Being a Bible teacher who loves to “dot the i’s and cross the t’s” in my pursuit of truth, I am invariably tempted to think and teach with this attitude: “Let me explain to you the deeper truths of what happened in the courtroom of divine justice at the cross and resurrection. Let me help you to grasp the mechanics of how God’s justice was satisfied and how we are now assured of Heaven—in ten, easy-to-follow bullet points.” The temptation for me is to wander off into the Bible teacher’s world of arm’s-length, outside-myself, speculative theologizing.
When I fall into this trap of using this purely forensic approach to studying and teaching the Bible, I am trying to look behind God’s divine mask and discover secrets that will remain hidden to the purely objective, legal, biblical scholar. I cannot capture the experiential, life-changing truth of God’s living word by trusting in my theological education, diligent study or insightful exegesis (1.e., interpretation,) of the Bible.
Instead, God’s plan for us all, teachers and students alike, is for His word to do all the “exegeting” as I read it! The two-edged sword of the Word of God cuts me open and “exegetes” me, rather than me exegeting it! It is only this exegesis that allows me to begin to see and understand more clearly both myself and God. This is the process by which He progressively captures my heart. Only then can I begin to understand God’s word to me. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews discusses this exegeting process:
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12, 13).
These verses tell me that in the interaction between God’s word and me, I am the passive receiver and God’s word is the active initiator, the exegete, cutting me open and exposing me to myself. God already knows the condition of my heart—I am desperately in need of open-heart surgery—but I am totally blind to it. As His “sword of the Spirit” pierces my heart, my eyes are opened to a dirty little secret, a secret which I may have understood intellectually but of which I was completely unaware experientially.
Since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, the thoughts and intents of the hearts of all mankind, of every single descendant of Adam ever born, including my own, are “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Until the word of God begins to cut me open and exegete me, I cannot realize this. I am oblivious to the fact that the crucifixion-resurrection event occurred because I murdered Jesus, just as surely as if I had been there on site.
I was there among the Jewish religious leaders shouting, “Crucify Him!” because I did not want this upstart telling me I was “like a whitewashed tomb which indeed appears beautiful outwardly, but inside is full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27, 28). This is not just a description of the Pharisees who had Jesus crucified, but I have realized in just the last few years, after decades in church leadership, it is an exact description of me!
So, in my religious self-righteousness, I had much rather speculate on what was happening behind the scenes at the crucifixion. I had much rather discuss the various theories of the meaning, the mechanics and the results of the atonement than face head-on that Jesus is speaking directly to me in those verses in Matthew 23.
However, unlike me, King David was eager to face himself, as evidenced by his prayer for God to exegete his heart and turn over all the rocks there and force every one of the hidden, creepy, slimy things underneath to crawl out and be exposed:
“Examine me, O God, and know my mind; test me, and discover my thoughts. Find out if there is any evil in me and guide me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23, 24).
When that prayer, reflecting my eagerness to be exposed as a sinner, becomes the prayer of my heart, I inevitably understand the meaning of Paul’s statement near the end of his life:
“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:15, 16).
Paul knew that his ministry was not effective because he had a special calling from God, had his act together, knew the Bible cover to cover, could parse the Greek and was an expert in systematic theology. No! Paul knew that his life and ministry, that were “a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him,” sprang from the fact that he, as he penned this epistle a few short years before He was executed, remained a wicked sinner. He says “I am the chief of sinners,” not “I was a sinner before I met Jesus on the road to Damascus but, now as a Christian, I no longer am.” It is only those who are actively walking in this truth, who, whenever they open their mouths, a torrent of living water flows out, watering all with whom they come in contact. Lord, I beseech You, I desperately need heart surgery. Exegete me fully!
I totally agree, and that perspective will be a great help to me in my efforts to share the gospel with a very intelligent, but very “new age” universalist friend.