I went out for sushi with a friend. She’s the kind of friend I love talking with and who always leaves me feeling encouraged. During this particular conversation, I noticed something interesting:
Whenever she’d say, “I know I should…,” what followed would sound spiritual and “Christian”—like things I grew up hearing at church. But strangely, it wouldn’t sound like anything I’ve read about Jesus’ life in the Gospels. And when she’d apologetically say, “But I decided to…,” I’d be reminded of passages throughout Scripture and I’d see parallels between her life choices and the life Jesus modeled for us.
My friend is following Jesus. And in order to do that, she has to reject the patterns of this world—including ways the Church has adopted and spiritualized these patterns.
Isn’t that weird? At least, shouldn’t it be? And shouldn’t this be cause for alarm?
We’re followers / disciples / apprentices of Jesus. Whatever terminology you like to use, we’re to strive to look more and more like Him. But sometimes we confuse the way of Jesus with church culture. Church culture doesn’t always look and sound like Jesus. In fact, sometimes it’s conforming to church culture that prevents us from becoming more like Jesus. (What a brilliant way for the enemy to keep the Church from actually living like the Body of Christ! “Make it sound spiritual and put Jesus’ name on it, then they’ll accept it without question!”)
I want my heart to be aligned with Jesus’ heart, to look and sound like Him, to reflect Him every way I can. Unfortunately, that means there are times when I must make choices that go against the culture of the Church (or at least the American Church). And that means people who know church culture better than actual Jesus will accuse me of things that sound a lot like the things Jesus was accused of.
• What if we accepted Jesus’ invitation to learn from Him, diving deep into Scripture with humility in the fact that we don’t always get everything right and we still have more to learn?
• What if we investigated whether or not each supposed truth we label “biblical” is actually in the Bible and in alignment with the heart of God?
• What if we chose to follow Jesus—actually follow the words He spoke and the way He lived as it’s revealed in Scripture rather than what some people or our church culture tells us is “biblical”?
So here’s my challenge to you: The next time you find yourself thinking, “I feel like as a Christian I should…,” ask these two questions:
1. Does this thing I feel I should believe/think/do/be resemble what Jesus lived and taught? (If you can’t find it in Jesus’ life and teachings or anywhere else in Scripture, that’s a big red flag. So be specific. Where is it in Scripture? And if you find a verse, zoom out and look at the context of the chapter, book, and whole of Scripture. Is that really what that passage is saying? Or has it been misunderstood or taken out of context?)
2. What is the Spirit saying to me? Could it be that what the Spirit is saying to me contradicts something I’ve been taught but is actually in alignment with the way of Jesus as revealed in Scripture?
One more thing: Live this out in community. Find people who will ask these questions with you, lovingly call you out when you don’t live them, and aggressively encourage you when you do.
Each year I pray for God to give me a word. A word to internalize, grow into, and live out. A word that can bring me focus as I navigate the challenges the year will bring. What was the word God gave me for 2020? Prophesy.
Seriously, God? It seemed too weird. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I saw a lot of false prophets and predictions. (Anyone remember all the prophesies about how the world would end and Jesus would come back at Y2K?) Even though I believe some prophets and prophecies are real and biblical, I’ve seen enough falsehood, abuses of Scripture, and weirdness to have a skeptical view of people who proclaim themselves to be prophets or to have “a word from the Lord.” And let’s not forget the fact that the Bible has some harsh words for false prophets!
“But the prophet who presumes to speak a message in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods — that prophet must die.’ You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a message the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the Lord’s name, and the message does not come true or is not fulfilled, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”
Suffice it to say, when I sensed God speaking the word “prophesy” to me, I said, “Thanks, God, but no thanks! Can you give me a different word? One that isn’t so weird or scary?”
God didn’t answer this last request. He didn’t need to; He knew what I would need. More than that, He knew how this year would unfold and that the people in my sphere of influence would need a prophetic voice. So He continued to whisper the same word in my heart again and again. And He pointed me to a passage of Scripture that felt like fire every time I came across it. Sermons, books, wherever I looked—it felt like I couldn’t get away from it!
“Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For the person who speaks in a tongue is not speaking to people but to God, since no one understands him; he speaks mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the person who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. The person who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish all of you spoke in tongues, but even more that you prophesied. The person who prophesies is greater than the person who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be built up.”
“Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”
In my resisting, God was relentless. (That’s one of the ways I know I’m not just making stuff up and God’s really speaking to me.) I came to a point where I couldn’t shake His voice—I didn’t want to—and I gave in. My giving in to God was part reluctance, but bigger part expectation that God knew what He was doing and had something in store.
Prophesy. Not “prophet.” Not “prophecy.” The word He gave me was a verb, an action word. And shortly after I gave in to God, March 2020 happened. The world was reeling from a global pandemic and America went into lockdown. And in the following months, America began to reel even more as racial injustice was recorded for all to see and people cried out in the streets. All of this and so much more in a crazy election year. And in the midst of everything, God didn’t want me to be a passive observer; He wanted me to do something.
You may be thinking, “If God gave you the word “prophesy” for the year of 2020, shouldn’t you have seen everything coming?” When you read the prophetic books in the Bible, you find that even though part of their message included predicting future events, the bulk of their messages consisted of critique and hope.
Did I see the crazy before it all happened? Not quite. But at every turn this year, I’ve felt ready. Not just ready to go through each challenge with a peace and purpose, but also ready to care for and appropriately speak into the lives of the people God has called me to love and lead.
“The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are instructed
to know how to sustain the weary with a word.
He awakens me each morning;
he awakens my ear to listen like those being instructed.”
In June of this year (the month when racial injustice was brought into the light and couldn’t be ignored any longer), I was reading the book of Jeremiah. That was a difficult month for me. I was heartbroken and angry about all of the injustice. I felt disillusioned as a large number of Christians (including leaders) said things that completely contradicted what I was reading in the Bible. And then I’d see other Christians who had the courage to speak up, only to get torn down by their Christian brothers and sisters. And each day as I continued to wade through the long book of Jeremiah, I found myself feeling more disillusioned—not by God, but by people who violated His word in His name. And all I could do was lament.
Looking through the lens of the word “prophesy”—along with diligent study of what the Bible has to say and taking the time to hear God’s voice on the matter—has given me a unique perspective of this year. At times, it has allowed me to see with expectation (even excitement) during times when many have felt anxious and afraid. At other times, it has caused me to have caution when some have declared, “Everything’s looking up now!” And when there has been a rise of people declaring to have had prophecies or dreams of what is to come, I’m finding it easier to discern when it’s time to listen, when something needs to be put on a shelf for later, or when something needs to be corrected or discarded. Most importantly, in the midst of a difficult year, it has helped me to hold the tension of both lament and hope.
What follows are passages from the Bible that talk about prophets and prophesying. This isn’t exhaustive by any means. These are simply some of the passages that have stuck out to me this year as I’ve explored what it means (and what it doesn’t mean) to prophesy.
The entire book of Jeremiah is a great starting point. It’s like a narrative textbook on what it means to be a prophet. There’s way too much gold in this book to put in a single blog post, so I’ll just share some highlights.
The life of the prophet isn’t easy. These words from God to Jeremiah give insight into one of the challenges that comes with being a prophet:
“When you speak all these things to them, they will not listen to you. When you call to them, they will not answer you. Therefore, declare to them…”
The words God gave Jeremiah to preach weren’t easy for people to digest. (He foretold of invasion and exile and preached a message of repentance from idolatry, oppression, and injustice.) On the other hand, Judah’s leaders were saying things that seemed more optimistic or faith-filled. But the words of these leaders didn’t come from God and weren’t rooted in the truth.
And notice what God said about people who were falsely “prophesying” in Jeremiah’s day:
“This is what the Lord of Armies says: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They are deluding you. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the Lord’s mouth. They keep on saying to those who despise me, “The Lord has spoken: You will have peace.” They have said to everyone who follows the stubbornness of his heart, “No harm will come to you.”
Moving beyond the book of Jeremiah…For all those who think they have a prophecy from God because, like Michael Scott, they declared it:
“Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus warned his followers about false prophets and told them how they could recognize them:
“Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.“
You’ll recognize them by their fruit. There are a lot of places in the Bible that talk about fruit. The most famous of these passages is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. When it comes to prophets, pay attention to the fruit:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Earlier I quoted 1 Corinthians 14:1 where Paul wrote, “Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” God gives some people the gift of prophecy to build up the Church. But we shouldn’t be naive and listen to everyone who claims to be a prophet with a “word from the Lord.” So what should we do when someone has a message?
“Don’t stifle the Spirit. Don’t despise prophecies, but test all things. Hold on to what is good.“
Test all things—every prophecy—and take note: Does this line up with the heart of Scripture? What kind of fruit do I observe? If it includes a prediction, did it come true? And when you test all things, hold on to what is good. Speaking of holding on to what is good, as Paul writes to Timothy, a young minister he mentored, he gave a glimpse of the good that prophecies hold:
“Timothy, my son, I am giving you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies previously made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the good fight…”
If you feel like God is asking you to prophesy, first pray for God to give you discernment so you can know the difference between His voice and your own. (Double check to make sure that word that’s burning in your heart actually came from Him.) And then, if you still feel God has given you a prophetic word to share, courageously obey His voice. And as you prophesy, trust God to deal with the hearts of others while paying attention to the fruit that flows from your own.
There are SO MANY Bible study tools available. And among them are a lot of great resources as well as a lot of…um…not so great ones. So if you don’t know what you’re looking for (or maybe even if you do), navigating the sea of accessible Bible study tools can be overwhelming. So I thought I’d let you see some of my go-tos. Please note that even though I tried to keep this list short and simple, it can still seem like a lot if you’re just getting started. So after getting a Bible, if you want to start with just one thing, skip to the very end!
My Go-To Bibles:
First things first. The most important tool when you’re studying the Bible is…a Bible.
She Reads Truth Bible – There are a lot of Bibles in my home in a vast array of translations, languages, and editions. But when I’m sitting down to spend time with Jesus, this is the first one I grab. It has helpful resources in it (devotionals, charts, timelines, etc.) but not so much that I get bogged down in overthinking mode. In other words, it has a clean design and doesn’t look like a textbook. It also has wide margins, so it’s a great journaling Bible. (Random fun fact: one of the devotional writers is Jill McDaniel. Who’s Jill McDaniel? She goes to my church and she’s my friend. Also, she’s awesome.)
He Reads Truth Bible – I love my SRT Bible so much that I bought my husband the HRT Bible when it came out. Unlike the SRT Bible, the HRT Bible doesn’t have any devotionals in it. BUT, it does contain more resources (charts and such) that they developed after making the She Reads Truth Bible. Because of that, it’s not uncommon for me to borrow my husband’s Bible.
ESV Study Bible – This is pretty much the gold standard of study Bibles! It’s what I go to when I want to get into the nitty gritty. Its pages contain a wealth of diagrams, charts, notes, and a whole lot more. (Something to keep in consideration is that many of the notes in this study Bible are written from a more Reformed perspective. If that’s a turnoff for you, I list another great study Bible below.)
Bible.com – This is a free digital Bible website and app. I mostly use this when I’m on the go or when I’m looking up passages in multiple versions. (I also link to Bible.com whenever I quote passages in my blog. 😉 ) The She Reads Truth app and He Reads Truth app are also great digital Bible options.
Since words—especially words in the Bible—don’t always mean what we think they mean, here are a couple websites where you can click/tap on a word in a passage and find out what it means: NetBible.org and BibleWebApp.com.
Bible Background Resources:
Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – I didn’t list this under the “My Go-To Bibles” category because I only have this Bible in Kindle format, so I mostly use it for the articles. If you don’t already have a study Bible, I highly recommend this one! (I link the NIV below, but it also comes in NKJV and NRSV.)
To be honest, I don’t use the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible as much because the following two books are my go-to for historical and cultural background deep dives.
John Walton and Craig Keener, the writers for the notes in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, are the same people who wrote these commentaries. When I read these commentaries, I often find myself exclaiming out loud, “What?! This passage makes so much more sense now!”
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
A note about commentaries for Biblical studies and ministerial students: I use a lot more commentaries than what I list here. I’m not going to list any of them here, because the point of this post is to give people who are beginning to study the Bible a starting point. Which commentaries are best? It depends on which book of the Bible you’re studying and what you’re looking for in a commentary. So when you’re picking commentaries, do your research and use more than one source when you can (libraries can help!).
I love BibleProject so much that I got their ginormous coffee table book that has all the diagrams and summaries from the videos for each book of the Bible.
Honestly, I could spend hours just sitting and watching BibleProject videos. They have so much to explore! But when it comes to my regular Bible study, what do I do with these BibleProject resources? Before I begin reading a book of the Bible, I like to watch the corresponding video that “outlines its structure and design and how it fits into the entire biblical story.” And then I like to keep the coffee table book open close by so that if I feel like I’ve lost where I am in the larger story—especially when I’m reading a particularly lengthy book—I can glance up and get my bearings.
Okay, so I told you some of my go-tos. What are some of yours?