At its most basic level, a word is a symbol used to express and idea, and perhaps to communicate that idea from one being or group to another.
When we think about God as represented in the Bible, we see a God who speaks to express ideas and who seeks to communicate. Genesis tells us that through speech (presumably of words) creation experienced order, distinction and categorization arising out of chaos. Thus we learn that words, or at least the words (Word?) of God has the power potentiality to create. “God said, “Let there be…” and it was so…and God saw and said, “It is good” (Genesis 1). God then turns the divine word toward relationship with humanity by offering the blessing of orientation, direction, counsel and boundaries that would constitute the divine/human relation. “Do this… don’t do that” (Genesis 2). Words are next used to disorient and deceive, and then to rebuke, correct, and warn (Genesis 3). From just the first three chapters of the bible, we learn that words are spiritual, powerful, and that they shape life.
With the second call of Abram/Abraham (Exodus 15) we encounter the phrase “the word of the LORD”. The all caps “LORD” is a place holder for the tetragrammaton “YHWY” which is the unpronounceable name of God derived from the encounter with Moses on Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:14). This word of the LORD comes to people, as an almost physical presence of God in speech – see the encounter of the boy prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 3.
Through the call, the word/speech of God continued to create/form a unique people (Isaiah 42:6). The calling/creating word/speech beaconed Israel back from captivity and restored them as a nation in Jerusalem and Judea. The word came and spoke through the prophets. The word had always been known by the Hebrew people as active in the world, and among them speaking and calling and creating.
Then, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The New Testament theologians understood that through this same word-made-flesh all creation came into being and continues to exist (1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2, 2:10). They recognized in the Incarnate One the same creating word which they believed was spoken (and spoken of) in Genesis. In the Hebrew Scriptures “the word of the LORD” is most commonly the direct communication from God to a prophet, priest or king. Similarly, we also encounter “the angel of the LORD” as a reference to God’s direct communication.
That mode changes in the New Testament, as Jesus himself comes to us as God’s Spoken Word – God’s direct communication to the world. “The Word of God” is a New Testament theme – the phrase only appears 3 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and once in the Apocrypha. In the writings of Paul and the other epistles “word of God” most often refers to the proclamation of the message about Jesus (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:36; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12; 1 John 2:14). The notable exception is Romans 9:6 where Paul is discussing the unfolding message of salvation to the Jews throughout their history.
The phrase “word of God” as used by Jesus in the Gospels refers to God’s communication to Israel as witnessed in the faith and testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures – specifically “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). When the same phrase is used by Luke in telling the story of the early church in The Acts of the Apostles, it refers to the testimony about Jesus (e.g. Acts 4:31; Acts 6:2). Here in Acts, as in the epistles, the proclamation of “the word of God” results in creative action – i.e. people become believers in / followers of Jesus and the Church, the Body of Christ, increases. Thus the notion of the Word of God being a creative force continues. Finally, in Revelation the usage shifts again, back to the more broadly understood message of God to the world through the Jews, where we encounter the new phrase “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:2; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 6:9; Revelation 19:13; Revelation 20:4).
Nowhere is the “word of God” a fixed or static thing. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” At the time of Jesus there was strong debate among the Jewish leaders over what constituted authoritative scripture and how to interpret them. This is the essence of the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Sadducees apparently denied the resurrection (Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27) and possibly the existence of angels – Acts 23:8 lists these distinctions: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.” The Pharisees also held an oral tradition of interpretation that is called “The tradition of the Elders”. An example of this discussion is found in Mark 7
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles. ) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother’; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God )— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
Here Jesus enters a discussion of the relationship between the Mosaic Law, the tradition, and the practice of his contemporaries. Clearly there were multiple understandings of “the word of God”, and only Jesus, the “Word of God made flesh”, was able to bring clarity.
What to make of all of this? I want to stress several points:
- The “Word of God” and the “Spirit of God” are intertwined, though distinct. We see this in the bible’s first story of creation – the Spirit moving and the Word spoken.
- God’s communication with us is creative – this is the active result of the work of the Word of God proceeding forth.
- God’s communication with us is ongoing, not closed or static. God spoke, is speaking, and will speak the world and the church into existence and into relationship through love.
We are participants in this loving, creative, sustaining work. We are being made new. And because the Word is in us and we in Him, we are co-laborers with God in creating, redeeming and sustaining the world – the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus tells his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes (Who was also at the beginning of creation, moving over the waters of chaos) the Spirit will teach the church (Luke 12:12; John 14:26) which is similar to what is said in Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.” The church taught that we abide in Jesus, and he in us, and that together we abide in God (John 15) “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (1 John 2:27)
Lastly, the writer of Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah the promise that eventually the communication of God with humanity would shift modes yet again, so that we would no longer be in need of an external teacher and interpreter, because the Law/Word would dwell in us.
10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8)
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31)
We have not reached this place, but we are on our way. This is the goal of all spiritual formation and growth, until we come to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:13).