Helmut Thielicke expressed a common experience among Bible readers. “The more I stir around with a Bible text that at first seems quite strange when I first meditate on it, the more surprising it is when the passage opens up and finally actually sheds its light. What comes from the eternal has a marvelous application to every moment of time.”
Natural scientists distinguish what they label “pure research” from “applied research.” Applied research has a goal, to find out a specific answer to a specific question, a specific solution to a specific problem. It begins with a plan designed to follow one or more possible paths to reach the goal. Its intention is to produce certain beneficial results for humankind, for human knowledge, or perhaps for an employer waiting for new information or hoping for new products. Pure research ventures into unexplored fields, usually connected with the scientist’s knowledge of an adjacent field which has posed questions from just over the fence. It does not have a goal prescribed by industry or fashioned by emergencies of the time to guide it. It delves into the unknown on the basis of the known but with a joy or hope of discovery led by a guess or a hunch or just plain curiosity. Pure research is risky business—it can end up a waste of time.
Take the risk! This is especially true for those involved in “professional” service to God’s people who spend a lot of time engaged in preparing for specific assignments, assignments from self, from the pericopes, from the wishes of those participating in Bible study, and from particular witnessing or counseling challenges. Such study can be quite enriching, especially as it is cross-pollinated by insights from those to whom we are presenting the Biblical message. No text exists without context, both at its origin and at its application. Our reasons for applying texts in a sermon or Bible class, in witnessing to someone outside the faith or bringing God’s Word to bear on lives, help make what the Holy Spirit said become what He is saying today. Nonetheless, in addition to such applied, goal-oriented approaches to the Bible, all Christians need to amble or stroll through the words from the prophets and apostles just for the fun of it, for a relaxing chat with the Holy Spirit.
No text exists without context, both at its origin and at its application.
Find texts of Scripture or of the writings of dedicated servants of the gospel that have evaded your glance for some time or forever up to now and plunge into them. As Thielicke noted, the water may be icy, but its warmth will come through. The lights begin to go on, as he noted, and new thoughts spring to mind. Or take a pericope or a book you think you know well and let its words pour over you like a warm stream of water in the shower. Experience new “Aha” insights from familiar passages out of which you have drawn the same insights for years.
From medieval predecessors Luther adapted and reworked the monastic triad of reading, praying, and meditating on a biblical text (lectio, oratio, meditatio). With his tentatio or Anfechtungen, he transformed that triad, presuming the reading, and adding the struggle with attacks on the Word and our faith. For he had experienced that our every attempt to absorb what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us in the biblical text invites jamming and interference from the Devil, the world, and our own desires or ways of wanting reality to take shape. Whether we open our Bibles with applied research in mind or cross its threshold with no particular assignment to fulfill but simply to listen to the voice of God in the voices of its human authors, we can expect the Liar and Deceiver to want to crowd his way into the conversation. This means we make our most determined effort to follow Luther’s advice to chew on the text, to sample it again and again, to let it digest slowly and flow into our arteries and through our veins. Chase the text into its own place and time, and then let it chase you into the corners of your life.
Such ventures into the biblical landscape produce unexpected meetings with God, who always repeats the same old message to us and is always delighting us by opening up new aspects and angles revealed by His message. He shares with us in such conversations facets of His own character and ours which had never become quite so clear in earlier conversations with Him. He opens up for us new vistas into His saving will for us. He tells us of His desires for the shape of our hearkening to His plan for human life and His callings and commands that place us, first of all, in His presence with our thanks and praise. But His plans and callings also place us in the presence of other people and natural creation so we may provide them with our service and support.
Chase the text into its own place and time, and then let it chase you into the corners of your life.
New sides of God appear and old, familiar features of His way of dealing with His creatures take on fresh clarity as the Holy Spirit leads us to pore over the words He shared centuries ago with Israel and with the early Church. It is impossible for creatures ever to embrace and understand fully the entirety of the Creator, much of whom remains hidden from those He created. But the Holy Spirit does give new glimpses into new aspects of this loving Father and imaginative Creator as we suffer through His teasing us into a fuller appreciation of who He really is. He does so by joining familiar texts, or not so familiar parts of Scripture, with different situations in the course of life.
These new insights come not only from the Biblical text alone. The Holy Spirit also leads us to find new dimensions of what God is teaching us by reading what others have heard Him saying in their commentaries, meditations, and hymns. The Bible wants to function as a used-shoe exchange store. Vital in our growth as believers is the role of imagining other people’s shoes as part of reading Scripture. Luther saw in the experiences of Abraham and Sarah both God’s patient faithfulness with them as they sinned and their faithfulness as they clung to His promise (sometimes with so firm a grip) and led lives which reflected His faithfulness to His promise to them and expressed, even with their failures at times, their faithfulness to Him. And in Luther’s own insights or those of our contemporaries we also get beautiful echoes of what Paul and Mary experienced and what Paul Gerhardt or Jaroslav Vajda faced and felt.
All this and more awaits us if we just look at the text. We do not need to chase after allegorical expressions of some great thoughts we think might be symbolized or represented by what the writers report actually took place or was expressed by the biblical actors. Place individual passages in the context of their own author’s other writings and his time and place, and then think of how this passage fits into the whole of Scripture. Compare its message to its message for us and ask, “How does God go about His dealing with His people in similar situations to mine? What was God doing in this specific situation when He preached through a prophet, recorded the interactions of Himself and His people, wrote a letter though an apostle, and sketched His incarnate engagement with sinners... like us.”
Chase each text you stumble across or that confronts you on your path. Let each of them chase you as well, or any given text may offer at the moment only common wisdom and pedestrian stories. Whether or not there be grand thoughts behind a text, it is guaranteed that behind each text the Holy Spirit is lying in wait, and He is trying to enter into conversation with you. Thus, in the end, we find every passage deserves another look. But watch out! The Holy Spirit is lurking there, and so is Satan. Welcome to the fray!