Praying the Way to Biblical Insight
By Daniel Mayfield
In many ways, the Bible is designed to weed out the droves who come to it looking for a cheap fix. To put it another way, God so designed his word that only the most cautious, meticulous, and humble characters will benefit from the fruit it promises.
That may sound odd, but let me give you three foundational characteristics of the Bible to prove the point: (1) The Bible is not easy to understand. Those who know the Bible the best, know this to be true. When I was young in my faith and held a simple grasp of some Bible things, I thought, “The Bible is easy! It’s not hard!” But I only said that because I never studied it.
Listen to what Peter said about Paul’s writings: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16).
And over in Hebrews 5:11-14, the writer is doing some deep teaching on high priests and how it all relates to Jesus, and he says, “11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
So, everybody comes to the Bible as an infant and is only able to digest the milk, because why? Because none of the rest of it will make sense yet! A guy I once baptized, who later fell away, messaged me the other day and said he’s got a newfound desire to study the Bible, and he wanted me to know he’s starting with the book of Revelation! I very gently directed him elsewhere because if somebody doesn’t have a solid foundation of the Bible, they’ll go into Revelation and immediately get lost. In fact, that’s what Peter said people do with Paul’s writings. He said, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction.”
This kind of thing happens all the time when people who neither know God nor his word read a cheap shot twitter post about some Bible passage stripped from its context. You mean God allowed his people to own slaves? You mean God had his people kill children in the context of war? I’ll have nothing to do with that God! Those things are hard to understand—even for the most trained disciples.
(2) The Bible is shot through with purposeful folly; and if you’ve been trained to think by the world, some things will be laughable to you. Paul says, “the word of the cross is foolish to those who are dying” (1 Corinthians 1:18). And he says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they spiritually discerned” (2:14).
So the naturalist comes to the Bible and sees the command to talk continuously to an invisible God. “I’m outta here! It isn’t measurable, it isn’t observable, it isn’t verified by physics.”
(3) The Bible is cutting for those who do understand it; So let’s suppose you’ve made it past the first couple barriers, and you neither think the Bible is foolish nor are you in the dark to what it means; and now you can see the Bible as it really is, and it slashes deep into a person’s spirit and flays them before God with an open wound only he can repair.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…[my word will] set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34).
In Hebrews 4:12-13, the writer says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
So all sorts of things built right into the nature of the Bible give reason not to spend a moment longer seeking its fruit.
Now, let me say something that appears to go against everything I just said. There are all sorts of people who read the Bible their whole lives and still never bear its fruit. So, there are at least three reasons why a person would come to the Bible and never read another sentence; but that doesn’t mean that people who do read the Bible attain to its purpose for them.
So this means, there is an additional quality besides cautiousness, meticulousness, and submission that one must have in order to gain from the Bible what God has aim to give.
The Main Point of Matthew 21:14-17
Open with me in your Bibles to Matthew 21:14, and let’s start reading there: “14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “ ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” 17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.”
Now before we get into the meat of the message, I want to really quickly give you a lesson in exegesis, which will hopefully aid your personal study and will help you see how Matthew intends to use this moment in Jesus’ life.
What would you say is the central purpose of the Scripture—is it to demonstrate the humility and praise of blind men, deaf men, and children, or is it to showcase the way we don’t want to react to Jesus, demonstrated by the chief priests and the scribes?
I’ll apply this kind of narrative to a modern one, and hopefully it’ll clear up the answer. Imagine I came to you with the following story (this is fictional): So yesterday I was in the central Georgetown square, and I noticed a group of people with the Cayman Democratic Party, headed up by McKeeva Bush, protesting the current administration. But after about ten minutes, a whole bunch of people with the People’s Progressive Movement came running at them, angrily, and scared them off site!”
What was the primary reason for telling the story? Was it that some CDP supporters were protesting, or was it that, while they protested, some PPM members came running after them with sticks?
Well, you know by the way I told that story that the main thing I wanted to tell you concerned the riot that nearly broke out. So when Matthew is telling us some things about blind and deaf men being healed, and children shouting, “Hosanna!” but he allows the story to be interrupted by the scribes and priests, what would you say is the main point of the text?
His main point isn’t to discuss the healing or the praise but to show us the wrong way to respond to Jesus. That’s why he says, “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things he did, and the children crying out in the temple…they were indignant.” He takes that event and let’s it lead us to a teaching moment with Jesus.
So we know that our main energies shouldn’t be spent talking about Jesus’ power to heal or even the children’s praise. Those are secondary points, and Matthew has used them all through his Gospel. His main point here is to teach something to people who readily recognize his power and messianic position.
Biblical Experts Who Missed It All
There are some things in the events of this passage that are immediately evident, namely that the leaders were indignant—very angry—about two things, the miracles Jesus performed and the confession from children that he was the Messiah. “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant, and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’”
These are Bible savants. They would have had massive sections of Scripture totally committed to memory from when they were little boys—like the whole of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and way more.
This means that the technical, foolish, and cutting parts of the Bible didn’t run them off like a lot of people. But clearly the Bible hadn’t taken root. They were greatly angered by the “wonderful things [Jesus] did, and the [praise given to him by children].’”
How on earth does a person read the Bible their whole life and get angry when wonderful things are accomplished by the Living God? Jesus nails it: “[T]hey said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise”?’”
That was from Psalm 8. Of course they read it! They would’ve read that passage and every other passage countless times over. But Jesus means, “You never read it.”
How do you not read something you’ve read your whole life? How does a person read the Bible a million times and the words still fall on them like a giant, impenetrable boulder [SSSSHHH DNNNNKK]? There’s a way to read the Bible like a rock, and every word flies at you and just explodes on the surface, and you can read it a million times and still see things like the rest of the world.
Last week Jesus came into the temple to tell the people all that was wrong with it—robbers, self-seekers, and faithless leaders filled the temple, and Jesus told them the root problem. “My house shall be called a house of prayer!” And the people weren’t praying! All of the selfish pursuits of the temple were owed to a lack of prayer. Well, we’re still in the temple! What could possibly cause a person to read the Bible a million times and remain cold towards people who need help and get angry when children are praising the King of kings? The only thing that could cause that is if they were reading the Bible and never prayed to the God who wrote it.
The most damning thing to fruitful Bible study is to read it without prayer. It is impossible to have fruit-producing Bible study apart from prayer. Here are two reasons: (1) Without prayer, we cannot fully understand God’s word; and (2) without prayer, we cannot be transformed by God’s word. Let me prove them in order:
First, it is impossible to fully understand the Word of God without prayer
The scribes knew Psalm 8:2 intellectually, but because their lives weren’t filled with true prayer, they didn’t have the spirituality to make real connections to what was happening. If they’d read the Bible as more than an intellectual exercise, and they were seeking God daily in prayer, they’d have connected the children’s praise to Psalm 8:2.
In Proverbs 2, the writer says, “if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding…then you will…find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
So, there’s a basic principle here: In order to gain understanding, you must call out for it, and if you do that, you’ll find it from God’s mouth.
Now, look at Psalm 119:12, 18 — David says to God, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes!…Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”
So the Proverb writer says to call out for understanding, and you’ll find it in God’s word; and David prays to God for understanding, requesting that God will open his eyes to see fuller meaning and depth.
Now, I said it is impossible to fully understand the Word of God without prayer. This doesn’t mean that an intellectual person won’t understand what the words are saying. It just means that, to him, they’ll be rubbish. Earlier I quoted 1 Corinthians 2:14, which reads: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for (because) they are folly to him, and he is [therefore] not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (lit. judged).”
Paul’s point is, the unspiritual (natural) person sees the message of God and just thinks it’s folly. Sure, he can intellectually grasp what it says. But he doesn’t love God; he isn’t seeking after God; he doesn’t see any value in it; so it’s just rubbish to him.
Countless Old Testament Psalms equate prayer to calling out for God. So, if a person doesn’t care about being in God’s presence, they’re not going to understand the riches expressed by the Bible. Apart from prayerfully seeking after God, the Bible’s message will just be intellectual facts, and we won’t be able to figure out what is happening when children cry out in praise to the Messiah.
Because they Scribes were not in tune with God spiritually through real prayer, which calls out to him and seeks his face, they saw children crying out, “Hosanna!” and they weren’t able to connect it with Psalm 8. They knew Psalm 8. But without the union supplied by prayer, they couldn’t also see what the children could see. In essence, without prayer you can’t be spiritual. And without being spiritual, you can’t grasp the spiritual meaning of the Bible.
When we read the Bible, and seek God’s face, then God’s Word becomes infinitely richer, and we might read the command, “Do not murder,” and we will think, “Then that means I’m also not supposed to hate or do things to oppress people or refrain from speaking for the voiceless!” Prayerful Bible study doesn’t just comprehend the book intellectually, it grasps it in its deepest spiritual meanings and then sees the whole world differently. Watching lots of comedies with inappropriate humor becomes as guilt-ridden for us as if we were getting drunk. Too much emphasis on finances becomes the same to us as if we were worshipping an idol.
Prayer transforms stale words to infinite living application. Without prayer we can never fully understand what God says and means.
Second, it is impossible to be transformed by the Bible without prayer.
The scribes knew the Bible, but they were angry when wondrous acts were performed by the Son of God in flesh. They were unloving, unbelieving, and unchanged, despite the Bible!
I read an excerpt on Joseph Stalin from a book which chronicles his transition from church life to one of the most brutal socialist dictators the world has ever known. It said this: “He knew the history of the church back to front; he could sing; he could read Greek and Latin; and he knew intimately how the church itself worked…Above all, he knew the Bible. Indeed, he had already studied Old and New Testament while at school, before arriving at the seminary. Ten years or more of solid study of the Bible are bound to leave their impression on a young man. It is not for nothing that Stalin later was known for having memorised [sic] long stretches of text and quoting the Bible at will.” How in the world does the Bible have so little effect on a man?
Turn with me in your Bibles to 2 Chronicles 7. Leading up to this passage, Solomon, David’s son, had told God he wanted to build a permanent structure for God’s house—a temple. And after great lengths to build it and furnish it with the holy relics were completed, the Lord appeared to Solomon with the following words concerning the temple (7:12-14):
“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Did you see the if/then relationship? What things constitute a heard prayer? If my people…humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear!
So, to pray is to turn in the direction of God, away from wickedness, calling out his name in humility; which, according to God, causes him to hear, forgive, and heal! True prayer seeks God and runs from wickedness! So what happens if a person reads the Bible, but never prays? Well, if they aren’t praying, then they aren’t seeking God’s face, and if they aren’t seeking his face, then they are still oriented towards wickedness—totally unchanged!
All sorts of people throughout history have read the Bible and were totally unmoved by it. They were totally untransformed by it. If you’re not seeking God in constant prayer, it suggests a lack of desire for God, which means you can’t be transformed by His Word.
God has Prepared Praise for Himself
Jesus quoted Psalm 8:2 — “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies, you have prepared praise.” The world is filled with people who don’t praise God for the wonderful things he’s done. They hear of Jesus’ death on the cross, and they are unmoved by it; they learn of the spiritual blessings in Christ, and they are unfazed by them; they hear testimonies of life transformations and healing that comes through Jesus, and it annoys them—so they become indignant.
There are even people in the church who read their Bibles and perform rituals, but they don’t seek after God, and so they find it hard to praise him. They sing outwardly, but inwardly feel nothing. They pray but feel no connection to God. They’re like the religious leaders in Matthew.
Prayer is the lifeblood of a person’s spirituality—because it detects how seriously the person feels about God, truth, transformation. Read the Bible in the midst of a life of unceasing prayer. Pray to God morning, noon, and night. Seek his face. Call out to him. Read his word. When you draw near to God in regular, intimate prayer, his word will be life! And you’ll read things and because they mean everything to you, you’ll see all of life differently.
Small interactions at supermarkets will remind you of passages you read. Little slips of the tongue will remind you of certain commands and you’ll pray for forgiveness on the spot. Hard passages will no longer be skipped—they’ll be your most joyful challenge! I love finding something that makes no sense to me. Oh goody! Honey, I’ll see you in a few hours! I’m digging deep! I have no idea what this means, and I love it! I’ll be in prayer and meditation and exegesis for the next several hours.
When we study God’s word as truly prayerful people, we won’t be confused when certain things are happening in the world. We will already have known, because God’s word prepares us for everything.
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