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 A Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ---How?

     To live a Christian life is to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But how do we develop that personal relationship? One of the ways is being described below.

 

     The passages below are taken from Tremper Longman III’s book “Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind,” published in 1997 by NavPress Publications.

 

A Heavenly Intrusion

     God speaks to us through the Bible. He encounters us in its pages. It is true that He speaks to us in other ways as well but never so clearly and directly as in Scripture. As I look out my window on this beautiful spring day in Philadelphia, I see a reflection of God’s care for His people in the sunshine and fresh air. When a devastating storm hits, I see His power. Further, since people we meet are made in God’s image, I see a very pale---and indeed distorted---picture of God in them. I can also see such a dim picture in myself. But because of our sin and finitude, which resulted in the fall of all creation, we wouldn’t have more than a vague impulse of God if He had not chosen to speak to us in the Bible. It would be like a movie “ghost” trying to make contact with the living but never fully appearing and never actually revealing himself.

     But God has chosen to reveal Himself to us in the Bible, and it is God’s description of Himself. It is not an internal voice that could be the product of our own wish fulfillment; it is the voice of God addressing us from outside of ourselves. In this regard, the Bible is the other side of prayer. I speak to God by praying to Him, and He answers me most clearly as I read the Bible. To pray much but not study the Bible traps us in a one-way conversation with God. Prayer without Bible reading is narcissistic. We hear ourselves but not God.

     The Bible is not just another book; it is a voice from outside of us and above us intruding into our lives to give us a better perspective on the issues that confront us daily. From only our limited perspective, we can have no certainty as we look into the future. We can’t be certain that we will keep our jobs, our friends, our spouses, our sanity, even our lives. As the author of Ecclesiastes (often called simply, “the Teacher”) put it in 9:11, when life is viewed under the sun (that is, from a purely human perspective), “time and chance” rule human destiny.

            But the Bible gives us a wisdom from above. Now, of course, it does not give us any false assurances. Indeed, it says that the life of God’s people will be characterized by pain and loss, but it also tells us that God is with us in the midst of our pain. It tells us that even in the horrible occurrences of our lives “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28 NIV) and that death does not “end it all” but leads to an eternity of bliss.

     We desperately need to know these things. Therefore, the Bible is not a dispassionate report to uninterested readers. It goes beyond calmly presenting evidence to a doubting world that God exists and is good. The Bible is passionate, more like preaching than anything else. It urgently proclaims God’s message of salvation to a spiritually hungry world. It does not argue for God’s existence; it assumes it and points out what this God has done in history to rescue a lost people.

     In all of these ways, then, the Bible is God’s Word to us. God speaks directly and clearly today in the pages of that ancient book. Nothing else compares with it. If we want to talk with God, we must turn to the Bible, for that is where we will meet Him.

 

A GOD OF RELATIONSHIP

     Of course, any Bible itself is “just a book,” ink on a page. And we do not change because we have a relationship with a book. We change through a relationship with a person---God Himself. This is why the Bible has a life-giving quality. When we go to the Bible to encounter God, what we find surprises us. We encounter something far more compelling than an arid theology or philosophy. We feel the grasp of a warm hand in ours.

     For some reason, Christians, whether in the pulpit or in conversation, tend to talk about God in the abstract. God is powerful, good, and wise. He is infinite and eternal. He is holy and just. The Bible certainly uses this language, and we can too. But as we read through the Bible, we see that God prefers to talk about Himself in concrete images. He is a shepherd, a king, a warrior, a parent, a wisdom teacher, a spouse. We might say that God’s primary way of revealing Himself is through picture images of relationship. God wants to tell us who He is, and He does so by comparing Himself to people and things we know well.

     For instance, the people of Israel, for whom Psalm 23 was first written, had frequent contact with shepherds; many of them were shepherds. So the psalmist invited them to consider how God was like a shepherd. Certainly, they readily recognized how God differed from the human shepherds they knew: not all were reliable; some were likely despicable human beings.

     But the psalmist used this image to teach us about God’s protection and His guidance of His people, who are His “sheep.” The Israelites would be aware that human shepherds take great risks to keep their charges from danger and wild animals. This word picture not only increased their understanding of who God was, but also elicited a warm emotional response in a way that a straightforward prose description would not.

     Consider another example: God is King (see Exodus 15:18; Deuteronomy 33:5; Psalms 47,93,96,98, 100). The Israelites, again the original hearers of these passages, knew what a king was. The king was an absolute sovereign who guided the whole community and had the power of life and death over his subjects. No one could get in the way of the king. That was what God was like, too. But God, rather than being the king of a mere nation, was the ruler of the universe.

     The biblical images for God are numerous. We couldn’t even scratch the surface in describing them in this book. However, we can spend a moment reflecting on why God has chosen to reveal Himself to us in this way. First, as we have already seen, picture images are concrete and vivid, communicating to everyone, not just to an intellectual elite. Everyone knew something about kings, soldiers, shepherds, parents, and husbands. So when God spoke of Himself in these ways, His hearers had a frame of reference for their understanding.

     Second, images speak to the soul, to the whole person, and not just to the mind. Images not only inform us about who God is, they stimulate our imaginations as we contemplate how God is like His earthly counterparts and how He differs from them. Our emotions thrill as we stand before a masterpiece of color at the art museum. The reds and blues and yellows reach into us and catch us up into a few moments of other-worldly connection. That is the power of an image, and our whole selves are drawn toward God in just this way. Perhaps this soul connection is why the Bible so often refers to God as Father. Whether our experience of an earthly father has been positive or painful, we all have a heartfelt yearning to know what it would mean to relate to a perfectly good, kind, and loving parent.

 

Seeing God as parent may seem childish. But might there be, in the unadmitted sparkle of the child within you, a sometime longing to climb into God’s fatherly lap, to nestle against God’s motherly breast, to rest for a moment in the shadow of God’s wings, or to be held in God’s strong and tender arms? If you could allow yourself to feel it, are there not times when you would love to cry on God’s shoulder, to let God tell you that you are worthwhile and beautiful? And is there not something in you that would be delighted if you could bring a smile to God’s face? 1

 

     Have you let the Bible speak to your soul lately by climbing into God’s lap through its pages?

     A third reason the Bible uses imagery for God is that word pictures preserve the divine mystery. We have already observed that an image brings together two things that are different in many ways in order to emphasize a core similarity. But the comparison is left to us and not precisely spelled out.

     When do we go too far in pressing the similarity? When not far enough? This is a question that frustrates the prosaic minds among us because we can never precisely draw the line.

    

As humans, we are caught between necessity and idolatry. We need our worth and images if we are to talk with each other about God. But when talking about God, let us proceed with caution, removing our shoes, lest we succeed only in creating a god who is not God at all.2

 

     The ambiguity of biblical imagery preserves the inscrutable mystery surrounding God. He is knowable, because He chooses to reveal Himself to us. But He is ultimately incomprehensible. That means we can adequately, but not exhaustively, know God. He goes beyond the capacity of our finite minds. Thus, through the use of metaphors and other images, God both reveals and conceals Himself from us.

     Before we leave this topic, let me emphasize again that the most pervasive images found in the Bible are word pictures of relationship. (Sure, some are not. God is a rock, a fortress, a light.) The most widely and repetitively used images convey relationship. So when we think of God as Shepherd, we remember we are His sheep. We are the soldiers in His army. We are the Father’s children. We are the subjects of our King.

     Take a moment, then, to consider your own “picture” of God. If you can be still and calm for a moment, take some time to be in God’s presence. What images arise? What feelings? What sense of who God is? I’m hoping that many of the images and pictures that come to mind serve to embrace you in the love and goodness and grace of God; for what we find in Scripture is a God who speaks to us in a language that knocks at our heart’s door---that of metaphor---and invites us into fellowship with Him.

     So far, however, we have not approached the primary way that God speaks to us in order to draw us into relationship. Ultimately He uses the best “imagery” of all---a living, breathing human being.

 

CHRIST — THE CENTER OF SCRIPTURE

     The message of the Bible concerns a people gone awry. God created men and women, but they turned against Him and broke the relationship. He could have justly given up on His creatures, but He did not. Instead, He pursues them. The Bible is the story of the rescue of God’s lost people.

     That story climaxes in Jesus Christ. The gospel of John gets right to the point in the first chapter when the apostle proclaims that “the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14), so that anyone who believed in Him became “children of God” (verse 12).

     We can, therefore, understand why Christians tend to spend most of their Bible-reading time in the New Testament. Jesus has come; He supersedes the prophets, according to Hebrews 1:1-2:

 

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.

 

     “Why bother with the Old Testament?” Few Christians would put it so blatantly. They simply vote with their time by only rarely reading the Old Testament. After all, according to Jesus, the whole Bible, Old Testament included, is about Him. Remember His conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus? It is after His resurrection but before He appeared to anyone else. The disciples wonder why Jesus had to die. Jesus looks at them in amazement and says:

 

“How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,3 he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

 

     And then not long after this meeting, Jesus appears to others of His disciples and tells them:

 

“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (24:44)

 

     Jesus here refers to His Bible as “Moses and all the Prophets” and then “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Since there was not yet a New Testament, Jesus could not refer to the Old Testament. Instead, He uses the language that was familiar to His Jewish audience in the first century A.D. Genesis through Deuteronomy was referred to as the “Law” or “Moses.” The rest of what we call the Old Testament was either lumped together as the “Prophets” or divided into two parts, the “Prophets” and the “Writings.” Jesus here refers to the Writings as “the Psalms,” which was the first book of that third section.

     Jesus is saying that the whole Bible anticipated His coming suffering and glorification in such a way that His followers should not have been surprised by what happened on Calvary or afterwards. His words have tremendous implications for how we understand the Bible. We already know that the Gospels and Epistles speak ofJesus, but now we realize that the history, poetry, law, and prophets of the Old Testament do so, too.

     The way Jesus speaks of the Old Testament corrects a mistake we might make as we come to the Scriptures. Many might think, “Sure, I know that the Old Testament speaks of Christ. I have read Isaiah 9, 11, and 53. I know the messianic psalms (2, 16, 22, 69, 110). I’ve discovered a number of startling predictions of Christ.” But Jesus here says that all the Scriptures concerned Himself. It is not just a few Old Testament passages that teach us about Him but every bit of the sacred writings. We should never read or teach from the Old Testament without asking how Jesus is anticipated in it.

     Augustine recognized this truth and coined a phrase that many Christians still appreciate. This fourth-century church father said that “the New Testament is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed.” As we will see, this does not mean we’ll adopt a “secret” method of interpretation that attempts to unlock hidden prophecies in every verse. Some have used the Christocentric nature of the Bible to read things into the text that are not there. But once we have the big picture, we will see how naturally the Old Testament presents Jesus to us.

     For Jesus is the whole point. No matter how much we love the pages of Scripture, we must keep in mind that it is the Christ of Scripture who claims our deepest affection. Otherwise, the Bible could become a thing of worship in itself.

 

Evangelical Christians are not, or ought not to be, what we are sometimes accused of being, namely, “bibliolaters,” worshipers of the Bible. We do not worship the Bible; we worship the Christ of the Bible.

     Here is a young man who is in love. He has a girlfriend who has captured his heart. As a result he carries a photograph of his beloved in his wallet because it reminds him of her when she is far away. Sometimes, when nobody is looking, he might even take the photograph out and give it a surreptitious kiss. But kissing the photograph is a poor substitute for the real thing. And so it is with the Bible. We love it only because we love him of whom it speaks.4

 

     So far in the first section of this book, we have set the foundation for a proper reading of the Bible by speaking of its transforming power. We now know why the Bible ignites the character of Christ in us: it is a seed that grows fruit in us; it is a mirror that reveals our souls to us. And it is a word in which we encounter our risen Lord.

 

How Do You ENCOUNTER HIM?

     “We should be as careful of the books we read, as of the company we keep,” said writer Tyron Edwards. “The dead very often have more power than the living.”

     All the books ever written were penned by men and women who have died or will die. But Jesus, center of Scripture, lives within us. It remains for us to open up to Him and become aware of His presence each moment, to be present for Him throughout the day.

     How does the Bible help us do that? By offering the opportunity to encounter Him in the words and events that flow to us from the sacred pages. Why not take a few minutes right now to see how this can work in your life? Choose any portion of the Scripture, preferably starting with a reading that has a sense of “place” to it. Then put yourself into the Scene. For example, try reading John 21:4-13 with this approach, being there on the shore with Jesus.

 

     Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

     He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

     “No,” they answered.

     He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

     Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

     Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”

     Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

 

     In silent meditation, consider: what does the Man look like as He stands in the early morning sun? Can you see the glinting of light in His hair and beard? What is in His eyes? They are focused on you! Feel the love in Him, extending to you, His disciple. When He calls out, how does His voice sound? Take a moment to hear— really hear with your heart---as He calls you “Friend.” Bask in the goodness of being a beloved friend of the Lord.

     Hear the water lapping at the sides of the boat. Take in the smell of rotting nets and the pungent odors of fish and tackle. Acknowledge the willingness of this King to be immersed in the mundane world of business. What is He like at your own place of work? How does He care for you there and help you with your daily catch? Let Him bless you in your work right now.

     Are you sleepy? But then how do you feel as you suddenly recognize: it is the Lord! What is it like to recognize His presence, right now, as you sit in your chair? He is here. It is, indeed, the Lord waiting for you.

     As the boat docks and you move across the sand to meet Him, feel the little stones between your toes and approach Him slowly. For here is the love of your life. And He is cooking breakfast for you! Smell the burning coals and let Him serve you. As He passes you a piece of fish, what do you say? What is the silence saying, right now, as you wait before Him---the One who loves you and serves you and calls you to win and serve others?

     Though dead, He has returned but not as a ghost. He is a living friend to know forever. Enjoy your fellowship with Him in this precious moment with the Word. (39-47)

 

Notes

1. Gerald May, The Awakened Heart (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988), pp. 171-172.

2. Christina Bucher, Biblical Imagery for God (Elgin, IL; Brethren Press. 1995), p 5.

3. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, of course, what we call the Old Testament was the only Bible around. It was commonly referred to as “Moses,” the author of the first five books, “and the Prophets,” referring more generally to the authors of the rest of the books.

4. John R.W. Stott, in James Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton,II; Tyndale House, 1988), p,44.

 

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