture.

To quote my favorite book on this subjectjust do something. Prayerfully, thoughtfully, in community, while pursuing holiness, yes—but just go do something.


  1. Or that the gifts continue and he leads us that way, or that the gifts ceased and he does not lead us that way. For the record, I am cautiously open to the ongoing practice of the gifts—but this isn’t about that, remember? 
  2. That’s right. Baptizer. 

The Will of God, Part III

In Part I, I argue that God does not indicate his will to us by means of subjective feelings, and survey the Old Testament record of God’s interactions with his people. In Part II, I look at the New Testament and how to interpret Scripture’s teaching on the subject. In Part III, I ask (and answer!) how to discern the will of God if “sense” or “peace” aren’t it.


How do we decide, then?

There is one, and only one, passage in the New Testament that explicitly tells us how we will learn to discern the will of God:

I exhort you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God: present your bodies as a sacrifice—living, holy, acceptable to God—as your reasonable worship and do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, so that you may be able to discern what is will of God: what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2, my translation)

As I have argued in my exegesis of this text, Paul tells us here that the way we grow to know the will of God is by pursuing the transformation of our mind as we grow in holiness. This is harder work than learning to lean on our subjective senses of things, certainly, and it really does not offer us the kind of assurance about day-to-day decisions that so many of us are looking for. It fits with the rest of Scripture’s witness, though, and (as I will argue in a moment) is ultimately a liberating reality.

There are a number of other passages which confirm that the Christian way of making decisions is simpler than we have made it. On the one hand, we have the many examples outlined above. Most notably, the Jerusalem council simply reasoned from the Scriptures and made a decision—and this about an incredibly important decision for the health of the whole church. In his epistle, James rebuked his audience for presuming that their days were theirs to plan, but his counsel was not to look for a sense from God about their course of action. Instead, he enjoined them to simply make their plans humbly: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:15). Similarly, Paul would write of his own plans that he would visit the church at Rome if it was God’s will (Romans 1:15, 15:32).

From this completed picture, we learn a basic pattern for discerning the will of God. First, bow to what he reveals unambiguously. For us, this is both first and finally the Scriptures, where God has declared clearly what he wants us all to know, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We thus know that God’s will for us is above all to know him and Jesus Christ, whom he sent into the world. This is what the Holy Spirit is doing above all: sanctifying us and bringing us into the knowledge of God. All his gifts to the body are given so that people will know and worship Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.

Second, if God should speak clearly and unambiguously to us, we should listen! I know one person who has claimed to hear God speaking directly to her about circumstances in her life—and as long as the things this person hears accord with Scripture, I would be far more inclined to grant that validity than any subjective sense, because it does accord with how God acted in the Bible! Any such revelation—whether an audible voice, a prophecy given in the church, or a dream or vision which has meaning clearly understood—must be judged against the final authority of Scripture. I would also suggest that, from my survey of Scripture, God usually speaks in that way not simply for the ordinary circumstances of our lives, but when he is accomplishing something specific to salvation history. To bring that down to earth: I think it far more likely that God would speak in that way for direction to the church than for direction to individuals (though I do not rule it out for the latter).

Third as we pursue holiness and live in close community with other believers, we will be able to come to wise decisions about the courses of action we ought to take. If the church at Jerusalem could come to a decision about a complex issue with massive implications for the future of the church in this way, we can make decisions in our own lives this way!

All of this highlights a reality that I find increasingly liberating. God does not mean for us to discover his plan for our lives and then live it out, but rather to discover it by living it out. It is not that he does not care about our jobs, or our families, or our homes, or any of a myriad other decisions we make day to day. Rather, it is first of all that he cares far more that we know and delight in him, and secondly that he is providentially orchestrating all those things to bring us closer to him.

As a result, I do not have to worry day by day whether I am doing the “right” thing. Most of the decisions in my life are morally neutral, and nearly all of the rest are obviously spelled out in Scripture. (For the remaining few, we have ethics classes at the seminary to think through incredibly complex and difficult issues for a reason.) For all those morally neutral decisions, Jaimie and I ask together, “What seems good to us? What will allow us to most effectively glorify God?” We pray for wisdom. We seek counsel from our friends and family, especially those who are believers. We invite input from our pastors and others with whom we are in fellowship at our church. If God spoke to us audibly, or clearly in a dream, we would listen! Above all, we continually seek to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” as Paul enjoins us in Romans, pursuing holiness.

In the end, we make the decision that seems best to us. The bigger the decision, the more time we will spend on all of those steps—but at no point do we worry about “having a peace” about the decision or look for a subjective sense of what to do. We trust that God is good, and in his providence works all things to good, and recognize that he has not revealed his will for our lives to us, but allows us the chance to grow in wisdom and make good decisions. This is incredibly freeing. More importantly, it is in accord with Scripture.

To quote my favorite book on this subjectjust do something. Prayerfully, thoughtfully, in community, while pursuing holiness, yes—but just go do something.

The Will of God, Part II

In Part I, I argue that God does not indicate his will to us by means of subjective feelings, and survey the Old Testament record of God’s interactions with his people. In Part II, I look at the New Testament and how to interpret Scripture’s teaching on the subject. In Part III, I ask (and answer!) how to discern the will of God if “sense” or “peace” aren’t it.


The Will of God in the New Testament

The same patterns established in the Old Testament appear again in the New Testament, though much more broadly applied as of the coming of the Spirit in Acts. Zachariah, Mary, and Joseph all experience angelic visitations with clear messages from God in plain language. John the Baptizer1 preached a God-given message of the coming Messiah in a way that seems to be analogous to the prophecy of the Old Testament prophets. Paul experienced a vision of the risen Lord, who spoke to him directly, and other visions which were explained to him or otherwise had clear meanings. John experienced a revelation which was also explained to him. Many believers in the New Testament were given words from the Lord, and these, too, seem to have been unambiguous and followed the pattern of the prophets of old. The one New Testament prophecy we have directly recorded, in Acts 21, marks someone giving a clear and unambiguous warning to Paul. Above all, Jesus himself came and declared to his followers all the wisdom of God, fulfilling the role of prophet perfectly.

Again, what about the ambiguous or mysterious aspects of New Testament prophetic revelation? In terms of mystery, the Bible does not explain to us the mechanics of the New Testament prophetic gift any more than it does that in the Old Testament. Dreams and visions, when they appear, are explained or understood automatically. Perhaps most ambiguous are two passages in Acts. In Acts 16, Paul and his company were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” What this means is unclear, for this is all the text says.

The other passage worth further consideration occurs in Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council wrote to the Gentile churches about the relationship between Gentiles and Jewish law. In verse 28, their letter includes the phrase, “It has seemed good to the Spirit and to us…” As we read this in the larger context, its meaning becomes clear. The letter has already stated simply “it seemed good to us” (15:25). Luke’s records that “it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church…” to send out messengers with this letter. He records that James’ position carried the day, a position James explained by saying, “Therefore, my judgment is…” This passage is arguably the strongest justification for the evangelical view today, but I actually think it argues the other way. There is no reference to any “sense” or “feeling” in sight. Rather, they simply listened to what was going on, considered the scriptures, and made a decision that seemed best to them as a group. In other words, the church simply trusted that the Holy Spirit was leading them together into wisdom.

At no time, then, does the New Testament suggest that these interactions between God and man manifested in the form of subjective “senses,” especially a sense of “peace” or strong inner urgings. At best one could argue that this might have been the case in some of the ambiguous instances outlined above. Without any other proof, though, that is a very shaky position, especially given the clear evidence of how God did speak in the New Testament.

Interpretation

Through all of this, one common thread should have become apparent. When God speaks, it is always—without exception!—clear that he has spoken. His leading is always unmistakable and unambiguous (save for the dreams, but someone always has a clear interpretation). Given that we do not endorse several means that were practiced in the Scriptures, I am at a loss as to why we make decisions by means that are never mentioned in the Bible. If we are going to allow Scripture to set the norms by which we relate to God, we must admit that we have no reason to believe that our internal “sense” about things is in any way a message from God. (That does not, by the way, make emotions useless or meaningless; they are in actuality a very useful part of decision-making. They simply are not the voice of God!)

Aside: “I just have a peace about it”

I find it fascinating that two of the most misused Scriptures in the New Testament come almost side by side, both from the book of Philippians. Along with the much-abused “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13) we have Paul’s note that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). This is not, however it has been applied, a promise that he will give you a “peace” about the right decision, but a promise that supernatural peace will comfort the believer who prays instead of embracing anxieties and fears. Moreover, this peace is the right of all believers who are walking with Christ—not just those who are making the correct decisions at any given moment. Paul prays this peace for all his churches!


  1. That’s right. Baptizer. 

The Will of God, Part I

In Part I, I argue that God does not indicate his will to us by means of subjective feelings, and survey the Old Testament record of God’s interactions with his people. In Part II, I look at the New Testament and how to interpret Scripture’s teaching on the subject. In Part III, I ask (and answer!) how to discern the will of God if “sense” or “peace” aren’t it.


What is the will of God for my life? How can I know it?

No other question so thoroughly vexes most of the Christians I know. We are persuaded that God has a plan for our lives that we can ascertain, and as such we are responsible to follow it, for two (very good) reasons. First, we want to honor him and we want very much to avoid disobeying the God we love. Second, should we fail to follow God’s revealed will for our lives, we will miss out on the best things he has for us. These two, in combination, make the yearning to know God’s plan profound and urgent, especially when making large decisions. Should I buy this house or stay in my current home? Should I marry this person or should we break up? Should I go to this university or that one, or none at all?

But the will of God in such areas, we soon find, is mysterious. How is it determined—perhaps by a sense of “peace” about the right decision? or by a strong feeling that we ought to follow a particular course of action? or by the idea that springs into our mind, unbidden, as we ponder the circumstances in front of us? or by some other means entirely?

There is, it turns out, an answer. But you’re probably not going to like it. The question, however, is not whether we like something but whether it is what God has said. We must remember, though, that however disorienting it can be to let Scripture upend our ways of thinking, it is always best in the end.

What Scripture doesn’t say

The idea that the Spirit leads us by inner senses of his will has become a shibboleth among evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the charismatic movement. This is unfortunate, because the idea is completely without foundation in Scripture and is deeply unhelpful to the many Christians who live their lives as though it were true. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: nowhere does Scripture teach that the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom on personal decision-making by means of our inner state—our thoughts or feelings.

Now, let it be clear: This has nothing to do with the question of the Spirit’s indwelling presence, for He indwells and empowers all believers. It has nothing to do with the question of whether charismatic gifts continue or ceased after the death of the apostles, for the charismatic gifts were (and if they continue, are) not inner subjective senses but clear external signs. One can believe the miraculous gifts had all ceased by A.D. 100 and also that the Spirit leads us by subjective nudges, or that the gifts continue today but that the Spirit does not lead us in that way.1

So back to my thesis: God does not lead us by “giving us a peace” about things, or by “giving us a sense of what we ought to do,” or by thoughts or urges randomly popping into our heads. I imagine I have ruffled a few feathers, rocked a few boats, and possibly even stepped on a few toes by saying this. (I have certainly overdone it with the metaphors.) Those of you who disagree with me are thinking of all the times in Scripture that the Holy Spirit led people—and so am I! The question of the hour is not whether God communicates to his people, but how he communicates to his people. The most helpful thing for us to do, then, is to survey the Scriptures and see how God spoke to his people in the past, because Scripture is the baseline for how we expect him to speak to his people in the present.

Old Testament

When he spoke to Adam and Eve, he is physically present and speaks audibly. In his interactions with Cain, the two have a conversation. Every time he interacts with Abraham, the text tells us what God said to Abraham (whether or not Yahweh was visible to him in any given encounter). He speaks to Isaac and Jacob. He appears in dreams and gives interpretations thereof to Joseph. He appears in a flame and speaks audibly to (and indeed converses with) Moses over and over again, culminating in the beginning of the revelation of Scripture itself, which Exodus tells us he wrote with his own finger. He speaks audibly to many of the judges, telling them exactly what he would have them do, and Gideon carries on a discussion with him. The signs that God performs for Gideon with a fleece are the result of a conversation. Samuel was confused because he heard an audible voice and thought it must be the other person in the house, until that person explained that God was speaking to him. Various prophets were filled with the Spirit and preached the word of God to the people (even Saul, the king of Israel, at one point). Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah all experience dreams and visions and both Daniel and Ezekiel interact with angels, but there, too, their experiences were explained to them.

What about the ambiguous and mysterious bits? Throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, David is seen making decisions with the Urim and the Thummim. We do not know what these were, but the results seem to have been clear and unambiguous at the least. In the New Testament, we see the apostles making a decision by drawing lots, trusting God’s providence to orchestrate the right decision. Neither of these seems to be open options among evangelicals: we do not have the Urim and Thummim, and no one I know suggests we make decisions with dice, which would be the modern equivalent of drawing lots. Perhaps most mysterious is God’s means of revelation to the prophets, but as with the other means here, it seems to have been quite clear. None of the prophets ever wondered what their message was (though Jeremiah seems to have been rather unhappy about its contents, and for good reason). Certainly the audiences of the messages knew exactly what God’s will was: he spelled it out for them, often in great detail.

Perhaps most famous of all in this discussion—and the proof text for the view against which I am arguing—is God’s interaction with Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 19:9–18). Yahweh, the passage tells us, was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. After all of them was a “the sound of a low whisper” or “a sound, a thin silence” (19:12). First, notice that the “still, small voice” was not in Elijah’s mind: it was a sound. Second, read the next part of the passage:

And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:13)

Then they have a conversation, in which Yahweh comforts Elijah and tells him what he ought to do next. He spoke aloud to Elijah, just as he did to so many others.

In short, the consistent record of the Old Testament is that when God led his people—whether individuals or the whole nation—he did so clearly. The majority of the time, these interactions were audible, though occasionally he used dreams or visions, but always making clear the meaning through someone explaining.


  1. Or that the gifts continue and he leads us that way, or that the gifts ceased and he does not lead us that way. For the record, I am cautiously open to the ongoing practice of the gifts—but this isn’t about that, remember?