Saturday, July 27, 2013

Experience and the Bible: AfterThoughts

After having posted my little essay on the Bible and experience, some more verses came to mind that, from my perspective, confirms experience as a means of discerning truth and gaining a better understanding of Scripture and its application in our lives.

1 John 1:1-3

The apostle John begins his first epistle by suggesting that his testimony of Christ, along with that of the disciples, rests on the basis of personal experience: "...what we have heard...seen with our eyes…beheld…and our hands have handled...concerning the Word of life; and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you..." (1 John 1:1-3, cp. John 21:24).1

In his commentary on the epistles of John, Marshall writes, "Our writer here wants to emphasize that the Christian message is identical with Jesus; it took personal form in a person who could be heard, seen, and even touched" and further asserts, "the life that God gives to men was revealed historically in Jesus. Indeed it is identical with Jesus, so that the writer can say that he has actually seen it. Because of this he is qualified to testify to it." Marshall contends, that the apostle's "emphasis is not on the act of proclamation but on the historical reality of that to which he bears witness."  As such, if I have correctly understood Marshall, he seems to suggest that emphasis is placed on John’s experience of Jesus Christ in history, which forms the basis for not only his faith but also the proclamation of the Gospel.  John proclaims an experience.

Barker states that the apostle John’s “witness was based on the immediate evidence of the senses,”3 which is to say essentially, the apostle’s witness was based on his experience.

Cox argues that against the claims of those who held to the “error of Docetism”, the apostle “John disposes of this heresy in quick, concise, and clear words…John is an authoritative witness.  John knew Jesus and had been with him in person…”  John was an eye-witness and thereby proclaimed the reality of a Savior as opposed to the imaginations of the deluded because he experienced the presence of Jesus the Messiah.  Cox continues, “Some people attempt to proclaim without a personal experience.  They try to declare truths about which they know little.  John knew what he was saying.  He was a witness and therefore he could declare.”4  The apostle derived his authority from his personal experience of the incarnate Son of God.
Blaney contends that

“God can be known only by experiencing Him.  Israel knew God by a sense of the Divine Presence in the great events of her corporate existence.  From Abraham to Moses, to the Red Sea to Sinai, across the Jordan and into the Promised Land, Israel saw God at work and realized herself to be His chosen people.  This did not come by sovereign announcement only but by the experience of entering into a covenant relationship with Jehovah.  Israel experienced election to a unique relationship with God."5

If the Apostle John’s first epistle was written for the purpose of challenging the false teachers of an incipient form of Gnosticism with claims of possessing spiritual knowledge that was deeper and superior to Christians6 and which opposed that handed down by the apostles, it only makes sense that John would begin his epistle, “You think these ‘teachers’ know Christ?  They have never met him!  I’ve been with him, walked with him, seen, heard, and touched him; and what I have received directly from the Son of God, I pass on to you.”

As I heard someone say once or twice, “You can’t argue with experience.”

Hebrews 1:2

The same claim is basic to the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews: “in these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son” (1:2).

Although no firm scholarly consensus has arrived as to the author of Hebrews, nevertheless, whoever he is, he seems to lay stress on experience as a basis for witness and proclamation.  In 2:3-4, he writes:

“…how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?  After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit…”7

I affirm wholeheartedly to what Lane states in his smaller yet excellent commentary on Hebrews:

“The opening lines of the sermon (1:1-2a) bring the audience face-to-face with the God who speaks.  The preacher confronts his ambivalent friends, troubled by the apparent silence of God in response to their desperate situation, with the indisputable fact that our God is the God who speaks.  He spoke in the distant past through the prophets (1:1); he has spoken in the more recent past through the Son (1:2a); and he continues to speak through the witness which has been given as a gift of love to that very community.  God is not silent, but vocal.  He has repeatedly taken the initiative to disclose himself because he wants to be known…The emphasis falls on the factual truth that God comes again and again into our human experience, disclosing his presence to us, precisely when we had suspected that we were alone in the world.”8

Lane further adds, “It is philosophers who speak about…the ‘hidden God’.  The Bible knows nothing about the hidden God but only of men and women who hide, and of God who comes to seek them out to engage them in a meaningful conversation as he makes himself known to them.”9

Although the Bible gives us information about God revealing his character and his aim in salvation, the Bible itself neither grants salvation nor mediates grace.  Since Jesus is the “one mediator” (1 Timothy 2:4) between God and man, it is only through an encounter with the risen Lord that men come to experience God.  The “Word of God” is not ink and paper but Jesus Christ of whom ink and paper speak (John 5:39; Revelation 19:13). 

This is not to denigrate the Bible but to put it in its proper place in God’s purposes for salvation.  I recently heard a pastor preach, although the intentions of his heart for God’s people is commendable, as he held up his Bible and pointed to it, “We put the ‘Word of God’ on a pedestal.”*  He was saying that Christians ought to place the Bible – the written word – above all else.  It seems to me that this is the very problem Ruthven addresses in his most recent book when he writes that Protestant theology wrongly focused on the “exposition of Scripture – which resulted in de-emphasizing the central mission Scripture proclaims.”  The “central mission”, as I believe Ruthven rightly contends, is that “Christians live by a messianic epistemology based on immediate revelation by the Holy Spirit as its ideal – even central – characteristic, as Isaiah 11:2-3 shows.”10

We find in Hebrews further evidence of the “immediate revelation by the Holy Spirit” as Scriptures “ideal” in the warning passages of irreversible judgment against those who have “tasted of the heavenly gift” and “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” only to “have fallen away” (Hebrews 6:4-6a).  The word “tasted” refers to having a real and definite experience.11  There is a dire warning for those who, having experienced the Presence of God in their lives, yet turn away from God and fall back into disobedience.  It is this very “taste” of God, this wonderful experience of the Presence of God in their personal lives, that makes the apostate all the more blameworthy and his punishment all the more severe (Hebrews 10:28-29).

Mark 16:20

The objection is made that experience does not confirm Scripture but Scripture confirms experience.  However, Scripture itself contradicts this argument. 

“And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.”12

Note, it was not the word that validated the “signs” (i.e. the miracles), but the miracles – the “signs” – validated the “word”, i.e. proclamation of the gospel.  It was the experience of hearing the proclamation of the Gospel and encountering the accompanying power of God’s Presence, which proved that the word proclaimed was true.  In a Pentecostal study Bible on Mark 16:20, we read, “The Scriptures clearly teach that it is the desire of Christ for His followers to perform miraculous deeds as they announce the gospel of the kingdom…These signs (Gk. sēmeîon), performed by true disciples, confirm that the gospel message is genuine, that the kingdom of God has come to earth in power…”13

It is admitted that there are disagreements as to the legitimacy of the longer ending in Mark, nevertheless, the Book of Acts demonstrates that the “signs and wonders” performed by the Lord through the apostles did validate the message proclaimed.  Some passages as examples:

In Acts 2:1-21, Peter explained to all who saw and heard what was occurring among the 120 believers that this experience was in fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures and confirms the words of the prophets.

In 2:22-24, Peter further proclaims that the man whom they crucified was their Messiah, proved to be so by the “miracles and wonders and sings which God performed through Him in your midst.”

In 2:32-33, Peter preaches that the resurrection of Christ was something they themselves had witnessed and this further demonstration of a miraculous wonder – the speaking of tongues – is what they witness now, an experience that validates and confirms both the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the kingdom of God and the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ (Heb: messiah), upon whose shoulders the government of God’s kingdom rests.

The message of the Gospel was inaugurated through an experience of the Presence of God.  It was the power of the kingdom of God, not merely in something read in paper and ink but in what was experienced that resulted in the conversion of some 3,000 souls!  It was the experience of the power of the Spirit that not only confirmed the word proclaimed but convinced the hearers that what was being said was true; it was real, it was their God visiting them again.  In his concluding note specifically on v.33 of Acts 2, F.F. Bruce states that God’s “present impartation to them (the disciples) attended as it were by sensible signs (i.e. by an experience of the miraculous), was a further open vindication of the claim that [Jesus] was the exalted Messiah.”14

The proof that Mark 16:20 belongs in the Canon of New Testament Scripture as a divinely inspired text is the historical accounts that follows in the Book of Acts.  As such, the last verse in the Gospel of Mark validates experience as an essential and necessary aid in understanding Scripture and its application in the lives of God’s people.   Both Mark and Acts, as well as the other Biblical passages noted above, demonstrate that by virtue of proclamation on the basis of experience, God is able to work for the salvation of many.

1. All Biblical quotations are from the NASB, 1977 unless otherwise noted.
2. I.H. Marshall, The Epistles of John, New International Commentary of the New Testament, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce, Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 102-103.  Ephasis mine.
3. Glenn W. Barker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 306.  Emphasis mine.
4. Leo G. Cox, The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, vol. 6, ed. Charles W. Carter (Peadbody: Hendrickson, 1986), 321.
5. Harvey J.S. Blaney, “Experience” in Beacon Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Richard S. Taylor (Kansas City: Beacon, 1983), 205.
6. I.H. Marshall, “John, Epistles of,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised, vol.2, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromily (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1092.
7. Cp. Mark 16:20
8. William L. lane, Hebrews: A Call to Commitment (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1985), 29.  His emphasis.
9. Ibid., 30.  I admit that although Lane may not go so far as to interpret these passages in a way that bespeaks of an experience with God (as I understand it, i.e., God speaking directly to the heart or in an audible voice as was my experience explained in my previous essay) as a basis or catalyst for Christian fidelity, nevertheless, I find his comments valuable and interpret their significance as appropriate in explaining my position.
10. Jon Mark Ruthven, What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology (Tulsa: Word&Spirit, 2013), 2.  If anyone is truly interested in this subject, allow me to recommend Ruthven’s book:  I have not read it all so I am not sure if he would agree with my view here in all points, however, just the first 24 pages was a thrill ride that is helping to enlarge my faith in God to move more powerfully in the world today.
11. In the New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the New Testament, we read that the Greek for “tasted” is a word that “expresses a real and conscious enjoyment of the blessings apprehended in their true character”, p.527.
12. Emphasis mine.
13.“Signs of Believers,” Full Life Study Bible, ed. Donald C. Stamps (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992),
14. F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, revised, New International Commentary on the New Testament,  ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 67.
* I must say in defense of the pastor who stated this that: (a) the content of his sermon did emphasize the need for the power of the Holy Spirit as witnessed in the Book of Acts, and (b) I understood his comment to seek correcting anyone who may have the impression that reading the Bible takes low priority. In that light, I may be a bit nit-picky but my real concern was what the congregation was actualy hearing.

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