March 19, 2014 Broadcast

Reading the Bible Existentially

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Many people view the Bible as a collection of facts to be memorized.  They skim chapter and verse searching for simple commands to memorize and apply, as if the complex stories are crossword puzzles, and they are looking for keywords.  But Scripture is much more comprehensive than that.  In this lesson, Dr. Sproul challenges us to plunge deeper into God’s Word and embrace the living truth that’s found within.

From the series: Knowing Scripture

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Pray the Scriptures

  2. article

    A Teachable Spirit

  3. article

    Dragons and Holiness

Pray the Scriptures

Scotty Smith

I am a recovering self-centered pragmatic pray-er — a believer who spent many of my first years in Christ thinking of God more as a sugar daddy than the sovereign Father. Prayer, for me, had more in common with programming a heavenly computer than surrendering to a loving Master. I worked harder at claiming God’s promises for my ease than being claimed by God’s purposes for His kingdom. Instead of being still and knowing that God is God, my prayer life was that of an antsy man, trying to help God be God.

Alas, this was a manifestation of the man-centered gospel that distorted my view of God and, therefore, enfeebled my practice of prayer. Thankfully, continued growth in grace has led me to a better understanding of the gospel, which, in turn, has radically reoriented my prayer life. It’s not cliché; it’s wondrously true: the gospel changes everything.

Nothing has been of greater importance to my growth in grace than learning to pray the Scriptures while wearing the lens of the gospel, and nothing has proven to be more fruitful. A gospel-centered approach to praying through the Bible will yield a mind informed by the will of God, a heart enflamed with the love of God, and hands extended in the service of God. All three of these are central to life in Christ, and all three flow out of our union and communion with Christ.

So, what’s involved in this doxological discipline of praying the Scriptures? I don’t suggest my way is the only way, but here’s how my commitment to Bible study and prayer have been tremendously enriched in recent years.

Praying the Scriptures requires us first to be in the Scriptures regularly, preferably daily. A “diligent use of the means of grace” doesn’t earn us anything, but it profits us in every way. We can’t hide the Word in our hearts if we’re not lingering in the Bible’s pages. Personally, the best time for me to meet with God in an unrushed, expectant way is early in the morning, but we’re all wired differently.

Jack Miller, my spiritual dad and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, taught me the importance of reading through the whole Bible while at the same time having a smaller portion of Scripture read me. If we aren’t careful, we can read the Scriptures for information and inspiration while playing dodgeball with our calling to transformation. Having the Scriptures “read me” deepens my prayer life because it exposes my sin, reveals Jesus, and makes me hunger and thirst for more of the gospel.

As Martin Luther said, we need the gospel every day because we forget the gospel every day. There’s nothing like knowing our need for Jesus to cure us of gospel amnesia. Nothing will so enflame our hearts like a fresh experience of God’s grace for our current needs. Reading the Bible and having the Bible read me constantly convinces me of this: there’s nothing more than the gospel, there’s just more of the gospel.

Praying the Scriptures, therefore, calls us to look for Jesus in every part of the Bible, for He is the heart, heartbeat, and hero of the gospel. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27), we want to discover everything prophesied and promised about Jesus as He is progressively revealed in the history of redemption from Genesis through Revelation.

All of God’s promises find their “yes” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20), but they’re not God’s “yes” to all of our fancies and fantasies. Jack Miller taught me to pray the promises of God with my eyes fixed on Jesus and His kingdom purposes. This represents an important paradigm shift away from looking for verses we can name and claim to pursuing the Christ we can know and serve.

Minds informed by the will of God and hearts enflamed with the love of God will be authenticated by hands extended in the service of God. The more we pray through the Scriptures wearing the lens of the gospel, the less we’ll find ourselves giving God bit parts in our story and the more we’ll think about finding our place in His story. The central and operative question in life is not “What can I do for Jesus?” while He’s away in heaven. Rather, it’s “What can I do with Jesus?” since He’s right here, right now. Each of us is called to live as a character in and a carrier of His story of redemption and restoration.

Praying the Scriptures involves heart-fully engaging with Christ in His three offices of prophet, priest, and king:

Because Jesus is our Prophet — the final Word from God — reading the Bible isn’t merely about gaining information; it’s about prayerfully listening to the One in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We are to give Jesus our rapt attention and our grace-liberated consciences.

Because Jesus is our Priest — our great High Priest — we must read the Scriptures doxologically, for Christ is the completed sacrifice for our sins, our perfect righteousness from God, and the Shepherd of our souls. We are to give Jesus our current brokenness and our fresh adoration.

Because Jesus is our King — the King of kings and Lord of lords — we must pray through the Bible with bowed heads and surrendered lives. We are to give Jesus our humble obeisance and our overjoyed obedience.

A Teachable Spirit

Justin Taylor

Only one book is absolutely essential to save us, to equip us to obey God’s will, and to glorify Him in whatever we do. Only one book gives us undiluted truth — the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Only one book serves as our ultimate and final authority in all that it affirms. That book, of course, is the Bible, God’s Holy Word. No wonder John Wesley once exclaimed, “Let me be homo unius libri” — a man of one book!

And yet the irony is that if we use only this book, we may in fact be in disobedience to it. We should count good teaching about the Bible — whether through commentaries, books, sermons, study Bibles, and so on — to be a gift from God for the good of His church (see Eph. 4:11; James 1:17). So what may look pious on the outside (“Just me and my Bible!”) can actually mask pride on the inside.

Acts 8 describes a story that might help us think through this. An Ethiopian eunuch — a God-fearing Gentile who served as treasurer to the Ethiopian queen — had made a five-month journey by chariot to Jerusalem in order to worship God. During his return trip he was puzzling out loud over the Isaiah scroll that he held in his hands. And the Holy Spirit appointed Philip to help him understand the meaning of the Bible.

Philip first asked this man if he understood the passage that he was reading (chap. 53). The Ethiopian responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (v. 31). After inviting Philip to sit in his chariot, he asked him about whom this passage spoke. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (v. 35). Soon after, the eunuch insisted they stop the chariot in order to be baptized by Philip in obedience to his new savior and king, Jesus Christ.

To be sure, this is a historical narrative recounting an event. The purpose is not necessarily to guide believers today in how to read their Bibles or how to think about the teaching of God’s Word. But the elements within it nonetheless correspond to some wise principles we can adopt as our own. So let’s work through the passage again, letting the various points serve as triggers for our own reflection on understanding the Word of God and those who teach it.

First, the Ethiopian wrestles with and labors to understand the meaning of God’s Word. He doesn’t wait for help; he first tries on his own to figure out what the text is saying. He is not content merely to skim the Scriptures, putting a check mark next to his reading in the scroll for that day. And so it is with us — we must spend time in the Bible, working hard and trusting God for insight into its meaning. Paul expressed this as a command followed by a promise: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7).

Second, the eunuch humbly acknowledges his own insufficiency and lack of understanding. He desires to understand what the Word says, he admits that he needs help, and then he asks for it. We should approach God first remembering that He wants to be asked and that He promises to assist us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). And what should we pray? Psalms 119 provides many examples of how to pray for understanding and application. For example, verses 33–36:

Teach me, O Lord, the way of
     your statutes; and I will keep
     it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may
     keep your law and observe it with
     my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your com-
     mandments, for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimo-
     nies, and not to selfish gain!

Third, the eunuch asks a good, clear, relevant question based upon his own wrestling with the meaning of the text. Asking good questions is evidence of good thinking. If you don’t ask good questions about the text, you won’t engage your mind and you won’t be able to evaluate the answers.

Fourth, he listens carefully to the Christ-centered, gospel-focused teaching before him. Jesus warned that we must take care how we listen (Luke 8:18), and the Ethiopian eunuch does just that. For many of us, our inclination is to talk first and listen second, but Christ-followers must be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” (James 1:19).

Finally, he puts into practice what he has just learned from the Word and from his commentator. Philip had told him “the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35), which probably included the teaching that members of God’s covenant community will publicly identify with Christ in the act of baptism. So the Ethiopian official models for us James’ command to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).

So let us be the sort of people who prayerfully and carefully immerse ourselves day and night in God’s Word (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2). Let us also be the sort of Berean-like people who receive good teaching about God’s Word “with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).  

Dragons and Holiness

Tony Reinke

The incredible imaginative power of the human mind connects us. If I mention standing ankle deep in the ocean, many of you can picture this image (and maybe feel the dizziness as you watch the water rush past your feet and back). Or if I mention the feeling of floating free under water in a swimming pool with eyes open, many of you know this feeling, too. Or if I mention the muffled silence that blankets a neighborhood in a thick snowstorm, you can probably imagine it. Thousands of other scenarios we can enjoy together. This is the work of our imagination.

The imagination is a necessary component for reading fiction books, nonfiction books, and, of course, for reading the Bible. God's book engages our imaginations by the parables of Jesus, the poetry of the Psalms, the adages of the Proverbs, and, of course, the apocalyptic language of the prophets. But what makes human imagination even more incredible is how we experience in our minds things we did not, have not, or cannot experience ourselves. The book of Revelation is one example.

In Revelation, we read about the Son of Man dressed in a robe, with a voice like the great falls, and a two-edged sword for a tongue, with a face bright as the sun. Then we see a throne in heaven, surrounded by a rainbow of brilliant color, with lightning and thunder pealing off the throne. On each side of the throne are six-winged angelic creatures in flight, ceaselessly singing, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!" (Rev. 4:8). Bowls are filled with the prayers of the saints. And a Lamb stands as though it had been slain, whose blood makes white.

Can you see all this in your imagination?

Then behold the dragons, full of power and rage. A red dragon with seven heads is followed by another beast that has a nasty scar on one of its seven heads and a mouth full of blasphemies calling forth for idolatrous worship on earth. And then there's another beast that speaks like a dragon, with the power to command fire from heaven. Finally, there's a scarlet beast on whom rides a woman, the mother of all prostitutes and sexual sin, carrying a cup of sexual immorality.

Late in the story, one breaks in on a white horse. The rider's name is Faithful and True, and the Word of God, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He makes war. Under His crown blaze eyes like a furnace. His robe drips with blood, and from His mouth He bears a sword to strike down beasts and rebels. He treads the winepress of God's fury. The images of Christ permeate the book.

So why all this imagery?

Imagination is what one theologian calls "the power of synoptic vision" (Vanhoozer). It allows us to order the world, and to see things collected together as opposed to the fragmented way we typically perceive the world. Dragons embody evil. He who is called Faithful and True embodies holiness and justice. Revelation engages our imaginations until we see reality through radical images, images that push us past the dominant worldly ideologies we simply assume and naturally ingest daily just like the air we breathe.

The images in Revelation expose us to the world again, but they stun us in new and shocking ways. They break into our imaginations (sometimes with violence), but they also give to us new and alien ways of looking at the world that enable us to transcend our loud cultural environment. This cultural transcendence is possible because God has given us imaginations. Revelation works to purge and refurbish those imaginations, providing us with a profoundly fresh theological angle on the world that we have grown comfortable with. Here in Revelation, our imaginations are engaged to see the evil in this world, not as a scattered random acts of evil, but as a collective whole. By collecting the evil, we see the superiority of Christ over all. And we see that all victories of Christ over evil are tied directly to his death.

How do we respond to such imaginative literature? We read and heed. This is called forth at the beginning and end of the book (1:3; 22:7). Through the imagination, we are called to wake up and to put off lukewarmness. Revelation invites us to see ultimate reality through our imaginations in breathtaking, earth-scorching, mind-stretching, sin-defeating, dragon-slaying, Christ-centered, God-glorifying images intended to change the way we think, act, and speak.

Irrespective of the literal meaning of these imaginative dramas in Revelation, and irrespective of their literal timing and prophetic fulfillment, they remind us in stark images that the times are too evil and time is too short for us to slumber lazily. Our imaginations are stretched, awakened, and shocked from spiritual lethargy. Such is the life-altering power of imaginative imagery for those perceptive readers who understand our desperate need to see dragons.

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