The Worth of Words

Since my days in high school, more than seventy years ago, I have been fascinated by the study of words, not only in our English language, but their origin and the meaning of the Latin or Greek words from which so many were derived. My favorite teacher in my earlier years in high school was Sue Heilman, my English teacher who gave me a love for English literature and for poetry, especially the Victorian poets. When I transferred to a military school to complete my high school education, once again my favorite teacher was my English instructor, Captain Moore, who not only continued continued to whet my appetite for literature, but also for word studies, which led me to choose Latin as an elective. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that one of my favorite college courses was etymology, the derivation and meaning of words, and in seminary the classes I enjoyed most were Hebrew and Greek word studies. 

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My love affair with words has continued to this day, and this also explains my interest in storytelling, my love of preaching, and my appreciation for the teachings of Jesus – his skill as a storyteller, his use of parables in communicating some of life’s most important lessons. He used familiar words and word-pictures (images from every-day life) to grab the attention of His listeners. Jesus was the Master Teacher, and it is not difficult to understand why “…the common people heard him gladly, for he did not speak as the scribes and Pharisees.” He was not handing out the same old religious fare, for He was able to use old words to convey new truths about God, about life, about death, about “faith, hope, and love” – about “justice, mercy, and grace” – about repentance, forgiveness, and pardon – about what God expects of us, and how to inherit everlasting life (i.e. new light from old lamps).  

I assume everyone reading this is familiar with the old saying, “One picture is worth a thousand words.” Don’t you believe it! As much as I love art, enjoy visiting art museums, attending art exhibits, and even painting myself, I am convinced no painting, no portrait, no picture is worth more than words, either the written word or the spoken word. I can take a “thousand words” and give you the “Ten Commandments” (also called the “ten words”), Psalm 23, the “Lord’s Prayer,” several parables of Jesus, the first eight verses of the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians (the greatest of all listings of love’s attributes), as well as a sonnet of Shakespeare, the “Bill of Rights,” and still have several words left over. I submit no picture is worth that!

However, when we consider the worth of words from a biblical perspective, we must go back to “the beginning,” to the first of the so-called “Five Books of Moses,” the Book of Genesis. The first five books of the Old Testament are known today as the “Pentateuch,” (a Greek word referring to the earliest section of the Bible) which was divided into “five scrolls” (there were no books at that time, but there were words written on papyrus scrolls). The first five scrolls are known in Judaism by the Hebrew word “Torah,” most frequently translated “law,” but the word can also be translated “teaching.” The Torah story relates to what theologians would call “revelation,” or “biblical history” (salvation history), recorded in words written by those inspired by God to write the books revealing the mighty acts of God, as well as the wondrous words of God. The title given to the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis, simply means “beginning” or “origin,” and the opening verse is “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” out of original chaos (i.e. created an orderly universe). How? By the power of God’s Word (see Genesis 1:3,6,11,14,20,22-24,26,28-29; Psalm 33:6; II Corinthians 4:6) – “God said…” – God spoke the worlds into being, “ex nihilo” (i.e. “out of nothing” – the manifestation of God’s unlimited power, God’s omnipotence, God’s absolute sovereignty). IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO SEPARATE GOD’S WORD FROM GOD’S DEED! God’s Word IS God’s deed! When God says something, God does something!

Now let us fast forward to the fourth gospel in the New Testament, the Gospel of John, chapter one, which begins with words that immediately bring to mind Genesis 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He (i.e. the Eternal Christ,  the Word of God – the Greek words is “Logos,” which in Greek thought is more than speech; it is God in action! It is God creating! It is God revealing! It is God not only making His mighty power known, but most of all God making Himself known, God’s “self-revelation” in the person of the historical Jesus (John 1:3 and 14). The fullness of God’s glory “dwelt” in Him, the Living Word, the One through whom “All things came into being…without him not one thing came into being…and the Word became flesh and lived among us full of grace and truth; we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’a only Son” (John 1:14; see also Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20 and 2:9-10). 

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT GOD IS LIKE, LOOK AT JESUS – THE WORD OF GOD MADE FLESH, THE LIVING WORD, THE WALKING WORD! When John speaks of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, the unique and solitary Son of God the “only begotten Son” (John 3:16) who “dwelt” (more literally translated from the Greek as “tabernacled” ) among us, the One in whom “…all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19) – “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwelt bodily” (2:9) – not merely the presence of God, but the very Person of God! The Eternal Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – get the arithmetic out of your head, for the word means “Tri-unity”, one in three) – the “pre-existent” WORD OF GOD who was “in the beginning” (i.e. before time began), in the fullness of time was “…born in human likeness,”  Philippians 2:70. Although He IS Lord(i.e. “Lord God” – Isaiah 52:10, 13-15, 55:6-7), “...he did not think equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (“doulos,” more literally a “slave,” perhaps an illusion to Isaiah 52:13-14, 53:11-12, the “Suffering Servant,” the Messiah/Redeemer of Isaiah 53:3-12) – “...who being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God (i.e. God the Father) also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and in earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11; also 1:1, which is Paul’s usual salutation, “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ – see Romans 1:7,  Galatians 1:3,  First Thessalonians 1:1, II Thessalonians 1:1, First Timothy 1:2, II Timothy 1:2, Ephesians 1:1, I Corinthians 1:3, II Corinthians 1:2 ).

Remember the words and claims of Jesus Himself. Remember His claims: “You call me Master and Lord, and you are right, for that is who I am. So if I, your Lord and Master (i.e. Master Teacher) have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example (i.e. an example of servanthood, servant leadership)…Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers (i.e. those who speak for them) greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them (John 13:12-17). One of the greatest gifts we can give to our Lord is the gift of doing!

So, to sum it up biblically, just as no believer in the Judeo-Christian tradition would question the worth of the words of the patriarchs, prophets, judges, and kings in the Old Testa-ment, so no serious seeker for the truth about Jesus would fail to appreciate the worth of the words attributed to Him in the “four gospels,” Furthermore, no Christian who takes the Scriptures as his or her authority for “faith and practice” (i.e. the practice of their faith) would ever deny the worth of the words written by the apostles, or any of the authors inspired by God to write words that were destined to become a part of the rest of the rest of the New Testament, including the testimony of those who were “eyewitnesses” to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, all of the sixty-six books of the Bible are referred to as words that will “never pass away” (Isaiah 40:8, Isaiah 55:11; Psalm 30:5. Psalm 119:105; Matthew 24:35).

The Apostle John speaks of what and who he and other apostles had “heard” with their own ears, “seen” with their own eyes, and “touched” with their own hands (I John 1:1-3), for in the person of Jesus, the Christ, God’s Word had become audible, the invisible God had become became visible, the spiritual had become tangible and touchable. See I John 1:1-4 – read these verses yourself and meditate on every word John shares with us in these opening words of his first letter – be still, be silent, be attentive, listening for the voice of God, allowing God to speak to you personally through His inspired and inspiring Word. Furthermore, MEDITATE ON THESE WORDS AS WELL: Psalm 30:5, Psalm 119:105; Isaiah 40:8 and 55:11; Mark 4:2-9 and13-20; Matthew 24:35; Luke 6:47). I encourage you to discipline yourself, to become a meditator on the spoken and written words of God: Psalm 1:2, Psalm 19:14, Psalm 119:97. I have learned much from a friend and mentor, Dr. David Ross, who knows better than anyone else I am personally acquainted with the value of meditation, and has devoted many years to teaching believers how to become disciplined “Meditators,” a holy habit of the faith, a “means of grace,” that will contribute immeasurably to your growth toward spiritual maturity.

However, in conclusion, permit me to share a biblical warning about wordseven the words of Scripture, including the words of Jesus. For words are no substitute for action! This warning is found in a question Jesus asked His disciples, and in a parable that He gave to illustrate what He was saying: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I command you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words and acts on them…also what one is like who hears my words and does not act on them (now read the “Parable of the Two Builders” that follows in Luke 6:46-49, and MEDITATE on the meaning of our Lord’s warning – compare Matthew 7:: 24-27).  Next, turn to the Letter of James, who dared to raise the issue of words without works. Although he was not disputing Pauls’ doctrine of salvation “by grace alone through faith alone,” he was warning other members of the Body of Christ in apostolic times that it is faith working in love that Jesus commands, and that James demands: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22) – “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith, but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself (words without works) is dead” (2:14-17). WORDS WITHOUT WORKS IS COUNTERFEIT CHRISTIANITY (see Matthew 25:31-46, Galatians 5:6; James 1:26-27). 

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Suffice it to say, a faith that doesn’t work is not true faith, not the kind of faith that pleases God (Hebrews 11:6), The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please God,” but in the eleventh chapter he calls the roll of the faithful (i.e. heroes and heroines in Old Testament times), and tells us about the kind of faith that pleases God – faith that acts in accordance with God’s will, in obedience to God’s commandments, in faithful service – faith that is willing to take risks, faith that refuses to be conformed to this world, faith that is overwhelming confidence in God (not as bad definition of faith, true faith, absolute confidence in the promises of God, God’s trustworthiness), faith that faces threats and dangers unafraid, faith that endures trials and tribulations, faith that remains steadfast and immovable in the testing times of life – the kind of faith we live by, the kind of faith that enables us to “fight the good fight” and to “keep the faith” (II Timothy 4:7), to continue in what we have learned,” to persevere,” to live a godly life in Christ Jesus, to be “proficient in every good work” (II Timothy 3:10-17).

WHEREVER THERE ARE ONLY WORDS IN THE BODY OF CHRIST, OR IN ANY BELIEVER’S LIFE, FAITH IS NO MORE ALIVE THAN A BODY WITHOUT SPIRIT!

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