Focus on the Family Broadcast

Seeing God’s Word With New Eyes

Seeing God’s Word With New Eyes

Based on his new RVL Discipleship - The Study video series, Ray Vander Laan helps listeners understand how to study the Bible with attention to the original context and audience.
Original Air Date: October 16, 2023

Jim Daly: Given what’s taking place in the Middle East we thought it would be right today as we begin to discuss what’s happening, biblically, within the Middle East with scholar, Ray Vander Laan, on today’s program. That it would be really good to start with prayer for that area of the world.

Heavenly Father, our hearts are broken over the evil and wickedness unleashed on our innocent friends in Israel and the Middle East – violence that has also claimed American lives and put countless others in unknown jeopardy.

We plead with you, Lord, to bring comfort to the grieving, and healing to those who hurt.

We ask you to deliver your justice to the terrorists and those who support terrorism. And grant your grace, mercy, and protection to those who are now in harm’s way.

May you give moral clarity to our leaders and wisdom to those whose decisions will determine the next steps.

Lord, you are ultimately in control, and we trust in your sovereignty and in your supremacy. Please hear our prayers, oh, Lord.

We ask this in in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Ray Vander Laan: If we are faithful, whether that’s your ministry here at Focus on the Family, our listeners’ ministries, whatever they are, whether they’re formal or informal, my teaching at Holland Christian, if we are faithful to the Word of God, that Word will do exactly what God wants it to, and you can’t stop it.
End of Excerpt

John Fuller: In the New Testament, Jesus called us to go and make disciples. And as His followers, each of us is called to that mission of leading people to Christ and helping others grow in their faith. We’re gonna focus on that calling with our guest, Bible teacher Ray Vander Laan.

Thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim: It’s been such a privilege over the years to partner with Ray, um, as he uses his unique gifts and talents that God has given him to teach the Bible and open our eyes up to things that are a little different from Western thinking. And I had the privilege, Jean and I, of taking a trip to Israel with Ray. It was, uh, just eye-opening. I mean, we don’t understand it in the same context, and we’re delighted to not only partner on That the World May Know over these last almost 28 years probably, Ray?

Ray: 30.

Jim: 30 years.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: But now, launching something new, the RVL Discipleship Project, which is going to be a wonderful and very compact, pithy 15-minute lesson that there’s no excuse for you not to understand the Bible (laughs) better. And I know people are straining to get time. You know, this world is full of pressure at church and at work and family, but, uh, Ray has done a wonderful job kind of, um, creating these 15-minute nuggets to help you better understand the Bible.

Ray: Hmm.

Jim: And we’re delighted to be a part of it.

John: We are and, uh, Ray has been a teacher at Holland Christian Schools for, um, about 40 years, I guess.

Jim: (laughs)

John: And, uh, has poured out his gifts in this series, the RVL Discipleship Study Series, which is released now digitally, and it’s available only through Focus on the Family.

Jim: Ray, welcome back.

Ray: Thank you. It is great to be here again.

Jim: Um, what do you hope to accomplish with this, uh, new series?

Ray: You know, there… This was something that we had talked about for a long time. There were people who were saying, “You teach a class every day for a semester. You’ve got these 18-year-olds who seem to be fascinated with understanding the Bible in its context. Why can’t we record and produce that as well?” And I always hesitated for two reasons. One, what I had done before in publishing is what we did in Israel, and I was like, “This is in a classroom. It’s gonna be a very different feel.” The other reason I hesitated is class is sacred to me.

John: Hmmm.

Ray: There’s a Jewish saying, “Study is worship.” When you study and learn, what you’re discovering is what God created and how He created it, and how we ought to use it. So really, you’re studying what God has done. Study is worship. And I was a little bit hesitant to bring these cameras into the classroom and risk taking those students out of this worship experience, and making it a production.

Jim: Yeah.

Ray: But people kept saying, “Let’s try it, let’s try it, let’s try it.” So a couple of years ago, a group got together and we hired the necessary people and we recorded it. And I’ve been pleasantly thrilled to be honest, because I think this is gonna be a powerful way to take a look not only at discipleship in its Jewish setting, that’s there, no doubt. But the foundations of discipleship all through scripture. I’ve got much more time than what I would’ve had in Israel, so we can do 40 lessons and really build a good foundation.

Jim: You know, Ray, you have that gift of teaching. The scripture talks about some will have the gift of teaching. You’ve got it. When you look over 40 years of teaching high school students, I mean, it’s just like us as older adults now to say, “Yeah, I’m really worried about that next generation.” What do you see in young people today? You- you’re the closest person I know to that generation of 18, 17, 16-year-olds. How would you summarize what you’ve seen over the last five or 10 years?

Ray: I am guardedly optimistic. I think today’s younger generation, I teach in a private Christian school. Not that every one of those young men and women are committed to the Lord yet, but a lot of them are, and they’re certainly familiar with it. And this is a group that is recognizing more and more that the only hope we have as a community of Jesus’ disciples is what’s in the scripture. And I find students have a deep, deep interest in not only wanting to understand their Bibles, but they wanna join the story.

Jim: Mm-hmm.

Ray: Not just know about it, but become part of it. Guardedly optimistic, because I think it’s really important in the Christian community at this time, Focus on the Family a big part of that obviously, that those young men and women are nurtured because they’re still at the starting line. And I have this belief that we need to be increasingly intentional about helping these young men and women to think through what the scripture says, and what that looks like if you actually live it out.

Jim: I- I agree, and I think- I think young people, the older I get, the more I appreciate the fact that the next generation is vitally important.

Ray: Mm-hmm.

Jim: Right? And for us-

Ray: Right.

Jim: … to pour into them. And I think they are a generation of authenticity. They’re, I think, compelled toward hard things.

Ray: Mm-hmm.

Jim: So being soft on the Truth is not the way with this next generation.

Ray: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Jim: Just let them have it, let them know what the Lord expects, and- and then let them respond to it.

Ray: But they’re raring to go, let me tell you-

Jim: Yeah.

Ray: … a classroom story. Um, we were looking at the idea of God calling his people to be shalom bringers to chaos. And I thought, “I’m gonna challenge these kids.” So I said to them, “How many of you came in on 40th Street this morning when you came to school?” About half of them came that- that was the south side. I said, “How many of you drove by the nursing home?” They all reckoned, remembered that they had, nobody paid any attention to it. I said, “Let me tell you something about that nursing home. Several weeks ago, I stopped there, went to the desk, and I said to the lady behind the desk, “How many Alzheimer’s people do you have here that haven’t had a visitor in six months?”

Jim: Hmm.

Ray: She paused, looked at me kinda strange, and then she said, “Probably 15.”

Jim: Wow.

Ray: And I said to the class, I said, “Do you guys realize that all of you who came in from the south side drove by 15 human beings that haven’t seen another caring human being, other than a good staff, in six months?”

Jim: Wow.

Ray: How could you drive by? Well, the next period, the buzzer rang, and the secretary said, “We’ve got four students from your class here at the nursing home. They claim you sent them there to visit.”

Jim: (laughs)

Ray: And those kids left school and went and said, “Okay, somebody’s gonna get a visit today from…”

Jim: Hmm.

Ray: Well-

Jim: And it’s beautiful.

Ray: That’s awesome.

Jim: It’s- it is what the Lord expects and wants us to do.

Ray: It’s- it’s why I believe Jesus chose disciples, some of whom are probably a lot younger than we think.

Jim: Yeah. In fact, with the class, you use, uh, I think a frog analogy or illustration.

Ray: Yeah.

Jim: Describe that for us, because it’s- it’s- it’s really, um, self-explanatory.

Ray: Well, there are two… Broadly speaking, there are two perspectives on how people search for truth, and when they find what they believe to be truth, how they describe it.

The Western approach, the children of the Greeks, look for truth abstractly. We take things out of their setting and we look at them in the laboratory. We do that when we un- take apart an engine, or we do that with a Bible passage. We pull it out of the book, and out of the chapter, and even out of the verse, and we disassemble it so that we can carefully look at all those parts.

The Easterner prefers to search for truth or to express truth when he or she finds it in its original setting. So, I use this example.

Imagine a biology teacher who goes out to the pond behind the school and catches some frogs, brings them to the classroom. And then they invite me to come and look at their sample. My first question to them would be, “Is it a boy or a girl?” And they’ll answer. Well, they know. And then my second question is, “Oh, it’s a boy. Who’s his girlfriend?”

Jim: Right. (laughs) Which is what?

Ray: And they look at me like, “That’s a crazy question. What difference does that make?” My answer to them is, “At what moment did it become impossible for you to know who his girlfriend is?” And their answer is the moment we took them out of the pond. If you left that frog in the pond, you might’ve been able to say which of those young ladies is he sweet on in the pond.

Jim: (laughs)

Ray: When you took him out of the pond, you’ll never know that. On the other hand, if you studied the frog in the pond, you’ll never know how many chambers he has in his heart.

So we come from a Western world where we tend to study the Bible abstractly. We pull ideas out of the Old Testament or the New Testament. We pull them out of the book, out of the chapter, and we disassemble them and try and study all the pieces. What we discover, in my opinion, is Truth. The Bible never misleads; it’s God’s Truth.

But there are some things we will never know the moment we did that. The Easterner wants to leave the thing in its context. Study it, where it was, the way it happened. So for example, when a Western Christian studies a story from the Hebrew Bible, they wanna come up with a checklist and say, “What are the various teachings that we can find in this story?” The Easterner says, “I wanna know the story. Just tell me the story.”

Jim: Kinda the big story?

Ray: The big story. So notice when they ask Jesus profound questions, He doesn’t give them a bullet list.

Jim: Right. (laughs)

Ray: He doesn’t write, uh, a Declaration of Independence, point one, two, three, four. What Jesus does is to tell a story, and He doesn’t even often give us the meaning of the story. He leaves that for us to figure out. Thanks to- pastors appreciate that. Gives them something to do on Sunday, I guess.

Jim: (laughs)

John: (laughs)

Ray: But that idea that story can communicate without a bullet list is a very Eastern way of expressing truth.

Jim: Ah.

John: Hmm. That’s Bible teacher Ray Vander Laan, and he’s our guest today on Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. Uh, you probably know of Ray from That the World May Know, uh, that video series that we’ve done and his ministry, uh, by the same name.

Ray has a new, uh, project out and we’re partnering with him, the RVL Discipleship Study Series, and it’s available digitally and exclusively through Focus on the Family. You’ll find details about that, and we’ve got the links at

Jim: Ray, let’s go to the Old Testament, uh, for another example. I think this is in Genesis 21, where Abraham plants a Tamarisk tree. And I remember being in Israel with you. You would always point out, “When something seems odd, stop and really dig into that.” So, he plants a tree. Most of us reading that will go right by it. It’s interesting he plants a tree. What’s next? (laughs)

Ray: There’s- there’s a question I learned in the Jewish context. When you read scripture and there’s something in a passage that doesn’t seem central to the meaning of the passage, just a little detail, but isn’t described why that’s there, always ask the question, “Why do I need to know that?”

Jim: Mm-hmm.

Ray: God never puts anything in His Word that’s unnecessary or unimportant. So, the story goes like this. God said, “Abraham, I’m going to give you this land.” But Abraham didn’t even own enough ground to have a place to be buried or for his wife to be buried when they would pass away before too long. But he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t say thank you. He doesn’t say, “When do I get that land that you promised?” He simply gets up and goes to Beersheba, which raises another question we could address another time, and he plants a Tamarisk tree. Now, to a Westerner, what difference does it make what kind of a tree it was? What if it’s an olive tree or a- or an Ar’ara tree. Why a Tamarisk tree? And second, why does he plant the tree? Doesn’t say. That’s the end of that story, and moves to something totally different.

Jim: (laughs)

Ray: The answer is in that cultural land of desert, where Abraham lived right at the edge of that desert, there aren’t many shade trees, but there are some Tamarisk trees, which one of the few shade trees. They have high salt content in their leaves, so they absorb moisture, meaning the shade is even a little cooler than it would be under another tree. But they’re very, very slow growing and there’s not enough rainfall in the area for that tree to- to do well or to survive unless you give it some help. So why would you put that much work into a Tamarisk tree in that area? And the answer is you want the shade. There’s no fruit on it that you’re gonna get, so you put the tree there for shade.

But it’s very slow growing, meaning when you plant it, you’ll never enjoy it. You’ll never live long enough to enjoy the shade of that tree. You are planting that tree for the next generation to enjoy.

Jim: Ka-boom.

Ray: Care- yes. Maintaining it. So when God said, “I’m gonna give you this land,” Abram in picture, in story, got up and said, “Let me show you how much I trust You. I’m gonna go plant a tree-

Jim: Hmm.

Ray: … that I will never enjoy, but I believe my children will or my grandchildren will because You promised.” And so he put a Tamarisk tree there.

Jim: Wow.

Ray: Near Beersheba.

Jim: And again, it’s such an illustration of the deeper meaning of what God’s saying. That’s something for us today-

Ray: Amen. And- and- and I- I like-

Jim: … to understand, that we plant that tree for our kids.

Ray: … that, yes. Amen. I like that a lot. I will say rather than say deeper meaning, I like to say additional meaning.

Jim: Okay, that’s fair.

Ray: Because which meaning is deeper or shallower, I’m not sure I can judge, but I don’t want people to think unless you study the culture, you miss the meaning. When you study the culture, you will probably come up with additional insights.

Jim: Yeah, that’s good.

Ray: That’s the brilliance of the idea.

Jim: Mm-hmm. New Testament, Matthew 7, Jesus gave, uh, a lot of parables. But He- in this one, it’s the parable of the wise and the foolish builders. You think in the West, we miss this one. Uh, what are we missing?

Ray: Well, um, (laughs) the- that’s an interesting question. I- m- I don’t know about missing, but I think there’s a profound idea in there that if you’ve never been to the Middle East, you might not notice. There’s two kinds of sand mentioned in scripture. There’s sand, which to a Jew would be the sand you find in the desert. They lived in the desert. They didn’t live on the seashore. But once in a while, the Bible talks about the sand of the seashore. They didn’t live on the seashore for the most part. So when it mentions that, there’s some specific reason. So when Jesus tells the parable, He tells the story of a man who builds his house not on the sand of the seashore, but on the sand. So where’s the man building? He’s in the desert. In the desert are canyons.

Doesn’t rain much in the desert, but it rains up in the mountains. The water comes rushing down those mountains into those canyons, wears away at the rock of the canyons, leaving behind very fine silica sand. So Jesus is saying, “This man is building his house in a flood canyon. Now this year will probably be safe, maybe this decade will probably be safe. But sooner or later, there’s gonna be a flood in that canyon, and it’s gonna wash it away.” So the sand, I think, that Jesus’ audience would’ve had in mind is the sand in a flood canyon, not the sand on a seashore.

My father was a builder, and he used to say, “I never understood that parable, because I’d rather build on sand than on clay.” Clay is hard to compact. It’s hard to work with. You got a problem with water, always holding water. I’d rather build on sand. You can compact it, it’s- drains well. Well, the point Jesus had is if you don’t do what He asks you to do, you are building your house in a place that’s sooner or later, destruction.

Jim: Yeah.

John: Hmm.

Jim: That destruction, often Ray, comes to us through devastation of some sort, unexpected situations. And you had that. Uh-

Ray: Hmm.

Jim: … how did that apply to a personal moment in your own life?

Ray: And it’s very much, uh, wrapped up in a way with the projects we’ve done together, Focus on the Family, and That the World May Know. It was four days before we were to leave in October of 1993 to go and begin the filming of the project, and my mother unfortunately was killed in a car accident. Uh, I was very close to my mom. My mom was a teacher. I was a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher like her. Um, and it was just devastating and that close to the filming, it felt like God was pulling the plug. But God had something there, too. As devastating as that loss was, we decided to follow through and let God provide. And the film group turned out to be this incredibly supportive prayer group that prayed me through 29 days of filming in Israel.

Jim: Hmm.

Ray: Uh, many times I would fall apart and couldn’t finish what I was teaching, and they would gather around and pray and-

Jim: Huh.

Ray: So there was an intensity of passion to that production that I don’t think that’s why my mother was killed, but it did result from that tragedy that happened.

Jim: Yeah.

Ray: That there was a passion in my soul that I wanted to faithfully put this before God to say, “God, I wanna… I’m gonna trust you on this one.”

John: Hmm.

Jim: Ray, when we look at those situations, those are the complex issues that many of us just don’t understand, why things happen, you know, the infamous one is if God is a good God, why do- why do little babies die? Right?

Ray: Yeah.

Jim: I mean, that’s one of the most common concerns of non-believers. And in that context, um, this is what it’s all about, right? This is what Jesus is talking to us about, is how to not just get by in life an- but to build your life-

Ray: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Jim: … in such a way upon Him, that when these floods come, when these life’s moments arrive, and every human being’s going to experience some tragedy.

Ray: Right.

Jim: That you’re rooted and you can continue to move forward. Is that a fair assessment?

Ray: Yeah, I- I- I think it really is. There- there’s something that I teach to my high school classes that comes out of that idea. We may never know. Some people think when you get to heaven, well, we’ll know why this awful thing happened. Maybe. Maybe God will reveal it. Maybe he won’t. Uh, that will be His call. But, um, ,

Jim: Huh.

Ray: Was it pain with purpose? And it strikes me, and this was something my wife shared with me many years ago, childbirth is pain with purpose.

Jim: Huh.

Ray: It’s a pain a mother is willing to pass through because the purpose of that pain, the end result of that pain, is significant. And I’ve found in life that the painful moments we go through, while I may not understand it, may not even want to be there at all, and in fact may be very frustrated that I am even there, often on the other end, God teaches me something that comes out of that pain, so the pain did have a purpose.

Jim: Yeah. And it’s so important to understand that, and that’s the beginning of wisdom.

Ray: Amen.

Jim: You know, that you can capture that.

Ray: Yeah.

Jim: Um, I wanna play a clip for you from someone I think you know, and we’ll describe it for the viewers and the listeners in just a minute.

Kirk Cousins: I took two classes with Ray. My sophomore year of high school was Life of Jesus-

Ken Windebank: Mm-hmm.

Kirk: … and that was a semester and, uh, he just made the Bible and the Life of Jesus just come to life. He’s just a gifted teacher.

Ken: He is.

Kirk: Unbelievable storyteller and, uh, he brought so much truth out of the scriptures that I never realized or knew were there, even growing up in a home where we were around the Bible all the time.

And then my senior year, I took a course called Discipleship, where he talked about it’s one thing to be a fan of Jesus.

Ken: Mm-hmm.

Kirk: It’s another thing to be a fully devoted follower.

Ken: Right.

Kirk: And he talked about the definition of being a disciple is to be a fully devoted follower-

Ken: Mm-hmm.

Kirk: … and he challenged us to understand that that meant following Jesus even if it cost you something.

Ken: Right.

Kirk: So if culture goes this way and Jesus went this way, if you’re a disciple, you’ve got to go this way-

Ken: Mm-hmm.

Kirk: … even if it costs you something. And so I- I felt from his challenging teachings in high school and through some of the experiences that I’ve had in sports, I just drove the stake in the ground late in high school that I’m gonna- I’m gonna be a fully devoted follower-

Ken: Right.

Kirk: … even if it costs me something and, uh, I’m gonna trust him and build my life on- on his truth.

Ken: Hmm.

Kirk: And, uh, um, you know, through those ups and downs and the roller coaster of life, um, it- it- it makes all the difference.

Ken: Right.

Kirk: And so, um, Ray’s teaching was a- was a foundational impact on my life.
End of Excerpt

Ray: (laughs)

Jim: Now, that was one of your former high school students, Kirk Cousins-

Ray: I know him well.

Jim: … who’s the quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings now. (laughs)

Ray: I know him well. You know, I- I- um, I get teary-eyed when I hear this because well, several things. One, he was such a great kid. He was a great athlete, popular kid, other people really liked him. But he took his faith seriously as a high school student. I’ve had a lot of students in my 44 years of teaching. There aren’t many who put it into practice the way Kirk Cousins did. And not just professionally, that- I mean, confessionally, that he was willing to say, “I love Jesus and I believe in Jesus,” publicly, but to live it.

Jim: Yeah.

Ray: To actually practice what he believed. And I can tell you that having followed him now that he’s moved out of high school and out of college and plays at the professional level, his life still reflects that passion, that if Jesus says, “Go this way,” and the culture says, “No, go this way,” you go the Jesus way.

Jim: Yeah.

Ray: ‘Cause that’s Kirk Cousins to the core.

Jim: Right.

Ray: Fantastic young man. Well, not as young as… (laughs)

Jim: (laughs)

Ray: … he- as he was when I had him in class. But, um, great kid.

Jim: Yeah. And what’s-

Ray: Great kid.

Jim: … what’s wonderful is just he lives it.

Ray: Amen.

Jim: And you were obviously a mentor to him and somebody… You still connect before games, right, on Saturdays or something?

Ray: (laughs)

Jim: You phone each other.

Ray: Friday nights.

Jim: Friday night’s the- the time you get together.

Ray: (laughs)

Jim: But in that context, uh, some people may not have seen the Netflix series on that, but he along with three or four other quarterbacks were followed through a season, I think last year’s season.

Ray: Mm-hmm.

Jim: And his faith comes out very graciously in all that.

Ray: Mm-hmm.

Jim: So, he’s got it and he’s, uh, a great witness for the Lord in that context.

Ray: Amen.

Jim: That must make you feel good.

Ray: You know, it- it does. It’s an incredible thing when students come back and they’re appreciative and thankful, uh, whether they’re famous like Kirk Cousins or they’re simply young men and women that live in the local town and wanna come back and say, “Thank you for what you did.” But what strikes me in that, when I was younger, I think sometimes I thought a little bit of that was due to my good teaching efforts.

Jim: (laughs) That’s natural. (laughs)

Ray: Whether my- whether my gifts, or the hard work. And I- I did work hard at it. I’ve learned that’s not the case. I’ve learned it’s what God does to what we do.

Jim: Amen.

Ray: Isaiah says, “As the rain and the snow fall from heaven and do not return to it without watering the Earth, causing it to bud and blossom. So it is with my Word. It shall never return to me empty, but always accomplish the purpose.” If we are faithful, whether that’s your ministry here at Focus on the Family, our listeners’ ministries, whatever they are, whether they’re formal or informal, my teaching at Holland Christian, if we are faithful to the Word of God, that Word will do exactly what God wants it to, and you can’t stop it. So I don’t take a whole lot of credit for what happened with Kirk Cousins. I think God went to work. I faithfully tried to pass on the Word of God, and God took it from there.

Jim: Well, there’s something in inspiring people to follow, and you do that so well.

Ray: Yeah.

Jim: Better than anybody I know, Ray, honestly.

Ray: Oh, that’s God- Thank you.

Jim: You inspire the human heart to seek God. Um, what else can you do?

Ray: Thank you.

Jim: Right? And that’s why we’re so encouraged to partner with you on this new series, the RVL Discipleship Series. And I think people, if you want that experience that Kirk Cousins had in the class, this is that experience. And you can sign up for that and get going with it. Jean and I are gonna do it for our neighborhood.

Ray: Hmm.

Jim: We’re gonna host a- a home study, and- and invite the neighbors to come, so that’s another thing you can do. The content will not let you down.

John: Mm-hmm.

Ray: Thank you.

Jim: (laughs) So I know it, and we’re embracing it in that way. So Ray, again, thank you so much for the time to talk about this, and the insights. There’s so many more. The fig tree and, uh, being in green pastures, which really weren’t that green back in the day, right?

Ray: (laughs) Amen.

Jim: There’s so much good stuff in here that we all need to know, and to kinda rethink our Western perspective-

John: Hmm.

Jim: … and maybe put a little more of Jesus’ context on things. (laughs)

Ray: Amen. (laughs)

Jim: And, uh, it’s good to have you. Thank you for being with us.

Ray: Thank you. I’m honored to partner with you folks.

Jim: Mm-hmm.

John: Well, be sure you check out more about the RVL Discipleship Series. Again, it’s digital only. It’s exclusively through Focus on the Family, and we’ve got all the details at, or call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY.

And that clip you heard from Kirk Cousins is an upcoming broadcast. Uh, you’ll hear that in a few weeks, so be sure to look for that in the schedule.

Well, on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back, as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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