Jay is out again this week, this time teaching a seminar on expository preaching (your prayers for him are appreciated). Matt Gilleskie is filling in for Jay once again in this week’s “Four What It’s Worth.”
It is no secret that CHBC is serious about the Bible. “Bible” is in our name, for goodness’ sake! That said, I want to lovingly (if provocatively) suggest that we aren’t as serious about the Bible as we could be. Before you jump out of your seat, let me explain. I’m not charging us with wrong. Rather, I want us to embrace all that the Bible proclaims about itself.
We read things all the time – street signs, the news, novels, cookbooks, academic papers, social media, etc. But without careful attention, we are liable to read our Bibles like we read other writings. Just as we read cookbooks for step-by-step instructions, we inadvertently read our Bibles for a step-by-step plan for how to be saved or how to live a better life. Just as we read social media for incendiary commentary, we scan our Bibles for offensive teachings. Just as we read the news to stay informed, we read our Bibles to gather information about God.
If we treat our Bibles like books of facts, instructions, or curiosities, we have missed the one thing necessary (Luke 10:42). The words of God are given to nourish our souls, to sustain us on our arduous journey toward God, and to bring Jesus Christ himself near to us.
Gregory of Nazianzus (a fourth century theologian) helps us to appreciate the full function of God’s word: “food [is] nourishment for the body and speech for the soul.” Don’t these words resonate with Jesus’ repudiation of Satan during his temptation ordeal (Matt 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”)? Just as physical life is sustained and improved by the strength and nourishment that food provides, so spiritual life is initiated and fortified by God’s speech to us.
Gregory of Nazianzus, “On the Doctrine of God,” in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham, Popular Patristics 23 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 54.
So, how is God’s speech nourishment for the hungry soul? Let’s see what God himself tells us.
When our lonely souls received the influence of the Holy Spirit and longed for companionship with our Maker, what brought us into friendship with him? “No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Jesus’ words bring us into friendship with him.
When our wretched souls pine for purification from sin and the beauty of holiness, what cleanses and sanctifies us? “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph 5:25-27). Or, “sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Jesus’ words cleanse from sin and produce holiness.
When our faithless souls are shackled in bondage to sin and unable to cry out to God, what creates faith in us? “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Jesus’ words give birth to our faith.
When our hopeless souls are on the verge of despair, what trains the eyes of our hearts on the One who does the impossible? “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:3-4). Jesus himself, speaking through the prophets, gives hope to the despairing soul.
When our hungry souls seek communion with their Creator, how can they cling to him? “He has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3-4). Jesus’ words are vehicles for fellowship with God, “for all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20).
Notice that in each of these examples, the one who gives the words is Jesus himself. The Word of God (John 1:1) gives the words of God to feed our souls. And in this act, he does even more. He feeds us with himself.
John 6:35-71 is a confounding passage. What, after all, does it mean to eat Jesus’ flesh? This opaque metaphor is clarified, I think, by the act to which Jesus frequently compares it: believing the testimony (the words) about him. In v. 35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Believing in him, or coming to him, results in the satisfaction of hunger and thirst. It is not a leap to infer from this that believing in Christ results in eternal life. This inference is made explicitly in v. 47: “whoever believes has eternal life.” Then, in the next breath, Jesus links eating his flesh with eternal life: “if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (v. 51).
The clear implication is that believing the testimony about Jesus is the soul’s feeding on him. Jesus’ words to the grumbling disciples, paired with what we learn of the Holy Spirit in John 14-16, crystallize this insight: “the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life” (v. 63). Jesus’ words impart his presence, on which our souls feed by faith. And as we feed on him, we receive eternal life.
What does this theological speculation mean for us? Well, it raises an essential question, one that is tied to my earlier challenge to receive all of the Bible’s testimony about itself: do you come to the word of God (preached and read) expecting to learn more information, or expecting to be fed? There could not be a larger chasm between these two expectations. When you hear or read the word of God, do you perceive Christ as a long way off, or as close to you, to give himself for the nourishment of your soul?
In the coming weeks, especially as we emphasize prayer and communion with our Lord, let us remember that we can feed on him in his word by faith; that the Bible isn’t an instruction manual or a textbook, but an instrument by which the Holy Spirit ministers Jesus to our hungry souls. May the Lord bless you as you seek nourishing food from him this week.