From this title, you may be thinking that I’m talking about literally hearing the Holy Spirit’s voice. But that is not the point. The Holy Spirit has spoken, and while it is true that we study his words in the scriptures, we often have not truly heard and perceived his message. Jesus accused the Jews of committing this error: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Jesus was not detracting from the importance of the scriptures as some claim, but was accusing the Jews of being “students” of scripture without truly seeing the message that the end goal of the law would be found in him.
When Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy he warned against false teachers at Ephesus who were “desiring to be teachers of the law” but had swerved from the “purpose of our charge, love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” It is easy to fall into the trap of looking into scripture for “rules” and in so doing never see the message.
The Corinthians fell into a similar trap as the false teachers among them wowed them with “plausible words of wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:4). In contrast, Paul “did not proclaim to them the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (2:1), but delivered to them the “depths of God” (2:10) as given to them by the Spirit. In fact, Paul insisted that he did not “impart words taught by human wisdom, but [words] taught by the Spirit” (2:13). In other words, Paul did not piece together a fancy speech, he gave them exactly what the Holy Spirit revealed and in the way he revealed it. Since Paul emphasized the words of the Holy Spirit, it is important that we appreciate the way the Spirit revealed his words. Sermons and commentaries have been written by the tens of thousands, but the words of the biblical text are the only thing that is truly the “mind of Christ” (2:14).
The Holy Spirit used many different methods to reveal his will. There are things like poetry, figures of speech, types and antitypes, shadows, pictures, parables, contrasts, prophecy and numerous other literary methods, some obvious and some quite subtle. There are “chiasms,” “inclusios” and “acrostics” that serve to amplify the message in various ways. The Holy Spirit also uses movement and method in each document in order to reveal his message.
Using Ephesians as an example, it is not uncommon for preachers to place more emphasis on the lifestyle instructions of chapters 4-6 rather than the more intricate doctrinal message of chapters 1-3. The result is to impart a set of rules on how a Christian is to live rather than showing the Holy Spirit’s message that God’s work in us was to bring about the praise of his glory and show his manifold wisdom to the rulers and powers in the heavenly places. When the whole message of the letter is revealed we are motivated to live godly lives because of God’s love for us and in order to fulfill God’s purpose before the ages began. Such is far more motivating than just a set of rules.
No doubt there is great importance to understanding various topics that are covered in scripture: the church, salvation, sin, the resurrection, and a host of other vital issues that every Christian must understand. We would be very remiss in not studying these topics. But topics can easily be flawed when the movement and method of the Spirit is not first understood. We make a serious mistake when our Bible study consists primarily of looking into the scripture to “find answers.” When the preaching we hear is almost exclusively one topic after another we begin to think of the Bible like an encyclopedia.
Listen to what we say: “The gospels are about the life of Christ, Acts is church history, the epistles tell us how to live, and Revelation is prophecy.” That description is encyclopedic, and wrong. Consider that Luke wrote two letters to Theophilus, which have a specific intent and message. The message wasn’t the life of Christ and church history. We must ask what needs and questions Theophilus had that Luke answered in order to hear what the Holy Spirit said.
We also struggle with reading a text and framing its various parts into a list of topics. For example, in Matthew 3 (and in the other gospel accounts), the initial message of John the Baptist to the scribes and Pharisees was that Jesus would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. How would the first century Jews have understood those words? “Oh, I know,” someone says, “Jesus was just talking about what the apostles would later receive.” Really? When John said those words, there were no apostles. If John expected the Jews to understand him, then his reference to the Spirit was a fulfillment of what the Jews already understood and anticipated from their knowledge of the Old Testament.
There are at least two serious consequences to concentrating primarily on topics and answers instead of discovering the Holy Spirit’s message:
- We begin to create a catechism or creed – here’s what we believe on this subject and here is what we believe on that subject. This has a negative impact when we read and study an individual book because we have trained ourselves to think in terms of understanding issues and answering questions. We should be able to explain the message of 2 Corinthians, 2 Timothy, or Chronicles. But how many read these letters with the intention of first discovering the Holy Spirit’s message and how He revealed his message? Have we considered that we will never understand Romans until we have understood Habakkuk?
- When we do not first know the message, purpose, and method of a document, we are seriously in danger of false doctrines. For example, how often have we read, “You must be born of water and the Spirit” and explained the sentence as baptism? There are two problems with that. First, Nicodemus would not have known anything about baptism into Christ. Second, Jesus was shocked that Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel and did not understand these things. In other words, what Jesus taught Nicodemus about rebirth had already been revealed in the Old Testament and he should have known it. Though baptism is part of the rebirth process, the message was not baptism but the work of God in “sprinkling clean water upon you and giving you a new heart and a new spirit…and putting my Spirit within you” (Ezek. 36:25-27).
Many Christians are content with a cursory, superficial knowledge, satisfied with knowing issues and answers. This produces Bible classes that are no more than creed rehearsal and Christians that lack being “filled with the Spirit.” Instead, the Holy Spirit has revealed the very “depths of God.” Are we listening to his message?