The Word of God

They tell me that the vast majority of Americans believe that the Bible is the word of God.  That seems particularly relevant given that the vast majority of Americans, and a growing number it is, neither darken the door of a church nor consider themselves a part of any organized Judeo-Christian faith community.  You’ve got to wonder how that notion has become so common.

 

If you came to  colonial America fleeing religious persecution, you overthrew authority.  That meant that you needed a new authority right away, and a durable one at that. Enter the Bible–and the understanding of the Bible that your particular sect happened to hold.  I also read that in the United States, the “Word of God” became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries to preserve certain accepted ways of living.  If you are going to exploit child labor,  mandate death penalties, deny  women’s rights,  own slaves, and so forth, is easier to support such abuse of others when you can believe that God said that it is O.K.


 

But within the lifetime of many of us in this room the statement, the creedal statement: “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God” came into currency.  It was a conservative reaction to the neo-orthodoxy of the likes of theologians like Karl Bart and Emil Brunner which was itself a reaction against 19th century liberalism.  {A little history lesson side bar: Of course, as should have been predictable, the reactors soon divided up into the party of the infallibilists and that of the inerrantists and continued to squabble.

 

When did the Bible became the word of God.  Was it in the time of the early Christian fathers or in the time of the reformation?  Maybe the question is better put: Why do so many people rely entirely on the Bible and fail to engage God through creation and the Holy Spirit? All three are important and together provide a solid foundation for faith.  Because Books don’t talk back. A book can reinforce your sense of your own authority. It gives you the Right Answers. It can’t challenge you. And the answer: The Book doesn’t disturb people as much as the Author.

 

Let’s look at what the Bible says of the word of God.

Hebrews 4:12-16

12Indeed, 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.13And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

14Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

 

In this passage of scripture the writer of Hebrews is trying to help us experience and understand something important.  It is rather complex because he uses metaphor, employing language that is really about something else altogether and then he speaks of the thing itself.

 

He is pretty clear in his own mind what the word of God is.  And in contrast it’s kind of interesting to hear the illustrations of what the word of God is not. He starts off saying that the word of God is, ‘living and active.’  So, despite what you may have been told, the word of God is not ink on a page.  Ink on a page isn’t living or active.    Words printed on paper may fade over time but they don’t change.  What is alive changes.  According to this passage the word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword.  That suggests that is makes a deft cut between that which is considered spirit and that which is considered soul.   You try and make that distinction.  I asked Google about it and got 14, 800,000 opinions in half a second on the difference between soul and spirit. Ancient Hebrews and Greeks and all sorts of Christians have wrestled for millennia with the question of the difference between Spirit and Soul or even if there is any. That is what makes this illustration of the sharpness of the word of God so to the point.  The writer of Hebrews wants us to know about the extreme sharpness of this blade.

 

But the next part of his description is quite the opposite.  Sometimes Susan will send me to the grocery store to get a soup bone.  It has to be cut so the marrow, the really flavorful part of the bone, is exposed. Before the butcher’s band saw this was done with a cleaver. A cleaver doesn’t have to be sharp.    Such is the word of God, the blade of this sword is powerful enough to disjoint – dismember what once was whole.

 

Even more to the nature of God’s word is its facility to read your mind – or as folks in antiquity would say “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  So the word of God has the sharpness of a scalpel with the ability to separate Jewish spirit from the Hellenistic soul and the blunt force of a cleaver.  It has the characteristics of a conscience in its ability to judge our motives and intentions, and it has the qualities which we associate with life itself.

 

Then the writer personifies this word of God.  “It” isn’t – he or she is! This is one of those places where English language is limited by the lack of a gender neutral personal pronoun. Thon, ta, phe or even the middle English ou to refer to this personification of the word of God hurts our ears. But to refer to the word of God as ‘it’ equally strikes us as offensive if not sacrilegious.  This is  the person to whom you are accountable and from whom you can not hide.  Before this person we stand completely exposed. Such is the living and active word of God.

 

Evidently the unknown author of this disputed Epistle felt it essential that that we who read his words know that he has confessed that this word of God is Jesus the Son of God.  This has been on the author’s heart from the second sentence of this whole Epistle.  But we need to be careful to not come to the same conclusion as did Origen and others who supposed that the personal word, incarnate in Christ, was exclusively and uniquely the word of God.  That similar to the error of those who consider the book the exclusive locale of the word of God.  What the writer of Hebrews lays out in the intervening chapters is a word of promise of entrance into God’s rest for the faithful who have endured great suffering and tribulation.  This is the new and living way provided by Christ as the mediator of a new covenant.  The word of God is God’s offers and promises.

 

Jesus has the qualifications of a priest.  He has a call from God and through his own experiences developed the compassion which makes intercession hearty and real.  The writers wants us to call with confidence, despite our sense of unworthiness and sinfulness upon the intercession of Christ.   That’s what high priests are appointed to do.  It is because God desires to be in relationship with people that priests have a job.  That’s what defines a priest—one who is called by virtue of their own experience and are prepared to enter into sympathy with those who feel themselves alienated from God and heartily seeks to intercede.  All this hold true of Christ.  The concept of Jesus as high priest in the order of Melchizedek – not something we fully understand—is a theme from the earlier chapters of the epistle that is returned to here.

 

It is living: empowered, imbued, instinctually motivated by its very source. It is active: valid, operative, efficacious as it comes from the will of God and still doing the work it was intended to do.

 

It functions as a double edge sword which isn’t about sorting out philosophical niceties.  This sword pierces through all that is in us down to that which is deepest in our character.  This is the judging the conceptions and ideas of our hearts.  As fellowship with God is made possible by the coming to us of the very word of God we test our own real desires and our inmost intentions.   We sift our hearts and we learn whether we truly love the good and seek it or whether we shrink from accepting it as our destiny, our heritage. And in the same piercing movement of the sword the word finds its counterpart in the searching, inevitable inquisition of God.

 

In Luke 8:21, long before anyone had thought of having a New Testament, when Jesus’ mother and brothers had come to check on him and were waiting outside Jesus said to his listeners “My mother and my brothers—they are those who hear the word of God and act upon it”.

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