27 Oct 2020
We have considered Scripture as the speech of God Himself. This would imply that as we hear God speaks, we hear the words expressed by Him in Scripture.
We saw how in the sixteenth century, prior to the Reformation, Scripture was not available to the lay people. They were not in a position to hear God speaking; instead they received wrong teaching and messages from those in ‘religious positions’.
Today, we are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual dominates over the verbal, and where entertainment takes precedence over exposition. Although the words in Scripture are available to many, few are willing to take time to study, ponder and appreciate what God has revealed through His Word – we prefer what we can see, and sight predominates and satisfies our appetites for instant gratification. Sights and images are more to do with appearances while sound and words take us into meaning.
While the BIble contains many lives, actions, images, visions and events, the form in which it comes to us is words. This written record may at first appear fragile and ineffective as means of communication, yet in the hand of God it has sustained Christian faith, spirituality and practice for more than 2,000 years.
In fact words are powerful, especially if those words are God’s words. For God’s creation and forming of the world is achieved by His speaking. When He said, ‘Let there be light.’ there was light. Jesus is called the Word of God because He is the full and effective revelation of God. If biblical spirituality is not to be lost, then we need to recover our trust in the power of words, especially the words of the BIble.
The Bible contains many forms of speech than quotations of God’s direct speech. God speaks directly in only some parts of Scripture. Yet in a wider sense we can assert that all of the Bible is God’s word in that those who spoke or wrote did so as His representatives, and that the words written down have the authority of God. The Bible as the word or speech-act of God includes not only God’s direct speech, but also many other forms of direct and indirect communications.
We should note the Bible’s distinction between living by faith now and the vision of God we will have after the return of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul made it clear that when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end (13:11). Knowledge now is certain but partial; knowledge then will be complete and personal, face to face. That is why ‘we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). This explains that ‘faith’ is the characteristic of this age, as ‘sight’ is the characteristic of the age to come. It explains why the word has priority now, whereas vision will have the priority when Christ returns. This is why spirituality which tries to replace sound by sight, world by vision, is misleading; it is misleading because it is mistimed. It is yet another attempt to live now as we cannot live; of trying to live now as if Christ has already returned in glory.
There are of course many examples of this mistake in contemporary spirituality. The claims of perfect healing, spiritual perfection, a perfect church or of complete knowledge, are all attempts to live now as if Christ has already returned, as if the general resurrection had already occurred. So too is the replacement of a spirituality of hearing the audible by that of seeing the visible. We need to hear again the words of Jesus, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe’ (John 20:29). We walk by faith and therefore not by sight. We can see the beauty of the Lord by hearing about Him in His word, and reflecting on and rejoicing in His character. We will not see the beauty of the Lord until He returns.
We are familiar with the tension, between the ‘now’ (already, present) and the ‘not yet’ (future) – the connection between the contemporary and the eschatological. A balanced grasp of the now-not yet tension would be very conducive to Christian unity. Although we believe the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds, and the substance of the major Reformation confessions, yet there is much disunity within the evangelical movement itself. Although we agree on the doctrinal and ethical fundamentals of the faith, yet evangelical Chrisians still are prone to quarrelling and dividing, or simply going our own way and building our own empire.
Fundamental to New Testament Christianity is the perspective that we are living ‘in between times’, between the past and the future, between the first coming and the second comings of Christ, between what has been done and what remains to be done, between present reality and future destiny, between kingdom come and kingdom coming, between the ‘now already’ in relation to the inauguration of the kingdom and the ‘not yet’ in relation to consummation. Jesus taught and regarded the kingdom as a present phenomenon; His perspective of the kingdom also included a future expectation – it would not be perfected until the last day. Another way in which Scripture expresses the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, the present and the future, is by the terminology of the two ‘ages’. The two ages overlap. The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. Christians are hoping, waiting and longing for the future. Yet Christians are still suffering grievous trials and tribulations. It is vital to preserve the tension between the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’.
One might say that there are three distinct types of Christian according to the degree to which they manage to maintain this biblical balance.
First, there are ‘the already’ Chrisians. They rightly emphasise what God has already done for us through Christ and bestowed on us in Christ. But they give the impression that, in consequence, there are now no mysteries left, no sins which cannot be overcome, no diseases which cannot be healed, and no evils which cannot be eradicated from the church, or even the world. In short, they seem to believe that perfection is attainable now. Their motive may be alright – they want to glorify Christ. So they refuse to set limits to claim the possibility of perfection now. But their optimism can easily degenerate into presumption and end up in disillusion. They forget the ‘not yet’ of the New Testament, and that perfection awaits the parousia (second coming).
Secondly, there are the ‘not yet’ Christians. They rightly emphasise the incompleteness for the time being of the work of Christ, and they rightly look forward to the parousia when Christ will complete what He has begun. But they give the impression of being extremely negative in their attitudes. They seem to be preoccupied with our human ignorance and failure, the pervasive reign of disease and death, and the impossibility of securing either a pure church or a perfect society. They pour cold water on every claim that Christ may be victoriously active in any of these areas. Their motive is positive; they want to humble sinners and are determined to be true to Scripture in their emphasis on human depravity. But their pessimism can easily degenerate into complacency; it can also lead to an apathy in the face of evil and an acceptance of the status quo. They forget the ‘already’ of what Christ has done by His death, resurrection and Spirit-gift, and what He can do in our lives, and in church and society, as a result.
Thirdly, there are the ‘already-not yet Christians. These are the biblical realists. For they want to give equal weight to the two comings of Jesus, to what He has done and what He is going to do. They rejoice in the former and wait eagerly for the latter. They want simultaneously to glorify Christ and humble sinners. On the one hand, they have great confidence in the ‘already’, in what God has said and done through Christ, and great determination to explore and experience to the fullest possible extent the riches of Christ’s person and work. On the other hand, they exhibit a genuine humility before the ‘not yet’, humility to confess that much ignorance and sinfulness, much physical frailty, ecclesiastical unfaithfulness and social decay remain – and will remain as symptoms of a fallen, half-saved world until Christ perfects at His second coming what He began at His first.
(With thanks to the late John Stott in his book ‘The contemporary Christian’ for the clear descriptions of the three types of Christians).
We must not miss the point that the understanding of ‘the already’ and ‘not yet’ comes from the study and examination of the words of God in Scripture in its totality. Looking at one aspect and missing the others leads to unwholesome understanding and outworking of the Christian life. We need to recognise Scripture as God speaking to us and He does it in words communicated through His representatives by the enabling and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must alway hear God’s words in Scripture