Witness and Sign

“We want kids to ask: What does this biblical story tell us about who God is and where God is found? And where in our world do you encounter this God?”*

-Andrew Root

A few weeks ago I witnessed an encounter between a couple of youth from my church and the youth of another church. Somehow they had gotten onto the topic of the Bible. I think the question was about whether there was life on other planets. One of our youth (we’ll call him Mark) said, “Yea, there’s definitely not enough evidence to say there’s not, and it’s a pretty huge universe.” The youth from the other church (we’ll call her Kacy) responded, “But life on other planets isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Everything we need to know is in the Bible. Do you believe that?” Mark looked around a bit unsure how to answer, but finally said, “Well…no.” At first I was proud that he hadn’t boiled down the Bible to a cosmic cheat sheet. Then I began to wonder if Mark and our youth had a solid idea of what the Bible was, if it wasn’t the “book of all answers.” Then I began to wonder if I had really given it any thought.

What is this book that we call The word of God, God’s word, the word of the Lord? I’ve used the “Word of God” phrase many times myself. We say it as part of our liturgy every week when the Scripture passages are read in worship…

Leader: This is the word of the Lord
People: Thanks be to God

Here’s what I’m wondering: is the Bible the “Word of God”? Honestly, the idea is up in the air right now for me. This isn’t a question of authority or infallibility or divine inspiration. I have two questions about this:

1) Is the phrase a helpful, truthful, and accurate description of the Bible?
2) What is the Word of God?

I’ll answer my first question up front: I’m not ready to drop the phrase word of God, but I also think it needs some deeper explanation as to what that phrase actually means. It’s one of those phrases that Christians use regularly, but probably don’t know exactly what it means. I’m not questioning it’s authority, infallibility or divine inspiration with this question. That is not my intention. The sense I get is that sometimes when this commonly used title is placed on the Bible, it’s a simple way to say “Don’t question the Bible because they are GOD’s words.” Again, I don’t think people always openly say this but it’s sort of underlying in their understanding of the Bible. And when that happens, the Bible becomes God.

And God – in a sense – is not found in the Bible. God’s presence, action, being are found outside of the Bible. The only reason the Bible exists is because something happened outside of it.

What is the Word of God? These are the few instances that have brought this topic up for me – instances when clearly the word is not the Bible.

Genesis 1: “In the beginning…God said…and God said…and God said.” This is literally the words of God. An action of speaking, not passive words on a page. Active in bringing forth a masterpiece of a universe.

Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The word was God, not an ancient book. The word was (is) Jesus. God is like Jesus, so when Jesus speaks, preaches, and teaches, these are divine words from the very heart of God.

Hebrews 4:12-13: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Many read this and think “Bible.” There is, after all, something called sword-drills. But let’s go back to Genesis where the word is an actual speaking, a bringing forth, dividing and piercing of masses, forming joints and marrow of every living thing. In the Genesis story the Bible doesn’t do that – God does.

resurrectionBut we only know all of this because of the witness of people realizing these stories are important enough to preserve, tell, retell, interpret, learn and live from, record, and compile. Without the Bible, I’d say we might not know what we know about God’s action in Jesus. So we can’t say the Bible is NOT the word of God. But I don’t think it can be the primary thing that this phrase refers to. The Bible is the word of God only insomuch as it witnesses to 1) God’s presence and action for a better world (aka. the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God) and 2) God’s presence revealed in the incarnation of Jesus, in his life (teaching, preaching, and practice), death, and resurrection.

Karl Barth refers to it as a sign and a witness:

“A witness is not absolutely identical with that to which it witnesses….In the Bible we meet with human words written in human speech, and in these words, and therefore by means of them, we hear of the lordship of the triune God.”**

What we read in the Bible is a sign pointing to the thing. It is not the thing itself. Andrew Root gives a great travel illustration. If you’re traveling to New York City and are about to pass through the Lincoln Tunnel you’ll notice a sign that says Welcome to New York City. You could not stop at the sign, go back home and tell your friends you had been to New York City. The sign is not the destination.***

“Again, the sign itself is not the point; the purpose of the sign is to faithfully usher us to the real thing. If the Welcome to New York City sign were stolen and hung in a dorm room at Rutgers University, it would no longer possess any authority. It could no longer fill its function. In the same way, if the Bible is disconnected from the action of God – the action of bringing forth the new creation and new humanity – it loses its authority.”****

We can wield the Bible in ways that it loses it’s authority. Ironically, when it’s used as an authoritative rule book, answer book, or science book, we tear it from its authority because we wield it as something it’s not meant to be used for. It’s authority is found in its ability to point us to the action of God. It’s authority is found when its stories, poems, letters, laws, prophecies, and parables tell us about how and where God shows up. It’s found in its ability to reveal to us where God is showing up today.

As a youth pastor, this is what I hope for our youth. That they won’t just know when the Bible is being misused, but how to engage Scripture in life giving ways. Ways that point to God’s movement in the world around them. Ways that help them see God in the places they never expected to find him. Ways that can’t help but beckon them to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

I hope as a youth pastor to be able to lead, by example, in engaging Scripture not as the destination, but as the sign that points outwards to something else entirely. Something new, kind of nerve racking, and good.

*Andrew Root, Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry (Zondervan: 2012), 84.

**Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume 1.2: Doctrine of the Word of God (T&T Clark: 1956), 463. 

***Root, USYM, 84-85.


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