Can You Trust the Bible? Digging Deeper into the Word Studying the Bible

Sense in the Serpent

I am quite interested in the work of those who investigate the details of the Genesis creation stories along scientific lines. I wholly support any honest study of the possibilities of things like a global flood, genetic analysis to see if man really does trace its origins back to a single pair, or even questioning whether or not there is some evidence that serpents used to have legs. I do not believe, however, that these studies hold the keys to understanding Genesis.

If you want to understand the theological messaging of Genesis, you have to read it like a pagan. That is to say that Genesis was written within the context of the global dominance of the pagan worldview and was intended as a help for those struggling to understand and embrace the biblical worldview under the great pressure of that pagan dominance. Stories of creation that sustained the pagan perception of god, man, and reality populated the imaginations of every society, and Genesis is constructed to preach the truth about God, man, and reality in intentional opposition to those stories. Genesis is about the true origin and nature of the Divine order. It reveals how the world was made to function so that man could learn how to function best within it.

Let me illustrate by talking about the context for reading about the serpent in Genesis 3.

Only a child imagines that Genesis 3 is some etiological tale about why women don’t like snakes or why snakes have no legs. Given the role of the serpent dragons in so many Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts one would be foolish not to believe that there is a connection between it and them. Indeed, many Scriptures show a keen awareness of these ancient serpent dragon stories. Authors cast enemies in their image, and link the serpent figure with Satan Himself.

My doctoral dissertation demanded extensive contrasts and comparisons between pagan and biblical creation stories and flood stories. We learn much about the pagan view of gods, man, and reality from reading their myths, and discover just how radical the biblical worldview was to them when they encountered it. So, if I were a pagan reading Genesis, let me tell you how it would strike me, and what I would intuit most from the story of the fall of man and the serpent.

In Genesis, the entire nature of Yahweh is radically different from pagan conceptions of God. Rather than being untrustworthy, powerful but highly limited, self-absorbed, fickle, super-being bound to the created order that was established by someone else wholly unknown and unknowable… i.e. a pagan deity… Yahweh is the One Holy Creator of all. He is omnipotent, omniscient, all-wise, eternal, immutable, omnipresent, transcendent but immanent.  Yahweh is positively disposed to his creation as a loving and good Creator, can be trusted and personally known, and is the very source of all morals and ethics. All creatures spiritual and material are heading for a trial before the judgment seat of Yahweh to answer for their actions in Yahweh’s world toward Yahweh and Yahweh’s creations.

In Genesis, the entire nature of man is radically different from pagan conceptions of man. Rather than being created as a barely tolerable slave of the gods, kept in check by suffering to keep him from proliferating and adding to his general annoyance of the pagan gods… rather than being on his own to work out his destiny for himself by manipulating pagan gods through ritual to achieve his own ends without any dependable moral or ethical guidance from the gods… in Genesis Man is Yahweh’s highest creation. Man was made to be filled with Yahweh’s Holy Spirit as His ruling and reigning image in the world. Man is given a mission and a blessing and declared with all the rest of Yahweh’s beloved creation, to be very good.

In Genesis, the entire nature of reality is different from pagan conceptions of it. Rather than being a random compilation of conflicting pagan gods who are the cosmic forces of the world cycling endlessly and purposely… the world of Yahweh had an intentional beginning and is driving toward an intentional end. In Genesis, nature is a body of material forces wholly subjected to the order of Yahweh and without personal volition. The wisdom of Yahweh is woven into the fabric of reality as a system of natural reward and punishment.

As the pagan’s mind reels in the face of such declarations, the role of the serpent appearing late in the creation tale blows his mind. The images of sea and serpent dragon are, in the pagan stories of creation, the very visage of chaos, the amoral destroyer of worlds, the enemy of an active and thriving cosmos. This ruinous force predates the populating cosmos, is at enmity with it, and must be conquered for it to progress. In defeat, the serpent dragon becomes instrumental in the natural world’s establishment as a necessary but ever-threatening part of its foundations.  If something could be said to be “wrong” with the world as the pagans conceived it, it would be the idea that chaos is part of the world’s primary wiring and only man is truly looking out for the interests of man in the cosmic battle against it.

Not so, in Genesis. There, the world is very good. Other portions of Scripture will work the poetic imagery of the sea as a barely controlled enemy, but in the Genesis creation, the sea is just one more purely material force among many. The waters of the deep divide at command, above from below, seas from land, just as the darkness flees the light, and the waters and land team when God demands that they do so.

World trouble is born in Genesis 3, not Genesis 1 or 2. The serpent comes as an enemy to entice the man and woman into rebellion against God. As regents over God’s world, the creation is cursed by their sin and not by the presence of the serpent, malicious as he is. The source of world evil, of world chaos, is found not in the sea, serpent, or Satan, but in the rebellious heart of man himself. Satan may tempt and lure, seduce and deceive, but it is man’s own selfish heart that spawns evil in the world. The fault of man is not his failure to create the right kinds of systems, cultures, laws, or institutions, but the fact that none of these are immune to the influence of his corrupt heart. Satan may seek our ruin, but man’s greatest enemy is himself.

You can debate the literalness of the snake and look for scientific evidence of his curse in his namesakes, but I want to understand his role in the creation story, the meaning and influence of his words, and the impact that he had on bringing human evil into God’s good world, and how we, the children of Adam and Eve can find stability, restoration, and redemption in the world that we, and not he, ruined.


1 A global flood is not necessary in the Hebrew reading of Genesis 6-8. In fact, evidence, as I’ve seen it, points more strongly toward a massive regional flood in the Black Sea area, though some have brought forth some interesting data in support of the other.
2 Some wonderful claims of this have come forth of late by those looking at DNA records, as well as genetic evidence for a spontaneous explosion of species around the same time mere tens of thousands of years ago.
3 These serpents are usually the visual double of the primordial sea, the great enemy of creation. Leviathan shows up in Job 41, Psalms 74 and 104, and Isaiah 27. Rahab shows up in Job 9, Psalm 87, and Isaiah 30. Labu appears without name in Ezekiel 29.  We have great adversaries rising as beasts from the sea in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13. There are more.
4 Revelation 12 and 20.
5 i.e. standing outside the created order, but wholly present in its operation, flow, and purpose, making Himself known to His creatures.

Church Development Digging Deeper into the Word

Digging Deeper: The Character of Barnabas

Author: Mithun Borde & Andrew Sargent, PhD, Contributing Authors for Foundations by ICM


Question: How do you think the newly formed church thrived in the face of persecution and prospered spiritually in spite of the martyrdom of Stephen and James?

First Answer: The Twelve Apostles were leading the church through the power of the Holy Spirit as an effective witness to the Jewish community concerning Jesus Christ.

Second Answer: God used this persecution to forcibly expand their efforts beyond Jerusalem to include even the gentiles themselves. Just as the power of the Spirit led on Pentecost, He continued to empower a new crop of leaders for this global expansion… men like Barnabas, who plays a special role in the gentile church and in the lives of men like Paul and John Mark.

We first meet Barnabas in Acts 4:36 when a supernatural manifestation of love moves some in the new community of faith to sell land to provide the material sustenance for needy believers.  Joseph, whom the Apostles have nicked-named “Barnabas.” (Which Acts 4:36 interprets as “Son of Encouragement) is one of them. Being from Cyprus, many have suggested that this signals a severing of ties with his old life there, and his full commitment to the new community of Faith in Jerusalem.

We learn several things about Barnabas in Scripture. It is interesting to note that his revealed character sets Barnabas out as the exact opposite of the description of the sinners condemned in Revelation 21:8. For fun, we’d like to present those characteristics using the man’s English name as an acrostic.

  • B – Bold, not coward
  • A – Authentic, not unbelieving
  • R – Righteous, not immoral
  • N – Noble, not an idolater
  • A – Admirable, not abominable/detestable
  • B – Believable, not a liar
  • A – Appreciative of the things of the Spirit resisting sorcerers
  • S – Sufferer, not a murderer

B – Bold, not coward

Barnabas was not just bold to speak the word of God but was also brave to give Saul, the Christian killer, a chance when others fled him. In Acts 9:19-25, Saul proves a powerful advocate for Christ in Damascus, winning disciples. In Jerusalem, however, he is shunned until Barnabas risks his very life to embrace him.

A – Authentic, not unbelieving

Barnabas is a faithful man, full of the Holy Spirit. When he witnesses God’s grace in gentile Antioch, he rejoices & encourages them to remain true to Jesus. Seeking their betterment rather than his own glory, Barnabas brings Saul to them. The ministry prospers greatly. (Acts 11:25–26). It is the authentic minister of Christ who lives out John 3:30, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

R – Righteous, not immoral

The Greek word translated as immoral in Revelation 21:8 is derived from a base word that means to sell one’s self… prostitution. It speaks of the unwillingness of most for sexual restraint. Barnabas, however, is a prophet and teacher, a trustworthy man granted authority to collect and deliver large sums of money to sustain the believers in Jerusalem. (Acts 11:29-30). He is trusted as a righteous man who will not succumb to his passions and misappropriate their charitable gifts.

N – Noble, not an idolater

Barnabas has a noble character. He works to support himself in the ministry, just as Paul does, rather than bring the gospel into disrepute among those who are suspicious of their motives. Barnabas’ generosity in giving the proceeds from his land sale also heralds noble character. He strikes a contrasting figure with Ananias & Sapphira, whose greed leaves them unable to part with all the money from their own sale, after boasting that they had. (Acts 5:1-11). Greed is one form of idolatry, and Barnabas resists the common temptation to make a god out of money.

A – Admirable, not abominable/detestable

Barnabas is admirable. He is admired by the Apostles who call him Barnabas and by the Holy Spirit who choses him for missionary service along with Saul, also called Paul. (Acts 13:1-7). Although this mission is labeled Paul’s first missionary journey, Barnabas plays a leading role. When the time comes, Paul moves to the front without a fight for control by Barnabas. He recognizes Paul’s gifts and is happy to see them well-employed for the benefit of believers everywhere.

Here he stands in stark contrast to the detestable leaders of so many Synagogues whose greed (Luke 16:14-15) and jealousy (Acts 5:17 & 13:45) render them abominations before the Lord.

B – Believable, not a liar

The church at Jerusalem entrusts Barnabas’ witness concerning the grace of God in Antioch (Acts 11:22-23; 15:12). When the crowds at Lystra call Barnabas, Zeus (Jupiter—the supreme god), & Paul, Hermes (Mercury—the messenger of the gods & spokesman of Zeus), they restrain them from offering sacrifice to them. Barnabas doesn’t exploit this lie, even when the Jews from Antioch & Iconium coax these very crowds into stoning Paul. (Acts 14:8-20).

A – Appreciative of the things of the Spirit resisting sorcerers

Barnabas is full of the Holy Spirit and manifests the right kind of respect and humility in appreciation of the grace shown to the gifted. It is all about Christ, not himself. (Acts 11:23-24).

Thus, when arriving in his home region, Cyprus (Acts 13), Barnabas stands with Paul against the Jewish sorcerer and false prophet Bar-Jesus, just as Peter stood against the selfish wiles of Simon the Samaritan sorcerer in Acts 8.

When Barnabas witnesses the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon Paul, he appreciates that gifting and allows Paul to assume leadership in their work. (Acts 13:1-13). Acts 13 shows a swift transition of responsibility changing up the phrase Barnabas and Saul (v. 2,7) to Paul and his companions (v.13) to Paul and Barnabas (v.42,50).

S – Sufferer, not a murderer

Both John and Jesus saw the heart of murder in the violent self-interest of those who give way to hate for others. (Matthew 5:22; 1 John 3:15) Barnabas, however, shows again and again that he is an encourager of others, rather than a self-interested brawler. He lives to see others promoted, even if, by the gracious gifts of God, they are promoted ahead of himself. He sees the good in others and stands for them even when it costs him personally… like the time he stood against Paul himself on behalf of John Mark when that young man fails in ministry.

Barnabas influences both Paul and John Mark at crucial points in their spiritual lives, and thus, though superseded by both, has a share in their inspired writings. That which makes men murderers has no foothold in Barnabas’ soul.


We need leaders like Barnabas in our churches. We need leaders who are selfless and act honestly without any ulterior motives. We need leaders who are faithful, staying true to who they are in Christ, and focused primarily on keeping others close to Christ, rather than seeking to become the object of hero worship. Behind every Paul, there is a Barnabas, and we need a Barnabas in every local church. Those whose aim is not competition for prominence but only a deep desire to hear the Lord say to them, “Well done.”

All Church Development Digging Deeper into the Word

Digging Deeper: The First Church in Acts 2

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


I love discovering deeper layers of meaning in books and movies than stand out on the surface. I get excited when, having read or watched something on one level, I discover upon further personal meditation or discussion with others the true profundity of the work. Of the many things I love about Scripture, one is its ability to prove deeper in intention than my ever-expanding mind and heart can fathom.

In this vein, let me say that Acts 2 is a wonder of Old Testament quotation and allusion. Its subtlety in drawing in the full theological weight of Israel’s sacred writings and weaving the Pentecost event into Israel’s sacred history is, to wildly understate it, masterful. Though a thousand pages could scarce unpack the whole, here, I’d like to provide just a nibble on the role given to the hopes of Isaiah 59 in the Pentecost narrative.

From Corrupt Society to Spirit-Filled Community

Isaiah 59 begins with a diatribe of the general corruption of human society and man’s ability to escape his own depravity enough to create a thriving world. This plagues both Israelites and Gentiles and plays a role in Paul’s own summary of world corruption in Romans 3. In verse 16, Yahweh determines to bring both justice and salvation. He promises to come to man Himself and plant a redeemed, Spirit-transformed community in the world. His coming is described in verse 19 as a fear-inducing, glorious, “rushing stream” driven on by the Spirit of Yahweh. This Spirit is both upon them and in them overflowing in prophetic speech as spirit-filled families and communities continue expanding in the world.

In Acts 2, the story does not begin with neutrality, but with darkness, with a murdered messiah. The people and religious leaders and Gentiles preyed on Him for His righteousness and continue to reject Him through His followers. Into this comes the Spirit of God, sounding like a mighty rushing wind, with holy fire upon them and divine speech flowing from them. They rush into the streets where those hearing the sound witness the wonder of their emergence from the upper room.


On this day of Pentecost—the historic celebration of the coming of Torah, the creation of Israel, the mighty works of God, and the sending of David—the witnesses hear the disciples of Jesus declaring the mighty works of God to the gathered Jewish representatives of the nations. Peter stands up and delivers a Spirit-inspired message about the resurrection of the rejected son of David and calls upon those under the Spirit’s conviction to repent and cry out to God. In addition to several other allusions to Isaiah 59 already noted, Peter follows his call for repentance with a composite of Isaiah 59:21, Isaiah 57:19,  and Joel 2:38 in Acts 2:39.

He says,  “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Thousands respond and join these believers in the creation of the Church of Jesus, who is the Christ.

This is not the end, however. The crescendo of Acts 2 is not with coming power or prophetic speech. It is not with inspired preaching, apologetics, or evangelism. It is not with a massive altar call or swelling church numbers. The crescendo of Acts 2 is found in Acts 2:41-47 in the establishment of a community of love and devotion that stands out as a miraculous light in the great human darkness around it.

Community summaries like the one in Acts 2 play an important role in the unfolding of Acts.

The First Church

We have an early depiction of the 11 with their followers—in one accord, devoted to prayer… both men and women, Jesus’ family— in Acts 1:14. We see the filling up of the Apostle’s ranks in 1:15-26, a typological restoration of Israel.

3000 are added at Pentecost (2:41), who are devoted to the Apostle’s teaching, fellowship, eating together and prayer, experiencing signs and wonders with divine fear, sharing with each other freely, worshiping in the temple, well received by the community and growing daily in number (2:42-47).

At the end of 4:4, another 5000 are added over the incident with the lame man. We hear of the oneness of the community in sharing all things (while defending property rights which are an important social foundation throughout Scripture). We hear of the power at work among them as they preached in 4:32-37.

Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead by God causing great fear in the community as signs and wonders continue. They continue as one. Many men and women are added, but others, while admiring keep their distance. (5:11-14) In 5:42, they meet daily in the temple and from house to house.

Growth of the Spirit-Led Community

With Paul’s conversion, the church enters a period of Peace throughout Judea and Galilee, and Samaria, being built up, fearing God and finding comfort in the Holy Spirit. They multiplied. (9:31) After Peter speaks to Gentiles who come to faith, some of those scattered begin to speak to Gentiles as well, and a great number turn to the Lord. (11:21) In 11:24, “a great many are added.” In 12:24, “the word of God increased and multiplied.

Paul and Barnabas have Isaiah’s Servant mission proclaimed over them in 13:43-49 as they turn away from the Synagogue in Perga to the Gentiles there saying, “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed,” (13:48) and  “the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.” (13:49)  In 16:5, “they increased in number greatly.” In 19:20, the word prevails and increases greatly. Throughout, we find prayer 21x, worship 7x, fellowship, and breaking bread 5x.

This depiction stands in constant contrast with the darkness around them. Isaiah 42 is quoted over Paul and Barnabas in 13:47. Thus, the context of the church’s light is the darkness of the Jews & Gentiles, lowly & Great.

The Beauty of the Mundane

What does all this mean to us?

While anecdotal, my experience in schools and churches has convinced me that, like the Corinthian community, many have a tendency to measure spirituality by “spiritual” looking manifestations (the weirder the better) and to ignore the more meaningful measure of the fruit of the Spirit in community.

The idea that the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 climaxes in the uncommon “mundane” should be a check for us. Heavenly signs, fire, tongues, exuberance, bold proclamation, miracles, and massive “altar-calls,” find their intentional end in a community of devotion to God and to each other. We are excited by and eagerly seek Acts 2:2-41, but pause little over our failure to produce Acts 2:42-47.

Many others have given up the whole paradigm, contenting themselves with little more than a doctrinal reflection on the transforming power of the Spirit in life and community. Don’t be one of them. Cry out to God for His transforming power in your life and the social and societal fruit that it should bring.

All Spiritual Development Studying the Bible

Did Jesus Claim to be God?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I’ve seen the faith of more than a few ministry students over the years crumble in the face of easily addressed “difficulties.” One such issue involves the deity of Jesus. More than a few times, students have come to me shaken to their core when they realize (usually because some atheist or agnostic biblical scholar mocks the Church over the matter) that “Jesus never claims to be God, and that the New Testament writers never declare Jesus to be God,”

Now you can ask yourself, “Is that true? Did Jesus never claim to be God? Did the New Testament Writers (other than John) never claim the deity of Jesus?”

Short answer: No, it is not true. There are other New Testament writers who make such claims.

Long answer: It depends on what you will accept as declarations of deity. Let’s look at a few examples.

A Trained Eye

If one is waiting for Jesus to jump on a table and shout to passing crowds, “Hey! Look at Me! I’m Incarnate deity!!!” then no, that never happens. If one is demanding that narratives and epistles be systematic theology texts that take the reader step by step through a categorical discussion on the enumerated doctrines of true believers, then, again, no, that never happens.

If, however, one allows the New Testament writers to be artful narrators and the Epistles artful addresses to church issues, then yes, the Scriptures do declare Jesus to be incarnate deity… and they do so quite clearly by Ancient Near Eastern standards. The problem is that modern eyes are often too poorly trained to observe it.

Always keep one carefully focused eye on the Old Testament when reading anything in the New Testament.

Jesus and Jonah

One important way for biblical storytellers to declare the deity of Jesus is to cast Jesus in the role of Yahweh from significant Old Testament passages. For example, in Mark 4:35-41, the author tells the story of the calming of the storm with clear allusions to the story of Jonah. The key to Mark’s telling is that Jesus plays the role of both Jonah, the sleeping prophet, and God, who controls the elements of nature and strikes more fear into the hearts of the sailors through His power to calm the raging sea, than the sea itself causes in all its raging.

Mark actually quotes bits of Jonah 1:6 from the Greek—Where the captain says to the sleeping prophet “Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” Mark has the disciples call out to Jesus Himself, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

Mark also strongly alludes to the work of Yahweh in the sea storm passage of Psalm 107, when Jesus speaks to Mark’s storm. In verse 29 we find, “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” In Jesus, Mark 4 presents “the deeds of Yahweh, his wondrous works in the deep.” (Psalm 107:24) Jesus is declared incarnate Yahweh, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9)

You Will Be My Witnesses…

Acts 1 presents us with yet another incident of such character.

Each gospel ends with some version of the Great Commission, including Luke, which says in 24:45-49, “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” After this Jesus ascends into heaven.

Acts, though written by the same author, begins with a varied retelling of this scene. In 1:8, we read, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This idea of witness is a recurring theme in Acts. The term itself shows up 16 times in reference to being witness for Christ, once directly declaring the sending of the Holy Spirit as God’s witness of Christ.

Witnesses of Yahweh

Three times in the Book of Isaiah Yahweh says to the Servant and to His community of restored Israel, “You are my witnesses.

In Isaiah 43:10, after challenging the pagan nations to provide witness for the power of their gods (something they cannot do), Yahweh boasts of the witness that His people can bear of His prophetic word fulfilled in their lives. He declares, “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.” Yahweh follows saying, “I, I am the LORD, and besides me, there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed when there was no strange god among you, and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God.

In Isaiah 44:8, Yahweh addresses those who have experienced the power of the living God, He who redeems, who promises and predicts, and who brings it to pass. He says to them, “…you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.

The servant who has come to restore Israel is called “witness” again in Isaiah 55:4-5. “Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Witnesses of Christ

Four times in the Book of Isaiah, Yahweh calls the Servant His witness. Three times, He includes those bound to the servant saying of them, “You are my witnesses.” In Acts 1:8, Jesus is both Servant (Jesus) and Incarnate Yahweh addressing the community of witnesses who are sent to tell of the fulfilled promises of salvation come to men by Yahweh’s hand working in His Servant.

Jesus intentionally uses the language of Isaiah, referring to witnesses of Yahweh, to refer to himself. Any ancient reader would have understood the connection and implication. Jesus was making himself equal to Yahweh. These are only a couple among many examples of similar declarations.

Remember: always keep one carefully focused eye on the Old Testament when reading ANYTHING in the New Testament.

All Church Development Spiritual Development

Guest Blog: 5 Tips for Finding a Bible Study

Author: Kayla Hyatt, Guest Author Ministry Assistant Services


A Bible study is an excellent place to start if you’ve wanted to dive deeper into Scripture but don’t know how to get started, or if you’ve been studying a specific topic or book of the Bible but want more information or a different perspective. Finding a Bible study that is a perfect fit for you can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are five tips to help you get started.

1. Pray

Sometimes we want to plug a topic that we are interested in into our search engine and go from there, but the best place to start is always with prayer. Ask the Lord if there is something He wants you to research or learn in this season. Maybe it’s a topic or a specific book of the Bible that He wants you to focus your attention on. Perhaps He has already laid a topic on your heart that you have been thinking about for a while. Trust that the Holy Spirit will guide you in the right direction. I always ask the Lord to help me find the right study for what He wants to teach me. I also ask the Lord to open my ears and heart to His Word.

2. Decide what version suits you.

You know what way you learn and focus best. Sometimes the best Bible study is a book you can read at your own pace and highlight along the way. Another option is a Bible study that is video-based. Video-based studies are a great resource if you are an auditory learner. Video studies usually come in six to eight weekly sessions and coincide with a daily workbook. This is great if you have a lot of time on your hands or are trying to cultivate the habit of daily study in the Word. Another great option is a podcast. While finding time to sit down and focus all your attention on the Word can be so beneficial, sometimes we want or need something on the go. It should never be the only time you spend with Jesus, but it is great to listen on your commute to work, when you’re taking your kids to school, on the run, and traveling. There are some great Bible teachers on podcasts, so if that’s for you, download the app and get listening. 

3. Find Someone In The Know

Now that you’ve prayed and hopefully know your topic or book of the Bible you want to look at and know what version suits you, it’s time to find someone in the know. That person may very well be you! If you have a favorite Bible teacher or author, see if they have a book or Bible study in the area you want to learn about. If they do, that might be a good place to start. If you’re new to the Bible study world or can’t find what you’re looking for in your area of study, I highly suggest going to your local Christian bookstore and asking them if they have any recommendations. They do this all the time and will have some ideas for you. While you’re there, you can also browse. Sometimes the Lord leads us to the exact thing we need.

4. Talk to your Pastor

Maybe by now, you’ve already found the perfect study for you. If you’re still having trouble, your pastor can be a great resource. Ask him if he has any Bible study recommendations. The great thing is he probably has some on hand, and if he knows you well, he might already know the perfect one for you. Your pastor is hopefully reading and studying the Bible a lot of the time, so he will be an excellent resource for you. 

5. Gather your Friends

While having an independent relationship with the Lord is essential, the Lord does not call us to live life alone. Talk to your friends and see if they are doing a Bible study already and if they would want to do one together. This is a great way to stay fresh in the Word and have accountability while reading. You can decide together to meet, read the book, watch the video together, and then discuss what you’re learning and what the Lord may be saying to you. This also keeps things fresh and fun and is something you can look forward to every week (or however often you choose to meet). 


When in doubt, the best thing you can do is go straight to the source. Invest in a study Bible or find a free one online and read directly from the Word. Bible studies can be great resources, but they are no replacement for the Word of God and how the Holy Spirit speaks to us through it. So, if finding a Bible study has been difficult, maybe the best thing to do in this season is read straight from the Word.

I pray this article is a helpful resource for you because the joy found in knowing God and His Word is incomparable to any earthly joy we could have.

All Spiritual Development Studying the Bible

Guest Blog: How (and Why) to Memorize Bible Verses

Author: Kayla Hyatt, Guest Author Ministry Assistant Services


It is a great kindness that God has given us His word to read, study, and memorize. His Word has the power to transform us to be more like Jesus, and whether you are a new Christian or have been following Jesus for a long time, it’s always a good idea to bury Scripture in your heart.

Memorizing Scripture appears early in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 11:18 says, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul…” From the beginning, God wanted His people to know what He had spoken. Even when The Law was written on stone tablets, God’s preference was always that His Word would be written on the hearts of His people. We have been given access to God’s living and active Word, and we know that it pleases Him to do so, so let’s commit it to memory.

What happens when we memorize Scripture?

Matthew 4:1-11 is an excellent example of the power of Scripture and why we should take the time to memorize it. In this passage, Jesus had been fasting for 40 days and nights and was understandably hungry. Matthew 4:3-4 tells us, “The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. ” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Twice more, the enemy tempted Jesus, and each time, Jesus responded with, “it is written…” and quoted Scripture! After the third time, Matthew tells us that the devil left.

We fight against the enemy and run from sin.

Just like Jesus in Matthew 4, we are tempted at times. To combat the enemy’s schemes, Ephesians 6:17 tells us we should carry “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…” The Word of God is a sword we can use to stand firm and fight against the enemy when he tempts us with lies and half-truths to lead us to sin. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” The antidote for sin is knowing the Word and storing it in our hearts. The more we know God’s Word, the more we know what pleases Him (and what doesn’t). It doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes, but we will be heading in the right direction.

We are encouraged, and we share it.

Another reason to memorize Scripture is that it is incredibly comforting. Have you ever gone through a season in life that was less than stellar? Maybe you’ve suffered the loss of a job or a loved one. Perhaps you’re in that season right now. Whatever you’re going through, there is a wealth of encouragement in the Bible for you and your situation. When you’re at a loss for what to do, you can whisper (or scream) Psalm 121:1-2 I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” There is something powerful about reminding our souls that the God who made heaven and earth is our helper! And when we know Scripture like that, the Holy Spirit reminds us to share it in conversations when our friends, family, and even strangers need to hear it.

That’s just the beginning of what can happen when we hide Scripture in our hearts. If you’re ready to get started committing Scripture to memory, here are a few easy ways to get started:

Pick your passage.

The best place to start is to decide what verse(s) you want to memorize. It might be a verse about something you are struggling with or something you want to work on. It also might be a verse that you find particularly comforting. If you don’t know where to start, my favorite place to look is the Psalms. There is so much encouragement packed in there!

Read, Write and Listen.

Once you’ve picked your verse (or verses), study the passage surrounding it. Context is so important when it comes to remembering and applying Scripture to your daily life. Read the entire chapter your verse(s) are found in, and maybe a chapter before and after. When you have a feel for the context, focus on reading your verse out loud. Over and over. The trifecta of seeing it with your eyes, saying it with your mouth, and hearing it makes memorizing so much easier. Once you’ve done that a few times, write it down. And then write it again. This is another great way to hide Scripture in your heart, especially if you learn by doing. Writing it down with colorful pens or markers can also be helpful! Finally, listen to it by recording it or using a Bible app with a reading feature. You can listen while doing other things, so take advantage of your commute, the time you spend doing chores, etc.

Sing it.

You might remember learning things in school by singing songs. That is because it is one of the ways our brain memorizes new information quickly. And don’t worry; being a great singer is not a prerequisite! Pick a verse or two (the Psalms are especially great for this strategy because they were written to be sung) and sing it! You can make up your own melody or borrow a tune you already know. Keep singing it, and soon, you’ll know that verse by heart!

Word games.

If singing really isn’t your thing, you can use word games to memorize Scripture. The first game you can try is reading your verse while covering a word and filling it in by memory. Each time you read the verse, cover an additional word until you know the entire thing. Another strategy is using the first letter of each word as a reminder of what the verse says, almost like an acronym. For example, Psalm 23:1 says, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” The way you would write this is “TLIMSISNW.” Read over your acronym as an aid for memorizing your verse!

Post it and pray it.

After some practice, your verse(s) should be committed to memory. The challenge now is to not forget it, and practice makes permanent! I love to add reminders in places I look often. You can write Scripture on sticky notes and stick them on your mirrors, kitchen window, or car dash. You’ll know where you’ll see it most, so write it out (again) and post it! Then, whenever you see it, pray through that verse. Ask the Lord to help you continue to remember it, and ask Him to bring it to mind when you need it most.

Hopefully, memorizing Scripture doesn’t seem like such a daunting task anymore. I pray these tips are helpful and you find the joy of hiding the Living Word in your heart. It is one of the best life-long habits you can cultivate, and there’s no better time to start than right now!


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All Digging Deeper into the Word Studying the Bible

Digging Deeper: The Pharisees

Author: Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


Jesus likely had more clashes with one group of people than any other in the gospels: the Pharisees. There are many dramatic episodes, and on a particular occasion, Jesus, frustrated with some of the Pharisees, exclaimed to them, “You hypocrites! You snakes! You brood of vipers!” (paraphrase of Mt. 23:29-33). Clearly, Jesus had some objections to the Pharisees, what was the problem specifically?

Who Were the Pharisees?

Before we talk about Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees, let’s first look at who the Pharisees really were. If we don’t read the Bible carefully, it’s easy to get the impression that the Pharisees were all bad, all the time. But that is not what the Bible really says. Some Pharisees are portrayed in a neutral way, like Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house and listened to Jesus’s teaching, even if he initially misunderstood Jesus’s approach to the woman who barged into wash Jesus’s feet (cf. Luke 7:36-50). Some are even portrayed positively, like Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who sought Jesus out to ask him questions and, evidently, finally believed in Jesus (cf. John 19:39-42).

The Pharisees were a group that started at least 100 years before Jesus was born. The Pharisees likely began with good intentions. They wanted to help people follow the Law of God. They were committed to the truth and authority of the whole Old Testament, unlike their counterparts, the Sadducees. Jesus even agreed with the Pharisees on some things, like the resurrection and the existence of life beyond the grave. Likely to help make sure they follow God’s law, the Pharisees firmly upheld the oral tradition of the rabbis as well (later known as the Mishna). This oral tradition gave additional rules that were, at least in theory, easier to follow than the Law. One could be sure she wasn’t breaking the Sabbath, for example, if she kept all the Pharisee’s detailed rules about Sabbath keeping. They were apparently popular with the Jewish people as the Pharisees were able to wield great influence in the temple and community, even though the Sadducees held most of the positions of power.

It’s easy for us to think of the Pharisees as a caricature, as a mustache-twirling, cartoon-like villain. We might have a mental picture of them as totally conceited, smug, and willfully blind to the reality of Jesus’s status as the true Messiah. There’s truth to that image, but it’s also an oversimplification. That’s not how the Bible portrays them or what history shows us. The Pharisees are real people, and like real people, they are a mixed bag.

So, most likely the Pharisees started with the good intentions of keeping the law and honoring God. Some of them, like Nicodemus, still had good intentions. But something seems to have gone seriously awry by the time Jesus encounters them in the gospels. What was the problem with the Pharisees according to Jesus?

The Problems with the Pharisees

The first problem is that the Pharisees eventually forgot the point of God’s law. They sincerely wanted to keep God’s law, at least at first, and so they made more rules to make sure God’s law wasn’t broken. Then, they started to think their own rules were God’s rules. They felt safe and righteous because they could keep the rules they made up.

The Pharisees enforced the law based on technicalities. For example, they argued that if one swore on the altar of the temple, then the oath meant nothing. But if she swore on the gift on the altar, then it counted. Jesus said instead, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37). The point was to honor God by telling the truth. Jesus thought the Pharisaic rules were nonsense and missed the point (Matt. 23:18). They focused on the laws they could keep and ignored the ones that really mattered. Jesus said that they were hyper diligent to give a tenth of their vegetables, but neglected the law of justice, mercy, and forgiveness (Matt. 23:23). That gave them the sense that didn’t really need God’s help or forgiveness. They thought they’d already done everything God had asked.

A second problem with the Pharisees has to do with their self-righteousness. It’s easy to see how someone could become self-righteous if he really started to believe that he was doing everything God told him to do. If he believes God wholeheartedly approves of his actions, then why shouldn’t he be the judge over everyone else? The Pharisees had replaced God’s standard with their own. They measured righteousness, of themselves and others, by how well their invented rules were followed. That was something they could do on their own, without God’s help.

Though these rules may have been written with good intentions, they became burdensome. Some of the Pharisees made following the law of God equivalent to complying with a complex, arbitrary system. The result was that, according to Jesus, the Pharisees tied up heavy loads for everyone else, but refused to lift a finger themselves (cf. Matt. 23:4). These Pharisees were righteous in their own eyes because they kept their own rules. But in God’s eyes, they needed grace and forgiveness, just like everyone else. Therefore, when Jesus encountered the Pharisees, he encountered a group that implicitly thought that they didn’t need God. They’d convinced themselves that they had no need to repent and no need for God’s grace.

Jesus’s Solution

What Jesus taught runs in deep opposition to the view of these Pharisees. God does not care about technicalities. Jesus said that the whole law can be summed up in two commands: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-40).

If we are being honest, we know by our own experience two things. First, we have not done what God commands. Second, we cannot do what God commands. So, we are in desperate need of not only God’s forgiveness, but his grace to do what is right. This is what the Pharisees missed and what vexed Jesus so deeply in his confrontations with them.

We can learn from the mistakes of these Pharisees. Certainly, we should not be self-righteous. We should recognize our own deep, constant need for God’s forgiveness and his grace. But we can also see that our good intentions will not suffice. It’s like a dad told his five-year-old son, “I want you to build a house for our family.” The father knows his son can’t do it on his own. The father wants the son to ask for his help. But the son sincerely wants to do what his father asks, so he builds a house out of blocks and decides he’s done what his father asked. The son has good intentions, but he’s missed the point. He’s built the wrong thing and in the wrong way. To please God, we must do what he asks the way he asks us to do it. That means we need God’s help.

All Digging Deeper into the Word Studying the Bible

Digging Deeper: Moses and the Burning Bush

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


The Ordeal of the Burning Bush

The story of Moses and the burning bush is much more than a simple children’s story. In its Ancient Near Eastern context, Moses’ encounter with Yahweh has as many facets as my wife’s engagement ring. We could consider what we learn about Moses personally in his willingness to play the shepherd. We could consider the theophany, the fire itself, the word-play in “bush,” foreshadowing Sinai, and more.

Another facet, one I’d like to discuss today, is understanding that the burning bush is an ordeal symbol.

A Flame of Fire

Though pyros are most dazzled by the idea of finding something on fire, the wonder capturing Moses’ attention was the fact that the bush was not burning up. Flash fires in dry grass and isolated bush consume quickly, but this thing just kept burning. Exodus 3:2-3 says, “And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”

Now, ordeal speaks to the experience of encountering death and being divinely spared. Fire that doesn’t burn, lions that don’t maul, waters that don’t drown, etc.


In various pagan law systems, you were not innocent until proven guilty, you were guilty until proven innocent. A neighbor could accuse you of doing witchcraft without any evidence, and you could be made to face an ordeal. They might tie you up and throw you into the river—river ordeal—and if you drown… well…. that proves it. Your neighbor is given your entire estate as compensation. If you live, however, your accuser is executed for making a false accusation against you and you get his estate.

Daniel escapes the lion’s den, while those who accused him are then devoured by the same lions. Daniel’s friends are thrown into the furnace and only their ropes burn up… oh, except the men throwing them into the fire. We have Israel passing through the Red Sea, and again later through the Jordon in flood time. When the Egyptian army follows Israel into the Red Sea, Yahweh drowns them. Jonah too is cast into the deep and describes his inevitable death closing in on him, when suddenly Yahweh sends the great fish and saves him.

We even have people actually dying and being brought back. Elijah raises the widow’s son, Elisha sees two people raised, Jesus raises the 12-year-old girl, Lazarus, and the widow’s son at Nain. He also raises himself. Peter raises up Tabitha, Paul raises the man who fell from the window, and was himself possibly raised up after being stoned. God has spoken. God has delivered.

We could cast our nets wider and consider scenes of war, where each warrior casts himself into the maw of death seeking divine salvation in the fight. These are called contest ordeals in which the gods choose one over the other. David vs. Goliath is Yahweh choosing David as His champion for the people. Korah’s rebellion ends with both Moses and Korah’s people stepping into the presence of the Lord. Moses lives and Korah’s ilk perish in the fire as the earth swallows them up. We see something similar when death is not on the line, directly. Those who challenge Aaron’s priesthood put their staves in the presence of the Lord. Yahweh gives life to the staff of His elect.

Surviving an ordeal is a sign of innocence, divine acceptance, and divine election.

Of course, Korah’s rebellion and Aaron’s staff introduce another common, but often unrecognized form of ordeal… entering into the presence of the Holy Creator.

A Consuming Fire

It is a common notion, overtly stated in Exodus 33:20 that the unveiled presence of God is lethal to humans, even a peek at the fading afterburn of God revealed left Moses so altered that he had to veil his face to keep from terrifying the people. Psalm 97 paints quite a picture of unveiled God saying in verse 3, “Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries all around,” and in verse 5, “The mountains melt like wax before the LORD.” Hebrews 12:28-29 declares, “thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Entrance into the presence of the holy is an ordeal, for death is on the line. It is not unlike the incident in Esther. Anyone entering unbidden into the presence of the Persian king is executed on the spot unless the king extends his scepter. Even so, Esther risks it all to make an appeal for her doomed people. His favor is toward her, however. He extends his scepter. The executioners hold their hands.

God in Glory

This is recurring ritual imagery in Israel’s sanctuaries. God shows Israel how sinful men can dwell in His Holy and consuming presence. For example, God reveals Himself in the glory of His Holiness in the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest can enter once a year to offer atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people. His spared life is the sign of Israel’s forgiveness, acceptance, and election.

Of all the places this forgiveness, acceptance, and election are symbolized, one of the most powerful is in the burning-but-not-consumed bush. It preaches. It is possible by God’s grace to dwell in the presence of a consuming Holy fire and not be burned. Sinful man can find forgiveness and acceptance before the Holy One. God will show Israel the way, and at that moment, in the burning-but-not-consumed bush, He reveals the potential to Moses. In Israel’s sanctuary there will be another burning-but-not-consumed tree… a symbol of Israel, an ever-flaming olive tree, lighting the holy place, ignited by the fire of God and sacred oil… the lampstand.

And how should we respond as we stand with Moses and the Priest before the burning-but-not-consumed tree? Hebrews 12:28-29 gets it right. “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” May our encounter with God in Christ be likewise tinged with wonder, fear, and overwhelmed gratitude for God’s grace and mercy shown to the chief of sinners who dares to come before Him seeking forgiveness, acceptance, and election.


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All Spiritual Development

5 Verses About Trusting God

Author: Jon Slenker, M.A., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


The pillars of Christianity all rest on the foundation of trust in a holy, and supreme God. The titles “Christian” and “Believer” are used synonymously throughout most of the world. C.S. Lewis wrote how trusting in God offers a complete worldview shift, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”1 The author of Hebrews records faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1).” One dictionary defines trust as, “to rely on the truthfulness or accuracy of : BELIEVE; to place confidence in : rely on; to hope or expect confidently.”2

We learn early the harsh realities of living in a world that offers no hope in itself. As we grow, we see the brokenness more clearly and experience the pain of betrayal and the prevalence of evil. Trusting in God is not the only alternative. But as Believers, we trust in God, not man, and his sovereignty as he works in our hearts and reveals himself and his plan through the Holy Scriptures (Psalms 118:8).

The Scriptures are filled with stories of two kinds of people, those who trust God and those who trust in themselves. Adam and Eve trusted God to cover their sin (Gen 3). Abraham trusted God to leave home in pursuit of an undetermined promised land (Gen 12). Moses trusted God to lead his people out of bondage (Exodus 3). David trusted God would protect him and bring justice to evil (Psalm 27). The Prophets trusted God to preach his word with all authority and responsibility (Is 6:8). Jesus modeled for his disciples what trusting himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit looked and felt like. The Apostles and Early Church trusted God would miraculously save, build his Church, return, and restore. 

1. Trust God Loves You

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

Apart from God man can do nothing (John 15:5). We are cut off, separated from God and his perfect, steadfast love. But Jesus modeled what trusting the Father looks like in all perfection and was reliant on him daily because he trusted the Father loved him. Jesus knew his identity in relation to the Father and trusted his Father to be for him, lead him and work through him. Jesus even said that the Son can do nothing apart from the Father and he does only what the Father does (John 5:19). God the Father was God the Son’s refuge and strength while on mission. Jesus proved to his disciples they too can trust the Father. If you are a Believer, you can trust the Father has adopted you and loves and cares for you as his child. This is good news! When you realize who God is, and what he has done, you can trust God loves you. When you can trust God loves you, you can trust him for everything else.

2. Trust God For Salvation

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

Those who trust in God for salvation do so because they trust Jesus was holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens (Hebrews 7:26). As Believers, we can trust God for salvation, not because we are righteous, but because Christ was righteous for us. We have been justified by his, sinless life, atoning death and given new life through his resurrection. It is through God’s work and his Word, the Believer is shaped more into his glorious image (Rom 5:8, 9; 8:9; 10:9). Trust Jesus is the way, the truth and offers new life. 

3. Trust God’s Spirit is Present

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16-17

As those who trust in God, we are to conduct ourselves by the Spirit that brings life, not our sinful flesh that causes separation from God. Our bodies are the new temple of God’s dwelling place (1 Cor 6:19). God’s Spirit convicts and enables us to live out love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Trust God’s Spirit dwells in you and directs your path. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit (Matt 7:18).” God Spirit gives peace and is present and active, always fighting for our highest possible good.

4. Trust God’s Word Revives

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;” Psalm 19:7

Not only are the sacred writings able to make one wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus; but Paul also writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:15-17).” The Word of God revives the soul as we write it on our hearts and meditate on it day and night. Billy Graham said, “If you are ignorant of God’s Word, you will always be ignorant of God’s will.” If we are ignorant of God’s will, which is to revive, reconcile and restore the lost to himself, then we will not experience the freedom and revival God’s Word reveals is available to us.

5. Trust God Will Restore

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4

God has promised to make all things new for those who trust in him. He promises that “new heaven and new earth will be completely free of sin and selfishness—a place of perfect friendship with God, others, and all creation. No more shattering earthquakes, devastating tsunamis, or violent storms will plague the earth. No more pain, broken hearts, sickness, or death to trouble us.”3 What an amazing promise! It seems too good to be true, but when one sees how God has fulfilled his promises from the beginning and experiences that God is mighty to save, we can trust our Sovereign God will complete his mission to restore.






“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author, and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:24

1Lewis, C.S. Is Theology Poetry
4Berean Study Bible

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All Christian History

What is Baptism in the Bible?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


John the Baptist is an important figure in all four gospels. Mark begins with John’s baptisms, Luke with the events of his birth, and John weaves him into the prologue of the incarnation as one sent from God. One thing that the New Testament does NOT begin with, is an explanation of all the things that have radically changed for Israel since turning the last page of the Old Testament. Turn from Malachi 4 to Matthew 1, and it’s a whole new world, filled with Romans, Pharisees, and Zealots. There are Synagogues, Samaritans, and Sadducees. The phrase Sea of Galilee is new, and so are Perea, the Decapolis, and Nazareth. Oral law, the Sanhedrin, and “The Traditions of the Elders” are also new. In the Old Testament, there was no such thing as Baptism.

Old Testament… no baptism.

New Testament… lots of baptisms.

Where did baptism come from? What does baptism mean? How should modern Christians respond to baptism?

Baptism in the Ancient World

To even begin to answer these questions, you have to recognize at least six things about the world of the Old and New Testaments.

First, modern readers rarely understand covenant… even when they think they do. We tend to think of covenant in terms of Abraham, Moses, and David, but actually know little about covenant itself because we develop our thinking about covenant primarily from Scripture. The problem is that Scripture records covenants, but does not explain covenants. Abraham, Moses, and David make covenants with God because covenant was a big deal already in their world and the legal genre called covenant was a powerful vehicle for the kind of faithful bond God seeks with believers. Covenant has a long history and a complexity in practice and principles that Scripture illustrates, but never specifically teaches.

Baptism is one of many ways that Israel develops for making a covenant, i.e. for ratifying a covenant. Covenant ratification is a ritual way of “signing” a “contract” that the Divine will enforce. No contract is worth anything without the right heart to keep it (I am a man of my word!) or the capacity to monitor, the presence to intimidate, and the power to punish.

When you see people eating together, clasping hands, performing circumcisions, exchanging clothes, grasping garment hems, lining a path with chopped-up animals, or making various kinds of public declarations, like, “Brother!” “Father! “I have known you!” “Love!” etc, you are watching ratification acts… covenant-making. There are covenants and covenant language on almost every page of Scripture.

There are lots of things to know about covenant and most of them will apply to baptism.

Second, baptism developed in Israel in the intertestamental period out of Jewish purification rituals like the mikva, as a way of marking the conversion of already circumcised Jewish men into more exclusive Jewish movements, like joining the Essenes. One of these groups performed the rite every morning. Baptism also provided a means of ratifying the conversion of gentile women independent of their husbands when their presence in Israel and Jewish presence among them became more common.

Third, ratification acts almost always involved symbolic death, and/or the symbolic ingestion of death curses.1 The one entering into a covenant stood before his god, and often the god of the one with whom he was making the covenant (One reason to never covenant with pagans) and with either words or actions invited those gods to destroy the one ratifying the covenant IF he or she should prove unfaithful to the covenant’s stipulations and/or their common obligations.

Fourth, water was a powerful death symbol in the ancient world. It is not an accident that the New Testament speaks of baptism in association with Moses passing through the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1ff), Noah passing through the flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), and of both baptism and Jonah’s descent into the abyss with Jesus’ death and resurrection. (Matthew 12:40; Romans 6:4)

Fifth, as a death symbol, baptism also becomes a symbolic “ordeal,” i.e. a successful passage through death by divine protection. Ancient pagan law courts would commonly execute people in such a way that the gods could easily intervene to save them when doubt in the testimony against the accused remained. Yes, unlike in Scripture and Israel, you were guilty until proven innocent. Throwing them into the water all tied up was a favorite—River Ordeal—but we have a record of fire and lions being used too.

Court ordeal found expression outside the law as well. To escape certain death was a sign of divine acceptance, divine election, or divinely declared innocence. Think, of Daniel in the Lion’s den, and Shadrach and his companions in the fiery furnace. Again, we have Israel through the Red Sea, Noah through the flood, and Jonah through the depths of the sea. David before Goliath was a contest ordeal, as was Moses and Korah’s men marching into holy space before Yahweh, AND we have the incident of the blooming staff when Israelite leaders challenged Aaron’s priesthood.

Finally, sixth, while baptism became common among Jewish sects, like the Essenes (Think Dead Sea Scrolls) and even John the Baptist (thought by many to have been raised among the Essenes), Jesus used it to ratify his own followers in the New Covenant community called the Church. The New Testament church continued to practice baptism, investing the rite with even more layers of meaning after Jesus’ successful passage through actual death in His resurrection into incorruptible glory.

What is Baptism?

Now, baptism is the second oldest Christian ceremony. The oldest is communion… but that’s a story for another day. When your pastor discusses the need for believers to be baptized, he is continuing the ancient tradition of public profession of faith in Christ and the use of a highly symbolic ratification act to seal the believer’s covenant with God and Christ.

Once upon a time, we would stand in court, ready to testify. We would put our hand on a Bible. They would say, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We would say, “I do.” That “swear” and “so help me God,” was the threat part to a heart that believed God was real and, thus, had the capacity to monitor, the presence to intimidate, and the power to punish. The joke on a godless nation is that we have removed the “so help me God,” part. Thus, such promises have no power for getting at truth greater than the fear induced by the court’s own capacity to monitor, presence to intimidate, and power to punish… which is highly limited.

To take baptism is to say, “I swear to follow and obey Christ, the true Christ, and nothing but the true Christ, so help me God.”

1Some ratification acts embodied ideas of “oneness” in addition to, or instead of, death images.

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