Continued from Part 5
At the deepest, most profound level, the Word of God is not just a written text. As Paul says, Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:15), and Scripture is still breathing. As one author has said, it is as if God’s breath is still warm coming off the page.
When we read someone’s writings or listen to someone talking we are doing more than interacting with words; on a deeper level we are interacting with a person. Such is the case with the Bible: it is not merely a means of interacting with God’s thoughts but God Himself.
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The Ministry of the Spirit
Consider the thoughts of Paul,
“Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ” (2 Corinthians 3:7-4:6)
Paul contrasts the ministry of the written law with the ministry of the Spirit. In the former ministry people related to God on the basis of the law written on tablets of stone and on scrolls of papyrus. Make no mistake: Paul says this was a truly glorious ministry. Moses would write the laws as God dictated it to him. Each time, as Moses emerged from talking with God, his face shone with a divine brightness. God’s glory was radiating from his face. Moses would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from seeing his transfigured appearance. What the Israelites didn’t see was how the shining glory would slowly fade from Moses’ face. The visage of Moses was like the ministry he administered through the law: it was fading away.
By way of metaphor, Paul is saying that just as Moses’ veil shielded them from seeing the fading glory on his face, a veil still shields the minds of Moses’ readers. This is a veil over the face of humanity. Satan, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers,” so that even Moses’ avid readers have a veil over their minds. As they read the Scripture they still try to use the written law as a means of approaching God, unaware that the glory of that ministry is over. Paul says that the law brings only a ministry of “condemnation” and “death.” Why? Because in the end it only condemns us as guilty and pronounces us worthy of death. Try as we might to live by the Law of Moses, our best efforts will always prove useless.
As glorious as the age of the law was, we have entered a new age that is far more glorious: the time of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. When someone turns to the Lord Jesus, the veil over their hearts is removed. With an unveiled mind, as regenerated people, we can finally see the glory of God “in the face” that is in the person “of Jesus Christ.” As we behold God’s glory, Paul says, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
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The Face of Christ
So transformation doesn’t come by virtue of merely reading and knowing the Scripture. The Holy Spirit is vital in our transformation. Until He lifts the veil over our minds, the Scriptures will not reveal the glory of God. But when the veil is removed, we can see “the face of Jesus Christ.” By continually “beholding” Christ we are continually transformed into His image.
In other words, until we know Christ and see Him clearly by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, we do not see Scripture the way it is meant to be seen. Scripture is meant to be a portal that allows us to see the face of Christ and know Him. This sort of “face to face” knowledge is an expression of deep intimacy. Some know God more hand-to-hand: they seek Him for their needs and desired blessings. Some may know God voice-to-voice: they genuinely desire to know what God says and thinks. Then there are some who want to see Christ face-to-face: they want the kind of intimacy you only get by looking into another’s eyes.
When we read the Scriptures this is the kind of intimacy the Holy Spirit is helping us to have. To read with another agenda, even a good agenda like “knowing God’s will” or “understanding God’s ideas,” falls short of the Holy Spirit’s goal. Jesus Himself made the purpose of the Scriptures clear when he told the Jews, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). It is this “coming to Christ” to which the Spirit calls us when we read the Bible. The Spirit’s ministry is to impart to our minds and fresh vision of the face of Christ so that we might know Him intimately.
To treat the Scriptures as an end in themselves, or to see the Word of God as just a trove of divine information that can renew our thoughts, is to go back to the Old Covenant model of approaching God. Is this inherently bad? No. God ordained a time for His people to live under the futility of that approach, but it was to make them long for a greater time, a greater ministry, a ministry of the Holy Spirit, and a time of the Messiah’s reign. “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17).
So how do we partake of the blessing of this ministry of the Holy Spirit?
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Always Pointing to Christ
First, we need to understand that the Spirit’s primary agenda is to direct us toward Christ and magnify Christ at all times. When we sin, the Spirit reminds us that Christ is our atonement. When we are tempted, the Spirit reminds us of the human Christ who was tempted just as we are, yet without sin. When we are lonely, the Spirit points us to Christ who was rejected and forsaken. Literally every experience we have can be utilized by the Spirit to paint a picture of the living Christ. He does this first because Christ is worthy of this kind of attention. And second, the Spirit does this because, the more we have a growing understanding and fascination with Christ, the more we will be transformed into His image, “from one degree of glory to another.”
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Reading to See Christ More Clearly
Next, we need to read and study the Scriptures with the Spirit’s ministry in view. Christ is the central focus of all Bible reading. The Bible is the lens through which we see Him clearly. Simply knowing this will transform the way we read and the way we talk about Scripture. Instead of merely seeking the Scripture for information, we can keep in step with the Spirit’s ministry and seek transformation.
As we read through Scripture we need to “keep in step with the Spirit” as He prompts us to ask critical questions: What does this text teach me about Christ? How does this text produce a longing to see Christ face to face? How does this text reveal the beauty of Christ to me? I encourage you to use a prayer journal or a Bible study journal to make note of the things the Spirit shows you about Christ.
To keep this Christ-centered focus in Bible reading, I personally find it helpful to read the four gospels with regularity. The church has been given the gift of these four portraits of Jesus, and we are wise to return to them often. J.I. Packer’s words about this are noteworthy:
“The doctrines on which our discipleship rests are clearest in the epistles, but the nature of discipleship itself is most vividly portrayed in the gospels. Some Christians seem to prefer the epistles to the gospels and talk of graduating from the gospels to the epistles as if this were a mark of growing up spiritually; but really this attitude is a very bad sign, suggesting that we are more interested in theological notions than in fellowship with the Lord Jesus in person. We should think, rather, of the theology of the epistles as preparing us to understand better the disciple relationship with Christ that is set forth in the gospels, and we should never let ourselves forget that the four gospels are, as has often and rightly been said, the most wonderful books on earth.”
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The Still Small Voice
Last but not least, the disciplines of silent prayer and personal worship will allow us to listen to the Spirit’s still small voice. Space does not permit me to expound on this, but it is enough to say that prayer is the conduit through which we approach Christ to drink the living water. In prayer we sit at the Lord’s Table of fellowship and we taste and see that He is good. In prayer we delight ourselves in all that He is. In prayer we silence the screaming inner voices of doubt, fear, and anxiety, and we listen to the voice that teaches us to abide in Christ (1 John 2:27). In prayer we learn to crave, we set our affections and interests on things above, on Christ who is seated at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1-4).
It is not the Bible in our hands that is our hope of glory, but rather Christ in our hearts (Colossians 1:27). Union with Him is a distinctively new covenant blessing that is the guarantee of our ultimate transformation, our resurrection. When Christ returns for us we will see Him as He really is, no longer shrouded in humility or hidden by heaven, but robed in glory. And when we see Him as He is, just the sight of Him will transform us into His image (1 John 3:1-2). Until that time, the Spirit of Christ in us transforms us, though in a less complete manner, by the same means: He draws the inner eye of faith to savor the living Christ.
Thank you for this message, which strikes such a chord in my heart.
I still struggle with the question: what exactly do we mean when we say we ‘see’ and ‘know’ Jesus today? In what sense can we ‘hear the voice of Jesus say’? Somehow neither the ‘reformed’ nor the ‘charismatic’ view satisfy me.
I would appreciate any further relevant comments
I can sympathize with your dissatisfaction. Whole books have been written on these topics—knowing Christ, seeing Christ, hearing Christ—so I won’t pretend to have it all figured out.
The “reformed” world tends to say that listening to Christ is a function of absorbing the written Word of God. The “charismatic” world tends to emphasize the inner voice of the Spirit. I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. The pattern Paul gave to Timothy was “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). Paul gave written revelation to Timothy. Timothy’s role was to “think,” ponder, consider, meditate. And the Lord would grant “understanding” supernaturally.
Paul says that the spiritual person has “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). I take this to mean that by the Holy Spirit, Christ shares his “mind” with us. Christ has thoughts, perceptions, understandings, feelings, judgments, and discerning wisdom, and He freely shares those things with our mind. This means that the believer has in his mind some concrete thoughts that do not originate from himself/herself; they originate in the mind of God.
Paul outlines a number of things the Spirit of Christ imparts to believers’ minds. He imparts a “a secret and hidden wisdom” enabling us to see Jesus as “the Lord of glory,” not just as the man of Galilee (2:7-8). He gives the believer an ability to imagine in his heart “what God has prepared for those who love him,” our future glory (2:9), “the things freely given us by God” (2:12). As our minds and hearts grapple with these glorious thoughts, it will impact how we think and live.
Paul did not see the Corinthian Christians as truly “spiritual” people, but as carnal, living lives of jealousy and strife (3:1-3). They were not living as if they had not been redeemed from sin, as if they did not know the living Christ, as if they did not know their glorious inheritance.
However, just because we are Christians does not mean that having this “sanctified imagination” is automatic. No. Paul prays for believers that God would give us a “spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (Ephesians 1:17-19). Doesn’t this prayer sound like a great commentary on Paul’s description of the spiritual person in 1 Corinthians? The opening of our heart-eyes, an inner experience and vision of our ultimate hope and longing, an experience of divine power that changes our character: this is the revelation Paul prayed for.
My tendency is to want to make “listening to God” an exercise of “tuning in” to God’s frequency, as if He is perpetually downloading fresh information to my brain all the time about what to wear, what to say, and who to talk to. God can and does certainly speak that way to his children (what good father wouldn’t), but when he does it will present itself as concrete ideas and words in our minds, something pseudo-prophetic. Some make God out to be a mumbling trickster: as if He jumps into our life, scrambles our brain, throws in a soup of chaotic emotions and mixed messages, and then leaves us trying to put the pieces together. I believe God is a better communicator than that.
But God is more about our transformation and giving information. More times than not, His desire is to impart our imaginations with VISION that transforms our lives, not just words that dictate our actions.
I chose to focus this post on the idea of seeing Christ’s face because I believe that a face-to-face relationship denotes something that goes “beyond words.” Surely words are involved, but knowing what someone says is different than knowing someone’s heart. God wants to give our minds and hearts and vision of who He is. Only this brings lasting change.
When I sit with God in prayer I ask Him, “Speak, your servant is listening.” When I do this, more times than not, the result is an expanded vision, an ability to “imagine” the things God has revealed in His Word. This vision becomes the catalyst of a new way of thinking and living. As I understand it, this is listening to God, hearkening to Christ’s mind. It is a very face-to-face type of experience that makes my heart burn within me.
Yes, at times God has clearly spoken concrete words that I could not shake. These moments have been precious to me.
For more information on this, I really enjoyed Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God.