In order to set the stage for today’s look at how we read scripture I want to do a short review of our discussion several weeks ago, looking at the function of words and the Word in the OT. We read Genesis 1 and noted how Creation happened when God said “Let there be... And it was...” God’s word is the creative force by which everything was made that was made.
Then we read Psalm 19 in which
1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
3 There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
God’s spoken word that created everything, is a communication through creation that is the proto-type for language: “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” We think of words as the means of communication, but communication experts tell us that the actual words we use are only 7% of what we communicate.
God speaks and things happen. Things that never enunciate any words speak with a voice far more forceful than anything we understand as spoken words. Therefore we need to be aware that “word” and “words” are used to indicate communication in a much broader sense than only the words we use when we speak or write.
In Jeremiah we listened as Jeremiah repeatedly invoked divine authority for his words “the word of the Lord came to me... The Lord said to me... This is what the Lord says... Hear the word of the Lord”. Then in chapter 23, after a lengthy lament regarding the spurious injunctions of false prophets, decrying the facile way in which everybody is always claiming to speak God’s word for him, Jeremiah has God telling the people to quit all such talk. No more claiming visions, dreams, and words from God. In a play on words, the people’s response to those who claim to have a burden from God to lay on His people is to be “You are the burden.” There is to be no more simple acceptance of claims to speak in God’s name. All such claims are to be vetted in a communal conversation in which the words of purported prophets are diligently compared with previously known words from God. It is not just words that matter, but the substance of those words. As if to highlight the point, in the very next chapter Jeremiah claims more visions from God, and again introduces his words as words that came from the Lord. What’s going on here? This prophet has always claimed to speak the words of God, but has just issued an unequivocal edict against claims to speak of words and dreams that come from God. How can he now continue in the same vein? Does he not listen to himself?
Rather than answer all the questions raised in these readings I want to recapitulate the questions as a means of providing a context for the readings we do today in the NT. These questions will highlight some of the issues that we encounter as we read scripture, and they will provide the groundwork for the hermeneutic by which we learn to live the truth of scripture in our homes, at our jobs, and in our community. Here are the questions:
What is a word?
What is communication?
How do we hear God speak?
How do we learn to recognize God’s word in the plethora of words purported to be from God?
Hold these questions in mind as we read several additional passages.
The Word Became Flesh
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.
3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
10He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The word by which God created in Genesis 1 is now the Word that becomes flesh. The Word that becomes flesh is none other than the God who created in Genesis 1. The Word become flesh is God the One and Only God. This is the God that all of history has been about. This is the God who created all that is, who called Abraham to a Promised Land, the God who called his children out of bondage in Egypt back to the Promised Land, the God who called his people, delivered His people, bought them back out of prostitution time and again, this God whom Israel had alternately desired and spurned, worshiped and despised, this God is now here in the flesh, the Author of scripture is here to show us what it is that He has been trying to tell us all along. The Author is here to fulfill the meaning of the text. The Author is here to show us how to read his message.
For that we go to Matthew 5:
The Fulfillment of the Law
17"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law had 613 addendums to the law to help ensure that the law was kept. Unfortunately, that keeping the letter of the law was often in violation of the spirit of the law. Their focus on keeping the letter of the law set the bar too low. Jesus’ example of keeping the spirit of the law would look like a violation of the law to many people who knew only the letter, but as the Giver of the law his example was a recovery of what the law really meant. It was not just about the words, but about the communication.
Let’s listen as the Author speaks, and I will highlight only those citations that are drawn from the Hebrew scriptures, our OT:
21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.
27"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
38"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.
43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
It’s like Jesus is saying “Don’t get stuck in the text! Listen to the Spirit of my Word! What I was trying to tell you was much more than just the words!” In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul is talking about the church’s role as the minister of a new covenant, and he says the letter kills but the Spirit gives life! We are competent, Paul says, not on our own merit but because God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, with letters written not in ink on tablets of stone, but by the Spirit on tablets of human hearts. And, says Paul, if the ministry that brought death, the ministry that was engraved in letters on stone, was of such glory that the Israelites could not look at the face of Moses, how much more magnificent is the ministry that brings righteousness, the letter written in human hearts, the word of God in the flesh!
Jesus and Paul are in full agreement that the message inscripted, be it on stone, paper, or memory, is never sufficient. The pivotal message is the one written on our hearts. The relative authority of text and Person is perhaps most clearly indicated in Hebrews 1:
1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.
Angel - Messenger - used for John the Baptist “I will send my m ahead of you...” Should ‘angels’ in Hebrews 1 be ‘messengers’?
The earlier word spoken through the prophets at many times and in various ways is hugely significant and always to be dearly cherished, but never at the expense of the Word made flesh. If the word spoken in Creation, and through the prophets, is holy, how much more the Word made Flesh that is very God! Where ever and when ever you see a picture of God that does not look like Jesus, look again. All the stories and pictures and words in scripture are there to show us who God is and what God is like, but only in Jesus do we see God. All the stories of God’s word to his people are instructive for us, but those words, even though dispatched through chosen messengers and angels, should never be allowed to obscure, much less trump, the Word of God in Person.
Colossians 1:15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.