The first word of God is in Genesis 1.3. ‘And God said, “Let there be light.”’ In English that’s four words, in Hebrew it’s just two: yĕhî ʾôr: ‘let-there-be light.’ The first word of God, then, is yĕhî, ‘let-there-be’.
This is closely related to God’s own name. Readers of the English Bible can be forgiven for thinking that God does not have a name. An ancient Hebrew tradition for showing respect to God meant that his name was never spoken. Wherever the name of God occurred in the sacred text, the word Adonai, ‘Lord’ would be read instead. Many English versions indicate this by writing ‘Lord’ with small caps: Lord.
The name of God
In Exodus 3 Moses is trying to find reasons for not doing what God wants him to do (lead the Israelites out of Egypt), and he asks God what his name is. God replies, ‘Say to the Israelites, “ehyeh has sent me to you.” … Say to the Israelites, “yhwh the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you.”’ (v.14-15) Grammatically, ehyeh translates as ‘I am’, while yhwh is the third person singular of the verb ‘to be’. God’s name tells us that he is the ever-present one, the one who always is.
The first word of God is yĕhî, ‘let there be’. Like God’s name, yhwh, this is part of the verb ‘to be’. The word of the God who is, is the word that causes other entities to come into being. God speaks creation into being. Yĕhî is a creative word: Let there be light, let there be vegetation, let there be humankind. This is the word of God.
And this is the Word of God that John picks up at the beginning of his Gospel:
Jesus, the Word of God
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life. (John 1.1-4)
The first thing God did in Genesis 1, after the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, was speak. He spoke the Word, the Word which was with him right from the very beginning, the Word which caused the universe to burst forth into being, the Word which created life. John then drops his bombshell in verse 14:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
The Word of God, pre-existent and instrumental in creation, becomes a human being, the human being named Jesus. The Word of God, expressed through yĕhî, ‘let there be’, experiences the ultimate act of ‘let there be’: let the Word of God himself become part of the created order. All subsequent transformations flow from this singular transformation.
The word of God, then, is his acts of communication, expressed first of all in that creative word, yĕhî, that brings the universe into glorious life. This Word of God is then equated with Jesus, the one who was in the beginning with God, the instrument of creation, yet who became a real flesh and blood human being, born of a human mother, studied for and practiced a profession (carpentry), whose life was cut short, who was crucified, died and was buried. But death could not hold the Author of Life and he was raised on the third day to inaugurate a new era of, ‘Let there be’ – let there be resurrection, let there be new creation, let there be eternal life.
Day after day they pour forth speech
God communicates. God’s word is God speaking. The universe is God’s self-expression, and so the psalmist declares,
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge. (Ps. 19.1-2)
God is a God of revelation: as he speaks he reveals himself, with the intent that humankind get to know him. Therefore he speaks, not just through the created universe, but directly to and through his people. Psalm 19 continues by celebrating God’s special revelation: his ‘law’, his ‘statutes’, his ‘precepts’, his ‘commands’ (v.7-8). Although most of the Bible had not been written when David penned this Psalm, nowadays we understand terms such as these to refer to the whole Bible.
The Bible and the word of God
The Bible does not refer to itself as the word of God. When the Bible uses this phrase it generally means one of the following:
- A special message by God to a particular individual, for example, ‘That night the word of God came to Nathan, saying…’ (1 Chron. 17.3); ‘The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness’ (Luke 3.2).
- A general reference to what God says, for example, ‘Every word of God is flawless.’ (Pr. 30.5); ‘Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it’ (Luke 11.28)
- The message about God and what he has done in Jesus, for example, ‘The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received theword of God’ (Acts 11.1); ‘We thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.’ (1 Thes. 2.13)
This 1 Thessalonians example is particularly interesting because the first usage of the phrase, ‘the word of God’ (‘when you received the word of God’) refers to the message about God and what he has done through Jesus, while the second reference, ‘it actually is, the word of God,’ refers to what God says, in line with the second meaning above.
In Ephesians 6.17 Paul equates the word of God with ‘the sword of the Spirit’, imagery that is picked up in Hebrews 4.12: ‘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.’ As God speaks, as he communicates, his Spirit is powerfully at work, the same Spirit as was hovering over the waters on the day of creation (Gen. 1.2). When God speaks his words penetrate and judge. The word of the God who said, ‘Let there be,’ and it came into being, has lost none of its power, vitality and cutting edge; it is still alive and active.
The Scriptures are God-breathed and a testimony and witness to God’s self-revelation. It is because we believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God that we can study them in depth in order to discover more about God, his character, his mission, and his interactions with Abraham and his descendants for the blessing of all nations. They tell us of how God, as his Word, became a human being, the ultimate in divine communication. What is God like? Look at Jesus. That is what God is like. And so, as Paul tells Timothy, the Scriptures are useful for ‘teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (2 Tim. 3.16).
God spoke and speaks
Furthermore, the God who said, ‘Let there be,’ continues to speak, to reveal himself and to create. His Spirit still hovers and God still speaks forth his word. How do we know when the voice we hear is God’s voice, that the word we hear is God’s word? A prophet is one who declares the word of God. Paul (1 Cor. 14.29) instructs the Corinthians to ‘weigh carefully what is said’ when a prophet speaks. Is this the voice of God? Is this the word of God? Is this a message from God? The criterion against which such words of God would be evaluated is the existing word of God, the Scriptures; primarily the Word of God, Jesus. In the same way all Scripture should be evaluated and interpreted in the light of Jesus. Is there an apparent contradiction between Jesus and another part of the Bible? We are to evaluate and interpret the other part of the Bible in the light of Jesus.
In conclusion: God speaks. The phrase ‘the word of God’ (or ‘the Word of God’) can be interpreted on several levels. It is God’s creative word that creates out of nothing. It is Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. It is a message, general or specific, from God. It is the message about God and what he has done. It is the God-breathed record of that message, and God’s interactions with humankind, the Scriptures.
God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Cor. 4.6)