How can I get other people to read and study the Bible with me?

The study guides are great, but I don’t have anyone to study with. Do you think it’s a problem just to use them at home on my own? Do you have suggestions for how to start a Bible reading group?

The guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series are designed so that they can be used by either individuals or groups. If you’re using them on your own, the questions in each session will help you reflect on the meaning of each passage as you work through whole biblical books. As the guides suggest at the beginning, you can record your reflections in a journal or notebook.

The only possible drawback of this approach is that you may finish studying a biblical book and wish you’d had the chance to talk the questions over with other people. This is what one person said in an online review after finishing the Genesis guide: “I especially appreciated the reflection questions, which encourage you not only to get inside the head of the characters in the story, but also to think about how God might be working in similar ways in your own life. My only regret is that I didn’t recruit a bunch of friends to read it with me. I was always wanting to discuss these new insights with other people!”

So how might a person recruit that bunch of friends? I’d say that the first thing is to recognize that your desire to read and discuss God’s word with other people is a desire that God has given you and that God will help fulfill. Knowing that God is going ahead of you, you can confidently pray and then approach some of the people in your life that you’d most like to study the Bible with. Ask them if they’ll be willing to meet with you weekly for a couple of hours. Pick a time of day that works best for all of you. Perhaps suggest a limited time commitment to begin with, such as 12 weeks, with the option to continue beyond that. Show them a copy of the study guide you’d like to use and a copy of The Books of the Bible. Trust that God has some people out there to whom he’s given the same desire that’s in your heart.

It’s amazing how these groups grow to a good size (8-12 members) once they get started. In graduate school my wife and I approached a few fellow students about forming a small group. One agreed to join and also invited a friend. That friend brought another friend. Another student brought a friend as well. Soon we had eight regulars and a great study group was off and running.

Don’t be discouraged if the group starts small. In the InterVarsity chapter we volunteer with, we once went to the first meeting of a planned small group and only the two leaders were there. So we spent that first meeting praying that God would add to our numbers. Within a few weeks seven other people had joined us!

I’m sure you too will see God sending along other people to read and study His word with you when you respond in faith to this desire that He’s given you. Blessings on your endeavor!

Is it all right for Christians to get tattoos?

Q. In your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, when you get to the end of Romans you ask about outward ways of identifying as a follower of Jesus. When we discussed this question in our group, the subject of tattoos came up.  Most of the group members didn’t have a problem with them.  But I thought Christians weren’t supposed to get tattoos.  Doesn’t the Bible say, “Do not put tattoo marks on yourselves”?

I personally don’t think this one verse can be used as a proof-text against tattoos.  The particular commandment you’re describing is found in Leviticus. It says in full, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.”  The concern is with cutting or marking oneself as a pagan worship practice designed to appease or cultivate the spirits of the dead. (A similar commandment is found in Deuteronomy, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.”)  So this is not necessarily a prohibition of using these practices for other purposes, including identifying oneself as a follower of the true God.

However, we need to be careful here.  There are other things that are mentioned in the Bible only in the context of pagan worship, such as human sacrifice, that we shouldn’t conclude are acceptable in other contexts.  We really need some indication that a practice can be used positively to honor God before we decide that any prohibition against it is really aimed only at pagan worship practices.

In the case of marking the body, in one of his visions Ezekiel sees a man with a “writing kit” whom God tells, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  This image is echoed in Revelation when God “seals” the 144,000; later in that book we learn that they had the Lamb’s name and his father’s name “written on their foreheads.” Jesus also says in Revelation, in his letter to the church of Philadelphia, about anyone who remains faithful, “I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God . . . and I will also write on them my new name.”  So Ezekiel and Revelation use the symbol of God marking or writing on his servants as a positive sign of protection and identification.

However, these passages really can’t be used as proof-texts in favor of tattooing, any more than the one in Leviticus can be used as a proof-text against it.  This isn’t just because Ezekiel and Revelation are highly symbolic books and it’s often difficult to know how literally to take their imagery. Rather, it’s because those two books, like Leviticus, are recording the warnings and encouragement that God gave his faithful people over the centuries as examples and instruction for us today.  We’re not supposed to turn any of this into rules, but rather use it to become familiar with the ways of God so that we can discern how to follow those ways in our own place and time.

On questions such as whether followers of Jesus can get tattoos, we do well to be guided by the counsel in the very part of the Scriptures that prompted your group’s discussion—the end of Romans.  Paul writes there, “I am convinced . . . that nothing is unclean in itself.  . . .  Let us . . . make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.  . . . Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

In other words, a tattoo is really just ink on the skin, not something spiritually dangerous in itself.  But a person who’s deciding whether to get a tattoo should ask how this would build up other believers and how it would make for peace within the community of Jesus’ followers.  And whatever a person decides on a question like this, they should have a well-considered position that they keep mainly as a private conviction between themselves and God, and grant others freedom to follow their own convictions.

Why did Jesus say he wasn’t going to the Festival of Tabernacles and then go?

Q. In John 7, Jesus tells his brothers he’s not going to go to the Festival of Tabernacles, but then he goes anyway. By faith I’m accepting that this is not sinful deception, but do you have any thoughts about why it’s not?

I don’t address this question specifically when I come to this episode in the John study guide, but I do note earlier in the guide (pp. 27-28) that often in conversations between Jesus and others:

“Jesus speaks of spiritual realities, but his listeners misunderstand him and think he’s speaking about material realities. They ask questions to try to clear up the confusion, and this gives Jesus (or John, speaking as the narrator) the opportunity to explain the spiritual realities further.”

I discuss this dynamic specifically in the cases of people like Nicodemus and the woman at the well, and the same thing is going on when Jesus speaks with his brothers here.

When he says, “I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come,” his brothers think he’s speaking on a material level and saying that it’s not a convenient or strategic time for him to travel to Jerusalem. But since he does then go to Jerusalem, readers of the gospel are supposed to understand that this wasn’t what he meant. Instead, his reference to “my time” (a richly symbolic phrase in this gospel) shows that he means he won’t be “going up,” that is, ascending to the Father after dying as the Savior of the world, at this particular festival, but rather at a later Passover.

Raymond Brown, in his excellent commentary on John in the Anchor Bible series, observes that “John is giving us a play on the verb anabainein, which can mean go up in pilgrimage to Mount Zion and Jerusalem, and can also mean ‘to ascend.’ In 20:17 Jesus uses this verb when he speaks of ascending to the Father, and that is the deeper meaning here.”

So this is one of the many places in John’s gospel where a deeper meaning lies behind Jesus’ words and where the difficulty we have in understanding those words should drive us to seek that deeper meaning. (“How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb!” “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?”) Accepting by faith, as you did, that Jesus is not being deceptive is the first step in discovering the true, rich, saving meaning of his words.

Rembrandt, Jesus Preaching

Does “contemplating the Lord’s glory” mean mystical experiences?

In your study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, you ask a question about the passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul talks about “contemplating the Lord’s glory.” I wondered whether it was at all possible he was thinking (in part) of mystical practices. I’ve read that some Jews at the time were interested in having chariot visions, etc., and since “glory” is so closely associated with visions of God in the Old Testament, I wondered whether there could be a connection. Paul does talk elsewhere about seeing into layers of heaven.

Nicolas Poussin, The Ecstasy of St. Paul

This question is in session 14 on page 73 in the study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters:  “What do you think it means to contemplate the Lord’s glory and be transformed by it? Have you begun to experience that? If so, talk about your experience.”

It’s true that some Jews, starting a couple of centuries after Paul, did try to have mystical visions of God’s heavenly enthronement, including visions of God being conveyed in a celestial chariot like the one Ezekiel saw that was formed by four living creatures or cherubim.  Some interpreters have even suggested that Paul’s Damascus Road experience and his vision of the third heaven (described later in 2 Corinthians) are early examples of this type of mystical vision.

However, in light of the overall argument in 2 Corinthians, I think this is unlikely.  As the study guide shows, that letter has four main parts.  It culminates in a showdown, in the last part, between Paul and the so-called super-apostles.  There he argues that the visions they pride themselves on are no real indication of spiritual maturity or authority—even though his own visions greatly surpass anything they’ve seen!  Paul says he will not boast about visions like this, but only about his weaknesses, “so that Christ’s power may rest on me . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Since Paul is building towards this climax, it would be inconsistent and self-contradictory for him to suggest earlier in the letter that he’s been seeking visionary experiences himself.

Rather, given his references to Moses and the tent of meeting, I think he’s picturing a similar, transforming, “face-to-face” relationship with God in his personal spiritual life and that he’s commending that kind of relationship to all of his readers.  In the liberty of the Spirit, with nothing held back between us and God, “with unveiled faces” we “contemplate the Lord’s glory” and are “transformed into his image.”

Which brings me back to the end of the question in the study guide, about whether we’re experiencing this in our own lives.  What things do we need to take out of the way between us and God so that we can directly contemplate his glory and be transformed?

Why don’t your study guides tell me what to do?

I’ve come to the Christian faith only recently and I’m part of a small group that’s using one of your study guides.  One of the things I’m looking for in the Bible is advice for how to live.  But I have a hard time sometimes understanding from the study guide what the Bible stories are telling me to “do.”  Do you have any suggestions?

It’s perfectly legitimate for you to expect to learn from the Bible how you should live as a follower of Jesus and what you should believe about the character and purposes of God. But learning these things isn’t a simple matter of being told what to do and think.

Sometimes we’re led to believe that the Bible is an instruction manual. It’s often treated that way, and when we see it divided up into short propositions that are indexed by chapter and verse number, that’s what it appears to be. But the Bible is actually something much more beautiful and profound than that. It’s the story of God’s unfolding relationship with humanity, told through an elegant variety of different literary forms. We appreciate this story when we engage these forms on their own terms, ideally as part of a community that’s seeking their meaning together (like your small group).

That’s why the study guides, as they say at the start, pose questions that “aren’t looking for ‘right answers,'” but instead “invite the group to work together to understand the Bible.” The questions “invite you to share deeply about your ideas and experiences. The answers to these questions can’t be found just by ‘looking them up.’ They require reflection on the meaning of the whole passage,” in the wider context of the book in which it appears, “in light of your personal experience.”

This approach requires more patience and perseverance than one in which you are told what to think and do. But it will also lead to greater maturity and stability in your faith and a deeper relationship with God, rather than with a set of rules and doctrines. So I encourage you to keep going to your group, keep engaging the questions, and look for these results over the longer term. You’re off to a great start. Just keep on going!

The Bible is a collection of different kinds of writings

Are the stories in Genesis really true?

The small group at my church is going through the Genesis study guide right now. There seems to be a wide variety of opinions in the group about whether these stories actually happened or not.  Are the stories of Genesis historically true, or are they just stories?  No one in our group seems to know the answer.  If they’re not true, then why are they in the Bible?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel

Faithful followers of Jesus who are equally committed to the divine inspiration and entire trustworthiness of the Bible have long given different answers to the question you’re asking about Genesis.

Some believe in what is known as the scientific and historical inerrancy of the Bible, meaning that all the events happened exactly as they are described. But even this view makes some allowances for the observational perspective from which the stories are told, for example, the apparent understanding that the sun revolves around the earth.

Others believe in the doctrinal and practical inerrancy of the Bible, meaning that through the stories it relates, the Bible primarily teaches us what we should believe about God and how we should live in order to please God. This view acknowledges that the stories in Genesis have been passed down faithfully over the centuries through the community of believers. But this view sees those stories as potentially more affected by the limits of the human perspective than the other view does.

Either way, because the Bible is the word of God mediated through human authors, these stories have a legitimate place in the Bible, whether or not we can verify every detail historically and scientifically.

It’s easy for any discussion of Genesis to be completely taken over by the debate between these two views. That’s why the study guide you’re using invites group members, at a couple of key places, simply to share their views (about the age of the earth, session 2, and about Adam and Eve, session 3) and then hold those views confidently and humbly and join the others for a profitable discussion of the Genesis stories on their own terms. I trust you’ve been able to do that in your group.

Why do you take up Paul’s letters in a different order?

You say at the start of your study guides that they won’t jump around in the Bible. But your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters begins in First and Second Thessalonians, then jumps back to First and Second Corinthians and Galatians, and then jumps even farther back to Romans.  What’s going on?

The guide to Paul’s Journey Letters takes up his first six letters, the ones he wrote while on his missionary journeys, in the order in which he likely wrote them. This allows groups to understand these letters within the course of Paul’s life and journeys and to appreciate how they express the development of his thought.

In traditional Bibles, Paul’s letters are placed in order of length, from longest to shortest. This makes it difficult to catch the flow from one letter to another as Paul travels from place to place and interacts with different communities of Jesus’ followers.

Someone once told me that they’d been to seminary and taken a New Testament background course, but they still didn’t “get” Paul until they read his letters in The Books of the Bible, where they’re placed in the same chronological order as in this study guide. (The just-published guide in this series to Paul’s Prison Letters takes up the rest of his letters in chronological order.)

If we’re used to the traditional order of the books of the Bible, we may indeed feel that we’re jumping around when we move “backwards” from Thessalonians to Corinthians and Galatians to Romans. But it’s important to realize that a fixed order of the books of the Bible is a relatively recent phenomenon. The order we know dates to the advent of printing a little before 1500. Prior to that, the books of the Old and New Testaments appeared in a great variety of orders.  (You can read more about this in chapter 2 of my book After Chapters and Verses.)

So we’re really not locked into any particular order and can use other orders to reach important goals. Reading and discussing Paul’s letters in the order he wrote them expresses respect for the way the word of God came to us in place and time as God inspired the Scriptures. It helps us appreciate how these God-breathed documents took form amidst the real-life experiences of flesh-and-blood people.

So even if this guide takes you through Paul’s letters in an order you’re not used to, let the newness of that experience help you develop a fresh appreciation for this man of God who became a powerful instrument to bring us the word of God.