At Issue At Issue Index    Spiritual Discernment Index  Previous  Next

How Shall We Read the Bible? 
"The Spirit and the Scriptures"

by Richard Rice

Beyond the sacred page I seek thee, Lord. My spirit pants for thee, 
O living word.


What is the relation between the Bible and the Word of God? Years ago this issue generated a lot of discussion. The neo-orthodox theologians who dominated Protestant theology for much of this century argued that the Bible is not per se the word of God, but becomes the Word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. More conservative Christians felt that this undermined the significance of the Bible, that the Bible deserved to be identified as the Word of God because God was so intimately involved in its production. I think we have to say that God's word is not limited to the Bible, but it receives its definitive expression in the Bible.

God's word is the power that created the world and directs his activities. God's word is the means by which he exercises sovereignty in human affairs. God's word is the medium which establishes God's kingdom. And what we all hope for when we preach, surely, is that God will take our words and use them to convey a message to his people, so that our poor words, which have no power in themselves, become the Word of God when enlivened and ennobled by his Spirit. We hope there is treasure in these earthen vessels.

The Bible is our primary source of knowledge about God. But to gain the essential knowledge from it, for it to make us wise unto salvation, we need to read it under the guidance and influence of the Holy Spirit. There are two extremes here. One is to read the Bible without the Holy Spirit, to rely on human intellectual power alone. We may learn a lot this way, but we will miss the essential message of the Bible for us. It will fail to reach into our hearts and speak to us directly of God's love for us and God's will for our lives.

Perhaps in a category by itself is the recent search for messages in the way the letters of the Bible are arranged. Several years ago a book entitled 'The Bible Code' created quite a stir because its authors claimed to find predictions of modern events like the assassinations of Yitzak Rabin. Their method was to use computer programs and find patterns in the sequence of the Hebrew letters. This approach focuses on the form of the biblical material rather than its content. It turns the Bible into an intellectual puzzle, even a magical book. But this is contrary to the nature of the Bible. "It is not the form of the Scriptures or the sequence of its letters that conveys its truth, but rather the content of the book." Christianity Today, 7/12/99, p. 60.

The other extreme is to ignore the Bible in a direct appeal to the Holy Spirit. After all, some people reason, if the Holy Spirit speaks to people directly, it can speak to us directly, and in that case, why do we need the Bible at all? Why not simply listen to the inner voice to tell us the truth?

This is close to the position that Jack Deere takes in his book, Surprised by the Voice of God: How God speaks today through prophecies, dreams, and visions (Zondervan, 1996). Deere maintains that God uses the same forms of direct revelation that we find in biblical times—visions, dreams, direct divine communication, prophetic revelations. So, he urges us to avoid being what he calls "Bible-bound," depending on the Bible exclusively for our knowledge of God.

To avoid these extremes, we need to go back to a fundamental principle of the Holy Spirit's operation—its community—building activity. God does not lead us independently of one another. God leads us together. The Holy Spirit inspired prophets in order to communicate to the community. The community preserved the messages of the prophets. To hear what the Holy Spirit has to say to us, we need to attend to the Holy Spirit's communication to others, as well as to us. And we need to bear in mind that Jesus is the definitive revelation of God's will. Remember, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. As Jesus said to his disciples, the Holy Spirit will "bear witness to me." Jn 15,26. "He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you." Jn 16,14.

In short, we need to do justice to both the Bible and the Holy Spirit. To paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the Bible without the Holy Spirit is empty, but the Holy Spirit without the Bible is blind. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life. Without the Holy Spirit our study of the Bible may be informative, it may be highly stimulating, but its message will turn into something purely intellectual, and Bible study will become nothing but a cognitive exercise. On the other hand, seeking the Holy Spirit apart from the Bible can be dangerous, like driving a car without a steering wheel. We need the guidance of the Bible to give the operation of the Holy Spirit direction.

How can we be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit today without losing our vital contact with the Bible? How can we bring the Bible and the Holy Spirit into harmonious relationship?

The answer is to develop an approach to the Bible that does justice to all its aspects—to find ways to read the Bible that involve not only the mind, but the heart, too, and ultimately the whole of our lives. The Bible is a Holy Spirit filled book. It was brought into existence under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and in order to grasp its meaning we must read it under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Let us explore this issue under two headings: reading the Bible theologically and reading the Bible personally.

Reading the Bible theologically

I won't spend much time on this topic, because it has received a vast amount of attention. As a systematic theologian, of course, this is basically what I've spent my life trying to do—read the Bible theologically. As a teacher of theology, I have spoken on the topic dozens of time. A typical lecture takes the following form. Theology, I tell my students, is essentially an attempt to interpret the Bible. As such, it is a lot like preparing a sermon. Both seek to express the meaning of the Bible for people living today. The first task of both theologian and preacher is to discover the original meaning of a biblical passage; the second is to apply that meaning to our modern situation. If we use the famous distinction Krister Stendahl makes, there is a difference between what the Bible meant and what the Bible means. Exegesis is the task of finding out what the Bible meant. Theology is the task of finding out what the Bible means. Without exegesis you can't do theology, because you can't figure out what the Bible means unless you know what it meant.

To do exegesis, to recover the original meaning of a biblical passage, we need to know the languages it was written in, and appreciate its historical and literary contexts. Greek and Hebrew grammars and lexicons, Bible dictionaries and commentaries, along with some reliable works on ancient Mediterranean cultures and civilizations, largely equip us for this endeavor. It also helps to know something about textual criticism and Bible translations.

Thus armed, preacher and theologian, or better, preacher-theologians, are prepared for exegetical work. In their study of a passage, they need to keep in mind the following hermeneutical considerations: the literary type or genre represented (poetry, parable, allegory, prophecy, etc.), the larger literary units involved (sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books, etc.), and the immediate and remote historical contexts--all of which have a bearing on its meaning. In addition to working with individual passages, good biblical interpreters will compare Scripture with Scripture, seek to harmonize contrasting biblical statements, and allow the Bible to serve as its own interpreter.

I ordinarily devote much less time to the second theological task, that of applying the meaning of the Bible to our modern situation, and my comments on this topic are usually much more general in nature. I often do little more than tell my students they should develop an awareness of the world we live in. As the effective preacher seeks timely illustrations in order to illuminate the biblical message for his or her congregation, I suggest, the responsible theologian will develop a knowledge of the human situation today.

This emphasis on exegesis is typical of the way Seventh-day Adventists approach theology, I believe. It reflects the general format of my theology courses at the Seminary in the late sixties. On this model, biblical exegesis is not merely the source of theology, it is theology. Instead of providing theology with a "point of departure," the text defines the boundaries of theology. Consequently, the only thing theology adds to biblical exegesis is the systematic arrangement of its conclusions around selected doctrinal themes.

This approach to theology has the important feature of proximity to the biblical text. This minimizes the risk of losing the biblical message in an attempt to "translate" it into modern thought forms. And it has the support of important historical precedents. The Protestant Reformation, for example, began with Luther's recovery of the Gospel through a study of the Bible, notably Psalms and the letters of Paul, and the Great Advent Movement of the nineteenth century originated in William Miller's careful analysis of biblical prophecy. So, there is no question that careful exegesis is essential to any attempt to read the Bible theologically.

But the relation between the Bible and theology is more complicated than this model suggests. For one thing, when we read the Bible theologically, and not just historically, we do read it selectively. On a purely practical level, making distinctions within the Bible is unavoidable. The most cursory examination of its contents reveals an enormous variety of material. And nobody, not even the most faithful reader, finds it all equally illuminating or uplifting.

The same applies to a doctrinal reading of the Bible. To read the Bible theologically is to read it in light of what is central to Christian faith. And what is central to Christian faith is what deals with Christ. In Martin Luther's memorable words, "All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach Christ and deal with him."

Some object to the attempt to find a center in the Bible for fear that it forces the Bible to conform to human reason, rather than yielding to its authority. But to read the Bible theologically is to read it from a certain perspective. The important thing is to be sure that this perspective is not arbitrarily imposed on the Bible, but arises from the Bible. There is selectivity in the Bible itself. We can see it in the way the New Testament deals with the Old Testament, emphasizing those parts that relate more directly than others to the significance of Jesus. And we see it in the decision of the early Christian church to disregard certain Mosaic requirements as not binding on Gentile converts.

We also need to be aware that we are often driven to the Bible by pressing practical concerns. At times, of course, people study the Bible from a simple desire to know what it teaches. But more often, people turn to the Bible because they have important questions they need answered. Robert K. Johnston observes that the church's interaction with society and the conflict between different doctrinal ideas exert a major influence on theological development, and he attributes the current disarray among evangelicals in part to their failure to appreciate this fact. In response to this problem, he calls for a "constructive evangelical theology" that will provide "a dynamic blend of Biblical, traditional, and contemporary sources."

When we read the Bible theologically, we also do so as members of the Christian community. Typically, we do not read the Bible and then form our doctrinal conclusions. We come to the Bible with a set of doctrinal beliefs, and read the biblical text under their influence. This may not fit our stereotype, but it is not necessarily negative. A doctrinal framework can be immensely helpful as we study the Bible. At least John Calvin thought so. "It has been my purpose in this labor [writing the Institutes] to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word." "Although Holy Scripture contains a perfect doctrine, ... yet a person who has not much practice in it has good reason for some guidance and direction, to know what he ought to look for in it, in order not to wander hither and thither, but to hold to a sure path, that he may always be pressing toward the end to which the Holy Spirit calls him."

To read the Bible theologically is also to read it in conversation with other Christians. We can benefit from their insights and learn from their mistakes. And we can build on their achievements. To ignore what others have learned from studying the Bible only obscures the fact that our reading of the Bible is inevitably affected by church history, and it actually makes us more, rather than less, susceptible to its influence. To quote Ritschl again, "Our questions are already shaped by two thousand years of tradition, even if we are unaware of the details of this tradition. The less one knows about it the more he is vulnerable to be influenced unduly by it."

Reading the Bible theologically also means recognizing that it has new things to say to us. To hear what it has to say, we have to give the biblical text freedom in several different ways. First, the Bible must have the freedom to correct any interpretation of it. We must be willing to place the biblical text over-against any previous understanding of it. We must refuse to identify its message exclusively with any theological system. Second, the Bible must be free to speak to us here and now. To read the Bible theologically is to listen to its message as if it were addressed to us today for the first time. As Rudolf Bultmann says, "The word of God never becomes our property. The test of whether we have heard it aright is whether we are prepared always to hear it anew...."

The biblical text must also be free to reveal things that have never been understood before. The Bible has present significance partly because its contents have never been fully and finally formulated. It contains food for thought that has never been digested, or—to change the metaphor#8212;depths that have never been fully plumbed. To read the Bible theologically is to anticipate that we will always learn something new from it. For this reason, the task of reading the Bible is never complete. In Heinz Zahrnt's picturesque words, "the cathedral which theologians are building is never finished, nor may it ever be finished if it is genuinely to be a cathedral in which God is preached and worshipped...."

How is the Holy Spirit involved in all of this? In fulfilling the promise of Jesus that it would guide us into all truth (Jn 16,13) and bring to mind all that he said (Jn 14,26). Our quest for personal meaning in the Bible should never obscure the fact that the Bible comes to us as the product of the Christian community and that we approach the Bible within the framework of a community. Whether we recognize it or not, we look at the Bible through the lens of centuries of biblical interpretation. Ultimately, then, the distinction we often make between the Bible and the Holy Spirit is artificial. The Bible is the means by which the Holy Spirit speaks to us, and the Holy Spirit is the means by which we grasp the message of the Bible for us.

Reading the Bible personally

While it is important to find the meaning of the Bible "for us" as a community of faith and life, it is also important to read the Bible "for me." The Bible has always been more than a doctrinal sourcebook, or a compendium of theological beliefs. People have turned to it time and time again for comfort, encouragement, guidance and direction. It is a misunderstanding of the Bible's personal role to regard it as containing some "hidden" meaning, that only the cognoscenti can discern. If the Gospel is meant to go to the whole world, then the Gospel must be intended for everyone.

Whatever our final assessment of the Pentecostal, charismatic and third wave movements, we should listen carefully to the widespread need they are expressing. There is a deep longing for the Holy Spirit of God that has swept across vast portions of Christianity, and is making inroads in our own community. However we may question the ways in which this longing is being met, we must acknowledge it as an important development, and at its root a potentially positive one. At least, that is what growing numbers of thoughtful Christians are thinking. Clark Pinnock, for example, "celebrates Pentecostalism as a mighty twentieth-century outpouring the Spirit. I think of this, " he says, "as the most important event in modern Christianity." Flame of Love 18.

How can we know God in a highly personal way? How can we, as it were, hear his voice speaking to us? Can we be so intimately connected with God that we live and move in the atmosphere of his companionship? I think we can. And more important, I don't think we have to go outside the Bible to do it. The Bible is the primary means by which God speaks to us personally as well as corporately, as individuals as well as a community. But there are several things that make it difficult for us to do this. Let me share with you a few of the obstacles from my own experience.

  1. One is the uncomfortable feeling that Bible reading is a "chore." We grow up with the idea that Bible reading is an important responsibility. We should read a certain amount or a certain length of time each day, preferably early in the morning. I set out to read the Bible in a year (3 chs a day and 5 chs on sabbath) when I was ten or so. And three or four years later I finally finished.

  2. Another is dissatisfaction with the way some people use the Bible. When I was in college, there was a program that came to town that encouraged people to "claim the promises." It seemed contrived and manipulative to me. As if you could use the Bible to force God to behave a certain way.

  3. A third obstacle to hearing God speak through the Bible in a personal way was my growing realization that Bible reading is a demanding occupation. The Bible is a complicated book, and it takes a good deal of education to read it responsibly. You need to know all the steps in biblical exegesis we just outlined. You need a grasp of the original languages, a knowledge of ancient civilizations, an understanding of church history, and so on. So, every time I looked at a text, I saw a long series of steps you had to take to reach a valid conclusion. The idea that you could open the Bible and read something significant right off the page struck me as hopelessly na´ve.

But when you step back and think about it, the idea that God should express his will to us, that he should move on our hearts through the Holy Spirit, is the most natural conviction that a Christian could have. If God doesn't guide us in our daily lives, what point is there is being a Christian? Isn't that essential to Christian experience—a personal, daily walk with God?

After all, there's a host of hymns that reflect this conviction. Savior, like a shepherd lead us; All the way my savior leads me; Lead on, O king eternal; Lead kindly light; He leadeth me; Holy Spirit, faithful guide; Jesus Saviour, pilot me; Guide me, O thou great Jehovah; Jesus, still lead on.

Yet to many people, in spite of our musical professions of faith, the idea that God communicates to people seems bizarre. As comedienne Lily Tomlin puts it, 'Why is it that when we speak to God we are said to be praying, but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?'

There are many proposals for establishing a close, personal communication with God. I think Dallas Willard's suggestions are particularly helpful, because he accepts the initial premise of many people in the "word of faith" or "voice of God" movements that we need a sense of direct communication with God. But then he moves in a direction significantly different from theirs.

Like people in these movements, Willard argues that there is no reason why God cannot or should not communicate to people just as directly, or just as dramatically, today as he did in biblical times. In fact, he insists that the Christian life depends on a strong sense of personal connectedness with God—a relationship in which God guides and directs us in an intimate way. So, in principle, all the methods God used in biblical times are still at his disposal—visible phenomena, supernatural messengers, or angels, dreams and visions, audible voices and human messengers. There is nothing in the Bible, he argues, to indicate that the biblical modes of God's guidance to humans are superseded and abolished by the presence of the church or by the close of the scriptural canon. 105. But Willard qualifies the expectation that God communicates through such means in two important ways.

First, he insists that we should always bear in mind the purpose of such guidance. God's guidance is not something given only for our purposes, nor primarily for our own prosperity, safety, or gratification. It is given so we can enter the kingdom of God and show humanity how to live. 154. We should seek God's guidance, he says, only as part of a certain kind of life, a life of loving fellowship with the King and other subjects of the Kingdom of God. It is intended to develop into an intelligent, freely cooperative relationship between mature persons who love each other with the richness of genuine agape love.

Our first goal should not be to find guidance, but to find that relationship. 21. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to rejoice, not because they had power over demons, but because their names were written in the heavens. Lk 10:20. A wise lover regards not so much the gift of him who loves as the love of him who gives. Thomas a Kempis. 38. Our union with God, his presence with us, consists chiefly in a conversational relationship between God and the individual soul who is consistently and deeply engaged as his friend and co-laborer in the affairs of the Kingdom of the heavens. 50. In other words, God's guidance is part of a close, friendly, conversational relationship between the soul and God. After all, God's greatest gift to us is not his guidance, but himself.

Willard also qualifies the idea of divine communication by emphasizing the priority of God's inner influence in our lives. Although all the dramatic means of communicating are still at God's disposal, they are not of equal value for our life with him. The "still small voice" is the highest form of individualized communication for God's purposes. 91. The 'interior voice' is the usual way God individually addresses those who walk with him in a mature, personal relationship, proclaiming and showing forth the reality of the Kingdom of God as they go. 91. It is best suited to God's redemptive purposes because it most engages the faculties of free, intelligent beings in the work of God as his co-laborers and friends. 102.

But where do we hear this voice? How does it address us? We hear it within us—in our own hearts, our own spirits. The spirit of the individual is the candle of the Lord, says Willard, in the light of which we see ourselves and our world as God sees. So we are addressed by him, spoken to by him, through our own thoughts. 103. The thoughts and attendant feelings in the mind and spirit surrendered to God make it as if God were walking through the personality with a candle, directing our attention to one thing and then another. "Search me, O God, and know my heart. Ps 139,23. 104. Here our own spirit works together with the almighty God, utilizing our own thoughts and feelings to bring the truth of his word and his understanding of us to bear on our heart and life and world. 105.

Willard also supports the theme we expressed earlier that God's manifestations tend to move from the more dramatic to the less dramatic. "We notice as we proceed on through Bible history that the greater the maturity, the greater the cognitive clarity of the message and the lesser is the role played by dreams, visions, and other 'strange' phenomena and 'altered states' in the process of communication." In the NT personalities, including Jesus, we find a great preponderance of "strictly spiritual communications between God and humans." When visions, dreams, angels were the main, as opposed to occasional, means of interaction between God and man, there was a less developed spiritual life in the individual and in the church group." 114. The predominance of the spectacular encounter does, in general, go along with the less mature levels of the spiritual life. 114. When the spectacular is sought, this is because of childishness in the personality. The spectacular may be given by God, even may be necessary, because of our denseness or hardheartedness. But it is never to be taken as a mark of spiritual superiority. 115.

So, the tendency of life in Christ is progressively toward the 'inward word' to the receptive heart. The aim is to move entirely into the hidden realm of spiritual reality, where God desires to be worshiped. Jn 4:24. 237-38.

To summarize, the various "rivals" to the still small voice, as Willard calls them, have their place. But once we earnestly seek God and get beyond the need to have 'big things' happen to reassure ourselves that somehow we are right and all right, then we begin to understand and rejoice that the life of the Kingdom is 'righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Romans 14:17). 118. One of the highest forms of communication (even on the human level) is silence—no overt word needed or wanted. 118.

In the progress of God's redemptive work, communication advances into communion and communion into union (the union beyond communion). Think of the marvelous biblical texts that describe a life that is completely open and perfectly united to God.

Not I but Christ liveth in me. Gal 2,20.

For me to live is Christ. Phil 1,21.

The redeemed have the mind of Christ. 1Cor 2,16.

Have the mind of Christ in you. Phil 2,5.

How can we cultivate this kind of relationship with God? How can we come to hear the still small voice, speaking to us in the recesses of our soul, giving us reassurance and guidance? The answer is to develop a certain way of reading the Bible. Contact with the word of God is the best way to hear God's word to us.

But how do we read the Bible this way? How can we approach the Bible in our own experience, so we really do hear God's voice in God's word? Here, as we so often find, we should take Jesus as our example. Jesus' response to the first temptation provides a clue to his entire life. 'Man does not live by bread alone,' he said, 'but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.' Jesus lived by the word of God, and he found the word of God in the words of Scripture. What role did the Bible play in Jesus' life? What uses did he make of the words of Scripture?

  1. Jesus made the Bible the object of careful reflection. The Bible provided the source of Jesus' teachings. The Sermon on the Mount is a good illustration of this. Jesus developed his discourse on the kingdom in dialogue with various elements in the OT. He saw his message as an application and extension of the law and the prophets.

  2. Jesus also made the Bible the object of serious discussion. Jesus addressed questions about the law on numerous occasions and discussed its meaning with people at great length. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer's inquiry about the commandments. (He showed that the command, Love your neighbor, is not fulfilled in finding the right person, but in being the right person.)

  3. While he obviously made the Bible an object of serious, searching reflection, Jesus also read the Bible in intensely personal ways. He applied it to his own experience with dramatic results.

  4. For one thing, Jesus found in the Bible a template, a pattern for his life. As Jesus read and studied the Bible, he discovered his own identity in its message. He repeatedly appealed to Scripture as a precedent for things that were happening to him. On one occasion, he dramatically applied Isa 61 to himself and his mission. Preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4), he announced to this hearers that the words of the prophet he read to them were fulfilled before their very eyes in him. The Holy Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to preach good news. Jesus also found a mandate for cleansing the temple in the words of Scripture (Isaiah 56:7, Jer 7:11). In fact, Jesus not only read the Bible, he read his life through the Bible. This sets an important precedent for us. It is important for us to read the Bible. It is more important for the Bible to read us.

  5. Jesus' relation to the Bible was even more intimate than this important role. Jesus drew spiritual strength from the Bible. He relied on the words of Scripture to face his own spiritual struggles. His use of the Bible in responding to his great temptations show that he drew strength and guidance directly from the words of scripture. He opened his heart to the Bible and allowed its ideas and sentiment to shape his thought and motives. He was spiritually sensitive and spiritually strong because he placed his life under the influence of the word.

  6. Finally, and most significant of all, Jesus used the words of the Bible to express his innermost feelings, his deepest hopes, his darkest fears, his most painful emotions. His cry from the cross, 'My God, why have you forsaken me?' is a direct quotation from Ps 22. And there is an ancient tradition that says that Jesus went recited the entire psalm before he died. If you read Ps 22 you will see how accurately and eloquently it articulates what he was going through. At crucial moments in his life, then, Jesus found in the words of the Bible the means of giving voice to his experience. Biblical thoughts and words were so familiar to him that they provided him the natural means for expressing himself.

If we follow Jesus' example we will cultivate an intimate knowledge of the Bible. We will read the Bible not only for information and understanding. We will read it for its application to our lives. To a significant degree, we become what we read. The books that mean the most to us shape our perspective—our values and attitudes, our sentiments and emotions. The motion picture based on Ray Bradbury's book Fahrenheit 451 ends with a striking scene. In a futuristic society all the books have been burned in order to eradicate their contents from the human race, but they are not lost. One by one individuals have memorized the great books. They can recite them word by word. And so we see these figures moving slowly on a bleak landscape, quoting at length the classics of literature. And each person is identified by the title of his or her book. It may seem strange to draw a precedent from such a source for the Christian life, but there's an application. We should read the Bible as if we drew from it the very substance of life, as if we were just as dependent on it for our survival as we are on what we eat and drink. Because the truth is, we are. We live by words. "The words that I say to you," said Jesus, "they are spirit and they are life." Jn 6,63.

Words have enormous power in our experience. Just think of some of the things that words can do.

  • Words give meaning to our lives.
  • Words can hurt. Unkind nicknames and racial epithets are sources of deep pain for many people.

  • Words can encourage. We have all profited from words spoken to us precisely when we need it the most.

  • Words can transform. The words of a marriage ceremony are designed to transform private feelings to lasting public commitments.

  • Words can heal. A friend of mine who lost a son has been helped by another friend who sustained a similar loss.

How can the words of the Bible come to have that kind of impact on our lives? How can we incorporate them into our lives so they nourish and strengthen us, so they actually become part of us, just like the things we eat and drink?

1. One suggestions is to stay with a passage of the Bible until it becomes your own, until it gives expression to your own ideas, feelings, convictions and shapes the ideas, feelings and convictions. Psalm 63 is a passage that has particular meaning for me.

2. Another suggestion is to read the Bible through the Bible. Notice how certain themes and expressions point to other passages. John 13:1, for example, ends with a phrase that summarizes the entire story of Jesus' passion 'love to the end.'

3. It also helps to look for promises in the Bible and learn to apply them in a personal way.

My attraction to the promises led me to list fifty of them in no time at all. God's promises are not guarantees that God will perform according to our dictates, desires or preferences. Instead, they are expressions of God's will and patterns designed to shape the contours of our hopes and aspirations. The promises are assurances that give substance to our hope. They are "words to live by," "patterns for life." The important thing about the promises is not that each stipulates a specific benefit that becomes ours on demand, but their power to inform, inspire, and shape our religious perspective. Promises fuel hope, which is "faith in a future key." We look to the arrival of God's kingdom in a future that will fulfill all his promises. All God's promises have their "yes" in Christ.

Instead of claiming the promises, our goal for the promises to claim us. We should let the words of scripture fill our hearts, occupy our minds, define our goals, shape our attitudes, stimulate our thinking, arouse our emotions, guide our actions. This is the comprehensive, life-encompassing, effect that God's words are to have on us (Deut 6). It is also helpful to remember that we can read the entire Bible in a promissory way. It is all one big, grand promise. Nothing that it talks about is fully realized in the present. There is future momentum, a future perspective, to it all. Our lives are based on promises.

Rom 8,15-17 Adoption gives us a new identity

Heb 11,16 Adoption gives God a new identity

Exploring a Bible promise. We can read the Bible in a "promissory" way by asking questions like these:

  1. What does the text promise? What does God offer us in this passage of the Bible? (It may be stated or implied?)

  2. Does the promise deal with something you feel a need for personally?

  3. What would your life be like if this promise became a reality for you?
  4. Are there any conditions attached to the promise?
  5. Does the promise offer something you can have right now, something you acquire gradually, or something you have to wait for?

  6. Do you have any personal memories that may connect with this promise?
  7. Does this promise contain any "words to live by"—specific expressions that you want to remember, savor, return to?

Does God communicate with people directly today? Of course he does. Does God use dramatic, sensational means of communication—visions, dreams, angelic messengers, audible voices, and the like? He may, but he prefers not to. How then does he communicate? Through the Holy Spirit and the word. How can we commune with him? By finding in his Word the words we live by. By taking his word into our lives and opening our minds and hearts to the silent, powerful influence of his Holy Spirit.

At Issue Index    Spiritual Discernment Index    Previous   Next