READ : Isaiah 55:10-13
The Word of God has power, power to accomplish the purpose for which God sends it forth. It’s like the rain and snow that water the earth and make it productive. The Word creates life.
The 20th century Swiss theologian Emil Brunner once suggested a wonderful illustration for the way Christians read and listen to the Bible. He described the original logo of the RCA Victor Corporation. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s a picture of an old-fashioned grammophone record player with a large, trumpet-shaped speaker, in front of which sits a white dog with its ear cocked to the sound. Underneath is the caption, “It’s Master’s Voice.” That is exactly how it is with Christians and the Bible. Through this human book, written over a long period of time by a variety of different people in several languages, the living God speaks. We listen to scripture, and we hear our Master’s Voice.
As Christians we say that the Bible is not just a book of human words; it is the Word of God. Martin Luther explained what that means:
We must make a great difference between God’s Word and the word of a man. A man’s word is a little sound, that flies into the air and soon vanishes; but the Word of God is greater than heaven and earth, yea, greater than death and hell, for it forms part of the power of God, and endures everlastingly. We should, therefore, diligently study God’s Word, and know and assuredly believe that God himself speaks unto us.
So the Bible is the Word of God as we say, but what exactly does that mean? What is the Bible for? What does it do? What difference does it make to us? The most basic answer to those questions is offered by the Bible itself, in some justly famous verses written near the end of the 55th chapter of the book of Isaiah.
The passage I’m thinking of comes just after a moving exhortation in which the prophet urges his hearers to turn to God in repentance and faith.
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (vv. 6-7)
Here God declares his mercy to all. He freely offers pardon to anyone and everyone, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done. Who and what we are doesn’t matter; because his love is for the undeserving. All you have to do is come to him. Just seek the Lord, says the prophet, and he will be found; call upon him, and you will find that he’s near. So everyone who turns to the Lord will find him to be gracious. Can this really be true? After all, we learn early on that there’s no such thing as a “free lunch.” Hard experience teaches us that if an offer seems too good to be true, it is. But then, “‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (v. 8). He doesn’t operate by the world’s standards. The very best news — the news of a gracious and merciful God — is too good to be true, but nevertheless, true it is. And then God confirms this truth and underscores these promises with a memorable statement about the power of his Word.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there 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 out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (vv. 10-11)
The Power of the Word
The Word of God has power, power to accomplish the purpose for which God sends it. It’s like the rain and snow that water the earth and make it productive; the Word is fecund, it is generative; it is fruitful. The Word creates life: “It shall not return empty.” When the Lord speaks something always happens, and what happens is always what God intends to happen. God’s Word isn’t like Macbeth’s famous description of life: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It’s just the opposite. The Word of God is effective; it always gets its job done. In fact, it has the power in itself to do the very thing it announces. Scholars call this a performative word. The idea there is that the very act of speaking certain words is what makes the thing they are describing happen.
Sometimes our human words can be like that. The judge asks the jury foreman if they have reached a verdict. “We have, your honor. We find the defendant not guilty.” By pronouncing the words, the thing happens. The defendant actually is cleared of all guilt and freed from any punishment. Or a bride and groom turn to one another and say the words “I do,” and in so speaking they actually become husband and wife. They are no longer two, but one. This is what it means to speak a performative word.
Some of our words are sometimes like this; God’s Word is always this way. It performs what it promises; it effects what it announces. When God says he will do something, he’s not just making a prediction. He is actually making it happen. God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. In the same way, when the Lord says he will have compassion on those who turn from their sin and that he will pardon those who come back to him, it’s done. It happens. The running Father doesn’t even wait for the Prodigal Son to speak his apology. He takes him in his arms, embraces him, and says, “Let the celebration begin! For my son was dead, and now he’s alive!”
So this is the power of the Word of God, the Word which we have in written form in the Bible. God’s Word is effective, not empty or meaningless. What it says actually does happen. And it is performative; what it says happens because the Word itself makes it happen.
The Word as Instrument
We might think of the Word of God as the instrument he uses to fulfill his purposes and to execute his will. God doesn’t need any tools to augment his power. He doesn’t require an executive assistant to accomplish his agenda. His Word is all the instrument he needs. This is how he created the whole universe. I have already alluded to the creation account in Genesis 1. In contrast to the elaborate creation myths of the ancient world, the God of the Bible simply speaks, and everything in the universe comes into being. We are repeatedly reminded of this fact in the rest of the Bible.
The psalmist, for example, writes, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6). Isaiah, in another great chapter, proclaims, “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26).
Just as the Word of God is his instrument for creation, so this Word is also instrumental in salvation. The apostle Paul said that “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Earlier in that same letter, his epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote that he was not ashamed of the gospel — that is, the spoken Word of God — “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). The Word of God has power, inconceivable power. And we have this Word in the Bible. Think of it — the same power that caused the Big Bang at creation, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, the same power that controls galaxies and grows spring flowers, that power is available to us. It’s in a book! And it can raise us from the dead and change us from the inside out.
I have a picture hanging on my office wall of John Calvin, the great Reformer. He’s usually thought of as a giant intellect and a forbidding personality, all brain and no heart. But the quotation under his portrait in my picture tells us what he really cared about. Calvin says this, “The Word of God was not given to us so we could talk about it, or to render us eloquent or subtle, but for the reformation of our lives.” This power, the power of the Word, is meant to change us, to make us like Jesus Christ.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote one of the 20th century’s great masterpieces. It’s called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and it is a fictionalized account of Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences in a Siberian labor camp. The conditions there were indescribably wretched. It was a cold, filthy, disease-ridden place where prisoners were being simultaneously starved and worked to death. In such circumstances men began to act the way they were treated — like savage beasts — fighting and killing each other for an extra scrap of food or piece of a blanket.
Yet Ivan noticed that the man in the bunk above him was different. Even in this horrible place he was serene and cheerful, kind to others, brotherly. What made this man different? Ivan noticed the man in the evening, lying on his bed, reading over and over a few ragged scraps of paper. And then Ivan discovered his secret: those pages were filled with verses from the Gospels. The Word of God is given us for the transformation of our lives, and it has power. It works!
That’s the kind of power I want in my life. Don’t you?