The Supernatural Act of Reading the Bible
Skamania Lodge | Stevenson, Washington
It seems then, in view of what we saw in session one that a proper reading of the Bible must be supernatural act. What does that mean? And why is it the case? And is it what the Bible itself really teaches? Those are the questions for this session.
So first let’s restate the ultimate goal of reading from our first session:
The Bible itself shows that our ultimate goal in reading the Bible 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.
The Bible Is Essential to God’s Purposes
I argued that God intended that the Bible — and our act of reading the Bible — would be an indispensable means of bringing about that ultimate purpose of creation and redemption. Working our way backward, we can describe the plan and how Bible reading fits in. Let’s do it in six steps:
Since the ultimate purpose of God is to be enjoyed and exalted in the white-hot worship of a beautiful Bride, God’s people must be inwardly and outwardly transformed from glory to glory into the image of Christ.
This transformation happens by means of savoring the glory of the Lord Jesus — that is, by being satisfied by Christ and supremely treasuring all that God is for us in him.
This savoring of all that God is for us in Jesus happens by means of seeing the glory of the Lord for who he really is — more valuable and more beautiful than anything.
This seeing is possible only because God reveals his peculiar glory to us through the inspired Scriptures.
Reading these Scriptures — or hearing someone communicate them — is the means God has appointed for his word to have these glorious effects.
Therefore, reading the Bible is God’s indispensable means of bringing about his ultimate purpose for creation and redemption.
Beyond Ordinary Human Experience
So the implication staring us in the face is that God intends for us to read his word in a way that involves actions and experiences of the human soul that are beyond ordinary human experience.
Seeing the glory of the Lord is not merely with our ordinary physical eyes, but with the “eyes of the heart” (Ephesians 1:18), and “comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Savoring the glory of the Lord is no ordinary human pleasure, but is Christ’s own joy, experienced as our own by the presence of his Spirit (John 15:11).
Our transformation is no ordinary “moral rearmament” or “self-improvement,” but is brought about by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13).
In other words the act of reading that pursues God’s ultimate purpose for reading, is a profoundly supernatural experience. To be sure it is also natural. And we will see this in our third session. But until now, what we have seen is that reading is far more than natural. It appears that our entire encounter with the Bible, even if it involves our natural abilities, is a supernatural encounter.
This would seem to imply that whatever we meet in the Bible — historical facts, poetic praises, proverbial wisdom, promises of help, descriptions of God’s nature, illustrations of God’s ways, standards of holy living, procedures of church discipline, predictions, calamities, warnings of Satanic opposition, summons to faith, analyses of human depravity, directions for husbands and wives, political insights, financial principles, etc. — all of it will only be seen in the right way, when we see it illumined by, and in relation to, the glory of God. In other words, no matter how natural the process of reading is, and no matter how natural the objects discovered are, no reading and no discovery happens without dependence on God, or without seeing all things in relation to his worth and beauty — if we are reading the way God means for his book to be read. So this session is intended to test whether this is in fact the case.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5–6)
This includes Bible reading. At every point we must rely on God ultimately and decisively to act as we read the Bible.
Two Obstacles to Supernatural Reading
The Bible gives two decisive reasons for why this dependence on God is necessary: Satan and sin. That is, we have a blinding enemy outside, and a blinding disease inside. Together these two forces make it impossible for human beings to read the Bible, as God intended, without supernatural help.
Let’s look briefly at each of these massive obstacles to reading the Bible as God intends.
1. Satan is real and really blinds us to what God intends for us to see in reading the Bible.
Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case 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 4:3–4)
Satan is not opposed to all Bible reading. Bible reading that only collects facts, or relieves a guilty conscience, or gathers doctrinal arguments, or titillates aesthetic literary tastes, or feeds historical curiosities — this kind of Bible reading Satan is perfectly happy to leave alone. He has already won the battle. He himself is quite a student of the Scriptures, and quotes it to Jesus shrewdly in the wilderness temptations (Matthew 4:1–11).
But reading that aims to see the supreme worth and beauty of God — reading that aims to be satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ, reading that seeks to “taste and see that the Lord is good” — this reading, and all that goes into it, Satan will oppose with all his might. And his might is supernatural. Therefore, any reading that hopes to overcome his blinding power must be a supernatural reading.
2. Our own sinfulness blinds us.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
What we are by nature is so opposed to what the Scripture reveals — “the things of the Spirit of God” — that we cannot discern them for what they are, because we see them as foolish, and they are not foolish. And so we do not see them for what they are. The picture is even worse in Romans 8:7–8.
The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:7–8)
Here the active hostility to God that we have by nature — that’s what “of the flesh” means (remember Jesus’s words: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” John 3:6) — the active hostility to God that we have by nature is explicit and clear: “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God.” So there is in us — Oh how we feel it! — an innate resistance to “God’s law.” That resistance makes the law — the instruction of God — appear not for what it really is, namely, beautiful and freeing and desirable (“Oh how I love thy law!” says the psalmist, Psalm 119:97).
Instead the “mind of the flesh” sees and feels God’s instruction as oppressive. Left to ourselves we can only distort God’s word. You can state true facts about aspects of meaning in the Bible, without the Holy Spirit. But you can’t see or savor or speak the supreme worth and beauty of what you see — unless you become a hypocrite, simply aping what others say.
So because of the massive realities of Satan and sin, there is no hope of our reading the Bible and seeing what is really there and moving into the great ultimate goal of reading the Bible.
Failed Bible Reading
Before we turn now to look at what supernatural help looks like, let’s take note of an example of failed reading among those who read the Bible most, the Pharisees.
Probably in Jesus’s day no one read the Bible more than the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do” (Matthew 23:2). They carried more Bible in their minds and in their mouths than anyone else. They readily quoted the law of God (Matthew 19:7). They were meticulous in their attention to the details (Matthew 23:24). Yet Jesus repeatedly spoke to them as if they had not read the Scriptures!
This is amazing. Saying to the Pharisees, “Have you not read your Scriptures?” must have been highly offensive — like saying to Peyton Manning, “You ever thrown a football?” Or saying to Winston Churchill, “You ever read any history?”
Jesus said this to the Pharisees at least six times in the Gospels. The implication each time is that the most authoritative Bible readers of that day didn’t know what they are talking about. How could that be? They had read the Bible. But something had gone wrong. Terribly wrong.
Take the example of controversy over the sabbath:
“Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1–8)
Or look at Jesus's controversy with the pharisees over divorce and remarriage:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause ?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Sin and Satan Blind
What had gone wrong? Just as we saw earlier: sin and Satan.
They were blinded by their sin and by Satan. For example, they were blinded by their love of money and love of the praise of men. Jesus called them “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 16:4). He said “You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside [you] are full of greed and self-indulgence. (Matthew 23:25). And again: “[You] do all [your] deeds to be seen by others. . . . [You] love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:5–6).
In other words, these Bible readers — these experts in Bible reading — loved sex, and loved money and love human praise more than they loved God or his Messiah. And listen to the connection between these sins and their ability to grasp the truth. Luke said in Luke 16:14, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things [that Jesus was saying], and they ridiculed him” (Luke 16:14). The things Jesus said sounded to them ridiculous, because they loved money too much to see what was really true and valuable. And on another occasion Jesus said,
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, they valued human praise more than the glory of God, and therefore they could not see Jesus as believable. Their ability to read the word of God, and see the word of God in front of them, was not a problem of ignorance. It was a problem of sin.
And not only sin, but Satan. This was their other blinding enemy. Satan had a free hand in these sinful hearts. They were, Jesus said, of their father the devil.
Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. (John 8:43–44)
The greatest obstacles to reading the Scriptures are not intellectual. They are not lack of skill. Nothing creates as great a barrier to seeing what is really there in Scripture, as a heart that loves other things more than God, and is therefore under the spell of Satan.
What then, is supernatural act of reading? In essence it is a reliance on God the Father, and the Spirit, and Christ to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves as we seek to see what is really there in Scripture and as we seek to savor it and be transformed by it. There are numerous ways that the New Testament describes this divine assistance. Here are three of them:
1. He opens the Scriptures and opens the mind.
On the Emmaus Road two disciples were baffled by all that had happened in the last days of Jesus’s life. So Jesus said,
O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:25–26).
In other words, Jesus said that their failure to read the prophets perceptively, and see what was really there, was owing to foolishness and slowness of heart. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” Later, in their home, Jesus was revealed to them and then vanished. They said to each other,
Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures? (Luke 24:32).
Later he met with the eleven and said to them,
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44–45)
So the first picture of supernatural help in reading the Bible is that Jesus “opens the Scriptures” and “opens the mind” to understand them.
2. He shines supernatural light into our hearts.
Paul shows that the remedy for the blinding effects of Satan is the illumining power of God:
For 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. (2 Corinthians 4:6).
In other words, similar to the act of God in creating light at the beginning of the world, God creates light in the human heart — the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. That is what we see in Scripture when God does this.
3. He enlightens the eyes of our hearts.
2 Corinthians 4:6 is picture of what happens us at conversion. But we need this supernatural help not just at conversion but all the way along, because the eyes of our hearts — our capacity for spiritual sight — becomes blurred or clouded. So Paul prays in Ephesians 1:17–18,
that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you . . .
He is praying for Christians. Christians need supernatural enlightening in our hearts to grasp what the Scriptures reveal.
So the Bible gives us these several pictures of what the supernatural help looks like: the opening of the Scriptures, the opening of our minds, the shining of divine light into the soul, and the enlightening of the eyes of the heart. Without this supernatural help, we will not see in the Scriptures the worth and beauty of God that is really there.
The New Birth and the Bible
Finally, let’s look at the connection between the supernatural miracle of new birth that brings a Christian into being, and the ongoing supernatural act of reading the Scriptures. I go here because we could easily make either mistake: (1) of thinking that the miracle of the new birth is all that is needed in the ongoing reading of the word, or (2) of thinking that the ongoing help has no connection with the new birth.
Two key passages make the connection between the new birth and how we read the Bible: James 1:18–21 and 1 Peter 1:23–2:3. Let’s look at these one at a time.
James 1:18–21 describes the new birth as a sovereign act of God, by which he gives us life “by the word of truth.”
Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
“His own will” emphasizes the sovereign, supernatural nature of our new birth by the word. God gave us eyes to see the truth, and gave us a love for it, and trust in it.
Then, James says, we go on receiving the word which is not just in the book, but also planted in us. Verse 21: “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” It seems to me that what this means is that God has supernaturally made the word a part of who we are — it’s implanted. So when we read or hear the word, it’s not alien to us. It is in us, shaping us, defining us. It has become part of our spiritual DNA. And we receive the read-word or the preached-word as a reality that is already part of who we are.
Now here is a similar passage from 1 Peter 1:23–2:3:
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. So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. 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.
Notice the move from the event of new birth (1:23), to the ongoing drinking (2:2) which has saving effect, only if we have “tasted that the Lord is good” (2:3). So we are born again by the seed of word. That’s very much like James’ saying: the word is implanted in us, becoming part of who we are. And now we go on desiring and drinking the word and grow up into salvation not just by seeing what’s there, but by tasting, or savoring, what’s really there.
The parallels between James 1:18–21 and 1 Peter 1:23–2:3 are remarkable:
|James 1:18–21||1 Peter 1:23–2:3|
|He brought us forth||You have been born again|
|by the word of truth||through the living and abiding word|
|Put away all malice||Put away all filthiness|
|In meekness||Like newborn infants|
|receive the implanted word||long for the pure spiritual milk|
|which is able to save your souls||that by it you may grow up into salvation|
What makes this so amazing is that the wording in James and Peter are so different you know they are not quoting each other or simply quoting some source. Instead both are giving independent testimony to the way God wanted his church to start the Christian life supernaturally in the new birth, and go on living and growing the Christian supernaturally, with both beginning and growing by the supernatural reading of Scripture.
So I conclude that the inference from session one is true: Reading the Scriptures must be a supernatural act if we are going to accomplish God’s purposes for it. And this is not just an inference from the goal of Scripture, it is what the Bible itself really teaches?
Now the question is: But isn’t reading very natural — words, definitions, grammar, syntax, logic, et cetera? What then is the natural act of reading the Bible supernaturally?