What does the New Testament mean when it speaks of “the word of God?”

Chris Nye
6 min readJun 2, 2017

If you ask a pastor to show you a verse in the Bible about the Bible, a great many of them will point you to 2 Timothy 3:16–17, which says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” And many of us will nod and think, great verse, Pastor, and move on with our day.

But some of us stop for a second on this one. Wait a second. What does Paul mean when he says “All Scripture?” To Paul, as a first century Jew living around 60 A.D., wasn’t “all Scripture” just Genesis-Malachi? He did not have a New Testament in front of him because he was writing the New Testament in front of him. The Bible as we know it today was not fully formed. So, going by this logic, does this verse apply to the New Testament? Or is only the Old Testament “breathed out by God and profitable” for all the things mentioned in the verse?

More so, the term “the word of God,” which modern Christians use synonymously with “the Bible,” appears 41 times in the New Testament — it’s a term in nearly every book after Malachi. What did Matthew or Peter or John mean when they used this phrase? Certainly they did not use “the word of God” to mean the canonical Bible we sell on Amazon today because the Bible had not been canonized at the time of their writing. Is the New Testament “the word of God” or is it the Old Testament only? Or were those writers referring to something else entirely?

Now that I’ve spent three paragraphs setting up the question, I’m feeling all the more obligated to provide a satisfactory answer. Shall we begin?

Throughout your New Testament (and all through the earliest copies of sermons we can reconstruct from the 1st and 2nd century church), we see apostles, pastors, and disciples preaching “the word,” “the word of truth,” or most simply, the euangelion (“the gospel”) with all of these terms appearing interchangeably. Certainly this “word” the apostles were “preaching” was not simply reading aloud the New Testament documents (how could they?). These stories were taking place long before the quill hit the parchment. Still, they all seemed to be referring to the same “thing.”

Paul says to the Colossians, they “have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come…as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing” (Col. 1:5). He later tells the church his mission is “to make the word of God fully known” (Col. 1:25). Again, Paul cannot be talking about the canonized Bible because he is currently writing the canonized Bible.

In the book of Hebrews, the author reminds the believers how their leaders are to be respected and followed because, they were “those who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb. 13:7).

In Acts 6, after a dispute among the church over the distribution of resources, the apostles are convinced they need to focus not on serving tables, but solely on “prayer and the ministry of the word” because “it is not right to give up the preaching of the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:3–5).

Were all of these authors talking about the same thing?

What is clear based solely off of the vast repetition of this phrase both in the ministry of Jesus and his apostles is that they all knew what they were talking about. For all 41 mentions of this across various parables and letters we get no solid, simple definition of what this might be. Nevertheless, these disciples and our Lord Jesus certainly knew. They held a common understanding. The renowned scholar N.T. Wright has said, “[B]efore there was any ‘New Testament,’ there was already a clear understanding in early Christianity that “the word of God”…lay at the heart of the church’s mission and life” (Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, pg. 48). But what was this thing at the very heart?

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives us a better understanding. He writes to his church, “I want to remind you, brothers…of the gospel I preached to you…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1–4).

Two things stand out in this passage relevant to our question:

1. This “gospel” or “word of God” has the Christ story at its center.

2. This Christ story is “in accordance with” the Old Testament narrative and law (written Scriptures).

When Paul writes this to the Corinthians, he cites no particular passages from the Old Testament, but rather uses the entire narrative of the Old Testament to underscore the foundation of this “word”: the appearing of Christ, his death, and resurrection. This means “that what God had done in Jesus Christ was to be seen in terms of a character within a particular story…where everything in the story…points us to a key facet of who this central character is and what he has accomplished” (Wright, pg. 48). Put another way, to the apostles and disciples of the early church, “the word of God” meant the transforming message that God was currently doing what he said he would do all along, namely, to save the nations through the Messiah of Israel (Jesus). The “word” was the announcement that God’s program was on track and moving.

This also means that the writings of these early followers corresponding to that very “word” can also be categorized without any reservation as “the word of God.” Meaning, because our Bibles are a collection of books all announcing this “word of God,” we safely can deem it with similar nomenclature. God has done and is doing what he said he would do all along: save his people through Jesus. The New Testament writings announce “the word of God” and therefore is (because of this and many other things) “the word of God.”

The Apostle John wrote, “these things are written so that you may believe that the Messiah, the son of God, is Jesus” (John 20:31). The New Testament writers did not begin “the word of God,” they simply continued it — they took what was being “preached” and put it to parchment.

It’s difficult to believe Paul or John or Peter would have ever imagined that all of their writings would be compiled into one “book” like our Bible. There’s nothing in their work to lead us to such a conclusion. However, “they were conscious of a unique vocation to write Jesus-shaped, Spirit-led, church-shaping books, as part of their strange first-generation calling,” Wright says (Wright, pg. 52).

For me, this is the more powerful story. Every religion has a “book,” but only Christianity has a library. For these writers to all independently form such masterful, poetic work, and then for all of them to announce the same, unified, cohesive message, is a strong argument for the Bible’s “corroborative” identity. No one got in a room and said “let’s write Scripture.” Instead, they announced what their Scripture had already testified to, reinterpreting the sacred texts in light of this massive historical event. In doing so, they created a living document, a Scripture, “the word of God.” The prophets before them formed Scripture by writing down what the Lord was speaking, and these New Testament writers continued that tradition in light of God’s miraculous work in Jesus. Both were “moved by the Holy Spirit.”

“Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.” — 2 Peter 1:20–21

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books