As strange as it sounds, one of the greatest hindrances to truly knowing the Lord can be our familiarity with biblical words and spiritual concepts. There was a time when the Lord had to show me that, though I was very acquainted with scriptural words, I was a stranger to the spiritual realities that these words described or pointed to. To say it another way, I’ve come to see that the Bible is like a window. Its purpose is to open up to our heart an inward sight and sense of Jesus Christ and all that is real in Him. Nobody looks at a window. Rather, we look through a window to see something else. Reading the Bible should be a similar experience. The words of Scripture are a wonderful gift from God, but we are meant to see beyond the words and behold and experience the Lord Himself. When the Bible is studied or memorized for any other reason, it is unavoidably misunderstood and misused. Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees saying,
“You diligently search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)
The Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ day were extremely knowledgeable of the Old Testament Scriptures, more so than we often realize. Not just their religion, but every aspect of their daily lives—their laws, education, relationships, meals and traditions—were governed by their meticulous study of Scripture. But despite their great knowledge, the vast majority of them were unable to see, and consequently would not receive, the One who was being described on every page. The words of Scripture were familiar and revered in all of Israel, but the Person behind those words seemed foreign and offensive. John says, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:11) When the living Fulfillment of all Scripture walked through their streets and taught in their synagogues, the great majority of Jews dismissed Him as a glutton, a sinner, or a demon-possessed deceiver.
In this same way, words can be both wonderful and dangerous. Though they are used of God as a vehicle through which truth is proclaimed and described, they affect us in the way that God desires only when we come to know and experience the reality that is behind them. If you think about it, all language works the same way. When we speak to each other, we intuitively understand that our words are merely attempts to explain and communicate something that is real within us. We speak and write in order to express our emotions, our understanding, our thoughts and ideas. With words we try to give, reveal, or explain who we are and what we know; or you could say, we seek to pass along to another person something of ourselves. This is perhaps our greatest form of communication, and yet we have all experienced the weakness of words. We have all chosen words that seemed plain and clear to us, only to be completely misunderstood by our listeners. And we have also mistakenly heard and believed things that others never meant to communicate.
The tricky thing about words is that they carry no inherent meaning or reality. Of course we have dictionary definitions for all of our words, but when it comes to actual communication, the meaning behind a word is very often supplied by the listener and not by the word itself. The same word can mean ten different things to ten different people. It can make one person laugh and another feel insecure. One sentence might be frightening to you and yet comforting to me. This happens because, despite the accepted meaning of words, it is our own understanding, experience, and imagination that often determine the impact that words have on us. The weakness of words is the fact that every speaker and listener, writer and reader, has the freedom to give meaning to the words that they use or encounter.
If this is true with human words that describe natural things, how much more true must it be when we read or hear the words that God uses to describe spiritual realities? If ten Christians were to hear the same sermon about grace, it is entirely possible that all ten could have conflicting understandings of this word along with different experiences of God’s grace to support their ideas. How do we know who is correct? How can we ever know what grace really is? This is an important question that deserves some thought, and (as I often say) acknowledging our ignorance or uncertainty is a big step in the right direction. We should never be afraid to admit to ourselves, or to the Lord, that we have no idea what is real and true. God’s desire is not that we identify correct biblical concepts and cling to them with our brain. He is not just wanting to inform us, but rather to transform us. And it is far better to be ignorant and teachable than firmly attached to dead concepts, or satisfied with a sterile belief in correct Christian doctrines. Familiarity with the Bible very often does not lead to a real knowledge of God. Familiarity with God, however, always leads to a great knowledge and understanding of the Bible.
While reading a familiar passage of Scripture, it is not uncommon for believers to suddenly see something altogether new and different. We sometimes say, “It was like the words jumped off the page!” Why does this happen? Why did it not happen the last time we read the same Scripture? I think the answer to these questions lies in the fact that knowing God’s words and knowing God are two very different things. We can read God’s words as much as we like, but real spiritual communication begins when the reality behind these words—the actual substance of which they speak—is shown to us, or made manifest in us.
Words are like a package. Somebody can hand you a box that is filled or empty, and either way the box is exactly the same. The package is merely the transportation or communication of something else inside. Words function in a similar way. They are meant to be the carriers or vehicles for something else that is far more real. The words of God in the Bible are like a collection of packages that seek to convey realities of spirit and truth to the human soul. They carry a description or testimony of something that is far greater than language. The words themselves are never really what God is trying to make known to us. Rather, God uses words to point to or describe spiritual realities in the hope that hungry hearts will turn to experience their Author.
Imagine that somebody handed you a box with the word “disgusting” written on top. That wouldn’t be too bad. It’s just the word “disgusting” on a box. There is nothing terribly disgusting about the word “disgusting.” There is nothing disgusting about the box. And considering that one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure, you begin to wonder if there might actually be something valuable inside. As long as “disgusting” is just a word on a box, your imagination gets to define the contents. It could be anything at all, until you experience it. So you stare at the box until curiosity gets the best of you, and then finally decide that you have to have a look inside. As you tear into the box you uncover a bucket of the most revolting substance you have ever encountered. It is vile beyond description and offensive to all of your senses. You gag, throw the box as far as you can, and run the opposite direction. Now the contents have defined this word. Experiencing what was behind the word has cast down your imaginations and replaced them with an experience of the truth. And the next time you encounter a similar box, the word disgusting will be far more than a word to you. This word has now been defined and filled with meaning because of your encounter with the substance behind it.
All words are like this, and the words of Scripture even more so. The Bible is a collection of packages that cannot be truly known until you are confronted with their contents. Suppose now that somebody hands you a package with the word “repentance” written on it. That’s a scary word! Or maybe it’s an exciting word. Or maybe it’s a boring word, and you set the box aside feeling confident that you already know exactly what’s inside. As long as “repentance” remains a word on a box, it can be whatever you want. And until you see the reality behind the word, it will be defined by your own natural understanding, experience, and imagination.
Our relationship is not with true words, but with the Lord who is described by them. And though we perhaps don’t realize it, the natural man much prefers relating to God in the security of words and concepts. Words can be learned with the mind, defined, and manipulated, so that learning Christ, like learning other things, feels systematic, safe, and under our control. In this way we get to decide what it is that we believe, what it means, and how it applies or doesn’t apply to our lives. We decide which Christian books are interesting, which denomination best fits our personality, and which theological camp best corresponds to our views. As long as the words of Scripture are largely unopened packages, we will inadvertently interpret and use them in ways that align with our interests, our felt needs, and our self-centered goals. In this way we can be “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the Truth.” (2 Tim 3:7)
The danger with words is that we can amass an enormous collection of familiar packages, and yet unknowingly forbid the Lord to open a single one. For the Christian, the issue is not usually whether we believe in the divine inspiration and authority of the written words of God. Nearly all Christians hold Scripture in high regard. The real issue is always the willingness of our heart to see the One of whom these words speak. Will we allow the Lord to open up these packages and show us what’s inside? Believers are quick to say yes, but curiosity is not the same as a real willingness to know. Asking questions is not the same as seeking truth. Truth comes at a cost. Knowing the truth will always cost us our safe definitions and favorite imaginations. Very rarely do we realize how much we cherish our own ideas and cling to them in our heart. In my case, I spent years diligently seeking and pursuing God before I realized that I was inwardly resisting the very thing I was begging God to teach me.
Often the most helpful and important piece of advice that I have to offer is the simple admonition that we do not know what we think we know. Paul says, “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.” (1 Cor 8:2) This realization must become the continuous posture of our heart. Although we grow in the Lord, we must never cease approaching Him with a childlike heart that is deeply aware of its need for God to open all of our boxes. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The sad alternative is often a lifetime of busy religion that amounts to little more than vain imaginations built upon empty words.
Long before there were words in the Bible that described Jesus Christ, there was the eternal reality of God the Word. The apostle John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Christians generally understand that the Word mentioned here is a reference to the pre-incarnate Son of God, but we often fail to ask why He is given this name. I mentioned how human words are what we use to convey and communicate who we are and what we know. Despite their limitations, our words reveal and present to others the things that are very real within us. I believe this is precisely the sense in which Jesus Christ is the living Word of God. He is, in His very being, what is real and true of God, and what God desires to make known to us. Christ the Word is “the radiance of God’s glory and the express image of His person.” (Heb 1:3) He represents all that God is, and all that He knows, wants, understands, and loves. He is the living manifestation of God in bodily form. To see Him is to see the Father; to receive the Word is to receive the One who sends Him. He is called the wisdom of God, the truth of God, the love of God, the righteousness of God, and God is using this perfect Word to communicate Himself to the human soul. “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18) God unveils and communicates Himself to the human heart through this one perfect Word. When the Father reveals and forms His Son in us, He is “saying” all that there is to say.
In this way, Jesus Christ is the sum total of all spiritual words. That is to say, He is the perfect meaning, the living and defining reality behind every word that God has spoken. He is the substance inside of every package. In Revelation, the angel tells John that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Rev 19:10) All prophetic utterances in the Old Testament came out from Him, and in one way or another, all pointed back to Him as well. Peter says that the Spirit of Christ was in the prophets “testifying beforehand of the sufferings of the Christ and the glories that would follow.” (1 Pet. 1:11) On more than one occasion, Jesus told the Jews that the Law, Psalms, and Prophets all bore witness of Him. (John 5:39, Luke 24:27) Obviously these spoken and written words could never truly define or contain Him, but with them God opened many windows and put His eternal Son on display.
I emphasize these things because for years I was unknowingly just like the Pharisees, diligently studying the Scriptures and thinking that “in them was eternal life.” I may not have stated it quite like that, but I assumed that by studying and learning the Bible I would naturally come to know the Lord. Let me be very clear that I believe the Bible to be the God-given, Spirit-inspired words of God. All 66 books are a gift to us from the Lord, and at no point, and in no way, should we stray from what God has revealed in Scripture. However, having understood that, we must also understand that the words of the Bible cannot truly define or explain Jesus Christ. Rather, Christ Himself is the one who gives true definition and meaning to all biblical words. The distinction here is critical. Righteousness, for example, is not a thing in itself. It is not a concept, a behavior, or a moral standard to which Jesus always adheres. Righteousness is defined by a Person; it is the nature of Christ Himself, a nature which He desires to give and form in every member of His body. In the same way, love is not just an emotion or an action that characterizes or describes God. “God IS love,” and only in Him and as Him can love truly be made known. Truth is not simply correct doctrines, creeds, or theologies. Truth is the Person who is described by these things. Jesus said plainly, “I am the Truth.” The reason this is so important is because God does not want us to just read the Bible and walk away with right definitions and accurate spiritual concepts. He is not primarily interested in correcting our theology. God’s desire is that, while reading His words, our hearts will turn to see and experience the Person and power of His Word. There is a living Person who fills every spiritual word with its true meaning and reality. God gives us His words in the form of the Bible, but then desires to open every package and show us Who is inside. Paul says something very similar to this in 1 Corinthians chapter two.
For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. (1 Cor 2:13-15)
Paul explains that to truly know another person one would have to participate in, or somehow partake of what is inside of them, their spirit or inner man. With natural relationships in physical bodies this is only somewhat possible. We can never fully see, feel or know the inner life of another human. When we hear somebody’s words, we often have no idea what is really behind them. But this should not be the case in a Christian’s relationship with God. The Lord has granted us access to the deep things of God by giving us a measure of His Spirit. We not only have His words, but we also have a gift of His Spirit, His “implanted Word,” and by this gift God desires both to teach us and to conform us to His image.