When I was 18 or 19, I learned how to read books. I mean really read them. Prior to that, my reading had been limited to the menu in a restaurant or the football results on the TV. But, then I read this one book and discovered that I really loved it. I began to think maybe this whole book thing wasn’t such a bad idea.
Somebody gifted me a little book by a super intelligent dude called John Owen (also known for his knee-high leather boots and for wearing a little too much wax in his hair). I devoured it. Afterwards, I visited a local Christian book shop to see if they had any more books by this author. I found one called, ‘The Death of Death in the Death of Christ’ so I bought it and took it home to read.
On the very first page I read:
‘To the Reader – If thou intendest (not a good start – old words are hard words) to go any farther, I would entreat thee to stay here a little. If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatre, to go out again, - thou hast had thy entertainment; farewell!’
Let me paraphrase that: ‘If, on the scale of idiot to professor, you are on the idiot end of the spectrum then put the book down slowly, and back away.’ One page, one sentence, one line, and I’m told, ‘Thou hast had thy entertainment; farewell!’ I heard the voice of Owen taunting me down through the centuries saying, ‘Andy, give up, there are no pictures in this book, it’s too difficult for you, it’s beyond your reach. Go back to the TV.’ So I closed the book, and haven’t read it since.
Here’s my question, Is the same true of the Bible? Is the Bible only for the professors, the boffins, the academics, and the geeks? Is it only for John Owen and not for Andy Prime? Is it only for the preachers and not for church members? Is it only for the middle class? Can it be for the schemes? Is it too difficult? Is it beyond the reach of only a select few?
Deuteronomy 30:14 THE WORD OF LIFE IS NEAR TO YOU. . . .
Here in Deuteronomy, Moses stands exhaling a deep breath at the end of three mammoth sermons. No doubt the people are left suffering from sermon overload. But, look how Moses finishes and where he chooses to climax his sermons: four negatives…[vv.11–14]
- Not too difficult.
- Not beyond your reach.
- Not up in heaven.
- Not beyond the sea.
God is saying that his Word is not too complicated for you, it is not inaccessible to you, it is not impractical, it is not impossible to understand, it is not only for the elite boffins, and it is not just for priest or pastor. To know God and to understand his Word you don’t have to be some sort of spiritual superhuman. It is not hidden only to be discovered by the super clever or those who read 100s of books. Verse 14. ‘The word is very near you.’ That statement is as simple as it is brief. God’s Word is really clear because he has brought it really near. Near enough to see, near enough to hear, near enough to touch, near enough to know. ‘It’s in your mouth and in your heart.’
It’s not the first time in Deuteronomy that we’ve had the language of ‘nearness.’ Back in Deuteronomy 4:5–8 we read:
“See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods NEAR them the way the LORD our God is NEAR us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?”
His nearness shows his greatness and his grace. An infinite God has made himself knowable to finite people. The God of all wisdom has given his good law to a foolish people. The God of the universe turns a tiny, insignificant people into the envy of all the nations. A holy God draws near to a sinful people.
The context of Deuteronomy reveals that Moses knew the people would fail. Indeed, it was expected. Not because they could not understand it, but because they would not obey it. But, as well as the expectation of failure, the context shows the making of a promise. Verse 6, “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” The true response to the law was not simply superman-like obedience. The lack of that would only bring death. Life was to be found in trusting the promise of God for the future. To choose life was to trust that God had come near in his promises.
Romans 10. THE WORD OF CHRIST IS NEAR TO YOU. . . .
Fast forward through the pages of your Bible, through the years of salvation history, and we see the fulfilment of that promise in Romans 10. Here we find Paul piggy-backing on the language of Moses to make a similar, but slightly progressed point. From the clarity of God’s Word, he progresses to the clarity of Christ and salvation. Paul quotes Deuteronomy 30 to encapsulate the gospel. Just as having the law in your mouth and knowing it in your heart was not only for ‘superman’ in Deut. 30, neither is salvation only for those with superhuman abilities.
God’s greatness and grace is seen in his Word, because in his Word we clearly see the Saviour, the fulfilment of the promise. In Romans 1,0 the camera has auto-focussed with hi-res clarity on Jesus. You don’t need to ascend into heaven to know God, because God came down in the person of his Son. That’s how near he has come. You don’t need to descend into the deep to be saved because God, in Jesus, has entered the grave to rise again bringing life. That’s how clear it has become.
Paul’s point is that salvation is not found in our strenuous efforts to keep the law. That is too difficult for us. It’s found in his grace. We are not superhuman. We do not need to be. God has come near to us with his superman, Jesus the Lord. Jesus, who obeyed when you disobeyed, died, cursed by our disobedience, so that we might live in the blessing of his obedience. In him, salvation is brought near, it’s within our reach, and it’s accessible to all without distinction. The importance of the perspicuity of the Scriptures is the clarity of the Saviour. The glory of the clarity of the Scriptures is the nearness of the Saviour.
Why is this doctrine important in scheme ministry? Some of the people in our housing schemes will be illiterate. Some of the people in our housing schemes may read more than your or I. But what we cannot get away from is the fact that God has revealed himself – perfectly and finally – in a book. As we engage with people who have little experience or desire for reading, and who have no experience or desire for the Bible, we can have total confidence that, as we open its pages and read its contents, God will be near and Jesus will be clear. Sure, there will be stuff that we, and they, don’t understand. The Westminster Confession declares that ‘All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves’ (some bits are harder to understand than others. Peter admits that about Paul’s writings, they are hard, but, not impossible). But that does not mean it is out of reach. Therefore, scheme ministry is Word ministry. Our task as we preach and proclaim God’s Word is to trust that he, by his Holy Spirit, will cause blind eyes to see as he lifts the veil and scales fall from the eyes of our hearers.