The Natural Act of Reading the Bible Supernaturally
Skamania Lodge | Stevenson, Washington
My aim here is to encourage a deep and constant dependence on God in the fullest use of your natural powers in the supernatural act of reading the Bible. Let me say it again: a deep and constant dependence on God in the fullest use of your natural powers.
By “natural powers,” I mean
- your ability to see and hear with your natural eyes and ears,
- your ability to focus on spoken or written words,
- your ability to learn the meaning of words and phrases and clauses,
- your ability to construe an author’s natural intention from what he has written,
- your ability to think and evaluate and relate what you learn to other things,
- your ability to remember things that you’ve learned,
- your ability to write down your thoughts,
- your ability to get enough sleep and food and exercise so your powers are assisted by mental alertness and physical vigor,
- your ability to seek help from other people (dead or alive), and so on.
In short, I mean everything you are capable of by virtue of having been born a human being and having received a basic education along with ordinary life-experience. Natural powers are not uniquely Christian powers. You share them with most human beings that have your privileges.
When I say put your natural powers to fullest use, I do not mean that you should read the Bible in a merely natural way, and then, after that, hope and pray that this natural reading will have some spiritual, supernatural effect at a later time. That, I’m afraid, is the way many people read the Bible. They read it in a merely human way, and then hope — even pray — for some more-than-human impact later.
Rather, what I am trying to do is encourage you to take every step of your natural reading in a supernatural way. I think we should read the Bible in a way that is only possible because God himself is in you, by his Spirit, creating a supernatural encounter with the Bible.
Beyond Flesh and Blood
Here’s an example of what I mean:
When the apostle Peter uttered the perfectly human sentence to Jesus, “You are the Christ [that is, the long-promised Messiah], the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus said, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). In other words, Peter’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God was supernatural — beyond what flesh and blood (human nature) can do.
But why did Jesus have to explain to Peter how Peter had come to know this? If Peter had gone out into the wilderness alone, seeking a voice from heaven, and God had said in a thundering voice: “Jesus is the Christ, and my divine Son,” Peter would not need to be told, “My Father revealed this to you.”
But Peter had not received the “revelation” that way. Instead he had used his natural powers. He had watched Jesus with his natural eyes. He had listened with his natural ears. He had thought about what he was seeing and hearing with his natural mind. And, likely, he had prayed for wisdom — perhaps Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes.”
The result was that, through all this use of natural powers, Peter saw what many others did not see. He saw the irrefutable marks of Jesus’s divine reality, and he said, “You are the Son of God!” That is what needed explanation. At one level, it all had felt natural. But it wasn’t merely natural. Jesus says, in effect, “Peter, in all your watching and listening and thinking and praying, my Father has been at work. And he has caused you — through the use of your natural powers — to see what is really here: my self-authenticating divine glory. The use of your natural powers has not merely been natural. God has been at work in you.”
That’s what I mean by “the fullest use of your natural powers in the supernatural act of reading the Bible — the use of your natural powers, with such a reliance on God, that you see and savor the glory of God in ways you otherwise never could.
Incarnation and Inspiration
The basis of this mysterious combination of natural and supernatural in reading the Bible is the similarity of the inspiration of the word of God with the incarnation of the Son of God. Jesus was God and man. The Bible is God’s word and man’s word. There is a profound analogy between Jesus as divine and human, and the Bible as divine and human.
- The language of the Bible is natural; Jesus’s body and mind and voice were natural.
- Jesus could be seen naturally; the Bible can be read naturally.
- Jesus was more than natural; the Bible is more than natural.
- Jesus was the Son of God; the Bible is the word of God.
- Jesus was incarnate; the Bible is inspired.
- Jesus spoke in ordinary human language; the Bible is written in ordinary human language.
- God is united to the man Jesus; the glory of God is united to the meaning of biblical texts.
So it’s not surprising that to read the Bible as God intends will be both natural and supernatural, neither cancelling out the other, but the two in mysterious combination.
When I speak of seeing the glory of God in the words of man, I don’t mean it’s magic — as if the words contain a secret code, or as if a strange light flickered over the key words while you are reading. Nothing like that.
Seeing the glory of God in the words of man happens through reading and thinking and construing the meaning of texts — what did the human authors intend to show us? In and through that, we see of God’s glory. The divine glory is united to the human meaning the way the divine Son of God is united to the human nature of Jesus.
Hence the utter necessity of both a natural and supernatural reading of the Bible. Christ’s two natures — as divine and human — must never be separated, and reading the word of God naturally and supernaturally must never be separated.
We Think, God Gives
The apostle Paul makes the point with these simple words to Timothy:
“Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).
We think. God gives. Both-and. Not either-or. So many people swerve off the road to one side of this verse or the other. Some stress the first part: “Think over what I say.” They emphasize the indispensable role of exegesis and reason and thinking, and then minimize the supernatural role of God in making the mind able to see and embrace the glory of truth. Others stress the second half of the verse: “For the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” They emphasize the futility of reason, and tell us to wait on God for illumination.
But Paul will not let his counsel be divided that way. For Paul it was not either-or, but both-and. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” This is a call for the fullest use of your natural powers in the supernatural act of reading the Bible.
I think it’s helpful to realize that reading the Bible this way — depending on supernatural help in the natural act of reading — is just one instance of all the Christian life lived in reliance on the sovereign grace of God in all we do naturally.
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
You could say: I worked harder than any of those other Bible readers — with all my natural powers — in my reading and analysis and thinking; nevertheless, it was not I but the grace of God that was with me, enabling me to read supernaturally.
Live by the Spirit
One of the reasons that it is helpful to see supernatural Bible reading as one instance of supernatural Christian living in general, is that it may demystify your effort to read supernaturally. Probably the Lord has shown you, at least in some measure how to depend on him for supernatural help in doing what you do naturally. At least this is true for me. And making the connection between all of Christian living and this one part of Christian living — namely, Bible reading — has been very illuminating.
One of the most important, persistent, all-pervading questions of my adult life has been, How do you go about living the Christian life — all of it — in such a way that you are actually doing the living, and yet another — the Holy Spirit — is decisively doing the living in and through your living? “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I.”
One way to get at this question is to ask: What do you actually do in order to obey 1 Peter 4:11?
Whoever serves [do it] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies?
How do you serve, or live, or read the Bible in the strength of another — so that as you read naturally, God is working supernaturally in your natural reading? How do you do that?
My answer for many years has been A.P.T.A.T. How do you live, walk, read by the Spirit? My answer: A.P.T.A.T. As you are entering a moment, an hour, a situation of action — a phone call, an email, a conversation, a meal, a business meeting, a game, a worship service, or reading your Bible — actually do A.P.T.A.T.
A — Admit. I admit that without Christ I can do nothing.
Apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
P — Pray. I pray for God’s help — whatever form of help I need.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)
T — Trust. I trust a specific promise of God that is tailor-made for my situation, or a general promise that covers lots of situations.
I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
A — Act. I act in obedience to God’s word, expecting God to act under and in and through my acting,
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is the one at work in you to will and work his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)
T — Thank. I thank God for whatever good comes. I give him the glory.
Give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:20)
That’s the way I try to obey 1 Peter 4:11, “Whoever serves [do it] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies.”
A.P.T.A.T. and Bible Reading
As we come to the passage we are going to read, we admit helplessness. We humble ourselves. We renounce pride and self-reliance. Jonathan Edwards quotes Psalm 25:9, “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way,” and says,
Pride is a very great obstacle to the entering of divine light, yea, and such an obstacle as will eternally prevent it, till it be mortified.
We will not see what is really in the biblical text — we will not have divine light — if we are not humble as we come — if we do not admit our need for God’s help. What a wonderful promise: “He teaches the humble his way.” God will reveal to us what we need, if we read humbly.
Remember from session two what James said in James 1:21:
Receive with meekness the implanted word.
And remember that meekness, or humility, is a fruit of the Spirit — it is supernatural (Galatians 5:23). So there is no seeing the glory of divine light in Scripture without humility, and humility is a supernatural work of God. So there is no successful reading of the Bible that is not supernatural. Even the admitting (the A of APTAT) of our need for supernatural help is supernatural.
This admission of our helplessness — this humility — leads immediately to prayer. “I need help. Help me!”
We need a miracle to happen if we are to see the glory of God and savor it above all things. Therefore, we cry out for this help.
In fact, I have another acronym I use — I.O.U.S. — specifically to relate prayer to Bible reading. I pray these four prayers when it is time to read the Bible. Incline. Open. Unite. Satisfy.
I — Incline. “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to gain” (Psalm 119:36).
Don’t miss how radical it is to pray this way about your Bible reading. The prayer contains an absolute surrender of yourself to God. You are saying, in effect, I am happy, Father, for you to have the most basic control of my heart. I am happy for you to go beneath my conscious willing and control the roots of my desires and my longings and, therefore, all that flows from my innermost being. This is radical. This is a surrender to God of your very identity — your deepest personhood from which come all your desires and longings and choices. “Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to gain.”
O — Open. “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your law” (Psalm 119:18).
Beware of a temptation here. Namely, to claim that your interpretation is correct because you prayed for help. We must never do that because the way God illumines the text is by showing what is really there. This means that when we want to make a case for how we understand a text, we must show what is really there, not protest that we prayed.
One good solid grammatical argument for what the text means outweighs every assertion that the Holy Spirit told me the meaning. The reason that statement is not irreverent is that it takes more seriously the glorious work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the words and grammar of the text than it does the subjective experiences of an interpreter who ignores it.
Then after the prayer to see the wonders that are really there, we pray that we would be able to savor it with an undivided heart. Let’s put U and S together:
U — Unite. “O Lord, I will walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name” (Psalm 86:11).
S — Satisfy. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).
O, Lord, make yourself and your love the most satisfying reality in my life, and don’t let me be divided trying to serve two masters, or have two ultimate treasures.
These two prayers are essential for attaining the ultimate goal of reading the Bible. Remember what that ultimate goal is: that God’s infinite worth and beauty would be exalted in the everlasting, white-hot worship of the blood-bought Bride of Christ from every people, language, tribe, and nation.
All our Bible reading is aiming toward this end — the exaltation of God’s glory in the white-hot worship of his people. If God does not unite and satisfy the hearts of his Son’s Bride with what we see in the word, the whole purpose of the universe fails.
And as with all acronyms, this one too, is imperfect because something crucial is missing. Remember we made the case that the ultimate goal of white-hot worship is not to remain invisible in the heart, but become visible in acts of overflowing love. God means for his glory to be manifest not only in the heart’s satisfaction in him, but also in the overflow of that satisfaction in love to others, as we draw them into the same joy we have in God.
So as we pray over our Bible reading we must not stop with the S of I.O.U.S. — that is, with the inner experience of satisfaction. We must add L. Lead me. Lead me into love — visible acts of love.
The ultimate goal of Bible reading does not terminate on the invisible satisfaction of worshiping hearts, but on visible transformation of God’s people in paths of righteousness and love. So we pray all the way through to that end:
Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” (Psalm 119:35)
Lead me in paths of righteousness — and love! (Psalm 23:3)
Lead me in your truth and teach me. (Psalm 25:5)
So all of that — I.O.U.S.L. — was a specific application to Bible reading of the P — Pray — in A.P.T.A.T.
Now we come in our trek through A.P.T.A.T. to the first T. Trust the promises of God for help — specifically, as you come to reading the Bible.
Prayer without faith dishonors God and shows that we are like a wave of the sea without any settled conviction that God is good and deals generously and kindly with us for our good.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. (James 1:5–6)
One of the most important discoveries I have ever made for living the Christian life is that walking by faith does not just mean having only a general sense of God’s truth and goodness, but a specific sense that right now he has made promises to me about this situation that I should specifically trust. This is true whether we are facing a frightening situation of danger or a financial crisis or a temptation to lust or an opportunity of witness. There are promises that God has made to us in his word about what he will do for his children in those situations. And living by faith means, believing them, right here and right now.
And so it is with reading the Bible. We must not pray and then cross our fingers and wonder if God will help us. We pray and we believe promises.
As an example, take a general one like: “I will help you.”
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10).
Or a specific one about reading the Bible:
Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. . . . Who is the man who fears the LORD? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose. (Psalm 25:8–9, 12)
So reading the Bible supernaturally means not only (1) that we admit that we need God’s help to see and savor and be changed, and not only (2) that we cry out for that help in prayer, but also that we trust him. He will help us as we read!
This brings us finally to the second A of A.P.T.A.T — Act. This includes the whole life-long effort — effort! — of learning to read, and learning to read better year after year, on your own, or in a small group or listening to good preaching or going to Bible School or seminary or taking classes online.
If we had a fourth session together I would try to take you through the last seven chapters of the book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally, which give some guidance about this effort.
But all I want to stress here is this: All my stress on the supernatural nature of Bible reading does not nullify the necessity of your action. Your effort. Your looking and analyzing and thinking. Remember 2 Timothy 2:7:
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
Or we could add 2 Timothy 2:15:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
Looking at the biblical passage, and analyzing it, and thinking hard about what you see by asking many questions and trying to answer them — that is essential in the supernatural reading of the Bible.
Remember, God does not reveal his glory in Scripture apart from the meaning of the words, but through the meaning of the words. And the meaning of the words is found through the natural act of reading.
It’s just like the God-man Jesus on the earth. People did not see his divine glory by going into their closets and asking for a whisper or into the wilderness and asking for a bolt of lightning or a word from heaven. They saw the divine glory by looking at the God-Man with natural eyes, and by listening with natural ears, and in and through that — not apart from it — God granted them to see his glory. “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9).
So it is with the Bible: We do not see the glory of God in his word apart from the meaning of words, and phrases and clauses and paragraphs. And that meaning is pursued with the mind through looking and thinking — reading.
Recall 1 Corinthians 15:10. We could paraphrase it like this: “I looked at the Bible harder than any of them. I thought harder than any of them. I read more assiduously than any of them. Yet it was not I but the grace of God that is with me.” The supernatural grace of God comes through (not instead of or apart from!) the natural act of rigorous reading and thinking. And not just for a moment, but day after day, day and night.
Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day. (Psalm 119:97)
His delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:2)
And after the great natural A of action in A.P.T.A.T. we close with the final T — Thank. When you close your Bible, and that part of your obedience is complete, you thank him. You thank him that he gave you his word, that he humbled you before it, that he brought you to prayer for sight and savoring and transformation, that he gave you some measure of trust, that he inclined you to act — to read carefully — and that he opened your eyes to see wonderful things. Or if there remains a dimness, you thank him for his patience with you, and for the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from all sin.
God’s Purpose Cannot Fail
The purpose of God for the Bible cannot fail. He is watching over his word to perform it (Jeremiah 1:12). And that purpose is to reveal God’s infinite worth and beauty as the ultimate value and excellence in the universe, to open the eyes of his people to see his glory in the Scriptures, so that we savor the excellence of God above all created treasures, and, by beholding and being satisfied with God, that we be changed from glory to glory, until the Bride of Christ — the family of God across all centuries and cultures — is complete in number and beauty for the white-hot worship of God forever and ever.
This purpose cannot fail (Isaiah 46:10).
He will bring it to pass as millions of people pursue the natural act of reading the Bible supernaturally. I invite you be one of them. It is the only way for your life to be of lasting service to the world and for your work to show forth the glory of God and for your soul to be fully satisfied forever.