Sunday, February 5, 2023

Open Eyes, Open Hearts

So far this year, we've been exploring this great human journey that's supposed to lead us to the face of God – to see him as he is, and so become like him as participants in his eternal life of blessedness. That beatific vision is what we're made for. But we found that this great human journey can't take off until our sin is dealt with and until we're operating under supernatural power, all of which requires us to be born again. But once we've been born again, grace installs in us supernatural dispositions called faith and hope and love. And as we put these into practice, we move toward our goal. And since our goal is union with God, our movement is all about deepening our relationship with God. So last week we talked about prayer. In Christian prayer, we make ourselves attentive to God's presence both as God and as Father, we make prayer a religious act of offering our honest inner self to him like a sacrifice, and in that context, we can process our emotions with God, thank God, make requests to God, interact with God, and just become comfortable in our Father's presence.

In all that up until now, though, we've only painted half the picture. All of that is good and important, but it can turn prayer into a bit of a monologue. Last week we said that “prayer is first and foremost about cultivating that relationship, about developing conversational familiarity with God in which it becomes easier and more natural to talk with him.” But a conversation, a relationship, takes a dialogue. Have you ever tried talking to someone who monopolizes the conversation, who won't let you get a word in edgewise?  Too often, we are that person toward God as we pray:  going on and on without leaving space for God's replies. So how do we do better?  How do we listen in prayer with an open heart?

The first thing that helps, as we become attentive to God's presence, is to become aware of God as a lovingly active listener – the fact that, whenever we're paying attention to him, he's already paying attention to us. What we say already has his ear, as children have their Father's ear. But does he have ours, even when he seems slow to speak? It takes vulnerability to open ourselves to God and then just... wait. It's uncomfortable, maintaining a stretch position of listening. It takes patience that we often don't muster. But then, in our silence, we begin to hear. I always struggled a lot with this, but one book on prayer I've been reading explains it so much better than I could ever hope to, so bear with me as I just quote them:

The response may come in different ways. … His response may come in the form of some insight which we may or may not be able to put into words. Sometimes it is simply a peace that rises up in our hearts, or we find that an image comes to us and possibly an interpretation of how that image applies to us. Other times we start to see a situation or a person differently, from God's perspective. … When it comes to our personal calling, words of love meant for us alone, direction for specific situations, or guiding us in the choice of two goods, his voice can be so quiet that we cannot hear it. That is to say, we will hear his voice only when we are ready to hear it, when we have already aligned our freedom with his will.1

Now, with God's voice being so quiet, there comes a danger. And the danger is that, willingly or unwillingly, we can fabricate the other side of the conversation. We can imagine God too differently from how he really is, we can mistake other voices for his, we can distort what he's saying to us by filtering it through the wrong ideas. If we're to invest in a relationship with God, then we've got to match his very quiet voice to what he's already shouted to the world – we've got to have an ear formed by God's word.2 So what's God shouted to the world?

God has shouted to the world his Word, and his Word is none other than Jesus Christ, the divine person. For we know that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). As the Word of God, he made everything that is and holds it all together (John 1:3). Because he holds it together, the Word is “the true light which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9), so that to an extent, even the unbeliever in deepest darkness has “the work of the law written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:15), so that at times they “by nature do what the law requires” (Romans 2:14). That's because God has written his Word all over the underside of creation, leaving a natural law to reveal himself.

But more important than even that, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). For “in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son..., through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:3), “and the name by which he is called is: The Word of God” (Revelation 19:13). And so this Word of God “was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels..., taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16). Unless our first reaction when we hear the phrase 'word of God' is to think of Jesus himself as the Word of God – capital W and all – then we have missed the point. Because the Word of God is, first and foremost, this divine person, this Jesus Christ. Jesus is himself the shout of God that makes the world, holds the world, saves the world. He, and nothing else, is God's perfect self-revelation.

But after he was taken up in glory, we're told that the apostles he appointed “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). The 'word of God' there is the content of what they preached. And through their preaching, first “Samaria had received the word of God” (Acts 8:14), and then “the Gentiles also had received the word of God” (Acts 11:1). Over and over again, “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). So, when the proconsul Sergius Paulus “sought to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:7), was he out of luck? No. Did he reach for a book? Also no. He called on apostles and listened to them, because what they preached to him was the word of God. Through them and those who worked with them, the word of God was “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world” (1 Timothy 3:16). It was this “living and abiding word of God” whereby “you have been born again,” says Peter (1 Peter 1:23). And because this preaching passed from mouth to ear to mouth to ear, Paul rejoiced that, even when he was chained up like a criminal, “the word of God is not bound!” (2 Timothy 2:9).

So the personal Word of God had come to the prophets and spoken to them, and therefore – as Peter explains – “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Then, when the Word of God took on flesh, he appointed these apostles and poured out on them the same Holy Spirit, and they too spoke as the Spirit carried them along. So far, so good. But some of those prophets, and some of these apostles, took the word of God they were speaking, and they wrote it down. And what they left behind them, people called 'scriptures' – which, from the Latin scriptura, just means 'writings.' Later on, through a process we won't get into this morning, these scriptures got conveniently collected into a single set of books, sometimes even between a single set of covers. The Greek word for 'books,' in the plural, is biblia – so, in English, “the holy books” becomes “the Holy Bible.”

And this Holy Bible is God truly shouting his love to our world – or, as Paul puts it, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). For the Bible to be God's speech implies that the message God wants to teach us is inerrant. “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6). “The word of the LORD is upright” (Psalm 33:4). “Every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5). For just such a reason, Jesus announced that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). One follower of the apostles summed this up by saying: “The Holy Scriptures... are true and inspired by the Holy Spirit. You know that nothing contrary to justice or truth has been written in them.”3

All that is totally true. At the same time, it's also true that the Bible didn't descend on a sunbeam, a message in one heavenly language that transcends all time and all space. The Holy Scriptures arose from the Holy Spirit carrying along real people. God chose to harness the gifts of a whole bunch of writers in all their specific contexts, and he let them bring their personalities and strengths and even weaknesses to the effort.4 So they write in their own languages, Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek. Sometimes they use a rhyme scheme or a pun that's hard to pick up on in our English translations. Some of them wrote in high-flying words of impressive eloquence; others of them ain't using no perfect grammar – and that's okay. Some wrote by their own hand, others dictated to a scribe, some had co-authors, and some might've even outsourced the wording to a secretary and then approved the final result. They assume background information they expect their first hearers to remember. They use customs and conventions familiar to them, without worrying about us people two thousand years later. The Bible is the word of God as written down, and the flesh it's incarnated in is all these particularities – but just as with Jesus, it's these enfleshed particularities that let it be seen and touched by us.

When we want to understand the Bible, then, first we have to read it literally. But that's not the same as reading it literalistically. Reading everything in it like a newspaper report would be literalistic, and often, that's what we do. But to read it literally is just to read it 'according to the letter' – i.e., what the words actually say and mean, according to their genre and their context and their grammar and their syntax and their figures of speech. If it uses metaphors or idioms, read those for what they are. If you come across a sentence like “It's raining cats and dogs,” literalistic reading makes you call the vet; literal reading makes you grab an umbrella.

First, there's the literary context. When you read a line or a verse, what's right around it? What kind of passage is it in? If it's a proverb, read it like a proverb. If it's a parable, read it like a parable. If it's a scene or episode, read it like that, as a story. Then, there's not just the immediate passage, but the whole book. What genre is it? If it's a biography like the Gospel of Matthew, read it as a biography. If it's a letter like Romans, read it like you read a letter. If it's an apocalypse like Revelation, we'd better figure out how we're supposed to read apocalypses. And how's the book put together? For instance, Matthew is arranged around five big teaching sessions (just like there are five books of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy), and one teaching session, the Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus preaching from a mountain, just like Moses on Mt. Sinai. Once you see how it's put together, you can read each part in light of the rest. Just like it's hard to figure out a movie if you enter the theater an hour after it starts, so it's hard to figure out a book starting from the middle. Then, not only is there the whole book, but there's the whole Bible. The Scriptures are meant to hang together as one immense story that describes the truth of the universe.5 And so the whole Bible makes sense together. You'll get the most out of watching a movie these days if you've seen its prequels. The same's true of a Bible book's prequels.  (And then also its sequels, after which you can 're-watch' the earlier book with added perspective again, just like the best movies.)

That brings us to the historical context. If it wasn't written this morning right here in the USA, don't read it like it was. As you look at a line or a verse, which are part of a passage and a book, when does it fit in that immense story? Which covenant does it belong to? Was it written before, during, or after the exile? Where was it written – Israel, Judah, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome? Is the author a king or a priest or a prophet or a sage or a fisherman or a doctor or a tentmaker? Where'd the Holy Spirit find this person? And who was in the human author's mind as their first audience? Were they Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, rural or urban, well-behaved or badly behaved?

That's an awful lot of questions, I know. That's why we've got a little church library. But while all this may sound complicated, it doesn't mean that you're left clueless when you sit down with your Bible in the morning. After all, Timothy was “from childhood... acquainted with the sacred writings” (2 Timothy 3:15). And while Timothy had to keep reading, keep learning, keep clarifying what he maybe didn't understand at first, even a child can feel the breath of God on the sacred page, and get some part of its message, whether a little or a lot.

So this literal sense of Scripture – metaphors and figures and all – is foundational. But as Paul looked to the Law, he contrasted its 'letter' and its 'spirit' (Romans 2:29). What the words say about things is the literal sense, but the spiritual sense shows us what the things mean, in all God's cleverness. Eventually, Christians divided the spiritual sense into three senses, for a total of four.6 I want so badly to get into that right now, but we don't have time, so we'll circle back to the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of Scripture in a couple months.

Alright, but as we read Scripture or hear it taught, how do we guard against making stuff up? How can we be sure we're reading rightly? Because Scripture itself tells us that people will read it badly and teach it badly. “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). There will “arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). And many of those twisted speakers would defend their bad ideas by twisting Scripture. Less than two centuries after Jesus' ministry, we hear Christians complaining how false teachers were sneakily twisting Scripture's meaning “by inventing different interpretations from ours. … They rely on passages which they've put together in a false context, or fastened on because of their ambiguity.”7

Up until recently, the average Christian didn't carry a Bible around, or have one at home. They heard it read at church, but some Christians barely had even that – and yet they could still believe rightly. We're told how “many barbarian peoples who believe in Christ... possess salvation, written without paper or ink by the Spirit in their hearts, diligently observing the ancient tradition. … Those who've believed this faith without letters are barbarians in regard to our language, but are most wise (because of the faith) as to thinking, customs, and way of life; and they please God as they live in complete justice, chastity, and wisdom.”8 So without having Bibles, they lived by God's word, even knowing it enough to reject false teachers out of hand. But how can that be?

It's because the apostles didn't only leave behind written words – which, by their own admission, could never be the full picture, since “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). They also left behind people with living memories and living voices.9 Think about it: if you time-traveled back to the year the temple fell, most of the apostles are dead, much of the New Testament has been written, but you can shake hands with Christians who've spent hours listening to Paul's sermons, they've watched him go about his work, they've asked him questions face-to-face. And some of these people are the people to whom Paul handed over the keys to this or that church before he died; and they, in turn, will help the next generation understand the other Scriptures rightly, and so on down the line.10 Got questions about 1 Corinthians? Go to Corinth and ask the leaders and teachers there. Nobody was ever left to read the Bible all on his or her lonesome.

Nor were we ever supposed to. The Bible isn't just anybody's book; it's the Church's Book.11 The word of God is for the people of God, as we proclaim after reading from it every Sunday. The Bible was written by people who belong to the Church, written for the sake of the Church, finds its most proper usage within the Church's worship, and is meant to be read with the Church as its fullest context – so there's not just the literary context and the historical context, but also the ecclesial context. And the Church herself is a Bible-reader who, as a single living body, is filled with the same Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture. Gifted by that Spirit, the Church strives to think always with the mind of Christ as she reads; and as she does, she continues to speak the word of God, the same as ever, uttering it in every generation as her sacred tradition. And that is how, as Paul writes, “the church of the living God” was, is, and shall be “a pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). 

We're out of time to explore how the Church speaks the word of God over two thousand years to today. But suffice it to say that trying to unlock the Bible for yourself in a vacuum is a recipe for reading it wrong. “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). Reading any of the Bible as God's isolated word, forgetting all its contexts, has never been the hallmark of true disciples.

Okay, last question: what role should God's word, in all its forms, play in our lives? To that, King Jehoshaphat answers: “Inquire first for the word of the LORD (1 Kings 22:5). True disciples prioritize God's word, and in practice, for us that means sitting down with an open Bible and exploring with guidance. King David declared that God's word was “more to be desired... than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10). True disciples not only prioritize God's word, they prize it: they want to gobble it up and savor it slowly, pile it high and haul it to the bank. They want as much of it as they can get, to explore it and enjoy it to the full. David goes on: “Moreover, by them” – God's words, that is – “is your servant warned, and in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:11). Paul echoes him by saying that God's word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). How, then, do true disciples approach God's word?  They prioritize it, they prize it, and they put it to work. For they find it incredibly versatile, packed with all they need to know for salvation, all they need to steer clear of spiritual dangers, all they need to grow in wisdom, so that every kind of triumph comes within their reach. That's what true disciples do.

And, yes, to get at God's word, to get all of God's word, to get all we can out of all of God's word, is going to take plenty of effort – it's a deep dive, this backbreaking mental labor of unearthing pearls of such great price. But that shouldn't surprise us, since the same is true of prayer. So let us read with open eyes, hear with open ears, ponder with an open heart. It may be challenging... but it's a challenge with more than enough 'great reward' for us all. Amen.

1  Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks, Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father's Love (Emmaus Road, 2019), 45, 47-48.

2  Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks, Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father's Love (Emmaus Road, 2019), 9-10, 46.

3  Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 45.2-3 (late first century)

4  Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture (Baker Academic, 2014), 247.

5  Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 2014 [2004]), 20.

6  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q.1, a.10 (thirteenth century)

7  Tertullian of Carthage, Prescription Against Heretics 17 (late second or early third century)

8  Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.4.2 (late second century)

9  Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 42.1-4 (late first century)

10  Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.3.1-3 (late second century)

11  Tertullian of Carthage, Prescription Against Heretics 37 (late second or early third century)

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