This incisive and accessible book trains Bible readers to ask the right questions when reading God's Wordto help them understand and apply the text to their lives.
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About the Author
Matthew S. Harmon (PhD, Wheaton College) is professor of New Testament studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He was previously on staff with Cru for eight years and is the author of several books. Matthew and his wife, Kate, live in Warsaw, Indiana, and have two sons.
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Asking The Right Questions
A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible
By Matthew S. Harmon
Good News PublishersCopyright © 2017 Matthew S. Harmon
All rights reserved.
The Story We Find Ourselves In
Everyone loves a good story. Whether it is kids begging for Dad to read them a book at bedtime or friends gathering to watch a movie, people enjoy hearing (and telling) stories. Think for a minute about the last time you caught up with an old friend you had not seen in a while. No doubt that conversation included a story or two.
But stories are for more than entertainment or providing information. They shape our understanding of who we are, why we exist, what kind of person we should be, and what kind of world we live in. Whether we realize it or not, we automatically connect everything we experience to what we believe to be the true story of the world. Our view of the world is inherently story shaped.
The Bible tells us the true story of the world, the way things truly are and should be. But because we are sinful, we are blind to this reality. Left to ourselves, we will default to understanding our lives within the false stories promoted by our culture or our own self-made stories. But when we are born again, the Spirit of God opens our hearts and minds to understand what the Bible says about God, us, and the world around us. So if we are going to rightly understand who we are, why we exist, what kind of people we should be, and what kind of world we live in, the starting place is understanding the story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
Now that can sound intimidating; after all, the Bible is a huge book! So in what follows I want to give you a brief overview of the story of the Bible. To help you remember the big picture, I have divided the story into six segments, each one beginning with the letter c: creation, crisis, covenants, Christ, church, and consummation.
The opening sentence of the Bible sets the stage for understanding the nature of the world around us: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). As the Creator, God has complete authority over all that exists. He has created the world to reflect his wisdom and beauty. Out of all that God has made, his masterpiece is humanity. Only human beings are said to be made in God's image. To make sure we don't miss this crucial point, the text says it four times in just two verses (Gen. 1:26–27)! God has created us as image bearers to reflect his character. We are made to be mirrors of his beauty and glory. What people think, believe, desire, and do should display who God is as we interact with him, each other, and creation.
As image bearers our first parents, Adam and Eve, are given a mission. God commands them to rule over creation under his authority, in essence making them kings (Gen. 1:28). God places them in the garden of Eden, which is his sanctuary on earth. They are to serve as priests in this sanctuary, maintaining its purity (Gen. 2:15–17). Through humanity God intends to mediate his presence to the world.
God has not designed us to live as isolated beings. He made us to experience community with each other. This is seen most clearly in the marriage relationship, where a man and a woman become one flesh (Gen. 2:18–25). But even aside from the marriage relationship, God has designed human beings to display his perfections more fully together than any one individual possibly could.
The peaceful picture of Genesis 1–2 does not last long. God warned Adam and Eve that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die (Gen. 2:15–17). But Satan, masquerading as a serpent, convinces Adam and Eve to rebel against God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:1–6). Instead of "being like God" as Satan promised, Adam and Eve experience the shame and guilt of disobeying their Creator (Gen. 3:7). Instead of harmony with God and each other, guilt and shame enter in. Instead of running to God, they try to hide from him (Gen. 3:8).
When God confronts them, he announces judgment. The Serpent is cursed to crawl and eat dust. But more importantly, God makes this promise to the Serpent (in the presence of Adam and Eve):
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3:15)
In effect God is saying to the Serpent, "You may have defeated Adam and Eve, but there will come a day when a descendant of Eve will deal you a fatal blow. Yes, you will inflict a wound upon him, but in the end you will be crushed under his feet. My Serpent-crusher will ensure that I accomplish everything I have planned."
For Adam and Eve, judgment falls swiftly as well: increased pain in childbirth for the woman, as well a desire to undermine her husband's leadership in the marriage; increased difficulty in work for the man. Even creation itself is affected, as God places it under a curse. And when the time to die comes, humanity will return to the dust from which they were made.
Speaking of death, why don't Adam and Eve die immediately? Actually, they do — just not in the way we might expect. The ultimate kind of death is spiritual in nature; it is the kind of death that is the result of sin breaking a person's relationship with God. In the moment Adam and Eve rebel against God, they die spiritually. The physical death that follows hundreds of years later is simply the final outworking of their sin.
But judgment is not the final word for Adam and Eve. Although God has every right to end the whole program right there and destroy Adam and Eve for their rebellion, instead he shows mercy. God sacrifices some animals and uses their skins to clothe them, which is symbolic of covering their sin (Gen. 3:21). But the damage to creation has been done. Their sin has opened the floodgates for death to ravage creation, leaving it a pale reflection of its original glory.
From that point forward, sin and death spread through creation like wildfire. Things eventually become so bad that God brings judgment in a massive flood that wipes out the entire human race, except Noah and his family (Genesis 6–9). But even though God scrubs the earth clean, the flood does not change the human heart or its inclination toward sin and evil. Not long after Noah and his family emerge from the ark, they too show themselves to be just like Adam by disobeying God's purpose to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1). This rebellion culminates in the building of the Tower of Babel, where mankind unites to make a name for itself. God brings judgment and scatters the people into different languages (Gen. 11:1–9).
At this point things look grim, but God is just getting started.
To bring the Serpent-crusher into the world, God makes a series of covenants. A covenant is a solemn commitment that God makes with a specific person or group of people to do and/or be something. As part of that commitment, God makes promises that he places himself under an oath to fulfill.
While there are hints of a covenant with Adam and a covenant that God makes with Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:16–17), our starting point is with Abram (later renamed Abraham) and his barren wife Sarai (later renamed Sarah). Seemingly out of nowhere, God makes a stunning promise to them:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:1–3)
Here God is revealing how he is going to bring about the promised Serpent-crusher. He will form Abraham into a great nation and bless all the nations of the earth through him. Through Abraham's line God will fulfill his plan of ruling over creation through humanity. Eventually Sarah gives birth to Isaac as the promised son through whom God will continue the line of promise (Gen. 17:15–21; 21:1–7). God then renews the promise with Isaac's son Jacob (renamed Israel), and eventually with his twelve sons, from whom come the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 26–50).
Hundreds of years later Abraham's descendants have multiplied exponentially but find themselves enslaved in Egypt (Exodus 1). In response to their prayers for deliverance, God raises up Moses to deliver his people from Egypt (Exodus 2–6). Through Moses and his brother, Aaron, God brings a series of plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7–12), culminating in the death of the firstborn (marked by the celebration of Passover). Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and to the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 13–19). When they arrive there, God meets with them. He instructs Moses to say to the people:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Ex. 19:4–6)
God is forming the descendants of Abraham into a nation. By describing them as a "kingdom of priests" God is assigning to Israel a modified version of the commission given to Adam and Eve. Whereas Adam and Eve were designated as priest-kings who ruled over creation from the garden of Eden, Israel is designated a kingdom of priests who will bless the nations from the land of Canaan. This covenant that God is making with the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai is the temporary means by which God will preserve the line of the promised Serpent crusher and set his people apart from the other nations. As part of this covenant God gives Israel the law to teach them how to live as a kingdom of priests (Exodus 20–31).
But just like Adam and Eve, Israel blows it. Big time. Less than forty days after God spoke to Israel from Mount Sinai, Israel worships a golden calf (Exodus 32–34). Although God forgives them, this is but the first of many times when Israel goes after other gods. After wandering in the wilderness forty years (Numbers 13–36), they finally enter the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, Moses's successor (Joshua 1).
During the lifetime of Joshua, Israel manages to gain control of much of Canaan (Joshua 2–24). But pockets of resistance remain, and in the hundreds of years that follow, these surrounding peoples periodically oppress Israel (Judges 1–16). Such oppression is God's judgment for Israel's idolatry. When Israel cries out for deliverance, God raises up judges to rescue his people. This cycle repeats itself over and over again. Something has to change.
When Israel has finally had enough, the people ask God for a king (1Samuel8). They want to be just like the other nations. But that's just it — Israel is not supposed to be just like all the other nations! They are supposed to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation set apart by God to display his character to the rest of the world. Nevertheless, God gives them a king. But he gives them the kind of king the nations have — aman named Saul who is tall, strong, handsome, and wealthy (1 Samuel 9–15). But he is not fully devoted to the Lord, and God eventually rejects Saul as his king.
In his place God anoints David (1 Sam. 16:1–13). As a man after God's heart, David becomes the standard by which every other king will be judged. Eventually God makes a stunning promise to David:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2Sam. 7:12–16)
David is promised a descendant who will rule over an eternal kingdom and build a sanctuary for God to dwell with his people. God is making it clear that he is still pursuing his mission of ruling over creation through humanity for the display of his own glory. This promise finds initial and partial fulfillment in David's son Solomon, who extends his kingdom beyond the borders of Israel and builds a temple for the Lord to dwell in (1 Kings 1–10). But just as all before him, Solomon fails (1 Kings 11). He pursues the gods of his foreign wives. The nation begins to spiral downward, splitting into northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms (1 Kings 12). It becomes so bad that God first sends Israel (2 Kings 17) and then Judah (2 Kings 25) into exile. As the kingdoms of Israel and Judah continue their downward spiral into further idolatry, God raises up prophets to announce not only pending judgment but also the hope of restoration. Prophets such as Amos and Hosea announce the coming day of the Lord, when God will bring judgment on both his enemies and his rebellious people, but also redemption for the faithful remnant of his people. They foresee a day when a new people of God, consisting not merely of Jews but of Gentiles as well, will live under the rule of a Davidic King. God will transform not only his people but creation itself so that he may dwell with them forever.
Later prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel build on the prophecies of Amos and Hosea by announcing God's promise of a new covenant: Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:31–34)
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:26–27)
God will write his law directly on the hearts of his people. Full and final forgiveness will come. Cleansing from impurity and idolatry will be a reality. He will give his people a new heart and a new spirit to obey him. The Spirit of God will dwell in all of his people to empower their obedience. When this new covenant is established, there will be a people of God marked by a personal knowledge of the Lord based on final forgiveness of sins and expressed in greater heart-level obedience.
All of this will be accomplished through the One who is the Serpent-crusher, the Prophet greater than Moses, the Priest greater than Aaron, the conqueror greater than Joshua, David's greater son, the King wiser than Solomon, the servant of the Lord. He will obey where Adam, Noah, Israel, David, Solomon, and all the rest of humanity have failed. He will bring a new Spirit-empowered and Spirit-indwelt people of God into existence to live under his rule and authority in a new heaven and new earth. God will accomplish his purpose of ruling over creation through humanity.
But as the Old Testament closes, the question is When will the promised one come?
The New Testament begins by clearly identifying Jesus as the promised Serpent-crusher. He is the promised descendant of Abraham through whom God will bless all the nations (Matt. 1:1). He is the Son of David who will rule over an eternal kingdom. Unlike Adam, who failed in the garden, and Israel, who failed in the wilderness, Jesus defeats the Devil in the wilderness by refusing to give in to his temptations (Luke 4:1–13). He is the Spirit-anointed King who announces that the kingdom of God has arrived. Jesus calls for people to turn away from their sins and trust in him to be right with God (Mark 1:14–15).
Excerpted from Asking The Right Questions by Matthew S. Harmon. Copyright © 2017 Matthew S. Harmon. Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Laying the Foundation
1 The Story We Find Ourselves In 19
2 The Bible Is God's Tool to Change Us 33
Part 2 Reading the Bible
3 Reading the Bible as Jesus Did 45
4 Written for Us but Not to Us 55
5 Four Foundational Questions 63
Part 3 Reading Our Lives
6 The Gospel Pattern of Life 77
7 The Fallen Condition 85
8 The Gospel Solution 93
9 Applying the Bible to Our Whole Lives 101
10 The Power to Obey 111
Resource 1 Tips for Understanding and Applying Different Kinds of Passages 123
Resource 2 A Word to Pastors, Sunday School Teachers, and Small Group Leaders 127
Resource 3 At a Glance: Asking the Right Questions 131
General Index 133
Scripture Index 137
What People are Saying About This
“I love Matthew Harmon’s book Asking the Right Questions. That’s probably because Matt loves the Bible (and so do I). He has found a beautiful balance between Bible study skills and devotional depth. And he links all his insights to the gospel.”
Randy Newman,Teaching Fellow, C. S. Lewis Institute; author, Questioning Evangelism, Corner Conversations, and Bringing the Gospel Home
“I love this book on how to study and apply the Bible. Some books on interpreting Scripture are so complicated and have so many steps that we can become discouraged, but Harmon is simple and clear without being simplistic. He helps us see the big picture in studying the Bible by reminding us of the storyline of Scripture and by emphasizing that the story centers on Jesus himself. At the same time, we are given very practical advice on how to study and apply specific passages. An excellent resource for teachers, students, and all who desire to study the Scriptures.”
Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“The guidance Harmon provides in Asking the Right Questions is simple enough for a teenager or new believer to follow, but deep enough to lead even mature Christians to a better grasp and deeper application of Scripture. I love this book and look forward to using it to disciple people in our church.”
Brian G. Hedges,Lead Pastor, Redeemer Church, Niles, Michigan; author, Christ Formed in You
“Asking good questions is a key to understanding. And asking good questions about the Bible is a key to understanding the most important truths in the world. God can handle all your questions, and he loves to reward those who ask in faith when engaging his very words. This book will help you ask the best of questions on the best of sourcesGod’s Wordin the best of waysby faith.”
David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org; Pastor, Cities Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota; author, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines