I have started writing a column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. The first one was on the phrase ‘Word of God’. Despite the fact that many churches use this phrase with reference to the reading of Scripture, its meaning is often disputed, sometimes on the basis that it is Jesus, rather than the Bible, which is the word of God. The two ideas are actually closely related, and need to be understood in the context of Old Testament understandings of the phrase, as I explore:
‘This is the Word of the Lord’. ‘Thanks be to God.’ This is quite a common refrain at the end of the Bible readings in many churches; you might have said one or both parts of this in the last week. But it is not always clear what we mean by the phrase ‘Word of God’, and the use of the phrase is sometimes disputed.
We encounter the idea of the word of God immediately on opening the Bible. The creation account in Genesis 1 depicts God not so much as a craftsman shaping the world with his hands, but as a speaker bringing the world into being simply by his speech. What he speaks into existence comes into existence; God’s words do things. In the second creation account, in Gen 2.4 onwards, God’s words shape the world he has made; his command to the adam to eat of any tree in the garden, but not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, creates a boundary for the adam’s world. The first challenge to the power of God’s words comes from the snake when it asks ‘Did God really say…?’
The nature and importance of words in the Old Testament is indicated by the Hebrew term davar. Though it refers to the speech of God or people, it is connected to the root dr, which means ‘order’. So when we read ‘God spoke these words to Moses…’ in the Pentateuch, we might better understand it as ‘God gave Moses these commands’. Indeed, the text which we call ‘The Ten Commandments’ is in Hebrew called ‘The Ten Words’, devarim; these and God’s other words to Moses function to ‘order’ and shape the life of his people Israel. Thus, on occasions, the word davar can refer not just to the words, but to the things themselves which have been put in order by God’s words. Most English translations render Num 18.7 as ‘Only you and you sons may serve in connection with everything at the altar’, where the Hebrew is ‘every davar of the altar…’
The sense of God’s word as a thing continues in the prophetic tradition, where time and again the prophet claims that ‘the word of Yahweh came to me…’ At times, these ‘words’ have visionary elements, but they constantly serve to call God’s people back to the ordered life that he has set before them.
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With God’s ordering speech to his people inscribed in the various books of the Old Testament, Jesus consistently takes these written words to be the words of God. Most often these are referred to simply by the introduction ‘it is written’, as we find in the exchange of Scriptures with the Devil in Jesus’ temptation. But Jesus also uses the actual phrase ‘word of God’ on several occasions (Mark 7.13, John 10.34) referring to the text, and even cites the narrator’s words of Gen 2.24 as God’s own speech (‘the Creator…said…’ Matt 19.5). This makes it all the more striking when Jesus goes on to use the phrase ‘word of God’ to mean the good news of the gospel which he himself is preaching (Luke 5.1, 8.11), and Luke continues to use this phrase to refer to the subsequent apostolic preaching of the good news (Acts 4.31, 6.7).
Since this ‘word’ focuses on the person of Jesus, we can easily understand the next development of this terminology: in John 1, it is Jesus himself who is this divine Word, the pre-existent logos. Jesus, God’s word made flesh, is himself the expression of the ordering, communication and wisdom of God. But this claim goes even further; for John’s Greek-speaking readers, the logos is not just the words spoken by God, previously found in the Old Testament, but in Stoic philosophy the rational principle that holds the whole fabric of the universe together (compare Heb 1.3).
Thus the phrase ‘word of God’ refers to God own speech as he brings order out of chaos and makes his will known. It refers to the prophetic correction to his people to keep them within his gracious ordering, and then to the written record of the law, prophets and wisdom. It then refers to the teaching of Jesus as he announces the coming of God’s kingdom in fulfilment of Old Testament promise, and further to the apostolic teaching about Jesus, now inscribed in our New Testaments. Rather neatly, the Book of Revelation completes the canon by referencing these different meanings in the seven occurrences of ‘word of God’ in its chapters. Revelation is saturated in the Old Testament as the word of God, but this word is now both the ‘testimony of Jesus’ (Rev 1.2) as well as Jesus himself (Rev 19.13), and includes the prophetic message given to John (Rev 19.9) which aims to keep his readers faithful to the Jesus whom he sets before them.
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