Did you know that the Bible never refers to itself as God’s Word?
Before you tear your robes and stone me for heresy, I do believe that “all scripture is God-breathed and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). And I do believe that the words we find in our Bibles are indeed God’s words.
But God’s words are different from God’s Word. If we read God’s words in the Bible, we see the term God’s “Word” consistently referring to two things.
- God’s “Word” is God’s overarching message—-His history-long self-revelation (like God’s sayings, decrees, prophecies, etc.; e.g. Matt. 7:24; John 14:10).
- God’s “Word” is Jesus—the incarnate Word (e.g. John 1:1-14; Col. 1:19).
Of course, the Bible is a primary means by which we can know God’s message and God’s Son, but we must distinguish between the two concepts.
Because God’s words, rightly read, point us toward God’s Word.
This “words/Word” distinction may seem like a matter of semantics. But in truth, it is a vital distinction for every follower of Jesus—for both a theological reason and a practical one.
A Theological Understanding of God’s Word
Theologically, rightly defining God’s Word helps us rightly understand God. And as we do, His message and His Son become even more glorious. For example:
- “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth,” Jesus prays (John 17:17). While Scripture is true and helpful, only Jesus sanctifies us. This happens as we increasingly rely on Him, as His Spirit leads us to apply the truth of His good news to all of life.
- “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…” says Hebrews 4:12 (NIV). This verse is often understood to be about the Bible itself. But the chapter explains how God’s people enter God’s rest. The Bible doesn’t work so we can rest; God does! Hebrews 4:13-16 clearly describes our reliance on Jesus in our weakness: He is our high priest; in Him alone we have confidence. Because of Jesus, not the Bible, we rest in God’s grace, now and forever. Further, by His Spirit, Jesus is the “active” presence of God in the world today! Our faith in Jesus is humanity’s dividing line (“double-edged sword”).
- Hebrews 4:12 also says that the Word “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The Bible shows the standard by which God will judge, but Jesus—God’s Word—is our judge. The Bible can’t know our heart; Jesus does. This verse is about Jesus and the good news of the gospel, not about Scripture itself.
Again, I firmly believe that God inspired the words of the Bible and that regularly engaging with the Bible is a vital aspect of Christian living. But we must rightly understand what the Bible says about God’s Word, His message, and His Son lest we attribute to the Bible itself that which rightly belongs to the Father, Son, and Spirit.
A Practical Understanding of God’s Word
As any good theology should, a right interpretation of “Word” overflows into our life and ministry. Practically, every time we preach—or even read—the Bible, this distinction invites us to seek God’s Word, even as we read God’s words. I once heard someone say that the Bible is simply a windshield; our goal is to look through it to see God clearly. If we become obsessed with the windshield, we miss what really matters.
For example, when the Apostle Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), he doesn’t just mean to “help people understand the literal words on the page,” even though that’s today’s common interpretation. Rather, and with a proper grasp of the Greek in which he wrote his letter, Paul charges his protégé, “Preach THE Word! Preach the heart of God’s message [as Paul did; see Acts 20:27]! Preach the gospel! Preach Jesus!” It’s not enough to exposit a biblical text and explain its face-value meaning. Rather, we must preach the good news of Jesus—the one message—from every text. (This concept and the Bible’s use of rhéma and logos are fleshed out in my Reading the Bible, Missing the Gospel [Moody Publishers, 2022].)
In this example and dozens of others, understanding God’s Word matters, for life and ministry. So we can ask two questions as we read the words of the Bible to find God’s Word through them:
- First, how does every story, command, and verse in the passage fit within God’s larger, history-long message?
- Second, how does every story, command, and verse we read point us to Jesus?
If we fail to look through the Bible’s words to God’s Word, we can read or teach the Bible in a way that it becomes about “me” (my knowledge, my emotions, my self-improvement) or a new Law (my ability to obey or follow rules [which we know we can’t do!]). There are commands, knowledge, and emotion in the Bible. But these flow out of God’s message (God’s revealed Word) and are exemplified by Jesus and empowered by His Spirit in us (God’s incarnate Word).
Jesus’ Understanding of God’s Word
Perhaps Jesus’ own words are the best place to close. In rebuking religious leaders of His day, He explains the difference between their study of God’s words and the power of God’s Word. Though these leaders’ entire lives revolved around studying Scripture, Jesus claims in John 5:37-38, “[God’s] voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.” In other words, “you’re missing God’s true revelation, though you study His words.”
Then comes the pinnacle of His charge: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39, italics mine). Even Jesus affirms that God’s words themselves are insufficient for true life! But God’s words point toward God’s Word, who DOES give life. If we miss that, we too read the Bible but miss its message. Even as we read the Bible, could Jesus charge us alongside these leaders, “you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:40)?
Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the source of life. Jesus is the culmination of every Bible verse, command, and story’s meaning. Jesus is the heart of God’s message, and Jesus is the source of true life. So when we go to the Bible, every time we read or teach, let us not only seek to understand the words of Scripture themselves. Rather, let us seek, know, and rely on the one true Word, who is revealed by the Bible’s words.