The Bible, the Gospel, Jesus, and “The Word of God”

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life with Bible

Ask Christians today what they think of when they hear the phrase, “The Word of God,” and they’ll probably say, “The Bible.” For many Christians the two are even synonymous: “The Bible” = “God’s Word,” and “God’s Word” = “The Bible.” The idea is that the Bible as a whole is a divine message for humanity, even the divine message for humanity.

I don’t typically use the phrase, “The Word of God,” to describe the Bible, however. That’s not because I don’t believe God speaks to us through the Bible (see here on that). I believe the Bible is inspired or “breathed into” by God and so is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, and for training in God’s ways (that’s 2 Tim 3:16). Most importantly, I believe the Bible witnesses to Jesus and salvation through him (that’s 2 Tim 3:15, often missed when 2 Tim 3:16 gets quoted).

Rather, I avoid describing the Bible as “the Word of God” because the Bible itself doesn’t describe the Scriptures this way.

The Bible speaks of many “words of God,” or “words of the Lord,” to use a phrase that’s roughly parallel in Scripture. Particular commands, promises, and teachings can each be a “word of God” or “word of the Lord.” Specific prophetic utterances can each be a “word of God” or “word of the Lord.” In the New Testament, the gospel, the good news message about Jesus, is frequently called “the word of God,” “the word of the Lord,” or using similar “word” phrases (“word of Christ,” “word of life,” etc.). And, of course, Jesus himself is called “the Word” which came from God and “became flesh” among us.

But nowhere does the Bible clearly use the phrase “the word of God” to refer to a collection of previously written Scriptures.

Sure, some passages can make sense like that. We hear Jesus say to the religious leaders, “You make void the word of God for the sake of your tradition,” and it can make sense to think of that as referring to the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament. But in the story Jesus is referring to a specific “word of God,” the particular command to “Honour your father and your mother”—not “the Scriptures” as a whole.

Or, we hear Hebrews say that “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,” and it can make sense to think of that as referring to the Scriptures. However, given the opening words of Hebrews, about God speaking “in many and various ways by the prophets” and now “in these last days…by the Son,” it’s more likely that “the word of God” here refers to any true “message from God.” It may even have the specific sense of “the gospel,” since that’s how the phrase seems to be used elsewhere in Hebrews.

That’s the thing about the uses of “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord” in the Bible—some can make sense to us today as referring to the Bible, but that wouldn’t have made sense to those for whom the Bible was first written. That’s not least because they simply wouldn’t have thought of “a bound collection of written Scriptures” in the way we think of “the Bible”—they didn’t have any “bound collection of written Scriptures.” But it’s also because they tended to think of “word of God” or “word of the Lord” as a discrete “message from God,” a particular divine message given at a particular time for a particular purpose. Furthermore, while these various “words of God” could certainly be compiled together and written down, they were still typically thought of as oral proclamation, as spoken messages.

This is why the earliest Christians so frequently used “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord” or “the word of Christ/life/truth/grace/ salvation/etc.” to describe the gospel message (see here, here, here, here, and here). This gospel was an orally proclaimed message from God, with a specific content, given at a specific time in human history and for a specific purpose. This is, in fact, by far the most common use of this kind of “word” language in the New Testament.

And this is what makes John’s description of Jesus as God’s eternal “Word” so interesting. God has spoken many “words,” given many divine messages, in the past: commands, teachings, promises, and prophetic pronouncements. But Jesus is the “Word” behind all those “words,” the Divine Message extraordinaire—and this ultimate Divine Message has been “made flesh and dwelt among us.” The eternal Word behind all those divine words has become embodied in a particular human person, Jesus of Nazareth.

So what’s the upshot of all this? How should we as Christians think about the Bible, the gospel, Jesus, and “the word of God”?

The Bible records many “words of God”: commands, teachings, promises, and prophetic pronouncements, given to particular people in a particular time and place for a particular purpose. We need to pay close attention to those divine messages—they are among those inspired Scriptures that are useful for us to learn God’s ways—but we must recognize that not all of these past “words of God” are directly applicable to us today.

The Bible describes the saving “word of God”: the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that in Jesus, the crucified Messiah and risen Lord, God has acted to make right all that has gone wrong in the world because of human sin. We need to hear this gospel well, and repeatedly, and respond to this good news with repentance, faith, and obedience.

And the Bible witnesses to the living “Word of God”: Jesus of Nazareth himself, the embodiment of the eternal Divine Message that stands behind all these messages from God, the one in whom all these “words of God” find their coherence and their fulfillment. We need to look to Jesus as the clearest and most complete revelation of God and God’s will, seeing the eternal message of God embodied in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, and respond to the living Jesus with loving devotion and faithful allegiance.

For more on how we should think about the Bible, see my post, “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?”

For an in-depth, academic examination of the language of “word of God,” “word of the Lord,” and the like, see my JSNT article “The ‘Gospel’ and the ‘Word,’” as well as my LNTS book Discerning the ‘Word of the Lord.’

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