On the Study of God’s Great Works

As this new school year begins, I’ll be teaching New Testament Survey for the Juniors and Seniors at the local Christian High School, The Kings Academy. As I ponder how to motivate these young scholars to dig deep into the New Testament, my thoughts turn to Psalm 111:2, one of my favorite verses:

“Great are the works of the LORD; They are studied by all who delight in them.” NASB

I’ve found this verse useful to introduce just about any class that I teach.  Here’s why.

On the Importance of Studies

I first latched on to this verse because it highlights the word “study.” Granted, I am showing preference for the NASB and ESV translations, which use the term “study”, because my aim is to motivate others to study God’s works. The meaning of the Hebrew word translated “study” has broader meaning than just academic study, as brought out by the NIV, “they are pondered by all who delight in them” or the KJV which says, “sought out”.  The root seems to go deeper than academic study to include meditation and reflection. So to “study,” “ponder” “seek out” God’s great works is first application of this verse.

Where we can Discover God’s Great Works

As I have pondered this verse over the years, I experienced several great “Aha!” moments when I realized where we can discover God’s great works.

The Bible

I’ve taught Old and New Testament survey classes before and have shared Psalm 111:2 with my students to motivate them to study the scriptures, because the Bible records the marvelous works of the Lord. A casual reading of the Bible will notice that it records God’s works.

In particular Jesus claimed to have worked the works of God. These claims are especially prevalent in John’s Gospel. For example:

But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. John 5:36 ESV

 “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do”
John 17:4 ESV.

So the Bible is our first “go to place” to discover the works of God.

There is a collection of books called The Great Books, about 500 works of literature that have shaped Western Culture and still have contemporary significance. However, the Greatest Book ever written is the Bible. It has been read by more people, translated into the most languages, and has exerted the greatest positive influence on world history than any other literary work. The Bible is the greatest book because it records, the “great …works of the Lord”. And, yes, its author is God Himself (2 Timothy 3:16) – through the agency of human authors (2 Peter 1:20-21). That alone should make it the Greatest Book ever written!

So it is obvious that the Bible is a rich place to study the “great…works of the Lord. “ But there are other places where we can also discover the God’s works.

All Created Things

I once substituted for a natural science class and shared a devotional thought based Psalm 111:2 with the young scholars, motivating the them to study the physical world, because it is God’s creation, the work of his hands (Psalm 8:6). The Bible begins with an account of how God “created the heavens and the earth.” And God’s work was good, yes, very good. Psalm 19, written by David, begins “The heavens are declaring the glory of God.” Paul too refers to God’s revelation of himself though creation when he says “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…” (Romans 1:20) Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who is considered the father of the scientific method, observed “God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.” No doubt Bacon’s understanding of the Creator motivated him to devise methods to study His creation. So then the study of the natural sciences, astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, botany and biology, can point to the “great …works of the Lord,” leading us to marvel at his power and wisdom.

Human History Points to His Story

I’ve taught the history of Christian missions on several occasions. Psalm 111:2 is fitting to share with those classes, as a trained mind should be able to discern the “great…works of the LORD” throughout the history of Christian missions. There is a German word that I love: heilsgeschichte – it is fun to say and means :”an interpretation of history emphasizing God’s saving acts and viewing Jesus Christ as central in redemption” (Merriam Webster Dictionary). In my opinion, the person who coined this term got it right. We can discover in history God’s great works. Human history points to His Story!

The Present Day Mission Work

Recently I used Psalm 111:2 to introduce a training seminar on missionary research. The mission organization that I serve with, One Challenge International, says, “We ask how God is at work, then we assist the Body of Christ to being God’s transformation to individuals, communities and nations.” Since we hold that God continues to work in the world today, missionary field research enables us to seek how God is at work today – if we connect the facts with the divine factors causing Church growth (1 Corinthians 3:5ff) – and then join Him in His redemptive purposes.

The mission information worker or researcher is much like a news reporter – relating the story of what God is doing today.

So my second observation from Psalm 111:2 is that God’s works can be found in many places: scripture, the created order, in the history of Christian missions and on the mission field today. We have plenty to study!

Discovering God’s Work is Delightful!

This leads to a final observation: studying the works of God is delightful. Psalm 111:2 concludes on this note: “Great are the works of the LORD; They are studied by all who delight in them.” I’ve found great delight in discovering God’s work.

I remember when I first started to read though the Bible with spiritually open eyes. Wow! What wonderful discoveries I made that I was blind to in previous readings. This was also the same time when I discovered the highlighter. Vast portions of my Bible turned yellow as I marked those marvelous, life transforming passages. I discovered, as David wrote, that the scriptures “are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).

Over the years as a mission information worker, I’ve spent hundreds of hours entering data into Church and Christian worker databases. Many would consider this mundane work, but I’ve found it exhilarating, after I realized that I’m not just entering data, but I am recording the great works of the Lord. Each baptism represents God’s work in the life of a new believer. Each new church has God’s fingerprints all over it. Every new missionary sent out, every new Christian Worker is evidence of God’s work. I’ve experienced delightful moments of worship when I’ve recognized God’s work in the data of Christian missions.

Motivation for Education

We might view the interaction of God’s works, study and delight as a spiral. The more we study, ponder, reflect on God’s works, the more we delight in them. And the more we delight in God’s work, the more we want to study them.

I hope that you frequently experience the joy of discovering God’s great works – where ever they are found.

Sharing the Great News of God’s Wonderful Works

Another motive for studying the great works of the Lord is to “Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples” (Psalm 96:3 NASB). We cannot share with another what we have first discovered ourselves. As we turn to the New Testament, we realize that the greatest work of the Lord is the atoning death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead, which provides the basis for the forgiveness of sins. Luke summarizes, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46,47).  This succinct summary points to the greatest news of God’s wonderful works, and our 21st century obligation to share it with all peoples.

My Next Step

The New Testament has quite a bit to say about how God continues to work out his redemptive plan. So I intend to write a brief piece that identifies some of the specific items that a “trained mind” looks for to discover God’s work in history and the present.

The Process of Missiological Thinking is as Easy as One, Two, Three

In previous posts, I reflected on the passage in 1 Chronicles 12:23-40 that describes how David became king of all Israel, from which I identified three characteristics of spiritual leaders. Spiritual leaders must:  (1) pursue God’s agenda in unity, (2) understand the times and (3) know what God’s people should do. These three characteristics also imply three questions that can guide a spiritual leader through a process of missiological thinking, providing a basis for effective leadership of the Body of Christ. So let’s look at the three questions and then consider how they work together in the process of missiological thinking.

  1. The Vision Question: What does God want? What is His Agenda? This point is drawn from 1 Chronicles 12:23 where it says that Israel’s leaders acted “according to the Word of the Lord.” Answering the vision question enables a spiritual leader to communicate to the Body of Christ the end we all are working toward, God’s desired future. This is discerned primarily through prayerful theological reflection upon scripture or revelation.
  2. The Status Question: What is the present state of affairs? What is God doing? The Status question follows from the description of the leaders of the tribe of Issachar, who understood the times. For our missional purposes, answering this question requires a detailed description of the Harvest Field, that is, the country, community or people group where disciples are being made. Second, also requires a thorough description of the Harvest Force, this is the Church, God’s people. Third, it also involves perceiving what the Lord of the Harvest has done in the past and is doing in the present. The three perspectives help us to “understand the times”. Research one of the primary tools used to understand the times.
  3. The Mission Question: What should God’s people do? What is it going to take to do what God wants? These questions also follow from the description of the leaders of Issachar, who knew what God’s people should do. The insights gleaned here will describe what steps are necessary to align with God’s agenda and join the Lord of the Harvest in what he is doing. This involves the use of reason in theological reflection and strategic thinking.

Missiological Thinking

The Process of Missiological Thinking is as easy as One, Two, Three

The Vision, Status and Mission questions outline the process of missiological thinking.

First, we start with the end in sight contemplating the Vision Question: What does God want? What is His agenda?

Second, we seek to answer the Status Question, striving to understand the times.

Third, we use the Mission Question: What should God’s people do?

Starting with an understanding of what God wants and also the present state of affairs, discerning leaders will perceive a gap between to two realities. In response to prayer (James 1:5), God will provide wisdom about the steps that are necessary to transform present situation to that which God desires.  It will be difficult to develop an effective strategy if there is not clarity about what God wants. But it will be just about impossible to develop an effective strategy if we do not understand the times.

The outcome of the missiological thinking process will be a number of action steps that provide direction to the Body of Christ in the short term (up to two years), medium term (two to five years) or longer term (more than five years).  The process of missiological thinking therefore needs to be regularly revisited, as the status changes and new plans are needed relevant action is needed.

“I love it when a plan comes together” –Col.  John “Hannibal” Smith, leader of the A Team

Some object that strategic thinking is not a biblical concept, rather it has been wrongly imported from the secular business world. In our understanding, strategy thinking – or, more appropriately named, missiological thinking – is a highly spiritual process. First of all, because God reveals what he wants. Second, He gives insight and understanding about what we should do, and third, He works in us and through us to bring hope and transformation to individuals, nations and communities.

I also approach this question from a unique strategy perspective. Because every church, every community, every context is different, what “works” as an effective strategy in one place or time does not necessarily mean that the same strategy will be effective in another place at another time. The vision is the same; but because the status is different, the strategy also must be contextualized to be effective in the different situation.

The Old Testament in particular seems to affirm God-centered human planning. A casual reading of the book of Proverbs will yield many verses that frame God-centered human planning in a positive light. Also I came across this golden passage in Isaiah 32:7-8 (NASB) that affirms devising noble plans.

As for a rogue, his weapons are evil;
He devises wicked schemes
To destroy the afflicted with slander,
Even though the needy one speaks what is right.
But the noble man devises noble plans;
And by noble plans he stands.”

So I find it difficult to argue that God would forbid us to devise noble plans that result in his will being done on earth as in heaven.

That said, we need to humbly confess that we humans can and do err in making plans, even ones that claim to honor God.  (Read through James 4 for perspective on this.)

The application is up to you!

So here we have a biblically-based model for missiological thinking. Ponder how this process applies in your context. The application is up to you!

Spiritual Leaders Must First of all Pursue God’s Agenda in Unity

My last posting highlighted two characteristics of spiritual leaders found in 1 Chronicles 12:32, namely that spiritual leaders understand the times and know what God’s people should do. Considering this passage in its context, a third characteristic of spiritual leaders emerges: spiritual leaders must first of all pursue God’s agenda.  So let’s see how this idea emerges from the passage.

1 Chronicles 12:23, which introduces the entire passage, says: “Now these are the numbers of the divisions equipped for war, who came to David at Hebron, to turn the kingdom of Saul to him, according to the word of the LORD” (NASB). The last few words are key, as they provide insight into why these leaders of Israel took the action they did. They understood that it was God’s revealed will to make David king.

The fact that David was chosen by God to rule over all Israel was not new news. More than a decade had passed since God revealed to the prophet Samuel that David was to rule instead of Saul and Samuel anointed David as king (1 Samuel 13:14; 16:13). So the fact that David was God’s choice to rule all Israel had been known for some time.

Instead, we see that for a period, Israel’s leaders pursued a different agenda. At this point in time, seven and a half years passed since the death of Saul, from which time David reigned over only the tribe of Judah. These seven and a half years were characterized by conflict and civil war as the leaders of the other eleven tribes attempted to maintain the kingship of Saul’s house, whom God had rejected, instead of making David king, as God directed. Thus we have a significant amount of time where un-spiritual leaders were seeking to do their own will rather than pursuing God’s revealed agenda.

So the action that we see here in 1 Chronicles 12 was not immediate action based on a new revelation, but rather the leaders and people finally (!) coming into alignment with God’s long ago revealed will.

Henry and Richard Blackaby, in their book Spiritual Leadership, state that effective spiritual leaders move God’s people into alignment with God’s agenda. I find this description of spiritual leadership very helpful. But this passage in 1 Chronicles 12 brings to light the problematic issues that emerge when the majority of spiritual leaders choose to not pursue God’s revealed agenda. The intervening seven and a half years between Saul’s death and David being made king over all Israel involved civil war, assassinations and needless death and suffering, all because Israel’s leaders would not accept God’s revealed word. Instead they pursued their own agenda – to their own detriment.  In this context, spiritual leaders must first choose to pursue God’s agenda; then they are able to move God’s people into alignment with God’s agenda.

In my experience two plus decades of working with Christian leaders, I have observed that it is frequently necessary to persuade spiritual leaders to pursue God’s revealed agenda. One would think that this should not be an issue; but it is. There are many possibilities of why this is so. Some may be ignorant of God’s revealed agenda. Others have forgotten or neglected the pursuit of God’s will or have a list of excuses of why God’s  revealed will does not apply. A few have outright rejected God’s word in order to pursue a self-seeking agenda.  Maybe the pursuit of God’s agenda is “politically incorrect” or challenges the status quo of those who are positional church leaders. So the first task is to help spiritual leaders wrestle with what God wants, to take God’s revealed word seriously, to lay down their own agendas to pursue God’s agenda in unity. I ‘ve observed that a primary factor that derails church planting and disciple making initiatives is that leaders are unable to come together in unity to pursue God’s agenda. Is it any wonder that there is so much disunity in the Body of Christ when its leaders are unwilling to pursue God’s agenda?

So this is the key point: spiritual leaders must first of all pursue God’s agenda in unity; then they will be able to move the rest of God’s people to accomplish what is on God’s agenda.  We see this happening in 1 Chronicles 12, where hundreds of thousands of people come into alignment with God’s agenda to make David King of all Israel. Would it not be more wonderful to see hundreds of thousands – even millions –  of God’s people working together today to make Jesus king of the whole earth!

Adding this perspective to our previous observations from 1 Chronicles 12 about spiritual leadership it is seen that spiritual leaders must:  (1) pursue God’s agenda in unity, (2) understand the times and (3) know what God’s people should do.

I see that several practical applications that follow from these observations. So the next piece will focus on three practical questions every spiritual leader must be able to answer. Subscribe if you wish to follow the conversation.