Open Secrets: When I First Understood the Bible | James P. Long

Open Secrets: When I First Understood the Bible

“The word of God is alive and active. … It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” —Hebrews 4:12

I knew the book was special long before I knew why. It had been a Christmas gift from my parents back when I’d have chosen cars and trucks and guns. And yet there was, I sensed, something different about the boxed book with its black leatherette cover.

The Holy Bible
CONTAINING THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS TRANSLATED OUT OF THE ORIGINAL TONGUES AND WITH THE FORMER TRANSLATIONS DILIGENTLY COMPARED AND REVISED. THE AUTHORIZED KING JAMES VERSION, 1611, RED LETTER EDITION.

I was 9.

Over the years, I made gradual progress deciphering the Book. But it was seven years later, at 16, that I first had the startling experience—and may I say how I felt it?—the startling experience of this Book “speaking to me.” It was a crisp, late-summer night high in California’s Sierra Nevada, before a crackling campfire, reading about the betrayal, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The words, even the King James-ish thee’s and thou’s, seemed not so much a part of a book being read as a conversation being spoken. It was very much like being let in on a dreadful but exhilarating secret.

Was God “talking” to me through this Book of his?

I have occasionally had similar Bible reading experiences since. I have related, for instance, how the words, “Every good and perfect gift is from above” seemed to rise off the page as I had read them. Meaning was coming to me. Understanding. As if God were letting me in on another of his secrets: “Guess what? I am the giver of all your good experiences!”

I realize it is not uncommon for a reader to be struck by an aha! kind of feeling at reading most anything. Catching the meaning of something for the first time or seeing a concept in a new light may give a gentle high. But this was different because the ideas were different. God was letting me in on his thoughts.

I am now convinced that, in giving us the Bible, God has placed his secrets out in the open. Down where we can reach them.

Read them.

It does make sense to me, hearing these words I read as God’s. Think about it. God loves us—he’s dramatically demonstrated that. So wouldn’t he choose to communicate with us somehow? Wouldn’t he want us to avoid exhausting speculation about what he’s like and who Jesus was and where evil came from? Wouldn’t he warn us if he saw we were in danger?

God knows life can be perplexing, at times even sickening. Wouldn’t he give us information so we could understand it, and perspective so we could tolerate it?

God has expectations of us and has made promises to us. Wouldn’t he formalize things, put it all in writing like a contract?

And yet, I wonder: Why a book? Why written ideas? Why couldn’t God communicate, warn, inform, promise privately? With each of us, individually? Why couldn’t he simply whisper his ideas in my mind and yours and his and hers and theirs all at once? It would be so personal. So identifiable. So unmistakable. He is God, after all. He listens to millions of complex prayers simultaneously. Why couldn’t he talk to us—all of us—directly?

I have thought about this a lot and magnanimously grant that he could have spoken privately, individually, personally, simultaneously, directly. Since he didn’t, since he spoke through people into a Book, and through the Book to us, there must be some good reasons. And I have concluded there are some distinct advantages to receiving God’s secrets in a book.

The Book is objective. Objective, as in “object.” I can hold it, look at it, evaluate it, explain it. So can you. So can we, together. We can read it. Study it. We might come to different conclusions on the meaning of some phrase or idea, but we have a common source we can come back to: the Book.

Can you imagine, if we each claimed a private pipeline to God, how competitive we could become? Private “revelation” is so subjective. Subjective, as in “subject”—a subject in the mind to be pondered and discussed. We might disagree sharply. Who would arbitrate? And by what standards? How could we judge the ideas that you say flow through your direct, private pipeline? Or the ideas that I say God gave me?

The Book is something we can hold and value. I don’t mean worship; we worship God, not a book. And yet, these ideas about God are available in print. A portable library of life, telling the story of God’s unfailing love. Shouldn’t we value it?

The Book calls for our energy and involvement. Perhaps God’s ideas spoken directly into our minds would have been too easy. God seems to appreciate it when we invest our energy in seeking to understand him, our involvement in bringing the ideas off the page. We read. We study. We exert mental energy. We take part in the process of finding God.

The Book connects God’s friends together. I might, in having a private link with the perfect God, shun interaction with his imperfect people. Instead, we are linked together to cooperate in our search for understanding.

The Book—here are 66 individual books, written by 40 authors, in three languages, in several different countries, over hundreds of years. Yet, taken together, we have one unified Book, authored actually by God. But with such human involvement.

The words in the Book were passed as stories from generation to generation. The scrolls hand-copied who knows how many hundreds of times. The manuscripts circulated, read, explained, collected, ultimately printed and distributed, translated and re-translated, as we learn more of the language and culture, and as our own language changes over time. And the Book, those words, over generations, read and studied and explained.

We would not have God’s ideas without the help of God’s other friends. Obviously, God values all this connectedness of his people, his family, his kingdom, his priesthood. Throughout the world and throughout the generations.

He could have conducted unending individual spiritual conferences. But he does not want us connected only to him; he wants us connected also to one another.

So, whose Word is it? In spite of such human involvement, the Book we read it is called “The Word of God,” not “The Words of People About God.”

“The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword. It penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

It is called the Bible, meaning “the Book,” precisely because of its uniqueness. It is not a book, it is the Book. God’s book.

It is called the Scriptures—the writings—for the same reason. The Writings. Unique. Set apart.

It is called the Old and New Testaments—testaments, covenants, agreements—because it is a book detailing God’s promises and agreements with his people. With us.

It is called “The Law and the Prophets” because it contains God’s expectations and principles for life.

It is pictured as a mirror, reflecting our inner attitudes.

It is pictured as a seed, giving life.

It is pictured as cleansing water, bringing purity to our motives and actions.

It is pictured as light, offering clear guidance for life.

It is pictured as food, bringing nourishment to the inner life.

On and on the images go. Each stressing the uniqueness of this Book. Its power. Its supernatural author. God wanted to help us with life, wanted to share his secrets. Openly. So he wrote them down.

And how many writers? We say, “God wrote a book.” But we credit David with many of the Psalms. Solomon with most of Proverbs. Paul with half the New Testament. John with five books. Forty authors, when the role is called. So, were there 40 writers or one?

Both.

“No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” —2 Peter 1:21

God’s ideas, then, came through a partnership. God’s will, human voice.

I do not take this to be a mechanical sort of thing, either. Read the Bible. You find unified themes spoken through varied personalities, intellects and styles. Matthew was a tax collector. Luke a doctor. David a monarch. Peter a fisherman. And their writings are colored by their backgrounds.

Peter noticed this difference in Paul’s writings—logical, intellectual Paul. What did Peter say?

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” —2 Peter 3:15–16

What did Peter say? He said that Paul’s message agreed with his own. He said that Paul wrote out of the resource of God’s wisdom. He said that Paul had certain recurring themes. He said that Paul was sometimes hard to follow. He said that Paul’s message was tampered with only out of self-destructive foolishness? Why? Because Paul’s writings are Scripture.

Moreover: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

There’s help for our understanding. For us to gain good from God’s words, we must be able to understand them. As Proverbs so aptly puts it, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12).

We are astoundingly capable of self-deception. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

Who? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind” (Jer. 17:10).

If we cannot figure out our own mind, how can we fathom God’s ideas?

How? He helps us.

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him—but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.

“The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” —1 Corinthians 2:9–12

And what has God freely given us? Open secrets about his way for us to live—loving, forgiving, exercising self-control, showing patience, finding joy even in hardship.

What has God freely given us? Open secrets about God and his agenda for time and forever. God loves us; Christ died for us; the Holy Spirit helps us; Satan hinders; hell is real, but so is heaven.

And yet, in some mysterious way, as open as God has made his secrets, people who do not know God do not understand his ideas either. The secrets seem stupid; too silly to be wise.

“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. … For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” —1 Corinthians 2:14, 16

I guess one day it just clicked. I do not recall when it happened. But I turned a corner in my mind. The Book that had seemed so special because of its protective box and leatherette binding took on a deeper meaning. It had once captivated me precisely because it seemed so forbidding, unapproachable.

The Holy Bible
CONTAINING THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS TRANSLATED OUT OF THE ORIGINAL TONGUES AND WITH THE FORMER TRANSLATIONS DILIGENTLY COMPARED AND REVISED. THE AUTHORIZED KING JAMES VERSION, 1611, RED LETTER EDITION.

Then something clicked.

Was it that night in the Sierra? Was it some afternoon when curiosity prompted me to crack the Book open? At some point I realized I was no longer reading words from people about God. I was reading God’s Word. His Word to me.

And a responsibility settled over me with astonishing weight: I have only one life to master this Book.

I may have forever to get to know God.

But I need his open secrets now.


James P. Long is the managing editor of Outreach magazine and is the author of a number of books, including Why Is God Silent When We Need Him the Most?.