Week 55: Revelation

Prepare these questions for Sunday, May 18, 2014.  We will not meet May 11 due to Mother's Day.

The book of Revelation was written by the disciple John, most likely the last surviving man to have walked with Jesus during his ministry. In John's day, apocalyptic literature was a known form of writing. Visions where an angel or other guide shows a mortal man the spiritual world were fairly common. Today, it is a rather odd way to tell a story or to encourage someone and, therefore, Revelation is often hard to understand. This book was literally written to encourage Christians from seven specific churches during the oppression that was coming from the Roman Empire. The book was a letter meant to be read aloud in each of these churches and the symbolism would have been more familiar to them (for instance, references to the seven mountains or hills is most likely Rome, which was known as the City of the Seven Hills). Although many Biblical scholars and teachers try to unravel the mysteries of this book (and argue a lot in the process), it's main message can be clear without understanding what modern or future events it may or may not be referencing. The basic idea is this: Trials will come. With God, we can endure these trials. In the end, God will reign over all creation as He did in the beginning.

1. What does John's vision of Jesus look like in Chapter 1? How does this differ from the Jesus we have read about in the rest of the New Testament?

2. Read the description of the throne in Heaven in chapter 4. What impression does this vision give of God?

3. There are a lot of number references in Revelation that are probably symbolic. Twelve, and multiples of 12, can refer to the 12 tribes of Israel and possibly just mean people who follow God. The number seven sometimes refers to the seven churches to whom the letter is addressed and sometimes refers to Rome. Why would there be so many specific numbers used if they are not literal? Why didn't the author just state more plainly what he wanted to say?

4. Read the description of the Heavenly Warrior in chapter 19:11-21. This is generally thought to be the second coming of Christ (the first one being when Jesus was teaching on Earth). What might the seven churches like about this different version of Christ? What might they find scary or intimidating?

5. The descriptions of the New Heaven and the New Earth, the New Jerusalem, and the restored Eden are all a bit controversial. Are they restored here on our literal planet? Are they visions? What does the final victory over evil actually look like? We can't know, but we can gain assurance from idea of victory and the last words of the Bible. Read Revelation 22:12-21. What is the main idea of this epilogue? Why do you think this is how the Bible ends?

Week 54: John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John

Prepare these questions for Sunday, May 4, 2014. We will not meet April 20 due to Easter or April 27 due to Inside Out Gives Back.

All four of these books are believed to have been written by the apostle John. Not to be confused with John the Baptist, John was one of the 12 disciples and, unlike most of the others, lived to be an old man. The book of John is considered to be one of the four Gospels, the books that tell the story of Jesus. However, John's account leaves out quite of few of the stories told in the other Gospels. Instead, John focuses on Jesus's exchanges with other people and Jesus's own identity.

1. Read John 1:1-5. What do these verses tell you about Jesus's relationship to God? What do they tell you about Jesus's relationship with mankind? What hope can these verses bring if you were to memorize them and pray on them?

2. What evidence does John give for how Jesus treated people? What was important to Jesus in his interactions with others? Use examples from the stories of turning water to wine, Jesus clearing the temple courts, Jesus's relationship with Nicodemus, and Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well.

3. There are several "I am" statements made by Jesus in this book. They are a reference to God calling Himself  "I Am" in the Old Testament and they reveal more about who Jesus is. Read the following verses and describe in our own words who Jesus said he was and how we are to relate to Him.
John 6:35; John 10:14-15; John 11:25-26; John 14:6-7; John 15:5

1 John, 2 John, and 3 John are traditionally believed to be letters written by John to the church at Ephesus. They are meant as encouragement and are not long or well organized. They are, instead, John's reminder of our personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

4. Read 1 John 5: 14-15. What is our prayer relationship with Jesus? What do you think are the key portions of these verses?

5. Read 2 John  v. 5 and 3 John v. 4.  How do these verses in these very short books offer instruction and encouragement?

Week 53: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon

Prepare these questions for Sunday, April 13, 2014.  We will not meet on April 6 due to Spring Break.

1 and 2 Timothy are letters from Paul to his friend and protege, Timothy. While Paul was in prison the church at Ephesus had a lot of corruption in the form of leaders who were taking too much money from the people, a lot of dissent within the community of believers, and a lot of arguments about which laws should be followed. To help, Paul sent Timothy to lead the church there and sent Timothy these two letters. The letters were meant to both encourage Timothy and to be read aloud to the church and, hopefully, help Timothy lead more effectively.

1. 1 Timothy has a decent amount of specific advice for the Ephesians. Paul gives instruction for worship, how to treat young widows, and how Christian slaves should act toward their masters. How does this advice for a different time and place have relevance for you life today?

2. 2 Timothy is primarily Paul's letter of encouragement to Timothy as he deals with the difficult Ephesians. What general advice does Paul give Timothy? Choose a particular verse or phrase that encourages you to memorize.

Titus is a letter from Paul to his co-worker Titus who was working with the church on the island of Crete. They had the same problems that the Ephesians did; namely arguments about circumcision, what foods to eat, and pursuing "mysterious" knowledge.

3. Paul encourages the people of all ages and stages of life to be humble, obedient, and respectful. Why was this such a hard message for people to take to heart? Why is it an important message for the Christian church?

While Paul was in prison in Rome he met an escaped slave named Onesimus who had become a believer and helped Paul deliver his messages to the churches around the Roman Empire. Philemon was the man from whom Onesimus escaped. When Paul needed Onesimus to return to the city of Colossae, he wrote Philemon this letter asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus and greet him as a fellow brother in Christ.

4. Although it is hard for us to relate to the slave owner in this case, Philemon was the wronged party in their culture and their time period. His slave had run away and probably stolen from him in the process, but the slave returned with a letter from Paul asking for forgiveness and to be taken back as a brother. Would you be willing to put aside your justified hurt or anger and still love the person who wronged you? What does this letter reveal to us about Jesus and His message while here on earth?

Week 52: 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians

Prepare these questions for Sunday, April 13, 2014. We will not meet April 6 due to Spring Break.

Yet another letter from Paul to a church community he helped to found, 1 Thessalonians is addressed to the people of Thessalonica. It is a letter of encouragement to the people to keep up the good work and to answer some theological questions they had.

1. Read chapter 4, verses 9-12. What advice does Paul give the Thessalonians for how to live their lives? What do you think of this advice?

2. At the end of Chapter 4 Paul addresses concerns about what happens when Christians die. What did he tell the Thessalonians and how does this information affect your view of death?

3. Read Paul's final instructions at the end of chapter 5. What final few pieces of advice does he give and what does this tell you about the struggles the Thessalonians were having?

In 2 Thessalonians Paul again writes to Thessalonica. It seems that some of what Paul said in his first letter was confusing and he wanted to clarify some points.

4. The believers in Thessalonica had apparently been told by someone that "the Day of the Lord" had already come and they were afraid they had missed it. This phrase was used in the Old Testament to mean a time when God's judgement punished the evil. What does Paul say in Chapter 2 about when God's final judgment will happen?

5. What warnings did Paul give against idleness and what do you think that means for modern believers?

Week 51: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians

Prepare these questions for Sunday, March 30, 2014.

These books are all letters that Paul wrote to various churches in and around Asia Minor (modern Turkey-Philippi was across the Aegean Sea in Macedonia). They address similar concerns from letters we've studied previously-confusion over various teachings the churches have heard, conflict within and conflict from without their communities.

Galatians focuses on the question of whether or not Gentile believers in Christ (those not born Jewish) had to follow the same religious practices (like circumcision) that the Jews practiced in order to be saved.
1. Read Galatians 2:11-3:22. What is Paul's stance on observance of the law (especially circumcision) and what does this tell you about your own relationship with God?

2. Paul exhorts the Galatians to live by the Spirit. Chapter 5:13-26 explains how you can tell if you are living by the Spirit. What qualities does Paul call the "fruit of the Spirit?"

Ephesians may have been written specifically to the church at Ephesus, but it may also have been intended to be passed around and read in other churches Paul did not know as well as he knew the Ephesians. Therefore, this letter addresses topics that would be of concern to lots of new Gentile (non-Jewish) churches and, honestly, to us today.
3. Choose one of the following topics and find out what Paul's lesson was in the book of Ephesians. How can you apply this information to your life now or in the future? When you are finished, try to study the other topics throughout your week.

  • Christ's love and reconciliation for all people
  • body of Christ
  • Instructions for Christian living
  • Instructions for wives and husbands
  • the Armor of God
Philippians is a letter Paul wrote after the people in Philippi had raised money to help him while he was imprisoned, probably in Rome. It is a letter of encouragement in the face of adversity and strife.
4. Read Chapter 4:4-9. Do you find these verses encouraging for your own life? How do you think they were received by the Philippians?

The people of Colossae were another group of Gentiles who had come to believe in the message of Jesus Christ. They, too, were confused by some of the teachings they were hearing about observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, and circumcision. Paul's letter reminds them that if they have Christ, they do not need to do anything else for their salvation. 
5. Read Chapter 3:1-17. What does Paul tell the Colossians to do instead of worrying about specific man-made rules of behavior? Is this practical advice today?

Week 50: 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians

Prepare these questions for Sunday, March 23, 2014.

The books of 1 and 2 Corinthians were letters written by the apostle Paul to the early church in the Greek city of Corinth. Paul had stayed for over a year in Corinth teaching and founding the early church, but then moved on to other cities, especially Ephesus. While in Ephesus Paul heard about quite a lot of turmoil and difficulty going on in the Corinthian church. They were judgmental of non believers, but oddly tolerant of their own sins. They fought over which teacher they liked best-Paul, Apollos, or Cephas (Peter). These letters are Paul's answers to many of their arguments added with his own advice and judgement about their behavior.

1. What were some of the problems facing the church in Corinth? How do these types of distractions compare to problems in the modern American church?

2. Paul speaks a lot about sexual immorality and the role of marriage in this letter. Read 1 Corinthians, chapters 6 and 7. What is Paul's advice concerning these important topics?

3. Read 1 Corinthians, chapter 12. What does Paul say about spiritual gifts and the roles of different believers in the "body of Christ"?

4. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is one of the most famous passages of the New Testament, largely because it is often read at weddings. Do your best to memorize this passage. What is Paul's advice about what love really is?

5. In 2 Corinthians Paul continues his advice to Corinth and focuses a great deal on false teachers and so-called "apostles" that have come after him. The people of Corinth were being led astray by teachers who said things they wanted to hear, but not necessarily things that fit with Jesus and his teachings. In Chapter 4 Paul attempts to encourage the Corinthians and remind them that they are one in a spirit of faith. Read this chapter and write down any words or phrases that you would find encouraging.

6. In chapter 12 of 2 Corinthians Paul talks about the benefit of being weak. What does Paul say about this topic and what do you think that means for your own everyday life?

Week 49: Romans

Prepare these questions for Sunday, March 16, 2014.

The book of Romans is a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church of early believers in Rome. It is a great example of Paul's writing and it follows his standard pattern: Introduction of himself and his main ideas, a teaching section (chapters 1-11), a practical application section (chapters 12-16), and a closing with his travel plans and greetings. The church he was writing to was having conflicts between Jew and Gentile believers due to cultural and political issues in their past. Paul therefore wrote a lot about grace, how we all need God's grace, and how we should all be accepting of one another.

1. This conflict was a big deal and was preventing the early believers from being effective as the body of Christ. Read verses 2:1-16. What does Paul say to the quarreling people of Rome and how can this advice be useful for the church today?

2. The "Romans Road" is a tool for teaching and sharing the gospel with someone else. It is a series of 5 portions of Romans that summarize the message of Jesus. Read verses 3:23, 5:8, 6:23, 10:9-10, and 10:13. How could you use these verses to share your faith with someone else or to strengthen your own understanding of the Word of God?

3. Chapters 12-15 contain pretty great advice on how to treat those around us. Read chapters 12 and 13 and choose a verse or passage that resonates with you. How can you put this advice into practice in your own life?

4. The believers of the church in Rome were having a hard time reconciling the different ways that they worshiped God. The Jewish believers wanted to keep the old law concerning dietary restrictions, for instance, but the Gentile believers didn't think that was necessary. Read chapter 14 and 15:1-13. What does Paul say to do with these conflicts and how could this advice apply to the modern church?

Week 48: Acts

Prepare these questions for Sunday, March 9, 2014.

Acts is the second half of Luke's history of the early church. While Luke was not around for much of what he described in the book of Luke, he actually did travel with Paul and personally witnessed some of what he described in the book of Acts. This book focuses on the spread of Christianity (what early believers referred to as the Way) throughout the Mediterranean region.

1. What is the event of Pentecost described in Chapter 2? What is the significance of this event and how did it alter the relationship between people and God?

2. Chapters 3-7 describe lots of preaching, healing, and miracles performed by early church leaders including Peter. We are also introduced to new leaders and the conflicts they faced. Who was Stephen, why was he (and other early leaders) controversial, and what happened to him/

3. Read the story of Saul/Paul's conversion in chapters 8 and 9. What happened to him and how does his conversion affect the spread of Christianity/

4. There are many obstacles to the apostles' ministry throughout the book of Acts. What types of struggles do they face, both from within their own organization and from the Jewish and Roman communities?

5. The last 10 chapters or so of Acts are almost exclusively about Paul. What circumstances or characteristics did Paul have that made him perfect for the ministry God told him to do? What experiences or knowledge do you have that might be useful in your own life's ministry? 

Week 47: Luke

Prepare these questions for Sunday March 2, 2014.

The book of Luke is named after it's author, Luke. He was a non-Jewish (Gentile) follower of Jesus's teachings who was also a physician. Luke set out to interview eyewitnesses and review reports and records of Jesus's life in order to record the most accurate retelling of the story that he could. This book, probably written in the early 60s AD, is the first part of Luke's efforts (the second part is the book of Acts).

1. Chapters 1-2 record the birth of Jesus. Compare this retelling of the story to those in Matthew and Mark. What is similar about these books? What is different? Why might there be more or less detail in one than in another?

2. Chapter 4 v. 1-13 recounts the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. What do you learn about God from this passage? What do you learn about the humanity of Christ? How can we use these lessons in our own lives?

3. Read Luke 6:17-49. What do these verses say about the way believers should treat those around them? Do you think the modern church is behaving in a way that Jesus (according to Luke's account) commanded people to behave? Are you following these instructions in your own life? What can you do to change your behavior for the better?

4. Chapters 7-14 are filled with parables, miracles, and teachings Jesus told or performed. There are lessons from Mary and Martha, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Transfiguration, and some impressive healing. Choose one passage from these chapters that stands out to you. What does this passage teach you about God and what do you think God wanted to tell future generations through this story? How can these stories be relevant to your modern life right now?

5. Chapter 15 tells three parables with the same point. They relate to the telling of an actual event in chapter 19 v. 1-10. In fact, these examples tell the primary purpose of Jesus's life and teachings. What is this point and why would Luke (the gentile doctor writing to other gentiles) be the one most likely to focus on this message?

6. The last chapters of Luke retell the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Is there anything you notice that is different than the other Gospels we've read (Matthew and Mark)? 

Week 46: 1 and 2 Peter; Jude

Prepare these questions for Sunday, February 23, 2014.

After Jesus died and rose again, the disciples and other believers set out around the Mediterranean to spread the message of his life and death. Peter, the apostle and "rock upon whom" Jesus would build his church, wound up in Rome where he was eventually killed for his beliefs. Jude was one of Jesus's brothers and although we don't know as much about him, it is clear that he was also an early church leader. These books are letters (two from Peter and one from Jude) to groups of believers encouraging them to resist false teaching, keep their faith, and live out their beliefs in order to show those around them that God's love is real. Jude and 2 Peter share a lot of the same imagery so it is possible that Peter had read Jude's letter before writing his own. It was common at that time for a single letter to be passed from community to community and read by people in many places.

1. Peter's letters encourage the believers to use their relationships with non believers to reveal the love of God. Read 1 Peter 2:1-2 and 3:8-9. How could living your life by these words be an example of God's love to those around you?

2. What does Peter say about how others will treat you for choosing to live a life according to God's word? How does Peter encourage the believers to respond to these people?

3. In 2 Peter, we are given encouragement for how to live lives that glorify God and encourage others. Read 2 Peter 1:3-9. Which of these activities do you need to focus on  to "keep you from being ineffective and unproductive" in your life?

4. If you choose to live a life that follows Christ's teachings, at some point, people will make fun of you. Read 2 Peter 3:3-9. Even though we cannot always see God or His plan that does not mean that there isn't one. What reason does Peter give for God's seeming "slowness" to keep His promises?

5. Peter and Jude both warn of false teachers who will try to use the words of God to get what they want. What traits does Jude say the false teachers will have? (Jude v. 16) Have you ever encountered people who seem like they are using their faith in a way counter to God's commands and intents?

Week 45: Mark and James

Prepare these questions for Sunday, February 16, 2014.

The book of Mark is one of the four books that make up the Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and John are the others) that tell the story of the life and death of Jesus. Although the text does not state an author, it is traditionally thought to be a man named Mark who knew and recorded Peter's eyewitness account of following Jesus. Most of the stories found in Mark can also be found in other Gospels.

1. Most of Mark focuses on the concept of Jesus's identity. Read the text imagining that you were an eyewitness to these events. Who would you say Jesus is?

2. Choose one or two events and compare it to the same event recorded in Matthew. What is similar? What is different? Why might two different people have slightly different language or details when recording the same event?

3. Verses 1:16-18 and 12:29-31 have almost identical counterparts in the book of Matthew. Why would these verses be repeated and what impact does that have on your understanding of the Bible?

The book of James is thought to have been written by James, the brother of Jesus. James, like most of us would be, was uncertain about his brother's message at first, but became a leader in the early church and gave practical advice. These messages are written for those who already follow Christ and are uncertain about how to live out their faith in their daily lives. James says that while good deeds do not make God love you more, it is still your responsibility to offer love and kindness to those around you in honor of the gift of salvation that you have received.

4. What does James say about trials and tribulations in our lives? How can you apply that concept to your own life?

5. What does Chapter 3 say about the tongue (what we say and how we say it)? How is that relevant to our modern world and your life in particular?

Week 44: Hebrews

Prepare these questions for Sunday, February 9, 2014.  We will not meet February 2 due to myLife.

Hebrews is a letter written to people of Jewish descent who were also Christians. It was probably written before the year 70 AD, but enough time after Jesus died and rose again that these people were not witnesses to his life and death. No author is named, but Timothy is mentioned in the end of the book so it must have been someone who knew him.

1. Much of this book references the Old Testament (especially in chapters 3, 7, and 11). What is the purpose of all of these references? How do they influence how you read this book?

2. What is a covenant and what is the "new covenant" that is talked about in chapter 8? How does this covenant affect our lives if we are Christ followers?

3. Read verses 4:12-14. What characteristics about God are revealed in these verses?

4. Hebrews is filled with words of encouragement and exhortation. Read the following verses: 5:12-13, 11:1-3, 12:1-3, and 13:1-8.  Use your own words to summarize each set of verses. What message(s) can be taken from these words when read together? How is this message useful to you today?

Week 43: Matthew 18-28

Prepare these questions for Sunday, January 26, 2014.

We continue with the rest of the book of Matthew, which adds more parables and the story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. These passages cover some of the most well-known portions of the Bible.

1. One of the key concepts of Matthew is that those considered weak, unimportant, or insignificant are of great value to God. Look at the passages in 18:1-14, 19:16-30, 20:1-16, and 20:20-28. How do these stories convey the message that God values the humble?

2. Through both parables and responses to religious leaders (the Sadducees and Pharisees), Jesus reveals some of what frustrates and angers God. Read chapter 18:21-35 and chapters 21, 22, and 23. Based on these verses, what qualities anger God, especially regarding so-called "religious" people? Are you guilty of any of these behaviors in your own life?

3. Memorize the verses found in chapter 22:37-39. These are called the "Greatest Commandment" and are the crux of how anyone claiming to follow God should live his or her life. What would look different in your life if you were to live out this "greatest commandment"?

4. Chapters 24 and 25 deal with another big concept: no one knows when Jesus will return (or when your earthly life will be over) and you are expected to make good use of the gifts you've been given while you're here. How did Jesus explain these ideas in these chapters? What can you do differently this week that will help to ensure that your talents are not wasted during the unknown amount of time you have on this earth?

5. The end of Matthew details the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Read these verses and try to ignore what you think you already know about this story. Read only what is written and not what you've seen in movies or books. What, if anything, stands out to you that you didn't know or think about before? Why, according to these verses, did Jesus die on the cross?

6. The verses in 28:18-20 are called The Great Commission. They are the last words spoken by Jesus before his ascension into Heaven and they are directed at those who chose to follow him. What impact do you think these words had on his followers at that time? How can you apply them to your life now?

Week 42: Matthew 1-17

Prepare these questions for Sunday, January 19, 2014.

The book of Matthew is the first book of the New Testament (the portion of the Bible that occurs during and after Jesus and his ministry.) There are about 450 years or so between the latest events of the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus. This book is thought to have been written by Matthew, a Jewish tax collector who repented from his selfish life and became a disciple of Jesus. However, the text does not clearly state the name of the author so that is a best guess. The book of Matthew is a history of sorts that records the life of Jesus and his sermons and is one of the four "gospels" (that means a story of truth-Mark, Luke, and John are the other three).

1. Chapter 1 details the lineage of Jesus all the way back to Abraham. Throughout the book there are references to Old Testament prophesies (especially from Isaiah) and other Old Testament texts like Exodus, Deuteronomy and Psalms. Why would Matthew take the time and effort to incorporate so much of the Old Testament into his record of the life of Jesus?

2. After a brief description of the birth of Jesus (we will talk more about this in later gospels and compare their versions of these events then), Matthew jumps in to Jesus' adulthood. How did Jesus respond to temptation in Chapter 4? How can this story be useful in your life and with your temptations?

3. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 offer one of the most well known portions of the Bible, generally referred to as "The Sermon on the Mount" (because it says that Jesus sat down on the side of a mountain and began to teach.) Which section or sections resonates with you? The beatitudes (v. 5:3-11), the concepts of salt and light (v. 5:13-16), the teachings about murder or adultery or forgiveness or charity or true treasure or the folly of worrying? Choose one or two verses or sections to memorize from these chapters that speak to your moment in life right now.

4. Chapters 8, 9, 14, and 15 all describe many miracles and healing of people. Why do you think these stories are included and what is their purpose for a modern audience with access to greater medical knowledge?

5. Chapter 8:18-22 and Chapter 10 detail the costs of following Jesus. What are those costs and why is that scary?

6. Chapter 13 is filled with parables that Jesus used to teach his messages. What would be the benefit of this kind of teaching? Which parable or parables do you like? Are there ones you don't like or find difficult to understand?

7. What is the Transfiguration of Chapter 17 and what significance do you think it had for Jesus' disciples?

Week 41: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

Prepare these questions for Sunday, January 12, 2014.

The political turmoil of Israel's history had an enormous impact on its people and how they related to God. After the split between Israel and Judah, Jerusalem was conquered by the Assyrians who were later conquered by the Babylonians who were later conquered by the Persians. During the Babylonian conquest, the people of Jerusalem were scattered, but when the Persians came to power they allowed the Israelites back into Jerusalem and let them rebuild their temple and city. The last 6 books of the Old Testament are prophesies written during each of these times of turmoil and end with the promise that God will come again.

1. Nahum wrote what appears to be a warning to Nineveh, an Assyrian city about to be conquered by the Babylonians. However, since the audience was probably the Hebrew people it is more likely a reminder to Judah that God can and does punish those who oppress others (like the Assyrians). Habakkuk asked why God would even allow people like the Assyrians to have conquered Israel/Judah in the first place. Why does God allow the actions of "bad" people to be used to teach or correct those who choose to follow Him? How are we supposed to deal with these people in our own lives?

2. In Zephaniah, the prophet gives a message to the young King Josiah of Judah as Assyria is on the verge of collapse. This book is poetic so some of the phrases are overstated or dramatic, but the call to repent is clear. Read verses 3:11-12. What qualities does God say He will allow to live within Jerusalem and restore to prosperity?

3. The prophet Haggai spoke during the Persian rule when the Israelites were allowed to return to Jerusalem and attempt to rebuild their temple and their city (like in Ezra and Nehemiah). In verse 2:14, the Lord says that "whatever you do... is defiled" if the temple of Jerusalem has not been rebuilt first. The people needed to remember God first to gain guidance, direction, and success in their efforts. What are you trying to accomplish in your own life without remembering God first?

4. Zechariah was written during the same events as Haggai. It is a set of series of prophesies. In ancient Hebrew literature it was common to create a kind of mirrored writing with the most important topics in the middle and similar topics in the beginning and end. That is why so much of the Old Testament looks like it is repeating itself to our modern eyes. Zehariah uses this concept in its symbolic visions that were meant to encourage the people to rebuild the temple. Zechariah also addresses the motives of religious actions. Read chapter 7 and identify what actions God really wants from His people in order to glorify Him.

5. Finally, the book of Malachi was written after the temple and walls of the city were rebuilt in Jerusalem and is presented like an argument between the people and God. What qualities does God condemn (unfaithfulness v. 2:15-16, arrogance v. 3:13) and what does He call the people to do?

Week 40: Esther, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah

Prepare these questions for Sunday, January 5, 2014.  We will not meet on December 29 for the Christmas break.

The book of Esther tells the story of a brave Jewish exile who found herself wed to the Persian king, Xerxes. She risked her own life for the lives of her people and, in return, her people celebrated her with a feast called Purim (which is still done today).

1. What exactly did Esther do and how was Mordecai involved?

2. We never know when we might be called upon to do the work of God. how can we use the example of Esther to make sure that we are willing and able if God calls us?

Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament and seems to build on one of the prophesies of Jeremiah. The book specifically speaks against Edom, the descendants of Isaac's son Esau. The people of Edom first turn their backs on their cousins in Judah and gloat when things go wrong. Their sins move toward looting while Judah is down and then even sabotaging the refugees.

3. What is Obadiah's message about Edom to the people of Jerusalem? How can that encourage us today in the face of opposition?

Jonah is most famous for being swallowed by a whale, but that really isn't the main point of this book. Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh and, instead fled by ship toward a town called Joppa. A storm came that threatened to sink the ship and Jonah realized that God had come after him, so to speak. The sailors threw Jonah overboard, but he was swallowed by a "big fish" and spit out on dry land after a few days. The fish saved Jonah's life and Jonah decided that it was in his best interests to obey God and head for Nineveh.

4. How are you running from something God wants you to do in your life? How might obeying God in this matter wind up being in your best interests in the long run?

Micah spoke to the kingdom of Judah before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and he prophesied that Jerusalem would fall if it did not repent from it's selfish and corrupt ways. Jerusalem continued to fall further from the will of God and it was, in fact, conquered.

5. Read Chapter 6. God does not want the hollow religious motions of the people, but rather that they would "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (verse 6:8) What would living out this verse in your own life look like on a day to day basis?

Week 39: Ezra and Nehemiah

Prepare these questions for Sunday, January 5, 2014. We will not meet on December 22 or 29 due to Christmas break.

The book of Ezra again refers to the time period when Jerusalem was conquered by Babylon and the people of Israel/Judah were scattered. As we learned in previous books, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and the Persian king allowed the people to return to their homes and rebuild. This book may have been written by the prophet Ezra, but is probably a collection of writings compiled by an editor of some sort. The first half of the book talks about the first groups returning to Jerusalem around 538 B.C. The second focuses on Ezra's time (about 70 or so years later) and the concern over other religious influences due to intermarriage.

1. In Chapter 3 of Ezra, the author describes the beginning of the rebuilding of the altar and temple in Jerusalem. Why would this account be important to the Jewish people at that time? What purposes did the temple serve in their culture?

2. In Chapter 9, Ezra addresses the intermarriage of the Israelites with the people groups that surround them. The conflict is not so much about the marriages themselves, but rather about adopting the religious practices of these other people when the marriages happened. Why would it have been so important to the Israelites to maintain their separate status from the other people around them?

Nehemiah is primarily the story of one man who organizes the returned people of Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls. He faces opposition to the wall and men who are trying to kill him. He deals with trying to aid the poor and running out of money for the wall. His leadership and personal sacrifice to see the job done are impressive and inspiring.

3. Nehemiah used his own money, his own labor, and his own talents to get the wall built for Jerusalem even when it was frustrating and overwhelming. What goals, projects, or activities is God calling you to do right now? How can you use Jeremiah's response to distractions (verse 6:3) to encourage you today?

4. This book references Ezra (they were probably originally one book made up of the personal memoirs of both Ezra and Nehemiah) and his prayer for the people and the people's repentance. However, Nehemiah left to return to the king's court and when he returned to Jerusalem years later he found the people again ignoring what they knew was right and disobeying God's will for them. (Chapter 13) How did Nehemiah deal with what he found in Jerusalem? How can you use Nehemiah's story to help deal with frustrations and disappointments in the work you are trying to do in you own life?