Is Reading the Bible Different from Reading Any Other Book?

The Bible is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book.  A Huffpost Survey indicates that 88% of respondents own a Bible, yet only 1 in 5 Americans read the Bible on a regular basis.  At one end of the spectrum are those who consider it alongside and equivalent to any other ancient text.  At the other end, it’s seen as a magical book that we can open anywhere and find immediate and personal guidance. Furthermore, multiple surveys reveal that biblical illiteracy is at an all time high (and growing!).  Has the Bible become the book that we revere . . .  but never open?

In Reading the Bible Supernaturally, John Piper addresses the way we handle Scripture, and like a physician, prescribes regular and hefty doses of Truth for the health of the human heart, for the heart contains a “template with a form that corresponds to the glory of God.”   With our hearts “packed hard with loves of other things,” it’s easy to live an entire life without ever seeing and savoring the glory of God.  Since God has, indeed, revealed His glory in His written Word, can we read words on a page and come away with spiritual transformation?  Is reading the Bible different from reading any other book, and, if it is, how and why?

A Different Purpose

Building a case over the course of several chapters, John Piper uses intense imagery and moves back and forth between the voices of “Dr. Piper” and “Pastor John” to argue that the ultimate goal of reading the Bible is this:

” . . .that God’s infinite worth and beauty would be exalted in the everlasting, white-hot worship of the blood-bought bride of Christ from every people, language, tribe, and nation.

He introduces each new implication by devoting a chapter to its unfolding, and then pauses for frequent review along the way.  The apostles Paul and John provide the foundation for the truth that it is possible for the glory of Christ to be put on display for 21st century believers by reading a text that was written by eye-witnesses — and, thereby, to share in the very same glory that they saw.  

First, the familiar words of John 20 (which give the purpose of the gospel) tie the written word to belief, and then, in his first letter, John affirms that his readers will see the glory of Christ “shining through the inspired writing.”

In addition, Paul, in Ephesians 3:3-8, essentially states, “When you read my words, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.”

A Different Response

The point of all this seeing of glory is two-fold:

  1. God has provided His Word as a means for believers to grow in affection for God, to savor and to enjoy God.
  2. The intended outcome of this emotional response to truth is transformation into the image of Christ.

Jonathan Edwards was on to this centuries ago when he wrote:  “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.”  If you are hearing echoes of Piper’s signature statement that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him,”  we’re on the same page!

A Supernatural Reading

Reading the Bible Supernaturally, then, is the only way to accomplish God’s purpose for the reader, for “God intends for us to read His Word in a way that involves actions and experiences of the human soul that are beyond ordinary human experience.  Seeing the glory of Jesus is not accomplished merely with our ordinary physical eyes, but with ‘the eyes of [our] hearts (Eph. 1:18).”  We depend upon God’s supernatural help because we are predisposed to spiritual blindness and bent on colluding with the enemy in our own deception and destruction.

It is this need for divine intervention that was behind Jesus’ accusation that the Pharisees (proud scholars of The Law, every one!) had “never read” the Scriptures!  Their eyes had certainly passed over the scrolls, and chances are they had memorized great chunks, but a supernatural reading (a right reading) of Scripture has not occurred until the essence has been absorbed and the heart has interacted with the substance of the message.

Fullest Use of Your Natural Powers

Without an open book, open eyes, the ability to make sense of grammatical structures, and the ability to intuit meaning from written words, there will be no reading.  Add to this the need for focused attention, a rested brain, adequate nutrition and exercise (and caffeine?) to aid in alertness, and the possibilities are endless, because — going back to our original question — the answer is Yes and No.  Reading the Bible is different from reading any other book because of the need for dependence on God to accomplish His spiritual purposes.  However, it is exactly like reading any other book in that it will not yield its contents from a remote spot on my nightstand or in my backpack — unopened.

The plain hard work of sitting oneself down in a chair for repetitive reading with a pen and an open book and a list of questions — only half answered — is the natural component of reading Scripture.   It is met with the supernatural work of God Who takes the natural birth process and incarnates a Messiah, and, therefore, is able to intervene and bring about spiritual enlightenment to a human heart.

“God gives the miracle and we act the miracle.”

For someone who has been reading the Bible her entire adult life, Reading the Bible Supernaturally offered truth that I already know but practice so imperfectly that it was important for me to hear it all again in a new way.  Those familiar with Piper’s writing will already know his acronym for the cooperation between God and humanity in spiritual formation (A.P.T.A.T.).  I had not stumbled upon I.O.U.S., but copied it into my journal as an important reminder that when I open the Bible, I am dependent upon supernatural help for the kind of seeing, savoring, and transformation that God desires for me:

I – Incline.  “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain” (Ps. 119:36).
O – Open.  “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18).
U – Unite.  “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).
S – Satisfy. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Ps. 90:14).

God invites believers into an aggressive pursuit of Truth — and then stands by to assist.  When we open the pages of Scripture, there is more going on than meets the eye.  He “watches over [His] Word to perform it.”  He makes huge claims that the Word will accomplish His purpose and will not fail.  The natural act of reading the Bible supernaturally is a metaphor for the entire process of sanctification, a delightful paradox in which God inspires our work, enhances the impact, and radiates His glory as he accomplishes His purposes in the world.

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This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

CaptureReading the Bible Supernaturally is John Piper’s follow up to his 2016 work, A Peculiar Glory, in which he examines the concept that the Bible reveals its complete truthfulness by the shining forth of a self-authenticating, peculiar, divine glory.  It provides helpful background, but even more important, it helps to put on display the uniqueness of God’s Word as the means by which we see and savor the glory of God.  I reviewed the book last year when it came out, and you can read my thoughts and get an overview here.

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Beside Us to Guide Us — and More!

Jesus, Continued . . . by J.D. Greear:  A Book Review

As soon as he started talking about guidance, J.D. had my ear.  You see, I am THAT Christian — the one who becomes paralyzed whenever there’s a big decision on the table, and even though I know that God is not interested in mindless robots (and truly, I’m not interested in becoming one), I still perseverate about making the RIGHT decision, and I want God to tell me what that is.  Basically, I want sky-writing:  “Buy the Ford!” in big puffy letters against a blue heaven.  At the other end of the spectrum of error are those who,  “function[ing] as deists, act as if God rules from the heavens and has spoken in his Word, but does not act on earth or move in their souls.”  Clearly, the truth about guidance and the Holy Spirit lies somewhere between these two erroneous approaches, and in his reassuring and stimulating book, J.D. Greear digs into the Word of God to debunk the myths, set the perfectionist free, and empower the body of Christ to begin functioning as confident, Spirit-led, Christ-exalting children of God.

Part 1:  The Missing Spirit — Christians have a tendency to gravitate toward extremes in their thinking about the Holy Spirit.  Either they over-emphasize the work of the Spirit apart from the Word of God (e.g. hearing voices and finding direction from God in their cereal bowl); or they have no real interaction with Him at all.  The author’s thesis in part one is that the Spirit and the Word work in partnership to guide the believer into truth.  The pattern Jesus gave with the Great Commission is this:  “Do nothing until the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”  THIS is dependence, and Greear transparently and most helpfully shares his own frustrations with the ambivalence and lack of clarity this sometimes creates in the seeking heart.  It is encouraging to know that even the Apostle Paul experienced ambiguity from time to time (see I Corinthians 16).

At the same time, the Spirit is described as a mighty, rushing wind and God’s presence came at Pentecost in the form of a flame.  This is NOT subtle, and the Spirit’s presence in the life of a believer is meant to empower for ministry and to inspire confidence that “the Spirit inside you” is the One who does the work.   Unfortunately, believers fail to realize their identity as “burning bushes” who are called to serve and who are equipped with the ability to do even greater works than those chronicled in the New Testament. (Yes, it’s true — see Matthew 11:11 and John 14:12.)  Our ordinary obedience can be translated into extraordinary results when we realize that God doesn’t need us, but chooses to work in concert with us, graciously multiplying our efforts as we cooperate with Him.

Part 2:  Experiencing the Holy Spirit — Christians can be a superstitious lot, making major decisions on the basis of  goose bumps or the mysterious juxtaposition of multiple coincidences.  While it is true that the sky-writing I long for is not forthcoming, there are six distinct ways in which the believer does experience the Spirit’s presence:

  1. The Gospel – As an invitation to relationship, the truth of the gospel is the doorway to intimacy with God and a changed view of the world.
  2. The Word of God – Ninety-percent of the will of God is in the Word.  Given that, J.D. Greear invites us to ask ourselves how much of God’s revealed will we are already following in the shaping of our moral character.  Awareness of the Holy Spirit is a matter of “acknowledging Him in all our ways,” and if we do, He promises to “direct our paths,” (Proverbs 3:6).  Much of this is going on behind the scenes in ways that we see only in retrospect, if at all.
  3. Our giftings – Becoming aware of one’s spiritual gifts (Great definition: “unusual effectiveness in a responsibility given to all believers”) is a great  push in the right direction for working in tandem with the Spirit who gives the gifts.  This does not give the believer permission to put God in a box (“Nope, sorry, I can’t share the gospel with that person who is right under my nose, because I don’t have the gift of evangelism.”), but it should inspire confidence and enthusiasm for taking on the assignments that God gives.
  4. The church – In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit appears fifty-nine times.  In thirty-six of those appearances, He is speaking through a person who is part of the early church.  The Spirit continues to empower prophetic speech today — not “woo-wooey God-told-me-you’re-supposed-to-marry-me” kind of prophecy, but, primarily proclaiming and applying God’s Word to particular situations.  Any strong impression that the believer is tempted to attribute to the working of the Holy Spirit should first be lined up beside Scripture.  With that in mind, the Spirit may use a believer to be His mouthpiece to build up the church or guide in mission.  Refreshingly honest, Greear urges a level of skepticism on the part of the hearer, and presents the challenge of knowing the Word of God well enough to recognize truth (and error) when it is spoken.
  5. Our spirit – Here it becomes evident that the Holy Spirit is indeed a Person, not an algebraic formula or a Ouija board.  His leading, therefore, is not an exact science and our receptors are not flawless.  Greear’s oft-repeated wise counsel is to hold loosely what you think God is saying to you through prayer, through special insights, holy ambitions, or through dreams and visions.
  6. Our circumstances – Again, the word here is, “hold your interpretations [of circumstances] loosely.”  God does use our circumstances to guide us, but we are given to much superstition, flawed interpretation of events, and just plain confusion.  “Hearing from God means balancing what God puts in your heart with how He guides you through other means, and trusting Him all the way.”

Part 3:  Seeking the Holy Spirit —  Inexplicably, believers, at times, experience the silence of God which J.D. Greear terms “white space.”  These wilderness days are further evidence that God the Holy Spirit will not be “managed” by humans, but in retrospect, it may become apparent that God was at work during the white spaces to write something into the seeker’s soul.  At other times the Holy Spirit moves in power and the results are like a flood of repentance and prayer and great response to the gospel.

Jesus, Continued . . . is an important book for the believer who wants to make an impact on his world for the glory of God, because Greear is walking that path himself and is collecting resources, making mistakes, and correcting them along the way.  His sources in writing the book read like a who’s who of Spirit-led followers of Christ from the past (e.g. Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Lloyd Jones, C.S. Lewis, John Newton) and the present (e.g. Tim Keller, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, Vern Poythress, Henry Blackaby).  A new believer who wants to develop a reading list for fast-track growth in the faith should use Greear’s footnotes as a beginning point.

The huge and inescapable truth is that God wants a relationship with His people and has made every provision for it.  If I find myself wishing that He would communicate in ways that are not part of His nature, I must be wanting something I shouldn’t have.  In my case, I want a guarantee of smooth-sailing and efficiency in a world where one of Jesus’ most verifiably true statements is, “In this world, you will have tribulation.”  Part of God’s provision is the uncertainty and ambivalence surrounding our interactions with the Holy Spirit.  He has provided power, but we want visible results.  He promises his presence, but we want answers.  I am coming away from Jesus, Continued . . . with an increased and focused thoughtfulness about the ways in which God the Holy Spirit is waiting for me to notice what He values and to allow Him to show off His power in my work, my relationships, my failings, and my availability.

Disclosure:  This book was provided by BookLookBloggers in exchange for my unbiased review.