Mining God’s Word

Seminar — 2014 National Conference

Look at the Book: Reading the Bible for Yourself

There is a text of Scripture that has shaped my life in a very significant way. It’s just one little verse in Ephesians 3:4. It’s in the context of this great Pauline epistle, the magisterial epistle that Paul wrote to the churches in Ephesus and surrounding Ephesus, probably. And it’s just an amazing, amazing epistle.

The Structure of Ephesians

It starts out in Ephesians 1–3 by laying the doctrinal foundation, and then in chapters 4–6 there is a practical application. Chapters 1–3 have a structure, I believe, where it starts out with this amazing doxology of chapter 1:3–14 that says:

Blessed be the God and Father of Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing . . .

And then it lays them out for us. And then it goes into a prayer where Paul prays that we would know what the hope of our calling is and God’s glorious riches of his inheritance in his saints and the surpassing greatness of his power. Then it goes into Ephesians 2:1–3:13, where it just lays out the gospel and just talks about the incredible plight that we are all in. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, and we followed the course of this world and the prince of the power of the air and the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. We are by nature children of wrath, even as the rest of mankind. But God . . . Then in Ephesians 2:11–22 goes on and it says that we were far off and Jesus brought us near through the blood of his cross.

Then in Ephesians 3:1–13, Paul talks about his unique role. We will come back to that in a minute. Then he closes with the prayer and prays that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith and that we, being rooted in God, would comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And then there’s a doxology. So it goes doxology, prayer, gospel, prayer, doxology.

In chapter two, where Paul is talking about the power of the gospel, in chapter three he talks about the power of the gospel in his own life and that he was the chief of sinners and that God made his grace known to him and made him a steward of the mystery of God. And he starts talking about the mystery. In that discussion about the mystery of God, he says, “I wrote before in brief about it,” and then he says this little verse, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ . . .” (Ephesians 3:4). That’s a pretty amazing statement. He says, “When you read, you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ.”

When he says “my insight,” he is talking about himself as an apostle, a revelatory spokesman that God has chosen to innerantly communicate the Word of God. And by God’s grace, he led these revelatory spokesmen to write down their thoughts in letters and in narratives, and it’s recorded for us now in the Greek New Testament.

Mining God’s Word

Then Paul says — and he’s speaking out to Christians that are just filling up Ephesus and beyond — “When you read, you can understand my insight.” And I thought, well, how many people could read back in those days? The percentage isn’t very encouraging. I’ve heard arguments that say anywhere from 5 percent up to 30 percent were actually literate.

And so you try to understand, what did Paul mean by reading? They didn’t have the Bible like we did, but they gathered together and epistles, the letters were read. So he had high expectations of those that read his word and those that listened to his word read. High expectations. Ephesians 1:3–14 is the longest sentence in the Bible. It’s one sentence in the Greek text. So Paul expected people to hear what he was saying, read what he was writing, and to be able to follow his train of thought.

What I want to do this afternoon is to share with you just the importance of reading God’s Word in a very intentional and very serious kind of way. We call this seminar Mining God’s Word. I like that visual presentation, Mining God’s Word. Pastor John talked about this in Future Grace. He’s talking about reading the great books, and he says:

Good counsel tells me to alert the reader that what is coming may be heavy sledding. We’re not used to reading material that is two centuries old, let alone 20 centuries old from a thought world foreign to our day. Yet, as I said before, raking is easy, but you get only leaves. Digging is hard.

So what I want to do in this time is just to try to encourage you just to continue your journey into digging into the Word of God. That’s what I hope to do. It has to do with just learning to read and learning to read carefully. All of us are in that process, whether you learned to read as a five year old and were a phenom in your parents’ eyes or not. We’ve learned that there’s more to reading than just being able to put the letters together to articulate the words. But when you have an important document, you want to read it carefully. And when that document is the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God, you want to read it with the utmost care. It is a treasure chest of holy joy. And so that’s what I want to encourage us to do, and I’m going to do it by sharing a little bit of my own story.

A Journey of Deep Study

I’m so excited about this particular conference. I have been to all of them, I think, just about since the beginning. I’m especially excited about this one and the topic of Look at the Book, and I’m excited about the trajectory that God is moving Pastor John into in this next chapter of his life to help people who have been benefiting from his ministry. He has been kind of laying a feast for us, sitting in his study, thinking through our best to communicate it in ways that are understandable and powerful and persuasive. We have been invited into the dining room to eat the feast year after year, and for Bethlehem members, Sunday after Sunday. And what he feels led to do these days is to say, “Okay, I want to bring you into the kitchen. I want to bring you into the kitchen to see how the feast is prepared.”

So that’s what this whole conference is about. It’s about inviting you into the kitchen more and more. A lot of you live in the kitchen and you could teach me and him a bunch of wonderful things, but we’re going to share what has impacted us the most. My prayer is that as we enter into the plenary sessions — and John, I think, is going to march us through a portion of Scripture — that we would just be fully engaged and our noses would be in the Book.

I remember once in the early days at Bethlehem, John was preaching and it was a Sunday morning in the old sanctuary, and he invited people to turn to a certain part of Scripture. There was just a hush over the congregation and for some reason just the swish of the pages thundered. And as people swooshed the pages to find that place in the Bible that he wanted to call our attention to, he just stood up and he said, “I love that sound. I love that sound.” So that’s what we want to encourage us to do and to go deeper.

It’s a lifelong thing. We are lifelong students of the word of God, even if we’re preachers and teachers. Some of you are pastors and preachers, teachers of the Word of God, but we’re all lifelong students. So I’m going to tell you a little bit of my own journey.

Coming Alive to the Book

I grew up in a religious home and during the hippie movement. I kind of got swept away from my religious roots and began to go the way of the world in a more direct way. But during that time when I was 14, my oldest sister became a Christian, and she told me that. I was astonished because she was the best Christian I knew. She never got in trouble; that was my definition of Christianity. She never got in trouble. But she said, “No, there’s more to Christianity than going to church on Sunday. It’s a personal relationship with Jesus.” For the first time in my life, she challenged me to read the Bible. I grew up in a home where there was a Bible on the coffee table.

I couldn’t find the Bible that I grew up with, but it was a big one. A Bible like this was on the coffee table, and every time I played in the living room, I’d look at that book. Once in a while I would pick it up and open the pages. This happens to be an ESV-Hindi version. It’s the ESV English on one page with the Hindi on the other. But it could have been that way for me growing up. It was Hindi for me. I would open the Bible and look at the words, and it had such small print. I would try to read a few and maybe get through a paragraph and say, “This isn’t for me.” It had great Italian art pictures. So I looked at the pictures, but I never cracked the book. I mean, it never became a part of my life.

But my sister gave me a Living Bible that was a paraphrase that was used powerfully by God in those days. And I started reading the Bible as she told me to. I actually read it from Matthew all the way to 1 Corinthians two different times. And finally, the boredom just overwhelmed me. I couldn’t go any farther and closed the book.

So that was my condition. Reading the Bible was just the most boring book I ever read. It had nothing to do with me as far as I could tell. But then when I was almost 17, God opened my eyes to see my utter need for a Savior and the gospel that my sister had been sharing with me took root, and I saw it as the best news. By God’s sheer grace, I surrendered my life to Christ. One of the keenest pieces of evidence to me that my life was changed, that something fundamental was changed in my life, was that this book now became alive, or I should say, I became alive to this book. And I couldn’t get enough of it.

I went out and bought my first Bible, and I didn’t know anything about what kind of Bible to get. But this one looked really cool. It was brown and leather. So I spent big money that I had earned by caddying or something, and I bought this Bible and didn’t know anything about versions in those days. When I started reading it didn’t sound like the living Bible anymore. It was King James. And so I didn’t get very far in this one, but it’s still precious to me.

Learning the Scriptures

This was kind of part of the Jesus movement in those days. Shortly after I became a Christian I went to an upper room Bible study in Excelsior, Minnesota. I was three weeks old as a Christian. The man that was teaching it was a pastor and he had hair down to his waist. So I thought, “I can relate to this guy.” And we went in and we sat together in kind of a yoga position around on the floor. He went around and had every person talk about why they came. I testified that I had just become a Christian and I was just born again and I was hungry for God’s word. He wanted to study the Gospel of John. And he said, “It’s going to be a good book to study. John probably didn’t write it, and there are mistakes in it, but it still has really good stuff. The only thing that really matters is that you don’t hurt anybody with what you do.”

So that was my first Bible study. Meanwhile, this circle had all these hippies, but there was one guy that had a really short haircut, wire-rimmed glasses, and a pen holder in his pocket with some pens, and he looked so out of place. But on my way out, he walked out with me and he had heard that I just became a Christian and he was concerned about this Bible study. And he just came up to me and he said, “What’d you think about that?” And I said, “Well, I’m really hungry to know God’s word, and he said some things I didn’t understand. I didn’t think the Bible had mistakes in it,” and so forth. And he took me out to the drugstore at the soda fountain. We got a cherry Coke or something like that.

And he said, “Would you like to have a Bible study with me?” And I said, “Sure.” I mean, he could have been a Jehovah’s Witness, he could have been a Mormon, he could have been anybody, but he just happened to be a born-again, Bible-believing Christian that was influenced by the Navigators. And so for the next year and a half, he met every Saturday morning with me and brought me through these booklets. Some of you might know these. They were the New Life in Christ booklets. They are just asking questions and giving you a Bible verse. So I would start out, and I didn’t know if it was a New Testament or Old Testament reference, so I had to learn my Bible just to get around to find the Bible verse. Then you would write your own answer down. But eventually, it began teaching you how to paraphrase the text.

It just caused me to start to think through the text of Scripture, and my hunger for God’s Word was growing. I wanted to do what I could to read as much of it as possible. I couldn’t put it down. I probably read it through two times the first year of my Christian life, and I just read it all the way through. Then I think I started on the third time, and all of a sudden it became familiar to me. I kind of knew it was going to happen next. And so I thought, “Wow.” I was always afraid of being bored. So all of a sudden I was getting bored and I knew what was going to happen next. I knew this book, so I thought, give me another book.

A Timely Acquaintance

At that time I needed to go to college, had no desire to go to college, but my parents wanted me to go to a liberal arts college, and I found a liberal arts college with a Bible department. So I went to Bethel College and I decided to go for a Bible major. My second year that I was there, we heard about a new professor that was coming into the faculty. He had gotten his PhD in Germany. That was the mecca of theological education in those days.

We were so excited that Dr. Piper was coming to Bethel College. One of the regrets that I had was that I enrolled in his Greek class, but when I got into class, the class was overflowing with students. I kept waiting for Dr. Piper to show up and he just didn’t show up. There was this TA-looking guy at the front that was just kind of rustling the papers around. All of a sudden someone said, “That’s Dr. Piper.” He looked like a teenager. And then the chairman of the Bible department, Walt Wessell, who was an author and commentator on James and other things, came in and said, “This class is too big. Who will come out? Half of you must come with me and we’ll start another section.”

So I looked at the teenager and I looked at Walt Wessell with the grain temples and the wire-rimmed glasses, and I said, “I think I’ll go with Walt Wessell.” So I transferred out of the first class that John Piper taught. That was fall. Then in January, I had the chance to take an interim class, a three-week intensive class at Bethel. I had to choose. I got down to two courses. One was Ephesians with John Piper, and the other one was Contemporary Spirituality.

I thought, “Man, I heard Piper was really good after all.” And so I wanted to do that. But then I said, “No, I’m really struggling with my prayer life right now.” So I took Contemporary Spirituality. The point of that course was to try to show you how we could borrow from the world’s religions and see some of their spiritual practices and then just kind of Christianize them for us. So I learned how to use Jesus beads. I learned techniques. And so I would walk out of class with ashes in my mouth and kind of shuffling my feet. My friend Scott Haffman was in Ephesians across the hall. He would come out of his class and his feet wouldn’t be touching the ground.

So we would come out together and my shoulders were down and he was just on fire. I remember walking down the hallway with him, and one day he said, “Tom, I think I just was converted today. You wouldn’t believe what I’m seeing.” And I had just learned about Jesus beads and had nothing to say to him. So after that semester, I realized I needed to start taking some courses from Dr. Piper. And I did. I took everything I could from him — seven courses.

Careful Reading of God-Breathed Words

What I learned from him was this high esteem for the word of God. I mean, he really felt like when we were holding this book in our hands that it was really the word of God. It was an inspired, inerrant love letter from the Creator and Redeemer of the world, and what it said really mattered. And so he said, “How do you read something that really matters?” He was influenced by Mortimer Adler who wrote a book called How To Read A Book, which is a fantastic classic and hermeneutics. And Mortimer Adler, one of the things he talks about is variable speed reading.

He said that it’s good to learn to read at different rates; some things are really worth just speed reading, and other things you can read more slowly. But other things are of such vital importance you need to labor over them and to come to terms with the author and just meditate on the text until you understand it, and understand it so well that you can repeat the author’s main point and argumentation in your own words. And that’s what we were taught to do.

He did both in his English Bible classes and also in the Greek Bible classes that I took from him. We were taught to take a paragraph of Scripture and divide it up into its thoughts, and first of all, make sure that each thought and each proposition was understood. So he also taught us to diagram the sentences, and then he taught us to lay out each clause in order and follow the train of thought, paying special attention to the connecting words and learning how to follow an author’s train of thought. And that’s what this arcing business is all about. I’m not going to talk about that now. There’s going to be an arcing seminar tomorrow at one o’clock and I’ll tell you more. I’ll introduce people, whoever is interested in that method.

An Inexhaustible Treasure

But the way I want to paint a picture for you right now is what it was like for this small cohort of students to just labor together in the text of Scripture, learning to follow the author thought by thought by thought. And as you read, some things don’t go the way you think they would, and you get surprised and you get troubled. And then we would think about how to articulate questions that would force us to go deeper until we understood it. It changed my life.

This Book was becoming boring because I was familiar with it. I knew which story was going to come next. I knew what David was going to do to Goliath. I knew these things. But when I learned how to study what I call meticulously — not just the raking of the leaves, but the digging, the mining of the gold — I can testify that 40 years later, this Book is as exciting to me as it has ever been. I realize that I’m not going to have long enough in this life to mine all the gold from this treasure chest and from this mine. I just am hoping and praying that God is going to use this conference to invite us all into a deeper study of God’s Word, and you’ll come home with some tools of how to do it and how to do it better.

Linking Arms for the Sake of the Word

So after that, it was really through John’s persuasion that I ended up going out to Fuller Seminary to study from the man that devised this arcing system. There is nothing magic about arcing. It’s not the best method out there. I’m sure there must be other ones that are better. It’s just the best one I’ve ever discovered. So I went out to Fuller and studied under the man that designed it, and it was just a very rich two years out there. And while I was out there, I got a letter where John said, “I feel irretrievably called to leave teaching and go into pastoral ministry. Am I crazy?” And I remember shouting when I was reading it, “Yes, you’re crazy.”

But that didn’t persuade him. And then two months later he wrote another letter and he said, “I’ve been called to serve at Bethlehem Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis. Would you come and serve with me?” And so I prayed for at least two seconds and became absolutely persuaded that this is God’s calling on my life, at least for the next chapter.

My wife wasn’t quite as easily persuaded, so we just talked and prayed about it for a while. But we said yes and came back in 1980 and started working together. It was just exciting to see the word of God take root in a church that loved the Bible, but weren’t really inclined to study it in this kind of way so much. But it was exciting to see people just coming alive to Scripture. A lot of older veterans were there, but also all these young people and college students and young career people started coming into the church. We had almost all older people and younger people with a few in between. But it was exciting to see these students come in and just get a passion for studying Scripture carefully and reading carefully.

Drawing Others In

As I look back at my 34 years at Bethlehem that has been the theme really, of all the different hats I’ve worn at the church. I just have a passion to draw people deeper into the study of Scripture. So we started an apprenticeship program for students preparing for ministry. We started a nurture program for missionary candidates that would take the word of God to the unreached peoples of the world. We started a lay institute called the Bethlehem Institute and Training Center.

Then in 1998, we kind of upgraded all of that into what we called the Bethlehem Institute; that was a two-year graduate-level program that we then transformed into Bethlehem College and Seminary, which was founded in 2009 and is continuing to grow at this point. What really undergirds all that we do is that we’re teaching people the importance of reading this Book carefully. You should read any book that you’re reading carefully, but we are particularly focused on learning to read the Scripture carefully and thoughtfully, and then encouraging people to take what they read and to live it out in their lives and then to communicate it in terms that other people can understand.

The purpose of this gathering right now is just to kind of whet your appetite for what you’re going to experience tonight and tomorrow. What you’re going to see from Pastor John in this Look At The Book session is a really simple way of communicating Scripture. We’re just going to kind of bring you into the kitchen and to help you see what he sees. It’s not the arcing and the sentence diagramming that you’re going to see, but just realize that that’s undergirding this. It was him learning the skills of seeing how words fit together to form meaning, and then how propositions fit together to form an idea, and how to follow the author’s train of thought so that we get their insight. Paul says:

When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ (Ephesians 3:4).

That’s what we’re after. We’re not after using the Bible as happy words in order to launch ourselves into creating our own reality. But rather we are coming into Scripture because we are in desperate need for truth that’s outside of ourselves to address the sin in our lives, and to give us hope for the future, and to show us what is the foundation for our forgiveness, and to show us how we have power to live this life. We want to draw people into reading carefully the Word of God.

Further Training

One of the things that has also led us to do is to try to create some courses. We’ve been creating courses in Bethlehem and we’re excited about it. One is a course that’s actually called Mining God’s Word. There’s a student workbook and a teacher’s workbook, but it’s just kind of a pre-arcing and diagramming book. It’s about general Bible study principles that are vital. The thing we’re really excited about is that they're developing these into online courses. So we have three online courses that are launching this weekend, and then another one that’s the companion course to this one that’s going to launch, Lord willing, in two or three months. So keep your eyes open for that to see if that might be an inspiration to you to help you study God’s Word.

Just to tempt you to come back to the arcing seminar let me say something. I am holding here Ephesians 1:3–14 in sentence diagram form. This has forced me to take every single word and say, “How does it fit in to form this clause and this idea? And how do you visually represent it so that you’ve accounted for every single word?”

So that’s one thing. And then the next step is to arc it. Now this paper that I’m holding is my attempt to arc Romans 14–15, okay? But thankfully now we’ve got it online at a site called, so you don’t have to do this kind of stuff anymore. Come back and learn more about Bible Arc if you would like. But do whatever you can while you’re here to just be inspired to go deep into God’s word and to mine gold from God’s word. It is a treasure chest of holy joy, and it’s worth every ounce of energy that you have. God bless you as you engage in this conference.

is serving through Training Leaders International as the Director of Theological Education in Cameroon. He continues to serve as an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church.