Bible Study as Deep Meditation on the Actions of God: An Excerpt from Living in the Underground Church

All human action is a response to the activity of the Triune God: This is the fundamental premise of grace. Stated differently, nothing we do moves God to action; instead, God’s action is always what moves us. We are creatures capable of responding to God’s initiative, nothing more. And yet, given the length, breadth, height, and depth of that initiative, no human being has yet scratched the surface of what human beings are capable of in response to grace so inconceivably great.

This is a truth we Christians believe theologically but ignore practically. Our prayers and worship have the feel of us initiating a rather limited conversation with the Triune God about our needs and interests instead of us attentively receiving and responding to his boundless, ceaseless, infinite activity on our behalf.

The same orientation characterizes our Bible reading: Consciously or unconsciously, our insatiable interest in ourselves bleeds into every pericope. We are inexorably drawn to Scripture verses that tell us what to do and what we will receive when we do it. This tendency is so pronounced that each time we open the Bible we see implied commands and promises crammed in every nook and cranny; we overemphasize and overinflate the commands and promises that really are present; and in our hyper-attention to anything about ourselves we make quite small the acts of the Triune God that move the rest of heaven and earth first to stunned silence and then to rapturous praise.

In my Introduction to Preparing for the Underground Church, I wrote, “The underground church is the indissoluble structure of Christ’s work that is revealed when the public church can no longer sustain itself, either due to devastating attack or collapse from within.”[5] I suspect this is the reason why underground Christians are, in my experience, less enamored and entranced by the power and potential of human activity, whether their own or someone else’s, and thus more inclined to dwell on God’s actions when they read Scripture. Underground Christians have seen the full extent of human possibility, both that of God’s friends and God’s enemies, and they have found such actions wanting. I recall often the words of the first underground North Korean Christian I ever met, who said to me, “We North Korean Christians have neither money nor power. We have only Christ. And we have found that he is sufficient.”

In Scripture, the actions of the Triune God are not only sufficient to save us; they are sufficient to animate the world. Thus, whatever consideration we give the actions of the Triune God when we read the Scripture, it is insufficient. That is, the actions of the Triune God can be meditated upon profitably for as long as our attention can sustain. Then, when we are capable of further attention, we can meditate profitably on God’s actions even more. Even the simplest phrase—“God said,” or “Jesus knew,” or “the Spirit rested upon”—contains a world of meaning deeper than we can ever fully plumb. We should never pass over a single verb of divine action without a great deal of wonder.

And that is exactly the profoundly simple but profoundly rewarding task which we undertake in this step of Bible reading: In the Scripture passage we are reading, we look for every instance where Father, Son, or Holy Spirit is the doer of an action, or a participant in it. Stated differently, we look for every instance where the Triune God is the subject, followed by a verb indicating action (i.e., the Father loves, Jesus saw, the Holy Spirit was given). In a later step of our Bible reading, we will look at the instances in each Scripture passage where God’s character is described using nouns and adjectives (or what are called descriptive verbs in Korean). In this present step, however, our focus is on identifying the actions of the Triune God.

Once we identify these actions, we meditate deeply upon each one. This is not a search for mystical hidden meaning. It is a reflection on the obvious–what is fully and plainly stated in the Scripture passage. It is not a difficult process. Occasionally, however, verses can be challenging because there are times when God’s actions are implicit, or God is not stated directly as the actor. For example, Psalm 85:10-11 says,

Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.[6]

In the latter verse, God’s attributes are used to refer to his person, e.g., “Righteousness” looks down from heaven. Here, the psalmist is telling us something about both God’s character and his actions: God is looking down from heaven, and God is righteous. When the psalmist writes, “Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,” we can understand that faithfulness is part of God’s character.

But what does it mean that faithfulness “springs forth” from the earth? The meaning is not immediately obvious. The steps described in previous chapters—about the Nicene Creed and the context of a scripture—can provide helpful insights. The verse may call to mind Christ’s incarnation. In such situations, it is important for us to differentiate between what is clearly and obviously stated in the Scripture passage and what we are inferring based on our overall reading. What is clearly stated should be regarded as trustworthy and authoritative, whereas we should always regard our own inferences as subject to correction and revision.

For example, when the psalmist writes, “Love and faithfulness meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other,” we should not engage in complex theological inferences. Even though there are action verbs present (i.e., “meet” and “kiss”), we should draw the simplest possible conclusion: The psalmist is speaking here about aspects of God’s character. In God, love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace find full expression and perfect balance. We would then note these insights in the later step on the character of God, rather than in this step on the actions of God.

As is true of all Bible reading, the greatest insights come not from inferring what is hidden but rather in paying attention to the obvious. There is a joke about a man in West Berlin who, during the Cold War, would daily cross into East Berlin by bicycle. Day after day, year after year, the East Berlin border guards would stop and search the man and his bicycle, knowing he must be smuggling something across the border. However, day after day, year after year, they found nothing. When at last the Berlin Wall fell, West Berliners and Easter Berliners were celebrating together. In the crowd, the guards met the man they had searched daily. They said to the man, “Brother, every day we searched you and your bicycle because we knew you were smuggling something across our border. But we never found anything. Now, please tell us what you were smuggling.” “Bicycles,” replied the man.

In the same way, the purpose of Scripture is to reveal, not conceal, the activity of God. Our inability to clearly see God’s activity in Scripture and in our lives is rooted in our failure to look for it. Typically we look right past it as we search for something else (typically commands and blessings), like the border guards overlooking the bicycle day after day, year after year. We ourselves deserve the strong rebuke Jesus gave to Peter: We do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.[7] Even when we focus intently on the commands of God in a particular Scripture passage, if we do so before we have focused intently and at length on the actions of God in that passage, we rightly deserve rebuke. That is because in so doing we obscure the fundamental truth that God is a God of grace, and that all human action is but a response to the activity of the Triune God.

An example will underscore our point and also illustrate how to undertake this step in our method. We focus our attention on Matthew 28:16-20. Many modern Christians refer to this scripture by the name, “the Great Commission.” That is because when we read this scripture, we focus on what Christ commands us to do:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you.[8]

Christ’s command here is explicit, clear, and important. It is the reason I am writing this post from Korea, for example, though I was born in the United States. But emphasizing the command of Christ in this Scripture passage as its focal point is a modern development. For the first 1,800 years of church history, no one referred to this Scripture as “the Great Commission.”

And according to the criteria we have laid out here, that is preferable. Because as we’ve learned, Scripture is not written primarily as a revelation of ethics. Instead, it is written primarily as a revelation of God’s character. Since God is the God of grace, and since all human action is a response to the activity of the God, we do justice to his character (and to the Scriptures) only as we focus on the action of God before we focus on the commands that flow from it. As we will see in this Scripture from Matthew, only in this way can we rightly understand the ethics that flow from God’s gracious action, and only in this way can we be empowered by that river of grace.

When we focus on the action of God in Matthew 28:16-20, we see the fullness of the river from which the Great Commission flows. So great is the grace of that river that the whole Scripture passage, rightly understood and rightly emphasized, might more appropriately be titled “the Great Claim” rather than “The Great Commission.”

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Christ claims.[9]

Note Jesus’ use of the word, “all.” Jesus claims to have been given “all” authority in heaven and on earth. He does not claim to have “more authority than many others” or “a lot of influence.” He does not say, “We may be in the minority now, but in the future I will have all authority and will reward those who bear with matters in the meantime.” He says that all authority presently rests in his hands.

This means that Jesus has as much authority over North Korea as he does over your faithful church.

“How can that be?” we ask. “People starve to death in North Korea! Christians are persecuted! Homeless orphans freeze overnight! What kind of God would choose to allow these atrocities despite having the authority and power to fix them?”

Asking this question shows us that we are on the right track to understanding God’s character. Why? Because it is the question that God’s people ask time and time again in Scripture,[10] with his encouragement: “Lord, why do you let the unjust flourish? Why will you not return to judge the world and make it right?” Each of these questions is an entry point for a deeper understanding of the character and action of God, if we have ears to hear it.

Note that none of the New Testament authors doubt that Christ is fully in charge. In fact, it is because they know that Christ has received all authority from his Father that they are troubled by the choices he is making. “Why do you abandon us?” they ask. “Why do you not avenge us?” It only makes sense to ask the question if we believe that all power truly does rest in Christ’s hands.

For most of church history, the assurance that all things exist presently under the authority of Christ has been the focus of Matthew 28:16-20, not the command of verse 18. It is why, historically, when Christians have been persecuted and imprisoned, they responded with otherworldly joy and goodwill rather than fear: They came to know and believe that Christ presently holds all authority. They concluded that nothing could happen to them that Christ did not personally authorize.

Nonetheless, this is a heavy claim to bear. Many of us may be tempted to walk away, saying, “I love God, I believe Jesus rose from the dead, and I believe the world was created by God’s hand, but this I cannot believe.”

But we cannot walk away from it. It is an explicit, clear, important statement of the activity of God. It is in many ways the bedrock of the Christian faith. We can believe that God created the world, that Jesus is the son of God, that Jesus’ blood washed away our sins, and that Jesus rose from the dead. However, if we do not believe that Jesus possesses all authority on heaven and earth, we cannot call ourselves Christian.

Why?

If we do not believe that Jesus possesses all authority, then we are worshipping a different God than the faithful church that came before us—and a different God from the God of the Bible.

The Scriptures and the witness of the faithful church concur with us on this point. Jesus tells us that he “hold[s] the keys to death and Hades.”[11] Peter tells us that God allows us to suffer for a little while, and then lifts us up.[12] Paul reminds us that God perfectly molded us (and the world around us) in the way that he wished, and that this should move us to worship, not complaint.[13] Early Christians “turned the world upside down” merely by witnessing faithfully to a power greater than Caesar.[14]

Note that the emphasis in each of these Scriptures is on the actions of God, not the ethics of men. Jesus did not merely inspire a revolution of grace. He initiated it and continues to undertake every aspect of it personally. He does not call us to aid him or imitate him in his revolution but rather to respond to his initiative by welcoming it, witnessing to it, baptizing others into it, and teaching others to obey him just as we have chosen to do. In this way we come to see that the most important part of Matthew 28:19 is not the phrase “go unto all nations” but the conjunction “therefore,” which reminds us that our actions are only ever a response to his. Not only is all authority his, but all the actions of consequence in this revolution of grace are his as well. If remaining faithfully by his side does not seem a large enough role in the kingdom for us, it is worth noting that it was more than the apostles themselves were able to muster.

Like the apostles after Christ’s resurrection from the dead, we have received the Holy Spirit from him, so we can indeed remain faithfully by his side until the end of the age. He does not give us his Spirit in order to empower us to carry on his work in his stead—all power belongs to him, and he is with us always—but in order that we might remain his ever faithful witnesses, focused always on his actions, no longer entranced or fascinated by our own.

 

[5] E. Foley, “Introduction.” In R. Wurmbrand, Preparing for the Underground Church. Seoul: Voice of the Martyrs, 2017, p. 55.

[6] Psalm 85:10-11, NIV.

[7] Cf. Mt 16:23.

[8] Matthew 28:19, NIV.

[9] Matthew 28:18, NIV.

[10] Cf. Rev. 6:10, Hab. 1:2, Ps. 13:1.

[11] Revelation 1:18, NIV.

[12] Cf. 1 Pet. 5:10.

[13] Cf. Rom. 9:19-21.

[14] Cf. Acts 17:6-7.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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One Response to Bible Study as Deep Meditation on the Actions of God: An Excerpt from Living in the Underground Church

  1. I will do lots more reading, looking and pondering the actions of God…it is a life long pursuit

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