The Most Misunderstood Word In The Bible

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A Biblical fundamentalist, responding to my last blog, asked me to explain John 1:1-14.

Apparently he thought the picture (with the Bible telling a worshipper that it can’t save them) meant that I didn’t believe the Scripture and went on to declare the Bible as being “the only road map we have to salvation.”  Which, ironically enough, is in direct contradiction to what is actually recorded in Scripture.

Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, that the “Spirit will teach you all things” and that he (not a book) was the only way to the Father.  It is a very clear pattern, throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters, that it is the Spirit that “quickens” (John 6:63, Romans 8:11) and that it was the Spirit that led Jesus (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1), and this:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. […] But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:7‭, ‬13‭-‬15 NIV)

If you believe in the Spirit then you won’t settle for a road map.  If you believe that then you will receive the GPS—which is to say the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and the only thing that will make Scripture useful.  Because, lest we forget, those who rejected Jesus also believed in the Scripture and looked to it for their salvation:

And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37‭-‬40 NIV)

These people “diligently” studied the Scriptures yet did not have “his word” dwelling in them and rejected Jesus as Savior.  They were using Scripture as their “road map” and failed to recognize Jesus as Lord.

How can it be?

Well, it is simply this: The Bible, while “inspired by God” according to 2 Timothy 3:16, does not provide its own interpretation.  Scripture is written in human language, translated by human translators and requires the reader to correctly understand the words which it contains.

Peter warned the early church:

[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16b)

Think about it.

Again, Scripture does not provide its own interpretation.  It can be misunderstood and distorted.  It did not lead those who diligently studied it to recognize Jesus as the source of life and the book itself testifies that we should expect something much greater than a book to lead us to all truth.

What is the most misunderstood word in the Bible?

There are many things in the Bible that are difficult to understand.  There are many words and phrases in it that are misunderstood and misused.  But there is one word that stands out above the rest.  It is the “Word” found in John 1:1-14:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1‭-‬5‭, ‬14 NIV)

First off, we should consider the intent and context.  John, in this dramatic introduction to his narrative, is making a thesis statement that establishes the divinity of Jesus.  He uses “Word” to create a link between the Spirit of God that was present from the beginning of time to the perfect incarnation in Jesus.

Second, John wrote in Greek, not English.

The “Word” used by John is “Logos” in the Greek.  It does not mean the same thing as the English word used by translators.  Logos is a word originally coined by Greek philosophers; it is a word used to describe the order of the cosmos, spiritual principles or divine reason.  John, borrowing the terminology of the Greeks, used “Logos” to describe God’s divine reasoning that created the universe, that is behind all events, and became flesh in Christ.  To reduce such a rich and powerful concept to merely written text is a crime against language.

Logos ≠ Bible

John says that the Logos “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” but he never claimed that it became text.  Nowhere in the Bible is “Logos” described as being synonymous with Scripture.  Many, their assumptions formed by an English translation and fundamentalist commentators, read “word of God” to mean Scripture.  However, there is no evidence in the Bible to support this assumption and an unbiased look at the descriptions of the “word of God” in Scripture would lead one to believe otherwise:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

Do an experiment: Take your Bible, set it on a shelf and don’t touch it for a week.  

Will it be “alive and active” if you do that?

No.

The book will not chase you or cause you to do anything unless you read it and that is quite different from what we read about God’s word.

The “word of God,” according to Scripture, is something that can’t be shelved.  Jesus once said that “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40) if his disciples were to remain silent about his being Lord.  We read about Balaam’s donkey speaking in Numbers 22:22.  There is also the amazing conversion of Saul, whose vast knowledge of Scripture had prevented him from accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.  He was confronted on the road to Damascus by a light from above and a voice.  The “word of God” is clearly not a kind of word that is constrained to a page.

The “word of God” is something heard and obeyed, not read and studied.  Again, in John 5:37-40, we read where Jesus confronts those who diligently studied Scripture and yet never had “his word” dwell with in them nor did they “hear his voice.”  If the phrase “word of God” was synonymous with reading Scripture then Jesus would be contradicting himself by saying what he did.  Scripture is “inspired” by God, but it is not God.  God’s word, according to the book of Isaiah, does not “return void” and we can’t say that about the Scripture read by those who rejected Jesus.

The Word is God

This is where the rubber meets the road: To claim that Scripture is equivalent to the Logos of John 1:14 is to claim a book is God.  To do that is idolatrous.

The Bible is inspired by God, a written testimony of his work throughout the ages, but it is written in human language and depends on our ability to interpret it correctly in order for it to be profitable.  Correct interpretation of the sacred text is virtually impossible without the “mind of Christ” or promised Spirit of truth.

The Logos is infallible.

All human language is fallible.

Human language is dependent on words and words are basically metaphors and never actually the same thing they describe.  Words are only an arrangement of sounds and symbolic representations that are assigned to or associated with meanings.  These sounds and symbols representing the sounds require proper use and interpretation—words are not always understood as originally intended.

Human language is fallible because it depends on humans for interpretation and we are fallible.  Our words fall empty and void of meaning unless our readers or listeners make the same assumptions of meaning that we intend for the representative sounds or letters we strung together.  How much we understand depends on both parties “being on the same page” or, in other words, sharing the same assumptions about their words.

So how do we get the correct assumptions about Biblical language?

Correct assumptions come from relationship with the writer or speaker.  The better we know a person the more likely we are to understand the language they are using and come to the correct conclusions.  However, since even close friends occasionally have moments of confusion, having absolutely correct understanding requires that author and receiver literally share the same mind.

That is essentially what Paul is trying to communicate:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.  The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:6‭-‬16 NIV)

Paul emphasizes the need for the Spirit as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture, but Biblical fundamentalism gets that in reverse and tries to find God’s living word through diligent study of Scripture.  Yet no amount of study can help a person who stubbornly holds to an incorrect understanding of the words in the book—their study could be a path to destruction.

It is the Spirit that conveys the meaningful content of Scripture.  And we don’t receive the Spirit through our own diligent efforts.  It is a gift of God’s grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8) and if we aren’t “quickened” (made alive) by the Spirit we will remain dead in our sins and ignorant.  Our salvation is fully dependent on God’s grace and therefore is not a product of anything else we have done—that “anything else” including our own human ability to read and comprehend Scripture.

A person can’t understand Scripture without having God’s word dwelling in them first.  One must be brought to life through a work of the Spirit because it is humanly impossible to bridge the gap between God and man.  There is no theological or intellectual tower tall enough to reach God.  God must first reach us and that is something done through his own mysterious means.

Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse and think they save themselves through their reading Scripture.  However, if they understood what they read they would know that Biblical language does not provide it’s own interpretation they might be more humble and give God all the credit for their conversion—afterall, we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by our human knowledge or abilities.

Bibliolatry: A modern bull calf of Yah?

Remember the story in the book of Exodus where Aaron, pressured by the people, helped to create a golden calf as an idol to worship?

What you might not know is that in the original Hebrew they used the proper name of God (Yhvh) to describe their idol.  In other words, their idol was a false representation of the true God and not necessarily made in honor of false gods.  Note what Exodus 32:5 tells us:

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord. (Exodus 32:5 NIV)

They were using the correct word for God (Lord = Yhvh) in their worship before their idol and it seems very likely that they realized the calf was an object constructed as a symbolic representation of God and not God.  But their worshiping this representation in an object was idoltarous because it diminished God—it did not truly bring honor to God.

Modern religious people may think it is absurd that people would worship a golden bull on a pedestal.  Sadly many today worship a symbolic representation of God constructed out of human language.  Unfortunately, for them, in the same way that Yahwah is not a gold bull, the true “word of God” is not merely language.  We are in grave danger of falsely representing God if we turn to written symbols as our path to salvation rather than rely on the Spirit of the living God to guide us.

A person who can’t see the absurdity of putting written text of the Bible on the same level as the one who inspired it doesn’t understand language or God.  The Bible does not save anyone and we should never settle for a “road map” when we were promised a navigation system.  We need to consider thay 2 Timothy 3:16 and other passages written for the benefit of believers who already had the Spirit—the Bible is only profitable for those who have already been made alive.

In conclusion, we dare not confuse a symbolic representation of God created in human language with God.  The Bible should be venerated as something inspired by God—but never worshipped or made equal to God and his Logos.  To reduce God’s Logos to the text of a book is idolatrous.  It is putting human comprehension first and God second.

Literalism, Authority and the Promised Teacher

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Many Christians refer to the entire Bible as the “word of God” and often base this on a few proof texts in the Bible.  Two popular choices of proof of this view are found in two different books of the Bible and both attributed to Paul the Apostle.

Is the Bible the infallible word of God?

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)

To some the passage above settles the question.  There we have it in clear English that the Scripture is “God-breathed” and therefore if God said it then there is little more to say after that, right? 

But there is more to be said…

First off the Bible was not written in English and we rely on the work of translators to give us their best interpretation of the books of the Bible.  And, as far as translation, the popular King James Version renders the “God-breathed” of the Timothy passage above as “given by inspiration of God,” which is an interpretation that could give a profoundly different impression. 

Second, the most literal interpretation is not always the best for conveying intended meaning.  For example, the word ‘Kindergarten’ translated from the original German that it is borrowed from literally means “children’s garden,” yet that is certainly not what the term actually means in common usage and not the original intent of the term either.  So, when Paul coined “theopneustos” to describe Scripture, we need to understand what he meant by it and not just assume how it renders literally in English is the most correct interpretation.

Third, if we are to be completely literal, we know writing is not accomplished by breathing and therefore “God-breathed” writing would be an absurdity.  I presume we all accept that “breathed” part isn’t completely literal; that Scripture was written by men who were in some way inspired (or led to write what God put on their hearts to share) and not literally air from divine lungs.

Forth, Paul did not consider all of what he wrote to be God’s own instruction.  Paul himself distinguishes in his own writing that some of what he says originates from “the Lord” while other portions he denotes are “not the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:10-12) and that alone proves at least some of the Bible also contains instructions or ideas of men.

Fifth, one must consider the question of why the Bible contains hundreds of expressions like “thus saith the Lord” and “God said” if it is all the transcribed thoughts of God.  If all Scripture were spoken directly from the mouth of God then why would it be necessary to denote what God said and use quotes?  At very least there seems to be a difference between what is literally spoken by God in Scripture and Scripture in general.

So, in light of the evidence above, perhaps “theopneustos” should be taken to mean something less than literal.  Because, although Peter does refer to some of what Paul wrote as being Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), it is even questionable if Paul considered all of his own writing in Timothy to be Scripture. 

I do not believe Paul intended his words to be taken as many do and as an argument for the supremacy of Scripture.  If anything it is proof that Scripture was of questionable importance to the Spirit-led church and needed his endorsement.  What he says, in more basic terms, is that Scripture is useful to a Godly person and is writing inspired by God.  To say more than that could be to assume too much.

Who gave us the Bible or has authority to interpret it?

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  (2 Peter 1:20-21 NIV)

Note the passage above does not say all Scripture is prophecy.  It tells us that did not originate “in the human will” or “by the prophet’s own interpretation” but it doesn’t say all Scripture is prophecy.  We know the Scripture includes things spoken as prophecy and attributed to God, we also know Scripture contains the words of ungodly people and Satan.  In other words, there is a difference between prophecy of Scripture and other things written Scripture.

The Bible we hold today is actually a collection of books and letters that were decided to be authentic and then compiled into one canonical book.  It is perhaps ironic, but many of the same people who say the Bible is the ultimate moral authority reject the institution that decided the books belonged in the Bible and those that did not.  They use Peter above to defend their own idea that the Bible is reliable without acknowledging their reliance on the determination of a tradition they reject.

The passage above is simultaneously used also by those who put moral authority in an institution or their own group.  The King James Version renders “prophet’s own interpretation of things” as being “private interpretation.”  Some use that to say we cannot understand Scripture as individuals and that we need them to tell us what it means.  Oddly enough, some of these who claim this means we need them also rejected the institution that canonized Scripture and claims we need them.

I ascribe to the other view that the passage from Peter isn’t intended to put power in the hands of a group.  I agree with those who interpret it to be talking about those who wrote the prophecy of Scripture and that their prophecy was given to them by God rather than their own imagination.  I do not see this as speaking of our interpretation of Scripture but of inspiration and reliability the prophecy contained therein.

Furthermore, it is being used in the context of their own testimony as believers and those filled with the Holy Spirit.  If we look immediately before the passage in quotations in verses 12-19 this is speaking in conjunction with the reliability of their own testimony and basically putting their own testimony on par with Scriptural prophecy.  The earlier part of the chapter (verses 3-11) mentions promises and  describes attributes which are strikingly similar to what Paul lists elsewhere as fruit of the Spirit.

What were we promised by Jesus would teach us?

“Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.  His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”  (2 Peter 1:2-4 NIV)

Before the book of second Peter mentions prophecy of Scripture and the authenticity their own testimony it alludes to something else.  It mentions “divine power” and a “knowledge” of God and Jesus that allow us to “participate in the divine nature.”  Those steeped in Biblical fundamentalism could assume these things are references to the Scripture, but I believe from examining Scripture that it is a reference to something bigger than Scripture and the actual source of Scriptural inspiration itself: The Holy Spirit.

Of the promises Jesus made, the one that most fits the description in 2 Peter is not a book knowledge.  Jesus promised believers something extraordinary:

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be  in you.  I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”  (John 14:16-18 NIV)

Followers of Jesus weren’t promised a book of truth or an institution to guide them, but something much better.  Jesus promised them he will return, but not in physical form, and will provide help that will last forever: “the Spirit of truth.”  It is something that will neither seen nor known by those who do not believe.  It is an advocate, and advocate that will teach us all things, as Jesus explains:

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”  (John 14:26 NIV)

This promise is further explained in more words, attributed to Jesus, in the Gospel of John:

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”  (John 16:13-15 NIV)

I believe this truth ‘known’ from the “Spirit of truth” is the same knowledge of what 2 Peter speaks about.  It is also what 1 John 2 says keeps us from being deceived by antichrists:

“But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.  I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.”  (1 John 2:20-21 NIV)

It seems to be speaking about the same thing promised by Jesus in the Gospel of John:

“As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.”  (1 John 26-27 NIV)

We aren’t promised a book or an institution to teach us, we are promised “a Spirit of truth” that will teach, guide and remind us of what we need to know to keep from being deceived.  Paul speaks extensively about this in his letters to the Corinthian church, he contrasts “human wisdom” and that which is derived by the Spirit:

“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.  The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”  (1 Corinthians 2:13-14 NIV)

Paul continues in that chapter to describe a wisdom of a different origin and having the “mind of Christ” which allows us to transcend mere human judgment.  He quotes Scripture “it is written” as evidence and yet says that the was not known except as it was revealed by the Spirit.  In his second letter to the Corinthian church he speaks of a different type of book better than the Scripture that gives life rather than condemnation, is a source of competency and confidence:

“Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?”  (2 Corinthians 3:4-8 NIV)

Have you been baptized in the Spirit?

Many Christians today seem to be living in the old rather than new covenant and are under the law of death rather than Spirit.  Many prioritize their own knowledge or understanding of a book, still wait for a second coming of Christ and live spiritually powerless.  It reminds me of those whom Paul encounters in Acts 19 who he acknowledges as disciples, who were baptized in repentance by water and still had not received baptism in Jesus or the Spirit.  If you are unsure, consider what Jesus is recorded to have gave as final instruction:

“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  (Acts 1:4-5 NIV)

Maybe you are one of those who are baptized in water and repentance.  Perhaps you are sincerely trying to use the Bible as an instruction manual or guide book.  It could be you read diligently, you might even speak the name of Jesus and travel the world on a mission to prove yourself before God or others.  You can be doing all those things without God’s word alive in you, the Pharisees did those things (Matthew 23) and we are told some who shared the name of Jesus are not known to him (Matthew 7:21-23) despite their works. 

Read John 5:16-47.  There is no salvation found in diligent study of Scripture.  One can have vast knowledge of Scripture and still not have ever known God’s word.  That was the case with those who rejected Jesus despite knowing the Scripture and it is the case for those who still believe a book knowledge can save them.  It is not the Bible that Christianity should center on, it is something else bigger, better and more unifying than a book:

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  (Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV)

Note that one of the one things not listed above is Scripture.  If Scripture were central to our oneness with God and unity together it seems something that should be mentioned.  We have mention of Spirit twice, mention of one Lord, one God and Father, one body, one faith, one hope, one baptism, but not a mention of a one book and Scripture.  It is Spirit emphasized throughout Scripture.

So what is the “word of God” mentioned in Scripture?

Stay tuned…