Word and Spirit
Suddenly, preaching God’s Word is being labelled “Unspiritual” – in some circles at least!
Source: Perspective Vo1 No1 © Pearl Beach Press 1999
Suddenly, preaching God’s Word is being labelled “Unspiritual” – in some circles at least! Mike Fischer points out some interesting implications of the biblical link between WORD & SPIRIT...
TREVOR’S VOICE was trembling with indignation. This was the final showdown – it was him or me. “The trouble is,” said Trevor, “you guys who spend all your time reading commentaries and analysing the Bible and planning what you’re going to say on a Sunday, you just don’t leave any room for the Spirit to speak. And I’ve had a gutful. You and your unspiritual church can go and jump in the river.”
And with that, he turned and walked away. He didn’t come back.
The question is, was he right? Is it “unspiritual” to step into the pulpit well prepared? Is it somehow more spiritual to just “let go and let God?” A close look at the biblical concepts of “word” and “spirit” provides some interesting answers.
The Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ is ruach. The Greek word for ‘spirit’ is pneuma. In both languages, the word is a bit ambiguous… ruach and pneuma can mean ‘spirit’ or ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ – they have a sort of built-in ambiguity. (For example, look at Jn.3:8 where this ambiguity is played upon by Jesus.)
This ambiguity seems to be used by the Biblical writers fairly often, and you’ll need to keep it in mind if you’re to make sense of what is said in the following pages.
First to the OT. In Gen. 1:2 we read that ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’. What happens next? Verse 3: ‘And God SAID…’ Now look at Psalm 33:6…
By the WORD of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the BREATH of his mouth.
The Hebrew parallelism points clearly to ‘word’ and ‘breath’ as being sort of the same. (Remember that in Hebrew, ‘breath’ is ruach.) The nature of. the relationship between the two will be discussed further on.
The OT view of the prophets and their ministry just oozes with this word/spirit association. The prophets spoke the word of God because the Spirit of the Lord was upon them. Only the man possessed by the Spirit of God could say, ‘Thus saith the Lord’. There are no fewer than 18 passages in the OT which associate the ruach adonai with the prophetic word. Of Balaam it is said, ‘... the Spirit of God came upon him and he uttered this oracle…’ (Num 24:2,3).It is plain that the Hebrews viewed prophetic words as a work of the Spirit: ‘Then Zedekiah son of Kenaanah went up and slapped Micaiah in the face. “Which way did the spirit from the Lord go when he went from me to speak to you?” he asked.’ (1 Kings 22:24). Then of course we have Joel 2:28. “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…” In retrospect, Peter had this to say about the ministry of the prophets: ‘For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke born God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ (2 Pet.1:21). So then, when we examine the ministry of the prophets, word and spirit are strongly linked.
In the NT you can find many examples of this link between ‘word’ and ‘spirit’, and you don’t have to look too far, either.
Let’s start with the ministry of Jesus as presented in the gospels. It was in the synagogue at Nazareth that Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah. He promptly read from Isaiah 61:1,2. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom to the prisoners… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ It’s here that we see the link with between Jesus and the OT prophets: even the Messiah required the Spirit to speak out the word of God, in this manner resembling an OT prophet.
Luke 20:9-16, the parable of the tenants, confirms for us that Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition; but as the Messiah, Jesus also transcends this prophetic tradition – for as he said in Matt. 5:17, he is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Yet even as the fulfilment of the prophetic tradition, Jesus awaited the enduement of the Spirit. His words were Spirit- driven.
But on to the epistles. How many times have we read Eph. 6:17 and failed to recognise the word/spirit association there? ‘... the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’.
Oft-quoted 2 Tim. 3:16 is another beauty. ‘... all Scripture is God-breathed’. The word/spirit association isn’t that obvious until you clue in to the spirit/breath ambiguity; ‘God-breathed’ is theopneustos, a compound between theos and pneuma.
Eph. 5:18-6:9 and Col. 3:16-4:1 are two parallel passages, which obviously reflect a sort of early Christian catechism. But notice of how these two passages begin. Eph. 5:18 says ‘be filled with the Spirit’, while Col. 3:16 says ‘let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’. It seems that Paul was consciously drawing a parallel here – to be filled with the Spirit has a lot to do with hanging on to what Jesus said.
But what about 1 Pet. 1:23? ‘For you have been born again… through the living and enduring word of God’. The point to notice is that we usually only associate regeneration with the work of the Holy Spirit (eg. Jn. 3:3-8, Tit. 3:5), but here Peter reckons we’ve been regenerated by ‘the word of God’. The interesting thing is that he goes on to specify what he means by ‘the word of God’: he quotes from Isa. 40:6-8, and then he says, ‘And this is the word that was preached to you.’ So, what can we conclude? This: when God wants to create the heavens and the earth, he speaks a creative word; when he wants to create new life in people, he speaks the gospel word. The Spirit is intimately involved in both these ‘word’ acts of God.
Another fascinating little point about Peter’s quotation from Isa. 40:6-8 is that he doesn’t quote it entirely; he misses a bit out of verse 7. The omitted words say, ‘The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the BREATH of the Lord blows on them’. ‘Breath’ (ruach) and ‘word’ are kicking around together yet again!
So how do ‘word’ and ‘spirit’ relate? I think the picture presented to us in the OT (and carried through into the NT) seems to be this: when God speaks, breath comes out of his mouth. This picture provides us with a conceptual key whereby we can begin to comprehend the nature of the link between the Word of God and the Spirit of God. It illustrates for us the closeness and the inseparability of word and spirit: they’re as close and inseparable as speaking and breath.
Well then, what implications does this have for ministry? To begin with, it should make us super-careful in our exegesis for sermon-preparation. Because if we’re not preaching the word of God, how can we expect the Spirit to do his work in people’s hearts? If we’re going to mess around allegorising and twisting what a text says, we’d better not expect God’s Spirit to do much with it. But where the Bible is faithfully preached, we can expect the Spirit to be at work. Exegesis and hermeneutics are crucial! Another hot little spin off from this word-spirit association is that it introduces an objectivity to our thinking about the Spirit. This is like a breath (no pun intended) of fresh air. Do you want to be filled with the Spirit? Then let the word of Christ dwell in you richly (recall Eph.5:18 and Col. 3:16).
The point is that we should get stuck into our Bibles. A lot of theology on the Spirit-filled life today is almost hopelessly bogged down in a quagmire of subjectivity.
(It’s interesting, isn’t it, that those churches who reckon they’ve got the Spirit more than the rest of us, at the same time treat their Bibles pretty sparingly. It makes you wonder how ‘spiritual’ they really are.) The spiritual church is the one that centres its thought and practice around the Bible.
To conclude, then, a recognition of the word/spirit association in the Bible has significant implications for the Christian life in general and Christian ministry in particular. The notion that ministers can extol the word of God at the expense of the Spirit’s presence is a theological impossibility; in building our ministries around the word of God, the Spirit will always be at work. We could not wish for more.
Mike Fischer trained and worked as a pastor with the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.