Understanding the Word

In a world literally choking with books, documents, and publications, what makes the Word of the Living God so special?

Roy Adams, PhD, is the recently retired associate editor of the Adventist Review and Adventist World.


Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from a sermon given by Dr. Adams at a Ministry Professional Growth Seminar, broadcast from the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States, April 20, 2010.

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. . . . In a loud voice they sang: ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’ ”(Rev. 5:11, 12).1

I use this passage as my principal text, not to exegete it but as a point of departure, as a place to which I’d like to return at the end. I will divide the article into three simple parts: first, what we have; second, how to decipher it; and third, the point at the heart of it.

What we have

As a young teenager, I became impressed, for the first time, that the Bible is not an ordinary document. I still ask the questions, What is this document we call the Bible? In a world literally choking with books, documents, and publications, what makes this one special?

As I reflected on these questions, my mind wandered back some 2,600 years. With hostile foreign forces lurking on the outskirts of Jerusalem, waiting for an opportune moment to strike, a certain young man came forward, claiming to have special supernatural intelligence as to how the leaders and people should respond to the national crisis.

But his message proved impossible to stomach: The Babylonians will take the city! (cf. Jer. 37:9, 10). For the powers that be, it was too much. And Jeremiah was thrown “into a vaulted cell in a dungeon” (Jer. 37:16).

But one day his cell door rattled open and a royal messenger appeared with a summons from the king. Entering the royal palace, Jeremiah faced a trembling monarch with a bad case of siege fatigue. Dropping his voice and bending forward, a frightened Zedekiah whispered the critical question we find in Jeremiah 37:17: “ ‘Is there any word from the Lord?’ ” (emphasis added.)

It’s an extraordinary question. And the utterly outrageous claim of the Christian church says that the Bible is indeed a Word from the Lord.

Sometimes, in my quiet moments, I think about this astonishing claim in stark, elemental terms—such as when visiting Stone Mountain just east of Atlanta, Georgia, I broke away from the family for a moment of reflection. I thought of the huge slab of rock I was standing on. How much does it weigh? I don’t know. (And, incidentally, I understand it extends some nine miles below ground level.) What is it sitting on? The earth, of course. And what’s Stone Mountain and the earth sitting on? Nothing! How could it be nothing? It’s held in place by gravity. And we think we’ve solved the problem by that one word: gravity.

My mind moves from Stone Mountain through our solar system, past the Milky Way, and into the fantastic reaches of an endless universe—a universe seemingly without borders. And we’re making an astonishing claim that the One who holds it all together has spoken a word to this planet—and this Book is it!

At the beginning of Romans 3, Paul raised the question as to whether Jews had an advantage in the world. And answering his own question, he said, “Much in every way! First of all, [the Jews] have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Rom. 3:2). And as Christians, we believe that we have what they had, plus the Second Testament, and together they make a complete Bible.

And what we discover is that the Bible is not an ordinary document. In the language of Hebrews 4:12, “the word of God is living and active.” And anyone who’s taken the time to read it devotionally can testify to how directly it probes the deep, secret recesses of our souls. Probably every single Christian experiences discomfort when reading the Bible with known sin in their life. Something uncanny exists about the way it divides us asunder, but then, thank God, puts us back together again.

That’s what we have: the word of the Living God.

How to decipher it

The Scriptures are not like the Delphic oracles of ancient Greece, whose forked-tongue messages could always be twisted to mean whatever suited the interpreter’s fancy. On the contrary, we need to approach the Bible with a “scientific” mind-set, if you please.

As we approach the text, we need to ask, along the lines of Christa Standahl (former dean of Harvard Divinity School), the following questions: What did this particular message mean for those who first received it? How have believers across the centuries understood it? What does it mean for us today?

There’s a high risk of seriously misunderstanding Scripture when we read it as though it was written directly to us in the twenty-first century. We need an historical perspective, remembering that the Bible was written over the course of 1,600 years and under a wide variety of political and cultural circumstances.

Furthermore, given the complexity of the subject, a multitude of disciplines must be brought to bear on the text so as to understand it adequately. We need the linguist, the historian, the archaeologist, the biblical theologian, the systematic theologian, and so forth.

Then we need to consider the different genres of writing in the one document we call the Bible: poetry, history, prophecy, apocalyptic, story, parable, and so on. Each of these forms requires a somewhat different orientation, a different approach, a different set of tools.

That’s what I mean when I speak about a “scientific” approach to Scripture.

But here’s what I consider an extremely important caveat: notwithstanding all of the above, we impugn the character of God if we leave the impression that everyone needs to spend years, if not decades, in college and university before they can understand the gist of the biblical message. That would be like saying that a newborn infant needs to be taught how to breathe and suck. No, breathing and sucking are too critical to have them depend on formal training.

So, however risky it might be to say it, we have to affirm that this mysterious Book was designed in such a way that we can spend several lifetimes probing its enormous depth and still not reach bottom. Yet, at the same time, ordinary, uneducated people can have direct access to its most vital message—the essential message they need for eternal life.

This is part of what Jesus meant when He said in Matthew 11:25, “ ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.’

” In the end, the advance of the gospel will not depend on our ability to articulate complicated biblical or theological formulations, but— especially in our cynical, jaded, postmodern times—on the degree to which the Word becomes incarnate in our life and witness; the degree to which we reflect the Word—and, in particular, the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us. Many who have difficulty deciphering meaning from words on a page will capture the essence of Scripture from its reflection in our witness and behavior.

In his book, Maybe Tomorrow, Australian Aboriginal writer Boori Pryor (known to his compatriots as “Monty”) tells the moving story of what happened after he’d given a performance at a school in Sydney. The children all wanted to talk to him. One girl, about seven years of age, walked up and said, “Thank you, Monty.” He gave her a big hug. Then he described what followed: “She looked up at me with her beautiful eyes and said, ‘Can you make me an Aborigine?’

“I looked down at her and I thought, ‘This little one has something special.’ It wasn’t just a whim. She really felt that what she had seen was beautiful. So I knelt down and I gave her another hug and said, ‘Look, really, I can’t make you an Aborigine. But I think deep inside you’re asking questions and you’re listening and you’re learning. It’s sort of making you into an Aboriginal person in your heart. . . .

“I felt wonderful about this. I went out to my car . . . and got a T shirt from the Laura Festival, an Aboriginal cultural festival . . . held every two years in Laura . . . near my homeland. I gave the T shirt to her and she squealed, ‘Thank you!’ As she was going back I saw her throw off her jumper and put the T shirt on over the rest of her clothes.”2

When the living Word becomes incarnate in our hearts, people, even in our jaded times, will come to us and say, Can we have some of what you have? How can we become Christians too?

The point at the heart of it

The April 3, 2010, issue of the Washington Post ran an article by Jeffrey MacDonald, under the title “Putting in a Good Word for the Bible.” The article cited the sentiments of Vanderbilt University student Katherine Precht .

Responding to what the article called “skeptical scholars [who say the Bible is] full of errors, contradictions and a murky historical record,” Katherine said that none of that has s h a k e n her faith. “That’s because Precht,” to quote the article, “embraces a big-picture view of biblical truth. For her, it means the Bible speaks truth on ultimate things, such as Creation and salvation.”

I read that and said, “Touché— way to go!”

Properly understanding the Bible means seeing the big picture. The Creation story is what it is: a factual, historical account of the origin of the human family, an indispensible plank in what biblical theologians call Heilsgeschichte (“salvation history”). But in the wake of the Fall, Creation also points us to God’s re-creation in Jesus Christ.

The Exodus is what it is—a factual account of the rescue of Israel from Egyptian slavery. But understanding the bigger picture means looking beyond the multitude of details in the story and seeing the event as a depiction of the release of the entire human race from spiritual bondage through our cosmic Liberator, Jesus Christ. The old Negro spiritual captured this bigger picture:

O let us all from bondage flee,

           Let my people go,

And let us all in Christ be free,

           Let my people go.

Go down, Moses,

          Way down in Egypt’s Land.

Tell ol’ Pharaoh,

          Let my people go.

As we explain the Word, we should imagine millions of people wondering as they listen to us: What’s the point? And we must keep making the case that the point at the heart of it all is Jesus. He is the point!

And this all brings me back to the passage at the top of this article, taken from Revelation 5. As that chapter opens, John sees a scroll— that book of destiny in the hand of God. And John weeps bitterly to find that not a single being in the entire universe is found worthy “ ‘to break the seals and open the scroll’ ” (verse 2). But suddenly a voice says, “Don’t weep; there’s somebody!”

Understanding the Word means knowing that this ghastly, bloody, age-old drama ends in a triumph of grace, with all creation singing around the throne of God, Jesus Christ at the shining center.

Our big challenge is how to share what we’ve got with a jaded, been-there-done-that generation. I believe that without compromising a single principle of Scripture, the church in society—and at every gathering—can create around itself an atmosphere of grace in anticipation of that splendid moment when we shall meet at last around the throne of God.


1 All Scripture is from the New International Version of the Bible.

2 Boori Prior, Maybe Tomorrow (Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books Australia Ltd., 1998), 34, 35.

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Roy Adams, PhD, is the recently retired associate editor of the Adventist Review and Adventist World.

May 2011

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