Hello, everyone, and welcome to the final episode of the week. Pastor John joins us today remotely over Skype for this question, all the way from a believer in Hong Kong. “Pastor John, what can I say to my friend that refuses to study the Bible for himself because he thinks he can get all the answers from teachers like you and others online? He thinks that hours spent listening to good and faithful expositions of Scripture is time better spent than reading the Bible for himself. He thinks sermons are less confusing and more efficient in his pursuit to comprehend the message of the Bible. How would you make the case otherwise?”
Well, when I saw this question, I was really eager to say something about it because, just this morning when I read the question, I was on a Zoom call with two precious friends, exulting together over Psalm 119:97–100, which addresses this very issue directly, and ties into my own personal experience, and fills me with a longing to help this young brother wake up both to the preciousness of what he’s missing and the danger that he’s in if he keeps thinking that mere human teachers can replace the very word of God as the focus of his meditation.
So, let me start with that passage of Scripture, and show how relevant it is to his question and what it has meant to me in my personal experience, and then give two other reasons for why I think he should give himself primarily to serious, prayerful, personal meditation directly on God’s word, rather than assuming that he will be better off receiving God’s word always through the filter of human teachers. Here’s what the psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:97–100:
Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts.
Simple Made Wise
When I was in graduate school in Germany, 45 years ago or so, I was in my twenties. I was surrounded by world-class, high-powered scholarship in people who did not believe the Scriptures as God’s word or share my love for the gospel. I knew that, given my limits, I could never read as much as they read or remember as much as they remember or have in my head as many historical facts as they did.
But I took tremendous heart from Psalm 119:99. It had a powerful effect on my perseverance and confidence that God would make himself known to me, that he would keep me from doctrinal error, and that he would use me — even as much or more than those folks — to make an impact on the world for his name.
“If you are using human teachers as the sole means of understanding God’s word, by what will you judge the teachers?”
And here’s what the verse says: “I have more understanding than all my teachers.” Really? How can you say that? Because “your testimonies are my meditation.” Now, when the psalmist said that, it’s very likely he was talking about esteemed teachers who were looking at the same record of God’s word that he was looking at. And the difference is that the psalmist believed that a direct, sustained, personal, love-filled meditation on the word of God itself would produce, in his mind and in his heart, a kind of discernment and a kind of insight that would protect him from errors in his teachers, and indeed, would give him an authentic, personal, true understanding of God and his ways that would go beyond what he got from his teachers, or what they got from their way of study.
Now that was enormously important and encouraging and protecting to me. It meant that I didn’t feel like I was at the mercy of scholarship. I had access to something so powerful and so precious that by personal, prayerful, sustained, thoughtful, rigorous, love-soaked meditation, I would see things and comprehend things and taste things that these teachers didn’t see, didn’t comprehend, didn’t taste. And frankly, looking back fifty years now, I believe it’s true. I believe God granted me to see beautiful things that many of my more sophisticated, even more intelligent, teachers did not see.
Not a Second-Hander
But the text is even more amazing than that. And this is what I saw this morning as we were pondering these verses together. It says, “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me” (Psalm 119:98). And then in the middle it says what I was just talking about: “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation” (Psalm 119:99). And then it says again, “I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts” (Psalm 119:100). So, there are three steps:
- Your word is ever with me.
- It’s my constant meditation.
- I obey it.
And when I do that, I exceed three groups of people in three ways:
- I exceed my enemies, presumably in their subtleties, so that they can’t trip me up and bring me to ruin.
- I exceed my teachers in their doctrinal grasp of things, so they can’t mislead me in false doctrine.
- I exceed the aged, so that all their life experience can’t intimidate me if it should point me away from God’s way.
So, my first response to our friend in Hong Kong is this: Do you believe these words? Do you believe the Scripture? Do you believe that having the word of God with you, meditating on it day and night, and obeying it will bear better fruit of insight and wisdom in your life than always depending on other human teachers? That’s the question facing you: Do you believe it? Are you content to be a second-hander for the rest of your life in view of Psalm 119:99 and what it promises?
Here’s my second response: the Bible makes clear that when we are taught something by somebody, or when somebody makes some prophetic pronouncement to us, we are to “test everything” and “hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). We are to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1).
“Why do you want to avoid the immediate, authentic experience of savoring your love letter?”
And Paul gave us the criterion for the test in 1 Corinthians 14:37–38: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” In other words, Paul’s word, the apostolic word — not the word of any human teacher, John Piper included — is the criterion by which we judge the truth and authenticity of teachers.
So, I would simply ask our young friend there in Hong Kong: If you are using teachers, human teachers, as the sole means of understanding God’s word, by what will you judge the teachers with any confidence?
And finally, a third thing I would say is this: I think there’s a love problem — I mean, a problem with the way God and his precious word are being loved by this brother. Something’s wrong with the taste palate of the tongue of your soul if you need to have the food of God’s word always spiced with the words of a fallible human being. Something is wrong. Do you ever say with the psalmist, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97)?
Or to put it starkly: something is amiss in a love relationship if, every time a lover gets a letter from his beloved, instead of reading it slowly — I can’t help but think back on being a water-safety instructor in 1967, madly in love with Noël, who was 700 miles away. And I’ll tell you, when one of those lavender envelopes came in the mail, I just went out in the woods and smelled it. If every time a lover gets a letter from his beloved, instead of reading it — smelling it slowly as if to savor every word, revealing the heart and the mind of the beloved — he goes searching for somebody else to read the letter to him and then talk to him about the letter, that’s a defective relationship. I mean, this is serious.
Perhaps at the bottom of the problem is that our friend has so completely intellectualized his faith that the only category in which he thinks, the only category that’s going to profit him, he thinks, is the category of verbal explanation. There are a lot of people who think about sermons that way. They just think, “I need to know; I need some more information, some more explanation,” rather than also the heartfelt exultation that a lover has in reading the very words of his beloved.
So, those are my three questions:
- Do you believe Psalm 119:99?
- How will you test the reliability of your teachers by the word of God?
- Why do you want to avoid the immediate, authentic experience of savoring your love letter by asking someone else to read it for you?