One of the most illuminating facts to shed light on what I mean by reading the Bible supernaturally is the fact that Jesus did not think the Pharisees could read their Bibles. That is, they couldn’t read the Old Testament in such a way as to get out of the book what the inspired authors intended for them to get out of it. And that’s what reading is. At least, that’s what reading is, if the book you are reading is a God-inspired book. Reading such a book means handling the words in such a way as to get out of the book what the authors intend for you to get out of the book.
Reading the God-breathed Bible does not mean looking at biblical words and then thinking your own thoughts, or feeling your own feelings or doing your own thing. That’s not reading. At least, Jesus didn’t think it was reading.
Do You Even Read?
When the Pharisees saw Jesus and his disciples on the Sabbath casually picking grain to eat as they walked through the fields, they accused them of lawbreaking. Matthew 12:2: “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” Jesus, in verse 7, counter-accuses and says that the Pharisees have “condemned the guiltless.” To support this counter-accusation, he tells them that they sound like they’ve never read the Bible. Matthew 12:3: “Have you not read what David did?” Matthew 12:5: “Or have you not read in the law?”
This must have been infuriating! Of course they had read those texts! And Jesus knew it. He is saying, “Well, you act like you haven’t. Functionally, you haven’t read them.” Then in verse 7, he sums it up by citing Hosea 6:6: “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).
Have you not read? Have you not read? Can’t you see what this means? No, they could not see what Hosea 6:6 means. As far as Jesus is concerned, they are acting like they haven’t even read it.
In Matthew 19 the Pharisees asked if it’s lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause. And again Jesus says, “Have you not read Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24?”
In Matthew 21:15–16, the Scribes complained that the children are shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and Jesus says, “Have you never read Psalm 8?”
Then Jesus tells these Jewish leaders the parable of the tenants who killed the son of the owner to get the farm for themselves. And again, he asks in Matthew 21:42, “Have you never read Psalm 118?”
And then the Sadducees tried to make a mockery out of the resurrection, and Jesus said, in Matthew 22:31, “Have you never read Exodus 3:6?” “You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29).
Something has gone very wrong with the reading of the Bible among these leaders. They are the “experts” in reading their sacred texts. And yet Jesus treats them as if they have never read them! What’s wrong?
Deaf, Dumb, and Blind to Jesus
Jesus connects their inability to see what’s in the Bible with their inability to see what’s in him.
The Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. (John 5:37–38)
They are very good at using their mental faculties to make weather reports but not for spiritual purposes. “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). Why? They are “an evil and adulterous generation.” Evil, adulterous people are shrewd in managing the world for their safety. But they are blind to the spiritual reality that tampers with their adulteries.
“Recognizing Jesus for who he really is and reading the Bible for what it really reveals are both supernatural events.”
These leaders are spiritually and morally adulterous. They talk like God is their all-in-all, but they have lovers on the side.
Luke 16:14 says, “The Pharisees were lovers of money.” So Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). For all their outward religiosity, the hearts of the Pharisees were in love with this world. And one of their adulterous lovers was money. Another one of their lovers was the recognition and praise of other people.
They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. (Matthew 23:5–7)
A Case of Mistaken Glory
What happens to your spiritual capacities to see the truth and beauty of Scripture when your real lovers are money and the praise of man? Jesus answers the question in John 5:44: “How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). In other words, you can’t.
Why can’t a person love the praise of man and still come to Jesus as the light of life and trust him? Jesus explains in John 3:19–20:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.
The problem with the Pharisees was not that they didn’t have enough light, but that they loved the darkness. They couldn’t see what was in Scripture for the same reason that they couldn’t see what was in Jesus, even though he stood right there in front of them. The apostle John could say, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). And he was looking at the same Jesus the Pharisees were.
But the Pharisees could not see the glory. They could not see Jesus as glorious and true and supremely valuable because they loved money, and they loved power, and they love the praise of man. The glory of Christ is contrary to all of that. Therefore, it did not seem to them as glorious.
And so it was with the Scriptures because Jesus is the embodiment and the fulfillment of what the Old Testament was all about. The things that blind us to the glory of Christ, blind us to the glories revealed in Scripture. A money-loving, power-loving, reputation-currying person cannot get out of the Bible what the authors intend to communicate. If you love the darkness, you walk away from light, not toward it. Or if you make your living handling containers of the light, you find a way make them serve darkness.
Decipher with Divine Help
The implication of this is that recognizing Jesus for who he really is, and reading the Bible for what it really reveals, are both supernatural events. That is, they won’t happen without the gracious, supernatural intervention of God. When Peter confessed Jesus to be who he really was — the Christ the Son of God — Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). It was a miracle. He looked at Jesus with the same kind of eyes the Pharisees had, but with the eyes of his heart, he saw more. God opened those eyes.
The same must happen with the Scriptures. After the resurrection, when the disciples proved too foolish and slow (Luke 24:25) to penetrate Scripture, Luke says, “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). It was a miracle. Seeing the divine glories that are really there in Scripture is always a miracle. Always supernatural.
We cannot know Jesus for who he really is, and we cannot know Scripture for what it really reveals, without the gracious, supernatural intervention of God.
Read to Think, Feel, and Do
I used to say that the meaning of a biblical text is the intention of the author communicated through his words. And the aim of reading then was to think the author’s thoughts after him. I was tremendously energized by this simple and obvious way of seeing things. It’s not false it’s just too limited.
It’s like saying that the aim of marriage is mutual understanding, and, therefore, the goal of getting married is to be an understanding spouse. But the goal of marriage is also mutual affection. And sexual intimacy. And the procreation of children. And the replication of the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church. And the mutual strengthening of each other in ministry. And much more.
What I say now is that the meaning of a biblical text is what the author intends to communicate by his words. And the aim of reading is to handle those words in such a way as to conform to what he intends. If he intends by his words for me to think a certain way, my goal in reading is to think that way. If he intends by his words for me to feel a certain way my goal in reading is to feel those feelings. If his goal by his words is for me to do a certain thing my goal in reading is to do it.
“Seeing the divine glories that are really there in Scripture is always a miracle — always supernatural.”
And I don’t think that stretches the meaning of the word meaning too far, because I think the biblical authors would often say: I mean for you to think this way; I mean for you to experience these emotions; I mean for you to act that way. That is my meaning when I write this; it’s what I intend to communicate by my words. So, if reading pursues what an author intends to communicate by his words, this will include pursuing thoughts and affections and actions that the author intends for me to experience.
And the reason such reading must be a supernatural event is that all the thinking, all the feeling, and all the acting that biblical authors intend for us to experience cannot be experienced apart from the gracious, supernatural work of God in and through the word.
Whatever you think, whatever you feel, whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Nobody thinks and feels and acts for the glory of God apart from a work of God in their heart. Therefore, nobody can think any thought, or feel any feeling, or do any act in a way that conforms to the intention of biblical authors without the gracious, supernatural intervention of God.
Everything that God requires of us and that pleases him is rooted in new, spiritual, supernatural life. And growing from that new, supernatural, spiritual life come new ways of seeing and believing and tasting the reality of God. And all of this newness — this life and sight and faith and taste — all this newness is awakened in us by the word of God. We experience by reading or hearing the Scriptures.
A Miracle of the Word
The biblical authors intend — they mean — that through their words we experience the miracle of new spiritual life.
You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23–25)
Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18)
The new birth, the beginning of the entire Christian life, is a miracle of the word. The writers intend that by means of their words, God the Spirit would create new life. It’s not surprising, then, that, if the lifelong drama of the Christian life began by the word with the miracle of new life, everything else that pleases God and counts for eternity would also come by the word through a supernatural work of God. Everything is either part of this new miraculous life, or it’s part of death. And whatever springs from or is a part of this miraculous new life is itself miraculous, supernatural — beyond what a natural person can do.
The fruit of this new life, which came supernaturally by the word, also comes supernaturally by the word — fruit like new seeing and new believing and new tasting. Let’s just glance at the supernatural nature of those three and how they come by the word.
1. Supernatural Seeing
The biblical authors intend for us to see the glory of Christ through what they write. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul describes the supernatural process of sanctification like this:
We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
The key to being changed into the image of Christ is to behold — to see — his glory. This is not a merely natural process. “This comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” But what’s the connection with the word? Paul clarifies three verses later by showing where we see the glory of the Lord.
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
The glory of Christ that the biblical writers want us to see does not hang in the air. It is not mediated by dreams and visions. It is spoken or read in the gospel. What we must see as part of our new life is, “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” And that gospel is a verbal narrative of who Christ is and what he has done for our salvation.
“Faith is a receiving of Christ for the all-satisfying person that he really is.”
The seeing of this glory is not possible apart from the gracious, supernatural intervention of God described in verse 6:
God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Such seeing is not a seeing with the eyes of the head, but with the “eyes of the heart.” It is a spiritual seeing. A supernatural seeing. That’s why Paul prays in Ephesians 1:18–19 that
the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know [with a supernatural kind of knowing of the heart] what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe. This is what reading is for. And this is supernatural.
2. Supernatural Believing
The biblical authors intend for us to experience the miracle of faith through what they write.
Since new birth is a miracle of God through the word of God, faith is as well, because John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1). Faith is the effect and confirmation that you have been born again. This means faith is supernatural. It comes with the miracle of the new birth. But it also comes through hearing and reading the word of God.
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ. (John 20:31)
Faith is not what the demons do, simply believing orthodox facts about Christ in his life. Faith is a receiving of Christ for the all-satisfying person that he really is
Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6:35)
Faith is the substance of things hoped for. (Hebrews 11:1)
I take this to mean: faith is a real, substantial foretaste of the banquet of God’s promises. As Hebrews 11:26 shows:
By faith . . . Moses considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:26; see 10:34)
Faith looks to the promised reward in such a way that God gives to faith a foretaste — a portion of the substance — of the reward. Faith is no mere natural act. It is a glorious, supernatural experience mediated from Christ through the promises of his word. This what reading is for. And it is supernatural. Let me underline this tasting dimension of saving faith by giving spiritual taste a subheading of its own.
3. Supernatural Tasting
The biblical authors intend for us to experience the miracle of tasting the goodness of God through what they write.
Immediately following his description of the new birth by the living and abiding word (1 Peter 1:23–25), Peter tells the believers to desire the word the way babies desire milk.
Like newborn infants, desire the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.
So, just as we have been given our new life supernaturally by the power of God through his word, we are to go on growing through the same supernatural means by the word. But then Peter adds a stunning and utterly important clause:
if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:3)
Why would he add this?
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2–3)
Come, all you newborn children of God. Come, listen, drink, grow “if you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Why add this if? Because, if you haven’t tasted the Lord — if you haven’t tasted, by the tongue of your soul, the supreme sweetness of the goodness of the Lord, then you are not alive. You are not born of God. Because that is what happens in the new birth. New spiritual tastes are given. Here is the way Jonathan Edwards put it:
Something is perceived by a true saint . . . in spiritual and divine things, as entirely [different] from anything . . . perceived . . . by natural men, as the sweet taste of honey is diverse from the ideas men get of honey by only looking on it, and feeling of it.
This taste of the soul for the goodness of the Lord comes by the word and makes the word sweet:
The ordinances of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:9–10)
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)
This is not an experience of the natural man. It is supernatural. And it is through the word. This is what reading is for. And it is supernatural.
“Reading the Bible supernaturally is absolutely essential in the Christian life, church, and mission.”
Why the Supernatural Is Essential
The Pharisees could not read their Bible, and they could not see Jesus Christ for who he was. The reason in both cases was not because they didn’t have enough light but because they loved darkness. Their hearts were adulterous. While professing allegiance to God, they had lovers on the side whom they enjoyed more than God. They were lovers of money and lovers of the praise of men and positions of power. With that frame of mind, they could not know Jesus for who he really was, or know Scripture for what it really revealed.
Nor can we in our sin. We are dead to the glory of God in his Son and in his word. If we are to read the Bible for what the authors intend, something supernatural must happen. It begins with the new birth — new life — which comes through the word of God — the gospel. And with that new life comes a new capacity for seeing with the eyes of the heart, and new capacities for believing, that is, possessing in advance some of the substance of things hoped, and thus a new capacity for tasting the goodness of the Lord.
From this supernatural, word-mediated new life and new seeing and new faith and new spiritual taste flow all the new thinking, new affections, and new behaviors of the Christian life. This means that reading the Bible supernaturally is absolutely essential in the Christian life, in church and mission.
What Does Supernatural Reading Look Like?
I close with just a brief picture of what it might look like for you (I’m picturing you as married like me) to read this way. Pretend that we are in your quiet place at home. It’s early in the morning before anyone else is stirring. You are reading your Bible. You are reading about God and about his ways.
And then, quietly, perhaps unexpectedly, God (supernaturally) shifts your mindset and you are no longer merely reading about him. You are quietly aware that he is there. The living, risen Christ is with you in that room. And he is speaking to you through that page. Your soul shifts from thinking about him to speaking to him. You’re now telling him that he is what this word says he is.
And then (supernaturally) your mindset shifts again, and you find yourself saying from the heart, “I love you, Jesus. I love your patience. I love your mercy. I love your power. I love your wisdom. I love the way you shut the mouth of proud people and look tenderly on the broken. I am sorry for my sins last night. Please forgive me.”
And as you read on, the word awakens and informs your ongoing communion with the living Lord. And in that communion, you see his glory, and you taste his goodness, and you trust his promise.
Then you get up, with the promises of God giving you a (supernatural) peace that passes understanding, and go find your wife (or husband) and take those cheeks between your two hands and look into those eyes and say, “You are a precious gift of God to me.” And then you go knock on your teenager’s door, even if it’s early, and say, “I’m sorry about the harsh words last night. They were wrong, and I need your forgiveness before I go to work.”
And then after breakfast, you go to the garage and get a shovel and put it in the trunk, because one of your colleagues at work complained yesterday that he was going to plant a large tree this evening and was going to make a deep hole. And you go help him after work. And perhaps by grace, he asks the reason for the hope that is in you (supernaturally from your reading), and you tell him what you saw that morning in God’s word. And perhaps his eyes might be opened (supernaturally) by the word, to the glory of God.
This is what it means to read the Bible supernaturally.