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The Importance and Centrality of Scripture to the Christian Life

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Psalm 119:17-21

Deal bountifully with Your servant,

That I may live and keep Your word

Open my eyes, that I may behold

Wonderful things from Your law.

I am a stranger in the earth;

Do not hide Your commandments from me.

My soul is crushed with longing

After Your ordinances at all times.

You rebuke the arrogant, the cursed

Who wander from Your commandments.

It is a rare occurrence that Scripture speaks about itself, but as Christian people, those who have have been called by the grace of God to believe and follow His Word, it is best that we listen up whenever it does. After all, what better authority is there to explain what this collection we call the Bible really is, and what we should do with it, than the Bible itself? The preeminent example of such an occurrence is Psalm 119 and, using a short passage from this astonishing Psalm, I will attempt to help all of us understand the goal and importance of learning such a thing as how to study the Bible. To do this, we must discover what Scripture says about itself, which will determine the motivation and end goal for this class, which I am tremendously excited about.

Psalm 119 is one of the most impressively written Psalms, as well as the longest chapter in the Bible. It’s an acrostic poem with 22 stanzas, which means that every line of each eight-line stanza begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Verses 17-21 appears under (geemel), the third stanza. “The psalmist uses 10 different words for the Law or Word of God, every verse except verses 90, 122 and 132 mentioning at least one of these terms, law (i.e., instruction or revelation), testimonies (or precepts), ways, precepts (or orders), statutes (or decrees), commandments, judgments (or ordinances), word, path, word (the last “word” meaning promise or utterance, as in v. 11).” (1. Ps. 119 study note: The Ryrie Study Bible, ed. Charles Ryrie, pg. 941) This author was more than likely a young Levite writing around the time of the Babylonian captivity, so this psalm is his expression to God about his dependence on Scripture during a time of exile and oppression under a government who pushed hard to force the Jews into apostasy. The author is leading us through his experience, showing us how he has responded to these events, and his main focus in his desperation is the Word of God.

The passage (vs. 17-21) written on the first page is from the updated New American Standard Bible, and below I have offered an alternative translation in an attempt to shed some more light on the tone with which the psalmist is addressing God.

Deal beneficently toward Your servant,

That I might live and thereby keep Your Word

Uncover my eyes, that I might gaze upon,

Miraculous things from Your Law

I am a sojourner in the land,

Do not conceal from me Your commandments

My soul wastes away yearning

For Your decrees at all times

You rebuke the presumptuous, the accursed

Who stray from Your commandments

If for some reason I had a desire to communicate with an ant, what would I have to do? I suppose I could learn an ant language and get really close to the ground, whispering so as not to speak too loudly and scare off the ant or shake its tiny antennae... I could attempt to genetically mutate the ant so that he could perhaps grow ears and learn English... but the best way for me to accomplish this insane task is for me to become an ant.2 This is precisely what God has done for us. The Son, the Word, the manifestation of the will of God the Father, became flesh and dwelled among men so that we might know the Word of God and be saved. But before this occurred some 2000 years ago, God’s Word was still known. God always spoke and communicated with mankind on a level they could understand. The single greatest known event is that not only did an all-knowing, omnipotent, self-secure God create people...He communicated Himself and His desires for them, and He did it in a way they could understand. Before Adam and Even sinned and mankind fell into the toilet of existence before God, they lived in perfection...yet they were still miniscule; they were still totally insignificant in comparison with God. Why did they deserve to have God’s Word revealed to them? They didn’t in any way whatsoever. They didn’t even deserve to exist. It did not matter that they were without sin; it’s not a difference of degree...Adam and Eve were not less of something than God was; they were something entirely different than God. Namely, they were not Him. He is God and they were not, therefore they were undeserving of anything from God.

With this passage I’m first going to look at what I believe to be the two essential, fundamental principles for studying the Bible. After covering these two vital principles in verses 17 and 18 we’ll move on to study three lessons from the rest of the passage. Those three lessons answer three questions: 1) Why is it necessary to understand the Scriptures? 2) How deep is our need for the Scriptures? 3) What is the danger of rejecting the Scriptures?

-Vs. 17: Deal bountifully with Your servant, that I might live and keep Your word.

Now, I’ve already partially covered the first principle, that nobody deserves to study the Bible to begin with, and this is what the psalmist is demonstrating in verse 17 when he says “Deal bountifully toward Your servant.” This phrase carries a sense of urgency, the reason for which is explained in verse 23 when he says “princes sit and talk against me,” probably referring to government officials conspiring against him because of his faith and ethnicity. As I said earlier, the author is leading us through his experience showing us how he has responded to these events, and his main focus in the midst of his desperation is the Word of God.

“Deal beneficently toward Your servant...” Why? “That I might live and keep Your Word.” Earlier I mentioned that Adam and Eve didn’t even deserve their own lives, but by God’s grace they were allowed to have life, even after their rebellion against Him. The psalmist is recognizing this principle here in verse 17. Simply put, to live is to have received the grace of God, so the author is asking God to extend him grace in order that he might live. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to explain the reason for wanting to live... “That [he] might live and keep [God’s] Word.” Here the psalmist gives us a glimpse into his view of the purpose of life: to keep the Word of God. In essence, he’s saying, “Oh, Lord, be generous to me and show me grace in order that I might order that I might keep Your Word.” For this man, life is not merely living, but living to keep God’s Word. This word “keep” is interesting; the related noun is a “watchman,” so the author is viewing himself as a keeper or guardian of something of ultimate value with which He desires and rejoices to be entrusted with. This goes to show that there is more to “keeping” the Law than obedience. Keeping the Law means obedience, but also involves reverence, honor, and protecting it from being perverted or misunderstood. It is fascinating to think that in a difficult time of oppression and persecution this man viewed the whole purpose of his life as keeping the Word of God. Now, as important as it is to point out this exemplary perspective, it is equally important, if not more so, to point out that while the author views keeping God’s Word as the purpose of life, he views keeping God’s Word as something he does not deserve to do.

So this is the first necessary principle to understand about studying the Bible: We don’t deserve to study it! The mere fact that God left us His Word is an unspeakable display of grace, especially considering that we are no longer living in a perfect state. After all, what reason did God have to keep Adam and Eve around after they fell in the garden? What reason did God have to not just wipe them off the face of the earth and have Himself a “do-over?” The reason was His pleasure...the incomprehensible, arbitrary will of God, the God who has mercy on whom He has mercy and loves whomever He chooses to love. Throughout the Old Testament the word that is used to describe God’s reason to getting involved in people’s lives is “pleased.” God was “pleased” to do it. God kept people around because it pleased Him to do so. That’s all! We have the Bible simply because God is pleased to have us know Him. Studying the Bible is a miraculous privilege! The Christian should in some way rejoice, whether internally or externally, at the idea that God is actually pleased to have us read and understand His Word.

-Vs. 18: Open my eyes, that I may behold; Wonderful things from Your law.

As we look at verse 18 we’re going to see the second important principle for studying the Bible, which is founded in the statement, “Uncover my eyes.” We’ve already established what the first principle for beginning Bible study is that we do not deserve to read the Bible, but by the incredible grace of God we have the privilege of doing so, and now verse 18 presents to us the second principle, which is that we cannot understand the Bible apart from God revealing it to us. Here the psalmist addresses God with a request (actually, an imperative verb) that He uncover his eyes. The psalmist is essentially crying out in desperation for sight.

Two questions immediately emerge: Why is he crying out, and why are his eyes covered. The answer to the first question is simple: he is crying out for God to uncover his eyes because he cannot do so himself. The psalmist is recognizing his dependence on God and is crying out to Him out of that dependence. As for the second question, there are two reasons his eyes are covered: The first reason is that he is not God. God exists outside of His creation, so just like the impossibility of a man communicating to an ant without some superhuman or supernatural intervention unknown to science to enable that communication, so we cannot understand the things of God without God’s supernatural intervention, born out of His desiring those things to be revealed to us. The second reason his eyes are covered is that he is sinful. Sin brings about a severed fellowship with God, which causes spiritual blindness, an inability to see and understand spiritual truth. In Matthew 16 and 1 Corinthians 2 we are told that spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and since no man born blind can cause himself to have sight by his own volition, no person can understand spiritual truth without God first uncovering his eyes. It is God who does the uncovering, not us. God is the mover, and we are the passive recipient of the action. Passive reception = receipt of grace. It is grace that allows a man’s eyes to be opened to God’s character and God’s heart, and to gaze upon them. See, it’s not merely seeing that the author wishes to do, but gazing. The word used here is almost always used to mean looking at something of value, and when specifically referring to God’s Law it creates a sense of looking with intent to obey. This is the type of looking you do when you’re a kid and your dad is showing you how to tie a fish hook onto the fishing line, peering over at his hands so that you can mimic what he’s doing. What God does with us is the same. He wants you to see what He’s doing. He wants you to get it right. so if you’re willing to pay attention, you’ll see it. You just can’t think you can get it right on your own and go wandering off to the river to fish with a faulty knot in the line, because it won’t work, and we’ll deal with that attitude when we get to verse 21, but once again, what we have is God extending grace to enable His people to understand and follow His Word. God wants us to have, read and understand His Word, and by understanding His Word we experience His character, the discovery of which provides our motivation for obedience.

So what is it that the Psalmist is desiring so badly to see? He is desperately crying out to God so that he might gaze upon “wonderful things,” or “miraculous things.” This is a term that equates to the New Testament’s “signs and wonders.” These are the supernatural actions that God takes to make Himself known to His people, as well as to authenticate those He has chosen to be His messengers. The miracles performed by Moses before Pharaoh and before Israel during the Exodus (e.g., the plagues on Egypt, the Red Sea crossing, etc.), as well as miracles done by other prophets in the Old Testament and throughout the New Testament book of Acts, served the purpose of authenticating God’s messenger and his message, so that those who were witnesses would know that Yahweh had spoken. This was God’s way of saying, “This prophet is my representative to you. Listen and follow him as you would Me.” What is significant here is what the psalmist says about the “miraculous things.” He calls them the “miraculous things from [God’s] Law.” This doesn’t mean we should conclude that the author is interested in seeing or reading about miracles; what we should see here is that there are miraculous and wonderful things revealed in the Law. This Law, of course, is the Law of Moses.

So what does it mean that there are miraculous things revealed in the Law? The character of God Himself is revealed to us in the Law. The Law of Moses says a lot of peculiar things (at least, to us in our time and culture), but what it speaks of primarily is the character and holiness of God. The Law is a revelation of the character of God. This is where we learn of His personality and His desires. What I tell people is that I learn my theology of salvation, the church and the end times from the New Testament, but I go to the Old Testament to learn about God’s character. The Law is where we begin to really get at and understand God’s heart.

I mentioned before that the “wonderful things,” the miracles, served to authenticate God’s messenger and His should be noted that this is also the case with the Scriptures. In Romans 1:20 the Apostle Paul tells us that we can know about God apart from the Scriptures, because, “His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made.” The earth is the glory of God, the revelation of His attributes, and because these attributes are attested to and celebrated throughout Scripture, we can rest assured that the Bible truly is the inspired Word of God.

This second principle, that we cannot understand the Word apart from God revealing it to us, provides us with the driving force behind the whole stanza; it’s sort of a synopsis of everything the author is seeking and wanting, and the whole purpose for what comes next. Now let’s look at the three critical lessons found in the following verses: 1) why understanding God’s Word is necessary, 2) the depth of our need for the Word, and 2) the danger of rejecting it.

-Lesson #1: Why is it necessary to understand God’s Word?

I am a stranger in the land; do not hide Your commandments from me.

(vs. 19)

The first of these three lessons, found in verse 19, is given to us in a fascinating word picture. I am a stranger in the land. As I commented earlier, the author of this psalm was probably writing during the Babylonian captivity, so he was most likely a literal stranger or sojourner, a person who is living in a land that is not his own among a people who were not his own. He was no longer in the land of promise, representing God’s presence and blessings. He was now far from home in a strange place, and the only thing familiar to him was the Scriptures, specifically God’s commandments. In other words, while in a strange place all he knew was what God had told him to do in the Scriptures. We can imagine him saying something like, “I don’t know anything around here, but I know God’s commandments, and without them I have nothing.” I think the clearest way to understand this verse is by asking this question: What makes a believer a stranger? Yes, this was written in a specific time and place that is not our own and what this man is saying here can’t be understood properly outside of his own circumstances. But, in 1 Corinthians 10:11 the Apostle Paul says of Israel’s desert wanderings, “These things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The Psalms are reflections of the Israelite people’s responses to God in the midst of trials, often due to their own mistakes, as is the case with Psalm 119, which is the author’s reflections on his dependence on Scripture for survival during hard times, and for that reason, Psalm 119 was written for the Church.

So what makes a believer a stranger? A believer is a stranger because his citizenship is in heaven. Just as Paul told the Philippian church:

Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. (Phil. 3:17-21)

Amidst people who were hostile to God Paul exhorted the Philippian believers to hold fast to the truth set before them, to not live as the evil people around them lived, because their way was to destruction, but the way of Christ is salvation. As believers, the only thing we have to keep us on the correct path is the Scriptures. We must learn to live successfully in this world of ours while not being taken in by it, and the Scriptures are our protection. They’re also our connection with home, so to speak. We live in a land that is not our own, among people that are not our own, because this world is not our home. We have no place here, but we have work to do while we’re still here, and the Scriptures are our instruction manual as well as our protection against falling into destructive traps. For the psalmist, the commands of God represented his only comfort, the only familiarity in his life and the only thing that reminded him of home.

The comedian Cathleen Madigan once said:

"I just finished up a comedy tour in China. That’s a really strange place, and the first day I was there I was walking down the street, looking around at all the weird buildings thinking, 'Well if reincarnation is real, I never was Chinese in a past life ‘cause none of this stuff’s ringing a bell!''

This is what the Christian life is supposed to be like. We should be clinging to the Scriptures to the point that, as we are confronted by the ways of the world, we react. The truth is in the Scriptures and everything else is false reality. What God says is reality matters and nothing else does, so we should have some sort of reaction to everything we see that is not true to Scripture or honoring to God. This world is not our home, and we should be longing for that which is from our home, and desperate to see and hear truth and comfort, and it is this longing that we will see demonstrated in the next verse. So Lesson #1 is that the reason why understanding His Word is important is just this: we are lost, and without the Word of God our end will be destruction.

-Lesson #2: How deep is our need for the Scriptures?

My soul is crushed with longing After Your ordinances at all times.

(vs. 20)

In verse 19 we saw the Psalmist as a stranger in desperate need of God’s commandments. So now in verse 20 we’ll see the purpose for this longing demonstrated, when the psalmist says, “My soul wastes away yearning for Your decrees at all times.” The NASB says, “My soul is crushed with longing after Your ordinances at all times.” Not only is he in a strange land among a wicked people, their conspiracy against him has made his world into a spiritual desert, and he is wasting away and desperately yearning to hear from his Lord. This is a pivotal verse because it presents to us the essential, proper perspective for the Christian life: There is only one source of hope, truth and life, and that is God, and outside of Him there is nothing but death and destruction. This is the second lesson, the depth of our need for the Word of God, and this verse happens to parallel one of my all-time favorite verses in the Psalms. Psalm 63:1:

O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly;

My soul thirst for You, my flesh yearns for You,

In a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Why does the psalmist’s soul waste away and become crushed, yearning after the decrees of God? Because there is nothing but death and destruction apart from them. The metaphor of the desert or wilderness is very common to the Old Testament writers, so common in fact that we often overlook it. The significance of the wilderness motif, and why God often seems to need to have His people go there, is so that they will know beyond any doubt that He is the only true provider of life and truth. During the Exodus God led the Israelites out of Egypt, and immediately into the desert where they had nothing, and then he brought them food from heaven and water from a rock, so that they would know beyond any doubt that He loved them and that He was their only Salvation. It’s interesting that this took place immediately after God made His covenant with Israel and established the Law; Israel’s introduction to life with God was the desert, to prove by demonstration that no matter where they were or what circumstances they found themselves in, He would always be their God and provider and they would lack nothing as long they followed Him. He did this so they would trust Him. There are times when God needs to bring His people into the “wilderness” so that they will trust Him, so that they will know that He is their Provider, and that there is no true need met apart from Him.

Another powerful example of this wilderness metaphor, one possibly more fitting to the psalmist’s context, is from Hosea. In Hosea we see God’s response to Israel’s idolatrous rejection of Him, and in chapter 2 God pronounces His judgment. Here is a short selection from this chapter, the message of which is that God is going “hedge up” Israel’s ways so that they cannot find any fulfillment outside of him, for the purpose of restoring them back to Him. God says:

“I will punish her for the days of the Baals

When she used to offer sacrifices to them

And adorn herself with earrings and jewelry,

And follow her lovers, so that she forgot Me,” declares the LORD.

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,

Bring her into the wilderness

And speak kindly to her.

Then I will give her her vineyards from there,

And the valley of Achor as a door of hope”

(vs. 13-15)

The purpose for God leading Israel into the “wilderness” was to woo them back to Him by showing them that, on the basis of His deep love for them, He is their only hope and source of blessing. In verse 13 we see that Israel had taken advantage of God’s blessings as if they had come from someone else, and in verse 15 God promises to give the blessings back to her, but in the proper context of relationship. God’s desire for us is not merely to act as if He is our only hope, but to acknowledge that this is the reality. God truly is our only source of hope, truth and life. In the case of Jews during the captivity, about which Hosea is prophesying (albeit the Assyrian captivity), the purpose was to lead Israel into a place, physically and spiritually, where they would be deprived of all their blessings so they would understand God’s covenant of love for them and their utter dependence on His Word.

When was the last time you acknowledged your dependence on God? When was the last time you dropped face-down before God and cried out to Him out of your dependence? When was the last time you opened the Word of God desperate, not for an answer to a problem, but to hear from God only because you know you are lost without Him? We truly have nothing and offer nothing, but God, in incredible grace and radical love, extends Himself to us in written form so that we can know Him intimately. He already knows us and has no need to know us more, but the purpose of us having the Bible is so that we can read it and know Him, and we do not deserve this. We are dependent on him and we are strangers in a land and desperate for His Word whether we acknowledge it or not.

-Lesson #3: What is the danger of rejecting the Scriptures?

You rebuke the arrogant, the cursed who wander from Your commandments

(Vs. 21)

There are some people who are desperate for God’s Word and do not realize it. Whether out of rebellion or ignorance, they do not seek God’s Word, and their end is destruction. This is the type of person the psalmist calls “arrogant” and “cursed,” those “who stray from [God’s] commandments.” This word for “arrogant” is also translated “presumptuous,” and it is an arrogant, deadly presumption for a person to think they can do anything or attain to anything of value apart from the Word of God. Now, to clarify, the arrogant and the cursed are the same person, and this person doesn’t stray because he’s cursed, but he is cursed because he strays. This is precisely the same sin as Eve’s. In Genesis 3 we’re told that Eve looked at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and saw that it was pleasurable to the eyes, good for food and desirable to make one wise. These are the same three temptations given to us in 1 John 2:16: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life. Eve’s sin was seeking to attain to something, anything, apart from God. Adam was given the revealed Word of God in verses 16 and 17 of Genesis 2 when God gave him instructions regarding the two trees in the middle of the garden, and if they had held fast to that Word, they would not have gone astray. But Eve, being deceived by Satan into thinking God was withholding that which would make her like Him, strayed from God’s commandments, sinned and was cursed (and of course Adam’s sin was standing by and allowing this to happen).

My opinion is that in verse 21 the author is recalling the purpose for which he had found himself a stranger in the land, desperate for the decrees of God...because Israel was being punished and rebuked for straying from God’s commandments. Their captivity was divine judgment for sin, a fact the psalmist has apparently come to terms with. Having come to grips with the truth of his dependence on God, he is now struck in the face with the grave reality of Israel’s situation: they were arrogantly presumptuous and had strayed from the commandments of God, and were now being rebuked and punished for it. The glorious thing about God’s divine judgment, however, (and in this context I’m referring to temporal punishment, not eternal punishment) is that it is always done with the purpose of restoration. The writings of the prophet Jeremiah give us some of the clearest teachings about this sort of divine affliction. According to the Bible Knowledge Commentary, in Lamentations 3:25-40 Jeremiah gives 7 principles for understanding affliction:  

(1)Affliction should be endured with hope in God’s salvation, that is, ultimate restoration (Lam. 3:25-30). (2) Affliction is only temporary and is tempered by God’s compassion and love (vv. 31-32). (3) God does not delight in affliction (v. 33). (4) If affliction comes because of injustice, God sees it and does not approve of it (vv. 34-36). (5) Affliction is always in relationship to God’s sovereignty (vv. 37-38; cf. Job 2:10). (6) Affliction ultimately came because of Judah’s sins (Lam. 3:39). (7) Affliction should accomplish the greater good of turning God’s people back to Him (v. 40).

God will never utterly reject those He has made promises to, and those of us who are saved and part of the New Testament Church, are grafted in to that promise made to Israel, and in the end we will be with Christ in a glorified state and Israel will have returned back to God.

This is the third and final lesson of this passage: the danger of rejecting the Word of God is divine judgment and rebuke. Israel experienced it for our benefit so that we do not make the same mistake. The Scriptures are clear that God is extremely patient, but eventually the grace runs out and judgment comes, and while this judgment is not eternal loss of salvation, it can be eternal loss of reward in heaven. A former pastor of mine used to say that “God cares more about His Word than His reputation,” and this verse shows this to be true. Not only does God rebuke those who stray from Him, He rebukes those who stray from His commandments, and because salvation is not what is at stake here, this is a warning that applies to us today. If we stray from God’s Word and continue living apart from Him we can fully expect the judgment of God to come. If we are not closely following the Word of God in every area of our lives, it means that we’ve become arrogant and presumptuous to think that we can do something for ourselves apart from God, when we truly are completely dependent on Him in everything. The Scriptures contain everything we need to know, period. Those whose lives do not reflect this truth are those the Bible calls “arrogant” and “cursed.” The psalmist is using strong language because this is a strong reality. God didn’t give us His Word so that we can run a profitable business, or so that we can get along with each other, or so that we can have happy lives, or even so that we can run a “successful” church, although the Bible does teach us how to do those things. God gave us His Word so that we might be saved from our sins and be reconciled to Him. Those of us who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved have been adopted as sons into the family of God, and we have His Word as His guidance for living in relationship with Him. God has not imposed on us a set of rules so that we can do what He wants. Rather, He has gifted us with His loving guidance for our benefit, to prosper us and to make us holy.

We are, have and can do nothing apart from God’s Word. All other paths are void and lead to destruction. My encouragement and exhortation is for all of us to spend some time meditating on our need for God, and our simultaneous and equal need for Scripture. One thing yet to be mentioned, however, is the importance and need for prayer. The need of the Christian life is a necessary, equal balance of prayer and Scripture intake. After all, this entire Psalm is a prayer of sorts; the psalmist has the need to have his eyes opened to the Word of God, so he prays to have his eyes opened. Just as the study of Scripture cannot be divorced from the Christian life, so prayer cannot be divorced from Bible study. Our entire lives absolutely must be guided by the Word of God and fueled by prayer, or else we’re doing things on our own, and if we’re doing things on our own then we are pushing God down and putting ourselves on top.

The Christian life is supposed to be cultivating a relationship with God through communion with Him, and that communion must be viewed as two-way communication, speaking to God through prayer, and God speaking to us through His Word. The Holy Spirit enlightens our conscience, leads us in our daily activities and enables our spiritual gifts, but God primarily speaks to us through His Word. We speak to God through prayer and God speaks to us through His Word. One without the other is an unfortunately misguided Christian life. Let us all make a point to revolve our lives around the Word of God, placing it properly in the center of everything we do. This is a gift. The Bible is an amazing, supernatural gift, and as God’s people who have been called to believe and follow it, we are “watchmen” and keepers of this most extraordinary gift, a responsibility that should not be taken lightly, but also brings tremendous joy, and for that we should all be thankful to be able to read, study and heed the revealed Word of God.

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