The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Lifelong learning for me is mainly an issue of the Bible. Will we continue to grow in our grasp of God’s word? Will we continue to grow in our ability to apply it and live it out with radical authenticity? And will we continue to be transformed by it day in and day out?
If you have a Bible, I invite you to open it to Psalm 119. I want to read this verse in context, perhaps not the whole unit. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible and it’s broken down into paragraphs with Hebrew letters at the beginning of each one. The passage that we’re talking about goes from verses 17–24, but perhaps we should read a few of the verses around it and then I’ll tell you what significance this verse has for me and try to open it in three steps for you and apply it to lifelong learning.
Deal bountifully with your servant,
that I may live and keep your word. (Psalm 119:17)
The whole goal of the psalmist’s life, it seems, was just that God would let him keep on breathing and living so that he could be about the word. This is life.
Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law. (Psalm 119:18)
Word and Prayer
It seems to me that if we’re going to be holy, godly, loving people, and radically risk-taking, mission-minded people, we need to have our lives on two tracks — like wheels of a train. One of them would be meditating on the word of God, and the other would be praying before the throne of God. The word and prayer are the two tracks on which our engine keeps running.
“If you see the wonders in the Bible for what they are, they will stun you beyond anything you could see in this world.”
Lifelong learning has to do mainly with the word rail, I think. But this verse makes very plain the connection between the two, the prayer rail and the word rail, because this verse is a prayer, but it’s a prayer about the word. Let me point out the three parts that I see in Psalm 119:18.
Wonders of the Word
First, there are wonderful things in the Bible, things that, if you see them for what they are, will take your breath away, will stun you beyond anything you could see in this world. “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).
We know from other parts of the Bible that if you really see them, they change you. “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). It’s the seeing that produces the changing. “Beholding is becoming” would be one way to remember it. That’s the first point.
God Gives Sight
Second, no one can see the wonderful things of God in the word without supernatural help. It says, “God.” We’re talking to God here now. “God, open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things.” If God doesn’t do it, you don’t see them. That’s heavy. That’s big. That has massive theological implications. You cannot see the wonderful things of God without God helping you see them.
Remember Jesus and Peter? “[Jesus] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” And Jesus said what? “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:15–17). Peter was looking at him — a human being, Jesus Christ — and he saw the Son of God. God was on him. He wouldn’t have seen that otherwise.
Pharisees didn’t see it. Flesh and blood (what you are as a human) sees only surface structures in the Bible. That’s why there can be godless scholars who see some pretty sharp things. They can see things. They can see things sometimes we miss and that’s why it’s okay, I think, to read their books. Secular scholars can see logical connections and historical connections, but they don’t see wonder. They’re not gripped with glory, and that’s what matters in the end.
You talk about lifelong learning; we don’t just want pastors to gather round Tyndale and see a new logical connection, or a new grammatical structure, or a new historical reality and go home and be as weak and carnal as some preachers are. We want them to see through to that glory, like Peter seeing what looked like an ordinary man with an ordinary face, two arms, two legs, a nose, and ears; and bowing down and saying, “Son of God.”
Ask, Seek, Knock
Third, if that’s going to happen, the other rail, the prayer rail, has to be built in. So the whole thing must be bathed in prayer. Every seminar, every class, every guest, must not just be stocking the brain with facts, but seeking through prayer the opening of eyes to grasp the wonders. And I get that just from the fact that the verse is a prayer: “Open my eyes.” The psalmist is talking to God. “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things.”
So let me back now up, and just say a few more things about each of those three observations. First, there are wonders in the word. Second, we can’t see them without divine help. And third, therefore ask for it. It’s simple. I hope you can take that away. There are wonders in the word; you cannot see them without divine help, so ask for divine help.
Soak in the Wonders
There are wonders in the word, and that is so crucial is not only for worship — no worship is going to be authentic in any of our churches if the people aren’t seeing wonder in the word — but also for transformed lives in the community. We want our people to be transformed into the image of Christ, and according to 2 Corinthians 3:18, we are transformed as we behold the glory of the Lord. You see it and you become like it. So preaching and Bible studies and all kinds of interchanges should exist with the aim of making the word more central in our lives.
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11)
If we don’t want ourselves or our people to sin, what do we do? It says, “I have stored up [treasured, valued, seen wonder in and cherished as a wonder] your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” We make a big deal in our church about Bible memorization, and I encourage you to make a big deal about Bible memorization in your life. Memorize the Bible.
Students, don’t think you have accomplished much by reading books about the Bible if you are not storing up the Bible itself, so that you can call it to mind to minister to your soul and other people’s souls when you forget your Bible.
No Ready Word
Once I was in a hospital with one of the great statesmen and saints of our church. I forgot my Bible when his wife had a cardiac arrest. I ran there, and the first thing he did in this room where the family was gathered was say to me, “John, give us a word from the Lord.” And I drew a blank.
“Treasure the word of God in your heart and you’ll sin less. Memorize the Bible.”
I know hundreds of verses by heart, and I drew a blank and stammered out some prayer, trying to paraphrase the Bible. I went home so ashamed because I was in the first year of the pastorate. I went home so ashamed, got down on my knees, opened my Bible, and memorized Psalm 46 cold. I said, “Lord, I will never, ever forget Psalm 46.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
Since then, and in our church, this is a very big deal. We have something called the Fighter Verse program. We memorize a verse a week, and I begin every service by asking somebody to stand up and recite it from memory in the congregation. The children do it in the first service, usually. I say, “Any children know Matthew 20:26–28?” Little five-year-olds stand up in the balcony and address 800 people by memory.
Your Very Life
We put a high premium on Bible memorization for a very simple reason. If the doctor says, “You’re very sick and you are probably going to die. But I have a medicine, and if you will take it according to the prescription, you will live,” and you don’t take it because the pills are too big or because you’re forgetful, you’re going to die.
And if Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you,” and you’d like to be free from some sin in your life, and you don’t do that, you’re going to sin more. This is not hard. This is level 101 here. Therefore, treasure the word of God in your heart and you’ll sin less. Memorize the Bible.
Work for What’s Important
Now, there are some older folks in this room. I’m 53, and it is harder for me today to memorize Scripture than it was 30 years ago. I have to say it over and over and over, and I can get up off my knees and ten minutes later say, “What was that verse I was trying to memorize?” So I carry them around now on a little piece of paper. I carry them around because I forget them and I have to review them during the day.
Deuteronomy 32:2: “May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew.” That was my prayer for this conference, so I had brought it along to try to re-memorize it.
So, I know it’s hard. I know it’s hard for our older people to memorize Scripture, but it’s hard to cook a beautiful and exquisite meal. It’s not hard to put a hot dog on, but it’s hard to make a really nice meal. It’s hard to carve a beautiful piece of furniture, and somebody had some skill with brass. That’s not easy. That doesn’t just pop out of the oven. Anything that’s worth doing is hard to do. A lot of things are and this is hard.
Ballast for the Voyage
I have a three-year-old daughter, and we are stocking her head with Bible verses. She’s got a whole bunch of Bible verses that she can say even though she can’t read yet because we go over them. We are expending all this effort to take a three-year-old and say, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). And she’s got it, just like that. Two, three times and she’s got it. Why are we doing this? It’s very simple.
In fifteen years I want her to be pure and strong and holy, like a dolphin swimming against the tide of her culture. I want her to be strong and able to take a stand like a rock, not being influenced by any guys who would take advantage of her or any girls who would lead her in the wrong direction. That’s why.
Restore your heart and your mind and your soul with the word of God and you’ll treasure it because there are wonderful things in it. You’re going to be a rock. That’s the first observation.
Blind to the Wonders
The second one is: You can’t see the wondrous things in the word. You can’t see them if God doesn’t help you see them. This is scary, right? Ephesians 4:18 describes the Gentiles, all of us, as “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of their heart.” Ignorance due to hardness. Why don’t you get your mind un-ignorant? It’s not a reason problem but a heart problem. You have to get a new heart. That’s the work of God. Nobody in this room gives themself a new heart. God takes out the heart of stone and puts in the heart of flesh. God circumcises your heart so you love the Lord your God that you may live.
Seeing Without Seeing
Deuteronomy 29:2–3: “Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: ‘You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt . . . the signs, and those great wonders.’” Hear the word wonders. You’ve seen the wonders.
“No worship is going to be authentic in any of our churches if the people aren’t seeing wonder in the word.”
“But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4). Wait a minute. You just said they saw the wonders, and now you’re saying the Lord hasn’t given them a heart to understand or eyes to see. What do you mean, Moses? Sounds like double talk to me.
From Moses to Jesus
It isn’t double talk because Jesus said, “Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear” (Matthew 13:13). There are two kinds of seeing, right? “Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear.” The eyes see, the heart doesn’t. Maybe you know Paul better.
[I pray that you may have] the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and the power that is at work in those who believe. (Ephesians 1:18)
Grant that their hearts would be enlightened, not their eyes. Yes, they can read pages. I can read notes. You can read your Bible and your texts and see nothing of any spiritual significance until God enlightens the eyes of your heart so that they see. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
Prayer for Sight
This leads me to the last point. If you believe what I just told you, that this is the biblical teaching, that apart from God opening your heart, you don’t see glory in the Bible, what are you going to do? If God doesn’t help me see, if he doesn’t give me a heart for him, if he doesn’t transform me and circumcise my heart and take out the heart of stone and open my eyes, I will be as blind and as callous and as rebellious and as dead as a rock. If you’re praying like that, he’s already come. But you had better pray like that. I pray like that every morning.
Let me just close with some typical prayers. I’m just going to get these from Psalm 119. If you say, “How do you pray?” I’ll say to pray Psalm 119:18, but let me just give you a few others as we close.
“Teach me your statutes” (Psalm 119:12). Pray for God to be your teacher. “Hide not your commandments from me” (Psalm 119:19)! Why would you ever pray something like that? Do you know why? Because — it’s a dreadful thing, and yet true — sometimes the judgment comes in the form of hidden word.
Do you remember Amos? There was a famine of the word. “I will send a famine on the land . . . of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). What does that mean? That means God is going to act so that the word dries up. That’s scary.
Or Jesus said, “For those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive’” (Mark 4:11–12). There is judgment in concealing the word from people who have spurned it, scoffed at it, and rejected it. God says, “Enough,” and no longer can they see.
Pray that that not happen to you. Don’t take it for granted, folks. It has happened to me for seasons and it can happen to you. You can wake up some morning and your desire for the Bible is gone. What guarantees that tomorrow morning you will want to read your Bible? Are you going to guarantee that? If you want to read your Bible tomorrow morning, God has put that there.
“You cannot see the wonderful things of God without God helping you see them.”
“Make me understand the way of your precepts” (Psalm 119:27). This is one I pray over and over: “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain” (Psalm 119:36)! The great competitor with the Bible is money, and all that you can get with it.
You know what? You can’t get anything of value with it. God might take your money and do something glorious with it, but if you think that your money is the key to your happiness, and you’re going to use it as the vehicle to get right with God, or stay right with God, or provide the longings of your soul, you had better pray this prayer because it says, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” Do you even believe God has a right to do that?
Does God have a right to incline your heart? Picture it like a metronome: Money, Bible, money, Bible, money, Bible. Does God have a right to say, “Bible,” and hold it there? I tell you, my life is based on his right and his power and his readiness and his gracious willingness to do that for me, because I am prone to wonder, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Push me back. Chain me, fetter me, bind me with a fetter to you, O God. That’s the way I pray.
Pray that God would give us life. “In your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth” (Psalm 119:88).
Lifelong learning is a thirty-, forty-, fifty-, sixty-year rhythm of waning and reviving, waning and reviving, leaning the wrong way and graciously being pushed back the other way. I hope God uses days like this into the years to come to push pastors and laypeople back onto the track of meditating on the word and praying to a holy, merciful God. What a great calling