What is the Word of God?
In the Old Testament, the Word of God is something that comes to you. It shares something with you. In many instances, what the Word shared with the receiver was meant to be passed on to Israel.
Take, for example, Jeremiah’s account of his calling to be a prophet:
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah 1:4-5 (NRSV)
This is very common prophetic language in the Old Testament. The word of the Lord is something that comes to you and says things to you. This is tricky for us to envision because words are what is said, and therefore it is easy to conflate the two, and I would argue that the Hebrew intends for the distinction to be somewhat porous.
Nevertheless, the idea is that the word of the Lord is something living that tells you things. Those words could also be thought of as “the word of the Lord,” but in a derivative sense. They are the words the prophet received from the Word.
This is an idea we should keep in mind as we read Old Testament passages that talk about God’s Word. They aren’t talking about the Bible because the Bible didn’t exist yet.
In certain passages, they may be referring to the Law. For example, there’s the famous passage in Psalm 119:105 where the psalmist writes, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” and the rest of the psalm indicates this is talking about the law. God’s commandments show the psalmist how to navigate.
Although, even in this psalm, it’s unclear that the psalmist is referring to the written record of these commandments, which were often lost for generations on end in Israel’s history only to be rediscovered later. They were passed along (when they were passed along) through oral tradition, and Psalm 119 has various references in it that the “word” the psalmist is thinking about is a little bit more organic than the Torah.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes.
Psalm 119:12 (NRSV)
Here, the psalmist is asking for God to teach him His statutes. In other words, God’s commandments are something God has to communicate to the psalmist. This plea for God to teach the psalmist is repeated several times throughout Psalm 119.
The psalmist goes on to say that God’s word will revive him from the edge of death. God’s word will bring him salvation. God’s word is something in which the psalmist places his hope.
And then we get to this gem:
The Lord exists forever;
your word is firmly fixed in heaven.
Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
you have established the earth, and it stands fast.
By your appointment they stand today,
for all things are your servants.
Psalm 119:89-91 (NRSV)
Here, we get the idea that God’s word is not simply the commandments that the psalmist observes but is also something established forever in heaven. It existed before the earth and governs not only the workings of heaven but the workings of all creation.
This concept is part of a strong wisdom tradition in Judaism that crops up in a number of different literary sources, but one of my favorite examples is in Proverbs:
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.
Proverbs 3:19-20 (NRSV)
and in a long passage where Wisdom as a person appeals to the reader:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
Proverbs 8:22-31 (NRSV)
Once more, we have the idea that God’s wisdom is not to be equated with the words of the Proverbs, but rather a “being” who was with God before anything was created who assisted Him in creation. It is from this “being” – this elemental law and logic that existed before creation and underlies all creation – that the words of wisdom in Proverbs proceed. By acting in accordance with the wisdom of the Proverbs, you are acting in accordance with the fundamental structure of created reality that precedes it.
The Hellenistic version of this is Logos (also translated “word”). The concept of “logos” is the same – the universe has law at the core of it, and this is logos. It is the underlying structure that everything obeys and how it naturally works. It’s not only where we get the word “logic” from, describing the way reason is supposed to work, but also why all of our disciplines of study end in “-logy.” We are uncovering these underlying laws of whatever we happen to be studying, so biology is uncovering the underlying laws of life, geology is uncovering the underlying laws of earth, etc.
It’s the idea of the logos that John turns to in the opening chapter:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
John 1:1-3 (NRSV)
Ok, so far so good. This actually seems to be commensurate with both Jewish and Hellenistic thought at the time. But then:
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.
John 1:14 (NRSV)
In John’s gospel, this preexisting Word-of-God-being that we’ve been talking about became enfleshed, and of course he means Jesus Christ.
Of course, early Christian theology had a certain level of diversity as to exactly how this came about. On one side of the spectrum were certain forms of adoptionism where Jesus was just a regular guy who ended up becoming this thing. On the other side of the spectrum as something resembling Nicean trinitarianism where the man Jesus was God incarnate. And you had all kinds of positions somewhere in between, like Arianism.
But the one thing they all agreed on was that Jesus embodied (literally) this Logos. Jesus, as a human being, displayed this eternal Word of God. He was a person, not a book. But like the Word of the Lord in the Old Testament, he said things to people. But he didn’t just say things, he did things. And he didn’t just do things, he loved, served, wept, laughed, and sacrificed himself.
Behold, the inner logic of God. The fundamental laws of all creation.
The Word of God is Jesus. If you want to more deeply know and walk according to the Word of God, you have to more deeply know and walk with Jesus.
How does this happen?
Well, the Bible is one way. Both testaments have things to teach us about Jesus, and we can find him there. But like the words given to the prophets, these words are derivative products. We can say they are the words of God, but we have to keep in mind that they are Gods words in a secondary, mediated sense. The Word of God is a person, not a book. He is a being, not words on a page.
It is the holistic, spiritual encounter with this living Word that we discover in the New Testament:
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Acts 6:7 (NRSV)
No doubt, this spread of the “word of God” involved apostolic teaching (although, once again, keep in mind none of these people had Bibles). It also involved selling your goods to take care of the poor. It involved healing. It involved visions. It involved discernment. It involved, not just the spread of verbalized words, but the spread of certain kinds of behavior, values, spiritual realignment, and even miracles.
Does this sound like anybody you know? By the power of the Spirit, these early communities embodied Jesus and carried his presence to each other and the world around them.
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.
Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV)
Books are not living and active. But the Word of God is.
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
2 Corinthians 3:1-3 (NRSV)
If you’re looking for the secret epistle written by Jesus Christ in a handwritten scroll, you are looking in the wrong place. The Scripture that Jesus wrote, he wrote with the Spirit dwelling inside his followers.
How do you get to know this Word?
True, the Bible presents him to you. I am not in any sense trying to take that away.
The mysteries of the Lord’s Supper and baptism present him to you as well. As the Bible brings you Jesus through written words, the Supper brings you Jesus in bread and wine. Baptism brings you Jesus in the going through and emerging from water.
The communion of the saints present Jesus to you. They are his temple and the flesh that carries his presence. His words come to you through them. His love for you and service to you comes through them. They bring the Word of God to you, and you, if you have the Spirit, are part of the project of bringing the Word of God to them in the same way.
And of course, there is your personal experience of the Spirit. The godly wisdom the book of your life has written, the fellowship with Jesus in prayer and the voice you hear tugging at your heart. The prodding of your conscience. The wind that blows you in this or that direction.
In these things, we hear, see, touch, and even taste this Word.