If you consider everything that the Bible says about the work of the Holy Spirit, you will come across one item in particular that may strike some believers as being surprisingly mundane and practical. That is, it just doesn’t seem to fit very naturally with the rest of their ideas on how the Holy Spirit works, and many don’t quite ever come to grips with it. I’m referring to the work that the Holy Spirit did regarding the writing of the scriptures. I’m writing this article in hopes that the reader might reconsider, and stretch their understanding of how God chose to work in this way, so that they can make the most of the scriptures.
Now, in case you’re wondering, I understand quite well that there is much confusion and disagreement these days over the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. For example, some believe that the believer could not possibly do, think, or even wish anything that is right in God’s eyes without the empowering of the indwelling Holy Spirit to make it possible, while on the other extreme, some don’t even believe that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is still available today as it was in the First Century. Or here’s another example: some believe that the indwelling begins at baptism, while others think it happens at the moment one begins to believe in Jesus, and still others believe that the indwelling must begin before one believes (because, they say, belief in Jesus could not possibly happen without the power of the indwelling to make it happen.)
This article does not aim to solve all that controversy, but rather, to point out one often-missed fact about the one particular type of work that the Holy Spirit is definitely doing today. Regardless of how much the Spirit may or may not be intervening in believers’ hearts and minds to guide, direct, teach, prompt, enable, empower, protect, and enrich them, the work set in action by the Holy Spirit in the writing of the scriptures is often underestimated in various ways—and I don’t mean by atheists, but by well-meaning believers who simply haven’t gotten a full grasp on this particular fact of the religion to which they subscribe.
The fact of the matter is that the Holy Spirit worked through various authors in the distant past to write various works of scripture that express—even to readers today—the very thoughts and values of God through the vehicle of written language. These thoughts were transferred into language, and they can be transferred in turn out of language, and into our own minds where they can be reflected upon, studied, and adopted or rejected by anyone who has learned the skills of reading and reading comprehension to a sufficient level. As I said, for many people, this does not strike them as being nearly as dramatic or exciting as is the idea of God interacting with people in real-time interventions that happen in their own minds and hearts. Nor is it as exciting as burning bushes and angels and thundering voices from heaven—some of the miraculous and outward means of communication that God employed from time to time in the Bible accounts. But does the relative lack of exciting-ness of learning from scripture make it any less important? Of course not! I submit, that regardless of what else the Holy Spirit may or may not be doing today, the work he began through the scriptures is still up and running today, and is a major part of his ongoing role on Planet Earth. Like it or not, it is a major part of God’s plan for the life of the believer.
As I am in constant discussion with many different believers, I am troubled to see that many, while they generally recognize the Bible as “the word of God”, tend to defer away from scripture and toward the influence of their own inner experiences—whether those be the result of interactions with the Holy Spirit, or just their own reflections, wishes, dreams, and desires. With many (but not all), it’s clear that the primary influence they seek is that that is perceived within, and not what can be perceived from without—from the written words on the pages of the Bible. Most seem to know that the Holy Spirit produced the Bible, but interestingly, they aren’t as excited to sort out its information as they are to turn to their own inward processes for information. And what should give us pause about this? Well, it’s the fact that God, in his infinite wisdom, did indeed choose to make written language a major part of his spiritual work in his relationship to humankind. So, if we don’t see it that way, we have a fundamental misunderstanding of how things are supposed to work.
We read in several passages of the Bible that the Holy Spirit was responsible for the scriptures being written. I’ll assume that the reader is already familiar with this fact, so I won’t list those passages here. And yes, there’s still lots of discussion about how that worked, exactly—about the exact nature of how the Holy Spirit guided those authors in their writings—but let’s not miss the point here. If the Bible is to be believed about the role of the Holy Spirit in writing it (and I think it is), then the documents that comprise it wouldn’t be here without the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, they are the work of the Holy Spirit! Are they the only work of the Holy Spirit? Is scripture the only way that the Holy Spirit acts? Again, there’s much controversy over what’s still going on today, but it’s fairly obvious that, at least in Bible times, the Holy Spirit did many things other than to inspire the writing of scripture. And again, this article isn’t intended to solve that debate. Rather, it’s intended to point out the importance of this one particular and very special work of the scriptures.
Even though the most recent of the documents that comprise the Bible was written nearly 2,000 years ago, its writings about morality are still relevant today. Yes, there are certainly some questions about morality that the Bible doesn’t directly address, but the topic of what human behavior God considers appropriate is very well covered throughout the Bible texts, and very little is left out. The books of the Bible were probably written over a span of about 1,500 years, give or take, and they cover a great amount of material regarding human behavior, and what God thinks about it. Further, God’s view of morality does not seem (to me, at least) to have changed since the beginning, and he still has the same opinion of what is righteous and what is not. And those opinions are still transmitted to us through the scriptures, which were written all those centuries ago as the writers were carried along by the Holy Spirit. To this very day, these writings still “shed light upon the earth” in this way. They are how we know what God wants and expects from our behavior. They are how we know God’s views on a great many things. They are a third-party source of information for us, independent of our own opinions and wishes. They represent an authority to which we can turn for the facts of the matter, as opposed to being left on our own, with only our own opinions and the opinions of our peers from which to find our way in this world.
So, when you read the Bible—when you go through that cognitive exercise of processing the language on the pages—when you address the thoughts that those writers encoded (that’s a linguistics term) into written language, and you decode them (another linguistics term) from written language into thoughts and concepts—when you do that, you are on the receiving end of a process that was initiated by the Holy Spirit those many centuries ago. It was the work of the Holy Spirit to have those thoughts and concepts encoded, and even though we are not the original audience to whom and for whom those writings were delivered, it still works the same for us as it did for them: we are still partakers in that particular work of the Holy Spirit when we read. We are still enlightened and informed and scared and convicted by it—provided we are open to processing it as it was intended to be processed.
I do not believe that all this is merely some beneficial byproduct of what all happened way back then. Rather, I believe that it was most likely deliberate—that God had every intention of making a permanent record of these things for the benefit of all generations who will live on Planet Earth. The faithful men and women about whom we read up to the beginning of the New Testament were indeed that “cloud of witnesses” to whom the Hebrews author refers in Hebrews 12:1. And, as if that were not enough, the exploits and communications of those in Jesus’ ekklesia (“church” to most) provide an extraordinary record for us of a people who were called to, and most of whom embraced, an authentic and responsible relationship with God. Among these latter, in particular, are those whom Jesus called “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), which fact is very instructive, as we know that Jesus himself was also the “light” (John 1:9, John 3:19, John 8:12, John 9:5, etc.) That he would call them to share in his own “light” is extraordinary, and we see at the end of the story, that they are included in the “Holy City” that sheds such a light on the earth that “the nations will walk by its light.” (Revelation 21:24)
These things are fantastic! And how do we know them? We know it through the written record that was inspired by the Holy Spirit. This information was deliberately encoded into written language, and we can deliberately decode it (read it) and process it for our own information and edification. Through these writings, we can participate in the knowledge of much of what has happened since the beginning between God and his creation. So when you read and consider the Bible, you are opening the door, as it were, to the Holy Spirit himself. You are opening yourself to considering the very thoughts and wishes and principles of God. You are accessing a pipeline of information that was built a very long time ago as a means to deliver God’s thoughts to every subsequent generation that would live on Planet Earth.
Why did God want it in writing? Well, you’ll have to ask him that question when you see him. Why not just download all that information directly into the hearts and minds of believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? You’ll have to ask him that, too. Apparently, God is the sort of person who would have books written to put these things on the record for all to read the same. So when you access that collection of books we call the Bible, you are participating in a big part of God’s overall plan for how us people down here are supposed to get some manner of grasp on what goes on here, and what goes on in the world beyond our own. The reading and studying of the Bible is definitely “spiritual” business—every bit as much as prayer and worship and fellowship and all the other things that believers do in their normal business of believing.
Sadly, not everyone enjoys those various processes that are part of reading, studying, and reflecting upon the Bible. It takes work! And not everyone likes work. Some, of course, are more accustomed to it and skilled at it than others, and have a cognitive disposition that’s more suited to it than others. But skills can be developed, and the cognitive disposition can change. Yes, some have a higher IQ than others, but fortunately, IQ is really just a measure of the processing speed of our minds—and not of processing capability. Even if you can calculate 13 x 45 faster than I can, I can still calculate it sufficiently to get the same right answer that you can get. And even if it takes Suzy longer than Betty to understand the concept of, say, justification, Suzy can still understand it. The main factor in play is whether she wants to understand it. And interestingly, that’s also the main factor for Betty! It doesn’t matter how smart Betty may be; if she doesn’t want to understand the Bible, she has a fundamental problem in her moral disposition, and her cognitive skills and speed matter very little.
What’s in question here, then, is what kind of people are we? If God has had some of his thoughts and wishes and paradigms set into writing for our benefit, how will we respond to that? Will we dig into the scriptures, learning them diligently? Will we ignore them altogether, or only dabble in studying them? Will we spin the whole thing into an idea that the intellectual pursuit of Christianity is misguided—and that reading and study and reflection are inferior activities, trumped by the real-time inner experience of interacting with the Holy Spirit? Will we try to sit on the fence, while keeping our toes all over to one side, opining that while the Bible is great and all, the real business of Christianity is not in understanding what’s written on those pages, but in listening to the voice of God in our own hearts and minds? Will we take a chimerical and unreal view of the Bible, believing that we can somehow understand it overall without doing the actual work required to understand its individual verses, chapters, and books?
When faced with the chance to examine and learn the thoughts of God, will we be like David?
Psalm 139:17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
Or will we be more like the hypocrites whom Jesus rebuked?
John 8:43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.
Many live in some place in between, liking some things in the Bible, but either disliking or being disinterested in the rest. They may indeed go to church in order to worship God, but do they really delight in him as David did?
Psalm 111:2 Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
Notice that word, “studied” there. That’s not some passive activity, but a deliberate one—the very sort of thing that many people deliberately avoid doing.
Now, I know that a lot of people are highly focused on what the Holy Spirit does inside the hearts and minds of the believer, so I find it rather ironic that they are relatively disinterested in this particular work of the Holy Spirit: convicting, inspiring, encouraging, teaching, correcting, enlightening, and edifying people through the written words of the scriptures. Is a person really open to God if he or she is not open to this major part of God’s work?
I have a hard time imagining how that could be. The Bible is a major gift to this world, and many leave its depths unexplored, not realizing its tremendous value. For all their talk about the work of the Holy Spirit, they are tragically ignorant of, or disinterested in, this colossal ongoing work of the Spirit to communicate information to humankind through the thoughts he had written into the Bible.
PS. Many believers would agree with the statement, “Christian maturity comes only through the sanctifying work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.” But look what Paul said about maturation here:
2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
This would have been a really good place for Paul to warn them against taking an unspiritual view, and overlying too much on the scriptures, as if the believer could grow without the direct intervention of the indwelling. But he takes no pains to say any such thing here. It’s almost as if no such warning were necessary. Indeed, it wasn’t. Even then, in that time when we know for a fact that they had the indwelling (yes, there is disagreement over whether the indwelling is still given today), we see that they were still expected to learn and mature from the scriptures. So, why not today? Why this popular idea that the study of scripture is somehow ancillary to the real Christian life today? Why the idea that those who are highly diligent in Bible study are somehow misguided, or are even “legalistic” in wanting to adhere strictly to what they read?