Since Jesus is the word of God, Christians have produced a whole lot of weird theology around “word.”
John 1.1-5 KWL
- 1 The word’s in the beginning. The word’s with God. The word is God.
He’sin the beginning with God. 3 Everything came to be through him.
- Nothing that exists came to be without him. 4 What came to be through him, was life.
- Life’s the light of humanity. 5 Light shines in darkness, and darkness can’t get hold of it.
Many Christians are fascinated by the word “word.” Mostly ’cause of the passage above. The word existed in the very beginning, was with God, and is God… and became the man we know as Christ Jesus of Nazareth.
Why’d the author of John (whom, for tradition’s sake, we’ll call St. John) use “word” to describe the pre-incarnate Jesus? For centuries, the assumption was lógos/“word” came from Greek philosophy. Blame the gentiles: The early church’s writers didn’t know what the Pharisees taught, but they did know Greek philosophy, and insisted on interpreting bible through the lens of their own culture. Christians still do the very same thing today… but that’s a whole other rant. Let’s get back to criticizing ancient Christian gentiles.
Just our luck, the ancient Greeks had written a whole bunch of navel-gazing gibberish about the word lógos. ’Cause they were exploring the nature of truth: What is it, how do we find it, how do we prove it, how do we recognize logical fallacies, and what about words which can mean more than one thing? For that matter, what’s a “word” anyway? Is it just a label for a thing, or a substantial thing on its own? Maybe that’s why God can create things by merely saying a word.
Now let’s practice some actual logic, and look at John’s culture. What’d the Pharisees teach about what “word” means? Apparently they had their own interesting idea behind it.
Y’see, in synagogue the Pharisees would translate the bible from Hebrew to Aramaic so the uneducated locals could understand it. And whenever God, whom you’ll recall isn’t a man,
What made the Pharisees more comfortable was to say, instead of “God” or “Lord,” the terms memrá Elahín/“word of God,” or memrá Maryá/“word of the Lord,” instead. We find that a few times in the Hebrew bible,
Well, when John wrote his gospel, he told us what God’s “word” meant. It was in the beginning. It’s with God. It is God. And guess what: It became human.
So if you grew up attending a first-century Pharisee synagogue, you’d know exactly what John meant.
And if you were an ancient Christian gentile, a medieval Christian gentile, a modern Christian gentile, or any present-day Christian who knows bupkis about history, you’ll think, “What’s this ‘word’ concept mean?” and start asking around… and find out from fellow Christian gentiles that the ancient Greeks had a whole lot of fascinating ideas. None of ’em actually help, but they’ll sure keep you distracted for a few years.
The very beginning of John’s gospel wasn’t a radical idea at all to first-century Jews. They’d have totally agreed. The word in the beginning?—sure. The word with God and is God?—no problem here. Now, a few verses down, when the word became flesh—that would’ve startled them.
Rhema-words and logos-words.
In the Old Testament, davár/“word” many things: Speech, word, message, communication, report, saying, utterance, sentence, written work, business, act, matter, event, cause, behavior, reason, thing, something, anything. It’s so generic, it may as well mean noun. The Aramaic word memrá, and Greek word lógos, do the very same thing.
Ancient Greek has more than one word for “word.” (As do we: Term, name, saying, expression, designation, noun, prompt, utterance.) The more concrete of them is the word ríma—commonly rendered, and mispronounced, rhema. If your favorite preachers like to show off how they know a Greek word or two, some of ’em will refer to “the rhema-word.” Which means all sorts of different things, depending on the preacher. Some of ’em claim a rhema is one of God’s prophetic statements or promises; others, God’s doctrines or teachings; others, their prophecies, as in “I’ve got a rhema-word from God,” and so on. When Plato wrote on grammar, he used ríma to mean verbs, and ónoma/“name” to mean nouns. And just like saying, “I’ve got a verb-word,” referring to a rhema can mean anything and everything. Or nothing.
The writers of the bible treated ríma and lógos like synonyms. ’Cause they are. They didn’t mean anything specific by them—as if one’s a verb and the other’s a noun, or one’s a prophetic utterance and the other’s not. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, sometimes both ríma and lógos translate davár within the very same verse.
So blessed are those who hear and keep the lógos of God.
The word of God, and the W
ORD OF G OD.
Unfortunately, some Christians are a little too quick to frappé together all the biblical ideas of “word”—the lógos who’s with and is God, and is Jesus; and every other “word of God” they find in the bible. I’ve heard Christians actually teach that the word of God (i.e. the bible) and the word of God (i.e. Jesus) are one and the same. After all, they’re both “words.” Perhaps the same word?
No. Don’t be a moron.
John’s description of “word of God,” found in both his gospel and Revelation, refers to the Pharisees’ memrá Elahín—the person of the trinity whom we know as Christ Jesus. The other references to “word of God” in the bible—either the devár ha-Elohím of the Old Testament, or the lógos tu Theú and ríma tu Theú of the New—refer to stuff God’s said. Common sense will tell us which is which. Lack of sense will tell us they’re one and the same, and how cool is that?
Confusing the scriptures with Jesus will of course lead to worshiping the bible instead of God. Bibliolatry, I call it. They’ll justify it by saying, “Jesus is the word of God, so I’m really worshiping him.” Again, no. Bad Christian. Go to the back of the kingdom. Come back once you’ve decided to use your head.
Flinging “word” around.
Anyway, because of this and many other reasons, “word” has become a popular term in Christianese. “A word from the Lord” is how Christians will describe a sermon, a prophecy, a particularly cool bible passage, or any Christian message. “Speaking the word” will do the same. “Trusting the word” can mean trusting the bible, a prophecy, or even Jesus (if by “word” we mean him). In our hands, “word” is a really flexible term.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. God can communicate to us any way he wants, and we can communicate him to others all sorts of ways. God has truths to share with us which are beyond our ability to even imagine yet. When the writer of Hebrews described the word as living and active, that’s really under-representing everything God wants to share with us. It’s too great for words. (Pun unintended.)
Now let’s strive to find the right words.