The words and the Word of God

Though for many Christians today “the Word of God” means a book of Scriptures or the Bible, in the Bible itself the Word of God is associated with a spoken word or a word we hear but not a written word.  Or, as early Christians would come to understand it “the Word of God” means the Second Person of the Holy Trinity especially obvious in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel but also in the Old Testament prophets when the Word of the Lord comes too them and speaks to them.  The Word of God has power to act and enact while the written word bears witness to the Word of God which is heard and obeyed.

Just read the Acts of the Apostles to get a sense of this.   The Word of God is spoken (4:31, 13:46), preached (6:2),  received (8:14, 11:1), proclaimed (13:5), sought (13:7), heard (13:44), glorified (13:48) and taught (18:11).  The Word of God both increases (6:7) as well as  grows & multiplies (12:24).  Clearly the Word of God is not a book but something more.  As it says in Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  There is a relationship between the written letters on a page and the Word of God, but the Word of God is living, is a spiritual force.  For Christians the Word of God is Jesus Christ, the God who becomes incarnate as a human (John 1:14).

Look at 2 Chronicles 34:21-

“Go, inquire of the LORD for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

King Josiah sees the writings in the book that the priest reads to him, not as the Word of the Lord but rather the written word in the book is what the Word of the Lord commanded.  Or, perhaps, the written word is simply what needed to be done to show that people listened to the Word of God and obeyed.  But the written word is not equivalent to the Word of God.  Rather the written word bears witness to the Word of God.  We see a similar thing in the New Testament when Jesus says to Satan:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”    (Matthew 4:4)

What is written is not the Word of God but rather only the commandments related to how people should live.  The written word bears witness to the Word of God.   Which is what Jesus teaches in John 5:39-46 –

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.

As Jesus understands Torah, Torah is about Jesus.  Moses in writing the books of the Law was really writing about Jesus.  Moses is a prophet who bears witness to Jesus more than a historian writing the narration of human history.

We see an interesting relationship between the Word of God and a written word in Exodus.  “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.”  (Exodus 24:3-4)    Moses comes to the people and tells them the words of the Lord – God’s word is spoken and to be heard.  Only after all the people hear the words and agree to obey them does Moses write them down.  They are not put into a written form until the people agree to do them.  The covenant will involve a written agreement, but the Word of God must first be heard and willingly accepted as that which is to be obeyed; Only then is it put into writing.   After this, the written covenant is accepted again this time in ritual worship – it is sanctified as the people once more agree to it: “Then Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”  (Exodus 24:7-8)

It is the same for us today, for in the Liturgy again we have the Blood of Christ and the spoken Word proclaimed and we agree to God’s new covenant.  And interestingly the very next thing that happens in Exodus is a meal eaten before God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

It is only after Moses spoke God’s words to the people and the people agreed to obey that the covenant was confirmed in liturgical ritual that involved blood. Only after all of this does God speak about putting His words into writing.  In Exodus 24:12, we read:  The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”  But even then another 40 days will pass before it happens (Exodus 24:18).

Only in Exodus 31 does God finally write the words which Moses proclaimed to the people and wrote down for the people.  But first God tells Moses he must once again proclaim (verbally) these words of the perpetual covenant.  Only then do we read in Exodus 31:18 – And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

In Deuteronomy 9:10-11 we read another version of this same narrative:

And the LORD gave me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And at the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two tables of stone, the tables of the covenant.

God’s Word is first spoken, it was written down by God on the stone tablets only after the people agreed to the terms of the covenant.  Moses was to smash God’s written words, the stone tablets,  when the people disobeyed God even before Moses could bring the written word to them.  But even tablets of stone written by  God’s own hand were not permanent and cannot be equated with God’s word.  For as it says in  1 Peter 1:24 -25 – ‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.That word is the good news which was preached to you.”

God’s Word cannot be equated with a written form.  God’s Word is not coterminous with the scriptures for the scriptures bear witness to God’s Word.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.

Being Taught by God

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

God promised that the day would come in which He would write His law upon our hearts.   That internalizing of the Word has several possible meanings but one thing it seems to imply is that there will be no need of some kind of intermediary between God and people.  We won’t need Scriptures, nor will we need teachers to interpret the Word for us.  This isn’t even a matter of memorizing scripture verses, for even that falls far short of what God has in mind for us.  God will place His Word directly on our hearts and we will know that Word from within ourselves.  We won’t even have to call the Word to mind, for we will be one with the Word.  We will no longer forget or be ignorant, for God’s Word will abide in us and we will always be aware of the Lord.   Would that that day would come.  For still today many know neither God’s Word nor God’s presence.  And even many of us who believe the Word and know the Word, still at times forget it, or ignore it, or avoid it or deny it.   And so we struggle while living in the world with temptation, sin, ignorance, confusion, doubt and all human foibles, failures and hubris.

Christ Teaching – 4th Century Roman

St Gregory of  Sinai (d. 1346AD) was particularly mindful of God’s promises and prophecies to be with His people.  He especially found Isaiah‘s words, which the Apostle John quotes, to be significantly important to us.

It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.   (John 6:45)

St Gregory says we have to move beyond the words printed in Scripture to understand what the Spirit is saying, and in so doing we come into union with God.  In this way the Scriptures cease to be external to us for they unite us to God.

The physical eye perceives the outward or literal sense of things and from it derives sensory images. The intellect, once purified and reestablished in its pristine state, perceives God and from Him derives divine images. Instead of a book the intellect has the Spirit; instead of a pen, mind and tongue – ‘my tongue is a pen‘, says the Psalmist (cf. Ps. 45:1); and instead of ink, light. So plunging the mind into the light that it becomes light, the intellect, guided by the Spirit, inscribes the inner meaning of things in the pure hearts of those who listen. Then it grasps the significance of the statement that the faithful ‘shall be taught by God‘ (cf. Isa. 54:13; John 6:45), and that through the Spirit God ‘teaches man knowledge’ (Ps. 94:l0).     (St Gregory of Sinai,  THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 40928-40948)

In this process we move beyond simply reading the words of Scripture to having them transferred to our hearts, but they don’t remain as words still needing to be interpreted, for we grasp their meaning, and they grasp our hearts and minds, so that we live the Word, rather than merely reading it, memorizing it, or interpreting it.  Now the Word abides in us and we know God rather than simply know about God.  We experience God in our hearts as the Prophet Jeremiah promised.

St Gregory of Sinai goes on:

“As the great teacher St John Chrysostom states, we should be in a position to say that we need no help from the Scriptures, no assistance from other people, but are instructed by God; for ‘all will be taught by God‘ (Isa. 54:13; John 6:45), in such a way that we learn from Him and through Him what we ought to know. And this applies not only to those of us who are monks but to each and every one of the faithful: we are all of us called to carry the law of the Spirit written on the tablets of our hearts (cf. 2 Cor. 3:3), and to attain like the Cherubim the supreme privilege of conversing through pure prayer in the heart directly with Jesus.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 42158-42168)

St Gregory says this is what every Christian should experience.  We cease looking for God “out there” somewhere in a distant heaven or at the end of time, for God enters our hearts here and now, and makes our heart heaven, makes us the temple of the Spirit, makes us realize that God is with us and within us.  This in turn helps us get through each day in good cheer  even with all the trials and tribulations that might assail us.  Christianity is not a “die and go to heaven” religion for the Kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21)

 

 

 

There Is No Other Way to Learn the Things of God

“For in no other way could we have learned the things of God, unless our Master, existing as the Word, had become man. For no other being had the power of revealing to us the things of the Father, except His own proper Word. For what other person knew the mind of the Lord, or who else has become His counselor? (Rom 11:34). Again, we could have learned in no other way than by seeing our Teacher, and hearing His voice with our own ears, that, having become imitators of His works as well as doers of His words, we may have communion with Him…”

(St Irenaeus, from The Christian Life in the Early Church, p. 12)

There is Hope: We Can Change


For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

“Let no one, therefore, who is living in vice despair of himself, know that, as agriculture changes the properties of plants, so the diligence of the soul in the pursuit of virtue can triumph over all sorts of infirmities.”  (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, p. 78)

Truth is Truth

“‘Truth is truth, wherever it is found, and while Orthodox Christianity does claim uniquely to teach the fullness of truth, it does not claim a monopoly on truth. On that basis, Orthodox Christians are open to mutual learning and mutual transformation. This step may sound radical. But once we admit that truth exists outside our own faith, and especially if we say that everything that is true is true because it reflects Jesus Christ (who is Truth), then we must be open to the ways in which God’s truth has been found even in faiths that do not share our belief in Christ.’ (Peter Bouteneff)”

“‘[Justin] says that all truth belongs to Christians because God, through the Word, is the source of all truth, and the Word who took on human flesh in Christ is the fullness of all human truth. But those who even unwittingly have participated in this truth are in some sense in communion with it however imperfectly, and this is because ‘seeds of the Word (logos)’ [logos spermatikos] are found everywhere.’ (John Garvey)”

(Andrew M. Sharp, Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age, p. 50 & 60)

Jesus: The Word of God

“The all-too-frequent pitfalls of speculating on the nature of God helped make the option of saying nothing a desirable one. Within the heart of the Godhead itself some early Christian writers had discovered a profound silence, that of the Father, from out of which the Word, the second person of the Trinity, was spoken. Ignatius of Antioch was a pioneer in this respect. Writing at the very beginning of the second century, he says, ‘There is one God, who manifested himself through Jesus Christ, his Son, who is his Word, coming forth from silence, who in all things was pleasing to the one who sent him.

Two and a half centuries later the idea was still alive in the poetry of Ephrem the Syrian:

‘Glory to the One who came to us by his First-Born.

Glory to that Silent One who spoke by means of his Voice.'”

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 44-45)

Laying Aside our Ideological Weapons

Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you … (1 Samuel 15:23)

The political polarity and party spirit which so divides America is becoming so deeply ingrained in the minds of some as to cause them even to judge the Scriptures as being too liberal or too conservative. When Christians view Christianity or the Scriptures through a political lens they lose sight of God’s Word as being literally above partisan politics.  God’s word is meant to challenge us in our thinking so that we consider things not just from an earthly or human point of view but to also take God’s own viewpoint into consideration.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself … (2 Corinthians 5:16-18)

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.  (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

Today even Orthodox Christians can be heard commenting on and judging the Scriptures or a prayer of the Church or a message from Church leadership not from the point of view of God but from that of a political party. We begin to hear people say that scripture sounds liberal or conservative acting as if the American political viewpoint is the standard for measuring God’s word. When we “hear” the Scripture as sounding liberal or conservative, we have already adopted a worldly mind about the Word of God.


We may not like what we read in Scriptures. We may not agree with it. We may not want to do it, but it still remains as God’s word to us. We have to wrestle with what God revealed.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  (Isaiah 55:8)

We have to listen to God’s word and allow it to come deep into our hearts and minds in order to either live it or wrestle with it. Otherwise we are at risk to do and to become exactly what the people were in the days when Jesus walked on earth and He warned them that they had ears but could not hear and eyes but could not see.
When we come into the church, we need to lay aside our political prejudices and allow God to speak to us so that we hear God’s word and do it or begin to wrestle with it. But if we accept as a filter for reading the scriptures a political party’s point of view then we have stopped our ears with partisan politics and we will never hear God’s word.
Roman Emperor Theodosius issued an edict in 431AD at the Church Council in Ephesus. Emperor Theodosius was an Orthodox Christian, an Orthodox emperor and is even listed as an Orthodox saint. The Emperor said:

Although we are always surrounded by the lawful imperial weaponry, and it is not fitting for us to be without weapon-bearers and guards; when, however, entering the churches of God, we shall leave our weapons outside and take off the very diadem, emblem of our imperial dignity.

The Emperor said he and his entourage were to leave their weapons and emblems of the imperial dignity outside the church. They entered the church just like everyone else – as sinners in need of salvation. The only way they could truly hear God was to lay aside all their political thinking, their earthly status and even the signs of their political power.

Today we need to do this by laying aside our ideological weapons when we enter the church, so that we can hear the Gospel. We should Leave our ideological attacks and political grenades and partisan weapons outside the church so that we don’t look at God’s word from an earthly point of view, but rather we enter the church with open hearts and minds to hear God fully.

Whether we are on the political left or on the political right, whether we are politically right or wrong, we need to hear the Word of God and to take it home with us and to judge ourselves based on God’s word. We need to pull the liberal and conservative plugs from our ears and remove the conservative and liberal lens from our eyes so that we can see the world as God proclaims it.

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.  (Matthew 13:15)

Jesus told us that we cannot serve God and mammon. We cannot serve God if we come to the Scriptures or to the Church to judge God by a political ideological point of view. Listen to God first. Don’t react to what God says until you understand His teachings and comandments.

St. Paul said: For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)

In Acts 4:15-31, the Apostles were arrested by the temple authorities and told not to speak about Jesus any more. They replied: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”  Political parties love it if we take their point of view in order to measure and judge the Scriptures and the Church.  We however are not to see the world from that human point of view but rather are to view every human point of view from the perspective of God’s own will.

In the Church we must speak the word of God and hear it whether we like it or not. Listen to what God says and allow it to enter into your mind and willful choices. Obey it if that is in your heart, and if not, then wrestle with it and ask God why He says things that you find so difficult to do. Carry His Word in your heart so you can take it into your life and home to become a doer of God’s word.

The Scriptures: A Wealth Beyond the Needs of All

 

“As for Ephraem’s own attitude to the scriptures and their interpretation, there is a passage in the commentary on the Diatessaron which, even if it may not have come from his pen, is nevertheless an apt expression of his point of view. The text says,

 

Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. [God] has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. [They ate] spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. (1 Cor. 10:3-4)

Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but [rather] that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you…Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage.”

(Sidney H. Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian, pp. 16-17)

Knowing God

As we honor the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, we have to consider how they struggled so much with finding a vocabulary to express the revelation of God.  They were trying to put into human words the divine: God’s self-revelation.  This issue of finding a vocabulary to adequately express what God reveals exists in the Scriptures as well.  Scholar Terence E. Fetheim notes:

Thus, for example, one needs to ask what speaking of God’s eyes and ears (2 Kings 19:16) adds to the understanding of the relationship of God to the world that living, seeing, and hearing do not. Such language makes the idea that God receives the world into himself vivid and concrete. God’s experience of the world is not superficial; God takes it in, in as real a way as people do who use their eyes and ears. At the same time, in ways that people do not, God takes it all in (Jer. 32:19), and not with fleshly eyes (Job 10:4).

Nevertheless, while examining each metaphor in its specificity is important, the general conclusions drawn continue to be significant. In addition to revealing God as living and personal, they testify to the intimate relationship between God and the world. ( The Suffering of God, p. 9)

The vocabulary we use in speaking about God is born from our experience of of God.  God’s revelation is received by us, we encounter this revelation who is Christ and we are changed by it.  The revelation is not ideas about God nor words about God, but rather the experience of God the Word.

The Christian doctrine of Trinity, in Gregory’s estimate, is therefore not an exercise in speculative metaphysical language, but an exposition of how the Church has experienced God within salvation history and, as such, how it prays. (John A. McGuckin, Seeing the Glory, p. 188)

 

 

Jesus, the Wisdom of God

Icon of Christ the Wisdom of God

“If we proceed further into the Sacred Scriptures – not in the historical order that the books have been arranged, but in a more spiritual manner – we shall discover the name of Wisdom, which is mystically ascribed to Christ. And thus Solomon cries to the Father: Give me the Wisdom that sits by Your throne (Wis 9.4). And who sits next to God, at the right hand of the Father (cf. Heb 1.3; 10.12; 12.2), exalted above all created things, if not the Lord Jesus Christ? For He is indeed the Power and the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24). Elsewhere Solomon says: I determined to take Wisdom to live with me, knowing that She would be a counselor for me (Wis 8.9).

Wisdom, then, is clearly a Person, and not simply an attribute. It is the Son of God, who is also God’s Word; His Wise Word, as the Fathers say. From ancient times, Solomon points beyond time, and reveals the Person of the Son, Who sits by the throne of the Father, a situation which expresses their inseparable relationship, since there can be no Father without a Son, and no Son without a Father. Each one, at all times, points to the other. In this way we have a common, mutual revelation, which is, in essence, a self-revelation.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 271-272).