God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
It didn’t make any sense. I read the line again, more slowly this time: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” I understood each of the words in the sentence, but I couldn’t grasp what they meant together. “What does it mean to be satisfied in God?” “How does my satisfaction relate to God’s glory?” These ideas were so foreign to me it was as though the line were written in Arabic or Icelandic.
This single sentence provoked me to wrestle with God’s glory and my joy, and how the two relate. I was confronted, for the first time, with the idea that God cared about my joy. And not only did he care, but he was seeking to advance, maximize, and stir up my delight in him. As I reflected on this possibility, I found it again and again through the Bible — because it had always been there. Soon, the sentence radically reoriented my life from top to bottom.
Do’s and Don’ts
Over twenty years ago, I had just arrived as a freshman at college, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was five hundred miles from home and eager to begin exercising my adult independence. Having grown up in a faithful Christian home and a mostly Bible-preaching church, I had boiled Christianity down to what I thought were its essentials (at least according to 17-year-old me): duty and rules. I knew I was supposed to obey God’s commands, and I knew I was not to embrace immorality.
I had been taught much more, of course, but my teenage mind focused on the rules and prohibitions. Go to church. Pray. Read the Bible. Don’t have premarital sex. Don’t drink, smoke, or take drugs. Don’t dishonor God — glorify him. But glorifying God was all duty and no delight, like doing chores or homework. It was commanded (1 Corinthians 10:31) — and burdensome.
But during this first year in college, at a Christian fellowship, a small-group leader handed me a copy of Desiring God by John Piper. I hadn’t read many Christian books up to this point. I started it, but the first chapter confused me to no end. The author kept speaking about joy and delight in God. I had never considered that my happiness mattered to God, much less that it was commanded. I didn’t grow up with these as categories.
Could Jesus Make Me Happy?
Sure, we talked about obeying God — not breaking his commands and honoring him with our actions. But we didn’t talk about rejoicing in God or delighting in God. We talked about duty. We talked about picking up your cross and following Jesus down a road of suffering and pain. We talked about denying yourself, putting off the deeds of the flesh, and fighting the fight of faith. We talked much about labor, and little about grace. We quoted, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” but didn’t finish the sentence: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).
So, the sentence “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” was like showing me a five-legged dog or dry water. It didn’t exist in my universe. Christianity is true; therefore I obey. It didn’t matter if I was happy or miserable in that obedience.
Culturally, this approach made a lot of sense. Good grades, hard work, willpower, discipline, and perseverance were drilled into me from a young age. In my cultural milieu, if you got an A-minus on a test, you worked harder next time to get an A or A-plus. I was taught to put in as much time and energy as was needed to accomplish the task. It didn’t matter if I liked it or not. If it was assigned, I needed to do it well.
Yet this mindset was crippling as it bled into my relationship with Jesus, which became mainly transactional. I would read the Bible, hoping for God’s blessing. I’d avoid sin so that I wouldn’t be punished. And when I did sin, my world would come crumbling down around me. How could God possibly love me, much less accept me or forgive me, if I was a wanton sinner?
Treasure Hidden in a Field
This perspective, however, minimized the gospel of the grace of God. It lacked a compelling motivation for my obedience. It lacked substance. Slowly, I began to see that God gives us joy in obeying him, he gives us delight in worship, and he satisfies us with his steadfast love and mercy. My joy is not inconsequential, but rather essential for a life that pleases and glorifies God. Therefore, it’s not just okay to seek joy in God; it’s essential that we find our soul’s satisfaction in Jesus. Or to put it another way, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” And so, we fight for joy in Jesus.
“God gives us joy in obedience, he gives us delight in worship, and he satisfies us with his steadfast love and mercy.”
This idea began to leap off the pages of the Bible. The Psalm 1 man is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2). The commands of the Lord are not burdensome, but life giving (1 John 5:3). God is the one who makes known to us the path of life; in his presence we experience fullness of joy, and at his right hand we get pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man discovers and then sells all that he owns in order to obtain it (Matthew 13:44).
And the fact we are commanded to glorify God doesn’t diminish the reward of it. To say, “Your job is to glorify God” is like telling a newlywed husband or wife, “Your job is to delight yourself in your spouse.” It’s like arriving at a long-awaited vacation and being told, “Your job is to relax and enjoy yourself.” The command to glorify God is a command to delight yourself in him, and the command to delight yourself in him is a command to glorify him. Hand-in-hand, one completes the other.
No Better Place to Be
The sentence summary of Christian Hedonism went from incomprehensible to understandable, and then from understandable to wonderful. My life has never been the same.
“There is no better place to be than following Jesus, obeying God’s commands, and experiencing his smile.”
When preaching the Scriptures now as a pastor, my goal is not to demand obedience for the sake of obedience. I don’t guilt or shame our people into following and sacrificing for Jesus. We don’t send missionaries into the hardest places of the world with threats. Rather, we entice people with the superior pleasures of following Jesus. There is no better place to be than following Jesus, obeying God’s commands, and experiencing his smile.
Jesus is better. Knowing, loving, and being loved by Jesus is better than the lesser pleasures of entertainment. He’s better than scrolling endlessly through the swamp of social media. Joy in Jesus is better than illicit pleasures, chemically induced highs, and the riches that our world holds out on a platter of death. Obedience to Jesus, participation in his church, and identification with his body is better than the temporary accolades and acceptance of those around us. Lesser pleasures fade in comparison to the growing and greater pleasure of being satisfied in God. And wonder of wonders, that pleasure glorifies God.
When we come to Jesus, we receive everlasting joy that is rooted in a hope that never disappoints. We are promised an eternal hope, a forever home, an incorruptible kingdom, a superior pleasure, and an everlasting joy. This is the reality of following Jesus. Comprehend the incomprehensibly glorious truth that we have been created and designed to find our ultimate joy and satisfaction in Jesus. And as we delight ourselves in him, God is rightly glorified, honored, and praised.
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By Jon Bloom — 2 months ago
A few months back, considering the heightened level of contention among some American Christians in recent years, I stumbled upon this golden nugget of pastoral wisdom from Richard Sibbes, the English Puritan pastor from four hundred years ago:
It were a good strife amongst Christians, one to labor to give no offense, and the other to labor to take none. The best men are severe to themselves, tender over others. (The Bruised Reed, 47)
Sibbes was exhorting his Christian brothers and sisters during a terribly contentious historical moment, when professing Christians in England were saying and doing appalling things to one another. And it seems to me that we would be wise to heed Sibbes’s counsel, and do our part to contribute to the collective public reputation Jesus desires for us: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
We all know from Scripture, however, that there are times when faithful love requires us to speak hard, even sharp, wounding words (Proverbs 27:6). And we all know that those on the receiving end of our hard, wounding words may, and often do, find them offensive. So, if we embrace Sibbes’s biblical principle that, when possible, we all, for the sake of love, should labor to give and take no offense, what principle should guide us for the (hopefully) rare exceptions when we must, for the sake of love, risk offending someone with our words?
“There are times when faithful love requires us to speak hard, even sharp, wounding words to someone.”
Well, not surprisingly, Sibbes has something very helpful to say about this as well. But first, I need to provide the biblical context from which Sibbes draws his principle.
Jesus on the Offensive
It was during the last week of Jesus’s earthly life, just days before his crucifixion. There had been numerous tense verbal exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders, as the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees all tried to get Jesus to incriminate himself with his words — and all failed. So, they gave up that strategy (Matthew 22:46).
And then Jesus laid into them, delivering seven prophetic, scathing “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees, requiring 36 of 39 verses in Matthew 23 to record. Here are a few choice excerpts:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. (Matthew 23:13)
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15)
You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:24)
You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27)
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:33)
This is Jesus at his most offensive — at least we would have thought so, had we been scribes or Pharisees back then.
But this raises an important question: Just because most of the scribes and Pharisees would have taken offense at Jesus’s words, does that mean he was truly being offensive? The distinction may seem small, but answering the question illuminates when our own love requires hard words — and what our aim in those hard words should be.
To answer, we need to briefly look at how the New Testament defines an offense. (Then I promise I’ll share that other gold nugget from Sibbes.)
Let’s start by tackling one of the most straightforward statements on offense in the New Testament: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32). Just on the face of this phrase, it looks like Jesus broke a Spirit-inspired command. But these few words don’t tell the whole story. We need to examine their context to understand what Paul specifically means when he says to “give no offense.”
He makes this statement after spending three chapters instructing the Corinthians to “take care” that they not exercise their Christian freedoms (like eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols) in a way that “somehow become[s] a stumbling block to the weak,” thereby destroying another’s faith (1 Corinthians 8:9). And then, as examples of forgoing personal freedoms for the sake of love, Paul describes three ways he and Barnabas had set aside their apostolic “rights”:
They were careful not to offend others by what they ate or drank (1 Corinthians 9:4).
They refrained from getting married so as to maintain undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:35; 9:5).
They made no demands on the Corinthian church to provide them financial and material ministry support, even though they had brought the gospel to the Corinthians at great cost to themselves (1 Corinthians 9:6–12).
And why did they deny themselves in these ways? Because, Paul says, “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12).
And right there we see what Paul means by an offense to Jews, Gentiles, and Christians: anything that is an obstacle to faith in Jesus. At one place, he even says, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). The Greek word Paul uses here for stumble (skandalizō) is the same word Jesus uses when he warns us not to cause “little ones who believe in [him] to sin,” and to cut off our hand or foot or tear out our eye if it causes us to sin (Matthew 18:6–9).
These texts (and many more) capture what the New Testament considers a true offense: saying or doing anything that would prevent others from coming to faith in Christ or persevering in their faith.
Painful Application of a ‘Sweet Balm’
Now we can return to our question: Just because most of the scribes and Pharisees would have taken offense at Jesus’s words, does that mean he was truly being offensive — in the New Testament sense? Finally, it’s time to share that gold nugget from Richard Sibbes I promised:
We see that our Saviour multiplies woe upon woe when he has to deal with hard hearted hypocrites (Matthew 23:13), for hypocrites need stronger conviction than gross sinners, because their will is bad, and therefore usually their conversion is violent. A hard knot must have an answerable wedge, else, in a cruel pity, we betray their souls. A sharp reproof sometimes is a precious pearl and a sweet balm. (The Bruised Reed, 49)
I love Sibbes’s take on Jesus’s scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees. He didn’t lose his temper with them and unleash his pent-up frustration with offensive language. He was taking the sharp wedge of a hard rebuke to the hard knots of their hearts.
If, like me, you’re an inexperienced woodsman, you may wonder what a wedge has to do with a knot. Sibbes was quoting an old proverb everyone probably knew back when felling trees was a normal part of life and a sharp wedge was needed to break through a hard timber knot.
“Jesus took the sharp wedge of his words to the knot of their unbelief. He applied a ‘sweet balm’ with painful reproof.”
The wedge wasn’t the real offense; the knots were the real offense. The scribes and Pharisees were putting obstacles in the way of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:12), obstacles that were preventing both them and others from entering the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13). It would have been a “cruel pity” for him to say nothing — or to say something soft. So Jesus took the sharp wedge of his words to the knot of their unbelief. Or to use another image from Sibbes, he applied a “sweet balm” with painful reproof. And we can see the heart behind this reproof in the tears of Jesus’s lament that appear in the last three verses of the chapter (Matthew 23:37–39).
Hard Kindness of Christian Love
If we embrace Sibbes’s biblical principle that, when possible, we all, for the sake of love, should labor to give and take no offense, what principle can we distill from Sibbes’s counsel above that can guide us when we encounter the (hopefully) rare exceptions when we must, for the sake of love, risk offending someone with some hard words?
Give no offense to anyone (1 Corinthians 10:32), unless it would be a greater kindness (1 Corinthians 13:4) to bring a hard word and an act of cruelty to withhold it.
This is why Nathan risked offending King David (2 Samuel 12); it’s why Paul risked offending Peter (Galatians 2:11–14); it’s why Jesus risked offending the scribes and Pharisees; and it’s why we are sometimes called to risk offending someone with a painful rebuke. In these cases, if our motive is love and our goal is to remove a stumbling block from someone’s path of faith, our hard words are not truly offensive. They are acts of love, the “faithful . . . wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). If our hearers find them to be “a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8), it may be due to the hard knots of unbelief in their hearts, rather than the sharp wedge of our words.
By Ray Ortlund — 5 months ago
There are two opposite ways to change the world: our way versus the Jesus way. Our way is to get pushy, even violent. The Jesus way is to get humble, even overlooked. Both the extreme political left and the extreme political right in our nation today too often choose the foolish way. And any politics, without the beautiful humanity of the Jesus way, ends up making life worse for everyone.
Advent is a good time for all of us, whatever our politics, to slow down and stare at Jesus for a while. Doing so can only make life better for us and for everyone.
Change Through Swagger
The prophet Isaiah foresaw the only one who can change the world for the better — permanently. One of Isaiah’s favorite ways of describing Jesus was as “the servant of the Lord.” But right before Isaiah introduces him in chapter 42, he shows us another world leader in chapter 41. In the words of God himself:
I stirred up one from the north, and he has come. . . . He shall trample on rulers as on mortar, as the potter treads clay. (Isaiah 41:25)
“Advent is a good time for all of us, whatever our politics, to slow down and stare at Jesus for a while.”
God is claiming sovereignty over Cyrus the Great, the Persian warlord whose armies swept victoriously over the ancient world five centuries before Christ. Cyrus was one of this world’s typically successful tough guys. He stepped on people to get ahead (Isaiah 41:2).
And brutality is one way to change the world, I suppose. But does it work, really? One political overreach only sets in motion a pendulum swing in sharp reaction, back and forth, on and on. That’s our way.
Change Through Humility
Thanks be to God, the bullying and brutality all across the sad length of human history — our defunct strategies — are not our only hope. There is also the Jesus way of changing the world. Isaiah introduces this humble servant with words from God himself:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah 42:1–4)
The key word is justice. We see it three times. Isaiah’s Hebrew is not easy to translate. The English word justice is accurate, but the Hebrew suggests more than legal correctness.
This word is used, for example, in the book of Exodus for the plan of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:30). God gave Moses a kind of blueprint for building the tabernacle, and it came out just right. That’s the word Isaiah uses. It tells us that God has a plan, a blueprint, for truly human existence. But we can’t achieve it by fighting to get our own way. “He will bring forth justice” the Jesus way — by serving us, as an egoless nobody.
He Heals the Bruised
He was not Jesus the Great, to outmatch Cyrus the Great. He came to us as the Lord’s servant, with spiritual power not of this world. Two thousand years ago, with no fanfare, no hoopla, Jesus began a change that will not stop until all his people are healed (Matthew 12:15–21).
A world conqueror with no threats, no saber-rattling, no big-deal-ness? Jesus lived so modestly that no one paid him much attention until he started performing miracles. Even then, his miracles were always to help someone else, never himself.
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” is a roundabout way of saying he will heal that bruised reed and will rekindle that faintly burning wick. Jesus restores broken people. He isn’t recruiting the heavy-hitters. He wants wounded people, exhausted people, people with doubts, people with weaknesses, injured by their own sins and by the sins of others. Those are the people he brings into his kingdom and serves.
Jesus is the only world leader who can say to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
He Never Grows Weary
But can Jesus handle all this human need we bring to him? What about all my need, plus yours? Does he care enough and love enough and forgive enough, to make everything right again for everyone who comes to him? Look again:
He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth, and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah 42:4)
“Today, the risen Jesus is caring for our needs, and he is not overwhelmed.”
He is gentle, but not weak like us. We start projects with high hopes. Later, we quit. But at his cross, the servant of the Lord took all our failures to himself as if they were his own. Today, the risen Jesus is caring for our needs, and he is not overwhelmed. He doesn’t need to get away from it all for a few days. Right now, as you’re reading this, Jesus is not tired, and he is not tired of you.
The Jesus Way to Change
A new world of perfect justice, created the Jesus way, is not an ideal we must attain. It is a promise of God that he will fulfill.
Even “the coastlands,” Isaiah says, will wait eagerly for his new way of life. And the coastlands were the most remote areas Isaiah could think of. The complete triumph of the gospel is not a hot trend to hit the big cities but leave out the boondocks. There’s just no pride in Jesus at all. His heart is moved for you, wherever you are.
This world will never change by our tribe, whoever that might be, finally winning so big that the victory can’t be reversed. Our tragic world has already begun to change for the better — the Jesus way. Here we find the delight of God, the Holy Spirit, humble modesty, gentle healing, faithful resilience — all of this in Jesus Christ crucified, risen, reigning, and returning.
Advent reminds us not to stake our hopes for the future on worldly strategies. Let’s dare to follow the Jesus way. It’s how his new world appears even now.
By John Piper — 2 months ago
The following is a lightly edited transcript.
We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:5–8)
I want to add to that list, “the one who reads with . . .” What would you put there? The reason I feel okay suggesting that Paul could continue that way is because those last several gifts are not gifts that are unique to any Christian. Every Christian is supposed to be merciful:
Be merciful, as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:36)
That’s spoken to all Christians, and here in this passage it says, “those of you who show mercy as your gift, do it with cheerfulness.” Or what about giving? It says to do that with generosity. Every one of you men should be a giver, financially and in other ways. That’s not a unique gift. So if Paul can take contributing and say, “do that with generosity,” and to the one who shows mercy, “do that with cheerfulness,” then he can say something to the one who reads as well, because everybody’s supposed to be a reader, if you’ve been given the opportunity to learn how to read in this world. There are cultures that haven’t had that opportunity yet.
What would you fill in the blank with? The reason this feels so relevant to me, and the reason I’m starting this way, is because if there are merciful people (which all Christians are supposed to be), and Paul feels legitimate in calling out mercy as something you might be especially gifted at, that means that ordinary Christian duties and acts can be expressed in peculiarly, individually anointed ways, just like reading. So I paused and I thought about that for myself, thinking, “What about me?”
I’m going to tell you my story, because if you know me at all, you know me as a preacher and a writer. Maybe you know me as a family guy, for those of you who know me personally enough to be on the staff with me and so on for 33 years here. But you don’t know how I got to all those places and what limitations and giftings prescribed those paths. You’re all led by limits that you have — things you’re not good at — and a few things that you are more or less good at, and that’s why you do what you do.
So for me to fill in the blank, I would put it this way: In your mercy, be cheerful; in your contributing, be generous; and in your reading, be what? What’s your blank? You could fill in that phrase with “in your reading, be speedy,” or you could say, “in your reading, be really good at comprehension, memorization, and remembering,” or it could be “ in your reading, be especially adept at relating what you read to other Scriptures,” or, “in your reading, be especially adept at explaining to other people,” or, “in your reading, be especially adept at applying it to your friends.” The list could go on and on.
You may be more or less good at some aspects of reading and not so good at other aspects of reading. How would that affect your life? How would that affect your vocation or your fathering?
My Struggle to Speak
I grew up in a Christian home, and my dad was an evangelist. My mom and dad are both in heaven, I believe, right now. And I’ve always described my childhood as the happiest home I could have ever imagined. My mom and dad would sing. They’d sing in the front seat of the car while my sister and I sat in the back seat on the way to Daytona Beach, Florida, to do some deep sea fishing. Those are great memories of my life. And they would sing things like “Heavenly Sunlight.” That’s an old spiritual song from the 1950s.
I had a great home, but somewhere around the seventh grade something happened, and I discovered I could not speak in front of a group. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t like when a person has butterflies, or their knees knock, or their hands tremble. I shut down. It was absolutely humiliating from seventh grade until I was about twenty. It was horrible. I would not want to live my teenage years over again. I do not look back on my teenage years as happy years. I had acne, and that was probably owing to how anxious I was.
I didn’t accept any office proposals in school, even though academically I did okay in high school. If they nominated me for vice president or president I would say, “No way; you have to give speeches. I can’t give any speeches.” I couldn’t do a report in a biology class for 30 seconds in order to say what I was supposed to be doing with my science project. I couldn’t do any of it. I took a C in Civics because I was supposed to give an oral book report. I said to Mr. Vermilion, “I can’t give an oral book report.” And he said, “Well, if you don’t give an oral book report, you’re going to get a C.” I said, “That’s fine, I’ll get a C. I just cannot do it.”
My Struggle to Read
Accompanying that, and maybe related to it, was the fact that I couldn’t read fast, and therefore I disliked any kind of test that involved reading. There were these horrible tests you had to take for standardized stuff to get into college, where you would read a paragraph and then they would ask you ten questions about it. I couldn’t remember what was there, and if I were to go back and reread it to find out what the answer was, it would keep me from finishing on time. Inside I would just be churning with anxiety about tests like that because I couldn’t read. To this day, I cannot read faster than I can talk.
Since then I’ve talked to some specialists and I’ve taken all kinds of courses. I’ve had examinations done. Andy Naselli’s wife told me the other day, “I think, Pastor John, you have dyslexia.” I said, “Well, I don’t transpose things too often. When I write down phone numbers, I do sometimes switch things around.” She said, “Oh no, that’s not the only mark of dyslexia. All kinds of things that are going on with your brain.”
That’s like one of my sons, so I passed some of this on to one of them. I can remember my son was ready to drop out of high school a week before he graduated from Roosevelt High, and I said, “Why?” He said, “I can’t do what she wants me to do.” And the teacher said, “If you don’t do this, you’re going to fail this class.” What she wanted him to do was listen to her in class and write down the main points and hand that in at the end of the class. That’s all he had to do to pass the class. But he said, “I can’t do that. I could tell her verbatim what she said when she’s done, but I cannot write and listen at the same time.” Those are the peculiar things that you can pass on to your kids.
So anyway, the point of all that was that I came to college as a very slow reader with a poor memory — the very two things that are necessary to be academically successful, at least in my mind. And I was also not able to speak.
Let the One Who Reads
I fell in love with reading in the 11th grade, but it didn’t change the speed of my reading. I just wanted to read fiction, so I became a literature major in college, which is crazy.
I avoided every single class on novels and took every class on poetry. Do you know why? Novels are long, and they wanted me to read six novels in a class, but I couldn’t read one novel in a class, let alone six. Whereas with poetry you take a poem that’s very short and analyze it and write a paper about it. I could do that. That’s why today I’m a preacher and not an academician. I tried teaching at Bethel for six years. I was a competent teacher, but as I looked around at my colleagues and what’s expected of an academician — namely to read everything, remember everything, and write books about everything — I said, “I’ll never be able to do that.”
Do you know what preachers do? In season and out of season they remember Bible verses. On Sunday they have a paragraph, and they understand it, love it, and tell people what they see in it. I thought, “I could do that!” And I did it for 33 years, and people thought I was good at it. I became a pastor in large measure because I can’t read fast, and I can’t remember much of what I read, but oh, can I analyze a paragraph. If you give me enough time, I can analyze a lot of them and write books like that. I mean, when you write a book it looks to people like, “Whoa, to write a book like that you must read everything!” No, the reason I write books like that is because I don’t read everything.
So as I finish my phrase here — “let the one who reads . . .” — I do not say, “let the one who reads be a speed reader, or, “let the one who reads be one who remembers everything he reads.” I don’t and I can’t. But I will say, “let the one who reads read slowly and deeply, and with tears, and with longing to live it and speak it as he sees it. Then I talk.
“Let the one who reads read slowly and deeply, and with tears, and with longing to live it and speak it as he sees it.”
And I would just say to you brothers, as you finish that sentence, you fill it in for yourself. God made you the way you are. If you have a great memory, memorize books of the Bible. I work like crazy to memorize Scripture. I wake up every morning and before I get out of bed, I recite a chapter in Philippians until I’ve got the whole book, and I also quote a chapter in 1 Peter until I get the whole book. I know those two books by heart. I could recite both those books by heart right now. Do you know what that cost me over the last eight years? It was constant work. Those things would go out of my mind within a week if I wasn’t doing a chapter a day on Philippians and 1 Peter. So the fact that I have a lousy memory is no excuse for not memorizing Scripture.
The Place of the Bible in Daily Life
Here’s what I want to do the rest of the time. Given my limitations that I can’t read fast and can’t remember much of what I read without an enormous amount of labor to memorize, how do I read my Bible daily? How does the Bible function for me in my life daily? That’s what I want to talk about for the rest of our minutes together. I have it boiled down to something like the following categories: Reading and my life, reading and God, reading and the devil, reading and witness, reading and crisis, and reading and family. I have a little story to go with each of those regarding how reading relates to those things in my life.
Reading and My Life
The gist of it is this: I read my Bible every morning and pray for about an hour. I’ve done this as long as I can remember, and I say, brothers, it is my life. So I’m going to start with my life. When I say reading and life, this is what I mean. Here’s 1 Peter 1:23:
Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you.
Understand that. The statement “you have been born again” means you have been made alive from spiritual death by the living and abiding word of God. If any of you men are alive in Christ, you owe it to the word of God. That was 1 Peter, now here’s what James does with a similar thought. First he says:
Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth. . . . (James 1:18)
That means you were born again, brought to spiritual life, and made a believer by the word of truth. Then he continues:
Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)
What a strange phrase. He says, “receive the implanted word.” It’s already implanted in you. That’s what happened when you were born again; God planted his seed in you. His word has taken root in you. That’s why you’re a Christian. But now James says, “Receive it. That will be your life. Your life is given and your life is sustained by the power of the word at the beginning and the receiving of the word.” That’s been every morning for me for about 60 years, because I started when I was about 15. I have a Bible that my parents gave me when I was 15. I look at it and how it’s marked up in red. I have memories of lying in my single bed with the trolley cars on the wallpaper on the wall above me, reading my Bible late at night, desperate because I couldn’t speak.
That was a great gift to me by the way, that God shut me down socially and cut me off from all fast tracks, all party tracks, and all cool-guy tracks. I was just shut down into my little world of going hard after God when I was 15. So I’ve been reading my Bible every day since I was 15, and it has been my life.
That’s my first point — the Bible and life, or reading and life. It doesn’t matter whether you feel like it, though you want to feel like it. The idea is to enjoy it with all your heart, but you’re like farmers. Farmers cultivate the field because the crops won’t come. It doesn’t matter whether they’re weeping. You go forth weeping, sowing your seed, and you will come forth rejoicing. So weep on, reader; that’s not the criterion of whether you should read or not. Life comes through this word.
If you want to know how I do it, by the way, I use a Bible plan that’s called the Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan. It’s a plan where you read the whole Bible in a year with four chapters a day, roughly, and you’re in four different places of the Bible at the same time. You get five days off without reading at the end of every month. That’s the genius of the program because everybody gets behind and the reason people give up on reading the Bible in a year is because they’re behind by February and they feel like there’s no point to continuing. It helps if you start drifting. The devil is an expert at using drifters to do nothing. So what a wonderful thing this is. I’ve been using it for 30 years. It’s just gold. I can never find anything better.
Reading and God
Reading is not an end in itself; we want to know God and we want to trust Christ. We want to be filled and led by the Holy Spirit. The word is the key to all of those. So let me just say a word about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, and how reading relates. I just cannot overstate to you, men, what a precious thing it is to know with a few clear sentences, why you are alive and what you’re doing every morning and every night. In other words, why do you exist and why do you read your Bible?
God the Father
With regard to God the Father, it is for his glory:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
Now, wouldn’t that include reading your Bible? So I know the goal of my reading the Bible. I know it beyond a shadow of doubt. God is to be made to look glorious in my life because I read the Bible. That’s clear as daylight to me as I look at the whole range of Scripture. So every text I read, I know I’m reading it to the glory of God. I want God to look great because I’m reading this book. I want to know him as great, see him as great, savor him as great, and show him as great. That’s number one. I read the Bible for the glory of God the Father.
God the Son
What about the God the Son? I think of Romans 8:32, which is probably the most important verse in my theology:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
The logic is that if God didn’t spare Christ, but handed him over to torture and shame for sinners like me, would he then withhold any omnipotent effort to give me everything I need for his purposes? No, the logic would break down if he did. Christ would have died in vain if he did. Therefore, every good thing that you get from the Bible is blood bought. And that’s how Jesus relates to every text you read. Second Corinthians 1:20 says:
All the promises of God find their Yes in him.
So if you have him, if you are in him, if his blood is covering your sins, every page of this book is yours. The whole promise, the whole inheritance, and everything good that you could possibly get out of this book that’s really there is yours because of Jesus and God not sparing his own Son. If he didn’t spare his own Son, will he not with him freely give you all things that are in this book for your good and for your eternal welfare? Yes, he will. So the goal of all of all things is the glory of God, and the foundation of all things is the blood of Jesus, the Son of God.
God the Spirit
Third, let’s speak about the Holy Spirit. We have texts like, “be led by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:18), or, “bear the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22–23), or, “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), or, “put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit” (Romans 8:13). Everything we do is to be done in the power of the Holy Spirit, by relying on him. That’s true for the Bible.
The book you’ve got in your hand there, Reading the Bible Supernaturally, is my lifetime of effort to describe what’s that like — what is it like to read the Bible in reliance upon the Holy Spirit. There are 300 pages about that. And by the way, don’t feel intimidated, thinking, “Oh my goodness, he gave me this book. Now I have to read it.” You do not have to read it.
Here’s my suggestion. Most of you probably do not read 300-page books, but you read short things. A book like this doesn’t have to be read straight through. You can just flip through the table contents, and if you see a chapter that sticks out, just go there. It might help. So regarding God the Father, read to his glory. Regarding God the Son, every benefit that is promised in the Bible is yours on the basis of his blood. Regarding the Holy Spirit, he’s the one who illumines. He’s the one who opens the eyes of the heart. He’s the one who gives a spirit of wisdom and of revelation. Read in reliance upon his help.
Reading and the Devil
The devil is real brothers. I think the devil is on a leash, and God holds the leash. The devil may be the immediate cause of all kinds of horrors in the world, but God holding the leash could have jerked it at any time. Therefore, behind everything is God with his infinitely wise purposes.
When I think of the devil today, I think of the way we treat each other on the internet. I think of the kind of tensions that are seething in the church right now between maskers and non-maskers and between Trumpers and non-Trumpers. The kind of stuff that we’re feeling in our hearts towards each other is demonic. It really is demonic. And therefore, I hate the devil and I want the devil to be defeated. I want you men to be good warriors against the devil. I want to read a verse to you and then tell you a story. This is 1 John 2:14. It says:
I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
“There’s a connection between the word of God abiding in you and you overcoming the evil one.”
There’s a connection between the word of God abiding in you and you overcoming the evil one. Jesus was perfect, and when he was tempted by the devil, what did he do? He quoted the Bible, of all things. He’s the one who wrote the Bible; he didn’t need to quote the Bible. All he needed to do was say what he said later — “Get out of here. Go to the pigs. Go to hell. You’re done. I’m God, and you don’t own anything. You don’t rule anything. I’m Jesus, the Son of God.” Instead of that, he quoted Scripture and dispensed the devil in that way. You can do that too, and that’s what they were doing in 1 John 2:14.
The Sword of the Spirit
My first year here in Minneapolis was 1980, and I was living over at 1604 Elliot with Tom Stellar. He was my associate for 33 years. Tom just switched from being a pastor at Bethlehem to be a missionary. That’s a glorious way to live. I love it. Tom and I were living together, and he was the associate here for students and I was a brand new pastor in 1980. We got a call from some college students at Bethel at about 10:00 p.m. at night, saying, “There’s a woman in this apartment that’s demon-possessed, and we want you to come and cast a demon out.” That’s in the Bible; it’s just not in my experience.
What would you guys do if somebody called you up and said, “There’s a demon-possessed woman in the apartment here. We’re not letting her out. You come. We’ll keep her here”? I called Tom, because you’re supposed to go out two by two. We got in the car and headed for that apartment and were praying, “God we’ve never ever been asked to do anything like this in our life. This is a frontline missionary story. This is not normal for pastors in Minneapolis.” We got there and went in, and then there was this girl named Midge, which I came to find out later, and she looked like a maniac. She had a pen knife, one of these little things that have a short blade, and she was going around pointing it at people, but she didn’t stick anybody. I kept my winter coat on thinking, “Okay, it won’t go all the way in if I keep my coat on.”
Now, what would you do in that situation? You quote the Bible. You start telling Bible stories. You recite Romans eight. You call up anything God gives you. You need Christ and you need the Holy Spirit at that moment, and you say, “God, help me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. I know what I’m saying right now that the word of God gave Jesus power over the devil. So may you grant us your word now to speak in a prophetic way that would deliver her, because they say she’s even possessed. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the way she always is. She just looks horrible. She sounds horrible.” So that’s what we did.
She collapsed on the floor and the students, there were about six of them, men and women, began to sing over her choruses of hallelujah, and then — I would call this prophetic — they put words besides hallelujah too, like, “Jesus is powerful.” I forget what words they used, but just words that came to mind about Jesus, they sang over her. We sang over her. She went absolutely berserk, screamed at the top of her lungs for Satan not to leave her, and then, bang, just went as unconscious as she could be as far as I could tell. And I thought, “Oh my goodness, she’s dead or something.” I didn’t know what was going on. We stopped and waited, and she came around and, brothers, her face was totally different. When she opened her mouth, it was a different voice. And I said, “Midge…” and I handed her my Bible, which she had knocked out of my hand two or three times before, and I said, “I want you to read Romans 8 to us.” And she did.
She was in church the next Sunday on the second row, which scared me to death. I thought she was going to stand up and do something horrible in church. I remember visiting her in the hospital because she broke her leg playing soccer, and she told me horrible stories while I was visiting in the hospital about Satanic worship she was involved in when she lived in Arizona. Brothers, I don’t know what your challenge might be. Sometimes the devil is subtle and sometimes the devil is blatant. Right now you’re all dealing with the subtleties of Satan. That’s what he specializes in within the Western world. He thinks all of us scientific people don’t believe he exists, so he’ll keep that cover and not show his hand too much with exorcism or demonic possession like he does in so many other places.
But it’s here, and witchcraft is here, and all kinds of demonic involvement are here in the Twin Cities, and you guys are going to hit it. It will be there either in subtle ways or in manifest ways. I just tell you, the word of God is powerful. It is powerful. You do not have to be an expert at this, but you do need to be in the word. You do not want to walk out without your sword any morning.
Reading and Witness
On November 5th, Noël had a car wreck. I loved our yellow Toyota; everybody loves our yellow Toyota. People would say, “There comes the pastor in his yellow Toyota,” and she totaled it. Now, it wasn’t her fault at all. The other guy ran the red light, and she’s fine. State Farm gave us $6,000 for that Toyota. We had to have another car because we only have one car. We’ve always only had one car because we live so close. I even walked over this morning.
David Livingston said to me, “Go to Oleg down in Farmington. He rebuilds wrecked cars. Jason Meyer is driving one of his cars, Chuck Steddom is driving one of his cars, and I’m driving one of his cars. So go get a car from Oleg.” So I called Oleg and said, “Hey, Pastor John here.” He thought I was joking and said, “Yeah right, blah, blah, blah.” Then he said, “You mean the Pastor John?” And I said, “Yes, yes, Oleg. Come on. I need a car. I really drive cars. I don’t fly.”
So we drove down there, and what does Oleg do? He was a half an hour late. I said, “We’ll meet you at 12:30 p.m.,” and he was a half an hour late. When he showed up, he said, “I had to go get Andy because Andy called me this morning right after you called and said he wanted to talk about Jesus. He doesn’t know Jesus, and I’ve tried to witness to him. I told him there’s a Jesus guy coming to buy a car, so I’m going to come get you and you’re going to talk to him.” So I was there to buy a car, and he introduced me to Andy Standal — I’m saying the name so you can pray for him — and he took us up to the lunchroom nook in his shop and sat us down and walked away and said, “Tell him about Jesus, Pastor John.” Would you be ready for that? Would you be ready?
You will be if you read your Bible every morning and come away from your Bible with one sentence that you love. Now, that’s getting at my point about the fact that I don’t remember much. There is no way I can remember the four chapters that I read in the morning. I read them and sometimes a half an hour later, I can’t remember even where I was reading. I have to work to make sure something lodges in my mind, so I take a sentence and I chew on it, savor it, love it, and I trust it. Sometimes I write it on a piece of paper and stick it in my pocket if I think I’m not going to be able to remember it, and I eat it all day long. I eat that one sentence all day long, because I can remember a sentence. I can’t remember a chapter, let alone four.
So what did I do with Andy? I just took the lozenge out of my mouth, and the lozenge that morning was John 6:35, as I recall, and it says:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
I talked to Andy for 20 minutes about what it means to be hungry for Jesus and to drink the water of Jesus. God brought words to my mind. He just brought words. Andy was spellbound. I mean, he just sat there. He’s just a mechanic and he helps Oleg, so he probably doesn’t have a college education and is just a real ordinary, normal guy. Here I am with a PhD, and that doesn’t mean anything there. Only one thing does me any good there: Will the Holy Spirit show up, reach in my brain and pull out a verse or two, and help me to say, “This is beautiful, Andy. This is my life, Andy. This is free and you can have this living water.”
He didn’t make any decision there. In fact, I didn’t push for any decision. I hardly ever do that because I want them to know it comes down to them and God in reality, not me putting artificial words in their mouths. And I said, “Now, do you have a Bible?” And he said, “Oh, I’ve got an old King James.” I said, “Okay, you need a newer Bible. I’ll send you one.” So I sent him one. I paid 34 bucks on Amazon and mailed him an ESV Study Bible. He’s probably never seen one of those in his life. It’s huge, and he probably just felt totally intimidated by it. I also sent him a copy of Don’t Waste Your Life and a copy of my Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ. Those are my two go-to books for unbelievers that I would give to people. So pray for Andy Standal.
My point here is that today, before this day is over right now, God’s going to give you something like that. He’s going to put right in your path, something wonderful. My first reaction to Oleg was, “I came to buy a car. What are you doing? You can talk to this guy about Jesus. Why are you treating me like some kind of priest?” And that after that self-defensive, fearful attitude got crucified, I was thrilled to be able to do that. It was a gift. I came to the end of the day saying, “Jesus, what a gift you gave me to be able to talk to that guy.”
Reading and Crisis
I just have one quick story for this. Does anybody here remember the name Roland Erickson? You’re all too young. Roland was the main man at Bethlehem when I came in 1980. He was just a statesman of a Christian, and loved Jesus with all of his heart.
In my first year here I was as green as you could be. I had never done a funeral. I had never visited the hospital. I was so unbelievably green at age 34. I had just done academia for all those years, and I got a phone call that Roland’s wife had a heart attack. She was at North Memorial Hospital, and I was thinking, “Oh boy, I’m going to get there before the ambulance does. I’m going to be a good pastor.” So I jumped in my car and headed to North Memorial. And when I got out there, she was in surgery and the family, probably a dozen of them, was in the waiting room. I walked in and Roland gave me a big hug, and do you know what he said? He said, “Give us a word, pastor. Give us a word.”
I couldn’t think of anything. This was before I had formed some of my crisp habits of getting a sentence every morning from the four chapters I read. I used to think just reading it was good enough to let it have its general impact. I think I said something to him like, “Let me pray for you,” and I prayed something and he was very gracious. I went home as a humiliated, defeated young pastor, not knowing what I needed to do. So I got down on my knees and said to the Lord, “That will never happen again. I’m sorry.” And then I memorized Psalm 46, which says:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth.He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
I just memorized it cold. That was in 1982, and I’ve never stopped using it. It’s always there. I will never be caught flat footed again like that in your cause, Lord Jesus, if somebody looks at me and says, “Give us a word,” in the midst of crisis. Psalm 46 is coming out if nothing’s there from the front burner in the morning. But let me tell you what this morning was, because you might want to know, “Do you still do that?” Absolutely I do. This morning was a little crowded just because I’m fitting in a three-mile run before this, I’m eating breakfast, I’m having devotions, and I’m trying to get ready to talk to you guys. So I read Daniel 1–2. That’s all I had time for this morning. Do you know what I’m taking away, sucking on as a lozenge all day long?
And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs . . . (Daniel 1:9)
Do you have any meetings today? Are you going to meet one of your kids today? Are you going to talk to your wife today? Are you going to talk to a friend today, a colleague, and you wonder if you will find favor? Will they look upon this conversation with some sympathy? God gives favor. God gives compassion to his people when they need it. They might kill you or they might look upon you with favor. Who controls that? It’s God. The king’s heart is like a river in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wills (Proverbs 21:1). So I’m taking this away from Daniel 1:9 this morning: God gives favor and God gives compassion. He controls the heart of the people I talk to. That’s gold right there in Daniel 1:9. So that’s what I’ve got in my head all day long today, and we’ll see what the Lord brings me later this afternoon.
Reading and Family
This is the last one and we’ll be done. This is Deuteronomy 6:6, which I’m sure is really familiar:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.
“Fathers, immerse your families in the word. Just immerse them in the word.”
That’s why I take a sentence and try to press it in on my heart, asking, “What does this mean, Lord? Why is this sweet? Why would this be precious today? How could I commend this to anyone today?” If I talk to my neighbor, Steve, about my life today, while I’m raking leaves in the backyard and Steve says, “How are you doing?” and I say, “Steve, I read this morning an amazing thing in the prophet Daniel,” wouldn’t that be cool? And then I could talk to him about the goodness of God and giving people favor when they need it and see where it goes. Canned evangelism has never worked for me. I think you ought to always have a simple gospel message in your head — something like God, sin, Christ, and faith. That’s a great outline for all gospel messages — God, sin, Christ, faith — but way better is for you to just tell people what’s precious to you today. What’s precious to you today about Jesus. Deuteronomy 6:6–9 continues on to say:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Now the point of that would be this: Fathers, immerse your families in the word. Just immerse them in the word. While you’re driving the car, be connected to the word; while you’re doing playtime in the evening, be connected to the word; while you’re dealing with a crisis in the kids’ lives, be connected to the word; at supper time, be connected to the word; while you watch a movie, be connected to the word. Just immerse your life in the word, and that’s only possible if you are reading the word.