The Bible as Witness to Jesus (2)

The New Testament claims that the Author of it all, the God who has shaped humans out of the stuff of earth and breathed life into them, the God who has taken up the writings of Scripture and “breathed” life-giving power into them—this God has entered the human story in Jesus.

Take a look at the opening words of Hebrews, for example: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” Jesus is this “Son” who is the very voice of God in “these last days,” this time in which God is bringing to completion God’s purposes for human history. The passage goes on to say this about God’s Son, Jesus: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:1-3).

Rouault Christ DisciplesIt’s quite the statement. Jesus has come, and everything has changed. God still speaks to us in many different ways—through creation, through each other, through many surprising ways, and yes, through Scripture, written by many different prophets and apostles in the past. But Scripture is no longer the best voice of God we have. We now have a better Voice of God, an exact imprint of God: Jesus.

This idea is expressed in a variety of ways throughout the New Testament. Colossians describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” the one in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” and thus the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 1:15-18; 2:3, 9). Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus saying this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”—in other words, the authority of God (Matt 28:18-20). Revelation describes Jesus as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”—that is, the one who brings together the whole of human history (Rev 22:13).

But there’s one passage that highlights this truth in an especially profound way: the opening to John’s Gospel. Take a fresh look at some of those most familiar statements.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus is the eternal, divine “Word”; Jesus is God’s eternal message, the message God has been speaking from eternity past.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14-17). The eternal, divine “Word,” God’s eternal message, the message God has been speaking from eternity past, has become human and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth. This Living Word, this living message of God, is connected to the messages God has given before, like the Law of Moses, but it’s also different: it is the embodied message of God’s grace and truth, the enfleshed glory of God.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus of Nazareth, God’s unique Son, the eternal, living message of God, has made the invisible God visible to us.

Again, it’s quite the statement. Jesus has come, and everything has changed. God still speaks to us in many different ways, including Scriptures like the Law of Moses. But these other “words” of God, including Scripture, are at best echoes of the eternal “Word” of God. We now have a better Voice of God, the eternal message of God come in the flesh, showing the world the fully embodied grace and truth of God: Jesus.

Jesus is the Voice of God we have been searching for. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, not Scripture, whether Old Testament or New. Jesus is the fullest and clearest picture of God we have.

So if we want to hear God’s Voice most clearly, most fully, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—through the Bible’s many voices, through the Bible’s mixed messages, through the Bible’s diverse genres in different eras, to the Jesus who lived and taught and healed and died and rose again, who lives among us still by his Spirit.

If we want to know who God is, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find an eternal Creator who comes near to us, who becomes one of us, who lives among us, who loves us deeply and wants us to experience full and flourishing life.

If we want to know the way God works in the world, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find God doing surprising things, working through the humble and lowly, through suffering and weakness, always to bring about good for humanity and all creation.

If we want to know what God values, the things God thinks are important, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we see that God values people, and the earth, and self-giving love and loyal faith, and repentant sinners and joyful parties and little children and telling stories.

If we want to know what God requires of us and desires for creation, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find that God wants us to love, to care for each other even when it hurts, to show compassion even to an enemy, to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

If we want to know God and do God’s will, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus. In other words, we need to read the Bible to follow Jesus.

And that’s the final surprise in all this: Jesus invites us to continue the story. Jesus calls us to take his yoke upon us and learn from him. Jesus calls us to take up our own cross and follow him. Jesus calls us to come out of our tombs, and live. Jesus calls us to continue the story, our story set within his story, his story set within the story of Israel, the universal human story, the story of God.

This doesn’t mean we learn the words of the story and repeat them by rote. It doesn’t mean we learn the precise movements of its characters and act them out over and over. In other words, it doesn’t mean we treat the Bible—Old Testament or New—like an owner’s manual or a rule book, prescribing once and for all our every move for every time and place.

It means entering Jesus’ story ourselves, soaking Jesus’ story into ourselves, his teachings and actions, his attitudes and values, his character and virtues—living in the Spirit of Jesus. And then it means stepping out in faith and hope and love, improvising our parts together within the drama of life as we respond to the always-fresh, always-surprising movement of the Spirit of Jesus among us.

Kierkegaard Scripture Christ

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published in 2014.

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

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.’

The (S)Word-Wielder

Jesus, coming as a divine warrior to slaughter God’s enemies.

How do we make sense of this vision of judgment in Revelation 19?

Let’s sharpen the question: How can we reconcile this Jesus with the Jesus of Revelation 5, where Jesus the Lion reigns not by slaughtering his enemies but by being the Lamb slain by his enemies? Or the Jesus of Revelation 12, where Jesus the King comes not as invincible and all-conquering but as a vulnerable child?

SeraphOr, to sharpen the question even further: How can we reconcile the Jesus of Revelation 19 with the Jesus of the Gospels? What happened to “Love your enemies” and “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”? Does God get to the end of human history and say, “Just kidding!”?

Keep these questions in mind. Let yourself feel some inner tension. Allow yourself to be made uncomfortable by this image of Jesus.

But to help make sense of this vision of Jesus the divine warrior, let me give two things: a thought, and a story.

Here’s the thought: think of the power of the spoken word.

A simple word, like “Thanks.” A phrase, like “I’m sorry.” These can be powerful words.

Or something more, a fuller statement of some kind: an invitation, or a pledge, or a confession, or a command, or an assessment, or an entreaty. These can be powerful things in our lives.

Now expand that thought: think of the way in which a single statement—a declaration, a pronouncement, a promise—can cut two ways, the way a single statement can be received in two completely different ways by different people.

A judicial declaration—“You are acquitted of all charges”—can bring relief and happiness to the person so acquitted, but bitterness and anger to an injured person still seeking justice.

A marriage pronouncement—“I now pronounce you husband and wife”—is a cause for great rejoicing for the couple, but might be a cause of deep anguish for a former spouse who had hoped to be reconciled.

A parental promise—“We will go for ice cream after your concert”—will probably bring excitement to the child, but might cause resentment by another (“Why didn’t we go for ice cream after my concert?”).

The power of the spoken word—and the ways in which a single word can cut two ways. Keep that thought planted in your mind as I tell the story.

It’s a familiar story—the story of Jesus. But it’s the story of Jesus through the lens of the spoken word that cuts two ways.

Here’s the story.

In the beginning was the Word, the Word of God, God’s powerful, spoken message. And this word was light and life. This word was love. This word was good news for all creation.

God spoke this word at many times and in various ways through history, including through the prophets of ancient Israel. Isaiah was one of those prophets.

Isaiah assured God’s people that the divine word, God’s powerful, spoken message, would go out into the world and accomplish God’s purposes—like rain falling from the heavens. God’s word of light will bring light. God’s word of life will bring life. God’s word of love will flood the earth with justice and peace.

Isaiah had a name from the one who would bring this “word of God” to the world: he calls him the “Servant.” Here’s how Isaiah puts it—in the Servant’s own words:

The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word
.

And what is this spoken word that cuts like a sword? What is this spoken word that sustains the weary? It is the “good news” of God’s kingdom, God’s reign over all things. Here again is how Isaiah puts it:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

This word of God, this spoken message of God, sustains the weary. This gospel of God’s kingdom is good news for the oppressed, comfort for the brokenhearted, freedom for all held captive by the dark powers of this world.

Lion-Lamb 2This word of God is a powerful word—but it cuts two ways. The message of good news for the oppressed means judgment on the oppressors. The word of comfort for the brokenhearted is a denunciation of all who break those hearts. The promise of freedom for all held captive is a blunt warning to their captors.

God has spoken this double-edged message at many times and in various ways through history, including through the prophets of ancient Israel, including Isaiah.

But now, finally, in our own day and age, God has spoken this message through Jesus, the dedicated Servant of God. The Word of God, the very message of God from eternity past, was enfleshed among us and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth.

Think about how Jesus defined his mission in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

That’s Isaiah again, which Jesus says he is in the business of bringing about.

And this is indeed what Jesus does: Jesus speaks the word of God, the message of God from the beginning of the world, the good news of God’s reign. And this word cuts two ways.

Think of how Jesus’ message is summed up in Mark’s Gospel:

Good news! God has come to reign!

But repent! Repent, for God’s kingdom is here!

Trust in God, for God is bringing justice and peace and life! But this means you must repent of your harmful and destructive ways.

A powerful word that cuts two ways.

Or think about how Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus’ beatitudes:

You who are oppressed by rich landowners,
you who are impoverished by greedy tax-collectors,
you who are dealt death by sword-wielding soldiers—
you are the truly blessed by God, and God will make things right.

But that means woe to you wealthy 1%,
woe to you privileged white males,
woe to you nuke-wielding powers that be—
your time is up, for God will make things right.

Words of comfort, words of healing, words of hope. Yet those very same words: challenging words, disturbing words, words of judgment.

A powerful word that cuts two ways.

Jesus carried no sword. He used the metaphor of the sword in his teaching, but that’s what it is: a metaphor. The one time Peter took him literally about carrying a sword, Jesus ended up rebuking him for actually using it and healed the man whom Peter had injured. No, Jesus was not speaking of literal swords.

Jesus carried no sword. To use Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10, Jesus did not use the weapons of this world, because he was not waging the war of this world. Rather, he used powerful and persuasive speech, seeking to (as Paul puts it) “destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, to take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Jesus carried no sword. To borrow from Paul again, this time in Ephesians 6, Jesus did not fight against flesh and blood, against any human persons, even his enemies. Rather, he was waging war on the oppressive powers of this world, the rulers who wielded their power for their own gain. He was waging war on (as Paul puts it) “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil.”

Jesus carried no sword. Rather, his word was his sword: the eternal message of God, the good news of God’s reign, the word of love, the word that brings light and life.

This word is a sharp sword: “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.” Menno Simons echoed this when he declared that “We know of no sword, nor commotion in the kingdom or church of Christ, other than the sharp sword of the Spirit, God’s word.”

This spoken word of God cuts to the heart—and it cuts two ways. The gospel proclaimed and embodied by Jesus comforts the disturbed but disturbs the comfortable. It is blessing for the poor and oppressed but judgment for the wealthy oppressors. It is light for those in darkness and life for those walking in the shadow of death, but it is condemnation for those who dole out darkness and deal in death.

Once we’ve grasped this thought set within the story of Jesus, we can step back into Revelation 19 and make sense of this difficult image of Jesus the divine warrior.

Heaven opens, and out comes Jesus, “Faithful and True,” riding on a white horse to bring “justice.”

He himself is called “the Word of God.” He is himself God’s message, spoken from eternity past, God’s message of light and life, God’s message of love—and so God’s message that condemns all hatred and violence and darkness and death.

And from his mouth comes a sharp sword, by which these enemies are defeated. He speaks God’s message, and the evil powers of this world—beasts of empires, beasts of oppressive systems and unjust structures, followed slavishly by the powers that be, the kings of the earth—all these evil powers are condemned in one fell swoop.

This, then, is Jesus the divine warrior. This, then, is the judgment of God.

Not a sword, but a word: a powerful word, a word that names and condemns evil among us while also bringing justice and peace and flourishing life for all.

Not a sword, but a word: the word of the gospel, the Word which is Jesus himself.

Here’s the final post in this series on Revelation: “The Lord’s Prayer Fulfilled”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on May 1, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.