Lecture 4: Listening to God
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A crucial element of any relationship is communication, both listening and speaking. God has spoken to us two basic ways, through creation and through his Word, the Bible. What do the terms “inspiration,” “authority,” and “canonicity” mean? Can we trust the Bible? How do I listen to God as I read his word? Am I supposed to do anything beyond reading it?
1. General Revelation
2. Specific Revelation
B. The Bible
C. Four important topics
4. Trustworthy Message
D. What do you do with the Bible?
1. Read it!
2. Meditate on it!
3. Memorize it!
4. Obey it!
E. Conclusion: Trust it
Course: Life is a Journey
Lecture: Listening to God
Listening to God
When you and I became a Christian, we entered into a new relationship. One of the crucial elements of any relationship is communication, both speaking and listening. And since we "always" listen before we speak, I want to talk first about listening to God.
There are three terms I need to discuss before jumping into this topic. The first is "revelation." Revelation is simply God making himself known to us. Revelation is God speaking, so that we can listen to him. And God speaks to us and we hear him in two basic ways.
1. General Revelation
One way we call "General Revelation," which is information about God available to all people all of the time. This is God speaking to all people and all people being able to hear what he has to say. In Romans chapter 1, Paul has been talking about the fact of people's sin and their responsibility for their sin. Beginning in verse 19, Paul says, "What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." Paul is saying that in creation, God is clearly, plainly speaking. And everyone who has ever lived, regardless of time and place, has been able to hear this particular voice of God by looking at and thinking about creation.
There are three things that God has been telling everyone. First, he has been telling everyone about his power. Secondly, he's been telling everyone about his divinity. Divinity simply means that he is separate from creation, that he is not part of creation, that creation does not hold the key to its own existence, but that the Creator of creation lies outside of creation. Thirdly, Paul is implicitly saying that everyone knows God exists, otherwise they couldn't know his power and his divine nature. Paul is saying that in creation, God has been speaking, proclaiming to all people that he exists, that he is powerful, and that he is separate from creation, and all people have been able to hear this message.
This is the same theme that the psalmist picks up in Psalm 19. This psalm is a celebration of God's revelation. Starting at verse 1, the psalmist writes, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world." Through creation, God is speaking, he is proclaiming not only his existence but also his power and his divinity -- his invisible attributes.
As we think about listening to God, we have to learn to listen, to pay attention, to his voice in creation. It's one thing to go out and stand by the ocean and say, "That's beautiful." But what we should be saying is, "The ocean is beautiful because a beautiful God created it." And as we see the sunset over the beach, the view should turn our thoughts and heart toward God. That is what those beaches are doing; the beaches are declaring the glory of God.
We look at pictures of galaxies -- one of my favorite things to look at -- and we see the distance and the brightness and the power, but what we need to see more than anything else is the awesome power of the Creator God who made millions of galaxies.
As we look at pictures of flowers, and we see the intricacies and the delicacies and the beauty of a flower, we must learn to think of the God who is separate from the flower and yet proclaims himself to us through the flower.
We need to learn to listen and respond to what God is saying generally through his creation, and his words in creation are clear and profound.
However, you could stand as long as you wanted by the ocean, and you're never going to hear God say, "My Son died on the cross for your sins." General Revelation doesn't have the capability for teaching us that salvation is by grace through faith. For this type of information about God, we need another kind of revelation, or what we call "Specific Revelation."
2. Specific Revelation
Specific (or "special") revelation is information about God that is available only to some people some of the time. Specific revelation is what only certain people are able to hear. Specific revelation is the technical name for what we also call the "Bible." The Bible goes by many names -- Scripture, the Word, the Word of God -- but it is this book that contains specific revelation, and this is how we hear God speak to us, even if other people in other places of other times are not able to hear the same thing.
If you continue in Psalm 19, the writer speaks a little more about how creation declares things about God, and then in verse 7, he switches to specific revelation and says, "The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul" -- the "law of the Lord" is another name for the Bible -- "The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes." Go down to verse 10: "They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward." Psalm 19 is the celebration of the fact that God has spoken to us; he has told us things about himself that we could never learn through general revelation. We hear of his existence and his power and his divinity as he speaks through creation, but we can learn so much more as he speaks to us through his specific revelation, the Bible.
I need to make it clear how we refer to sections of the Bible. The Bible is divided into two parts, what we call the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament tells the story of creation up to about 400 B.C. The New Testament picks up the story with Jesus. The Old and New Testaments are broken into books. There are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament.
I encourage you to open your Bible when this lesson is done and thumb through the Table of Contents to get used to the names of the books. That way, if I say "2 Timothy," you'll think, "Oh, that's a book in the Bible."
The books of the Bible are broken into chapters, and chapters are broken into verses. The way we reference a specific verse in Scripture is to say, for example, "John 3:16." What that means is that John is the name of the book, which happens to be in the New Testament, 3 is the chapter, and 16 is the verse. "John 3:16" -- book, chapter, and verse.
There's also a handout that you can download from the BiblicalTraining website, and I encourage you to spend some time with it. It's the names of all the books in the Bible broken into general categories, and it will give you a feel for what's in the Bible and where.
Four important topics
There are four topics that I need to discuss. If these concepts are important to you, I'd encourage you to go to BiblicalTraining.org and attend my New Testament survey class in the Academy program to learn more.
We believe in the "inspiration" of the Bible. We believe that the Bible is inspired. What this means is that we believe that the Bible comes from the very mouth of God. Inspiration is a doctrine that is primarily concerned with source. Paul tells his friend Timothy, in 2 Timothy 3:16, that "All of Scripture is inspired." Another translation says, "All Scripture is God-breathed." Actually, Paul makes up a word to express his doctrine of inspiration. He takes the word for "God" and he takes the word for "breathed" and -- you can do this in Greek -- he just sticks them together and he says, "You figure out what it means." All of Scripture is God-breathed. All of Scripture comes from the very mouth of God.
In another book called 2 Peter, in chapter 1 starting in verse 20, Peter says this about Scripture: "No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God" -- there's the origin -- "as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." When we talk about the inspiration of the Bible, what we believe is that different men sat down and wrote these words, but that they were carried along as they wrote by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Holy Spirit controlled what they were writing such that what they wrote were the very words of God. That's the doctrine of inspiration.
We believe in the authority of Scripture. If you continue to read in 2 Timothy 3:16, it says, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is [therefore] useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." The word "therefore" is not in the text, but it is what Paul means. Paul is telling Timothy that if you understand the source of Scripture, that it comes from the very mouth of God, it therefore comes with God's authority. So when you go to teach or rebuke or correct or train someone, you don't use human words and human wisdom. You use God's words.
So the doctrine of inspiration is that Scripture comes from God; and because it comes from God, it bears God's authority. I don't preach and teach out of the Bible because it's magical. I preach out of this book, and we believe this book, because we believe the words come from God and, therefore, his words come with his authority. So, my job is to proclaim what God has said and not what I think. As you can see, the doctrines of inspiration and authority are closely tied together.
Please understand that the Bible does not share its authority with anything or anyone, because God does not share his authority with anything or anyone. This book is not in competition with the Koran. This book is not in competition with the writings of Joseph Smith. This book is not in competition with human philosophy. This book is not in competition with church tradition and the edicts of popes and the teaching of preachers. This book does not compete with anyone for authority because God does not compete with anyone for authority. Scripture and Scripture alone is our source of authority, and our source of truth, and our source of guidance. It is to this book that we go because we believe it comes from the very mouth of God.
The third thing I wanted to mention is the issue of "canonicity." Canonicity is the process by which the Holy Spirit worked through the Church as a whole in helping the Church recognize which books are truly from God. There were many more books than 66 written, and we believe that the Holy Spirit guided the early Church as a whole in identifying these 66 as truly being from God. Likewise, we believe that the Holy Spirit guided the early church in rejecting all the other books.
Many people today are saying that we should include additional books, especially the Gospel of Thomas. By the way, if anybody says to you that the Gospel of Thomas should be in the Bible, just ask them if they have read it. All you have to do is read the Gospel of Thomas and you can understand that it can't possibly be Scripture. It was written in 180 A.D. and therefore not by the Apostle Thomas, and it's heretical in its teaching. For example, in its last paragraph it says that women must become men if they are to have a soul and go to heaven. That's not what the Bible teaches.
The fourth thing I wanted to mention is that we believe the Bible is "trustworthy." Because the Bible comes from God, it not only has our allegiance, but we believe that the writers got it right. When they say that "Jesus did this" or "Jesus said this," we believe that that's exactly what happened. Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would cause them to remember everything he taught them; we believe that. Therefore, the Bible is a faithful witness to what Jesus taught, and it is a faithful witness to the growth of the early Church, and it is a faithful witness to what the apostles taught. When the Old Testament prophets say, "Thus saith the Lord," that the words that came out and the words that are written down truly came from the mouth of God.
I know it's popular in some circles to say, "Oh, I can't believe the Bible. It's not trustworthy. It's so full of contradictions." One way to deal with this is simply to ask, "Really? It's full of errors? Can you show me one?"
"It's just so full of errors, I mean, they're all over the place."
"If it's so full of errors, then you should be able to point one out to me quite easily."
The fact of the matter is that most people don't know where the problems are; they just don't want to trust it. We believe the Bible is trustworthy, and that means it doesn't contradict itself.
So these are the four topics I needed to mention up front: inspiration of Scripture; the authority of God's Word; the fact that the early Church, by the power of God's Spirit, got the right 66 books; and that it's absolutely trustworthy.
What do you do with the Bible?
What I really want to emphasize in this lesson is the whole question of what you do with the Bible. It's all fine and good to argue about inspiration and authority and canonicity and trustworthiness -- and some of us love to argue about these things. But the real question is, what do we do with this book? Let me encourage you to do four different things with it.
1. Read it!
Some of us love to read. We love to read all kinds of things. We love to read about the Bible. We love to read people's understanding of the Bible. We love to read biographies about how the Bible has impacted people's lives. But, do we love to read the very words of God? It's easy to be caught up in reading things about the Bible, but do we read the words of God themselves?
Let me encourage you to read it for at least three different reasons.
First, healthy relationships require healthy communication. It's kind of one of those "No, duh" kind of statements, but it's true. Healthy relationships require healthy communication, and if we're going to have a healthy relationship with our Redeemer, then we have to communicate. We communicate partially by listening to him, and we listen to him primarily by reading what he has said. This is common sense when it comes to healthy relationships.
My favorite time of day is the first hour of every morning. My wife, Robin, and I, after a few years of trying different things, developed a ritual where we get up early and the kids aren't up yet and there's no noise. Nothing major has gone wrong ... yet. It's still quiet, reasonably peaceful, and after several cups of coffee we're ready to talk. We have about an hour together and it's a wonderful quiet time. We say things like, "How'd you sleep? How do you feel? What are you doing today?" That's healthy communication. "What's God teaching you? What did you read last night that might make a difference in your life that perhaps you've been mulling over this morning?" That's healthy communication. It's regular, it's every morning, it's frequent.
The same thing that is true in our marriage is true in our relationship with God, because we are his Bride. Men and women alike, we are together the Bride of Christ. And we must communicate with him if we are to have a healthy relationship. You may have heard the phrase "quiet time." This is what quiet times are all about; you and I need to fine some quiet place to get away on a regular and frequent basis where we can listen to God and speak with God. Healthy relationships need healthy communication. That means we have to set times aside to listen to him.
Secondly, I want to emphasize that if we don't read it, how will we know what God is saying to us? If we don't read it, how will we know what is truly best? If we don't read it, how will we know what is true? If you're not "in the Word," as the expression goes, if you're not reading this Bible, how will you know what is the most important thing to do every day? What is the most important thing in life? What is the greatest commandment that God has for us? To go to church? That's not what it says! The greatest commandment is "to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength." If you do nothing else today or the rest of your life, but you love God with everything you are, then you've done the most important thing. But you're not going to know that if you haven't been reading.
You're not going to know that we're into cloning. Christians are the primary cloners of the universe because disciples are to replicate themselves. But you're not going to know that if you haven't read the Great Commission. Jesus says, "Go make disciples." That's what we're here for, to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Every one of us is to be involved in evangelism one way or another. Then all of us are to be involved in making fully-devoted disciples, "teaching them to obey everything that I've taught you," Jesus said.
These are things that you don't know if you don't spend time reading. So, I encourage you that if you want to know what our all-wise, all-good God is holding out to you and saying, "this is the best, this is the truth" -- you won't know it unless you listen to him and you can't listen to him unless you read his Word.
Thirdly, you need to ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand. As you read the Bible, he is your best Teacher. He's better than your preacher. He's better than your Sunday school teacher. And he's better than all those books you read about the Bible. Those are all good things, but the Holy Spirit is your best teacher.
Paul tells the Corinthian church that the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers. Before you became a Christian, Satan blinded your eyes. But now, even though those blinders have been taken off, you still need the Holy Spirit to help you understand what God our Father is saying to you.
In the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 2, Paul says this starting at verse 12: "What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words."
Let's covenant to be a people of the Book. It's not a hoop to jump through. It's not a ritual to earn favor with God. It's none of those things. It's just common sense. We've entered a new relationship. If we want a healthy relationship, we need to communicate. Part of communication is listening, and so we listen by reading.
2. Meditate on it!
Secondly, let me encourage you to "meditate" on the Bible. There are many mornings in which I'm talking with Robin and she'll say something to me, and it doesn't make any sense. What I need is time to mull over what she said.
Robin loves to read dead people. What I mean is that she likes to read books written a long time ago, written by people who have since died. She'll talk about things that the Church was talking about in 1850. It takes me a while to mull over some of this stuff and think through it. But I'm so committed to our relationship, and I trust her so much, that I'm committed to meditating on her words. I'm committed to mulling them over, even if they don't make a lot of sense to me at first. That's meditation.
Some of you may have red flags that go up when I say "meditation," and you may be thinking of Eastern religious meditation. That is not what I'm talking about. The kind of meditation that we see coming out of the Far East is wrong because they teach you to open your mind. That's their meditation. All you have to do is talk to someone who's been a Satanist and he will tell you that there's nothing Satan loves more than Christian kids meditating and "opening their minds," because Satan will head straight for that empty vacuum.
Christian meditation is the exact opposite. Christian meditation is filling your mind with the things of God. It's filling your mind with the things of Scripture, mulling over, thinking about what the Bible says.
So we listen to the Bible, we mull it over, we meditate on it. It takes work but it's worth the effort. A relationship with God is worth the effort. So whether you're driving to work or you're on a coffee break or it's lunch and you need a break -- stop and meditate. Stop and fill your mind with what you've been reading in Scripture. Repeat the verse that you've been memorizing, and ask God to help you understand it and how to apply it in your life.
If you do that, do you know what Scripture promises? It promises that you'll be blessed. I don't know about you, but I like being blessed by God. Psalm 1 says, "Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers." In other words, blessed is the person who stays away from sinners. The psalmist continues, "but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law" -- on Scripture -- "day and night."
And here's what a blessed person looks like: "That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither -- whatever they do prospers." That's God's blessing; you and I are a tree planted by the streams of life that flow from him and flow through his holy Word. As we draw nourishment from that stream, we grow and we become oaks of righteousness. But you can't get there just by reading. It requires meditation, mulling, reflecting.
3. Memorize it!
Thirdly, let me encourage you to memorize it. It's worth the effort. It's worth it to have God's truth on the tip of your tongue. It's worth it when your mind is so saturated with the words of God that no matter what happens, we know what is true and we have a pretty good idea how to respond in any situation.
The psalmist says, "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (Psalm 199:11). How will we know what sin is unless we have hidden Scripture -- stored up Scripture -- in our minds, and memorized it? So we memorize Scripture. We memorize verses, perhaps paragraphs, perhaps chapters, so that when we face temptation, we can recall the story of how Jesus responded when he faced temptation. He responded the same way all three times Satan tempted him; he quoted Scripture. When we face temptation and temptation is saying, "Oh, go ahead and do that. It's kind of dangerous but you can test God and he's promised to take care of you," the verse goes through your head, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test," because we've memorized Jesus' response to Satan.
Or perhaps life is difficult and the pressures are weighing in on you, and the thought goes through your head, "if this is what Christianity is about, I don't want anything to do with this. It isn't any fun and it's too difficult." But then the verse we memorized comes to mind, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Compared to the yoke of the world, Jesus' yoke is truly easy and light.
Loneliness is an epidemic at an all-time high in Western culture. We are so connected but most of it is false or shallow connection -- texting, social media. There's not the deep intimacy that we crave. So when the loneliness becomes intense, you remember the last words of Jesus to his disciples: "I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
This is the beauty of memorization, when these verses are on the tip of our tongue and our minds are saturated with the very words of God. When we get into a situation, there's the answer, there's the truth.
I've noticed that approximations don't really help. I heard of an incident last night -- it wasn't my daughter -- where someone's daughter was stuck in Albany and the airlines seemed to have no concern that she couldn't get on the airplane. There was the tendency to be anxious, and then the verse floats through our head, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." It's one thing to have your daughter stuck in Albany and say, "OK, God, I'm getting anxious here. Um, OK, what's that verse? Uh, God promised me peace, um, but what about peace?" It just doesn't work, does it? But we're to "not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." See, that's the power of memory. I encourage you to commit Scripture to memory, so it's there on the tip of your tongue, your mind saturated with the words of God.
4. Obey it!
Fourthly, let me encourage you to obey it. Sometimes we get this feeling that all I have to do is know it, but I don't have to really do it. I may have memorized verses about not being anxious, but what happens when the temptation comes to be anxious? Let me encourage you not just to read it or meditate on it or memorize it, but we must obey it. When you know Scripture but you don't obey it, there's a biblical word for that. It's called being a "fool."
At the end of the most famous sermon in the world, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." It doesn't do any good to know it if we don't obey it and put it into practice.
Conclusion: Trust It
You know what's going to happen as you and I read the Bible and learn it and obey it? We start to trust it.
The world has a lot of truth claims. There are a lot of things the world is saying are true, and we have to choose between the Bible and the world. Are you going to believe the world or are you going to believe God? I was watching a TV news program a while back, and I was told that it is unreasonable to think that any human being could control his or her sexual urges. The commentator described us as dogs. He said, you can't expect a dog to control its sexual behavior; well, you certainly can't expect our teenagers to. That's what the world says.
But Scripture makes another truth claim and it says, "But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people" (Ephesians 5:3). And you look at that and think, "Who do I believe? I know I'm supposed to believe this, but everything in me is telling me to believe what the world says." And we have to make a choice. Sometimes we choose the world and we tell God he doesn't know what he's talking about. And other times, even when it doesn't make any sense to us, we choose to believe God. Has God ever been wrong? The answer is, "No, never."
Have you ever read Scripture and said, "If I hadn't read that in the Bible, I wouldn't believe it"? Ephesians 5:4 says there should not "be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving." We may be tempted to respond, "that's not right," but as we make the faith choice and as we choose to obey, we find out that God's always true, and that our mouths should be so full of thanksgiving that there is no room for obscenity and coarse joking. He's always right, and that builds trust.
As we obey and as we grow in our trust, then we start to be transformed, and that's the ultimate goal of all this. Paul tells the Corinthian church that "we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory." As we obey the Bible, and as we grow in our trust of it, we start to be transformed because we start to look more and more like Jesus. May that be true of all of us. May we all be people of the Book.
Read Psalm 19. Verses 1-6 talk about what we can know about God by looking at creation. Verses 7 and following talk about the “law of the Lord,” which is the Bible. What does it tell you about how God speaks to us? Write down what you believe God has been speaking to you about lately.
Spend some time looking over the table of contents in your Bible and the handout. Become familiar with the names of the books that make up the Bible. Notice which ones are in the Old Testament and which are in the New Testament. (If you don’t know what these terms mean, don’t worry; we will explain them.) It is helpful to write out names of the books in the New Testament, just to get familiar with them.
Read 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (page 49) and also 2 Peter 1:20-21. What do they tell us about the origin of the Bible? Do you believe that the Bible is not a human book?
Write out your memory verse: 2 Timothy 3:16.
Meditation and memorization are often difficult for people. Minds wander during quiet, reflective times, and some of our minds simply go away when we try to memorize. What might help you be more successful? Talk with your mentor about this.