Set apart by God’s Word

INTRODUCTION:

I would like to begin by asking a question for which I hope our time together helps us find the answer, and the question is, “How is my life made different by the Word of God?” or to put it differently, “What place does the Word of God have in my life and how does that shape the way I am?”

OPENING SCRIPTURE: Genesis 1:1-5[1]

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

GOD’S WORD AND THE CREATION

Genesis 1 is a familiar text, and it is familiar because of the way we as Christians use it, and must use it, to evaluate modern, naturalistic understandings of how the universe came into being. But as appropriate as that may be, what must never get lost as we read this first chapter of the Bible is its purpose of acquainting us with the nature of God’s powerful and life-giving word. The Word of God very intentionally begins by vividly illustrating for us how the word of God is to be received, and it is to be received by immediate, whole-hearted obedience.

As we begin the chapter we read that in the beginning of God’s work of creation there is nothing but darkness and water. Then, at the end of verse 2, we see God beginning to work amidst the chaos as the Spirit of God moves, or hovers, or rushes over the waters, and it is then that God speaks those first two Hebrew words (which make up four English words in the translations): Let there be light. And immediately, the creation obeys the Word of God. Where there was once darkness, now there is period of light which may be called “day.”

What is easy to overlook in these verses is the connection between the Spirit of God and the Word of God, and this is partly because of translation. One of the problems with translations is the difference between the number of words in the one language with the number of words in the other. In this case, in English we have three words for which in Hebrew there is only one. We have the word “spirit” to describe that part of a person that is non-physical and that gives life to the body, we have the word “breath” to describe the air we inhale and exhale so long as we live, and we have the word “wind” to describe the movement of air. In Hebrew there is only one word, ruach, and it is not hard to see why our three words could be bound up into one. When we breathe, we are making wind with our mouth, and breathing is something that you must be alive in order to do. Breathing is evidence of that you still have spirit in you. For our three words, in Hebrew there is only ruach.[2]

What, then, is the connection between the Spirit, or ruach, of God, and the Word of God? As an exercise, take your hand and place it as close to your mouth as possible without touching your lips. With your hand so-placed, audibly speak the words, “Let there be light,” and you will feel your breath blow against your skin. That is ruach, and without ruach, without breath or spirit, you could not say one word. Every word that you speak is carried by your breath, your ruach. So it is with God himself. Every word of God comes by the giving of his ruach, his breath, or his Spirit. Thus, as we see God speaking the words, “Let there be light,” as well as the other nine independent statements made by God in this chapter, we know why it is that his Spirit is moving or hovering over the waters in verse 2: as his Spirit rushes through creation, so goes forth his word, and as his word goes forth, so the creation that was once formless and empty begins to take shape and be filled. We must not read the chapter and think that God’s Spirit is only in verse 2; rather, God is breathing throughout the entire chapter, and we know that because God is speaking and turning the chaos into creation.

What are the effects of God’s Word as he sends it forth by his Spirit throughout creation? The first effect is separation. The Word of God separates what was once a single period of indistinguishable time into distinguishable periods of light and darkness, “day” and “night” respectively. The Word of God separates what was once a single body of water and calls that space that exists between the two “heaven” or “sky.” The Word of God separates the single ocean of water below the sky and calls the dry ground “earth” and the remaining waters “seas.” Obedience to the Word of God brings separation where there was once confusion, order where there was once chaos.

The second effect brought about by the Word of God is that it fills. The Word of God fills the day with the Sun, and the night with the moon and stars. The Word of God fills the sky with birds, and the sea with fish. The Word of God fills the earth with animals, and finally, with humans. Obedience to the Word of God fills that which was formerly empty, and it causes life to spring up where there was none. That is the power of God’s Word. The Word of God obeyed results in order and life.

THE WORD OF GOD AND ISRAEL

Exodus 19

1 On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.

2 They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, 3 while Moses went up to God. Yahweh called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

When we think of the word “Law” as it is used in the Bible, we often think of it in terms of the laws that govern us here in the United States. When we hear the word “law”, we think of regulations, rules that we are not supposed to break for the good of society, and these rules can be either obvious, or sometimes tedious.

For Israel, however, the Law given by God was meant to be a way of life, a manner whereby they would a people set apart by God from all of the other nations of the world and be his own special treasure. God not only gave them such laws common to every society such as, “Do not murder,” but laws that told them how to eat, how to dress, how to cut their hair. As with the creation, for the ancient Israelite, to obey the Word of God was to receive the order and life that it had to offer; a chance to apply Genesis 1 to their own lives. Just as the creation had obeyed the Lord in separating light and darkness, the waters above and below, and the earth from the seas, so Israel was to obey God by separating the clean animals from the unclean (Deut. 14:3-21), separating the various seeds as they planted their crops (22:9), and even separating the various fabrics that could otherwise be used to make a single garment (22:11). Israel was to be a holy people, and the definition of “holy” is to be “set apart,” and this is only possible through the Word of God. Worship for the Israelite was not something that was to be done a few times a year at the Temple, nor even once a week on the Sabbath: the Israelites were to worship God every minute of the day by living out the Word of God through their lives. Just as we look out at creation and see the effects of the Word of God as we see the earth, the sky, all the animals, and every person we meet, so one was to see the effects of the Word of God as they looked at the Israelites and saw the way they lived their lives at all times. Out of all the chaos that was true of the surrounding nations, Israel was to be different, set apart by the Word of God.

Deuteronomy 6

4 “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. 5 You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

I have a friend who has a diagnosed case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If you do not know, those who have OCD will do certain things that they feel they must because it is constantly on their mind and it will be so until they perform a certain action that will temporarily put their minds at ease. For example, someone may be obsessed with germs, and so they will feel compelled to wash their hands, not once, not twice, but sometimes dozens or even hundreds of times a day, even as the skin on their hands are bleeding from drying out and chaffing. Someone might be obsessed with the thought of a burglar breaking into their home, and so they will check the door to make sure it is locked, go back to the next room, and then immediately go back to the door to make sure it is locked again, and again, and again. It is a real disorder that specialists are not quite sure what to make of.

According to this passage, Israel was to be obsessed with the Word of God, so much so that they would be compelled to do things that we might consider extreme. The people were to be so obsessed with God’s Word that they would teach it to their kids (not an unreasonable thing in itself); they were to talk about God’s Word regardless of whether they were sitting at home, walking outside, or even getting in and out of bed (thus, beginning to border on the peculiar); they were even to tie God’s Word to their faces so that it would be in front of their eyes at all times, and tie it to their hands so that they would be touching it at all times (an obviously absurd image indeed); and they were to write them on their doors and gates so that no matter where they went they would always be confronted with the Word of God.

Now was this passage to be taken literally? It has been to some extent (with the phylacteries and mezuzot found in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities), but more likely what it’s supposed to do is create in the minds of the readers a mental picture of the kind of person you are supposed to be, a person who is controlled every moment of the day by the Word of God, so much so that the Word of God becomes who you are. A person from another land who entered Israel would not have to pick up a scroll and read the Word of God for himself; the Word of God would be personified in every person he met.

THE WORD OF GOD REVERSED

So far we have been looking at the effects of the Word of God as it is obeyed. We have seen that the Word of God separates and gives order, and it fills and gives life, as demonstrated in the creation account of Genesis 1. But what effects are there when it is disobeyed?

Genesis 3

17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The man and the woman disobeyed the Word that separated and gave life, and because they would not submit to this Word, notice what will become of them in the end. The human that was once taken from the ground and made alive will eventually return to the ground and die. Order and life can only exist so far as one conforms to the Word of God, and if you do not, you will find only disorder and death. If obedience to God’s Word results in creation, disobedience to God’s Word results in destruction.

Genesis 7

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.

17 The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. 20 The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.

We saw earlier that on the second day God had created a space between the waters above and waters below and that space he called “heaven” or “sky”, and that on the third day God had separated the waters under the sky so that dry land would appear. We also saw how on the sixth day God had filled the earth with animals and humans. But as time went on and humanity rebelled against the Word of God more and more, God decided that he would judge them, and he does so by un-creating the heavens and the earth. He opened the windows in the sky and let the water above come pouring down, and he poked holes in the earth and let the waters below come rushing up, bringing back together what he had previously separated by his Word and killing all that he had filled with life, all except Noah and all those who were in the ark. Again, creation depends upon submission to the Word of God, and without God’s Word there is only chaos and death.

2 Chronicles 36

15 Yahweh, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of Yahweh rose against his people, until there was no remedy. 17 Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. He gave them all into his hand. 18 And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of Yahweh, and the treasures of the king and of his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. 19 And they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its palaces with fire and destroyed all its precious vessels. 20 He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill the word of Yahweh by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.

Back in Genesis 12, God sent his Word to Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans, which is the land of Babylon, and Abraham was set apart from the people of that land, and he was given the land of Canaan to possess as his own. But after centuries of Abraham’s descendents disobeying the Word of God, where do we see the Lord sending his people? He sent them to the land of Babylon, the very land that he had called them out of. The Lord had set Israel apart unto himself and called them to be a people who lived every moment of their lives according to the Word of God. But because they could not, he had to send them back.

According to this passage in 2 Chronicles, the prophet who spoke of this coming judgment was the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah gives us a description of this judgment upon God’s people in his own words in Jeremiah 4, and we must note carefully the words he uses.

Jeremiah 4

23 I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. 24 I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. 25 I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the air had fled. 26 I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before Yahweh, before his fierce anger.

As Jeremiah looked out upon the land in a vision of what it would become as a result of the judgment, what does he see? He sees a land without form and void, a land of darkness, a land where the mountains and hills toss about like water and empty of all life. To be sure, Jeremiah is not speaking literally here. If you were to go back to the year 586 BC when Babylon invaded the land and the people went into exile and you were to take a photograph of what things looked like, I’m quite sure the sun would still be in the sky and the mountains and hills would still be in the same place as they had always been. But why does he use these words? Because they are the words of Genesis 1, and what Jeremiah does is he takes the creation account of that chapter and he reverses it and tells us that this is what has happened to Israel. It is as if the Word of God has had no affect whatsoever upon this people and God has had to take it all back to square one; the land of Israel is without form and void, and darkness covers the face of the earth.

THE WORD OF GOD AND JESUS CHRIST

Jeremiah is not the only one who uses the language of Genesis 1 metaphorically to paint a picture for his readers so that they will see with different eyes the work that God is doing in their midst. Another person who did this sort of thing was the apostle John.

John 1

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The apostle John begins his account of the gospel the same way as Genesis: he goes back to “the beginning.” But John’s “beginning” is a little further back than that in Genesis. While the beginning of Genesis starts us with the first acts of creation, John takes us back to before the creation; he takes us back to when there was nothing but God and his “Word.” But John speaks of God’s Word different from what we might expect from a reader of Genesis 1. In Genesis, the Word of God consisted of actual words which were spoken, words such as, “Let there be light.” Here, however, the Word of God is personified, spoken as if each individual word of God spoken in Genesis 1 (and beyond) were somehow bound together and seen as individual. As a person, he is distinct from God (“the Word was with God”). But just as the words of a person reflect the mind of the speaker and are so bound up with the essence of the speaker himself, so John cannot detach the Word of God from the essence of God himself (“the Word was God”). In the beginning the Word was both with God and he was God, and in verse 14 we learn further that the Word became a human being and dwelt among us, becoming the one and only person to fill the mold set out before us in Deuteronomy 6, the mold of one who would be the living, breathing, walking, talking Word of God. He was what Israel and initially all humanity was called to be. That is who Jesus Christ is. Not only is he God, but he is everything that humanity in general and Israel in particular is supposed to be.

Let us develop further what it must mean if Jesus Christ truly is the Word of God made flesh. Words are what we use when we wish to convey information from our mind to the mind of another; words are, in other words, revelation about oneself. For Jesus Christ to be the living Word of God, then he would be the living revelation of who God the Father is, and if someone desired to know the God the Father, then they could find no better place than Jesus Christ.

John 14

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

Philip said to the Lord Jesus that it would be enough for them if only the Father would be revealed, and Jesus answered him that as they have seen him, the living Word of God, they have seen the Father. If it is enough for anyone to see God the Father, and this can be done only through Jesus Christ, then going to Jesus must be enough. This is incredibly important for those of us living in the postmodern, western world where it is said that God may be discovered through various means and methods, each different according to the opinions and prejudices of the individual. That is simply not true. If God has revealed himself perfectly in Jesus Christ, his living Word, then one cannot find him while rejecting the person of Jesus Christ. If you desire to know God, then you must seek him in his Word.

Another thing which must be true of Jesus Christ if he is the living Word of God is that he must not be the revelation of anyone other than God the Father, even of himself. You see, if he were to begin speaking his own words or performing his own works, he would cease being the perfect revelation of God the Father; everything Jesus Christ said or did must be in keeping with the person and character of God, or he would be an imperfect or incomplete revelation of the one who sent him.

John 14

10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

John 7

14 About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. 15 The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” 16 So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.

John 12

48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment- what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”

At this point something must be said concerning red-letter Bibles. In the year 1900 the first red-letter New Testament was published after the editor of the British paper, “The Christian Herald” thought it would be a help to readers. This is partly because the older Bible translations generally did not use quotation marks in their print, and so in that sense it probably was a help.[3] But a very dangerous idea that can come out of red-letter editions of the Bible is the idea that the words of Jesus are somehow more inspired, having more authority than the rest of Scripture. This is precisely the opposite of what Jesus is saying here. He tells his opponents and his disciples that the words he speaks are not his own. Rather, the words he speaks and the works he performs are those which come from God the Father. He is telling us that his words have the same authority as Scripture, and if we are going to be consistent about using red letters then every word of Scripture needs to be written in red, from the words of God at the burning bush to the nine chapters of genealogy recorded in 1 Chronicles.

A third thing which must be true if in fact Jesus is the living Word of God, is that he must be the fullness, the personification of all that God had spoken before up until that time.

John 5

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,

45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

When we as Christians think of Jesus fulfilling Scripture, we often think of it in terms of one-verse prophesies or predictions which are to be found hidden in obscure places of the Hebrew Bible. More and more, however, I am beginning to believe that this type of one-on-one correspondence between prophecy and fulfillment covers a very small area of how Jesus, the living Word, relates to Scripture, the written Word. The way he understood himself in relation to Scripture was far more reaching:

Matthew 5

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Rather than believing that there was a list of requirements that he had to make sure he met during the course of his ministry in order to prove he was the Messiah, Jesus told the people that fulfilled not only every word of Scripture, but every letter and dash. That does not mean that every verse of the Old Testament is a hidden prophecy of Christ that needs to be twisted and manipulated until it is turned into something one would never recognize from the start, but that if one was to transform the entire Old Testament text into a single person, then you would have none other than Jesus Christ. He was truly defined by the Word of God.

THE WORD OF GOD AND THE CHRISTIAN

Romans 8

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Verse 28 is somewhat familiar to many, but it must be understood in light of verse 29. What exactly is the good thing that all things work toward for the one who loves God? What is the purpose for which they have been called? It is conformity to the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. For those who love God and have been called by him, all things work toward God’s purpose of making that individual more like Jesus, the living Word of God, and this is what needs to be on our minds through every circumstance, good or bad. Whatever I am going through at this time in my life, God has sent it so that I would be more like his Son. If I am not being made more like his Son through this life, then it must mean that I don’t love him.

The coming of Jesus Christ was not only to show us who God the Father is, though he certainly does that. Neither was the coming of Jesus Christ simply to show us what someone who was totally defined by the Word of God would look like, though he does that too. The purpose was take us rebels and transform us unto men and women who are also defined by the Word of God, thus making it possible for others to see God the Father through us as well. Jesus knew that he was sent to the earth for only a short time, and on the night before the crucifixion he had these words to say to his Father:

John 17

14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

Jesus Christ gave his followers the Word of God, and as he leaves them he asks God the Father to sanctify them, which means set them apart, and the way they are to be set apart from others is by the truth of God’s Word. Christ sends his church so that it would be to the world what he himself had been, and the church will only be Christ to the world so long as it is set apart by the Word of God.

But it was already seen that humanity could not submit to the Word of God in Genesis 3, and it was already seen that Israel could do not better throughout history. What hope do we have to do otherwise? This is why the Holy Spirit was given.

John 14

15 If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

This is why it is important to understand from Genesis 1 that the Word of God is that which is carried by the Spirit or breath of God.[4] The Word cannot go forth except by the power of that Spirit, and if the Spirit is in us, then to submission to the Word of God will come as we depend upon his power.

Romans 8

4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

CONCLUSION

This study began with the question, “How is my life made different by the Word of God?”, and I hope we are in a better position to understand the importance of such a question now than we were before.

We saw that the creation came about through the Word of God. Therefore, as we seek to live according to the Word of God, we are situating ourselves within the orderliness and fullness of life that God intended for all his creatures.

We saw that Israel was set apart to be a kingdom of priests, a people set apart and whose lives were a continual act of worship to God as they lived according to the Word God had given them. Therefore, as we live according to the Word of God, we too become a kingdom of priests who are to worship God in every moment.

We saw that Jesus Christ was and is the living Word of God, the perfect revelation of God and through whom alone men must go if they desire to see God the Father. Therefore, we must also go through Jesus Christ if we want to know God, and we must understand that when we study the Scriptures, the written Word of God, we are studying who Jesus himself is. The ancient Church father Jerome, who was the first to translate the entire Old Testament into the language of the Latin speaking peoples, said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

And we saw that as Christians, Christ has sent us into the world to be just what God the Father had sent himself to be: set apart by God’s Word, and a revelation to the world of who God is.


[1] All Scripture taken from the English Standard Version (2001).  The English title, “the LORD” has been replaced with the proper name, “Yahweh” by the author.

[2] Examples could be given where there is a single English word that could be used to describe distinct, yet related, concepts. “Orange” in English can refer to a type of fruit or a color, concepts quite distinct, though every person with sight realizes that the fruit is itself the very color it shares its name with (though one may ask, is the fruit called an orange because of its color, or is the color so-named because of the fruit?).

[4] The Greek word pneuma carries with it the same three denotations of the Hebrew ruach, namely, spirit, wind, and breath. Cf. John 3:8; 20:22.

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Published in: on January 5, 2008 at 11:04 pm  Leave a Comment