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?