March 05, 2016

When God Speaks

On more than one occasion I have heard or read a quip to the following effect, "If you want God to speak to you, read the Bible. If you want Him to speak audibly, read it out loud." It gets me every time. I love the snarky, and helpful, rebuttal it contains of a certain type of subjectivism which wants more from the Christian walk than prayer and Bible reading. More than talking to and hearing from God? More than conversing with the Creator? Come on. So I appreciate the quip. However. 

I do think it could be made more Biblical. It would look something like this:
If you want God to speak to you, read the Bible. If you want to hear Him audibly, hear the Bible preached.
The centering of Christian experience upon the personal Bible reading time is a rather modern development. It requires a few things which for most of church history simply have not been the case (this point is largely drawn from the observations Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia). First, it requires the ability to read. Most Christians throughout the past 2,000 years have not been able to do so. Can't go read Our Daily Bread if the words on the page are meaningless to you. Secondly, even if you could read, you need to be able to purchase books, which were incredibly expensive. Books have largely been, until the last couple hundred years, a luxury of the rich. My personal library is twice the size of the one owned by Jonathan Edwards, the premier Theological and Philosophical thinker in American history (probably not half as good as his library, but still, twice the volumes). This testifies to how cheap print is in our day. Third, you need to have leisure time. Many people throughout the history of the Christian church have been peasants who worked all day, every day, just to survive. Perhaps the only exception would have been Lord's Day rest. As 21st Century Americans, we simply don't understand how simple and lazy our life is. We invent distractions to keep us feeling occupied and busy all day, Facebook, ESPN, MTV, Youtube, movies, Twitter, etc, all exist to distract us from the fact that we don't have to do hardly anything to survive compared to our ancestors. In many places throughout time and geography, folks have scraped out a meager living for 35 or 40 years and then died.

You have the ability to own and read a Bible. And you have the time to do so. These are immeasurable privileges for which we should thank God. We ought to take advantage of them and spend as much time in His written word as we possibly can. But, if God in His providence knew that many, perhaps most, people would never be able to read His word for themselves, how did He ordain for His word to go forth?

Timothy, Preach the Word!

I want to direct your attention to Paul's second letter to his much younger friend, Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:12-17, we read the following:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Many of you will be familiar with these verses, particularly that bit which begins, "All Scripture is breathed out by God..." Here we see the ability of God's word, its broad and varied usefulness. It is profitable for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, for training in righteousness. All to the end that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. Should we expect less from the very words of God Himself?

Paul is drawing a contrast here for Timothy, between those in the world who will persecute Christians, go from bad to worse, deceiving others whilst being deceived themselves; and Timothy, who is to continue in what he has learned, continue in what he has firmly believed. And it is in the words of this book, this useful, God-breathed, Christ-revealing book, in which Timothy has rooted his life.

But Timothy is a pastor, so he has responsibilities beyond his own life and doctrine being preserved from the evils of the world. He has a flock to shepherd, and how is he to make use of this word in doing that? To this Paul turns next.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.- 2 Timothy 4:1-5
What does Paul give to Timothy here? A call to small group Bible studies? Encouragement to start some 1-on-1 discipleship? A charge to more counseling appointments? Well, not to disparage any of those things (from which I have received great personal benefit), but, nope. He unfolds in chapter 3 what the word of God is and is for. Here he tells Timothy the proper pastoral response: Preach the Word! The call could not be more clear. To charge him in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing, and by His kingdom. That's a strong charge. To do what, again? To preach.

I'm not Timothy, nor am I a pastor

So, you're not a pastor. Neither am I. While we may not participate in the act of preaching itself, it has a very deep relationship to us, for it is directed toward us. We need to hear this: preaching, contrary to what some might say in our anti-authoritarian day, is a means of communication open to all who are willing to hear (provided, of course, a common language). Our attention spans may be shorter than ever, our eyes may be used to the sensory scintillation of screens, and our ears unaccustomed to that which is not synthesized and smoothly produced. But you are a human being, a word-maker and word-receiver, and preaching is accessible to you. That is why Paul, in Romans 10, ties preaching directly with the going forth of the Gospel:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
 How can we hear, how can we believe, without someone preaching? Paul's obvious point: you can't. That's not to say people aren't saved through the means of personal evangelism, books, reading His word for themselves, tracts, etc. The main instrument is His word, not a preacher. But the primary way which I believe the Bible lays out that word going forth in convicting, comforting, saving, sanctifying power is through preaching. This, again, does not disparage any of those other things. But it does establish a primacy of preaching in the church and Christian ministry. And it should have a very deep impact on how I, as a Christian layperson, view my experience of Christ and His word.

Concluding and applicatory thoughts

We need to receive with meekness the implanted word (James 1). Insofar as the preacher is faithful to the text, he is God's own mouthpiece. I think that is one of the most important sentences I've ever written, so let me say it again: Insofar as the preacher is faithful to the text, he is God's own mouthpiece. In light of this, do we head to church expecting to hear from God? I would guess that the honest answer for most of u would be "no", and I believe there are two primary reasons for that.

a) Humility is almost absolutely foreign to us. We don't desire to be told how to live, what to believe, what to think. But the very act of sitting under preaching is an act of implicit submission to the preacher; and more fundamentally, to the authority of God being exercised through the preacher to proclaim the very word of the Living God to us. If we are unable to submit to this, how are we to submit to anything?
b) We come to God with "humble" expectations...i.e., we come trying not to expect too much. We seem afraid to expect God to speak through His word. God doesn't actually do that sort of thing today, does He? This could, for some of us, be a misapplication or perversion of cessationist thinking. Cessationism being the belief that certain "sign gifts" such as healings, tongues, prophecy, etc, ceased with the closing of the canon of Scripture and the death of the original Apostles. But while believing that such signs are not for today we can make the mental error (and a grave one) that simply because God chooses not to reveal Himself and His power in certain ways today means that He doesn't still actively work in our hearts, minds, and lives. 
We need to remember that God's primary work in this world is the bringing of Himself glory through the calling, redeeming, and sanctifying of a People, a Bride, for Himself, and that He sent Who into this world to accomplish that task? The Word. The Word of God, the Second member of the Trinity, became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. And how do we come to know this Living Word of God? Through the written word of God (look back up at the 1 Timothy 3 passage; see also John 6). Do we think that the God who became flesh, who sent His Spirit to dwell within us as believers, cannot take the words which that same Spirit inspired and force them into our hearts, between the joints and marrow of our bones, and apply them at an individual level through the preaching of His word? I want to challenge you to this: expect God to speak through the preaching of His word. He doesn't disappoint. 

2) We need to reorient our mindset toward what is important in church. Are music, prayer, the way we celebrate communion, etc, important things to think about when we pick a church to call home? Of course. But this one thing rises above the rest: Is the word preached? Frankly, I am not even terribly concerned with whether the preacher is particularly skilled; I am gravely concerned as to whether or not He is faithful to the word of the Living God. I am fortunate to be involved in a church where both things are true. But let me be clear: there are many skilled speakers in this world and in our churches who don't preach the Bible, and they will do nothing but tickle ears straight into Hell. Far better to sit under  man who knows nothing of homiletic form, has little for rhetorical skill, but deeply loves, trusts, and knows the Book and the God of the Book.

3) We need to pray for and encourage ministers of the word. Do you pray for your pastor(s)? Speak encouraging words to them, or write the occasional, "thank you" for their service to God's flock? 1 Timothy 5:17 says that elders (pastors) who rule well are worthy of double-honor, particularly those who labor in preaching and teaching. Think of practical ways to show these men honor.

4) We need to continue our spiritual disciplines, but with a heavier emphasis on meditating upon, believing, and applying the specific truths preached from week to week. Think of a church where even a fifth of the people were focused upon taking something from that week's sermon and applying it to their lives. Think about your own life if you were to do that. Not that the sermon is a self-help talk. Don't make that mistake. Preaching is proclamation, first and foremost of the Gospel, which is news to be believed. The Gospel is news to be believed. This is why we can't live the Gospel, because you don't live the news that you hear. However, it is the sort of news which, if believed, must change how we live. This is a primary burden in books like James and 1 John, chapters like Romans 6 and Galatians 5, etc. We believe what we hear, the Good News of Jesus Christ, and we live changed lives.

5) We must come with brains engaged. Does this talk of coming to hear God mean we simply swallow everything the preacher says without thinking about it? No! In Acts 17:10-12, Luke commends the nobility of the Bereans for examining the Scriptures to see if what Paul was teaching as the truth. Note however, it was from their eager receiving of the word that they we checking things out. They weren't trying to tear apart what he said to look for holes in his argument or deficiencies in his theology. They simply wanted to be sure he was right before they took it to heart. That is the sort of noble, humble, mental engagement we need. We need to think hard about what is preached, and if what is said holds up against the strong light of God's word, it is incumbent upon us to accept and receive this truth with gladness.

6) What does this mean for preaching and teaching which is available on the radio, TV, iTunes, and streaming online? The access we have today to some of the world's greatest preachers, even dead ones, is astounding. You can go to places like Desiring God, Grace To You, or MLJ Trust and listen to flat our incredible preaching that is edifying, helpful, wonderful. But is it the same thing as gathering with God's people week after week to hear the word of God spoken through the man behind the pulpit? I want to consider briefly another passage from Paul, this in his first letter to Timothy, chapter 4, verse 13-16:
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Again, Timothy is a pastor and Paul is instructing him in his duties here. Devote yourself to reading God's word, exhorting by it, teaching it. Don't neglect this gift given to you. Practice this, immerse yourself, so that all may see your progress. Guard, Timothy, your life and doctrine closely. Persist in this, for you'll save the lives of yourself and your listeners. What sort of assumptions underlay this? Here is a big, glaring, shining one: the people hearing Timothy will actually be able to see his life. There was tangible verification that the man preaching was indeed Biblically qualified for the position. There was some degree of relationship and pastoral care which connected words to the reality of life here and now. I can turn on the radio or my phone and hear great preaching. But only in the gathered congregation of God's people with a man standing before me in the pulpit may I hear preaching to me. This difference is hard to adequately express in words. I'm coming closer here than I have in the past, but I'm still at the grasping-at-straws point in my articulation. 

Please do not misunderstand me, I am profoundly grateful for the teaching resources like those I linked to above. But we must not, we cannot, allow these to replace hearing and receiving the word of God preached in the local congregation. 

This lived dynamic is also what makes me very leery of things like video sermons, video multi-site churches, video curriculum, and even (to a lesser extent) any large church where the pastor can essentially be invisible to the people. The living dimension, the relational dynamic, these are essential background pieces to the effective preaching of the word. 


What, in the end, is the point? God speaks through the preaching of His word. Beg Him, plead with Him, to speak to you through the preaching of His word. He will answer. 

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About Me

Follower of Jesus. Husband of one. Father of four. Pastor at Remsen Bible Fellowship (