Sunday, October 11, 2015

Another Look at "Experience and the Bible"*

Experience and the Bible

Part 1
Experience and the Bible:  The Encounters

When engaging the issue of the miraculous with those who hold the view that God  does not grant gifts to his people to work wonders (e.g. healing the sick, prophesying, tongues, etc.) today because the gifts have ceased either when the last apostle died or when the writing of the NT was finished (a teaching knows as “cessationism"), I have come across the criticism that we are basing our theology that these gifts are for today (“continualism”) not on the Bible but on experience.  One opponent in the debate was absolutely certain that the cessationist view was correct by saying, "I have a high level of confidence in my biblical study because my biblical conclusions are based neither on my experience or my theology. They’re based on the nouns and verbs of scripture."

I wonder if any Biblical scholars, other than cessationists, would agree with a method of interpreting the Bible that omits personal experience wholesale from study.

I agree that experience by itself should not be the basis of formulating "biblical conclusions," but is it sensible to reject it altogether as a means of understanding Scripture and its application in our lives?

I don't think so.


Moses would have a hard time proving the "biblical conclusion" that it was the God of his fathers who commanded Egypt to let his people go precisely because he had no Bible.  Pharaoh said, "Who is God that I should let the Hebrew people go?"  How do you think Moses would respond if he had a Bible?

"Well, Pharaoh, it says in the Bible that God commands, 'Pharaoh, let the people go'.  Notice the nouns are 'Pharaoh', 'people' and the verb 'let go' is in the present immediate tense suggesting something that must be done now without hesitation; and the phrase, 'let my people go,’ has reference not to 'God' but to 'Pharaoh'; therefore, it is God commanding Pharaoh - and you are him - to let his people!"

Not really.

However, how did Moses reply?  It is recorded that Moses simply said, "The God of the Hebrews has manifested Himself to us" (Tanakh, Ex 5:3).  Moses based his "theology" and the proclamation of God’s message on experience (Ex 3:2-12).


How about the apostle Paul?  He had the Scriptures, the Old Testament, to formulate doctrine and practice (the NT was not yet written and formulated).  Did he come to his "biblical conclusions" about God, especially in relation to the Messiah, based on Scripture alone and solely on the "nouns and verbs of scripture"?  Did the Apostle Paul's intense and extensive learning lead him to the "biblical conclusion" that Jesus is the Messiah?  What did this great man of God say when he was being persecuted for his beliefs after having been converted?

"I have studied Isaiah 53 for many years.  I have read day and night the prophets and in all my reading - studying the words, the nouns, the verbs, the adjectives and adverbs, as well as all the tenses – and, as a result, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus is Messiah.  No, I do not base this theological view on experience but only on what the nouns and verbs of the Hebrew Scriptures mean."

I don't think so.

But what did Paul say?  Although having the Hebrew Scriptures to fall back on, he said, in short, "Christ came to me!  He manifested Himself to me!  I saw and heard him!  I experienced His power for he made me blind and then healed me!"  (See Acts 22:1-16).  It can be suggested that Paul's defense was likened to the words of John, the beloved disciple, who wrote, "That...which we have heard...seen...handled…and bear witness, and show it unto you” (1 John 1:1-3).

As with Moses, Paul's defense was experience, his experience of Yhwh in Christ.  For sure, Paul may have resorted to the Hebrew Scriptures for a more complete understanding of his experience, nevertheless, when his beliefs were questioned, he replied by sharing what he experienced: "I received [the Gospel] the revelation of Jesus Christ."  Paul contends in defense of his apostleship and authority: "when it pleased reveal His Son in me" (Gal 1:12,15-16).  Actually, it was precisely because Paul experienced God that he went to study the Scriptures, wrote his epistles, proclaimed the Gospel, and had confidence in the divine appointment of his apostleship.

It was not his "great learning" that led him to believe in Christ, although, admittedly, it may have further confirmed his experience as having been a genuine revelation of Yhwh, but it was the manifestation - the miraculous experience - of Christ to him that convinced him that Jesus is the Messiah (see Philippians 3:4-7).

Personal Experience

I have come to Christ, not due to an intense study of the Bible (though many others may have come to Christ in that way), but because He spoke to me in an audible voice, saying, "You're going to be arrested".  I instinctively knew it was God and asked, "What did you say?"  He repeated, "You're going to be arrested."  And, two minutes later I was arrested and spent the weekend in jail.  That experience led me to a park a week later where I saw people singing and, again, instinctively knew they were singing to God.  When someone came up to me and asked if I wanted to be saved, a window of understanding - of instinctive knowledge - opened up to me and I knew that it was in this man Jesus Christ that I must lay up all my hope and trust.  I experienced the Presence of the Spirit revealing Christ to me.

Part 2  
Experience and the Bible: The Texts of  Scripture

A list of some verses that confirm experience as a means of discerning divine 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).

In the New International Commentary on the epistle of 1 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 he 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 even further 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 the emphasis is placed on John’s experience of Jesus Christ in history, which forms the basis not only for his faith but also his proclamation of the Gospel.  John proclaims more than just a message; he proclaims an experience he had with a person.

Another commentary suggests that the apostle John’s “witness was based on the immediate evidence of the senses,” which is to say, the apostle’s proclamation of Christ was primarily based on his experience of the man, Jesus Christ.

Combatting the claim that while Jesus was God, he was not really a man and only had the appearance of being human (Docetism), another commentary suggests that

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.  This commentary 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.

The apostle derived his authority from his personal experience of the incarnate Son of God.
In another commentary, we read 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.

If the Apostle John’s first epistle was written for the purpose of challenging the false teachers who claimed either Jesus was not God or not a man, in opposition to the teachings handed down by the apostles, it only makes sense that John would begin his epistle, and I paraphrase, “You think these ‘teachers’ know Jesus the Messiah?  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 God’s Son, I pass on to you.”

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

Hebrews 1:2

This 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 book of Hebrews, nevertheless, whoever he is, he seems to have been an eye-witness to the miraculous and perhaps engaged himself in the performance of the miraculous.  Consequently, he stresses experience as a (if not the) ground 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…

I affirm wholeheartedly to what Lane states in his small 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 [i.e. the Holy Spirit] 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.

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.

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). 

2 Peter 1:16-19a

Another text in the Bible much like 1 John 1:1-3 is 2 Peter1:16-19a: “we were eyewitnesses…and we ourselves heard.”

That they now “have the prophetic word (i.e. OT) made sure” through the fulfillment - as exemplified by their own experience - of the words of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures regarding Messiah, and proving it is not the made-up story from the  imaginations of mere men, but the writings of “men moved by the Holy Spirit.” Nevertheless, this proof of the certain reliability of the prophetic word is based on their experience of God.

Here, again,we see Scripture is proved by what was experienced.

John 5:39-40; Matthew 22:29

This is not to denigrate the Bible but to put it in its proper place in God’s purposes for salvation.  We are not to put the ‘Word of God’ on a pedestal.  It was the problem with Judaism in Jesus’ day as shown by Jesus’ rebuke.

John 5:39-40:  “You study the scriptures throughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify of me, but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life” (NET).

Matthew 22:29:  “Jesus answered them, ‘You are deceived, because you don’t know the scriptures or the power of God” (NET).

This seems to be the very problem Ruthven addresses in his book, “What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology,” 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 [that is, a theory of knowledge; a method of receiving knowledge] based on immediate revelation by the Holy Spirit as its ideal – even central – characteristic, as Isaiah 11:2-3 shows.

As Ruthven suggests, there is the 

human tendency to avoid God’s voice, the Protestant tradition following rabbinic Judaism explicitly, focused on an important but less-than-central issue - the exposition of Scripture - which resulted in deemphasizing the central mission Scripture proclaims, to hear God’s immediate voice, which usually commands the hearer to live out an experience of God’s mighty working…”

Ruthven, also says that this experience of hearing God’s voice is described in Scripture as faith, and adds that 

…theology is usually described as “faith seeking understanding,” which opposes the biblical goal of growing “from faith into faith” - with faith being an experience of revelation directly from God, which is then obeyed.

Hebrews 6:4-6a

We find in another place 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 (Psalm 34:8).  There is a dire and tragic warning for those who, having experienced the goodness 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, that makes the apostate all the more blameworthy and his punishment all the more worthy of extreme severity (Hebrews 10:28-29).

Mark 16:20

The objection is often 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.”

Note, it was not the word that validated the “signs” (i.e. the miracles), but the miracles – the “signs” – that validated the “word”, i.e. proclamation of the gospel.  It was experiencing the power of God’s Presence, which proved that the message 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 performed by true disciples confirm that the gospel message is genuine, that the kingdom of God has come to earth in power…

Acts 2

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 they proclaimed.  Acts 2 is a prime example:

  • vs.1-21 - Peter explained to all who saw and heard what was occurring among the 120 believers, that this experience - the baptism of the Spirit on the disciples and that they are speaking in tongues - was in fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures and confirms the source of the words of the prophets as being from Yhwh and is, therefore, true.

  • vs.2:22-24 - Peter further proclaims that the man whom they crucified was their Messiah, proved by the miracles, wonders and signs he performed among them.

  • vs.2:32-33 - Peter preaches that the resurrection of Christ was something they themselves had witnessed and this further demonstration – speaking in tongues – which they now see and hear validates and confirms both the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the kingdom of God and the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ (Hebrew: messiah or mashiach), upon whose shoulders the government of God’s kingdom and this world 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 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 and, even more: divine.  It was real, it was their God visiting them again.  In his commentary’s concluding note 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.

The evidence that Mark 16:20 belongs in the Canon of New Testament Scripture as divinely inspired text is the historical record of the early Church 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.

The Gospel of Mark and the book of Acts, as well as the other Biblical passages noted above, and many not discussed here, demonstrate that proclamation, primarily on the basis of an experience of God, is able to effectively work for the salvation of many.

Part 3

Experience and the Bible:  The Promise of God

Why did Jesus die on the Cross?  What was his ultimate goal?

Genesis 3:8

The first temptation involved doubting God’s Voice:  “Did God really say…? (Genesis 3:1); and its ultimate rejection: “You surely will not…” (v.4); with the result  that our First Parents, not wanting to hear God speak to them due to the shame they felt, hid from the Voice of God: “they heard the Voice of the Lord God walking…[and] hid themselves” (v.8, KJV).

The Hebrew word here translated “voice” in the KJV (“sound,” NIV, NASB) is the same word translated in Genesis 3:17; 4:10,23; 16:2; 21:12, see Strong’s Concordance).

Although they prefer the KJV translation of  Genesis 3:8, nevertheless, Jamieson, Faust, & Brown: A Commentary, also suggested as an alternative translation: “and they heard the voice of the Lord God sounding in the garden.”

In any case, the point is that God sought to converse with man, he desired that men hear him speak to them without an intermediary, a representative between them; God wanted men to have face-to-face encounters with him.  But the sin of our First Parents broke off immediate connection with God, and our fallen state and sins maintain that broken connection.

Numbers 11:29
In frustration over the people’s complaints, Moses argues with God desperately asking for Him to do something…anything!  God tells Moses to gather together at the Tent of Meeting 70 leaders of whom He would impart onto them the selfsame Spirit given Moses.  Gathering together at the appointed place and time, they were all filled with the Spirit and began to prophesy.  While this was going on, two men who were not in company with the other leaders were also filled with the Spirit prophesying.  Upon hearing this, Joshua told Moses to stop these two from prophesying.  However, Moses expressed his earnest wish that “all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!”

First, what is a prophet or what is it to prophecy?  The prophet, broadly speaking, is one called to discern God’s purpose and action in history and to proclaim it to men.  In essence, the prophet, under the filling of the Spirit, speaks to God and God speaks to him “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11). The prophet has an experience with God.  Having spoken with God face-to-face, therefore, he is fully qualified to speak for God to men face-to-face.

Second, this wish of Moses expresses God’s heart, God’s intention.  God desires that all men would hear His Voice face-to-face, that is, in essence, that we would all experience the immediate presence of God.  This is the desire expressed by the psalmist under the impress of the Spirit:  Psalm 27:4,8: “When you said, ‘Seek My face,’my heart said to you, ‘Your face, O Lord, I shall seek” (cp. 16:11; 42:1-2; 51:11; 105:4).

The desire of God’s immediate Presence is foretold by the Hebrew prophets under the gifting of the Spirit of prophecy (Joel 2:26: “you will praise the name of the Lord your God who has worked wonders for you…Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God”; 28-29; Isaiah 30:20-21).

It is what Jesus promised when he said His ascension to Heaven would be to our advantage (John 14:16-17; 16:7,13-16).  This is the “promise of the Father,” which Jesus said would be fulfilled by virtue of the Cross and His ascension (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8).

This immediate Presence of God among His people is what the disciples preached; what the Father promised:  the giving of His Spirit to all who would repent and believe (Acts 2:16-21: “this is that”; vs.33,38-39).

The ultimate purpose for the Cross was so that men would behold God face-to-face and God would speak to men and walk among men; that they would experience God as He intended when He made mankind, His Voice walking with them in the cool of the day.  This is the overarching purpose of God  sending His Son to die for men as sinners even today.

It is the essential proclamation of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament (Isaiah 30:19-21; Jeremiah 31:31-34; 1 John 2:20,27). For the Cross is not merely to forgive our sins and take us to heaven but it is so we can meet with God now; so we would experience Him now; so we would hear His Voice now and not just when we get to Heaven.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.
Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he will eat with me.
The Bible declares that God reveals Himself to those who trust Him and are loyal.  Therefore, let us not doubt but in faith rejoice and expect and embrace the miraculous presence of God when he manifests himself in our lives and the lives of others.  

Realize that it is not by mere knowledge that a man experiences God; it is not solely by reading the Bible that one hears the Voice of God and discerns his intentions and instructions, but by faith experiencing His presence in faithful living, thus hearing His Voice and obeying.  Have faith and believe that this is God’s will for your life: that you hear His Voice and experience His Presence.

As he who was blind, when the demand was made to denounce the One whom he claims healed him, said, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know for certain, whoever he is, whereas before I was blind, now I see”; now I experienced his healing me; now I have experienced Him (John 9:25).

* This was originally a 2-part blog article I did on July, 2013, which one can go to as I did not delete it.  In any case, here I have revised and expanded the discussion.  Thanks for reading it.


All Biblical quotations are from the NASB, 1977 unless otherwise noted. 

Below are a list of the books used and some quoted (all in italics) in this short study:
  • 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).
  • Glenn W. Barker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981).
  • Leo G. Cox, The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, vol. 6, ed. Charles W. Carter (Hendrickson, 1986).
  • Harvey J.S. Blaney, “Experience” in Beacon Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Richard S. Taylor (Kansas City: Beacon, 1983).
  • I.H. Marshall, “John, Epistles of,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised, vol.2, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromily (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • William L. lane, Hebrews: A Call to Commitment (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1985).
  • 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:
  • In the New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the New Testament, we read that the Greek for tasted “expresses a real and conscious enjoyment of the blessings apprehended in their true character,” p.527.
  • “Signs of Believers,” Full Life Study Bible, ed. Donald C. Stamps (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 
  • F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, revised, New International Commentary on the New Testament,  ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 67.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent and thorough article about the role of experience in understanding Scripture, and developing our theology. I am sharing it on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks!