Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in  Your SoulPlaying with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul
Walt Russell
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For too many of us, reading the Bible is about as enjoyable as pulling weeds. At best, it's unexciting, and sometimes, it's just plain work. But Bible scholar Walt Russell insists that when we study the Scriptures properly, it's like playing with fire-a fire that can ignite dramatic change in our souls. With a style that is both intelligent and engaging, Russell provides the tools you'll need to study different styles of biblical writing in-depth - and unlock their meaning. And with this fuller understanding of God's Word, you'll be able to unleash a heart transforming power that burns away your defenses, bringing radical change to your life! When you read your Bible, why settle for pulling weeds when you could be playing with fire?
     

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Chapter One


"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth,
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it."

Isaiah 55:10-11


"If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

John 8:31-32


Several years ago I co-planted a church with a dear friend. We were inseparable as best buddies for seven years as we labored together in ministry. However, I began to detect some troublesome aspects to our relationship and confronted him about them privately. Unfortunately, I was so hurt and angry that I did not do this in the kindest and most appropriate manner. Seven years of foolishly choosing to deny my pain in the relationship eventually erupted in my life through hurt and anger that I could not control or express in edifying ways.

The short story is that he eventually chose not to deal with these elements of his life after two rather stormy years of confrontation. Unfortunately, our fellow elders in the church did not see this brother in the same light I did, and they sided with him. My rampant hurt and anger seriously undercut my credibility with them. As a result, my family and I had to pack up and leave our church, our home, our community, and all the dreams of my adult life. Everything I had desired to do for God was wrapped up in this church. It was like conceiving, bearing, passionately loving, and raising a child for a while, then having to abandon it. Folding our tents and slipping out of town with a sense of disgrace was the hardest thing I ever had to do.

The next two years were the most miserable of my life. Although they followed on the heels of two years of great pain and anger, they greatly surpassed them in personal pain. I was deeply enraged and consumed by anger. Every problem I had in life I attributed to my former friend. The sadness and despair of my life was all his fault. He was the villain and I was the victim. I invested huge amounts of time pondering how angry I was at him and what an evil, malevolent person he was. I was being swallowed by my rage, growing cynicism, and bitterness. I was angry at God, the church, and anybody who crossed me.

Near the end of my two years away from our former church, my wife and two or three dear friends confronted me about the anger and bitterness that was engulfing me. They lovingly and courageously faced my rage and pointed out my sin. In particular, they pointed me to some passages of Scripture that God used to break through my emotional defenses:


Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.... Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
(Ephesians 4: 26-27, 31-32)


God used this passage and others like it to reveal the bankruptcy of my self-centered view of the world. You might even say He gave me "heartburn." He also used His Word to burn through the sophisticated, multilayered defenses and rationalizations I had been energetically fortifying for four years. He also brought His purifying grace to my soul when I realized that I needed to deal with my sin, and stop blaming this dear brother for his. The breakthrough came when I broke down and confessed my sin in the relationship and expressed it all in a letter to my estranged Christian brother. I came to know the truth about myself in our relationship and it truly did set me free! I began to be sanctified afresh in these deeply stained areas of my life.

Through this experience and many others, I have learned that "heartburn" is a desirable thing when it comes to Bible reading. One of your primary goals in picking up this book is to end up with a burning heart by the time you put it down. Oh, you may not experience a three-alarm fire every time you read the Scriptures, but you should feel more than a little hot spot in your midsection. You see, Christians throughout history have been inflamed when they understood God's Word and its significance for their lives. Let's observe the experience of a couple of Jesus' disciples with the Scriptures shortly after His resurrection:


And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. And they were conversing with each other about all these things which had taken place. And it came about that while they were conversing and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. [Then they described their sadness about the death of Jesus and His missing body.] And He said to them, "O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?" And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.... And they said to one another, "Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?"
(Luke 24:13-16,25-27,32, emphasis mine)


A burning heart from the understood Word. That should be one of our most desired experiences as children of God. But is it? Can we say that we are regularly engulfed in spiritual flames when we imbibe God's Word? Is the Bible really that fiery in our experience? And if it is, does that fire ignite the character of Christ in us? In other words, are we more like Jesus Christ in our character today than we were last year or five years ago? Has reading the Bible made that kind of difference in our lives? Are we merely hearers of God's Word, or actual doers (see James 1:22-25)?

This book is committed to the biblical perspective that hearing or reading God's Word and applying it accurately to our lives ("doing the Word") will make us into the very thing that God ultimately created us to be: mature human beings with character and moral qualities like those of the perfect God-man, Jesus the Messiah. We call this transforming process spiritual formation. From beginning to end it is a gracious, supernatural work of our loving God. He begins the process by drawing us to Himself (John 6:44). He invests Himself in the process by giving us the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and progressively change us (Romans 8:12-14). And He culminates the process by resurrecting and perfecting us to be with Him forever in an immortal body (1 John 3:1-3). This process transforms us from sinstained rebels to eternal showcases of God's grace (Ephesians 2:1-10)!

The main thing God uses to form us into the likeness of Jesus Christ is His Word—the Scriptures. Listen to Jesus' dear friend Peter remark about this at the end of his life:


His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
(2 Peter 1:3-4, NIV, emphasis mine)


Notice that Peter tells us we don't need to seek any special experiences or secrets to become like Jesus Christ. Why? Because "his divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness"! This "everything" is given to us through God's "very great and precious promises"—obviously revealed only in the Bible. God has designed life so that we experience spiritual transformation and avoid sensual malformation through His Word. It is His primary means of transforming us into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

You may find that hard to believe from where you're sitting today. You may even be skeptical or hardened to that prospect. No matter how you relate to this perspective, I can only ask one thing: Will you give some of your focus and time and energy to acquire the tools and motivation necessary to experience the kind of burning-heart transformation that the two followers of Jesus encountered on the road to Emmaus? Will you see if you can experience the joy of a more passionate burning heart in response to the understood Word? Join me so that together we can get close to the flame of God's Word.

I realize I may be asking you to do something you deem onerous or boring. The general opinion of many in our culture is that reading the Bible is like tying a ball game or kissing your sister or pulling weeds from your yard! In other words, it's frustrating, unexciting, and one of those necessary but terribly mundane tasks in life. Why, even children have strong opinions on the topic.

Recently our son Jonathan, then fourteen, responded to my best efforts to introduce him to Bible study by choosing the last book of the Bible, Revelation. He picked that book because he had heard it said some cool things about the end of the world. I decided to go with this intrinsic motivation, and we proceeded. At the end of our study of chapter 1, Jonathan looked at me with furrowed brow and said, "Boy, Dad, reading the Bible is sure a lot of work!"

Not to be discouraged at the great wisdom of this teenager, I led him through the next two chapters a couple days later, pulling out all the stops obtained from my many years of graduate study to help him understand these remarkable chapters. I wanted to dazzle him with the fascinating background of the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3. I was confident that I had really drawn him in with my rousing historical tidbits. As we were closing our Bibles, my everhonest son burst out with his second opinion on reading the Bible: "Wow, I never knew reading the Bible was like being in school!"

There you have it. Like school and a lot of work. Not exactly a winning combination. Jonathan did not add a third aspect to reading the Bible that many would assert: there seems to be little payoff for so much hard work.

No wonder people—even Christians—are staying away from the Bible in droves. What can we do about this trend? Is it a problem with the nature of the Bible, or is it our problem? Is God's Word really that uninteresting and unexciting, or have we taken some wrong turns to arrive at this assessment? These are foundational questions with far-reaching effects on the Christian life. This book is an attempt to address these issues in an honest manner. However, I don't come from a neutral corner. I am deeply and profoundly persuaded that the Bible is the most exciting and powerful book ever written. My goal is to persuade you of that opinion and give you some basic tools to persuade yourself over the next few weeks. How? By helping you experience for yourself the fiery nature of the Word of God!

If you respond to this challenge, you will be in good company. Remember what preceded the burning hearts of Jesus' two disciples on the road to Emmaus?


And He said to them, "O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?" And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.... And they said to one another, "Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?"
(Luke 24:25-27,32, emphasis mine)


Those burning hearts were a response to Jesus' explanation of the things concerning His identity as the Messiah in the Old Testament. In other words, it is not unreasonable to assume that these two believers must have expended a bit of intellectual work and mental energy in order to understand and then respond to the Scriptures. But what is encouraging is that Jesus Himself appealed to their ability to do just that. If they had been unwilling to use their abilities, their response might have been something like this: "I'm sorry, but this is just too much work, Jesus! You're using too much Scripture and going too deeply into the Bible. Can't you just give us a quick, sound-bite summary of all this stuff?"

The delightful thing about the response of Jesus' followers is that it can be our response, too. Jesus has deeded as much dignity to us as He did to these two disciples. He believed they were capable of digesting the Word of God, thinking about it, and responding appropriately to it. He deeds us that very same dignity. In fact, one could argue that Jesus may consider us even more capable than these two confused souls on the road to Emmaus. Why? Because He has given us even more of the Scriptures to study and understand—the Old and New Testaments—and He has given us the Holy Spirit to aid us in this task (see 1 John 2:26-27). God and His Son highly esteem us in our ability to understand their revelation to us.

However, the punch line is that Jesus Christ will not do for His followers what He has deemed them capable of doing for themselves. The friends of Lazarus were unable to call him forth from the dead as they stood around his tomb. Only Jesus the Messiah could do that (John 11:43). However, once Lazarus was raised, Jesus expected these dumbfounded folks to unwrap all of the burial wrappings binding Lazarus so that he could be free (John 11:44). It was not that Jesus was too lazy or proud to do this. Rather, He would not do what He deemed humans capable of doing because He respected their dignity.

In the same way, Jesus Christ will not pick up our Bibles for us or pour the truth of Scripture into our minds apart from our choice to open ourselves to that truth. This means that you and I must choose to read or hear the Word of God and then choose to study and ponder it. Even having such a choice is a marvelous statement of our dignity as human beings. God deems us more than capable of doing this for ourselves. Of course, He meets with us in a wonderful way when we choose to do so, but He will not demean us by doing it for us. That's a part of our dignity.

This surfaces another interesting parallel to Jesus' raising of Lazarus and our reading of the Scriptures. While Jesus dignified the friends of Lazarus by directing them to unwrap his burial clothing, He also dignified them by being with them in the process. In other words, He gave them His presence as they fulfilled their responsibilities. So it is when we read the Word of God. Jesus Christ also freely gives us His presence through the person of the Holy Spirit to help us when we fulfill this responsibility. We know this because Jesus promised His disciples on the night He was arrested that He would not leave them as orphans. Instead, He would ask the Father to send them another Helper (Comforter) who would function as He did in their lives, only being with them forever (John 14:16-18)! Jesus identifies the Helper as the Holy Spirit who would also teach them (14:26), bear witness of Jesus (15:26), convict the world (16:7-10), and guide them into all truth (16:13-15). In other words, Jesus fully invests His ongoing presence in His people through the person of the Holy Spirit.

The apostle Paul specifically encourages us about the Holy Spirit's personal help in 1 Corinthians 2:11-13:


For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. (emphasis mine)


While we'll speak more fully about this in chapter 3, one point is timely here. We are not alone as we read the Bible! Jesus Christ manifests Himself to us through the person of the Holy Spirit during the process. As we read, Jesus brings about the changes He wants in our lives through the Holy Spirit driving home the troths from Scripture. Jesus transforms us as our will directs our mind to interact with the thoughts of God's Word while our spirit submits to the person of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit then teaches us "the things freely given to us by God." These things re-form our souls and cause our hearts to burn with renewed love for our God.

What this means is that if you want some life-changing "heartburn," you must take and eat the Word of God for yourself. A burning heart comes from the understood Word. May I challenge you to exercise your great God-given dignity and join me in the exciting but exacting process of studying and understanding the Bible? It really is a fiery flame that God will use to transform us. Come join me so that together we can be warmed by the flame.