Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind: Examining the Word and Works of God

A Conversation with John Piper and Mark Noll | Mounds View

Mark Noll: Thank you for that kind introduction. My wife and I left balmy Indiana where it was 75 degrees yesterday to come to frigid Minnesota, but we had a warm and most illuminating dinner tonight to hear more about the ministry of Bethlehem College and Seminary, BCS. So we are warmed inside even though it was not exactly a warm welcome with you.

It’s a treat to be talking about this theme tonight and to be sharing the platform with my friend John Piper. I’d like to address three matters, and all quite briefly and inadequately. But the first question is, why think about the person and work of Christ as the framework for Christian approach to the work and word of God? Why Christology, the person and work of Christ, as a framework for this discussion?

The second thing that I’d like to address is, what benefit comes, what stimulus comes, what guidance comes from orienting study, intellectual life, the life of the mind, by what Christians believe about the person and work of Christ? And as time permits the third part I’ll try to work out is in an example.

The Framework of Christology

So why use the framework of Christology, what we know about Jesus as a person, and what we know about the work of Christ, as the framework for a Christian’s intellectual endeavor? John Piper and I were literature majors together at Wheaton College back at the dawn of time, and at Wheaton College then, and in the nearly three decades that I was privileged to teach at Wheaton, there was constant effort to relate what people did in the classroom and in their research to the overarching purpose of Wheaton College to exist for Christ and his kingdom.

There were phrases that were used that were meaningful then and continue to be meaningful, and I remained very much grateful for the impetus, the push, at Wheaton College for all of the faculty and all of the subjects to try to do those subjects from a Christian point of view. We had phrases like, “All truth is God’s truth,” and that certainly was an encouragement to think of that in those terms and to use that as a guideline for study. We also were encouraged to integrate faith and learning to bring together what people had been trained as specialists, in one academic discipline or another, what they knew about the Christian faith.

A metaphor that was not used as often at Wheaton College in days when I was a student or taught in the faculty, but which came up sometime, and certainly had a great classical trajectory in the whole history of Christianity, was the idea that God has given two books. He has given the book of Scripture, whereby people find out directly and explicitly what God ordains for humankind, and God has given the book of nature, which to study produces results that cannot, in principle, be out of harmony with what is found in God’s other books. These three ways of talking about the life of a Christian believer and intellectual life were all in their own ways productive.

Defined by the Work of Christ

But over the years, it became increasingly obvious that particularly for evangelical Christians, we define ourselves as those who are identified by the work of Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It became increasingly obvious that the heart of our existence, the basis for our hope, was what Christ had accomplished for us on the cross and was applied to us by the Holy Spirit. Then, if we moved away even a small distance from this basis for our existence, when we came to academic tasks, the life of the mind, there would be distance to travel, there would be negotiation necessary, there’d be integration necessary, rather than something that flows directly from who we are as Christians redeemed by the blood of Christ.

Well, it’s not going to be any surprise for those of you around Bethlehem Church that the answer that seems more and more obvious as time went by was, of course, “Look to the Scriptures. Find out, not any one particular verse, but consistent patterns that speak to the questions of how a Christian believer should orient the life of the mind.” And over time, three passages became increasingly significant in my thinking about these. And of course, when I first came upon these, I thought, “This is a wonderful discovery in good academic fashion. I’m pioneering. Moving ahead.” And then of course you pause and take a look around and become more sensible and realize that it’s only been about 1,800 years that people have been thinking along these lines, and what took you so long to catch up?

Created, Sustained, and Held Together in Christ

So, the beginning of the Gospel of John says:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

All things came into being through him. What do academics study? Pieces of all things. Even more impressive was the opening of the epistle to the Hebrews:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Hebrews 1:1–3).

The epistle to the Hebrews carries further the insight of the opening words of the Gospel of John. Not only have all things been made by Christ, but all things are sustained by Christ, and it’s the same Christ who is higher than the angels because he’s the last word of God to which the prophets had anticipated in their proclamation.

And then, not surprising — and you won’t be at all surprised to learn that I’m going to repeat what you’ve just heard, the great passage in Colossians 1, which does, I think, have enough in it — enough simplicity combined with complexity — to be a text for those called to the intellectual life for all of this life and perhaps all of eternity:

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

And I’m sure that some of you have heard lengthy expositions of this passage. Some of you have studied it at great length, and it’s worth studying at great length. But the simple truths of this passage, to me, were that we find in Christ reconciliation with God — the answer for sinners before a holy God. We find the story of redemption thoroughly interwoven with Christ’s work in establishing and sustaining the church, thoroughly interwoven with Christ’s creation of all things, and thoroughly interwoven with Christ’s sustaining of all things. And it was in John 1, Hebrews 1, and Colossians 1 that the evangelical, gospel, Christ-centered approach to learning finally became, to me, very clear.

Christ and the Intellectual Life

What does this mean, practically? It means that, intellectually considered, it’s impossible to think of some legitimate intellectual task that does not have Christ at the bottom and Christ as the sustaining power, the same Christ who offered himself for us and for our redemption.

If you’re looking at the material world, you are finding out things about the material world that Christ created. If you’re looking at unseen things, if you’re looking at the dynamics of politics, you’re looking at the organization of human life made possible by the creative word of God and sustained by the Savior of all who call upon him in faith. If you’re interested in aesthetics, if you’re interested in beauty, if you’re interested in disciplines that feature the harmonies of this world, you are studying, whether you recognize it, acknowledge it or not, aspects of the universe that came into existence and continue in their existence because of the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us.

This enterprise, for me — to consider how the basic teachings of the gospel are also a way of providing a foundation for intellectual life — has been a very self-conscious, evangelical Protestant enterprise. I’m very grateful for the stimulus that teaching at Wheaton College gave for this whole enterprise, and I certainly recognize in how I’m approaching this something that’s completely dependent upon my understanding of the gospel, expressed in so many different ways by so many different powerful evangelical expositors of the gospel.

A Right Use of God’s Good Gifts

But I have learned things also at the University of Notre Dame, at the Catholic tradition that it sustained so well in our day. And one of the things I’ve learned that has helped me out in this particular way is this: what difference does it make in thinking about what we might study if we begin with the creator and sustainer of all things who is the reconciler of God and humans?

Over the last 25 years or so, there’s been a strand of Catholic teaching that draws attention to the incarnation to emphasize what has always been emphasized about the incarnation: the incarnation reveals God to humanity. The new edition, at least new in a modern form, in this Catholic teaching has been to say, “Yes, of course the incarnation reveals God to humans, but the incarnation also reveals humans to humans.” The incarnate Son of God is the perfect revelation, the climax of revelation of God to humans, but it’s also the revelation of ideal humanity to humans.

And I think you could say, by carrying this insight further, that if you’re interested academically in psychology, if you’re interested in the way the human mind works, if you’re interested in the way that humans are able or not able to get along with each other, you are studying a domain of life that has been illuminated by the Son of God who became flesh and dwells among us.

Jesus, as the perfect human, as well as the perfect revealer of God to us, provides a platform for engaging in study of the human personality. So with this confidence, the life of the mind, the intellectual life, loses all of its threat in principle for Christians.

Now, there are obviously other things that one has to say. The great gifts of God are regularly, sadly, consistently turned from opportunities to give glory to God into ways of glorifying the creature. The good gifts of God become idols very easily. This is as true in the intellectual life as in any other aspect of human experience, and we academics are good idolaters. We are well-practiced in using the things that we think we found out about the world to bring glory to ourselves.

And this creates all sorts of problems in all of the academic domains, but this is a problem related to the abuse of a good gift of God rather than to the proper use. Christian people need to be on guard against the abuses of God’s good gifts; they do not need to be on guard against the good gifts themselves.

Imitation in the Life of Christ

Let me go on to suggest just very sketchily some ways in which beginning intellectual life with the person and work of Christ can provide actual guidance rather than just inspiration. One trajectory of guidance is to think about imitation. What in the life of Christ do we see that might be called — this is an academic gathering so we have to use a few words like this — the epistemological reference point. How, following Christ, do we find out things about other things, about the world in general?

The example that we have in the New Testament is a very interesting one. Right away again in the first chapter of John, Philip meets Jesus. He tells his friend Nathaniel that he’s met someone extraordinary whom Nathaniel should come to see. And Nathaniel knows that this person is from Nazareth. Nathaniel knows about Nazareth. He says, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” And Philip’s response is, “Come and see” (John 1:46).

Later in the Gospels, the disciples of John — who has been put in prison — come and say, “Are you the Messiah who’s to come?” And Jesus does not provide an answer, but he says, “Tell John what you have seen. The blind see. The deaf hear. Tell John what you have seen” (Luke 7:22). In the first chapter of the first epistle of John we begin with a statement that the message to be given in the epistle comes from what we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears, touched with our hands (1 John 1:1).

Now, it is certainly true that people approach all sorts of things in life with presuppositions and predispositions, and this is an important matter to keep in mind. But following the example of Jesus who is the foundation of our hope in God, is to put into practice an attitude toward all that Jesus creates and sustains, put into practice a procedure of coming and seeing, looking — not thinking that we know the answers to a problem or an issue or a circumstance before we’ve been patiently able to look deeply at depth and a long enough time at the circumstance.

Explanation in the Life of Christ

There’s also I think help for explanation in what we know about Christ. The great classical creeds of the Christian Church affirm that Jesus was fully divine and fully human in one integrated person. And that’s impossible. God is holy and infinite; human beings tend to sinfulness and are finite. God is omniscient and knows everything; human beings don’t. You cannot have divinity and humanity in one integrated being, except that all of Christian faith depends upon God and humanity existing in one integrated being. God and humanity existing in one integrated being is the foundation following Colossians 1 for everything that exists in the world, and it sustains everything that exists in the world.

Might not it be possible in the academic life, therefore, to think that when we study things, at least some of the time, we might find two things to be true about what we study that cannot be true. The basis of our entire existence is two things together as one that cannot be one. If that’s the case, everything that this One created and sustains maybe can be approached in that way.

Keeping Scholars from Idolatry

I’d like to add just one word about the way in which approaching the intellectual life from a Christological basis should keep scholars from idolatry. The great temptation for bright people, academic people, is to think that if we come up with new, outstanding, fresh, insightful knowledge about the world, we have done something tremendous.

A Christian scholar is prone to this same kind of temptation, but a Christian scholar thinking as a Christian will be kept from falling prey to this temptation because the Christian scholar will realize that in whatever domain of intellectual life, if we find out anything, we’re finding out a hint, an echo, a shadow of what came into existence by the actions of the Son of God that are sustained by the Son of God who is our only hope of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. A Christian scholar cannot be a Christian and take selfish pride in anything that the scholar discovers. Well, these are general matters. How can we apply these to practical intellectual problems?

Contemporary Debates About Science

I thought, since I get to go back to Indiana tomorrow, I could try a hard one and I won’t have to stay around and be either pilloried or praised. It’s probably more likely that I would be pilloried if I give you an example and how at least it might be possible to think along these bases. From Christ the creator and the sustainer, think along these bases about a really tough intellectual problem. And the problem I’m going to try to explain to you in four-and-a-half minutes is the contemporary debate in Christian and secular circles about the nature of science, in particular, the nature of evolutionary science.

The one reason I’m actually fairly confident in talking about this, even to an audience that I suspect would have some people who are pretty opposed to evolution as intrinsically anti-Christian, is because I’m a historian and I know that in the history of the promulgation of Charles Darwin’s views, the first and prime American sponsor of Charles Darwin was a man named Asa Gray. Asa Gray was a botanist biologist at Harvard College as it was then. He was also a lifelong Sunday school teacher at Park Street Church in Boston, and as an old man, he said, “My personal faith is expressed in the words of the Nicene creed,” which is one of the great classic statements of Christian faith.

Charles Darwin thought that his theory of evolution showed that God could not be involved because there was a striking amount of randomness in how he thought he saw species evolving over time. He was operating with a view of the universe that was actually quite common for Christians and non-Christians, both in the 18th and 19th century. This view concluded that when humans looked at the natural world, humans could exercise the same kind of knowledge and the same discrimination about what they saw in the natural world as God exercised. So in the great analogy by the English philosopher and popular reasoner William Paley:

If you come upon a watch on a vacant heath, you must conclude that there is a watchmaker.

Thinking about nature by many Christian people, and by some who turned away from Christian faith, was along the lines of Paley’s watch and watchmaker. If there is no evidence for a watchmaker, you have shown that there is not a watchmaker. Early on, as with people like Asa Gray, there really was not much of a problem, and I’m going to just mention another person’s name very rapidly. Some of you, this will mean something to, and others it will not. If not, don’t worry about it.

Evolution and Biblical Fidelity

One of the individuals in the late 19th century who figured out how, as a Christian, he could accommodate some kinds of interpretations of evolution was a theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary by the name of Benjamin B. Warfield. He’s most famous today in conservative Protestant circles as the person in his lifetime who made the sharpest, best, and most thoroughly grounded scriptural defense of biblical inerrancy. It was a time when the new criticism of Scriptures was coming in.

Warfield was a scholar who took the measure of this criticism and said, “No, what Scripture says is what God says. And God says that inerrantly.” Throughout his life, Benjamin B. Warfield accommodated, in one way or another, in different ways, in different times of his life, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Now, how could this happen?

There were three problems: interpreting the Scriptures, the use of evolution to deny God, and the belief that talking about the random development of mutations ruled out God’s design. The problem of Scripture was not a great problem for interpreting early Genesis because it turned out that coming and seeing what early Genesis was about showed many Christian believers that early Genesis was not intending to give a scientific account of the origin of the world.

There did remain one very important Bible issue, which remains to this day. It is in my view the one sticking point to a Christian — not necessarily acceptance, but just not getting worried about debates in evolution — and that is the link between Adam and the sharing of all humans in Adam’s sin and Christ and the sharing of those who are redeemed in the redemption of Christ. The Adam-Christ analogy and connection is drawn so often in the New Testament. The problem about evolution being used against Christianity was a problem, but it was not a problem of looking at nature. It was a problem of how that looking of nature was put to use.

The third problem was randomness. And here individuals like B.B. Warfield, and other serious-minded Christians of the 19th century, many of them actually, and then some in our day, said, “What appears to be randomness through serious disciplined study of the material world need not be random to God.”

There’s a wonderful exchange between Asa Gray and Charles Darwin. Darwin propounds his theory. He tells Gray, in effect, “I’m sorry, but this is going to drive me away from traditional belief in Christianity.” Gray says, “Why? Can’t you see, Charles Darwin, that this whole system fits perfectly with God’s plan to have intelligent creatures able to worship him?” Gray said, “Of course there’s randomness in what we see when we carry out our experiments in nature, but there is no randomness in God who created and sustained all that exists.” A lot more could be said. I’m anxious to hear what Pastor Piper has to say.

Examining the Word and Works of God

John Piper: Thank you, Mark. This really is a treat to be with Mark in doing this. He was my RA my senior year. We were on the same floor and he put a little note up outside that said, “To love is to stop comparing,” which was a great relief to me in those days because Mark was kind of a hero already in those days, even though we were supposedly peers because we were the same age. But I look to his accomplishments in the realm of scholarship with great admiration, and there’s lots to talk about. We can go down that evolutionary route later if we want to and see what we have to say. But that’s up to Ryan, our moderator. I have four points to make and seven passages to look at.

Point number one: knowing God and loving God and serving God is dependent on the act of thinking on this earth and on the material world that we experience with our five senses. No human being can know or love or serve God without using thinking and without the material world with which to think.

Number two: the relationship between thinking and knowing and loving and serving, to the human brain, is vastly mysterious on the analogy of the incarnation. On the one hand, physical stimuli to the human brain produces certain kinds of thinking, certain kinds of knowing, certain kinds of loving, and certain kinds of willing, just by their connection with the brain evidently. On the other hand, God, quite apart from the incarnation, thinks and knows and loves and acts and he has no brain and he has no body and he has no material aspects at all.

Moreover, the Bible says that between my death and my resurrection, I will be with Christ and it will be far better (Philippians 1:23). And I don’t take “far better” to mean that I have no thoughts about him, no feelings about him, and no interaction with him. Therefore, my bodiless self is a thinking and feeling and acting self, and therefore, thinking and feeling and acting is transcendent and not coterminous with the brain.

Number three: thinking and knowing relates to loving and feeling, not as coordinates, but one is penultimate and one is ultimate. I want to assert that thinking and knowing is penultimate and loving God is ultimate. Right thinking about God is a means to right feelings for God, and logic exists for the sake of love, and reasoning about God exists for the sake of rejoicing in God.

So even though God has elevated thinking to the level of necessity in knowing him and loving him, he hasn’t given thinking the highest place among human acts. He’s given that to love. So thinking is designed by God to serve love as the treasuring of God with white-hot affection.

The fourth thing that I want to say is — to underline what I said already and just make sure it didn’t pass by too quickly — we cannot think rightly about God, we cannot know God, we cannot love God without the created world. Not on this earth, we can’t. God designed creation in such a way that he would be better known and better loved by humans whose experience of the created world becomes the building blocks of their right thinking, true knowledge, and fervent love for God.

So on this earth there is no true knowledge of God and there is no love for God apart from observing and thinking about the world that he has made. There’s no short-circuiting of thinking and there’s no short circuiting of thinking about the creation as a means to knowing and loving and serving God. So those are my four points.

The Affectional Organ of the Heart

Now here are seven texts that I think support them all and I won’t try to correlate the texts with each one, but you’ll see. And if we don’t, maybe I could be asked a question about it.

Text number one is Luke 10:27. This is the first commandment, and it’s stated by the lawyer and Jesus says, “You are correct.” So he approves of what the lawyer said in Luke 10:27. And Luke’s version of the great commandment is different from the other synoptics, not in contradiction with it, but I think tipping off one of my points. He says:

You shall love the Lord your God with (ex, “from”) all your heart and with (en) all your soul and with (en) all your strength and with (en) all your mind . . .

Therefore, the way Luke has presented the great commandment is that the heart is isolated from the other three as the source of love, and the other three are made instruments in the service of that heart’s love. And I think that’s exactly what Jesus meant, so that when I speak of loving God with my heart and with my mind, I don’t mean with in the same way.

When I say “with my heart,” I mean that my heart is doing the loving. It is a loving organ. It is designed uniquely as an affectional organ that has affections for God, which is the ultimate response to God. And my mind is given to throw logs on the fire in the furnace of my heart, logs of truth. That’s the way I think that text is meant to be taken.

Zeal for God Without Knowledge

The second text is Romans 10:1–2:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.

So, you can have a passion for God, which is not saving — “my heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they be saved because they have a zeal for God.” What’s wrong with it? No logs of truth are making this fire glow, and therefore I see again Paul’s way of thinking about zeal, about passion, is that it is worthless if it is not inflamed by truth. And therefore, truth is the servant here, thinking that takes data and formulates truth and throws it on the fire of the human heart’s love is the order in which it has to happen, because otherwise all our passion for the supremacy of God is worthless.

Reasoning from the Scriptures

Number three: Acts 17:2-4 says:

Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.

Paul’s aim in preaching clearly is salvation. These people need to be saved. He prayed for his Jewish kingdom to be saved. Jews without Jesus aren’t saved, Paul is saying. And so he’s reasoning with them toward (dialexato). He’s reasoning toward them. He’s opening them, he’s setting before them. He’s pointing them to writings, inspired to be sure, but human. He’s pointing them to these parchments with human symbols on pieces of something that they’re looking at with human eyes. And he’s reasoning from these human artifacts here that there’s a truth here that could lead them to salvation.

And here’s the amazing thing. He knows they’re dead (Ephesians 2:5). He knows they’re dead. They’re dead in trespasses. The natural mind does not receive the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14). And he also knows what Peter teaches in 1 Peter 1:23–25, where he says, “You have been born again not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God . . . which is the gospel that was preached to you.”

So this miracle of the supernatural Holy Spirit changing a dead heart to a living heart happens through spoken human words that are hearable with eardrums. That’s what I mean when I talk about the material world being essential to know God on this planet. You can’t be born again without the word spoken or heard and construed with your mind. That’s number three.

Universal Laws of Logic

Here’s number four. In Luke 12:54–56, Jesus assumes something, namely that Syllogistic, Aristotelian reasoning is natural to human brains and all humans use it every day to stay alive. And if you don’t use it to know him, it will rise up to judge you at the last day, syllogisms will go. So let me read you the text:

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Now, what’s he saying? He’s saying, “You have unbelievably good brains. I gave them to you. You use them every day flawlessly to keep yourself alive and your boats afloat.” They can use it like this:

  • Premise one: when clouds arise in the west, showers come.
  • Premise two: a cloud is arising in the west.
  • Conclusion: a shower will come today. Plan accordingly.

You do that, every human on the planet does that all day long, and Jesus gets very angry at them that they’re using their brain so well to keep their bodies alive and they won’t use their brains to construe meaning that he’s standing in front of them about spiritual reality. This is a very sobering text to me. My brain will rise up and judge me at the last day, and yours will too, if we have not used it to know God and Jesus, but have used it so well to make a meal, raise a kid, keep a job, stay out of traffic when it’s going to run me over, and a thousand other ways where we are reasoning all day long well for our sakes.

The Work of Thinking and the Work of God

Number five: Second Timothy 2:7 says:

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

He doesn’t say, “The Lord will give you understanding, so you don’t need to think.” And he doesn’t say, “Think over what I say. so you don’t have to depend on it being given to you.” But he says, “Think over what I say, for the Lord gives understanding,” which I construe to mean, “God has appointed thinking to be the means by which he gives.” My oh my, have I discovered this true Friday after Friday for 32 years as I have been stuck to figure out the meaning of a text and put my face on my desk and say, “Father, I don’t understand. I have to explain this text on Sunday and I don’t understand it. Help me.”

Now, when I say that I don’t get up and stop thinking. I look again. I poke the computer again. I look up another word. I get down another commentary. I just keep pressing and pressing on it because it’s there. It’s given to me. My mind is given to me and the Bible is given to me, and there’s a connection here and God is going to give it to me, and how many times has he come through. That’s number five.

The Self-Bent Corruption of the Mind

Number six: there is a wrong use of the mind that cuts you off from the Lord’s giving understanding, and here’s a story to illustrate it. My oh my is this relevant, politically relevant, ecclesiastically relevant, personally relevant. Matthew 21:23–27 says:

And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.”

In other words, he’s going to discern from their answer whether they’re the kind of people he’ll talk to.

The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

Why did he say that? Why not tell them? He might save them. Because people that value their ego and their skin over the truth and use their God-given brain to prostitute it like that, don’t get the stream of insight that 2 Timothy 2:7 promised for those who “think over what I say”. When Paul said, “Think over what I say,” he didn’t mean, “Think like that. Think evasively. Think spin.” When they ask you a question in a debate, don’t answer it. This is why it’s so politically relevant. I just can’t believe how relevant it is. Would you just answer a question, any question? They said, “We don’t know.” That was total spin and total evasion. Jesus will have none of it. You want to cut yourself off from the gift of insight, treat truth that way. Treat data that way. That’s number six.

Insight Through Reading

Lastly, number seven: the Bible is a book. There are few things with more implications than that statement. The Bible is a book, and astonishingly in Ephesians 3:3–4, Paul says this:

The mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ,

That’s staggering. He says, “By reading, you can perceive my insight.” This is the most important reality in the world, the mystery of Christ. That is, the mystery of the gospel that Jew and Gentile are both saved by grace, through faith, in one body. This is a mystery that is glorious and a veil is over the Jews, and the Greeks are stumbling, and you want to know it? Read.

Well, what is that? It means looking at a piece of parchment with markings on it and using your eyes or your ears, all human means, to construe meaning. There’s no other way. You either hear it or you read it and your mind construes meaning, and there’s no other way into the mystery. These are staggeringly important words. He says, “By reading, you can perceive my insight into the mystery.” So this is what I meant at the beginning when I said that serving God, loving God, and knowing God are dependent on human thinking and the material world. In this case, it’s a book. The material world I have in mind is what they’re reading. And the act of thinking that I have in mind is reading, which is a construing of human material symbols into meaning.

Now, God may not, or he may, open the eyes of their heart to see the light of the glory and the beauty of what they are construing. It’s not automatic that the eyes of faith that perceives, embraces, cherishes, treasures the beauty and truth of what’s there happens. But it won’t happen without the thinking and without the material thing to think about.

By implication — I think I’m just right in step with all that Mark wrote in the first half of his book and said here — God points there to how we read and learn everything. And so . . .

  • Sherlock Holmes and Ms. Marple and Poirot and Inspector Lewis and all the others read clues and, by thinking, discern who killed the gardener.
  • Physicians read symptoms and, by thinking, diagnose disease.
  • Mathematicians read formulae and, by thinking, solve equations.
  • Fishermen read the habits of largemouth bass and, by thinking, construct a lure that catches them.
  • A quarterback reads the defense and, by thinking, calls an audible at the line and threads the weak left side.
  • A general reads the enemy’s movements and, by thinking, constructs a plan for victory.
  • And a missionary reads a culture and, by thinking, discovers a redemptive analogy, perhaps called “peace child”, and by it leads a tribe to glory.

It’s the way God has appointed for us to know the world and to know him. Paul says, “By reading you will know my insight into the mystery of Christ,” and everything else.

So the point here, in closing, is not that prayer or the ministry of the spirit are unessential; they are essential and they are indispensable. The point is, if you would know God rightly, if you would love him fully, you must observe the world he made and you must think with the mind he gave you about that world. We can do it poorly or we can do it (or try to do it) well. And then, as Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:25, God may perhaps grant us repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. Amen.