Listening to God’s Word
by Eric Watkins
Lying somewhere in the home of each person reading this article is a Bible. Maybe more than one. The fact that nearly every Christian in the West has his own Bible is a rather recent privilege. For roughly the first fifteen hundred years of church history, Bibles were fairly scarce and protected. The printing press was not invented until the mid-1400s, and the ability for each Christian family to have its own Bible came much later. Our freedom to have them as we do was one of the great achievements of the Reformation. Thus, today, each Christian home probably has several Bibles; maybe more than one for each person. Yet for all those Bibles, how much time do we spend not just reading them but expecting to hear God speak in and through them? Surrounded by God’s Word, we rarely listen to Him speak. In this article, we will reflect on the great privilege that we have of not only hearing God speak to us in His Word, but also of praying God’s Word back to Him.
What is God’s Word? Too often, we treat the Bible as a book of stories about other people. Whether we realize it or not, we have been influenced by a modern (or postmodern) view of history. This view posits such a great distance between the then of the Bible and the now of our lives that the Bible seems to have lost its meaning and relevance. It is as though the Bible has been suffocated by history, and its vitality for many has been vanquished. Like the old, large family Bible, God’s Word often retains our respect, but it has been relegated to the hallway of history, where it has joined the dated pictures of those who went before us, but whose voices are no longer heard. I would like to suggest that it is time to remove the dust—not from our Bibles, but from our hearts and minds, and that we reread it as the living voice of the living God.
Let us consider 2 Timothy 3:16–17:
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 competent, equipped for every good work.
The language of God “breathing out” His Word is noteworthy. It reminds us that God is a speaking God. He does not simply exist, nor is He the ultimate recluse who remains hidden; rather, He is the God who speaks. The Bible is replete with reflection on God speaking. It begins and ends that way, and is filled from cover to cover with God speaking to His people. It was by His speaking that God first created. In Genesis 1 we are told repeatedly that God “spoke…and it was so.” When God speaks, things happen. He could have simply created without speaking, and yet He spoke. We should not lose sight of the fact that there is always purpose behind God’s speaking. That purpose is ultimately His own glory. All that He does will ultimately bring glory to Himself, and all that He says will do the same. That is why He spoke creation into existence—for His own glory.
Another important connection between creation and 2 Timothy 3:16–17 is the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7: “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” It is a curious thing that when God first created Adam, he was lifeless. He had a body, but no breath. He was like the opening verses of Genesis: creation begun, but not completed. But that changed when God “breathed.” Just as God breathed life into creation by speaking it into existence, He breathed life into Adam personally, filling him with the breath of life. It was so—Adam became a living being, but in a way that rises above the rest of creation. Adam was uniquely created by God to bear God’s image and bring God glory. Man, in the image of God, would glorify and enjoy God in ways that far transcend the rest of creation. In this sense, he was uniquely created and uniquely inspired.
This brings us back to God’s Word, and to 2 Timothy 3:16–17 in particular. This verse teaches us that God’s Word has also been uniquely inspired. It is “God-breathed,” similar to the creation of the earth in Genesis 1 and similar to the creation of Adam in Genesis 2. The chief end of God’s Word is to bring Him glory. God Himself promises to preserve His Word by the same Holy Spirit through which He first inspired it. It transcends time, space, and history because it is bound to the Spirit of God, who cannot be suffocated by the sands of time, cast out of the world, or changed by the flow of history. In other words, the Bible’s truthfulness and relevance do not depend upon man and his designs. God’s Word is bound to God Himself. Thus, the problem between us and God’s Word has much more to do with us than it does with God’s Word.
If it makes us feel any better, this problem of hearing, understanding, believing and obeying God’s Word is not new. The disciples of Jesus illustrate the problem as well as anyone, maybe better. After all, they were in His presence. They heard the words themselves. They saw Jesus speak and act. They drank the best wine that cheered many, ate the miraculous bread that fed thousands, saw the lame walk, the blind see, and the dead rise. Who more than they should have believed? Yet how many times did our patient Lord have to endure their unbelief at His Word? How many times did He say, “You of little faith”?
At this point, John 20:22 comes to us like a glass of life-giving water in a valley of dry bones. “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (emphasis mine). Why did Jesus breathe on them? Could it be that Jesus, the Word made flesh, the One who breathed life into the first creation, was now the resurrected Son of God who breathes life into the new creation? Just as Adam was breathed into and received the spirit of life, Jesus breathed on His disciples and they received the Spirit of eternal life. Those who once were blind to the truth of God’s Word could now see. Those who once were deaf could now hear. The Holy Spirit had now been given to His people, and those cowering, fickle, obstinate, perplexed disciples (don’t they sound much like you and me?) finally understood and believed what Jesus had been telling them all along. They now understood His cross and kingdom—that the former is the means to the latter. They now understood that true life can be found only in Him and that His life was given for them. They now understood that all the stories of the Bible set the stage for the climactic story of Christ’s death and resurrection. They now believed and proclaimed His Word boldly. They clung to it as though it were the very Word of life, the Word of the living God. What the Spirit had been promised to do in them (guiding them into a life-giving relationship with God’s Word) was now being fulfilled under the new covenant. Perhaps this is why Paul sees God’s Word as able to “complete” (NKJV) the man of God. The Spirit-inspired Word is the primary tool by which God continues His work of glorifying Himself, and He does this by saving and sanctifying men and women through it. God’s Word is not only alive, it is life-giving (Heb. 4:10).
God’s inspired Word not only brings us across the line of conversion, it illumines our path as we journey with God to our heavenly home. It tells us where we are going and how we must live as we travel through this world. Through it, God speaks to us as we make our journey not simply to Him but also with Him. This is why, so often in Scripture, we see God’s people praying and singing God’s Word back to Him. The Psalms are filled with Spirit-inspired songs and prayers. Who is better than God at writing songs that will praise and honor Him? Who is better than He to teach us ways to pray? While other words may be creatively used in song and prayer to God, we should certainly consider incorporating God’s own words.
How much of a privilege do we count it to listen to God speak to us in His Word? The proof is in the reading, and not just the reading, but in the heeding. Christ promises to come to us again and again; He does so by His Spirit-inspired Word. May we find grace to come to Him through His Word and to listen as He speaks.