“Listen to what the Spirit is saying,” our small group leader said quietly as we stood in a circle praying, some breaking out with a “thank you, Jesus” and others speaking in tongues. Then one participant received a word from God. The Lord wanted us to kneel. So we kneeled. I can’t remember if anyone else received a word that time, but I was fascinated by the way people in my Charismatic community regularly received messages from God.
“God told me to move my family here.”
“God told me to take this job.”
“The Lord wants us to sing this song.”
They had no doubt they were hearing God, not audibly, but they knew when his Spirit was speaking to their spirit. They might even argue with God about what he wanted of them. But like Jonah, they would eventually have to give in. They might doubt God was right in what he had to say, but they never doubted that he was saying what they heard.
I admire these brothers and sisters of faith who are zealous to live for God as a community. Their prayers are marked by praise and thanksgiving, not the petitions of my tradition. The way I learned prayer was to briefly thank God, then ask him to make me more thankful, and move on into everything else we wanted to ask for. They get caught up praising God. They study religious principles and ways to serve God. They especially focus on how to love one another.
Yet, their weakness is in studying Scripture. In my small group, we studied topics in which we would use the Bible for help, but we never studied a biblical passage. I introduced the concept at one meeting when it was my turn to lead. While chatting before the study began, a friend asked what the lesson would be. I replied that I did not know. I had the Bible text, and we would find out together what the lesson would be. We had an interesting discussion, but the novel idea did not catch on.
Even so, though I thought I understood the importance of knowing God’s Word, it was later, after I had moved away, before the light would come on. I was still intent on hearing a word from the Lord. The irony of my endeavors is expressed well by the author of a book on punctuation. While she was sitting at a table autographing her books, a woman came up to her bemoaning that though she desperately wanted to know how to punctuate properly, there was nowhere to turn. The author writes, “I said again that the book really did explain many basic things about punctuation; she said again that the basic things of punctuation were exactly what nobody was ever prepared to explain to an adult person.” I was in the same position, standing in front of the Holy Spirit with his Book laid open before me and bemoaning that I could not hear a Word from the Lord!
“Give me a word from the Lord”
“Hear it is. I’ve written it in this book.”
“No, really. I want to know what God has to say.”
“I have written it all down. Read!”
“Maybe someone has written a good book on the subject.”
I eventually came to Tenth Presbyterian Church and sat under the teaching of James Montgomery Boice. He, of course, was noted for expository preaching; yet, it was his conviction of the sufficiency of Scripture for knowing God and living for God that would rub off on me and stabilize my spiritual wavering. I had wanted to hear God speak to me because I wanted to know with certainty what I should be doing. That attracted me to my Charismatic brethren. They were not baffled by what to do. God told them in their inward spirits and sometimes through prophecy. All they had to do was listen. For some reason, though, I could not hear like they did. What I learned from Dr. Boice was that God had already spoken plainly. I needed to open my Bible and read God’s Word.
As time went on under his influence, this concept about Scripture steadily sank into my consciousness, but as with my grasping the role of faith, so grasping the place of Scripture hit me in another “I get it” moment. Dr. Boice had invited Dick Lucas to present a pre-PCRT (Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology) seminar on preaching. Though serving as a school principal at the time, I was allowed to attend. As the day went on, I saw that all the speaker was doing was leading us through a series of Bible studies. We would sit around in groups and discuss a passage until we arrived at its meaning.
“I get it!” I said to myself later in the afternoon. What matters is knowing what God’s Word actually says. That is what preaching is supposed to do – explain what God is saying in his Word. And what God says in his Word is what his people need to hear. I did not need to work myself up into an emotional state so as to hear the Spirit speaking to my inner spirit; nor did I need to receive a “prophetic word” from a prophet. I needed to open God’s written revelation and read it! It was there in Scripture that I could confidently say, “The Lord told me.”
Once the light came on, the rest of Dr. Boice’s emphasis on expository preaching made sense. The true biblical expositor not only believes that we must know what Scripture has to say, but we must take to heart what Scripture says is important to know. Like so many Christians, I believed that truth was found in the Bible. That is why I read the Bible. But I was unknowingly setting the agenda for Scripture. I decided what I needed to know and then turned to Scripture to find the answers. What I learned through Dr. Boice was that I needed to give my attention to systematically reading and studying Scripture without setting agendas for what I was to learn. Let the Holy Spirit through what he has already written determine what I needed to receive.
That is why we must not only read Scripture but read it systematically. There is a place to look through the Scriptures for help on a topic or theme. But our greatest benefit comes from reading the books of the Bible. Such reading, for one thing, prevents us from taking verses out of context and saying what they do not really mean. Positively, it gives us clearer insight into what the verses do mean. But what I really came to realize was that by systematically reading the Bible personally, and teaching publicly, I was truly doing what I had been pretending to do – that is, I was seeking a word from the Lord. And I was more likely to get that word because God set the agenda. The Holy Spirit had already written the words of Scripture; he had already determined what needed to be said. Now it was my task to study and listen.
Furthermore, because the words were written, I could have greater assurance of what the Lord was saying! I learned at the charismatic community that when anyone said the Lord spoke to them, they had not experienced anything different from other Christians who will say more cautiously, “I think the Lord is leading me to…” Given our sin and emotional make-up, how could anyone say with confidence “This is what the Lord told me”? The one time I can say assuredly, “Thus says the Lord,” is when I am reading his written Word. If I look to the written Word for a message from God, I will get it! Not only can I be sure it is a “word from the Lord,” but I can further know that it is the word he wants me to hear.
I do not mean to oversimplify hearing from God through Scripture. I still have the common problem of hearing what I want to hear from the written Word. Even as I read through a book of the Bible, I am likely to pick out what I think is important and overlook the rest. All the more reason, then, I am to give attention to careful study of the Bible, and not be looking for another revelation. What is written and is before my eyes is enough revelation to spend my life carefully examining even as it examines me. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Herein lies the beauty and the terror of God’s Word. The more I study this “word of God,” the more I find that God is examining me, laying open my very heart. No wonder I want to set the agenda. No wonder I need to let the Lord set it for me.
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