Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Most Essential Life Skill: Teachability

From David Murray.  I have recently stumbled upon David Murray and find him both theologically solid and pastorally astute. 
There’s one characteristic that separates the successful from the unsuccessful in every walk of life: teachability.
Those who are teachable, and remain so, usually succeed. The unteachable usually fail. I’ve seen that in business, I’ve seen it in the ministry, I’ve seen it among students, and I’ve seen it in my children.
No matter how much talent and gifting we have, if we are, or become, unteachable, we will never reach anywhere near our full potential in our careers, our callings, or our relationships.
The Distinguishing Difference
Think of all the successful people you know, what is it that distinguishes them all? It’s teachability, isn’t it? Think of all the people you know that never really made the most of the gifts and opportunities God gave them. Unteachability is the common thread, isn’t it?
If there’s one thing I want to to teach my children and students, it’s teachability.
When I speak to young people or students, I can usually tell quite quickly the ones who will do well in their lives and callings… and those who won’t. Teachability makes the difference.
Teachability gets people to the top. But if you lose teachability at the top, you won’t be at the top for long.
So what does unteachabilty look like?
  • Doesn’t take notes, read books, or learn anything unless it’s the bare minimum or what’s essential for exam purposes.
  • Doesn’t ask questions or attempt anything that might reveal ignorance or risk looking stupid.
  • Doesn’t accept responsibility for failures but blames anyone and everyone else.
  • Doesn’t seek or accept one-to-one personal guidance or mentoring from parents, teachers, pastors, elders, etc.
  • Doesn’t listen, but talks, talks, talks about self, especially when with someone you could learn a lot from.
  • Doesn’t take criticism or correction without resentment or retaliation.
  • Resists moving out of personal comfort zones in work, study, ministry, or relationships, but always looks for the easy and familiar route.
  • Doesn’t read, listen to, or learn anything that challenges existing presuppositions, practices, and prejudices.
In contrast, teachability means:
  • You’re aware of the limitations of your own knowledge and abilities.
  • You admit limitation, inability, and ignorance to others who can teach and help.
  • You regularly ask for help, instruction, guidance, and advice (before the event, not after disaster strikes).
  • You learn from anyone and everyone you can (the best educated pastor I know writes notes for his own benefit even when listening to a novice preacher).
  • You listen to others carefully and patiently with a desire to learn from everyone.
  • You’re prepared to move out of your comfort zone, try something different, make mistakes, look stupid, answer wrongly, etc.
  • You don’t give up when you fail at something, but seek help, and try again and again until you get it right.
  • You’re willing to change your views and practices when convincing evidence is presented to you, even if it means admitting you were wrong.
There’s another word for teachability.
Extracted from The Christian Life by David Murray, $0.99.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Skills Can Kill: 4 Dangers of (Only) Skills-Based Leadership Development

Another great post on leadership on the dangers of focusing purely on skill based leadership.  From Eric Geiger . . . 
Both character and competence are essential for leaders. Of David, the king of Israel, the Scripture states, “He shepherded them with a pure heart and guided them with his skillful hands” (Psalm 78:72). In other words, David possessed both character and competence.

When people think of developing leaders, they often think in terms of necessary skills that need to be acquired. Often leadership development degenerates into only skill-based training. While skills are important, there are four dangerous outcomes of only developing skills:

Competence outpaces character

When leadership development is divorced from discipleship, skills can be developed while hearts grow cold. Leaders with increasing competence likely will be handed more responsibilities. If growing responsibilities are not accompanied with growth in character, the leader will eventually implode.

Spotlight surpasses sanctification

When leaders become skilled, their ability often garners attention. Their displayed gifting grabs them the spotlight. But when the spotlight surpasses sanctification, leaders are set up for a fall. And they are set up to harm others along the way. If we develop over-skilled and under-sanctified leaders, we are harming the leaders and those they lead.

Ability trumps availability

There is beauty to the well-used statement that “God is more concerned with your availability than your ability.” The heart of the statement is to be surrendered fully to Him, to focus on His power and not your own, to realize you are a mere jar of clay and that the power is in the message and not in you. Overemphasizing skills can cause leaders to think the power is in their ability and not in the Lord. Skill-based training, without a constant shepherding of the heart, can encourage leaders to trust themselves and not Him.

Skill overshadows serving

When skill-based training helps leaders know and develop their strengths, there is the danger that leaders will only want to serve “in their sweet spots.” While there is wisdom in serving within one’s gifting, gifting must never overshadow basic Christianity—the reality that we are servants, that none of us is above setting up chairs, that none of us is above any task. Without a focus on the Lord and His work for us and in us, leaders will develop a disdain for anything outside of their skills. In other words, skilled yet selfish leaders will be developed, leaders who lead with their skills and not a desire to serve.

We must train for skills but not to the neglect of the heart, not to the neglect of character.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Great article from the Verge website by Jeff Vanderstelt on discipleship found here.  Verge writes prolifically on discipleship. . . .

Jesus commanded us to make disciples who make disciples. We can make disciples formally and informally. In formal discipleship you need to consider all that you want people to:

Know — key doctrines all people should know

Believe — truths that motivate and transform your identity and behavior

Do — the activities that the gospel leads us to practice

Informal discipleship, in conjunction with formal discipleship is crucial in making followers of Jesus who both hear and obey. Here are 5 ways to make disciple informally:

1. Encourage a disciplemaking culture.

God commanded through Moses (Deuteronomy 6) and Jesus commanded the disciples (Matt. 28:18-20) to develop a disciple-making culture where all of life becomes the platform for disciple-making.

Seven questions to determine if you have a disciplemaking culture:

Are the few doing the ministry for the many? Or are the few equipping the many for the ministry?
Do we spend the majority of our time equipping, training and developing leaders?
Is it apparent that every member is to be a full-time minister in your church?
Do new believers get called and sent into the mission upon conversion?
Do you celebrate those who leave to start new works?
Is there shared leadership within the local body?
Do you intentionally create vacuums for other leaders to fill?
2. Make your life visible and accessible to others.

To be an example for the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3), others need to see our lives as an observable example of gospel ministry, mission and ordinary life. We also need to observe their lives – to see if they are faithful (2 Timothy 2:2). The areas we need to observe one another includes marriage, family, management of our household, love of neighbors, our leadership, our training, and our discipling, as well as conflict management, exercise, prayer and how we use money.

3. Live with your leaders in community.

Jesus said the greatest apologetic for the gospel is our love for one another (John 13:31-45). We practice the “one anothers” of scripture in community. If you’re not developing people to love one another, you’re not making disciples. And you will not make disciples who love one another if they’re not in consistent community where others are building them up.

4. Live as servants together.

Ephesians 4:11-16 tells us that God gives some to equip the saints for ministry, and that the means by which we grow up into maturity is when each part is doing its work. We will not grow up if we are not all ministering. We grow up as we build up the body and serve together.

5. Make sure your leaders live on Mission.

Living life on mission requires getting in the game. Is your missional living more of a chalk-talk (sermons and teaching) or an actual game? Is it just a scrimmage among other Christians or are we actually engaging the lost? If we are not in the game of mission, we will not become disciples, but rather just a spiritual formation group.

Want real-time training on what it looks like to make disciples in the every day stuff of life? Verge Regionals is partnering with Jeff Vanderstelt to bring you Saturate Everyday.

This training is for YOU – the “doer:” the pastor, leader, equipper, or even just the ordinary everyday person desiring to better understand how to be a disciple of Jesus who effectively applies the gospel to everyday life and mission. During this two-day training we guarantee you will gain effective tools and practices to develop a clear plan of action for gospel saturation in your community.

Communities centered around mission are the heart of what God has called His Church to be and do. Attending Saturate Everyday will give you a vision for what it might look like to saturate your own community with the gospel so that every man, woman, and child has a daily encounter with Jesus.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Four Ways to Adjust Your Leadership Style to Fit Your Team

Some more wisdom from Eric Geiger that I needed to read. . . 
Great leaders are servants of those they lead. Because each person on a leadership team is unique, wise leaders lead each person differently. Instead of insisting that every person adjust to the leader, great leaders adjust to those they lead. Here are four practical ways to adjust to those you lead:

1. Communication

If you are a leader, some on your team prefer face-to-face or verbal communication. They feel hampered if they cannot read nonverbal communication and if they cannot dialogue and interact in the midst of the conversation. Others prefer written communication as it allows them to more carefully process and formulate their thoughts. Some love “drop-in” meetings because of the new ideas they generate, while others feel they are a distraction. If you learn how those on your team communicate best and adjust to them, you will help them communicate more effectively.

2. Appreciation

A wise leader pursues those on the team, not just to recruit them initially but also to keep them engaged. The reality is that your best people are volunteers, regardless if you pay them. So expressing love and appreciation to them is essential. Different people on a leader’s team feel most appreciated in different ways from others. Not everyone on your team views Friday night dinner together or a small gift the same way. Someone who feels appreciated with time may find encouraging words too sappy, or even forced. Someone who feels valued with affirming words won’t be nearly as encouraged with a gift.

3. Direction

People on a leader’s team need varying levels of direction. A new leader or a leader who is not yet proven in a specific aspect of the role needs more direction. Someone who has mastered his or her craft and is continually executing well needs less direction. Some do not need as much direction as others. If you treat every person on the team the same, you will inevitably micromanage some.

4. Decision Making

Some on a leader’s team love stand-up meetings, quick conversations, and quick decisions. Others love having more time to process, to think through scenarios and implications, and formulate a response. If you walk into the office of someone who needs time to process and demand a decision, you are violating trust and putting the person in an uncomfortable position. In the same way, not everyone on your team needs as much time to make good decisions.

Leaders, we honor those we serve if we understand that God, in His providence, has made each person unique. And because each person is different, leaders must lead people differently.

Friday, December 18, 2015

4 Words Leaders Must Say on a Regular Basis

Great short post on leadership by Eric Geiger I found at Lifeway.

Leaders are always communicating, even when they are not talking. But what words must a leader say on a regular basis? Here are four words leaders must use, not merely every now and then, but continually. Over and over again:

1. Why

Wise leaders constantly ask “why” and continually communicate the “why.” Wise leaders communicate the philosophy beneath the decisions, the thinking that guides the behavior. They help people see the reason the team moves in a certain direction. If leaders fail to offer the “here’s why,” people mindlessly execute without their hearts fully committed. Without a strong “why,” an organization drifts. New activities and programs are implemented that look great on the surface but hold competing philosophies underneath. Without a consistently communicated “why,” an organization loses its soul. People are less motivated because there is not a strong sense of “here is why we are on the planet.” The “why” is vastly important.

2. No

Leaders are responsible to keep the team moving in the same direction, to keep everyone focused. And this often means saying “no” to distractions, to other opportunities, and to good things that are not the best things. Wise leaders are skilled at saying “no.” Steve Jobs once said, “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.” When a team has a clear and compelling “why,” it is much easier to say “no.” When a leader holds a deep-seated conviction, saying “no” is inevitable.

3. Sorry

The longer leaders lead, the more they are aware of their imperfections. They know they miss the mark in communication and in providing support to those they serve. Because they move fast and are decisive, they sometimes hurt others with their decisions. Because they love the people they serve alongside and want to root out relational tension that erodes trust, wise leaders are quick to say “sorry.”

4. Thanks

Max De Pree famously said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.” Great leaders express appreciation and gratitude to the people on their teams. The best people on a leader’s team are volunteers, no matter the amount on the paycheck, because they could always go somewhere else.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Great Deal on Good Books

If I have one addiction outside of Jesus, it would be books.  I buy on impulse too often and cannot pass up a deal.  Sometimes I wonder if I will ever read a book I have purchased, only to read it years later when the need arose.  Here are some books on sale now:

Find some great deals here on the new Christ Centered Exposition commentary series for $2.99 each!  I do not have any but one of my staff members bought one for a series he is doing and I browsed it.

Here are some cheap but good theology books on kindle from .99 to 2.99.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


A great post by Trevin Wax on how our culture views religion.  A great missional opportunity!
A remarkable conversation took place on ABC’s The View last week.

It began with an American Atheists billboard featuring a picture of Santa Claus that says, “Go ahead and skip church. Be good for goodness’ sake.” One of the hosts, Joy Behar, wondered if religious people would take offense at such a statement.

In the conversation that followed, we catch a glimpse of how people view the role and place of religion in society, as well as the counter-intuitive nature of the gospel of God’s grace.

Approach #1: “Let’s Talk”

Should Christians be offended by the atheist’s billboard? Not at all, claimed Candace Cameron Bure, an evangelical Christian. On the contrary, she mentioned how grateful she was for the billboard because it leads naturally to conversations about the gospel.

“Go be good,” she said, summarizing the billboard. “What is good? What is the standard of goodness? What is God’s standard of goodness?”

Candace’s approach is to use the atheist’s statement as a springboard for exploring what “goodness” really means. She sees this as a great way of presenting God’s Law as a prelude to the good news of Christianity.

Candace’s response demonstrates confidence in the power in the gospel. That’s why she looks at the atheist’s statement and says, “Great! Let’s talk.”

Approach #2: “Live and Let Live”

Sunny Hostin, the pro-life, church-going Catholic on the panel, disagreed with Candace. She doesn’t like the billboard because it reminds her of the Christians who put up “Repent or go to hell” signs.

Joy Behar, certainly no friend to evangelical beliefs, seemed to agree with Sunny, even if evangelicals were the target of this particular sign. “Why don’t they mind their own business?” she asks. Joy and Sunny seem to think that these atheists are a little too active; they are causing trouble when, instead, they should just leave people alone.

We could sum up this view as “live and let live.” It’s the idea that religion is off limits for proselytism or persuasion. Believe what you want to believe, let others believe what they want to believe, and heaven forbid anyone try to change anyone else’s views.

Approach #3: “Be who you are.”

Paula Faris presents a third view. In a world in which everyone is on edge and easily offended, we should take a deep breath. Why? Because no one can change what Christmas means to you.

Why get bent out of shape over messages you disagree with? Just be confident in whatever you believe the Christmas spirit to be. A billboard shouldn’t threaten who you are and what you feel deep down inside.

Analyzing the Approaches

The third option – “be who you are” – is right to remind us that we shouldn’t give in to the outrage culture. Why be threatened by an opposing viewpoint? But this approach could be misconstrued as if to say that the meaning of Christmas is something we decide, rather than what truly happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.

The second option – “live and let live” – only works if you believe religion is a private matter and not a question of public truth. Our culture thrives on debate and discussion in so many spheres. But, for many, in the area of religion, we suddenly get sensitive and the conversation stops. It’s ironic to see the “live and let live” perspective advocated so strongly on a show, aptly titled The View, where the premise is that the cohosts will banter back and forth and try to persuade.

So, now we’re back to Candace Cameron Bure’s evangelistic approach. I appreciate her lack of defensiveness and her willingness to look for opportunities to proclaim the core message of Christianity. And that’s when this conversation takes a remarkable turn.

“Being Good” vs. “The Gospel”

Raven-Symone speaks up and says the atheist billboard is not offensive or threatening because its message promotes goodness. After all, the whole point of religion is being good.

According to Raven’s worldview, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in Jesus or in Allah or Hindu gods or in no god at all. What matters is that you try to be a good person. “That’s what all religions are about anyway.”

Candace and Paula immediately push back: “That’s not true.”

Raven is taken aback by the disagreement. “You don’t think all religions are about being a good person?” she asks.

“Not Christianity,” explains Paula. “It’s by grace through faith.”

Suddenly, both Joy and Raven are puzzled. It’s as if the announcement of grace has stunned the panel. It’s a “Wait – what?” moment.

“It’s by grace through faith you have been saved,” Paula says. “It’s nothing that we can do.”

Seeking the Safety of Self-Justification

In response to the message of sheer grace, Joy decides to steer the conversation back to the safer territory of being a good person. “I’m a good girl,” she says. “I don’t know what they’re worried about.”

That’s when Candace raises the issue of God’s standard to show that simply being “a good person” isn’t safe ground either. The good news of grace rises only after the hammer of God’s law falls. Candace turns the conversation back to God’s standard of goodness – the Ten Commandments. “If you disobey one commandment, it’s as if you disobeyed all of them,” she says, paraphrasing James, the brother of Jesus. That, after all, is why we need the gospel.

As the hosts begin to check off the commandments, Joy admits that she has lied before and that she does indeed covet. Suddenly, she’s not “a good girl” when compared to the standard of God’s law.

Right before the video ends, Raven retreats from her earlier comments about goodness and the real meaning of Christmas to the safer ground of relativism. What about when you need to tell “a white lie?” Or when circumstances lead you to break a rule?

Appealing to “goodness” hasn’t softened the judgment of God’s law or the startling nature of God’s grace. The only other place to turn is to run down the path of self-justification. Well, goodness must be relative, not absolute! There is a good reason for my not being a good person.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

In just a few minutes on The View, we’ve seen three different ways of viewing religion, as well as the counter-intuitive nature of the gospel.

Across the country, millions of people will ignore the billboard from the American Atheists and will attend worship services this Christmas. For many of these people, their Christmas visit may be the first and last visit to church all year.

Perhaps these rare churchgoers expect to hear a message from the Bible that sounds a lot like Santa Claus: “Just be good for goodness’ sake.” They may expect to hear a personal message of private faith, not a public announcement about the world’s true King. They may expect their views on faith and society to be confirmed and their consciences to be consoled.

I’m praying they will have their own “Wait – what?” moment in church this year.

I’m praying this will be the year they hear the counter-intuitive, grace-filled call to repentance and faith we find in the New Testament.

I’m praying that, in sermons across America, the wrecking ball of God’s standard of goodness will demolish our self-justifying attempts to be “good” and bulldoze the way for the scandalous flood of God’s grace in Christ.

Here’s hoping that, this Christmas, thousands of people will hear true “tidings of comfort and joy” and discover that salvation isn’t because we’ve been good for God, but because God’s been good to us.

Friday, December 11, 2015

What Every Book of the New Testament Is About

This guest post by Leland Ryken is the second post in a two-part series summarizing each book of the Bible through the lens of it’s key literary forms. Ryken is the author ofLiterary Introductions to the Books of the Bible, which serves as a companion to his previous book, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. In this second post, he explores the 27 books that make up the Old Testament. Read Part 1.


Despite variations in the arrangement of early lists of the New Testament books, Matthew always comes first. Perhaps this is why one famous scholar called Matthew "the most important book ever written." All of the Gospels share certain traits, and all of them have unique features as well. A distinctive feature of Matthew is its arrangement into alternating sections of narrative and discourse. There are five discourse units, inviting comparison with the Pentateuch that starts the Old Testament. Each discourse answers a specific question: How are citizens of Christ's kingdom to live? How are traveling disciples to conduct themselves? What are the parables that Jesus taught? How should Christians conduct themselves in the church? How will it all end? The intervening narrative sections tell the story of Christ's life, death, and resurrection.


The shortest Gospel, and perhaps the basis for Matthew and Luke. Mark is the "action Gospel," with the word immediately appearing some 35 times. The genre is known as the "brief life"—a compilation of the minimum of what a reader wishes to know about a person. As a biography, Luke also fits the category of a documentary life, consisting of brief fragments that record a person's life and from which a biographer might collect data for a fuller account.


The humanitarian Gospel, with much attention to marginalized members of society. The longest Gospel, covering more of Jesus's life than the others. A very literary Gospel, with nearly thirty parables and four nativity hymns, it has exerted the most influence on painters and hymn writers. Despite the variety of material, this Gospel flows beautifully and is easy to read from beginning to end. A famous scholar called it "the most beautiful book ever written."


The poetic Gospel, embodying much of its meaning in great symbols such as light, bread, and water. Another literary aspect is its reliance on longer narrative and discourse units than characterizes the other Gospels. This book is built around seven great signs or miracles that Jesus performed, and these in turn are paired with surrounding discourses that tie into the preceding or following "sign." The unifying plot conflict is between belief and unbelief.


The storyline is accurately captured by the official title—*The Acts of the Apostles *(chiefly Peter and Paul). Another accurate label is ecclesiastical history (the history of the Christian church in various geographic regions), but with the focus on people and events rather than names and dates. The general framework is narrative, but a surprising three-fourths of the book consists of speeches and orations (including the settings in which they were given).


An important literary consideration for all the epistles is that they are modifications of the standard letter writing conventions of the ancient world. Variations are always possible, but the general paradigm consists of five ingredients: salutation, thanksgiving, body, paraenesis (list of moral exhortations), and close. Additionally, there are more specific epistolary genres that govern most of the epistles. Romans belongs to the genre of the letter essay. Set within the framework of letter-writing conventions, the main content is theological exposition on the subject of sin and salvation. Two styles mingle in Romans: the grand or elevated style and features of a form of vigorous street preaching called the diatribe.

1 Corinthians

The most important (and usually ignored) feature of the New Testament epistles is that they are occasional letters, not systematic essays. "Occasional" literature is literature written for a specific occasion. Another label by which to name this is the Latin phrasead hoc ("for the occasion"). The writers of the epistles did not sit down to write an essay; they wrote in response to questions they had been asked or circumstances that needed to be addressed. In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks to problems that existed in a disorderly church.

2 Corinthians

There are so many references to Paul's own life that this epistle falls into the category of personal letter. Paul defends his reputation against false accusations, thereby placing the letter into a genre known in Latin as an apologia pro vita sua ("defense of his life"). In keeping with a recent approach to literature called "self fashioning," Paul carefully constructs a picture of his missionary life.


A thoroughly polemical (argumentative) letter written in response to a doctrinal crisis that had engulfed Christians living in a specific region (modern-day Turkey). The heresy was a form of Jewish ritualism, but the issue is perennial: whether Christ's atonement is completely sufficient for salvation or whether human works are also necessary ("works righteousness"). Two common designations for this epistle are helpful—"the angry letter" (denoting the polemical tone) and "the freedom letter" (denoting the theological argument of being free from the need to earn salvation by religious rituals).


A circular letter intended for the church universal. A case study in epistolary form: salutation (1:1-1), thanksgiving (1:3-22), body (2:1—4:16), paraenesis or list of exhortations (4:7—6:20), and close (6:21-24). Also characteristic of many New Testament epistles is the division into a doctrinal or theological half and a practical or moral half. Written in a polished and exalted style.


A prison epistle written in Rome. Balancing numerous personal references dealing with Paul's relations to the recipients are famous passages with a universal "feel," such as the Christ hymn that celebrates Christ's taking the form of a servant (2:5-11) and the "whatever is true" list (4:8-9). Philippians is also a missionary update letter.


It is a rare New Testament epistle that does not make reference to doctrinal heresy, but in some epistles, including Colossians, the polemical task of countering heresy is a major part of the letter. Paul only briefly denounces the heresy (which claimed that something more than Christ is needed [2:8-23]), preferring to conduct his debate by declaring that Christ is all that is needed. This epistle is strongly Christocentric, climaxing in the famous Christ hymn that exalts the supremacy of Christ (1:15-20).

1 Thessalonians

An "open letter" intended for a group, but it is so suffused with statements of affection that it reads like a personal letter to an individual. There is a large autobiographical element, and like the letters that we ourselves write and receive, it ranges over a wide variety of topics, including Christ's second coming. A good way to assimilate the letter is to regard it as giving "program notes" on living the Christian life.

2 Thessalonians

Partly a sequel to 1 Thessalonians, arising out of misunderstandings about when Christ would return and the need not to live idly in anticipation of that return. A melodic line in the letter is the need to exert oneself in the Christian faith and "not grow weary in doing good" (3:13). As with other New Testament epistles, we should accept the informal, meandering structure and not attempt to force it into an essay format.

1 Timothy

The first of a group known as the pastoral epistles written to individual pastors. 1 Timothy emerges as a manual for church life, with special emphasis on the role and conduct of the pastor.

2 Timothy

Paul's last will and testament, written while he was on death row in Rome. While following the usual format of New Testament epistles, it is also dominated by the genre known as the farewell discourse. Merging with that are elements of spiritual autobiography and a defense of the author's life.


A pastoral epistle written to a pastor on the island of Crete, this letter filled with commands is understood to be a general guidebook for living the Christian life in a world where evil seeks to destroy the good. The style is very compressed, reading almost like an outline. There are also directives for church organization.


A single-chapter book known best for the story that lies behind it, namely, a runaway slave who had become a Christian and whom Paul is sending back to his owner (also a Christian) with the letter. The most literary aspect of the book is the delicate persuasion or rhetoric that Paul uses to induce Philemon to receive his slave with kindness.


A letter essay written in an exalted style. This Christocentric book asserts the supremacy of Christ to Old Testament foreshadowings. Christ is successively shown to be superior to prophets and angels (1-2), Moses (3), and the Old Testament priesthood (4-7); then the new covenant in Christ is shown to be superior to the old covenant (chapter 8 and following). A subtext is the need to hold fast to the Christian faith and not revert to Judaism in a time of persecution. Another theme by which we remember the book is faith, climaxed in the famous roll call of faith in chapter 11 (which adheres to the genre known as the encomium).


Belongs to the genre of wisdom literature; accordingly, the basic unit is the proverb. The structure is stream of consciousness, not that of a systematic essay. The goal is to impart skill for living, and a good tagline for the book is "faith that works." The Greek form known as diatribe exerts a strong influence.

1 Peter

Another very loosely organized epistle. The general progression is (1) the riches that believers possess in Christ, (2) duties for living the Christian life, and (3) how to endure suffering for the sake of Christ.

2 Peter

An informally arranged reminder of selected foundational truths of the Christian faith. The emphasis on remembering stems from the fact that this letter has affinities with the genre of the farewell discourse. The last chapter is one of the great eschatological discourses of the Bible.

1 John

A letter built around the subject of tests by which people can know if they are Christians. An informal letter that yields a long list of separate topics instead of a tidy outline (but that is true of most New Testament letters, contrary to common viewpoint). 1 John resembles our familiar "position paper" or encyclical on a subject that needs clarification.

2 John

An abbreviated letter, perhaps because John expected to visit the church soon (v. 14). This epistle is a shorthand version of the customary epistolary conventions. The book falls readily into three parts: a reminder (4-6), a warning (7-9), and an instruction (10-11).

3 John

Like the books that precede and follow it, one of five one-chapter books in the Bible. A personal letter addressed to a specific person named Gaius, following the format of salutation, body, and personal greetings. It also fits the genre of the letter of instruction, with one of the topics being hospitality to traveling Christian teachers.


A "fireworks" letter, filled with vivid imagery and anger. The letter displays horror toward apostasy and the false teachers who induce it. The book is primarily a satire (an attack on evil). There is such an abundance of poetic imagery and figurative language that it becomes what literary scholars call poetic prose.


The most literary book in the Bible. The dominant idiom is poetry and symbolism. With that serving as the language in which the book is composed, several overlapping genres converge, including fantasy (unlifelike details used to portray people and events that really exist), visionary writing (the portrayal of realities that are envisioned rather than existing around us right now), prophecy, and apocalypse (literally "unveiling"). The book is structured as an unfolding series of pageants, each comprised of seven units (e.g., seven letters, seven seals, etc.).

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English, the Christian Guides to the Classics series, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical LifeA Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What Every Book of the Old Testament Is About

Got this recently from Crossway.  A good resource.This guest post by Leland Ryken is the first post in a two-part series summarizing each book of the Bible through the lens of it’s key literary forms. Ryken is the author ofLiterary Introductions to the Books of the Bible, which serves as a companion to his previous book, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. In this first post, he explores the 39 books that make up the Old Testament. Read Part 2.

The Importance of Form

It is natural to ask whether the literary forms of the Bible deserve a lot of attention. The answer is yes. The primary principle of literature is that meaning is embodied and communicated through form.
There is no content without the forms in which that content is packaged. We have misled the Christian public by acting as if a summary of the ideas in a book of the Bible is an adequate account of the book. A summary of ideas leaves readers without a picture of what they actually encounter when they read a book of the Bible.
It is no wonder that many Bible readers do not know how to interact with the texts of the Bible. They have not been given the tools that will allow them to see what is actually in the text. We can deduce ideas from any text in the Bible, but no book of the Bible consists of a list of ideas. It consists of a myriad of literary techniques and forms. Readers need to be coached to see the forms that comprise each book of the Bible, accompanied by the rules that govern our assimilation of those forms.
The individual entries listed below highlight the most important literary forms in the individual books of the Bible. They are a gateway only, but a gateway is a necessary and helpful point of entry.


A preponderance of narrative, so the book becomes an anthology of stories. The narrative subtype that dominates is hero story. As the title "book of beginnings" hints, Genesis embodies foundational principles that range all the way from the nature of the world and humanity to the history of God's covenant dealings with the human race. The gallery of characters is large, but eight characters stand out: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.


The unifying motif is announced in the title: the departure of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, followed by a journey through the desert to the Promised Land. Three distinctly different genres appear—narrative (1-18 and 32-34), lawgiving (19-24), and architectural information about the building of the tabernacle (24-31 and 35-40). Each of these genres has its own focus—deliverance, covenant, and holiness, respectively. Moses is the unifying human hero.


The primary genre is the rulebook, which is at the same time a guidebook for living the religious and moral life that God intended for his people. The main literary principle at work is that literature uses particulars to embody universals; we look not only at the details of the text but through them to principles that apply today. The book is also a utopia that paints a picture of the good society and the institutions and practices that produce it. Realism abounds, including references to bodily functions.


Combination of narrative (in the form of a travel story) and lawgiving; the result is called a mixed-genre format. The overall story is twofold: forty years of wandering in the wilderness and preparation for settlement in the Promised Land. God and Moses are the leading characters. Through a combination of historical, theological, and literary writing, the book tells us both what happened and what happens (meaning that it embodies universal experiences and principles).


The primary genre is oration, as Moses delivers a series of formal speeches as he nears the end of his leadership of the nation of Israel. The content of his speeches is lawgiving (as hinted by the book's title, which conveys the idea of a repetition of the law given in the preceding three books of the Pentateuch). The motif of covenant renewal dominates; subordinate ideas are that obedience brings blessing while disobedience brings a curse. The last four chapters are a transfer-of-leadership story, as Joshua succeeds Moses when the latter dies.


The book follows a common biblical pattern known as mixed-genre format (which literary scholars also call encyclopedic form). The first twelve chapters are narrative, in the specific genres of military conquest story and epic (the story of a nation at a critical point of its history). Chapters 13-21 are documentary history, recording how the Promised Land was divided. The last three chapters return to the narrative mode with the final words and death of Joshua, who is the unifying hero of the book.


A triumph of storytelling. More specifically, an anthology of hero stories (and we need always to remember that literary heroes are rarely completely good). Three "bigger than life" heroes stick out in our imagination—Eglon, Gideon, and Samson (the story of last meets all the criteria of literary tragedy). A cyclic narrative pattern governs the book: the people of Israel do evil in the sight of the Lord; God allows them to be conquered by an oppressive neighboring tribe or country; the people cry to God; God sends a deliverer.


The high point of storytelling in the Bible. The genre is idyl (a short narrative that describes a simple, pleasant aspect of rural and domestic life). The story is the most complete example in the Bible of a love story, and the genre of hero story likewise governs the book. Other unifying motifs are the quest story (quest for home) and a comic, U-shaped plot that begins in tragedy and then turns upward to a happy ending as obstacles are overcome.

1 Samuel

A combination of historical chronicle and a collection of literary narratives in which history is told in sufficient detail that it comes alive in our imagination and embodies universal human experience (history tells what happened, while literature goes beyond that and tells what happens universally). The three primary heroes are Samuel, Saul (a tragic hero), and David. The historical part records national history; the literary part is biography of individuals.

2 Samuel

The prose epic of David, which can also be called court history (the history of what happened at court, as written by an official recorder). Elements of hero story and tragedy also enter.

1 Kings

Court history (a chronicle of what various kings did), but because of the strongly religious worldview it is also a religious history of a nation. When the prophet Elijah enters in the last six chapters, biography and hero story become part of the mix. If we take a wide-angle view, the book falls into three segments: history of Solomon's reign (1-11); succession narrative in which the kingdom splits into two kingdoms (12-16); conflict story between Ahab and Elijah (17-22).

2 Kings

Court history of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Despite interspersed hero stories about virtuous kings, the overall pattern is that of the decline and fall of two nations. Subgenres include prophetic narrative, miracle story, political history, story of intrigue, and battle story. The storyteller is a master at recreating memorable moments that come alive in our imagination.

1 Chronicles

An expanded hero story that narrates the exploits of King David, as recorded by a court historian. Because David is the king of a nation, the genre of national history is also at work (with the repeated designation "all Israel" lending a corporate identity to the nation). The documentary impulse to record data and lists dominates (in contrast to earlier historical books, where people and events dominate).

2 Chronicles

Another historical chronicle, with a focus on personalities. A strongly religious viewpoint is imposed on the reigns of successive kings of Judah, as God rewards obedience to his covenant and punishes disobedience.


A return story that narrates the return of two waves of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem after captivity in Babylon. The main archetype is the rebirth of a nation in its homeland. The three dominating motifs are returning, rebuilding, and reforming


A kaleidoscopic book that combines hero story, return story, civil record, governor's report, and management handbook. Rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem occupies half of the book and takes on a symbolic meaning in addition to being a literal event. The popularity of this book for retreats and seminars shows that "principles for living" is a good summary statement.


A hero story par excellence, and equally a triumph of storytelling. In fact, this book possesses virtually all of the ingredients that the human race likes best in a story. The overall pattern is a U-shaped descent into potential tragedy followed by a rise to a happy ending; literary scholars call this plot pattern comedy. In this story, the comic plot is also a rescue story.


Many literary scholars claim that Job is the supreme literary achievement of the Old Testament. The main genre is poetic drama. Additionally, a drama like this that was never intended for performance on a stage is called a closet drama. Thematically, this book is the only book in the Bible that is a full-fledged theodicy—a reconciliation of God's goodness and omnipotence with the fact of evil and suffering in the world (the problem of evil, as philosophers call it). This highly poetic book needs to be read slowly and reflectively; ee will not enjoy it without relishing its poetry.


A poetry anthology. All of the poems are lyric poems—poems that express the thoughts or feelings of a speaker. As with all poetry anthologies, the individual poems are self-contained and do not form part of a larger story. The verse form in which all the Psalms are written is parallelism, and this can be relished as reflective of the poet's skill with language. Although all of the psalms are lyric poems (either reflective/meditative or emotional/affective), they usually fall into a further genre, the most numerous being lament psalms, praise psalms, nature poems, and worship psalms.


If we do not naturally think of the book of Proverbs as poetry, it is because our standard for poetry is lyric (as in the book of Psalms). But a glance at the format of the book of Proverbs shows that it is written in the verse form of parallelism. The primary literary unit of the book of Proverbs is the proverb—a concise, memorable statement of a general truth. A proverb is an observation about life, and the wisdom that it imparts is skill for living.


Although English translations print most of this book as prose, it possesses all the qualities of poetry. The primary unit is the proverb. Unlike the book of Proverbs, though, this collection of proverbs is tightly structured. Though the book is not organized as a story, the individual units tell the story of the author's quest to find satisfaction in life. Further, the whole collection is structured as a prolonged contrast between "under the sun" passages in which we are made to feel the emptiness of life lived by purely human and earthly values, and God-centered "above the sun" passages that offer an alternative. The book resembles a personal journal, consisting of passages of reflection, recollection of past experiences, and mood pieces.

Song of Solomon

An anthology of love poems. Since these poems are built around a single courtship and marriage, they have the quality of an epithalamion (marriage poem). As a love poem, the Song of Solomon resembles love poetry as it has always existed. The poems variously express the emotions of romantic love in heightened language, praise the beloved, compare the beloved to the best things in nature, invite the beloved to a life of mutual love, and portray typical moments in a courtship and marriage. There is nothing about this anthology of pastoral (rural) love lyrics that is out of the norm for love poetry, and we should resist a common practice of arbitrarily allegorizing the details. A love poem is a love poem, and we should abandon ourselves to the poems in this "best of the best" collection (which is the implication of the title—"the song of songs").


Falls into the category known as encyclopedic form (a substantial anthology comprised of diverse genres and forms). The book is so massive that it has been called by such labels as "a Bible within the Bible" and "a miniature Bible." Because of these qualities, we should focus on individual passages as self-contained, not looking for an ongoing narrative line. We need to be prepared for abrupt shifts in genre, mood, and time frame. Regarding the time frame, biblical prophecy sometimes predicts the immediate future, sometimes an intermediate future (especially the coming of Christ), and sometimes an "end times" future.


An elegiac ("sad, funereal") book that partly recounts the persecuted life of Jeremiah, the central personality, and partly reports the decline of the nation of Judah. The overall story is the difficult life of a godly man who is forced to endure hard times. Oracles of judgment dominate the book, and the takeaway message for us is the need to avoid the mistakes that the people of Judah made in ignoring God's call to reform their lives. Major archetypes include the wicked city and crime and punishment.


An elegy (funeral poem) that laments the metaphoric death of Jerusalem. The outpouring of grief (in its intensity rarely matched in all the annals of literature) is not inartistic, however. In addition to being highly poetic, four of the five chapters are arranged in the form of an acrostic (a poem in which successive units begin consecutively with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet). We can call the book a formalized expression of grief in a highly literary form.


Like Isaiah, an encyclopedic book comprised of many different genres, so we have no good alternative but to assimilate the successive units individually. Symbolism and fantasy (visionary writing) abound. We need to be clear, however, that with symbolism and fantasy the prophet uses imaginary details to portray realities that actually exist. A common paradigm at work in Ezekiel is one that this book shares with many other Old Testament prophecies: oracles of judgment against the prophet's nation, oracles of judgment against neighboring nations, and oracles of future blessing on God's people.


Two books in one—six chapters of narrative (in the specific form of hero stories) and six chapters of prophetic visions. The hero stories focus on individuals, while the prophetic visions of the future present a history of nations. The commanding figure of Daniel is a unifying factor in the book, and so is the sovereign presence of God.


The distinctive feature by which we remember the prophecy of Hosea is a symbol or metaphor rooted in a real-life event in Hosea's life: a husband's marrying a wife who would be an adulteress, and returning to her after she had deserted him. The wayward wife is a metaphor for Israel's disobedience to God's covenant.


Whereas the central metaphor of Hosea is the faithless wife, the controlling image in Joel is the killer locust, symbolizing God's judgment against an apostate nation. The book thus has affinities with the genre of the horror story. Surprisingly (and unlike the usual prophetic practice of being weighted on the side of judgment), the Joel’s prophecy is divided between a "bad news" half (two oracles of judgment) and a "good news" half (two oracles of redemption).


In terms of literary technique, one of the most packed books in the whole Bible. The plainspoken prophet Amos is a master of metaphor and parody (imitating an established genre with inverted effect). He is a passionate defender of the oppressed classes, and his prophecy is almost entirely a literary satire (which is commonly yet incorrectly assumed to involve humor).


One of five one-chapter books in the Bible, and accordingly noted for its compactness. This prophetic book denounces neither Israel nor Judah but rather the pagan nation of Edom. The usual prophetic paradigm of judgment followed by a golden age prophecy of future glory is present.


A satire in narrative form, as the prophet himself is held up to satiric rebuke from start to finish. The object of the satiric attack is ethnocentrism—wanting to claim God for one's own nation and being angry when God's grace extends to all nations and groups. Jonah is portrayed as a great nationalist, and God as a great internationalist. Of course the image by which we remember the story is the "great fish" that swallows Jonah and then spits him out.


The book is structured as three alternating cycles of oracles of judgment followed by oracles of redemption. The prophet self-identifies as coming from an agricultural region, and his book is filled with images from nature and farming. Like Amos, Micah focuses on social sins of oppression of the poor and legal injustice.


From the fields of Micah we are transported to a world of military combat. The prophecy is directed not to the covenant nations of Israel and Judah but to the Assyrian capital Nineveh. Oracles of redemption are totally absent in this prophecy of judgment.


After the farmer prophet (Micah) and the warrior prophet (Nahum), we come to the prophet who questioned God. Even more famous is the last chapter, containing the prophet's "though the fig tree should not blossom" assertion of trust in God. In this book the question-and-answer dialogue between the prophet and God takes the place of the customary oracles of judgment and redemption.


Three oracles of judgment and one of redemption. Dispensing with the usual features of describing and condemning evil, Zephaniah mainly predicts judgment against it. There are nearly twenty references to the coming "day of the Lord." The two bookends are "I will utterly sweep away everything" (1:2) and "I [will] restore your fortunes" (3:20).


Haggai does not predict coming exile to a covenant nation but denounces exiles who had returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. The sin that is denounced is the failure to rebuild the temple, symbolic of Israel’s devotion to God. After the temple is rebuilt, the prophet paints a picture of national prosperity. Instead of the usual poetry, this prophecy comes to us as prose.


The longest and most complex of the twelve Minor Prophets. An apocalyptic book that is commonly called the Revelation of the Old Testament. Features that those two books share are the technique of symbolic reality (a preponderance of symbols, so that the reality that we encounter as we read is primarily a world of symbols) and an apocalyptic (end times) orientation. In addition to being futuristic, the book belongs to the genre of visionary writing (as we are given visions of a future reality or a reality that transcends our earthly reality).


We rightly think of this book as the ending point of the Old Testament. A predominantly "bad news" book consisting of a litany of spiritual and moral failings of the priests and ordinary Jews who had returned to the homeland after the Babylonian captivity. The accusations are packaged as an imagined dialogue between God and his wayward people.

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English, the Christian Guides to the Classics series, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical LifeA Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.