Some years ago I was working on a theme for one of our quarterly journals. As some of you know we published a quarterly journal of 200-plus pages for nearly fifteen years. In some ways this was how my present ministry began. While still a pastor I began this journal, which was itself the overflow of my work over the course of a decade among pastors in the west suburban area of metro Chicago. That fellowship, called the Whitefield Ministerial Fellowship, attracted pastors and lay leaders from many churches and over time this led to my being commissioned to serve the church at large, here in Chicago and as far as the Lord would (and did) take me. I thus left the active pastorate in May of 1992.

When I was working on the theme "The Word of God" I realized how my own thinking had been so impacted by a kind of evangelicalism that was very unbalanced, even unhealthy. When I laid out the articles and authors for this theme I soon realized that when I thought of the subject "The Word of God" my mind automatically went to the subject of Holy Scripture. This was a mental process but it revealed to me,  in one of those ah-ha moments we all know about, that I was imprisoned in a kind of theological box. Frankly, the first thing that should have come to my mind, as many of you would have known far better than I did then, was "The Son of God." I quickly tried to make some mid-course corrections in my planning for the journal but the balance of the articles ended up being about the written Scriptures.

I learned something from this experience. I still value the written word very highly. Indeed, I believe it is "a gift divine" and a "chart and compass . . . that still guides, O Christ, to you." But the greater wisdom is not found by knowing the Scriptures but rather in the Word of God incarnate, the one to whom all Scriptures point us and the one revealed on the pages of the sacred Scripture. I genuinely believe many evangelicals, with their great emphasis upon Bible study and expository preaching, miss this point and the results are often tragic. We argue about the Bible and all too often we miss Jesus.

This story came back to me in my daily worship this week because I sang the song "O Word of God Incarnate" in my little worship chapel in my back yard. This hymn text, written in 1867 by William W. How, expresses my own faith well,. It puts that faith into song and worship which makes this theology live in a very powerful way, as all theology should live in our minds and hearts. How wrote:


O Word of God incarnate, O Wisdom from on high,

O Truth unchanged, unchanging, O Light of our dark sky:

We praise you for the radiance that from the Scripture's page,

A lantern to our foot-steps, shines on from age to age.


The church from you, dear Master, received the gift divine;

and still that light is lifted o'er all the earth to shine.

It is the chart and compass that all life's voyage through,

Mid mists and rocks and quick-sands, still guides, O Christ, to you.


O make your church, dear Savior, a lamp of burnished gold

to bear before the nations your true light as of old.

O teach your traveling pilgrims by this their path to trace

till, clouds and darkness ended, we see you face to face.


Look at these words several times. I think every Christian could/should confess these words with joy. These are not specifically Protestant words or Catholic words. They are deeply thoughtful Christian words, words of confession and personal faith. They are words of deep hope and affirmation. Verse two says that the church received the gift divine. We argue about how this happened (canonicity) but we can all agree that the church received this gift from Christ by the Spirit. We can also agree that by these Scriptures we have a compass and a chart to lead us, to guide us, until we see the Word of God himself. We clearly interpret it differently but in the end we can all come here and seek the living Christ through the pages of Holy Writ. Why? These words lead us to Christ, "mid mists and rocks and quick-sands."

But notice that William How asks God in a final prayer to make the church a "lamp of burnished gold." There is a deep love of the church here, not just a love for the Bible alone. And the prayer of the last sentence asks that we pilgrims see Christ, our lovely redeemer, "face to face." Who cannot hope for such an end if they truly love the Word of God incarnate and the Word of God we find in the Holy Scriptures, written words which point us to Christ as a lamp in this dark world.

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  1. Michael William Smith February 3, 2010 at 7:02 am

    Thank you so much brother for this! I have in the past, and I think others also, have leaned torward a view of Scripture which bordered on or was bibliolotry! Thank you for allowing the Lord Jesus Christ, The Word of God, to use you to show people this!

  2. Jack Isaacson February 3, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Hebrews 4:12 (Today’s New International Version)
    12 For the word of God [or is this better, “The Son of God” ] is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

  3. Sean Nemecek February 3, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you for this corrective. I find that “balance” is a key word when talking about theology. I always try to remember that the written word points beyond itself to the incarnate word AND that I cannot truly know the incarnate word apart from the written word. Balance can keep us from becoming idolators or false teachers.

  4. Joe Schafer February 3, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Jack’s question is an appropriate one. The Scriptures give us information about Christ that we cannot get any other way. There is no question that the Bible must be read and studied. But where is our attention focused? On the Scriptures or on the person who communicates through them? I know from personal experience that it is very easy to get into the words without encountering the Word.
    We know how important to study the Bible. But my sense is that we talk about it a lot more than we actually do it. We do not seem to enjoy it much. It is a discipline, a work, not a pleasure. Why? I think we have been losing the knowledge of how to relate to the living Word.

  5. Josh February 3, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you for this post.
    Could you write a piece on what we mean by calling the Bible the word of God?
    Or if you’ve already written on it in the past, point me to it?
    (There are accounts in the Bible that differ in detail from gospel to gospel — the order of events, the words spoken, etc.. How does/should this affect our calling the Bible “God’s word” and our approach in reading/studying/applying the Bible? Some people’s understanding of the words “the word of God” is too narrow and nonsensical, and so is insufficient to embrace the differences in the gospel accounts.)

  6. iggy February 3, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    I think Jesus already stated how we are to view the Scripture in light of who He is.
    “John 5: 39. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40. yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
    The Scripture is there to guide us and testify of Jesus the Living Word. There is not debate the Bible is a useful tool to do all the things people have already stated. Yet, to state the Bible is equal with Jesus misses what Jesus stated of it. It is a testimony of Jesus and not Jesus who Lives. The Bible comes alive only because God is a Living God and Jesus is the Living Savior.
    Many seem to try to make the bible equal with Jesus but if you think that re-read Jesus’ words in the verse I just gave. The one thing the Bible cannot do… as Jesus states… is give Life. Only Jesus can give Life. The Bible leads us to Life and in Life but does not give Life… for, “The Life is in the Son.”
    The point is that if one only had the scirptures, they may live a good life, but not the eternal Life of Christ imparted to us.

  7. Jon K February 5, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I would be interested to hear more talk about whether we need to rein in the ways we interchange “Jesus” and “Word.” I don’t think the Bible teaches that Jesus is “The Bible in the Flesh,” the way we often feel free to interchange the term “word.” The Scriptures talk about Jesus as “the logos (word) made flesh” only in John 1. Many scholars believe the background of “logos” in this text to be the Greek philosophical term (spiritual force holding the world together) rather than the Jewish term for Scriptures. For Jews, the equivalent would more likely be the “Wisdom of God made flesh.” So I’m not sure we have the freedom to say that “Jesus is a lamp unto my feet” (119:105) was the intent of the Psalmist (though that metaphor may in itself be accurate). Hopefully, I’m not convoluting the discussion too much, but I do think it is important not to play loose and fast with words or the author’s intent.

  8. Nick Morgan February 6, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    Great post John! Very well said.

  9. Joe Schafer February 7, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Jon K’s point about “Jesus” and “Word” is well taken. But if we must restrict ourselves to the original intent of the psalmists, then we would have to conclude that the apostles, evangelists and even Jesus himself misused Psalms. In most cases, psalms that we now believe point to Christ were not perceived by Jews as messianic prophecies at all. Original intent is too restrictive when Christians seek to understand the Old Testament.

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