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“Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord.”  Jeremiah 31:20

There are three ways a biblical promise like this — there are so many — can land on us.

One way is that we simply decode the English words.  Nothing deeper is happening.  We might be able to write significant scholarly commentary — and helpful, too — on the text.  But it doesn’t penetrate to the heart.  “The natural person . . . is not able to understand” at that level (1 Corinthians 2:14).

A second way is to read these words and believe them to be true, even true for oneself.  We might not feel it to be true.  It might be an effort to receive the promise, because our hearts are hesitant, divided, discouraged.  But we make the effort, “taking it by faith,” on the authority of the One who gave the words.  “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

A third way is to experience these words with self-authenticating power.  They come across as a personal message from God himself.  Yes, we think the verse through exegetically.  We locate it within the larger narrative of the Bible, culminating in Jesus and the New Covenant.  But something more is happening.  We experience the promise “not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).  It’s not as though the Bible becomes truer, but we are the ones who change.  We realize a little of “The word of the Lord came to me,” as the prophets used to say.  It is an event in our lives that leaves a lasting impression.

If we are reading the first way, the Bible will differ in no essential way from Shakespeare or even a comic book.  We need God himself mercifully to take us deeper.

If we are reading the second way, we are in God’s good hands.  We should take heart.  But he has more blessing for us.  And it probably isn’t far away, if we will pursue him.

If we are reading the third way, it is a visitation of God to our souls.  There is nothing greater in this life.  We can face anything, because the living Word imparts a taste of God’s presence and love, more real than everything that’s against us.

The remarkable thing to me is that we have little control over these three outcomes.  But we can, and we must, stay humble, honest, open, with our eyes on God as all our hope.

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7 thoughts on “What happens when we read the Bible?”

  1. deborah says:

    I find that reading the Scriptures with the aim of learning what God is like, with the goal of knowing Him, I am able to attain to the third result, praise His Name!

  2. shaun says:

    LORD, help me, teach me to read you word in such a way that “It is an event in our lives that leaves a lasting impression.”

  3. Jason Dollar says:

    In my own experience, moving into the third way involves passing through the first two on the way. That is, as the verse is understood and the promises of God are appropriated into my mind in the right categories – a process that might take some time – I then begin to sense in growing waves the self-authenticating power of the message. The soaking in process itself is what often leads to those moments of joyous pleasure when the Word of God has been tasted deeply.

    I appreciate your point that moving into stage two is a good place to be. There we are “in good hands.” To know but not feel is much better than not knowing at all.

  4. I have found that once the “third way” happens to you, it happens more often. Sometimes it happens after much study, and sometimes it is seemingly “out of the blue” . . . “Let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows Me.”

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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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