The phrase the Word of God occurs nearly 50 times in the New Testament, and is used times without number by Christians in books, sermons and ordinary speech. Do Christians use this phrase in the same sense as the Bible does? I believe NO. Does it matter? I believe YES.
It is dangerous to use any phrase or word in a different sense from the Bible. Doing so generally springs from a wrong understanding of spiritual truth, which it in turn perpetuates and reinforces. For example people who use the word priest to mean an ordained member of some denomination, are generally blind to the true nature of priesthood. Those who continually use the word church to refer to a building or a denomination, usually have little idea of the true church of God.
We cannot afford to adapt the meanings of words and phrases used in the Bible to suit our own traditions. It is pointless believing in the inspiration and authority of scripture and then using its words with meanings entirely different from their original.
In common parlance the phrase the Word of God, or often simply the Word, means the Bible. This is standard terminology among almost all who believe in the inspiration and authority of the Bible.
Firstly I will show that, in the Bible itself, the phrase the Word of God does not mean the Bible, but has a different meaning; then we will go on to explore the meaning and operation of the Word of God; after that we will seek to rediscover the right place and use of the Scriptures. May the Holy Spirit give us understanding as we do so.
“The Bible is the Word of God.” “The Word of God is the Bible.” These two statements appear to say the same thing, but any student of logic will tell you they don’t. “All dogs are animals” is true. “All animals are dogs” is obviously false! “All criminals are human beings” is true. “All human beings are criminals” is, thankfully, false. I am not saying, “the Bible is not the word of God”. I am saying that the word of God is not, at least primarily, the Bible. The Bible never calls itself “the word of God”.
Probably the nearest the Bible ever comes to calling itself the word of God is in Matthew 15:6, with an almost identical passage in Mark 7:13. It is worth quoting in full:
Jesus said: ‘Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’, and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or mother, ‘Anything of mine by which you might have been helped has been given to God,’ he is (allowed) not to honour his father or mother.’ And thus you have invalidated the Word of God for the sake of your tradition.’
At first sight we might construe the Word of God here as meaning the scriptures. However on examination we find that it refers specifically to what God actually said, his words to Moses for Israel and the world, ‘Honour your father and mother’. Jesus was not using the phrase as a general term for the scriptures as a whole.
(It's interesting to note that some Greek manuscripts have εντολη του θεου - commandment of God rather than λογος του θεου - word of God in the Mattthew passage, though the Mark passage only has word of God.)
Against this one verse there are many passages where the Word of God cannot refer to the scriptures. For instance: ‘They spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31), ‘They preached the word of God in the synagogues of Judaea’ (Acts 13:5), ‘It was necessary for the word of God to be spoken to you first’ (Acts 13:46), ‘... to speak the word of God fearlessly’ (Phil 1:14), ‘the word of God is not bound’ (2 Tim 2:9), and above all, ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) and ‘his name is called the word of God’ (Rev 19:13).
In Acts 17:11, the word and the scriptures occur in the same verse: ‘... they received the word with all eagerness, daily examining the scriptures whether these things were so’. The word here cannot possibly mean the scriptures.
The Hebrew Old Testament is divided into three parts, the Law (תּוֹרָה - Torah), the Prophets (נבִיאִים - Neviim) and the Writings (כתובִים- Ktuvim). When the New Testament writers speak of the Old Testament they use the word Writings (Greek γραφαι (graphai) - usually translated Scriptures) as a general term for the whole. They also refer specifically to the Law and the Prophets. They never use the phrase the word of God.
In the Old Testament Psalm 119 might appear to support the idea of referring to the scriptures as the Word of God. Nearly all its 176 verses contain one of the following words: law, testimonies, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgements, word, ordinances. This lends a little support to equating the word with law, testimonies, commandments etc, but hardly enough to justify referring to the whole Bible as the word of God.
To summarize: the Bible refers to itself as the scriptures, the holy scriptures, or in part the law or the prophets, but it does not call itself the word of God. In its pages that phrase has a different meaning. The Bible does regard itself as verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit and having absolute divine authority, and let me stress that I am not in any way questioning those truths.
If the Word of God does not mean the Bible, what does it mean?
Much the greatest Word that God has ever spoken is his Son. Jesus is the supreme manifestation of the word of God. The Apostle John began his gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Later in the same chapter we read: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ Revelation 19:13 gives Jesus the same title: ‘His name is called the Word of God’. Hebrews 1:1 and 11:3 have the same implication: ‘God ... in these last days has spoken to us in his Son ... through whom also he made the world’; ‘By faith we understand that the world was prepared by the word of God’.
Jesus is the supreme and central manifestation of the word of God. All other manifestations of that word relate to him. The phrase the word of God in Scripture is also used to describe anything that God said to anyone or through anyone. For example, ‘the word of the Lord came to Moses’, ‘the word of God came to John in the wilderness’, ‘the word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi’ or ‘the words of Amos which he saw concerning Israel’.
When God speaks, it is the word of God. In the Old Testament God spoke directly to the prophets. He spoke to others through them. He also spoke through events in the lives of individuals and the nation. This state of affairs continued essentially until Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out upon all flesh. The circle of those to whom he wants to speak directly is extended to all who believe. No longer is it only the few prophets and leaders, but it is the common man.
It is contrary not only to scripture, but also to nature and reason, to believe that God wants to use a book as his primary method of communication. Writing is in general a bad way of communicating, as it is static and inflexible. For most purposes speaking is much better, and I should think ninety per cent of human communication is done that way. Writing is only better when you want a permanent record. It combats the failing of human memory and removes grounds for argument.
Several further factors confirm the Bible is not God’s primary method of communication. Only a minority of the human race, and not even all Christians, own Bibles. Before the last century’s great increase in literacy the number was much smaller. Before the invention of printing and the reformation privately owned Bibles were unimagined and all Bibles were in Latin anyway. Even for the privileged few that own Bibles today there are further problems. Our Bibles are not the original inspired words, but very fallible translations. Even the best scholar cannot begin to know an ancient language as well as a child speaks its native tongue, because he has only a fraction of the study material. The scholar has a limited number of ancient manuscripts, while the child is surrounded by a ceaseless flow of speech. Even if scholars knew Greek and Hebrew as well as we know English, it is still impossible to translate the exact meaning from one language to another. God has placed limitations on the wonderful book he has given us because he has something better and greater.
Let me stress again, God’s primary way of speaking to man is directly through the Holy Spirit to those who have ears to hear, and then through them to others.
When apostles and prophets in Scripture spoke under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, God was speaking through them. What they said was the word of God to their hearers. When a man or woman today speaks under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that also is the word of God for whomsoever God intends it. When God speaks a message directly to our hearts by the Holy Spirit, that also is his word.
When Satan quoted scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, it was not the word of God. It was the word of Satan. When scripture is quoted today, it is sometimes the word of God to those who hear it. Sometimes it is just the word of man, and sometimes even the word of Satan.
The Word of God then is Jesus himself, and also whatever God says. With this understanding, we will see many passages of scripture in a new light. Some of these I will consider, and others you may wish to search out with a concordance.
Primarily this verse applies to Jesus. How perfectly it harmonises with his own words, ‘I am the bread of life ... I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live ...’ and ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Jesus is the spiritual food on which we live. When God speaks to us we receive life. ‘He that has the Son has the life; he that does not have the Son does not have the life’ (1 John 5:12).
A popular series of Bible-reading notes here in the UK is entitled ‘Daily Bread’. The implication in the title is that the Bible is our spiritual food. This thinking is the logical development of calling the Bible the word of God. Many people, alas, read the Bible faithfully every day, but are not fed, because they have never learnt to feed on Jesus. He himself said, ‘You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of me; and you will not come to me, that you may have life’ (John 5: 39,40). The Pharisees were great readers and teachers of the Bible, but when Jesus said, ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you’, they were bitterly offended. To read and study the Bible is good. To put the Bible in the place of Jesus is idolatry.
Secondarily this verse applies to any word spoken under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Those who hear are fed, and their food has been the word of God.
Food is vital for growth. God has provided the five ministries described in Ephesians 4 for the building up of the body of Christ. A spiritual child needs apostles, prophets, shepherds, teachers and evangelists to feed him with the word of God and build him up to maturity. However, as with a child in the natural, there should be a progression from milk to solid food through to the time when he becomes mature and is able to feed himself.
Let us reconsider this verse. Firstly Jesus is alive and all power is given to him. We read in Revelation that ‘out of his mouth goes a sharp two-edged sword’. Nothing can stand before him. Secondly when we speak under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit our words will be alive and powerful and will enter people’s hearts. Quoting scripture to people is no substitute for speaking the word of God.
This verse was wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus. He left the Father’s presence to take the form of man and suffer and die and rise again. He did not return empty-handed to the Father, but brought with him a great multitude of brethren. He accomplished every purpose for which God had sent him.
When a man or woman today speaks the word of God, we may be sure that the words will not be in vain, but will accomplish the purposes of God. A few faithful servants who have learnt to speak the word of God will accomplish far more than an army of workers who only know how to distribute Bibles and Christian literature. Such work is good, but to speak the word of God is of an altogether higher order.
When Gabriel spoke the word of God to Mary, Jesus was born in her. The new birth takes place when Jesus, the Word of God, is born in us. God generally uses a human messenger to speak the word that brings about the new birth. This is the special ministry of an evangelist. The Ethiopian eunuch was puzzling his head over Isaiah when the Holy Spirit sent Philip to him. Philip ‘preached Jesus to him’, and he believed. To a few people the word of God that brings new life comes directly without any human intermediary, but we should not expect these exceptions to become the rule.
The sword of the spirit is described here as part of the spiritual armour. On the basis of this verse, some people believe you should always carry a Bible with you as your spiritual weapon. Others feel that texts written up all over their house will help to protect them from the powers of evil. This attitude is based more on superstition and fear than on the truth. The true sword of the spirit is the inspired word of God upon our lips. It is an offensive weapon before which the powers of evil will not be able to stand. When Jesus spoke, all the powers of darkness were put to confusion and flight. When we learn to speak as he did, we will see similar results.
It is enlightening to compare the Catholic attitude to Mary with the Protestant attitude to the Bible. Mary had a unique and wonderful place and privilege in God’s plan of salvation. Through her Jesus came into the world and in a sense without her he could never have come in the flesh. However to place her beside Jesus and worship her and look to her for mediation is idolatry. These things belong only to Jesus. The Bible also is unique among books and definitely above them in a way that Mary was not above other women. However the fact remains that if we take the titles and place of Jesus and ascribe them to the Bible we are equally guilty of idolatry. As with any other form of idolatry, this will be a block to our spiritual growth and progress. We must discover the place and purpose of the Scriptures in God’s plan and use them rightly if we want to walk in the truth and grow in God.
Having given some consideration to the place and function of the Word of God in our lives, we must now think about the place of the Scriptures. Paul sums up this subject in his second letter to Timothy: ‘All scripture (writings) inspired by God is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for (child) training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work’ (3: 16, 17). These verses deserve more careful consideration than they usually receive.
Paul here views the scriptures as the man of God’s toolbox. They are part of his equipment for his ministry to others. It is significant that Paul wrote this letter not to a group of believers, but to an individual leader. Nowhere did he exhort believers generally to study the scriptures, though he often exhorted them to pray. Timothy had the task of ministering to others and his knowledge of the scriptures would have been of great benefit in the work committed to him.
Our verses here tell us of four uses of the Scriptures, which we will now consider in turn.
1. The Scriptures are profitable for teaching. Timothy’s task was not to teach the Bible. The Pharisees were well able to do that. Rather it was to impart a revelation and understanding of God to those under his care. He should use the Scriptures as a medium through which he could impart spiritual truth. If God calls you or me to share with others what we have received from him, then the Bible is a language we can use to do so.
The letter to the Hebrews gives us a clear illustration of the use of Scripture for teaching. The writer takes passage after passage and person after person from the Old Testament to illustrate the superiority of the new covenant to the old, and the position of Jesus far above all others. Paul also makes extensive use of the scriptures in Romans and Galatians to illustrate and prove the revelations he had received from God. As far as we know, Jesus only used the scriptures in this way when he opened them up to two disciples on the Emmaus road after his resurrection.
2. The Scriptures are profitable for reproof. We see this most clearly illustrated when Jesus met Satan in the wilderness. He met and countered each temptation with a quotation from the Old Testament. The Scriptures by their nature are written and immutable and can therefore constitute a court of appeal. Satan could question whether Jesus was the Son of God, and whether he was led by the Holy Spirit. He could not argue with what was written.
3. The Scriptures are also profitable for correction. When Jesus corrected the erroneous ideas of his opponents, he frequently used the Scriptures. He quoted David to correct the Pharisaic strictness on the Sabbath. He showed the Sadducees from the Old Testament that resurrection took place. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is similarly a letter of correction. He establishes justification by faith by the example of Abraham. As with reproof, the Scriptures give a solid legal ground to correction. Special leadings and revelations will and must always be open to question. The Scriptures provide a fixed objective standard against which they can be tested.
4. The Scriptures are profitable for child training in righteousness. The Greek word here used is παιδεια (paideia), an abstract noun from the word παις (pais) meaning a child, and its primary meaning is child training. The previous verse to those we are considering reads: ‘from childhood you have known the sacred writings, which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.’ Timothy, to whom these words were written, was the third generation in a godly family. Paul speaks of the sincere faith of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. Perhaps it was these two who faithfully taught him from the scriptures and so prepared his mind first for salvation and subsequently for the wide ministry he was to receive. Timothy became a constant companion of Paul. Six of Paul’s letters have Timothy’s name as co-writer. Some people believe that Timothy wrote the letter to the Hebrews. He became a significant leader in the early church, and carried on Paul’s work in Ephesus.
We see interesting parallels in the prophet Jeremiah. His father, Hilkiah the priest, was the man who found a book of the law in Josiah’s day. Both Jeremiah and Timothy were called to minister in their youth. Perhaps the link between them is scripture-loving parents who taught them from childhood. Moses, by contrast, grew up in a palace with ‘all the wisdom of the Egyptians’. He had to spend forty years in the wilderness before he began his ministry at the age of eighty!
I believe then that Christian parents should teach their children from the scriptures. They must learn the law of God. The scriptures will not save them, but will give them the wisdom that leads to salvation. Paul elsewhere stated that ‘the law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ’.
I do not want to imply that training in righteousness is only for children. People who are spiritual children also need teaching until they have become spiritually mature.
Some people pray, ‘Lord I understand in my head; please move it all down into my heart’. That is the reverse of God’s way. Paul wrote to the Colossians, ‘Let the word of Christ richly dwell in you ...’ (3:16) and to the Ephesians ‘... that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (3:17). That will happen if we receive his word from faithful ministers who have been taught by him, and then learn to commune with our Heavenly Father. As his word increasingly dwells in our hearts, the scriptures will begin to open up to us, and our minds will receive understanding. Jesus communed with his Father from childhood. When he was twelve, the teachers in the temple were amazed at his understanding. We must turn to God if we want to understand the Bible, not turn to the Bible if we want to understand God. You will never understand the book if you do not have the mind of its author.
To summarize what I have been saying: God’s primary method of speaking to people is not through Bible reading. It is initially through his ministers (apostles, prophets, shepherds, teachers, and evangelists) and then increasingly through the Holy Spirit directly.
I want now to consider two particular ways in which God speaks. Throughout the scriptures God gave commands and instructions to individuals and groups of people. He also made covenants and promises, which were frequently conditional on obedience to commands. Some commands such as ‘Love your neighbour’, are very general. Others such as ‘Take your shoes off your feet’, are very specific. Promises in the Bible exhibit the same range. ‘All things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive’ is general. ‘I will bring you back to this land’ is specific.
Many people believe and teach that all these commands and promises - or at least the more general ones - are for us today. Whole churches and denominations are built on this approach to the scriptures. However again we find that there is very little backing for it in the scriptures themselves. Certainly no one ever tried to obey a specific command or claim a specific promise that was given to someone else. The ten commandments and a few other general commands and promises from the Old Testament are quoted in the new. However the general principle is, as we have seen, that God speaks by the Holy Spirit. If he has not spoken to us by the Holy Spirit, we will have neither the power to carry out any commands, nor the faith to receive any promises.
To seek to obey commands that were given to other people at other times, and not to you personally will lead you into bondage, frustration and failure. Equally to seek to claim promises that were made to others will lead you to doubt God, or live with a sense of frustration that you are missing the mark because nothing seems to work out for you. It worked for other people; why doesn’t it work for me?
The fundamental reason is that you cannot receive either commands or promises through your mind. You must receive them deep in your spirit. You will then find their confirming echo as you read similar commands and promises in the pages of the Bible.
How may we now summarize this message? The Scriptures and the Word of God are separate and should not be confused. Each has a different function. The Word of God is greater and was there in the beginning with God. The Scriptures must not take its (his) place. Good things in the wrong place can become evil things, and blessings turn to curses. Many an evil thing has been done by people who knew much of the Bible, but nothing of the Word of God. Let us hear again the heart-cry of Jesus, ‘You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of me; and you will not come to me, that you may have life’. Let us find the true meaning of the Word of God and give it its rightful place in our lives. Let us also give to the Scriptures their rightful place - the place they give themselves, the place Jesus and the early apostles gave them, and the place given to them by the word of God in our hearts.
I want to append here a brief survey of Old Testament quotations by Jesus and the early church. This may prove a stimulus to further study.
Some people may feel this cannot guide us in our approach to the Bible as the New Testament was not yet written at the time. My personal feeling is that the Bible is one book, and we should have one approach for both parts of it. This approach should parallel that which we see in the pages of the New Testament.
Jesus, as we have seen already, quoted the scriptures extensively in confrontations with the Pharisees, but scarcely at all when teaching the multitudes or his disciples. In the sermon on the mount all Old Testament quotations are for contrast with his own teaching. His last discourse in John’s gospel does not contain a single quote. It is only on the Emmaus road after his resurrection that we find him opening the scriptures to the two disciples.
Of the gospel writers Matthew quotes very extensively to illustrate the fulfilment of scripture. Mark and Luke do so too, but less. John scarcely does at all.
In the book of Acts, Peter, Stephen and Paul all quote extensively in their preaching. Often their objective is to show from the scriptures that Jesus is the promised Messiah.
Paul’s letters vary in the extent to which he makes use of scripture. Romans and Galatians are at one end of the scale with a lot of quotation. Colossians and Thessalonians are at the other with none.
Hebrews, being written to the Jews, naturally has more quotations than any other New Testament book. Peter quotes a lot; James quotes sparingly; and John in his letters not at all. John was almost certainly the latest of the New Testament writers. Jude, interestingly, makes two quotations from books that are not part of what we regard as the Bible (The Assumption of Moses and The Prophecy of Enoch). He makes no quotations from the books that we call the Old Testament.
The book of Revelation has some quotes and many visions similar to those of Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and others.
The general picture is one of wide variation. No doubt this reflects the differing characters and background both of the writers and the readers, and the nature of the message being written or reported. All this of course was subject to the leading and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
For further thoughts on the Scriptures see 3 Levels in Scripture.