You Can Be an Expert Bible Reader, and Not Really Read the Bible
Probably in Jesus’s day, no one read the Bible more than the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do” (Matt. 23:2–3). They carried more Bible in their minds, and in their mouths than anyone else. They readily quoted the law of God (Matt. 19:7). They were meticulous in their attention to the details (Matt. 23:24). Yet Jesus repeatedly spoke to them as if they had not read the Scriptures!
Something had gone wrong. Terribly wrong.
The experts in Bible knowledge of Jesus’s day could not read the Bible. Why not? What kept them from doing the kind of reading Jesus expected? What we see is that the problem was not linguistic or grammatical or historical. It was moral and spiritual. What prevented the reading that Jesus expected was not skills they lacked, but sins they loved. The problem was not mental deficiencies, but misplaced desires.
Spiritual Adultery Made Reading the Bible Impossible
Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:3). Those signs were all the deeds and actions of Jesus. These were the signs that Jesus said they could not see because they were not able to read the Scriptures. Their Bridegroom, their Messiah, had come. But they did not want him. Their desires were for something else.
They were like an adulterous bride. So they kept demanding more signs, not because they wanted to believe Jesus was their husband, but because they had a love affair with the world. So Jesus called them what they were: “An evil and adulterous generation” (Matt. 16:4). This is why they could not “interpret.” Their hearts were adulterous—they had other lovers besides Jesus. Their desires were misplaced. They loved their sins. And where truth stood in the way of those desires, it could not be seen as more desirable than the suitors they loved.
The Competing Lover: Human Glory
Probably at the top of the list of misplaced desires that blinded the Pharisees to Scripture and to Jesus was the desire for human praise. They loved the glory of man more than the glory of God. Astonishingly, Jesus said to the Jewish leaders, “The Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard” (John 5:37). Never heard! In spite of all their reading in God’s word! Their way of reading was so defective that everything was distorted. They never heard the true voice of God. In spite of all his wonders, they never saw the peculiar glory.
Jesus is the kind of Messiah that undermines self-exaltation.
The result, Jesus said, is that “you do not have [God’s] word abiding in you.” And the evidence for that is that “you do not believe the one whom he has sent” (John 5:38). What is the root issue? We can see it in what follows:
“I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:42–47)
I think this goes to the heart of the matter. The rhetorical question in verse 44 is a clear statement of the root problem: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” Turn that rhetorical question into a statement: “You cannot believe in Jesus, when you love the glory of man more than the glory of God.” Why? Because Jesus is the kind of Messiah that undermines self-exaltation.
Jesus said, “If another comes in his own name, you will receive him” (v. 43). Why is that? Because that kind of Messiah would be their kind of person. He would confirm their love affair with self-exaltation. But Jesus, as the truly human Messiah, loves God and God’s glory above all things. This is not who the Pharisees want to be. They love their own glory. Therefore “you do not have the love of God within you.” Therefore, you cannot believe. And you cannot read.
Misplaced Desires in Sync with Satan
Jesus links this love of self-exaltation to Satan. He says that these leaders cannot welcome the words of Jesus because their desires are in sync with the Devil:
“Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” (John 8:42–44)
Why can’t they understand? Because they cannot bear to hear. Why not? Because they are bent on other desires. It boils down to desires. It is a heart issue. Not a head issue. Misplaced desires, not mental deficiencies.
You Cannot See God’s Glory If You Love Money
The love of human glory—the best seats in the synagogues (Matt. 23:6), greetings in the marketplaces (Luke 11:43), places of honor at feasts (Mark 12:39)—these were not their only adulterous desires. The Pharisees also loved money. They showed why such a misplaced desire blinds them from the truth of Jesus and the Scriptures. Jesus taught that “no servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). Luke comments, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him” (Luke 16:14).
Jesus taught the truth about money. But they could not hear these words as beautiful and compelling. They could only hear them as ridiculous, because they were lovers of money (Greek φιλάργυροι). Lovers! This is the issue. They were adulteresses. An adulterous generation. Their all-glorious, all-satisfying Bridegroom had come. He was full of spiritual truth and beauty. But they could not see it because they had other lovers—like the praise of man and the power of money. This is why they could not see Jesus, and it is why they could not read the Scriptures.
The problem was not that they lacked the light, but that they loved the darkness. “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). This results in a de facto hatred of the light. “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light” (John 3:20).
The Greatest Obstacle to Bible Reading: Sinful Hearts
Those who love the darkness and hate the light may give their whole life to reading the Scriptures and yet never truly read them—never read them the way Jesus expects them to be read. You may read them day and night, yet hear Jesus say at every point, “Have you never read?” Or worse: “[God’s] voice you have never heard” (John 5:37).
The greatest obstacles to reading the Scriptures are not intellectual. They are not lack of skill. Rigorous thinking and literary skills matter. But nothing creates as great a barrier to seeing what is really there in Scripture as a heart that loves other things more than God. This, as we have seen in the case of the Pharisees, will nullify the greatest attention to Scripture. God’s aim for us as we read the Scriptures is, above all, that we see and savor the glory of God as more desirable than anything. That aim will abort as long as our hearts are enslaved to the adulterous love of our own glory or money or any created thing.
Therefore, if we are going to succeed in reading, as God intends for us to read, it will have to be a supernatural act. God will have to take out the heart of stone, with its hardness and resistance to his glory, and put in a heart of flesh, with its living sensitivity to God’s worth and beauty (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26).