It’s this time of year again where I look back on the whole year and do some reflection and report. I’ll start with the Bible books I studied in 2020.
I learn next to nothing watching videos or having discussion in groups. Sadly, it’s just how my brain functions. It seems to only process when it has the freedom to moderate the speed at which the information comes in. Knowing this puts me at a big disadvantage in terms of learning the Bible (or anything!), I try to rectify the issue and narrow the gaps by doing some Bible studies alone.
The Revelation to John
One of the most memorable moments this year was when COVID started to hit the UK, and especially when the first case was confirmed in my city. For a few days, I watched the figure grow maliciously. When the number reached about fifty I stopped watching and the hopeless dream of COVID not spreading evaporated (looking back, what an unrealistic dream, but didn’t we all dream?). Then hospitals at home and abroad started to run out of beds and equipment, and supermarkets started to run out of supplies. News reports were not always accurate or balanced, but its up-to-the-second reports escalated the panic. The heated debate about wearing or not wearing masks sparked hate crimes in already anxious neighbourhoods. People were furloughed. Economy dropped. There were floods and locust plagues in large sections of the world. The world was rolling uncontrollably down the gutter.
Among all these, the one prayer I heard most often was that ‘God is in control even in these situations’. I believed it but I don’t want it to feel like an empty chant. I wanted to be more confident about it. That was when I picked up the Book of Revelation at the beginning of lockdown. God is sitting on his throne, the Bible tells me so, and I can go to sleep.
Here are the study guides I used:
One of the most quoted passages in Revelation is chapter 21 verse 4, which says: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” Even thought it’s familiar, it’s way more powerful reading this verse after reading the whole twenty chapters that go before it: the heavenly throne room, the cosmic battle, the blood and tears of the saints, the dragon’s roar and the Lamb on the throne. It’s like watching the 2-minute triumphant scene at the end of the film ‘Dunkirk’. It’s not all that exciting if you skip the whole one and a half hours of disappointment, despair and death that precede it.
The Book of Revelation has pulled back the curtains a bit and showed us the spiritual world that we don’t see with our naked eyes. I have now seen and can now confidently say God is on the throne and he is in control.
Psalms 1 to 24
Now I’m confident that God is in control the next thing I want to do is to express my feelings and emotions to him in a godly way. Many books said that Psalms are great examples of faithful Christians speaking to God in all sorts of circumstances and emotions and we can borrow their words.
I can honestly report that my studies in Psalms was less fruitful than the ones in Revelation. Psalms are poems full of feelings. Firstly, I haven’t had much luck with poetry biblical or non-biblical. I’m completely defeated by T. S. Eliot as well. Secondly, lots of the time I simply don’t follow how the feelings gets from A to B in the verses. Sometimes the feelings are so intense there’s not a circumstance in my life that I can borrow those words without thinking I’m exaggerating my problems. In brief, it makes me feel like I’ve also got “the emotional range of a teaspoon”, to quote Hermione Granger.
A few books I read as guides:
Davis’ books are his brilliant sermon collections. The third in the series: In the Presence of My Enemies: Psalms 25-37 came out March this year. I found them very helpful, as helpful as sermon transcripts can be. My problem with sermon collections is that the preacher goes where he thinks it most important and helpful, but I have different questions in mind. If you come across a preacher who thinks in the same way as you, then you get all your questions answered. But that’s rare!
Among the books in the picture, Christopher Ash’s Teaching Psalms vol.1 is the most thought-provoking. It answers some of my questions and it also creates some more questions that I never thought of. I believe this book might have the key to unlock the treasure box of understanding Psalms. It’s just at the moment the key is still a jigsaw puzzle missing pieces, that’s why I haven’t been able to open the box. Any suggestions?
The Letter to the Hebrews
I have always wanted to study Hebrews in-depth, partly because it’s a long letter with comprehensive Christian doctrines that is not written by Apostle Paul (probably) – I really struggle with following Paul’s logic and arguments.
Two books influenced my approach to study Hebrews myself and also later on in one-to-one Bible studies: Deeper Still by Linda Allock and Unleash the Word by Karen Soole. Allock says, take your time and chew on the verses. Soole says, applications should not be forced in the study sections and responses should not stop as the study time ends.
A Merciful and Faithful High Priest is a series of sermons preached by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I was mostly surprised by how accessible his sermons are, having been used to our ministers’ sermons for years. But it’s not the most helpful of books for my purpose. For one thing, it includes about ten sermons on Hebrews 2 and nothing for Hebrews 3, 4 and 5. For another reason, it’s mainly applications and not a verse-by-verse study. It doesn’t cover ‘what does it say’ and ‘what does it mean’ questions and goes straight to ‘how should I respond’.
The Life Change series by NavPress is great for studying the first two questions and I find this study guide very helpful. I highly recommend this series.
I’m in chapter nine at the moment. As I expected, the logic and flow of arguments in the Letter to the Hebrews are easier to follow than Apostle Paul’s letters to the various churches. I can quite clearly summarise passages and explain them. I can’t always do that to Paul’s letters.
I also like reading about Jesus in comparison to familiar Old Testaments figures like angels, Moses, priests etc. It gives a fresh perspective. For example, I never thought that Jesus could be mistaken as inferior to angels. For me, who learnt about God the Father and Jesus the Son at the same moment, they came into my world together as one being. But for the Jews, God has been the God of their ancestors for hundreds of years before Jesus came to live on earth. God has sometimes spoken to their ancestors via angels and angels looked powerful to the point of terrifying. Jesus was a carpenter’s son and looked just like every ordinary human being. No wonder first century Jews had a lot of problem with worshipping Jesus as God.
There are small words that make a big impact. For example, Hebrews 1.14: “Are [angels] not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” It’s a rhetorical question. I knew angels serve God and were God’s messengers, but I wasn’t aware of that they’re sent out to serve Christians. How cool is that! Hebrews 2 quoting Psalm 8 says, comparing to the beauty of stars in the sky, men are small and insignificant. But God has crowned men with glory and honour. And Jesus through his suffering is going to restore the glory and honour to the fallen men. Jesus died for our reconciliation with the Father, for our seat reservation in the celebration Feast, and now I can add, also for bringing back our original glory and honour, much more glamourous than earthly riches.
What were the lessons and messages that you learnt from the Bible this year?