The Word of God Is Living and Powerful
LLC 2021 Summer Service Congregation Evening, July 2, 2021
In many of the discussions of recent years, we have heard it said that we need to turn to God’s Word. What do we mean by the term God’s Word? What is it? Where do we find it? How do we recognize it? How should we receive it? How should we read it or hear it?
I suspect that when most of us hear, read, or use the term God’s Word we usually think of the Holy Bible, the written Word. The Bible itself however refers to God’s Word more broadly. It speaks of God’s Word in 3 ways: 1) as God’s Son, the Incarnate Word, 2) as a written word, and 3) as a spoken word.
The Word Made Flesh
The gospel of John begins with the words, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1–3). They are at the same time the echo and explanation of the first words of Genesis. But John is not finished. A little later in his prologue he writes, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This is one of the great mysteries of God. They are words beyond this presenter’s ability to grasp or explain. The Word, that was with God and that was God, the invisible and eternal, became flesh and revealed himself to us. He became a man to be heard, to be seen, and to be touched (1 John 1:1). The fulfilment of the prophet’s words: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matt. 1:23). God, who had in times past and in various ways, spoken to the fathers through the prophets, has now in these last days spoken to us by His son (Heb. 1:1).
The Word, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, as Paul writes, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself out and took on the form of a servant, was born in the likeness of men, like you and like me. And He humbled himself to death on the cross (Phil. 2:6–8). God, the Word, was with us and died for us. But He is not dead. He appeared to this same John on the Isle of Patmos and said: “Fear not; I am the first and the last: -- I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (Rev. 1:17,18). The Word of God is not dead. He still speaks. He has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father but has a body here on the earth. It is His church, and He is its head (Eph. 1:22,23, 5:23,29–32). When we speak of God’s Word, we speak of Jesus Christ. These are all great mysteries of God. They cannot truly be understood or explained by reason, not even by the best minds. They remain objects of faith.
The Bible – The Written Word of God
God has also revealed himself in the Holy Bible, a written Word. The Bible itself tells that this written Word of God was written by men. These men did not however express their own will, but as the Apostle Peter states, God moved them by His Spirit to express His own will (2 Pet. 1:20,21). God’s Word thus has both a human and a divine element. Another mystery. It is important to understand and remember this. We see the human component, for example, in the Bible’s descriptions of the natural world. The men who wrote the scripture portrayed the world as they saw and understood it with their knowledge of nature at the time.
It is also important to understand and remember what the Bible’s purpose is. Luther noted that the Bible does not profess to give a detailed history of the world, nor even a complete biography of the persons whom it introduces. Its object, he says, is to set before us the history of the kingdom of God. Thus, it only describes such persons and the events that are necessary for that purpose.
We understand that the Bible, even though it has a human element, is nonetheless God’s own Word. Thus, regarding its message and purpose, the Bible is unerring. Because the Bible is God’s Word, we are not to treat it like man’s word but are to grant it our highest esteem and reverence. God’s Word is also eternal and unchanging. To claim that God’s Word is bound to time and shackled to the culture of its time does not do justice to God’s revelation. According to Jesus, the content and the message of the Word of God does not change even though the world changes. It is always timely. He said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away” (Luke 21:33).
The central message of the Bible, the written Word, is Jesus Christ and the salvation that God has prepared in Him. The Apostle John reveals this in explaining the purpose of his gospel. He says, “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:31). This can be said of the entire Scripture, for Jesus said, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39).
As Paul said of Jesus, “it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” and that in Him “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 1:19, 2:3). Thus, God’s revelation is complete in Jesus Christ. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” and “no man cometh unto the Father,” but by Him (John 14:6). Jesus commanded John to write: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). There is no new thing to be added. The way of salvation is complete. All that needs to be done for our redemption has been done in Christ.
Because the Bible is God’s Word and His complete revelation, we regard it as the highest authority and guide for Christian faith and life. The LLC’s 2006 position statement expresses our belief in this way: “We believe that God’s Word is Christian faith’s highest authority and thus Christian faith’s guiding principles and doctrine must be examined and evaluated in the light of God’s Word.” This statement is based on the so-called Formal Principle of the Reformation. It is expressed in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord as follows: “We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged, as it is written in Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And St. Paul says in Galations 1:8, “Even if an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Tappert, T. G. (Ed.). (1959). The Book of Concord the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (p. 464). Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press.)
The Spoken Word
The third form of God’s Word is the oral or spoken Word. It is the Word that God proclaims in the present, to you and to me. He has not withdrawn from the earth and gone silent. He has not abandoned us. He has not only left an account of what He has said to a past generation. He still speaks to you and me in the present world. Jesus said, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:16–18). Through His Holy Spirit He speaks in and from His congregation. It is a gospel that is not “in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:5). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews refers especially to this spoken Word, when he writes that the Word of God is living and powerful (Heb. 4:12).
This oral Word is inseparably linked to God’s congregation. When Luther said that “God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word,” he was speaking of the oral Word. He said, “First, the holy Christian people are recognized by their possession of the holy word of God…This is the principal item, and the holiest of holy possessions, by reason of which the Christian people are called holy; for God’s word is holy and sanctifies everything it touches; it is indeed the very holiness of God…For the Holy Spirit himself administers it and anoints or sanctifies the Christian church with it…But we are speaking of the external word, preached orally by men like you and me, for this is what Christ left behind as an external sign, by which his church, or his Christian people in the world, should be recognized” (On the Councils and the Churches). Paul’s writing about the relationship of husband and wife, uses Christ and His church as an example. He says that “Christ is the head of the church” and “the church is subject unto Christ” and he then concludes with these words: “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:23,24,31,32). The church is not above the Word but subject to it and one with it. As Paul’s says, a great mystery. It too is an article of faith.
The Bible reveals the role of the oral Word. Paul writes, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Peter too shows that new birth occurs through the oral gospel when he writes to those who had been “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever…And this is the word by which the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Pet. 1:23,25). Luther says, “Actually, the Gospel is not what one finds in books and what is written in the letters of the alphabet; it is rather an oral sermon and a living Word, a voice that resounds throughout the world and is proclaimed publicly, so that one hears it everywhere” (Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 3). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House). By the oral Word the message of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, is proclaimed in the present and personally to the hearer. A penitent sinner does not need to wonder if God, who so many years ago through the mouth of Nathan forgave David, or through the mouth of His Son forgave the paralyzed man, hears his or her prayer for forgiveness and truly forgives him or her. God hears, and He still speaks. He speaks in the present. He through the mouths of His children imparts His forgiveness to the penitent individual. They are His ambassadors, and He has entrusted them with His Word of reconciliation and the keys of His kingdom (2 Cor. 5:18–20; Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:22,23).
He That Hath An Ear, Let Him Hear
As we noted earlier, the claim that God’s Word is bound to time and shackled to the culture of its time does not do justice to God’s revelation. God’s Word is always timely. At the same time, because of the human element, we recognize that the prophets, apostles, and Jesus spoke to the people of the world in which they lived at that time and in terms that were familiar to them. God’s congregation through the New Testament time has faced many challenges and issues that have not presented themselves in earlier phases of history. The Holy Spirit has always taught and guided His congregation in the face of new issues and challenges.
The early New Testament congregation faced new questions when the gospel spread to Gentile nations. They met in Jerusalem to discuss those challenges in the light of God’s Word. They had a long discussion. Only a few speeches have been recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit led and guided their discussion, and they reached a timely and appropriate course of action. Their conclusions were prefaced with the words, “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us.” What comforting words. God’s children in later ages, even ours, have had the same experience. God has not abandoned us. He is not silent. God through His Holy Spirit leads and guides His congregation whether the challenges are those brought by new technologies and developments or spiritual turmoil. God has not abandoned us. He still speaks through His Holy Spirit.
Jesus instructed servants of the Word in the churches of Asia Minor, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (Rev. 2:29). This instruction can be difficult to accept. When we look at God’s congregation, we easily see many shortcomings and faulty sinners. That God speaks through sin-corrupt people is another one of His mysteries. This too becomes an article of faith. In his preface to Revelations, he addresses this issue. He says, “This article, ‘I believe one holy Christian Church,’ is an article of faith, as well as the rest. The reason, therefore, cannot recognize it, though it puts all its glasses on. The devil can cover it over with offenses and tumults, so that you have to take offense at it. God, too, can hide it with faults and short-comings of all kinds, so that you become a fool and pass such judgment on it. It will not be known by sight, but by faith, and faith concerns the things we do not see (Hebrews xi); and the Church joins with her Lord in the song, “Blessed is he that takes no offense in me.” May God grant us faith and humility to hear what God through His Spirit teaches in His congregation.
Before the Word
God reveals himself to us in His Word. It is His great gift and blessing to us and to all mankind. It is a treasure that does not stop giving. As Paul writes to Timothy, “the holy scriptures are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” and are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:15,16). God’s Word can teach us, comfort us, and it can also cause us distress.
We want to approach and use God’s Word with humility and reverence and with prayer. We should strive to read out of the Scripture what God would say to us and not read into Scripture what we would like it to say.
As we heard, the Scriptures do not express the will and message of the men who wrote them, but that God’s Holy Spirit inspired them to speak the will and message of God. The Holy Spirit is also the key that opens the Bible.
The Bible is also a spiritual book. It contains many acts of God that appear impossible to us. It contains many mysteries of God that reason cannot explain. They require faith. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please” God.
We should always remember that the Scriptures are to be explained by the Scriptures. God is not the author of confusion. The message of the Scripture does not contradict itself. We should consider each portion, and our understanding of it, in the light of the rest of Scripture and the entirety of its message. This practice helps us to avoid subjectivity.
Paul told Timothy, a servant of the Word, that he should strive to “rightly divide” or correctly handle God’s Word (2 Tim. 2:15). All of us, when we study God’s Word, should seek to understand what God, through the speaker or author, intended to say to the people to whom He spoke or wrote. Then we can try to rightly apply it to our lives and the issues that we face. A careless, lazy, or misguided approach to the reading and study of God’s Word can lead us to confusion and wrong understanding. Teachers and preachers have a special burden to “rightly divide” God’s Word as those who “watch for your souls, as they that must give account” and who will “receive the greater condemnation” (Heb. 13:17, James 3:1.)
“How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 41: Church and Ministry III. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 41, p. 148–150). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.