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Word of the Lord

WORD, WORD OF THE LORD. Behind the concept of “word” stand three important terms: דָּבָר, H1821, λόγος, G3364, and ῥη̂μα, G4839. Both Gr. words are used for דָּבָר, H1821, in the LXX, and are virtually synonymous in the NT.




The root דבר yields the classical Heb. term for “word,” the noun דָּבָר, H1821, also the related verb. The etymology is obscure, but a connection with the idea of “what is at the back, behind,” is often seen. If this is correct, the basic thought is that of the background of a matter, i.e. conceptual content or meaning. From the very first the Heb. word seems to have had both a noetic element (the thought) and also a dynamic element (the power). Thus “act” or “deed” can sometimes be the meaning, and even when words are in view, the acts behind the words have also to be taken into account (cf. Ps 35:20). The importance of this relation between word and thing or power will be apparent in the discussion of the word of God in both the OT and the NT.


Lógos and rhēma are both used for the Heb. term in the LXX, and in the NT. The words undergo a very different development in Gr. Lógos runs through a whole range of meanings: “collection,” “reckoning,” “calculation,” “account,” “consideration,” “reflection,” “ground or reason,” “narrative,” “speech,” and finally “word.” Rhēma from the very outset means “statement” with all its ramifications. It quickly comes to be used for words as distinct from deeds, though paradoxically it preserves an active element and is finally adopted by grammarians as the term for verb (the active word) as distinct from noun. In spite of the diverse origins and history, the words are more or less fully synonymous in both the LXX and the NT. The distribution is not without interest. Rhēma is almost three times as common as logos in the Pentateuch. The two are almost equal in Judges-Ruth. Then logos begins to predominate. It is twice as common in 1 Samuel to Canticles, and eight times as common in the prophets. Logos maintains its supremacy in the NT, where the proportion is over four to one (about 300 times to 70 times). In most instances, however, it is difficult to make any real distinction between the two words.

The Word in the OT

The word and revelation.

In the OT the word is the supreme means by which God the Creator makes known both Himself and His will to His creatures. This means that Biblical religion is primarily the religion of the ear rather than the eye (cf. the importance of the ear and hearing in the Bible). It does not mean, however, that Biblical religion is intrinsically verbal or abstract. The divine word, in distinction from many human words, is coextensive with that which it says or represents. Its most important attribute, then, is truth (2 Sam 7:28; cf John 17:11). Truth in this sense is not abstract. It carries with it the sense of faithfulness, reliability. What God says is true. If the reference is future, then it will surely come to pass. This, in turn, implies the force or power of the word. It accomplishes what it signifies. The OT, too, speaks of deceitful or empty words. The word, as such, is powerful. This is esp. true of the word of God. By the word God intervenes actively in the affairs of men. The word is historical, not merely in the sense that it records history, but in the dynamic sense that it makes history. This is revealed already in the fact that creation is by the word of God (Ps 33:4ff.; Isa 40:26; the “God said” of Gen 1). The whole history of Israel offers further demonstration. An important point in this connection is that through the LXX tr. the force of the Heb. dabar impresses itself upon the Gr. logos and rhema.

The word in the early prophets.

Since God’s revelation is primarily through the word, there develops in Israel the unique office of the prophet, the divine spokesman. The prophet is the man to whom the word of the Lord (Yahweh) comes and who then declares this word to the people. Attempts have sometimes been made to find a stronger ecstatic and visionary element in early prophecy. That it has a visionary side is incontestable, for right down to the great prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel the word often comes in visions. There is also a plastic side to prophecy, for signs and images often accompany the spoken word as a guarantee that the word itself will be “seen” in its fulfillment. On the other hand, it is highly significant that from a very early period the oral aspect is predominant. The heart of prophecy is that God speaks to the prophet and through the prophet. The patriarchs already are addressed by God (Gen 22:1; 46:2). Moses is the prototype of all the succeeding prophets (cf. Exod 3:4, et al.). Samuel is called by Yahweh (1 Sam 3:1ff.), and when he expresses his readiness to hear, a message is given to him which he is then to pass on to the people. The process is exactly the same in 1 Samuel 15:10ff., where the word of judgment on Saul is first given to Samuel and then delivered by him to the king. Saul, in turn, is rejected because he has rejected the word of the Lord. The tradition of Samuel is magnificently maintained by Nathan, Elijah, and Micaiah. Throughout this period the word of the Lord comes to the prophets, is declared by them, and then, as the word of truth and power, comes infallibly to fulfillment in forgiveness, salvation, or judgment. The difference between the true prophet and the false prophet is that the latter has no real word from God, so that he can speak only human words which will inevitably be discovered to be false by events. The true word of the Lord comes to pass (2 Kings 22:16, 18). It cannot be withstood (1:17).

The word and prophecy.

What may be seen in earlier prophecy finds classical statement and illustration in the great writing prophets from Amos and Hosea onward. In some cases these prophets actually use the formula, “The word of the Lord came...,” to introduce their words (e.g. Hosea 1:1). This formula epitomizes the prophetic understanding. What the prophets say or write is what God has spoken to them and is saying through them. The prophet is called to his work (Isa 6; Jer 1; Ezek 1). The word of the Lord is laid upon him, so that it can even be called a burden. It is put upon his lips so that he has to declare it. He has swallowed it like a book, so that it is part of his inner being. Even though it brings him derision and suffering, so that he longs to be silent, it is like a fire in his bones and he has to speak (Jer 20:7ff.). He knows that whether men listen or not, the word has to be proclaimed, and when it infallibly comes to pass they will know that a prophet has been among them (Ezek 2:3ff.). It is not the prophet’s own word. It has irresistible force. As the word of the God who sees the end from the beginning, what it says is true and what it proclaims will be done. The prophet does not produce the word from within himself. It is no mere matter of religious insights; the word is from God. What the prophet says is true because it is what God says. It has force because it is the word of the Creator of the world and the Ruler of history. It can take the form of foretelling—the foretelling of deliverance or judgment—because God is the Lord of time (cf. Isa 40ff.). It confronts man with a sure promise, a solemn warning, or an unconditional command because it is the word of the God of grace and righteousness from whom all blessing comes and to whom an account must be rendered.

The word and the law.

A contrast is sometimes drawn between prophecy and the law (cf. Jer 18:18). In the light of the Biblical teaching, however, this is more fanciful than real. The prophets declare the will and word of God to their own age, but they do so in the context and on the basis of the will and word of God for His people in every age, i.e., the revelation of the law. If the word of prophecy comes to both prophet and people with all the force, certainty, and claim of God Himself, this is no less true of the law. Moses, after all, was the first and greatest of the prophets. The law, imparted by God to Moses and through Moses to the people, is also the word of God.

This fact may be seen in the description of the Ten Commandments as the words of the covenant (Exod 34:28). They are the ten sayings (decalogue) which lie at the heart of the divine covenant with Israel. The same applies to the words which Moses addressed to the people and then wrote in a book (Exod 24:3f.). These were the words of the Lord which the people promised to obey. Deuteronomy brings out this aspect of the law even more clearly. It embodies the words of Moses (1:1), which he received from God and then declared to the people. It is here that Moses calls himself a prophet (18:15). The word or commandment which he proclaims is a prophetic word. It is not distant, so that it has to be sought in heaven or beyond the sea. It is in the mouth and in the heart (30:11ff.). In other words, it is a true prophetic word declared and received. The law, genuinely understood, is no mere code of external regulations for outward acceptance and performance. It is the preached word of the divine promise and command which may be performed because it carries its own call and promise with it. If technically the law belongs to the priest and the word to the prophet, this is no final antithesis. Jeremiah himself was priest as well as prophet. The law, too, is word, just as the word can also be law.

The word in the Psalms.

The Word in Greek philosophy


Simultaneously with the development of the doctrine of the word of God in the OT there took place a very different development of the logos in Gr. philosophy. Since the NT had to use the term against a Hel. background, it is necessary to take a brief glance at the significance which the word acquired in the Gr. world. It should be noted that the Gr. development is along two main lines. The logos is (1) the noetic power of estimating things, or the rational content of things. It is also (2) a metaphysical reality gradually expanding into the concept of a cosmological being, almost a second god.


The main contribution of Heraclitus is to see in the logos the interconnection between man and man, man and the world, and man and God. The logos here is both word and the content of word. Both speech and action follow from it. It is the eternal order behind things, a cosmic law, the basis of the psyche. In the last resort, it is not a word from without, but the word immanent in man. The eye rather than the ear is the main instrument through which it is received.

The Sophists.

Among the Sophists the word is more closely associated with the mind. It is the rational faculty which underlies speech and thought. As such it is indispensable to political and cultural life. It also plays an important role in pedagogy. The closer relation to the human faculty carries with it a radical departure from the earlier conception of the logos as a principle of cosmic proportions.


Plato follows the same line of thought as the Sophists, but not with the same degree of individualism. The logos is more than the individual faculty. There is a common logos based ultimately on the agreement between words and things. The logos both derives from, and also interprets, things. It is not just an opinion, a private view. Combining thought, word, and thing, it is larger and has a fuller reality than the individual faculty of thought.


In Aristotle there is an awareness of the twofold nature of the logos as word and understanding on the one side, the result of word and understanding on the other. Man speaks the word, but in some sense his action is also controlled by it. Since the logos leads to action, it may be regarded as the source of the virtue peculiar to man.


Stoicism returns to the idea of the logos as a cosmic principle. In the logos is expressed the rational order of the world, the cosmic reason. Hence the logos may be equated directly with God or Zeus. It is the germ (lógos spermatikós) unfolded alike in the organic and the inorganic world. It is also (lógos orthós) the law which gives knowledge to man. All things come from it and all return to it. The general logos takes conscious form in the particular logos of man. In later Stoicism the logos is increasingly identified with nature. This interfusion of rational order and vital power produces a pantheistic understanding.


The mysteries.

The word logos finds a special religious use in the mystery religions. The holy logos is revelation or sacred doctrine. Through it there is union with deity. In some instances it is equivalent to the mystery, and the initiate is called the logos of God. Logos may also be used for prayer as the way to God. The logos teaches man both to pray and to worship aright.


A significant feature here is that the god Hermes personifies the logos. This is genuine personification, not incarnation. The principle behind all things is identified with a popular god. The choice of Hermes is based on the fact that he is the divine messenger, the mediator who makes known the will of the gods. A rational element is present, for secret knowledge is disclosed by Hermes. At root, however, Hermes personifies the larger principle of life. This moves inevitably in the direction of pantheism. The relation of the logos to God is the theme of much speculation. It is the logos of God, who is also called the father of the logos. Another line of thought is that the logos is the image of God and man the image of the logos. In spite of verbal similarities, however, these ideas bear little relation to the NT doctrine of Jesus Christ as the Word of God.


The word logos is an important one for Philo. He uses it in a bewildering number of ways, so that one can hardly speak of a unified Philonic doctrine of the logos. His basic difficulty here as always is to hold together his Hellenic and his Jewish convictions. Scholars are divided as to whether the logos is for Philo predominantly a Gr. or a Jewish concept. So far as the divine logos is concerned, it would seem that the roots are Jewish but that the development is greatly influenced by Gr. thought.

The logos of God, or divine logos, is not God Himself. It is a work of God. But it is also God’s image and the agent of creation. It can be identified with the noetic cosmos. It serves as an intermediary between the transcendent God and man. In it are comprised the logoi, the individual ideas. Yet it is more than a mere concept. Philo personifies the logos. It is the son of God. Philo’s Jewish heritage protects him both against a genuine deification of the logos and also against an ultimate immanentism. In fact, the logos seems to be a convenient link between the Creator God and the world which He has made.


Since the NT presents Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God, it is tempting to look for parallels in the Gr. or Hel. world, and to see in these the sources of the Johannine understanding. To do so, however, is to ignore the decisive differences to which H. Kleinknecht has drawn attention in his valuable and comprehensive article in TDNT, IV, cf. esp. pp. 90, 91. These differences as he states them are (1) that the Gr. understanding is rational and intellectual, the Biblical is theological; (2) that the Gr. world can divide the one logos into many logoi, whereas the NT knows only one Logos as Mediator between God and man; (3) that the Gr. logos is timeless, while Christ the eternal Word takes on historical singularity as the Word incarnate; and (4) that the Gr. logos has a tendency to merge into the world, so that the world as such is generally son of God, but the Biblical Logos is the only-begotten of the Father who, when He takes flesh, is the one Man, Jesus of Nazareth. In the light of these fundamental distinctions the obvious parallels are of little material significance.

The word in the NT

General use.


Though logos/rhema is an important theological term in the NT, it can also be used in a general sense. In some instances the general sense can have theological significance in its own right, but in others it is purely neutral in character. Thus the sing. or pl. can denote what has gone before (Mark 7:29). Speech can also be distinguished from a letter (2 Cor 10:10); worth noting, however, is that the letter also conveys the word (v. 11). Word can also be used for a report or rumor, or for the account in a book (Acts 1:1). It does not have to be intelligible speech; words can be uttered in a tongue as well as with the understanding (1 Cor 14:19). Anything said is logos or rhema.

Word and reality.

An interesting use of logos is for the empty word as distinct from the reality or the deed. This is theologically impossible when the reference is to the divine word. But human speech may be only speech, i.e. without substance. The vaunting speech of human wisdom falls into this category (1 Cor 1-4). So too does the profession of love without demonstration (1 John 3:18; cf. James 2:14ff.).


Words can be bad as well as empty. Ephesians 4:29 refers to corrupt speech; 1 Thessalonians 2:5 mentions flattering words; 2 Timothy 2:17 compares the words of heretics to a malignant growth; 2 Peter 2:3 speaks of false words; James 3:2 soberly recognizes that most men will offend in word. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1-4 has nothing good to say of the word of human wisdom, for it has neither truth nor power.

Specific senses.

In the NT logos can also have some of the particular senses which derive from its basic meaning. Thus to give a logos is to render an account either to man, or, more commonly, to God (Matt 12:36; Rom 14:12). Logos can also mean ground or reason, e.g. in Acts 10:29. Matter or theme seems to be the meaning in Acts 8:21. From a spiritual standpoint the concept of accountability is the most important in this category.

Special use.

The OT.

In a whole group of NT vv. lego or logos/rhema refers either to the word of revelation in the OT or to the OT itself as the written word of God. An interesting point to note in these references is that the word is described sometimes as that of the human author, sometimes as that of the preexistent Christ, and sometimes as that of God, while the usage is indefinite (“it is said”) in other instances. Even when the emphasis falls on the human speaker or writer, however, there can be no doubt that he is God’s spokesman, so that for all the genuine humanity of the utterance, God is He who truly speaks in the OT. The word, whether it be an individual saying (sing.) a whole book (pl.), is God’s word as well as man’s. Underlying the NT view of the OT, as also of its own message, is the basic Biblical and prophetic concept of the word of the Lord. If “word of the Lord” (lógos toû kuríou) is not actually used by the NT in this connection, there seems to be a special reason. In the NT kúrios is a title for Christ Himself, so that word or words of the Lord might easily be construed as dominical sayings. Even when OT quotations are made, this phrase is not used as an introductory formula, though kurios with the verb can be used within the quotations themselves (cf. Rom 12:19). The general way in which the NT speaks of the OT as God’s word makes it plain beyond all possible doubt that both the message of the OT and also the individual vv. are regarded as divinely given and divinely authoritative. The fullness of this endorsement may be seen from the fact that in a few vv. it is hard to say whether the reference is to the OT word or the NT message (cf. Heb 4:12; Eph 6:17).

The word to individuals.

In the NT, as in the OT, there are examples of the word of God coming to special persons. Thus the rhēma of God came to Simeon (Luke 2:29). The same is true of John the Baptist (3:2). It is significant, however, that although the apostles are specifically charged with the ministry of the word, this common OT formula does not occur again after John. As the NT itself says, the law and the prophets were until John (Matt 11:13). If the word does not come to others, this does not mean, of course, that the word of God is withdrawn, or that the whole mode of revelation has been drastically altered. The word of God no longer comes to specific men because the word has now come in fullness in Jesus Christ. To speak of a word of God coming to, e.g., Peter or Paul, would be contrary to the whole message of the NT. The definitive word has now been spoken (Heb 1:1f.). All others are commissioned to preach this word, and any special directions they are given come by vision, or an angel, or the Spirit, or the Lord Himself.

The absence of the prophetic formula applies to Jesus also. Though He speaks the word in fullness, the NT does not say that the word came to Him as it came to John. A voice spoke at His baptism and at the transfiguration, but this was addressed to the people, not to the Lord. It was an accreditation rather than a commission. Since Jesus is undoubtedly the supreme Prophet, greater even than Moses, one can only conclude that the avoidance of the formula was intentional. His relationship to God, and also to God’s word, so completely transcends that of the prophets that to speak of the word coming to Him would be inadequate and even misleading. As will be seen later, the heart of the NT message is that the word comes in Him rather than to Him or through Him. His identity with God and with the revelation of God sets the whole concept of the word of God in a new and all-transforming light.

The word(s) of Jesus.

The authority of the word or words of Jesus was felt also by their original hearers. If many were offended, or thought Him mad, or tried to trip Him up, it was because they were disturbed by the threat of His word (cf. Matt 15:12; John 10:20). All His hearers seem to have recognized with astonishment that He spoke with authority and not as the scribes (Matt 7:28). His words confronted man with the same decision as His person, so that to be ashamed of them was to be ashamed of Him (and vice versa) (Mark 8:38). Their power is the power which is dynamic as well as authoritative. Like the OT word, they are efficacious. By the word of Jesus the sick are healed, the sinful are forgiven, and the dead are raised to life. The word accomplishes what it says (cf. Gen 1:1ff.). Like the OT word (Isa 40:8), the word or words of Jesus are eternal. Though heaven and earth pass away, His words do not pass away (Mark 13:31).

John makes the same points in his own distinctive way. The words of Jesus are words of eternal life (John 6:68). They are spirit and life (6:63). They have the same authority as Scripture (2:22; 5:47). If men are to be saved, they must accept them (12:48), keep them (8:51), and abide in them (8:31). They are not simply the words of Jesus, for He has a commandment from the Father in regard to what He should say and what He should speak. The rejection of Jesus, and of His words, brings man under condemnation; it is the word itself which judges the unbeliever in the last day (12:47ff.).

The word as the Gospel.

As the Gospel, the word has the attributes and authority of a definitive word of God. It is the word of the cross, of reconciliation, of grace, of life, and of truth. It is God’s word. If the apostles speak it, they do so only as ministers. This is why Paul dare not corrupt it. This is the guarantee of authenticity. It is also the source of authority and power. Men may contest the words of other men; they cannot contradict God’s word. The word, as God’s word, has its own vital power. It is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18). It is not bound (2 Tim 2:9). It does its own work, cutting like a sword (Heb 4:12; cf. Eph 6:17 rhema), regenerating (1 Pet 1:23) and reconciling (2 Cor 5:19). The word as the word of life or salvation, does not merely speak about these things; it also imparts them.

Jesus as the Word of God.

The word is God’s word. It includes the word or words of Jesus. It is also the message about Jesus. As such, it is God’s speaking to man by the Spirit. It is the word of Jesus (both objective and subjective genitive) continually preached. The point upon which all these different lines converge, and the climax of the Biblical doctrine of the word of God, is that the Word is God Himself. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is the eternal and incarnate Word. The Word is Jesus, and Jesus is the Word.

a. Revelation 19:13. This equation is made in Revelation 19:13, where “The Word of God” is the title borne by the exalted Christ. This is the name which is not known and yet also known. This is the basis of the exercise of the sword. If the exalted Christ bears the title here, it is the same Christ who was dead and is alive again. Nor does the title “Word of God” stand isolated from the Gospel, for earlier in the book the word is connected with the witness, and Jesus Himself is the faithful and true Witness. No particular explanation is given of the title, but in the general context this is hardly more necessary than, e.g. in the case of the designation of Christ as Lamb. The glory and eternity and deity of the Word are implied (cf. 19:16).

b. 1 John 1:1. There is a similar equation in 1 John 1:1, though here with the incarnate Jesus. The Word of life has been seen, heard, and handled by the apostles. Intrinsically the reference might be to the message, but the verbs suggest the living person of Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate. This is supported by the “from the beginning” of v. 1, the “with the Father” of v. 2, and the general similarity of the v. to the opening of John’s gospel. Encounter with the Word is encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ.

c. John 1:1ff. The full and definitive equation is made in the first vv. of John’s gospel. This equation leads into the sphere of Christology, so that a few observations must suffice. First, John expresses the common NT conviction that Jesus is the heart of the word, but he carries it a stage further. Not only is Jesus the Word; the Word itself is eternal and preexistent with God. Jesus, then, is the eternal Word in history, incarnate. Hence, what is said about Jesus is said about the Word. This explains why “the logos” does not occur again in John where the prologue ends. It also explains why Jesus is not said to speak the word. Jesus is the Word, and the Word is Jesus. Secondly, the statement in John is not abstract or speculative personification. The author does not begin with a theoretical concept of the logos which he then transfers to Jesus. On the contrary, he begins with Jesus, hears the word of God in all its fullness in Him, apprehends His glory, and is thus impelled to say that Jesus is the Word, the only-begotten Son, God, and that in Him the Word was made flesh. Thirdly, the opening v. seems to be an intentional allusion to Genesis 1:1. The point is that “God said” is there at the very beginning with God as the Word by which all things were made. John is also able in this way to suggest at least the thought of the new creation by the Word. The emphasis on the personal and historical aspect of the Word goes beyond Genesis, but an interrelation of the word of God throughout both Testaments, and an ultimate basis for the authority and power of the word as God’s word, are hereby achieved. Fourthly, the statement of John is unique in spite of all the suggested connections and influences which have been sought in, e.g. the Hel. logos, Jewish wisdom, or the rabbinic law. The real concern of John is the presentation of the word. But for him, and in the last analysis for all the apostles, this is the presentation of the incarnate and risen Jesus Himself in all His grace and truth. Jesus Christ is the eternal incarnate Word of God who is Himself God. (See also Logos.)


Since the concept of the word is to be found in all parts of Scripture, the many commentaries and Biblical theologies may be consulted with profit; they are, however, too numerous to be listed in detail. For the Word of God in John, cf. esp. J. R. Harris, The Origin of the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel (1917); R. G. Bury, The Fourth Gospel and the Logos-Doctrine (1940). Good introductory articles are A. F. Walls, “Logos” and “Word” in BDT (1960); J. N. Sanders, IDB, IV (1962), 868-872; A. Debrunner, H. Kleinknecht, O. Procksch, G. Kittel, G. Quell, and G. Schrenk, TDNT, IV (ET, 1967), 69-137.