JESUS OR THE BIBLE: Which is the “Word of God”?

JESUS OR THE BIBLE: Which is the “Word of God”?

© 2014, by John Tors.  All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

If one asks an Evangelical Christian whether Jesus is “the Word of God,” the answer is usually an unqualified “yes.”  If one then asks whether the Bible is “the Word of God,” the answer is also an unqualified “yes.”  While many are satisfied with these answers, there are others who see them as contradictory.  Muslims, for example, will ask how two distinct entities, one a man and the other a book, can both be the “Word of God.”  It behooves us, therefore, to take a careful look at this issue.  To do that, of course, it is necessary to look through the Bible carefully to see how the term “word of God” is used.

Is the Bible the Word of God?

First, we note that the expression “word of God” appears four times in the Old Testament (and “words of God” also four times), while the related “word of the LORD” (הדְּבַר־יְהוָ֔) appears 246 times (and “words of the LORD” an additional nineteen times).  In the New Testament, “word of God” appears 44 times (and “words of God” twice), while “word of the Lord” appears fourteen times.

What is noteworthy is that, while there are different applications, almost all of these 333 appearances refer to a message from God in the form of propositional revelation, i.e. information of some sort being passed from God to people.[1]  In the majority of cases, the reference is to a message that comes directly and immediately[2] to a person from God e.g.

But the word of God came to Shemaiah the man of God, saying, “Speak to Rehoboam the son of Solomon, king of Judah, to all the house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the rest of the people, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord: “You shall not go up nor fight against your brethren the children of Israel. Let every man return to his house, for this thing is from Me.”’” (1 Kings 12:22-24a)

But it happened that night that the word of God came to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: “You shall not build Me a house to dwell in.”’” (1 Chronicles 17:3-4)

Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Son of man, set your face against Mount Seir and prophesy against it, and say to it, ‘Thus says the Lord God …’” (Ezekiel 35:1-3a)

Now, it is essential to note that these words were not simply issued at a point in time to one original audience and then forgotten; they were recorded in written form:

So Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has said we will do.” And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD. (Exodus 24:3-4a)

“Thus speaks the LORD God of Israel, saying: ‘Write in a book for yourself all the words that I have spoken to you.’” (Jeremiah 30:2)

Then the LORD answered me and said: “Write the vision and make it plain on tablets …” (Habakkuk 2:2a)

This written record applied not only to the Law but to the other books of the OT:

“… carefully observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, THE LORD YOUR GOD …” (Deuteronomy 28:58b)

Now the rest of the acts of Jotham, and all his wars and his ways, indeed they are written in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah. (2 Chronicles 27:7)

Now the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and his goodness, indeed they are written in the vision of Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, and in the book of the kings of Judah and Israel. (2 Chronicles 32:32)

“So I will bring on that land all My words which I have pronounced against it, all that is written in this book, which Jeremiah has prophesied concerning all the nations.” (Jeremiah 25:13)

The nature of this writing process is described in Jeremiah 36 and 45:

Now it came to pass in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, that this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying: “Take a scroll of a book and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah even to this day. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the adversities which I purpose to bring upon them, that everyone may turn from his evil way, that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.” Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah; and Baruch wrote on a scroll of a book from Jeremiah’s mouth[3] all the words of the Lord which He had spoken to him … And they asked Baruch, saying, “Tell us now, how did you write all these words—with his mouth?” So Baruch answered them, “He proclaimed with his mouth all these words to me, and I wrote them with ink in the book.” … And it happened, when Jehudi had read three or four columns, that the king cut it with the scribe’s knife and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the scroll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth … Now after the king had burned the scroll with the words which Baruch had written from Jeremiah’s mouth, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying: “Take yet another scroll, and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll which Jehoiakim the king of Judah has burned … Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah, who wrote on it from Jeremiah’s mouth all the words of the book which Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And besides, there were added to them many similar words … The word that Jeremiah the prophet spoke to Baruch the son of Neriah, when he had written these words in a book from Jeremiah’s mouth …” (Jeremiah 36:1-4, 17-18, 23, 27-28, 32; 45:1a)

We see that God’s exact words came through the mouth of the prophet and were written down exactly that way by the scribe.  Thus it is clear that at least some, and in fact a great deal, of the Bible was actually dictated directly by God Himself, with the human writers serving as nothing more than transcribers.  The glib assertion of Evangelical scholars, then, that the writers of the Bible were not simply transcribers is, in many cases, simply not correct.

Now, the purpose of these “writings” (= “Scripture”, כְתָ֖ב, γραφη (singular), γραφαι (plural))[4] is to ensure that the words will instruct not only the original hearers but subsequent generations, as well.  We see an example of this in Nehemiah 8:

… they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law … Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1b-3,7-8)

This holds true to the time of the New Testament and also beyond, as explained in Romans 15:4:

For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.

Next, we note that Jesus did not see Scripture (which He identified as “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms”[5]) as a rival to Himself, but had a very high view of it.  He repeatedly appealed to Scripture as authoritative and thus sufficient to settle theological arguments.[6]  He pointed to the ignorance of Scripture as the cause of theological error.[7]  He asserted that “the Scripture cannot be broken,”[8] and so it is not surprising that time and again He insisted that the Scriptures must be fulfilled;[9] to Jesus, if it was written in Scripture it had to happen.

To be sure, Jesus made it clear that the Scriptures point to Him:

“You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” (John 5:39; see also Luke 24:25-27, 44-45)

It is Jesus Himself, and not the Scriptures, that is the quintessence of Christianity.

What is particularly striking in showing the relationship between Jesus and the Scripture is what happens in Luke 24:13-44.  Here the risen Jesus appears to two disciples and walks with them and talks with them.  Jesus is the quintessence of Christianity, and here the risen Jesus is actually in the presence of these disciples; surely, if there were a time when Scripture would not be needed, it would be now.  Yet what did Jesus do?

Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:27)[10]

Subsequently, He appears to the apostles and proves to them that He has risen from the dead, and they are overjoyed.  Jesus is in the direct presence of the apostles, so here too one would think there would be no need for the Scripture at such a time.  Yet what does Jesus do now?

He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. (Luke 24:45)

Now, in view of what we have thus far learned, how should we see Scripture?  Is it simply the writings of wise Christian men?  Is it the words of God in the words of men?  Is it, as is frequently suggested, purely the works of human authors, with all their own failings and foibles, yet superintended by God in such a way that the final product says what He wants it to say?  To answer this, let us consider a few more elements of Scripture’s self testimony.

In 2 Peter 1:20b-21, we read,

… no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.

… πᾶσα προφητεία γραφῆς ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως οὐ γίνεται οὐ γὰρ θελήματι ἀνθρώπου ἠνέχθη ποτέ προφητεία ἀλλ᾽ ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἁγίου φερόμενοι ἐλάλησαν οἱ ἅγιοι θεοῦ ἄνθρωποι

What this means is that nothing in Scripture[11] came about by someone thinking it up in his own mind; the writer was actually “carried along” or “moved” by the Holy Spirit.[12]  This indicates more than just some unspecified supervision of the final product but an influence on the writers themselves.

Second, in 2 Timothy 3:16a we read that “All Scripture is God-breathed” (“πασα γραφη θεοπνευστος”).  This also bespeaks something much more than a vague superintendence over the final product but a profound involvement by God in the actual production of Scriptures themselves.

These two points are back up by such statements as:

“Men and brethren, this Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus; for he was numbered with us and obtained a part in this ministry … For it is written in the Book of Psalms: ‘Let his dwelling place be desolate, and let no one live in it’; and, ‘Let another take his office.’ Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” (Acts 1:16-17, 20-22)

Here, two separate psalms are quoted (69:25, 109:8).  They are both psalms of David, and they are both identified as coming in written form from the Book of Psalms, and David’s involvement is noted, and neither is a direct quote from God, but they are not David’s words or message; the Holy Spirit is actually speaking by David’s mouth.  This also indicates a more direct role by God in the very words of Scripture than simply a vague superintendence.

And again:

… Paul had said one word: “The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, saying, ‘Go to this people and say: “Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand; and seeing you will see, and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.”’” (Acts 28:25b-27)

Here, Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted and Isaiah’s role in the transmission of this prophecy is stipulated, but it is not Isaiah speaking but the Holy Spirit speaking through him.  Again we see a very direct involvement by God; it seems these are the words of God spoken by God through Isaiah, rather than the words of God in the words of Isaiah.

We see this again in Hebrews:

For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.” (Hebrews 4:4-5)

Here, Genesis 2:2 and Psalm 95:11 are quoted, but Moses and David, the human authors of these books, are not even mentioned.  It is He (God) who has spoken in these “certain place[s],” which makes these God’s words.  The passage from Genesis 2:2 is particularly interesting, as it is not a record of a direct quote from God but a narrative, yet it is still God who is speaking.

And again in Hebrews 4:7:

… again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 4:7)

Here, Psalm 95:7-8 is quoted and, although David is the human author as mentioned in the passage, it is not David saying these things but God.

And again in Hebrews 3:7-11:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’” (Hebrews 3:7-11)

Here Psalm 95:7b-11 is quoted, but the speaker is not David, a human author using the words of man, but it is the Holy Spirit Himself who says these things.

In summary, what we have seen is that when the Bible uses the expression “word of God”[13] what is meant in almost every case is propositional revelation which is subsequently written down as Scripture for the contemporary hearers and all future generations.  The authors did not write their own interpretations but were “carried along” by the Holy Spirit, which indicates a profound divine involvement, as does the fact that what they wrote was actually “God-breathed.”  We have also seen that although human authors did indeed put pen to paper, we are told repeatedly that it was in fact God speaking through these authors, rather than the authors speaking.

In light of all this, we must conclude that Scripture is not simply the writings of wise Christian men.  Neither is it adequate to see Scripture as the words of God in the words of men.[14]  Nor is it correct to present Scripture as simply being purely the works of human authors, with all their own failings and foibles, yet superintended by God in such a way that the final product says what He wants to say.  In light of what we have seen, the only adequate formulation is to see Scripture as no less than The Word of God; no more, but certainly no less.

Is Jesus the Word of God?

 What, then, of Jesus?  If Scripture is the Word of God, does that cause a contradiction with Jesus being the Word of God?  Is the Muslim charge valid that two distinct entities, one a man and the other a book, cannot both be the Word of God?  To answer this, let us now consider Jesus as the Word.

First, how many times in the NT is Jesus called the “Word”?  There are only five clear times when this is done:[15]

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … (John 1:14a)

Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν

He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. (Revelation 19:13)

καὶ περιβεβλημένος ἱμάτιον βεβαμμένον αἵματι καὶ κεκληται[16] τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ

Now, we immediately note that it seems that only one time is Jesus actually called the Word of God.  Of course, one time is enough to settle a matter.  However, when we look more closely, things seem not quite settled.  Revelation 19:13 does not say that Jesus is The Word of God, but that His name is called The Word of God.  Is this significant?  Let us see.

First, we note that “His name is called” is clumsy English, and it is also clumsy Greek.  In both languages, one would normally simply say “He is named” or “He is called.”  “His name is called” is actually the way this is said in Hebrew, and when it is written thus in Greek it is because the author is reproducing the Hebrew idiom.  We see this in, for example, Matthew 1:21-23:

And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:21-23)[17]

τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὑτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν. Τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ τοῦ Κυρίου, διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος, Ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει, καὶ τέξεται υἱὸν, καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουὴλ, ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον, μεθ᾽ ἡμῶν ὁ Θεός

Now, when someone’s “name was called” in Hebrew, the purpose was to emphasize some characteristic[18] or task[19] of the person, but it did not identify his totality.  In Matthew 1:21, the Son is named Jesus because of the task He accomplishes of saving His people from their sins, which He does, but it is not all that he does; He is the Saviour, but He is more than only the Saviour.[20]  We see this in the OT prophecy in Isaiah 9:6b, too, where His name is called a number of different things:

… And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

So when Revelation 19:13 tells us that “His name is called The Word of God,” it reveals an aspect of Who Jesus is but it does not limit Him to being only the Word of God; He is more than the Word of God.  In fact, even in Revelation the fact that there is a Word of God distinct from Jesus is made clear in Revelation 20:4b:

Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God … (Revelation 20:4b)

καὶ τὰς ψυχὰς τῶν πεπελεκισμένων διὰ τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ καὶ διὰ τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ

The fuller understanding of Jesus as the Word comes from John 1:1.[21]  Let us look at that passage more closely.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος

Here, He is identified as “the Word,” but not the Word of God.  What we see here is not Jesus the Word of God, but Jesus the eternal Word with God and Jesus the Word Who is God.  This shows Jesus’ status as being Deity and as such infinitely higher than simply the Word of God, which implies subordination, as one’s word is under the control of oneself.[22]

Our conclusion, then, is that the Scripture is indeed The Word of God, and Jesus, whose name has been called The Word of God, is more than that; He is the eternally existent, divine Word With God, Word Who Is God.  There is no contradiction among these facts.  The infinite superiority of Jesus over Scripture, then, is not shown by downgrading the status the Scripture from being the Word of God, but by seeing that Jesus is more than that; He is the divine Word With God, Word Who Is God.


Endnotes

[1] In Psalm 33:6, Hebrews 11:3, and 2 Peter 3:5, the reference is to the means whereby God exercised His creative power: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth”; “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God“; “For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water”.  In the NT, the word of God often refers to the evangel, and sometimes it may be referring specifically to written Scripture (e.g. Mark 7:13; Luke 4:4; John 10:35)

[2] In the sense of having no intermediary, not on the sense of happening “right away.”

[3] The NKJV translates this expression as “at the instruction of Jeremiah,” though it notes in the center-column references that it literally says “from the mouth of Jeremiah.”

[4] The word “Scripture” occurs only once in the OT.  Γραφη (singular and plural forms) occurs fifty-two times in the NT.  In 1 Timothy 3:15 ἱερα γραμματα (lit. “sacred letters”) is translated at “holy Scriptures.”

[5] Luke 24:44-45. The Jews call the OT the Tanakh, an acronym of Torah (the Law), Neviim (the Prophets), and Ketuvim (the Writings).  Since γραφαι literally means “the writings,” Jesus could not very well have said that the Writings comprise the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.  Psalms literally means “sacred songs or poems,” so the other books of the writings could have been included under the rubric of the Psalms and/or the Prophets.  We know from Josephus that the OT canon used in Israel at the time of Jesus was the same thirty-nine books that we have in our Bible, though divided differently.

[6] e.g. Matthew 4:1-10; Mark 10:1-9

[7] Matthew 22:29/Mark 12:24

[8] John 10:35b

[9] e.g. Mark 14:49

[10] We are told in Luke 24:16 that the eyes of the disciples “were restrained, so that they did not know Him.”  Inasmuch as του μη ἐπιγνωναι αὐτον (“so that they did not know Him”) could be a purpose clause, it may be that their eyes were restrained in order to prevent them from recognizing Jesus until He had expounded the Scriptures to them.

[11] If we take “prophecy” in the broad sense of speaking on behalf of God under divine inspiration

[12] The idea, so often heard, that “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” means that Scripture can only be interpreted by either (a) the whole body of Christ, or (b) an official magisterium, or (c) by scholars – as more and more Evangelicals foolishly seem to be thinking – is clearly wrong. If any of these were the case, the contrary in the second part of the verse would be different i.e. it would read something like “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, but must be interpreted by the whole body of Christ/by the official magisterium/by scholars.”

[13] Or the related “words of God,” “word of the LORD,” or “words of the LORD.”

[14] If Scripture is the word of God in the words of men, then should not the spoken words of those men be equally authoritative?  But, as we see in Acts 17:11, the Scripture stands in judgment of the words of men, even such a man as Paul, the author of thirteen NT books.

[15] For those who believe 1 John 5:7 is part of the original text, there is a sixth one.

[16] Κεκληται is in the perfect tense, so it would be better to translate this as “has been called.”

[17] Note that in the second occurrence in this passage, it was necessary to use this form, as it is a direct translation of the Hebrew original.  In the first occurrence, the angel was obviously using the Hebrew idiom.

[18] e.g. Genesis 25:25-30

[19] e.g. Genesis 3:20, 5:29

[20] For example, He is also the agent of creation (Colossians 1:16).

[21] John 1:14, a reference to the incarnation, will not add further information to what we will learn from John 1:1.  First John 1:1 refers to the “Word of Life,” which may be the Gospel or may be another reference to Jesus as the Word, but this too will add no additional information.

[22] The Son of God is actually in willing subordination to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:28), though He is ontologically equal to the Father (Philippians 2:6; Colossians 2:9).