The End of our Reading is Eternal Life: An Excerpt from Living in the Underground Church

In the Upper Room shortly before his Gethsemane, Jesus prays to the Father. The focus of his prayer is not that his disciples would come to discern and fulfill their callings, nor that the disciples would come to fully know and do what God wants, nor that the disciples would be saved, nor that they would die to self.

Instead, Jesus’ prayer is that the character of his Father might be become known to them. Jesus calls this “eternal life”:

After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”[5]

Jesus is praying for Jeremiah 31:34 to be fulfilled:

“They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”[6]

When that Scripture is fulfilled, then “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”[7]

We study the Scripture not to discern and fulfill our calling, nor to fully know and do what God wants, nor to be saved, nor to die to self. Such aspirations may seem breathtakingly holy to us, but this is only because the human heart is darkened and twisted by sin. It deceives us into believing that God urgently desires us to become nobler and more God-conscious in our egocentricity.

Instead, God seeks for us to know him. This does not come from the death of our self, but the death of our fixation on self. This is why in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ does not pray, “Annihilate my will” or “Subsume my will into yours” or “Show me your will and give me the strength to submit to it.” Instead, he prays, “Not my will, but yours be done.”[8] God’s will is not that all rival wills be eliminated or merged into his own but that all would come to obey him from a loving, trusting obedience that flows from knowing him, as it did for Jesus.

The author of Hebrews says that Christ “learned obedience from what he suffered.”[9] This does not mean that Christ resisted suffering but ultimately yielded to an unyielding God, as though the gospel message is “Resistance is futile.” It means that in the darkest, most incomprehensible moment in history, Christ chose to embrace his Father, because he knew that his Father was trustworthy in all things. The prophet Samuel says that obedience is better than sacrifice[10]—that is, better than immolation of self. God does not want us to die. This is why the Apostle Thomas is wrong to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”[11] The Apostle Peter is right to say that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”[12] If our dying to self was his goal, then our repentance could be accomplished through self-loathing, shame, and suicide. But this is not repentance. It is merely the inevitable and always fatal outcome of egocentricity. The prophet Isaiah cries, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”[13] All who see the Lord speak in this way. If this was all the Lord desired, he could accomplish it simply by appearing to everyone as he appeared to Isaiah; baptism could then be a fleeing from his presence and drowning, and the Christian life could be an act of extended self-hatred.

Instead, the repentance God seeks is the kind Jesus has in mind when he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”[14] True repentance is always rooted in joy. It is rooted in the joyful discovery of the One of whom we are a fallen image. Yes, the knowledge of the extent of our fallenness can and should drive us to grief, but never to hopeless or despair or destruction. One cannot come to true repentance by hating and discarding the fallen image, or by burying it in fear that he whom we image is a hard man.[15] One can only come to true repentance by treasuring the image even in its fallenness, and by returning it joyfully, expectantly, confidently to he who is making all things new.[16]

This is why the end of all of our Scripture reading is eternal life, the knowledge of God’s character. This is why, in this present volume, commandment keeping is presented as a part of the reading process, not as its outcome or motivation. That is, we do not read the Scripture in order to know him so that we may find out what he wants us to do. Instead, we do what he wants us to do as part of our coming to know him.

Just as the disciples ask, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”[17], there are aspects of the character of God that we can only even know to puzzle over from within the process of seeking to hear and do his word. Even this is an aspect of God’s character. Despite the many theology books that seek to systematize his character and enumerate it as a series of philosophical attributes—aseity, impassibility, omnipotence, sovereignty—God will have none of it. As R.L. Brawley notes, “God is a character whom the reader constructs out of the intersection of information, action, traits, and evaluation.”[18]

And that is how he requires it. As Isaiah says, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”[19] He has revealed himself fully in Christ, and yet Christ is the parable-telling God who never throws his pearls to pigs.[20] Even to his disciples who accompany him intimately for years, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”[21] Even after he is raised from the dead—in fact, even when he is seen by John in heaven itself—the recognition of who he is and what he is like is painfully slow and error-laden. We would do well to exchange our certainty for humility; he is, after all, the God who announces his name as, “I will be who I will be.”[22]

Nevertheless, we know him as the Father of the one who commands us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”[23] He is not burdened or wearied by the shortcomings of our knowledge but only by the arrogance, disinterest, and sin that disincline us from even his slightest correction that would enable us to know him even slightly better. If we are intent on knowing him and his character, and if we are expectant that he will be true to his word to reveal himself to and in us, and if we are willing to sacrifice all things for even one more jot or tittle of knowing him, then he will delight to grant us that desire. It is his character.[24]

Thus, before we take up the Bible to read each day, we ought to pray, “Lord, reveal your character to me.” And before we set the Bible down after reading, we ought to pray, “Lord, reveal your character to me.” And in the midst of our reading, as we are doing the word we have heard (which is a part of our reading, not a result of it), we ought to pray, “Lord, reveal your character to me.”

And throughout, we ought to take stock of what he reveals. We should not trust it to our memory, as that hardly reveals humility or good judgment. Instead, we ought to write down somewhere what we have learned. What we write down could be as simple as copying the adjectives that are in the passage of scripture we read–“The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”[25] Or it could be as complex as writing out an extended journal reflection on who we think he is, based on what he has shown us through a process like the one outlined in this volume.

Or, like Job, it could take the form of a renunciation of what we once saw in part, now that we have received something more full;[26] it could be a repudiation of the idol we made of him in our own image; or it could be a quieting of ourselves into the worshipful, joyful silence of the eternal life of knowing God:

“I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.”[27]

 

[5] John 17:1-3, NIV.

[6] Jeremiah 31:34, NIV.

[7] Habakkuk 2:14, NIV.

[8] Luke 22:42, NIV.

[9] Hebrews 5:8, NIV.

[10] Cf. 1 Samuel 15:22.

[11] John 11:16, NIV.

[12] 2 Peter 3:9, NIV.

[13] Cf. Isaiah 6:5, NIV.

[14] Matthew 13:44, NIV.

[15] Cf. Matthew 25:24, NIV.

[16] Rev. 21:5, NIV.

[17] Matthew 8:27, NIV.

[18] R.L. Brawley, 1990. Centering on God: Method and Message in Luke-Acts (Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 111.

[19] Isaiah 45:15, ESV.

[20] Matthew 7:6, NIV.

[21] Matthew 16:15, NIV.

[22] Cf. Exodus 3:14.

[23] Matthew 11:28, NIV.

[24] Cf. Matthew 18:19; Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24; John 14:13; John 15:7.

[25] Exodus 34:6-7, NASB.

[26] Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[27] Job 42:5-6, NASB.

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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