I was asked to speak today about speaking the word of God. Which made me think of all the different, and often contradictory, ways in which I have heard that phrase “the word of God” used in the course of my Christian journey.
For example, in my years in a Free Evangelical Church, the sermon was often introduced with the words: “and now our brother will bring us the Word of God”. This usually made me feel uncomfortable – how can the disorganised and let’s be honest rather commonplace thoughts of Mr ____ (much as I’m fond of him) possibly be described as “the Word of God”?! Anyway, surely only the Bible is the Word of God?
Or I can look further back to my years in a Pentecostal church, where it was expected that God would regularly speak through ecstatic Spirit-filled worship in words of prophecy or tongues and interpretation: God himself speaking directly to us with words of encouragement or challenge or even angry criticism. Of course there’s plenty of scope for abuse here – the temptation use the overwhelming authority of speaking the very words of God to browbeat your fellow Christians to come round to your way of thinking is too much for most of us mortals to resist.
This Pentecostal prophetic speaking was in tension with an equally characteristically Pentecostal emphasis on the Bible as the inerrant word of God. The Bible was very much on a pedestal, possibly even subject to idolatrous reverence, and of course inerrant scripture required inerrant interpretation from the preacher in his (and it always was a “his”) sermons. Another opportunity to browbeat your fellow Christians into submissive conformity.
So “speaking the word of God” has been a slippery concept in my experience. But before we give up on the idea all together, let’s go back to the bible itself in search of some solid ground.
When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
Peter and John have just been released, after being arrested and threatened by the religious leaders and told to stop talking “in the name of Jesus”. They go back to the Christian community who immediately pray for them. This prayer is helpful for us today, because of the way it handles this concept of “the word of God”.
They start their prayer by referring to written scripture as the word of God. They quote Psalm 2 as words spoken by the creator God, through the mouth of David, enabled by the agency of the Holy Spirit. And they confidently apply these words of scripture to their own situation of besieging hostility, expecting God to speak to them through this ancient text.
But they also pray that God will help them to “continue to speak his word with all boldness”. So here we also see the word of God as something that continues to be spoken by Christians, especially in situations of persecution and prophetic confrontation with the authorities. This speaking is an act of witness, speaking “of what we have seen and heard” (v20).
We have a complex dynamic process going on here – David speaks out his poetry, which is written down and incorporated in scripture, which generations later is read and memorized and meditated upon by Jews who encounter Jesus and apply it to him. Under pressure of persecution they quote the written scripture as they pray for boldness to speak out God’s word, and later the whole story is written down and incorporated into scripture all over again. And finally, here am I reading it and speaking it again. The Holy Spirit is indispensably involved at every step, even – I hope – the last one.
Notice in this passage the emphasis on obedient service – both David, past writer of the word, and the apostles, current speakers of the word, are described as “your servants” (vv25,29). Notice also that both written and spoken “word of God” are deployed in service of the same task – to bear witness to Jesus.
So Acts 4 gives us a helpful model of how the written and spoken “word of God” can be deployed together by the church as tools for prophetic witness. As Lloyd Pietersen puts it: “The biblical text .. acts as a means of funding the prophetic imagination of the church.”
But questions remain for me, and the “word of God” has an elusive quality. Do we choose our scripture, or is it chosen for us? The boundaries of the Christian Bible are fuzzy, even today. If you open a Catholic Bible you will find a slightly different contents page than you would in a Protestant Bible. Going beyond that, how do we even choose which sacred book? After all, we are not the only “people of a book” – there are many books in the world which people hold sacred: the Torah, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Tao Te Ching, the Vedas, the Lord of the Rings...
What about novels or poems that move us and challenge us? Is God speaking to us through these – are these in some sense “the word of God” as well? Or music and songs? As The Hold Steady sing in “Stay Positive”: “the sing-along songs will be our scriptures”. There’s a terrible danger here of straying into banal wish-fulfillment religion. Whatever I happen to find moving or comforting I call “the word of God” for me.
OK I’m getting lost again. Let’s turn back to the bible for a some guidance.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
The unknown writer of this particular piece of scripture tells us that God’s revelation is progressive. God spoke through the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, revealing more and more of his character, but this self-revelation climaxed in the sending of Jesus his son into the world. Jesus is the ultimate self-revelation of God to us – God can do no more. John 1 gives us the profound idea that Jesus is the Word of God. God is there and he is not silent (to quote Francis Schaeffer) – he loves to speak to us in words that we can understand. He speaks, and what he speaks is Jesus.
This explains why the Bible is our sacred scripture – it is the record of the difficult, troubling, liberating, tragic, argumentative encounter between Israel and the creator God, and the climax of that process in the life, deeds, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bible is sacred because of Jesus. And likewise, the word of God comes alive for us when we speak it – to each other, but also to the world at large in witness, but only if we bear witness to Jesus. When we speak truly of Jesus, bearing faithful witness to what we have seen and heard (as in Acts 4:20), only then is there the possibility for us of speaking the word of God.
So the word of God cannot be a “dead letter”, a book on a shelf. If it is to bring life it must be handled, used, spoken out. How can we even begin such a task? What does it feel like to “speak the word of God”? Is it even possible? I’m going to finish by going back to a very ancient text from our Bible which I have found helpful when thinking about this.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.
This primal myth comes down to us with a powerful archetypal image – the first man giving names to all the animals. God makes “out of the ground” animals and birds, and brings each one to Adam “to see what he would call them”.
We see Adam here as the first poet. Good poetry names – it uses words to describe an experience that has perhaps never been described before. But when you read it there is a shock of recognition and you think, “yes, I have felt that too, but never knew how to put it into words”. So God brings the animals to Adam so that he can name them.
We also see Adam as the first scientist, making an early start on the work of Linnaean classification, bringing orderly description to the chaotic appearances of nature. Naming, classifying and describing open the way into a deep understanding of the structure and workings of God’s world.
Maybe Adam is also the first prophet. God shows something to Adam, and asks him to name it. Think of the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. God shows them things too – not animals and birds, but injustice, oppression, violence, idolatry, adultery, unfaithfulness – shows them clearly so that they can no longer be ignored, asks the prophet to name these things, to speak out clearly and name them for what they really are. This is not word-by-word dictation, but nevertheless the prophet is truly speaking the word of God.
Which brings us back to Peter and John before the Council: “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20), and what they have seen, above all, is Jesus. Their task is to name, to speak out, what God has shown them – the wonderful words and deeds of Jesus. Let’s pray that like them, God will enable us to “speak his word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29).