(Heb. dabar [r'b'D]; Gk. logos [lovgo"] and rhema [rJh'ma]). The theological meaning of "word" within Scripture spans a wide theological spectrum. From the divine point of view, it consists of God revealing something about himself through his spoken word, which is ultimately and perfectly personified in his Son, Jesus Christ. In a broader sense, it designates Scripture itself. In contrast, the human word mirrors the human condition: it is limited, fallen, and dependent on divine intervention for restoration and sustenance.
The Word of God. The Old Testament. The concept of the word of God is a major Old Testament theme. It points out the absolute uniqueness of Israel's religion on the basis of personal contact with Yahweh the transcendent, sovereign, creator God.
It is the means by which God created all things. Genesis 1 firmly establishes God's supremacy over the whole of creation. God has created all things by his spoken word. The psalmist declares, "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth" ( 33:6 ); "For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm" (v. 9 cf. Psalm 104:7 ). His word continues to reign supreme over all of creation ( Psalm 147:15-18 ). Creation in turn speaks words of praise to its Creator ( Psalm 19:1-4 ).
It unveils God to his creation. Though fully transcendent and incomparable deity, in giving his word to people, God reveals something of himself to them. Balaam, for example, speaks as "one who hears the words of God, who has knowledge from the Most High" ( Num 24:16 ; cf. Joshua 24:27 ; 1 Kings 18:31 ; Ezek 3:10-11 ). God's word is an important instrument of divine revelation; at Shiloh, the Lord continued to reveal himself to Samuel through his word ( 1 Sam 3:21 ). At times God's word nearly appears as synonymous with his person ( 1 Samuel 15:23 1 Samuel 15:26 ; 28:15 ; Psalm 138:1-2 ).
Its qualities describe God to his creation. The close connection between God and his word means that the qualities attributed to God's word also describe God's own personal character. In the Old Testament God's word is creative ( Psalm 33:6 ), good ( Micah 2:7 ), holy ( Jer 23:9 ), complete ( Jer 26:2 ), flawless ( 2 Sam 22:31 ; Psalm 12:6 ; 18:30 ; Prov 30:5 ), all-sufficient ( Deut 8:3 ; Isa 50:4 ; Jer 15:16 ), sure ( Isa 31:2 ; 45:23 ; Jer 44:28 ), right and true ( Judges 13:12 Judges 13:17 ; 1 Sam 3:19 ; Psalm 33:4 ; Isa 55:11 ), understandable ( Deuteronomy 4:10 Deuteronomy 4:12 Deuteronomy 4:36 ; Neh 8:12 ), active ( Hosea 6:5 ), all-powerful ( Psalm 68:11-14 ; 147:15-18 ), indestructible ( Jer 23:29 ), supreme ( Psalm 17:4 ), eternal ( Psalm 119:89 ; Isa 40:8 ), life-giving ( Deut 32:46-47 ), wise ( Psalm 119:130 ), and trustworthy ( 2 Sam 7:28 ; 1 Kings 17:16 ). Therefore, God was understood similarly.
It discloses God's plan for his creation. God discloses his plan for creation through his word. The common Old Testament expression, "the word of the Lord came, " indicates the sending and reception of divine prophecy. It occurs once in the Pentateuch ( Gen 15:4 ), numerous times in the historical books, and many times in the prophets. The sending and reception of God's word are by the Spirit ( Zec 7:12 ) and often through visions ( Num 24:15-16 ; 1 Sam 3:1 ; 1 Kings 22:19 ); it is pictured as God reaching out his hand and touching the mouth of the prophet ( Jer 1:9 ). In times of judgment, God frequently refrained from communicating his word to his people ( 1 Sam 3:1 ; Amos 8:11 ; also 1 Sam 28:6 ; Micah 3:4 Micah 3:7 ). God's word will come to fulfillment according to the divine plan ( Psalm 105:19 ; Lam 2:17 ; Ezek 12:28 ). God asserts, "I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled" ( Jer 1:12 ). God's word is in perfect harmony with his will and plan for creation ( 2 Sam 7:21 ; Psalm 103:20-21 ; Lam 2:17 ).
It is known by creation. People knew something of the transcendent God through his word. Balaam "hears the words of God, has knowledge from the Most High, and sees a vision from the Almighty" ( Num 24:16 ). Israel as a nation was the unique recipient of "the words of the living God, the Lord Almighty" ( Jer 23:36 ). To them, God's word was equivalent to law ( Isa 1:10 ). Accordingly, God's word demands proper human response; it is to be obeyed ( Num 15:30-31 ; Deut 11:18-21 ; Ezek 33:32 ), feared ( Exod 9:20-21 ; Ezra 9:4 ; Psalm 119:161 ; Isaiah 66:2 Isaiah 66:5 ), praised ( Psalms 56:4 Psalms 56:10 ), preserved ( Jer 23:36 ), and proclaimed to others ( Deut 5:5 ; 1 Sam 3:31-4:1 ; Neh 8:14-15 ; Jer 11:6 ).
It is for the good of creation. God's word at times comes upon creation as judgment, but only as a divine response to disobedience. Its primary objective and appeal was for the well-being of creation. God's word is equivalent to divine rescue. It brings healing ( Psalm 107:20 ; Ezek 37:4-14 ) and refreshing ( Deut 32:1-2 ). To those who reject it, it becomes offensive ( Jer 6:10 ) and meaningless ( Isa 28:13 ), and in judgment will come upon them as a raging fire and a hammer that breaks rocks to pieces ( Jer 23:29 ). But to those who accept it, it gives and sustains life ( Deut 8:3 ). God's word is like living water, welling up to nourish creation from the Spring on High ( Jer 2:13 ).
It is supremely authoritative for all of creation. As God is supreme deity, his word bears supreme authority. The expression "the Lord has spoken" ( Isa 24:3 ) signifies unrivaled authority. It is uncontestable. No power can overturn it or thwart it. God's word is authoritative for all of creation.
The New Testament. The New Testament reiterates the Old Testament depiction of the word of God as the divine means of creating and sustaining all things ( Heb 11:3 ; 2 Peter 3:5-7 ), as divine revelation ( Rom 3:2 ; 1 Peter 4:11 ), and as prophetic speech ( Luke 3:2 ; 2 Peter 1:19 ). Hebrews 4:12-13 powerfully sums up its supreme authority as "living and active sharper than any double-edged sword, " able to expose even the most hidden thoughts before God.
But the New Testament significantly deepens the Old Testament in light of the incarnation. In view of Jesus' life and work, the word of God now especially refers to God's consummate message of salvation to all people, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Accordingly, the New Testament richly describes the gospel as "the word" ( Acts 8:4 ; 16:6 ; 1 Cor 15:2 ), "word of God" ( Acts 6:7 ; 12:24 ; Heb 13:7 ; 1 Peter 1:23 ), "word of the Lord" ( Acts 8:25 ; 13:48-49 ), "word of his [God's] grace" ( Acts 20:32 ), "word of Christ" ( Rom 10:17 ; Col 3:16 ), "word of truth" ( Eph 1:13 ; Col 1:5 ; James 1:18 ), "word of faith" ( Rom 10:8 ), and "word of life" ( Php 2:16 ).
Similar to its Old Testament uses, the word of God as the gospel is to be kept free of distortion ( 2 Cor 4:2 ) and is to be preached in its fullness ( Col 1:25 ). It is to be believed ( 1 Peter 3:1 ) and obeyed ( Acts 6:7 ; 1 John 2:25 ). The gospel as the saving message of Jesus Christ is the living and enduring word of God ( 1 Peter 1:18-23 ). It is reliable and supremely authoritative, for it is inseparable from the person and character of its Sender the sovereign, loving, creator God.
Christ. Although the Old Testament never uses the concept of word to describe the expected coming of the messiah, the New Testament significantly develops its theological meaning by equating the Old Testament concept of word of God with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Whereas extrabiblical concepts may have influenced, to a limited degree, the New Testament formulation of Jesus as the Word, the main influence comes from the Old Testament itself. Exactly when the early church understood Jesus in this way is uncertain, but nothing demands that it was necessarily late (i.e., well toward the end of the first century). For, as John's Gospel especially stresses, all the criteria for making such a connection were present in Jesus' own teaching, work, and self-consciousness.
The first two words of John's Gospel are most instructive in this regard. The phrase en arche ("in the beginning") recalls the opening words of the Old Testament in Genesis 1:1. The association is deliberate. It establishes from the Gospel's outset how its author intended the reader to understand Jesus' person and work throughout the remainder of the book. But justification for doing so originates in the life of Jesus himself.
According to Genesis 1 God created all things by his spoken word. The formula, "And God said, Let there be, ' and it was so" provides the pattern for how God created on each day of creation. God's word is supremely powerful, able to create ex nihilo ("out of nothing").
The opening verses of John's Gospel explicitly link God's creative word to the person and work of the preincarnate Jesus (1:1-3). The evidence for this christological claim comes from Jesus' own ministry. The Fourth Gospel recounts seven sign miracles of Jesus ( 2:1-11 ; 4:46-54 ; 5:1-9 ; 6:5-14 ; 6:19-21 ; 9:1-7 ; 11:1-44 ). As "signs" these miracles indicate the importance of what Jesus did in conjunction with understanding him as the preincarnate word of God. Jesus performed these miracles through his spoken word. His creating anew expressly images the Father's creating of old. Jesus' words were all-powerful and able to create out of nothing.
The New Testament views the incarnate Jesus as none other than the Old Testament word of God personified ( John 1:14a ). The incarnation of the Word was a humble coming. Jesus came in the "flesh" (sarx [savrx]) and physically made his abode or "tabernacled" with humanity. The Old Testament closely images this gracious act of divine love. Yahweh also came at his own initiative and "tabernacled" among his people in a humble abode not befitting his divine status (cf. Exod 25:8 ; Lev 26:11-12 ). To see Jesus is to see God. As "the exact representation of his [God's] being, " Jesus sustains "all things by his powerful word" ( Heb 1:3 ). Jesus' words are life-giving ( John 6:63 John 6:68 ) and to be believed ( John 2:22 ). What he speaks is from the Father ( John 12:49-50 ; John 14:10 John 14:24 ; 17:8 ). His words will never pass away ( Matt 24:35 ; Mark 13:31 ; Luke 21:33 ) and are all-sufficient ( Matthew 7:24 Matthew 7:26 ; Luke 6:46-49 ; John 8:51-59 ; 12:47-48 ; 15:7 ), even unto the granting of eternal life ( John 5:24 ). The incarnation personifies God's sending of his saving creative Word: through his Son, God has made something of eternal value out of nothing (cf. John 3:16-18 ; Revelation 1:2 Revelation 1:9 ; 20:4 ).
Moreover, Jesus as the Word of life, the eternal life, had come into full human contact with others ( John 1:14b ; 1 John 1:1-3 ). The strength of John's high Christology is that it stems from Jesus' earthly life and was demonstrable by eyewitness testimony to it ( 19:35 ; 20:30-31 ; 21:24-25 ). Luke mentions in his Gospel preface that he uses reliable tradition from "eyewitnesses and servants of the word [i.e., of Jesus' life and work]" ( 1:2 ). Jesus also promised to send the Spirit to assist the apostles' accurate recollection and assessment of his life and teaching ( John 14:26 ; 16:14-15 ; Sol 2:22 ).
Thus in connection to the Old Testament picture of the word of God, the New Testament understands Jesus as the ultimate means through which God created, revealed, and personified himself to creation. Jesus as the word of God discloses God's saving plan for and to creation, makes God better known to creation, is known firsthand by creation, has come for the saving good of creation, and is equal to the Father as supreme authority over all of creation. To preach the gospel of Jesus Christ is to preach in its fullness the word of God. Therefore, in most fitting description, at the consummation of history, Jesus will return "dressed in a robe dipped in blood, [whose] name is the Word of God" ( Rev 19:13 ).
Human Words. In both Testaments, human words stand in stark contrast to those of God. Whereas God's words are creative, perfect, and of supreme authority, human words are finite, frail, and fallen. Yet despite the human condition, when controlled by the Holy Spirit, they become as the very words of God.
Human words can be true or false. They are testable ( Genesis 42:16 Genesis 42:20 ), especially in the legal sense of eyewitness testimony ( Deut 19:15-19 ). Keeping one's word was highly esteemed ( Psalm 15:4 ) and an obligation in making vows and oaths ( Num 30:2 ; Judges 11:30 Judges 11:36 ); but breaking one's word, especially of promises made to the Lord, was a serious offense holding grave consequences for the offender (cf. Deut 23:21-23 ; Eccl 5:1-7 ). In view of these Old Testament considerations, for a Gospel writer to profess that his testimony is true, reliable, is a weighty claim ( John 21:24 ; cf. Zech 8:16-17 ). In effect, he asserts that its contents are true in the legal, investigative sense and as on oath before God because of its claims about God (cf. John 3:33 ; 7:28 ; 8:26 ).
Words also reflect a person's true character. They show the person for what he or she truly is: "out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" ( Matt 12:34 ); "it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean" ( Mark 7:15 ). The righteous speak truth and wisdom to the praise and glory of God ( 2 Sam 22:1 ; Job 33:3 ; Psalm 15:2 ; 19:14 ; Prov 16:23 ), but the wicked speak folly and lies ( Prov 12:23 ) and blaspheme God ( 2 Kings 19:6 ) and his Spirit ( Matt 12:31-32 ).
For this reason, words become sufficient for passing judgment upon those who utter them. On the day of judgment God will hold people accountable for what they have said: "For by your words you will be acquitted and condemned" ( Matt 12:37 ). In this sense the tongue has the power of life and death ( Prov 18:21 ): the mouth of a fool will bring him to ruin ( Prov 10:14 ; 13:3 ), but the one who controls what he says is wise and virtuous ( James 3:1-12 ).
Under divine control, human words can have eternal value. The Spirit inspires and empowers the words of God's servants as they defend the faith ( Luke 12:11-12 ; cf. Acts 4:8 ), proclaim the gospel ( Eph 6:19 ; 1 Thess 1:5 ), and instruct and exhort other believers ( 1 Corinthians 14:6 1 Corinthians 14:26 ; 1 Thess 4:18 ; Heb 13:22 ). This divine enabling sets apart the Christian message from mere human wisdom or persuasive rhetoric ( 1 Cor 1:17 ; 1 Corinthians 2:4 1 Corinthians 2:13 ). The Christian becomes, as it were, "one speaking the very words of God" ( 1 Peter 4:11 ; 2 Peter 1:21 ).
Scripture. The word of God has also come to refer to Scripture itself. In the Old Testament, the words God had given Moses at Sinai became written law ( Exod 24:3 ; Deut 4:10-14 ; 27:3 ; 31:24-29 ). The Ten Commandments were called "the word of the covenant" ( Exod 34:27-28 ); all of God's revelation to Moses was called "the words [book] of the law" ( Deut 28:58 ; 31:24 ; Joshua 8:34 ; 2 Kings 22:13 ), "word of the Lord" ( 2 Chron 34:21 ), and "word of truth" ( Psalm 119:43 ). With God's powerful display of redeeming Israel from Egypt in view, God gave these decrees, laws, and commands to serve as an abiding written record to his person, presence, and ways before Israel and the nations ( Deuteronomy 4:5-8 Deuteronomy 4:32-40 ). The book of the Law then is none other than the revealed word of God put down into written form. It remained authoritative to Israel. Israel and their descendants were to search, learn, and obey it ( Deut 4:6 ; Neh 8:13 ; Psalm 119:11 ). As such it becomes the guide for righteous living ( Psalm 119:9 ) and is synonymous with "the Book of the Law" (cf. Deuteronomy 31:24 Deuteronomy 31:26 ). Psalm 119 has it in view. The Old Testament word of God as written scripture represents "all the laws that come from your [God's] mouth" (v. 13). By Daniel's time prophetic material was being written down and preserved as well (cf. Dan 9:2 ).
By the New Testament era, the word of God as Scripture referred to the entire Old Testament, to the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (cf. Matt 15:6 ; Mark 7:13 ; John 10:35 ). The idea of Scripture as being "God-breathed" ( 2 Tim 3:16 ) suggests that the entire Old Testament represents God's revealed word and holds supreme authority for faith and practice. At what point the early church began to view some of the New Testament writings in this way is uncertain. But given the church's proclamation of Jesus and of the gospel as the "Word of God" and the early recognized authority of apostolic teaching, many of the New Testament books were probably seen in this way well before the close of the first century.
In summary, on the basis of the word of God, all natural and human reality was created, sustained, redeemed, and will be consummated. As with the Giver, what is Given is unshakable and unstoppable: "my word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" ( Isa 55:11 ). God's word as his creative power and revelation is perfect and all-sufficient, especially as it is personified in his Son, Jesus Christ. Our response to God and to his revelation of himself in his Son as preserved in Scripture must therefore be as that of the royal official to Jesus to take him at his word ( John 4:50 ).
H. Douglas Buckwalter
Bibliography. A. Debrunner, et al., TDNT, 4:69-136; H. Haarbeck, et al., NIDNTT, 3:1078-1146; D. H. Johnson, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, pp. 481-84; E. Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible, pp. 81-159; H. D. McDonald, EDT, pp. 1185-88; S. Wagner, TDOT, 1:228-45.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Word'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".