Christ and the Word
by Leland M. Haines
Introduction Man is repeatedly confronted with the question of authority in religious matters. When Christ was teaching the people in the temple, the chief priests, scribes, and elders came to Him and asked, "Tell us, by what authority thou doest these things? or who is he that gave thee this authority?" (Luke 20:2). Christ answered them by returning a question: "The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?" (v. 4). The priests and scribes discussed this among themselves, trying to find an answer. They knew if they would say, "From heaven," Christ would ask, "Why then believed ye not him?" They also knew if they would say, "From men" (v. 5), they would be stoned because the people were convinced that John was a prophet. So they did not answer Jesus' question. Either way they would have answered, they would have damaged their own position. If they admitted that John was a prophet sent to foretell Christ's coming and to prepare men for it, they would have to accept Jesus as the Christ (Messiah). If they said John was not a prophet, they would have undermined their authority before the people.
Since the religious leaders refused to answer Christ's counter question, He did not answer them. This does not mean Jesus did not want these Jews to know where He received His authority. Throughout His ministry He did "miracles and wonders and signs" that proved He was the Christ (Acts 2:22; cf. John 20:30, 31). Jesus did not want to force people to accept Him as the authority in religious matters.
The priests and scribes raised the question all men must face -- authority in religious matters. Men have abundant proof that there is a God. But the question all must answer is, What is the authority in religion? The answer is found in God's revelation of Himself to man in historical events.
God created man in His image, and man enjoyed perfect and open communion with Him. God gave man the freedom to choose to be obedient or not. Man chose, first through Eve and then Adam, at the prompting of Satan, to be disobedient and thus rebelled against God. The consequence of this sin was man's alienation from God. God promised He would put enmity between the evil one and his children and the woman and her seed. The evil one would be excluded from friendship with man (Gen. 3:15).
The details of this promise would be revealed later through a chosen people. God would show His grace and goodness, and would ultimately redeem man through the Messiah. The Messiah would come, and by His death and resurrection He would atone for man's sin. This would make it possible for man to become a new creation, who would want to live in harmony with and obedience to his Maker. These events are history. God has provided for man's redemption by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for man's sins and thus restore his relationship to God. This redemption is available to man through repentance, the new birth, discipleship, and faith in Christ. The answer to man's quest for religious authority is found in God's revelation of Himself in the historical events associated with His redemptive plan for mankind.
The knowledge of these historical events is ours today solely through the Bible, which shows us the relation of these historical events to Scripture. Although we assume there is a clear relation between these two, it is seldom explained. We should not take such a fundamental point of the Christian faith for granted, but we should clearly understand the relationship.
Christ and the Written Word "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son," wrote the author of Hebrews (1:1-2). God spoke in the Old Testament times about the coming redemption through His prophets, but in the New Testament times He has spoken through Jesus, the Son of God.
In his Gospel John describes these historical events: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" (John 1:1-5). This Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ made God's plan of redemption possible. Christ was the Word made flesh who brought life through His death and resurrection. Through Christ God's redemptive plan became a reality. His Son has clearly revealed "the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith" (Rom. 16:25-26).
This mystery is the new covenant that Christ instituted as He explained at the Lord's Supper, when He took the cup and gave it to His disciples, saying, "This is my blood of the new testament [covenant], which is shed for many for the remission [forgiveness] of sins" (Matt. 26:28). The writer of Hebrews quoted from the Old Testament to show this was promised beforehand -- "I will make a new covenant" (Heb. 8:8) -- and wrote that Christ "is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance" (9:15 RSV). "New covenant" is the Latin translation of the Greek terms kaine diatheke, which in English is the New Testament. The relation of "covenant" and our use of "testament" can be seen in Paul's use of the term old covenant when he wrote, "When they [the Jews] read the old covenant. . . . whenever Moses is read" (II Cor. 3:14, 15 RSV), to refer to a part of the Old Testament.
Today we know of no writings of Jesus Christ. The only evidence we have that Jesus ever wrote anything is found in the story in John 8:1-11, where He wrote a few words on the ground with His finger. Since this is true, how can His Word be identified with the twenty-seven-book New Testament canon? At first it might appear that to attempt to construct a relationship between the historical events and the New Testament canon is an a posterior matter. The first list of the twenty-seven books canonized in the New Testament was not made until A.D. 367, when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed them in his annual Easter letter to the church. And it was not until the fifth century that disputes about which books belonged in the canon generally ceased.
The late date of this list shows that the New Testament canonization took place after the historical redemptive events and therefore should be considered a part of church history, not a part of the events. There is however, another point to be considered: What makes the twenty-seven New Testament books the Word of God revealed to man? The answer to this lies in the relation of these books to Jesus Christ and the attitude of the early church toward these books.
Christ uses His Apostles to Write
Jesus Christ established the means by which His Word would be communicated to all areas and future generations. He called the apostles to follow Him, to "come away" from their other interests, and to learn from Him. These apostles were commissioned to "preach, saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Their preaching was to indoctrinate the house of Israel only, just as Jesus went only to them. After the Lord's resurrection, the apostles were sent to the whole world. They were also given "power against unclean spirits. . . , to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease," or to share in some of the things Christ Himself did to confirm the source of their preaching (Matt. 10; cf. Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16).
Christ promised His disciples help in remembering His teachings after He would return to the Father. He promised a "Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name; he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you" (John 14:26 ASV). This promise is significant; it ties the apostles' remembrance of Jesus' words to Jesus Christ Himself. He promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the apostles in their teaching and writing, to enable them to recall and teach all things He had taught them. This promise was again made before His ascension, forty days after His resurrection (Acts 1:8).
Near the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus prayed for His apostles and disciples. He said He had "finished the work" His Father had given Him. He had "manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me: and they have kept thy word. . . . I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee." He repeated the words "I have given them thy word" and later added, "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word of truth" (John 17:1-17). The apostles were given the word, and they were given the Holy Spirit to guide them in their teaching and writing the Word. The written Word thus had its source in the living Christ.
The apostles knew of this special "power of attorney" to represent Christ and of the Holy Spirit's guidance in carrying out their task. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, "When ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God" (I Thess. 2:13). To the Corinthians he wrote, "We have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God. . . . And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit" (I Cor. 2:12, 13 RSV). Paul wrote that he was "not, like so many, peddlers of God's word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ" (II Cor. 2:17 RSV). Since he received it from Christ, Paul could tell his readers to "take knowledge of the things which I write unto you, that they are the commandment of the Lord" (I Cor. 14:37; cf. II Cor. 7:10 ASV), and that "if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him; that he may be ashamed" (II Thess. 3:14). Paul also gave many other indications that he received his message from Christ (Acts 9:3-6; I Cor. 15:8; Gal. 1:12; Eph. 3:3), and that "it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Eph. 3:5). The church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:20, 21). Christ is the corner stone, and the apostles built upon Him to form the foundational truths to guide the church.
The author of the Book of Hebrews also wrote of the same Holy Spirit guidance of the apostles: "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation? which having at the first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard; God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders, and by manifold powers, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will" (Heb. 2:3, 4 ASV).
John wrote that his function as an apostle was to bring the Word of Life, that is, the Divine Messenger, Jesus Christ, to the disciples:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life. . . That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you. I John 1:1-5
Peter wrote "that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles" (II Peter 3:2 RSV). John also knew of the same Holy Spirit guidance; he wrote, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show unto his servants, even the things which must shortly come to pass: and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John; who bare witness of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:1, 2 ASV; 1:10, 11, 19; 2:1ff.; 4:2; 14:13; 19:9; 21:5). These Scriptures show that the apostles knew of the guidance that enabled them to write with Christ's authority. This was the method Christ established to communicate His Word to distant areas and to future times.
Today we know about Jesus Christ and His redemptive work and revelation only through the writings of the Lord's apostles and their associates. The written Word has its source in Jesus Christ's calling and commissioning of the apostles; the Word cannot be separated from Christ and the Holy Spirit.
From Oral Tradition to the Written Word
There are basically two different forms of communication, oral and written. The apostles used both in exercising their "power of attorney" to present Christ's Word. The oral form of communicating God's Word is by far the earliest form used by the apostles and dates back to their first commission to "preach" (Matt. 10; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16). For the first few years, apostolic preaching held a place of high importance. Since oral communication is so important, and Christ authorized His apostles to use it, we should understand the New Testament concept of it.
In the New Testament there are many references to the apostles' oral form of communication. Luke wrote that the "things which are most surely believed" were "delivered . . . unto us [Luke and his contemporaries] which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Luke 1:1-4). Many of these eyewitnesses and ministers may have told Luke about Jesus' life, teachings, death, and resurrection.
The Book of Acts contains many examples of oral communication within the apostolic church. The first instance is Peter's Pentecost sermon, when he "lifted up his voice, and said to them. . . be this known unto you, and hearken to my words" (Acts 2:14; cf. 2:22, 40). Another is Luke's record of the early church's prayer asking God to "grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word, By stretching forth thine hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done by the name of thy holy child Jesus." God answered their prayer, and they spoke "the word of God with boldness" (4:29-31).
Miracles often accompanied the apostles, as was the case when they were miraculously released from prison. They were told to go to the temple and "speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life" (Acts 5:20). Later the twelve apostles addressed the other disciples about how they did not want to give up preaching "the word of God and serve tables." They wanted helpers so they could devote themselves "to prayer, and to the ministry of the word." The result was that "the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly" (6:2-7).
There are many other references to the apostles' oral communications: "They that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word" (Acts 8:4); "they had testified and preached the word of the Lord. . . . preached the gospel" (8:25); "received the word of God" (11:1); "the word of God grew and multiplied" (12:24); "came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God" (cf. 13:44); "that the word of God should first have been spoken to you" (13:46); "teaching and preaching the word of the Lord" (15:35); "the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them" (16:10); "they spake unto him the word of the Lord" (16:32); "teaching the word of God among them" (18:11); "mightily grew the word of the Lord and prevailed" (19:20), et al. These Scriptures show that apostles knew that they were preaching the Word of God to the people. This important means of spreading the Word continued throughout the apostolic age.
There are also references to the oral form of communication in the Epistles. Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth, "teaching the word of God" (Acts 18:11). This was effective oral teaching because in a later letter to this church he wrote, "I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you" (I Cor. 11:2). Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica, "Stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (II Thess. 2:15). Jude also wrote that when he was eager "to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). Paul taught by the spoken word, and the faith Jude wrote of be[KDS1]ing delivered to the saints is probably a reference to the spoken word also.
1 Scripture quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.
2 The term "canon" comes from the Greek term , kanon, which originates from Semitic root kane, meaning "reed." This was sometimes used in the sense of "a measuring rod or ruler." Paul used the term in Galatians, writing "Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule [kanon]" (6:16 RSV), referring to those who did not count circumcision or uncircumcision as important, but the "cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" and the "new creation." Since the fourth century, canon has been used to refer to the collection of Scriptures.
This is Chapter 1 of The Authority of Scripture, © copyright 2000 by Leland M. Haines