Give me life, O Lord, according to your word! (Ps 119:107)
Recently, I had a lively conversation with a well-educated young man whom I know quite well. We were both eager to catch up. In the course of our discussion, I asked him whether he still went to church and still regarded himself as a Christian. He admitted that even though he was very interested in spiritual things, he had problems with the Bible. It did not answer his deep questions and help him make sense his life. The answers it gave were confusing, simplistic, and disappointing for him. They made him question its relevance to him.
He was astonished that when I told him that I did not turn to the Bible to get answers from it—that is, to gather intellectual guidance to help me make sense of my life and the world around me. Rather, I read it daily and listened to what it said weekly in church to gain help from it—that is, life and strength from God through it.
When he asked what I meant, I told him that the Bible does provide answers to the deepest human questions and does indeed help me make sense of my life. Yet that is not its basic purpose; that is the byproduct of attending to the Bible as God’s Word. I rely on it, like the food that I eat, to receive supernatural, spiritual nourishment for my daily life. Just as I visit my doctor when I am sick, so I turn to the Bible to have God heal my soul and keep me spiritually healthy and wise. I prize it because of what it does for me and how it enables me live a heavenly life on earth.
Like that young man, many people get little or nothing from the Bible because they look for its secondary benefits ahead of its primary benefits. They mistake its purpose. Thus Jesus criticized his opponents in John 5:39 for searching the Old Testament to obtain eternal life from it apart from him. They studied it to discover what they had to do to gain eternal life by keeping God’s law. They did not realize its commands were meant to expose their spiritual lifelessness, while its promises bore witness to the coming Messiah as the giver of eternal life. So even though they looked for eternal life in the Scriptures, they refused to come to him to receive eternal life from God the Father through faith in him and his promises. They did not have eternal life because they did not hear his life-giving Word and believe in his heavenly Father (John 5:24).
The Bible provides divine help for us in four ways:
1. God speaks to us
In the Bible, the living God speaks his life-giving Word to us. God did not just speak long ago and then become silent. As he spoke then, so he still speaks now. As we listen to what it says, the Father addresses us, God’s Son addresses us, and the Holy Spirit addresses us. Even though they each speak with their own voices, they do not speak separately. They speak together with each other in a coherent, enlivening conversation. They all have the same message, because they all speak about Jesus. Both the Father and the Spirit bear witness to Jesus, just as he bears witness to himself in the Bible (John 5:36–38; 8:18; 15:26). Both the prophetic authors of the Old Testament and the apostolic authors of the New Testament also bear witness to Jesus (John 5:39; 15:27; Luke 24:28). They report a single conversation of the triune God with his people and them with him and each other. So, since we have a record of that conversation in the Bible, we can listen in on it and have personal access to God through it.
2. God speaks across the testaments
In the Bible, God speaks his life-giving Word to people on earth in two ways that correspond to its division into two parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Thus the Bible is a speech in two parts: God’s two-stage conversation with his people and all humanity. The author of Hebrews sums that up simply and yet profoundly: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (1:1–2).
The Bible is the story of God’s use of human speech to reach out to people so that they could live in company with him here on earth and enjoy the life with him in heaven. That speech begins with the creation of the world and our human ancestors by his creative Word. It continues with his creation of Israel as his chosen people and his wide-ranging conversation through the prophets as his spokesmen. It culminates in the life and work of his Son Jesus who not only spoke the Father’s Word to the Israelites and all nations, but also embodied it. By the Holy Spirit Jesus continues to speak that message now to people from all nations through his apostles in the New Testament and the preachers of the gospel in today’s churches. All that Jesus has won for us by his life and death, his resurrection and ascension, he now shares with us through their proclamation of the gospel that brings “life and immortality to light” to its hearers (2 Tim 1:10).
The risen Lord Jesus is the heir of all things. God the Father has appointed Jesus as his royal heir, the king whom he has anointed with the Holy Spirit. Everything that belongs to the Father belongs to Jesus, and everything that belongs to Jesus belongs to us royal brothers and sisters in God’s family. We are human co-heirs with him in his heavenly inheritance. And all this is a free gift! By faith we already now inherit eternal life, the life that is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3). Jesus shares all that with us through his Word, through the message of the Bible as his testament to us. I therefore go the church to hear God’s Word, and I meditate on it in my devotions, in order to receive the first installment of that heavenly inheritance for my life on earth.
3. The Spirit empowers the Word
By his words in the Bible, Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit. In John 6:63, Jesus tells his disciples, “It is the Spirit who gives life … The words that I have spoken are Spirit and life.” Through his words, Jesus gives his Holy Spirit to those who put their trust in it, and he gives them eternal life.
Just as the authority of Jesus differs from human authority, so the power of his words differs in its effect from human speech. The impact of human speech depends on the spirit of those who speak it—their personality and vitality, their affability and energy, their confidence and intelligence, their expressiveness and impressiveness, their winsomeness and wit. But the impact of divine speech depends on God’s Spirit. Like the breath of a human speaker, the Holy Spirit animates God’s Word. Inspired as it is by the Holy Spirit, his Word inspires both its speakers and hearers with the same Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers God’s Word so that it does what it says and gives what it promises.
God’s Word is spiritually effective and powerful because it is inspired by his Spirit. That’s what makes it different to my words. So, for example, if I visit a sick patient in hospital and say, “Get well!” nothing much happens. At best, my words may cheer the patient for a while. But when Jesus says the same words to sick people, they are healed. Same words—different effect! The difference is that since the words of Jesus are spoken with divine authority and the power of the Holy Spirit, they provide divine help.
St. John sums up the connection between God’s Word and the gift of his Spirit in this way: “He whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hands” (3:34–35). The first pronoun “he” is meant to be taken in two ways. It refers primarily to Jesus and then to his apostles and ministers. This describes how God the Father delivers his spiritual gifts from heaven to earth. We have a verbal chain of transmission from the Father to the Son, and from the Son to his apostles, and from them to other disciples. That chain of giving is based on the love of the Father for his Son. Since he loves his Son, he holds nothing back from him but gives all that he has to him and to those who belong to him. So, on one hand, God has sent his Son to speak his words and give his Spirit to people on earth, the people that God gives to him as his disciples. By speaking these words, the Son gives the Spirit to those who listen to him. And that without measure, completely and entirely! Through the words that he speaks and the Spirit that he gives as he speaks, the Son delivers the Father’s gifts to them. On the other hand, God the Father, even more amazingly, also commissions other messengers to join Jesus in bringing God’s Spirit and all his gifts to others by speaking the words of God to them. Those who hear these words and believe in them receive the Spirit and everything else that belongs to Jesus.
4. The Word accomplishes good
By his Word which addresses us in the Bible God does good things for us. His words do what they say; they accomplish what they declare; they give what they promise.
The author of Hebrews describes the effective power of God’s Word most memorably in 4:12: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword (knife), piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” He emphasizes its four main activities. Since it is the live speech of the living God, it gives and sustains life. It does not just enhance our natural, human vitality. It enables us to participate in God’s vitality, his eternal life. It is also active and effective. It is at work in us. It energizes us and enables us to do what God calls us to do, what would we could not otherwise accomplish unless God himself empowered us. Like a scalpel in open-heart surgery, it too cuts deep inside us to remove the infection in us and heal us. It penetrates our bodies and souls and fixes up what is wrong with us. It is able to do this because it is critical and insightful. Like an X-ray or a sonar scan, it sees what is hidden from human sight and discerns the secrets of our hearts. It is therefore able to diagnose their maladies and provide the right treatment for them. So God’s living Word passes through our ears into our hearts and touches our conscience. There it does its hidden work in us. There we receive what it offers to us. There we experience its life-giving, healing power. It has the power to save us.
When Jesus asked his twelve disciples whether they, like many others, would turn away from him and his offensive teaching, Peter declared, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). That is why the Bible is so relevant to us. It provides us with what no one else can supply—the words of eternal life.
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