What Does the "Living" Word Really Mean?
By Christopher Abel
October 1, 2012
When I first became a Christian, I have a vivid memory of my pastor lifting up his hefty leather Bible—his name inscribed in shiny silver letters—and thrusting it at the air while pronouncing the power of the “LIVING WORD OF GOD.” This was something he liked to do often. And for that community, it got its desired effect. His constant acclamation and confidence left us all with a sense of awe and respect for the biblical texts.
The Bible was magical and mysterious and held within it the secrets of reality ... or perhaps, just the problems we were dealing with at the time. So, over the next year, I learned the Bible inside and out.
But eventually I came to realize that we didn’t love the book—we used it. We handled the Bible like an object, and depending on the situation, treated it like either a sword or a piece of delicate china. But we never really treated it as if it were “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12).
But eventually I came to realize that we didn’t love the book—we used it.
Years have passed and I don’t fault the pastor and this church for their treatment of the Bible. For all intents and purposes, their perspective on the biblical texts enabled them to dig deeply into them—perhaps with certain intentions, but into the texts, regardless.
Since then, I’ve met and worshipped with many kinds of Christians and their many different perspectives concerning the Bible. Some people approach the book with fear or intimidation. Others analyze it like a textbook or read into it like a storybook. Still others speak of it with flowery affection ... with or without actually spending time with it. Occasionally I meet someone who approaches the book like Moses tiptoeing to the burning bush, barefooted and humble.
But these are only a few ways I’ve seen people approach the scriptures. The truth of the matter is that it would be an understatement to say that people have unique relationships with their Bibles.
Even so, most of these relationships seem to be with an object. Some communities may use the phrase the “Living Word of God,” but is there any basis to this claim? How should that adjective—“living"—change our approach to the scriptures?It takes a fresh perspective to be free of the assumption that the Bible is just another book on the shelf, a perspective my eyes were opened to recently in my Hebrew class.
“The Hebrew language is not a precise mathematical language. It is alive. It desires to be known."
While teaching the basic Hebrew letters, our professor began to talk about each of the letters as if they had personalities. “Watch out for this guy. He’s a postmodern letter and keeps changing depending on the situation. Oh, but this one is rock-solid. You can rely on her.”
My classmates and I enjoyed the humorous imagery, but after being asked about the poetic imagery in the biblical language, the professor became a poet himself, “The Hebrew language is not a precise mathematical language. It is alive. It desires to be known. It dares you to chase after it, pursue it and immerse yourself within it. So do not take it lightly. Spend time with it. Get to know it. It is complex and mysterious and deserves your time.”
Sometimes it’s easy to approach the Bible as if we can dissect and analyze it. But the Bible, like a person, is not something that you can analyze and comprehend fully. In the same way that a person isn’t their Facebook profile or their resume, the Bible isn’t merely an object. When it comes to knowing a living person, it can take years, if not a lifetime, to truly know and understand someone. It takes dedication and loyalty—and even conflict. And even if we’re willing, the best of intentions can still push people away from us. Ever try getting to know someone, but come off as too eager? It can often lead to relationships that are lopsided or off balance. Getting to know someone’s true self takes mutual respect and trust.
Knowing a living being is not a science. Knowing is not merely data-gathering. Truly knowing a living being takes time and purpose and relationship. Becoming familiar with the life inside of someone is a complex process! And while the idea of approaching the Bible as a living thing might seem like a strange concept, there is something sacred available to us when we give the scriptures room to be alive.
When we encounter beautiful passages, we can love them back—knowing that God is in them and speaking through them. When we wrestle with dark or confusing texts, we can let ourselves feel uncomfortable, yet still trusting. When we encounter hope, we can celebrate along our scriptures. When we read of acts of justice, we can be inspired to imitate our book. When the words pour forth mourning and lamentation, we can sit alongside of them and offer comfort. When we read those red letters, the words of Jesus, we can feel gratitude to our pages for holding such sacred gifts from our Lord.
Your Bible is not just a book. It is your friend. And it is the kind of friend who will be waiting there no matter how much time passes. Do not use your friend. Do not manipulate your friend’s words. Do not label or objectify your friend. This friend has seen lifetimes come and go. It has seen God step into and through reality. It has seen blood spilt and blood sacrificed for thousands of years. Your friend is wise. Your friend speaks in whispers through the One who authored it. Your friend has emotions and layers.
And like most living things, it wants deeply to be known. When you read God's Word, what is taking place is more than just a one-way "study" from person to object. Instead, God's Word is indeed living as God moves it to work in your life—and make you more like Him.