The heart of the matter

We have been thinking about how we can understand the Bible, and find our way through the variety of interpretations there are out there.  With all our talk of ‘understanding’ the Bible, we might have forgotten that the nature of our engagement with Scripture is not primarily about intellectual capacity.  There is a real danger (especially in a culture which celebrates education and academic achievement) that we assume only clever people who have been to college can understand the Bible…  this again puts up barriers to my confidence that as an ‘ordinary’ Christian, I can handle the Bible well.  Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not anti-intellectual, or anti-education.  We should study and think hard – but in the right way and on the right things.


Grasping the truth of Scripture is not primarily an intellectual exercise.  It is rather a spiritual and moral one.  There are a number of passages we could go to see this:  Eph.4:18 teaches that people are ‘darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts’.  Did you catch that?  Our ignorance about what the Bible means is caused by the condition of our heart.  Paul learned this from Jesus:  ‘Whoever has my commands and obeys them is the one who loves me.  Those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them’ (John 14:21).


Remember that the Bible is the revealing of the Son to us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  That fits into the scheme Jesus lays out in John 14:21.  The Bible is how Jesus shows Himself (by His Spirit) to those loved by the Father.[1] Jesus makes all this explicit in Jn.14:26, but for now we just notice that Jesus teaches us how we can ‘understand’ the Bible effectively.  Interestingly, He doesn’t talk about college, or degrees.  Instead, He lays out two conditions on the basis of which the revelation of Christ takes place:


First is obeying the commands of Jesus.  Robert Murray McCheyne, a great Scottish preacher of a bygone era once wrote in his journal: ‘My people’s greatest need is my own personal holiness’.   Such a thing sounds strange to our ears, but it was born out of McCheyne’s grasp of John 14:21.  Holiness – the obeying of Jesus’ commands – is critical if anyone is to appreciate the portrait of Jesus painted in the Scriptures.  For McCheyne personally this would be the case – how much more so for McCheyne as a preacher.  Before he could hold Jesus out to his people, he must first see Him clearly himself.  But McCheyne would only be shown Jesus if he obeyed the commands of Christ he had.  Pray for those who preach to you.  Pray for their obedience, their holiness.  Without holiness, no-one will see the Lord (Heb.12:14).  How terrible for a congregation if their preacher stood before them not having seen Christ for themselves.    


But this is not just a text for preachers.  When the Bible seems like a closed book to us, this must be a first avenue of our investigation as to why.  The hardening of our hearts, and our failure in obedience will darken our understanding.  The Bible becomes obscure and we find the experience of reading it dry and Spiritless.  The key is not to take a course in theology, but to ask the Holy Spirit to show where we need to repent.  As an old saint once told me: either the Bible keeps you from sin, or sin keeps you from the Bible.  A course in theology will help us navigate the Scriptures – but only if we are first committed to the pursuit of holiness.


Secondly (and intimately related to the above), is the question of our love for Jesus.  John 14:21 doesn’t equate love and obedience, as if they were the same thing.  Obedience is a symptom of our love, not its totality.  What is staggering here is the extent to which understanding the Bible is put firmly in the context of our living relationship with Jesus (and through Him, the Father), and the state of our heart towards Him.  Our ability to understand the Bible has much more to do with our heart than our mind.  It confronts us with a question that we may struggle to conceptualise:  Do I love the Lord Jesus Christ?  This is different from ‘Do I accept certain things about Him as true?’; ‘Do I enjoy the benefits He offers?’; ‘Do I love the idea of Him?’  It penetrates to the fundamental question of religion: Do I love Him?


Or better: am I loved by Him?  It is worthy of note that the Bible is not – strictly speaking – a text which I understand, as I take the initiative, and I work it out.  The reality is a far more profoundly spiritual dynamic, as the meaning of the Bible is revealed to me; Jesus shows Himself.  His act of revelation (like our act of obedience) is one driven and shaped by love:  His for me.  Am I loved by the Lord Jesus Christ?  On no other issue hangs so very much.  Woe to those who do not love Christ, who are not loved by Christ, and so who read the Bible without finding Christ.  Such a tragedy was the one time Prince of Grenada, imprisoned for 33 years with only a Bible to read.  After he died, they found among his writings his observations on the Bible he had read so many times.  They contained such insights as: the middle verse of the Bible is Psalm 118:8; Ezra 7:21 contains all the letters of the alphabet, except the letter ‘j’; no word of more than 6 syllables can be found in the Bible.  Woe to such a ‘theologian’.


[1] See also passages like Matt.11:27 for just how deep into the purposes of the Trinity this will take us!

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