The operating manual may be long (and even translated from Japanese), and it has to be read carefully, and each procedure carried out accurately and in the right order. But then the moment comes, and at the flick of a switch the power is turned on. Procedure is barren without power. But without proper procedure the whole thing may blow up.
Principles of interpreting the Bible are, perhaps, the equivalent of the proper use of the operating manual. But without the power of the Holy Spirit they can lead us into arid deserts indeed. Paul warned Timothy against those ‘having a form of godliness but denying its power’ (2 Timothy 3:5), and insisted that his message and his preaching were ‘not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Sprit’s power’ (1 Corinthians 2:4).
Nevertheless, Paul urged Timothy: ‘Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15).
Reading and studying the Bible is a uniquely satisfying experience. Engaging not only the mind but also the heart, it speaks, from God, into our world and into our individual lives. But, more than that, it speaks with its own power. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it: ‘The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any two-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account’ (Hebrews 4:12-13).
In one of the few passages in the New Testament that speaks of being ‘born again’, Peter explains to his readers that their conversion is not simply an act of faith, but a deep work of God: they ‘have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God’ (1 Peter 1:23). In the old story of Jack and the Beanstalk, the feckless boy Jack sells the family cow for a handful of beans. His mother, in rage and despair, throws the beans out of the window. But, lo and behold, the next morning a vast and luxuriant runner bean plant has grown right up to the sky. The old storytellers knew all about the germ of life, hidden in the dry seed, from which springs new life.
Paul reminded the Thessalonians that the word he preached was actually ‘the word of God, which is at work in you who believe’ (1 Thessalonians 2:13). So we must expect God to speak to us, to work in us, even as we study. We must allow God’s word to challenge, encourage, convict, guide and change us.
Much has been written over the centuries about ‘Listening to God’. While waiting quietly on God, in ‘listening prayer’, we may receive pictures, impressions, words, or verses of Scripture. But the most consistent way in which we hear God is through the prayerful, listening, reading of the Scriptures.
Let us not limit the work of the Holy Spirit. He is at work all the time – in the hearts of his children and often in the hearts of those who are not yet his children – and through the living written word.
We must be prepared for God to speak through the Bible to different people in different, and sometimes unlikely, ways, as these examples show.
A young man, deep in the life and lifestyle of a successful model, dissatisfied and seeking meaning and truth, was given a Bible by a friend:
‘I sat down and opened it for the first time in my life. What I read that day changed my life. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that God was real and that he cared about me. I felt this with my whole being, and it completely wowed me… My drug mentality thought, this is better than any Ecstasy, any acid, any coke I’ve ever had. This feeling of love, of peace – it was so new, so foreign to me. I knew it was what I’d been searching for, and what I knew so many others were searching for.’
The verse that spoke to him most directly was 2 Chronicles 29:11 (not an obvious choice for a special illumination!): ‘I was completely overcome with a sense of God’s presence and love for me, causing me to experience a deep warmth and uncontrollable weeping.’ It was a prophetic word indeed, for he is now a clergyman!
Isobel Kuhn, who became a pioneer missionary to the Lisu in South-West China, was faced as a young Christian by an ethical decision about whether to visit a phrenologist:
‘Impulsively, I pulled [the Bible] toward me. It fell shut and I reopened it at random… Inwardly I was wondering what the Bible said about phrenology, when my eye happened to fall on the open page and there, unconsciously, my left hand lay with a forefinger pointing at a verse. I read: “Keep me far from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7). It was as if a voice had spoken to me and I was so startled at the directness of the answer to my inward question which no one had heard that my distressed heart collapsed with relief… The piled-up heartaches of a whole year and a half of searching after God had reached a climax, and I could only sob until exhausted.’ (Isobel Kuhn, By Searching, China Inland Mission, 1957.)
A friend who was going through a time of turmoil and change sensed that God was prompting her to read Isaiah 55:
‘“Why waste your money on what is not bread”, I read, “and your labour on what does not satisfy?” I put my Bible down and exclaimed out loud, “I know you are telling me to change my job, Lord, but now is not a good time!” When I returned to the office after a holiday I was given 30 minutes to clear my desk – I was redundant! I then realised that Isaiah 55:2 had not been a polite suggestion from the Lord, but his way of telling me that even this job loss was in his plan for me and that he was going to lead me into labour that satisfied – which he did!’
Martin Luther had been a monk for about 15 years, constantly tormented by his own unworthiness, and struggling over the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ (Romans 1:16), when:
‘At last, by the mercy of God and meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’.” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith, and this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live”. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.’ (Quoted in Peter Vardy [ed.], Great Christian Thinkers, Fount 1999.)
To one young man, who found God on his very first reading of the Bible, and to another, who had studied it and meditated on it for many years before a special illumination came to him, which changed the course of Church history, the Bible spoke with personal directness.
The Lord, in his sovereignty, can speak to anyone like this. But for most of us such experiences are rare, and it is as we engage with God through our regular reading of Scripture – responding to him as in a good marriage relationship, a relationship of security, love and trust – that he habitually speaks to us and we get to know him better.
The more we read the Bible well, seeking to apply sound principles of interpretation, the more deeply and richly the word will dwell in our hearts (Colossians 3:16). Our minds will be renewed, our lives transformed, and we shall know with greater clarity and power what God’s will is, his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).
I started, in the first essay in this series, by quoting John Stott, and I shall end with the same quotation:
‘In so far as the Bible is a human book, we read it as we would any other book, with our minds; but in so far as it is the word of God, we read it as we would read no other book, on our knees.’
Read Psalm 119:33-40 prayerfully and expectantly; then go back over the passage again, reading each verse into your current situation, and responding in prayer and praise.
Pray every day that the Lord will prompt you through your reading of Scripture. Write down anything that he seems to be saying to you, and where there are things you need to do, do them without delay. After a week or two look back at what you wrote, holding yourself accountable before God.