What is the Word of God? Is it the Bible or something else?

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What is the Word of God? Most Christians don’t ask what the Word of God is—they already know what it is: the Bible. This highlights a major issue in the Christian world today that started primarily with the Reformation: confusing the Bible for God. You see, the Bible doesn’t claim to be the Word of God. The Bible claims that Jesus is the Word of God.

Many Protestant Christians say things like “we follow the Bible”, or they will talk about the “authority of the Bible”, or say that Scripture is “inerrant”. However, even according to the Bible, these are statements we should be making about Jesus and Jesus alone. We follow Jesus. Jesus holds all authority, and Jesus is the perfect one without error.

Before the Bible even existed, God spoke to people. Jesus, being God, can speak to us without the Bible. But, for the religious leaders of our day, this is a dangerous notion since it removes their authority as interpreters of the “Word of God”. This was the same fear shared by the Pharisees and keepers of the Law in the first century. God sent Jesus to say, “You have spoken on my behalf long enough. I will now speak to you in person.”

Word of God Defined by the Bible

Since the Bible often gets called the “Word of God”, let’s let it define the term for us.

In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.
John 1:1-5, 10-14

John starts his Gospel account with the bold claim that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Right out of the gates, out of all the ways that John could have started his biography of Jesus, he tells us that Christ is the Word of God that has created all things. The author of Revelation says very plainly that Christ’s name is the “Word of God” (Revelation 19:13). The Bible is defining Jesus as the Word of God. Jesus is God’s “word” to us. Jesus is what God has to say.

Jesus and the Bible?

Some will claim that both Jesus and the Bible are the Word of God. For proponents of the view that the Bible is the Word of God, this seems to be a healthy compromise since they can’t get around the verses we’ve just looked at. But the Bible doesn’t ever claim to be the Word of God.

So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.
Romans 10:17

The Word of God, here in Romans 10, is referring to the Gospel (good news) message of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom. For this verse to be referring to the Bible, or even the New Testament alone, would make no sense since it hadn’t been written yet. Jesus came and let his people know that they were getting God wrong. Even though they had the Scriptures they couldn’t see God for what he was really like.

If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the Words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.
John 8:46-47

The “Word of God” isn’t just Jesus, it is the message of Jesus and the example of his life (Luke 5:1, 11:28). When Jesus speaks, he speaks the words of God (John 3:33-35). When God speaks, he puts Jesus on display (Matthew 17:5). The Bible cannot bring the dead back to life… only Jesus can do that (John 11:25). The Bible is not the way, the truth, or the life. It never claims to be. The Bible is not the way to the Father. Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6). The Bible points us to the source of the way, truth, and life… but the Bible itself is not the way, truth, or life. The Bible is the map but Jesus is the treasure.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the Word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
Revelation 6:9

People in the early Church were not put to death by Rome because of the Bible. The Jews were not being put to death because of their Hebrew Bible. The early Church was martyred because of Jesus, who also was put to death. Jesus, not the Bible, is the Word of God.

Bible with Sword

Alive and Active

There is a famous and often quoted verse in Scripture about the “Word of God” that is often misinterpreted. This misinterpretation is so pervasive that it has become the dominate understanding of the text.1 That verse is Hebrews 4:12 and that understanding is that it is talking about the Bible.

For the Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Hebrews 4:12

Ask yourself, is the Bible alive? No, it is paper. Ask yourself, is the Bible active? No, it is inanimate. Ask yourself, does the Bible judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart? No, not even the Bible can do that. Now ask yourself, who is alive? Jesus. Who is active? Jesus. Who judges thoughts and attitudes of the heart? Jesus. Still not convinced? Let’s read the verse in context.

For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.
Hebrews 4:12-14

Did you catch that? The statement immediately after the famous verse continues, “And no creature is hidden from HIS sight…” Wait, “His?” What is “His?” “His” is a pronoun. And, grammatically-speaking, a pronoun is used in this case because the proper noun has already been established. What did the previous statement establish? What proper noun was used? “…the Word of God…” Is the Bible a “He”? Of course not.

Jesus gave caution to the Pharisees regarding their obsession with Scripture, saying, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). This is serious. Jesus says it is possible to follow the Bible, love the Bible, study the Bible—and never hear the voice of God. Furthermore, it is possible to memorize and meditate on the Bible, and never have the Word of God dwell in you. If we make the same mistake that the Pharisees made, we will believe that the Bible is the Word of God when the source of life is alive and right here: Jesus the Word of God made flesh. You see, the Bible is not the source of life, Jesus is.

The Word of God is Within Us

The Gospel according to John tells us that Jesus (the Word of God) lives within every one of us who abides in him (John 15:4 ESV). The alive and active Word of God lives inside you. We can “make judgments about all things” because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:15-16) and this Spirit is now alive within us. We dare to question and make judgements about the Scriptures because we have the mind of Christ.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?
2 Corinthians 13:5

Is Christ really in you? Can you hear his voice? Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) Here, Paul did not say “The Bible lives in me.” No, he said, “Christ lives in me,” clearly telling us that Christ lives in his followers. This is significant because Jesus is alive and active, he is not silent. God wants a relationship with you.

As followers of Jesus we can hear his voice (John 10:27). The Holy Spirit dwells in us, and “he will guide us into all truth” (John 16:13). The Word of God guides us to truth through his voice because the Word of God is alive within us. The Bible does not live within us. Jesus speaks to us. The Bible is silent. The Word of God is alive. The Bible is not.

When the Bible is the Word of God

When the Bible is considered the Word of God we run into a multitude of problems. When the entire Bible is viewed as the voice of God, everything it says becomes prescriptive. “Now hold up, wait a minute, that’s not true.” Those who think the Bible is the Word of God will not admit as much, but they will interpret anything as prescriptive that they see fit to. Here is why:

There are many parts of the Old Testament that are not as authoritative as the New Testament. We all know this. We all live this. For example, are the dietary laws or other archaic aspects of the Old Testament as authoritative as the Sermon on the Mount? Who thinks that “you shall not eat shrimp” is as authoritative as love your enemies? To read the Bible as a flat text is simply impossible. Is it ‘an eye for an eye’ or is it ‘turn the other cheek’? It is willfully naive to pretend that the Bible itself does not force you to choose some texts over others. So you will choose some texts over others (it’s impossible not to), but if your authority is Scripture then you, in actuality, turn into your own authority.

When the Bible is considered the Word of God, the entire Bible becomes the voice of God, which gives pastors a blank check to teach whatever they want as long as they reference a verse or two, and who are you to argue with the words of God?

This has proved to be abundantly clear from viewing the patterns of Christian history. Pastor Bruxy Cavey sums it up beautifully, “History has shown us that when a group of Christians champion the idea of the “authority of Scripture” as did the Protestant Reformers, they get no closer to following Jesus on some very important issues, like the issue of the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. During the 16th Century, we might explain Catholic violence by appealing to the influence of the Pope, who represented (or should I say, misrepresented) the authority of Christ in the Church. The Protestants, however, rejected Papal authority and clung to sola scriptura, meaning “Scripture alone”. This is a real world case study. With the Pope’s influence out of the way and with Scripture as their sole authority, what became of Protestants? More unity? No, more division (there are now thousands of different Protestant denominations). More Christ-like enemy love? No, more violence (wars, witch-hunts, and heretic burnings were not abandoned by Protestants). The Protestant Reformers missed such central teaching of Jesus because they balanced it with every other teaching in the Bible as a way of maintaining their commitment to ‘the authority of Scripture’.”

Slavery and genocide, all done in the name of God, are just two examples of many atrocities that have been committed when the Bible is viewed as the Word of God. Rather, if Jesus alone is the Word of God, then the Bible is not a flat text. That is, every part does not carry equal weight. We do not get to read, interpret and apply every passage equally. Everything in the Bible must be interpreted through the lens of Jesus. Then, and only then, does Jesus have authority instead of us.

Jesus is Our Authority

All authority that exists in the cosmos belongs to Jesus, not the Bible. When Jesus explains what we call the Great Commission, he makes his authority clear: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything *I* have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). According to Jesus what is the mission? To make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus Christ, not the commands of the Torah.

The teachings and commands of Jesus don’t align perfectly with the Hebrew Bible. That is why Jesus caused such an upset and got himself killed. The religious authorities couldn’t have someone, even the Son of God, having authority over their interpretation of the “word of god”. But Jesus did have authority over the Bible and much of his ministry was about making it known that he did.

“Sola Scriptura” meaning “scripture alone” is a tragically wrong view that puts the Bible above Jesus by claiming that the Bible is the sole authority. Sola Scriptura is a departure from orthodoxy. This position was birthed out of the Protestant Reformation as an over-correction from Catholic authority and has resulted in the death of millions. You’ll see it’s influence in some statements of faith like, “We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, infallible and inerrant in all it affirms and our final authority for faith and practice.” There are a lot of problems with statements like these.

The Bible itself never tells us that the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the Word of God (Revelation 19:13). The Bible never tells us that it is infallible and inerrant. The Bible tells us that God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). The Bible never claims to be our final authority. The Bible tells us that Jesus holds all authority (Matthew 28:18). Jesus holds all authority over every single page of every Bible.

Read the Bible, Follow Jesus

The Bible is important because it points us to the Word of God, Jesus. Even the Old Testament is important because it’s appended to our Christian Scriptures as a kind of prequel, giving us the all-important back-story and context. But in the Old Testament, we don’t go wandering around unescorted, we always go with Jesus. So when the psalmist blesses those who will throw the babies of their enemies upon rocks (Psalm 137:9), we look to Jesus who tells us to love, care for, and give up our own lives for our enemies (Luke 6:27-36). What a shocking difference in messages.

You can have slaves, hold women as property, commit genocide, and still be Biblical. You wouldn’t be following Jesus though, so you wouldn’t be following God.

As Christ-followers, when we open our Bibles we shouldn’t ask “God, what are you saying to me through the Bible?”, but rather “God, what are you saying to me through Jesus in the Bible?” This simple distinction means that we read everything from Genesis to Revelation differently. The Bible does not give us Jesus; Jesus gives us the Bible; and the Bible then points us directly to Jesus. The Bible never claims to be the basis of our faith. It reveals to us that there is one foundation, and Christ is this foundation. The Bible is not a Christian’s ultimate authority, but our penultimate authority, pointing to Jesus as our ultimate authority. We read the Bible, but we follow Jesus.

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the Word of God is not bound!
2 Timothy 2:8-9

Footnotes

  1. Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993), 260–261. “The word of God is personified. The majority patristic and medieval view that the phrase refers to the Son, as in Rev. 19:15, 21. Some Fathers take ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ to mean the word proclaimed in law, gospel, or generally in scripture. Both explanations are found in Origen and in Augustine (further references in Bleek II.558–60; Riggenbach 109f.; Westcott). The christological explanation has been generally abandoned since Calvin.”