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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Word (2)

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WORD.—(λόγος, ῥῆμα) is employed in the Gospels in a large variety of senses: (1) articulate utterance of any kind; (2) the inspired word of Scripture (cf. Mark 7:13—‘making the word of God of none effect through your traditions’); (3) a Divine message generally (Luke 3:2 ‘The word of God came to John in the wilderness,’ so Luke 4:4; Luke 8:11; Luke 11:28); (4) the ‘word of the kingdom,’ i.e. the gospel message (Matthew 13:19 ff., Mark 16:20, Luke 5:1); (5) Christ’s word of authority (Luke 4:36 ‘What a word is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him’); (6) in the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel, Christ Himself is the ‘Word made flesh’ (see Logos).

The peculiar significance attached to the spoken ‘word’ is to be explained in the light of Hebrew usage. In the OT, as in all primitive thought, a word is something more than an articulate sound with a given import. It is endowed with a certain power and reality. It carries with it some portion of the life and personality of the speaker. This is true more especially of a word spoken by God. Such a word is instinct with the Divine will, and effects by its own inherent power the thing which it indicates. ‘As the rain cometh down and the snow from heaven, so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please’ (Isaiah 55:10 f.). The ‘word’ delivered to the prophets is here conceived as an active power, which will bring about its own fulfilment. So in His creation and government of the world, God effects His purpose by His ‘word’ (Genesis 1, Psalms 33:6; Psalms 33:9; Psalms 107:20). It is regarded not simply as a commandment, but as a vital energy which is sent forth from God and realizes His will.

The references in the Gospels are coloured throughout by this Hebrew conception. Even where Divine utterance is not in question, a value is ascribed to ‘words’ which does not belong to them according to our modern modes of thought. ‘For every idle word that a man speaks, he shall give account in the judgment;—for by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned’ (Matthew 12:36 f.). Jesus regards the most casual word as more than wasted breath. It is a spiritual force, and the man who sets it free is responsible for the good or evil which it produces. A similar estimate of the value of words underlies the many injunctions against profane, or foolish, or thoughtless, or unkind speech (Matthew 5:22; Matthew 5:34-37, Luke 12:10, Matthew 12:34). Such ‘words’ have all the significance of wicked actions. Coming ‘from within a man,’ they express his mind and character even more truly than deeds, and will bear witness of him in the Judgment.

The influence of the OT conception appears more clearly, however, in the allusions to Christ’s own ‘word.’ It is the vehicle of His wonder-working power. It has virtue in it to heal diseases and to quiet the winds and the sea. In several passages the ‘word’ is explained as one of kingly authority, which had might over the spiritual agencies at work in nature (cf. Luke 4:36, Matthew 8:16). But the radical idea is undoubtedly that of a ‘word with power’ (Luke 4:32) analogous to the Divine word. To give effect to His will, Jesus had only to utter it; the word that went out from Him was itself ‘quick and powerful,’ and acted in His stead. In this sense also we must interpret the references to the message of Jesus as ‘the word.’ As thus described, the gospel is something more than the Christian teaching or the proclamation of the Messianic Kingdom. The idea is suggested that a new power had entered the world through Jesus, and communicated itself in His spoken message. Thus in the parable of the Sower, the word is compared to seed which contains in itself wonderful potentialities. All that is required of men is the right disposition of heart; the message, once received into the ‘good ground,’ will henceforth work of itself, with a living and ever-increasing power.

In the Fourth Gospel, more especially, the allusions to the words of Jesus have everywhere a pregnant meaning. ‘The words that I speak unto you are spirit and life’ (John 6:63); ‘Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you’ (John 15:3); ‘He that heareth my word hath everlasting life’ (John 5:24);—in such sayings and many others the idea of whole-hearted assimilation of the teaching of Jesus is certainly present, but it is by no means the only, or the central, idea. It is indeed characteristic of the Fourth Gospel that Jesus says little by way of positive teaching. He Himself, in His own Person, is the revelation, and the words ascribed to Him have reference mainly to His supreme worth as the Light of the world—the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Because they thus give expression to His Divine claim, they in a manner represent Himself. To accept the words is to receive Jesus, in His life-giving power, into one’s heart (cf. John 15:7 ‘If ye abide in me and my words abide in you’).

It has often been suggested that the peculiar emphasis on the words of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is intended to illustrate the thesis of the Prologue that He was Himself the Word made flesh. The absence of the Logos theory from the body of the Gospel would thus be counterbalanced by the many references to the ‘words.’ Against this view, however, it may be urged: (1) that no consistent rule is traceable in the use of λόγος and ῥῆμα, as might have been expected if the writer were working out some definite idea; (2) that λόγος in the Prologue bears a twofold significance (‘word’ and ‘reason’) which can nowhere be discerned in the later references. The more probable conclusion is that the value assigned to the words, of Jesus is connected, not so much with the specific Logos doctrine, as with the general conception that Jesus was one in nature with God. His words were therefore of the same quality as the Divine creative word. They were ‘spirit and life’ (John 6:63).

Literature.—Smend, Alttest. Theol. p. 87 f. (1893); Wendt Die Lehre Jesu (1901); H. Holtzmann, Neutest. Theol. ii. 396 f. (1897); Titius, Die Johann. Anschauung der Seligkeit, 70 f. (1900); J. Ker, Serm. i. 1; J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain. Serm. v. 29; F. W. Robertson, Serm. iv. 145; R. W. Church, Pascal, and other Serm. 255.

E. F. Scott.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Word (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/w/word-2.html. 1906-1918.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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