Word of the Week
February 25, 2023
Rhēma: Zero In on the Word
But he answered and said, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God.’”
Most of us get jumpy if we have to miss a meal. I recently had to fast for 12 hours in preparation for a lab test, and I was ready for breakfast the moment I left the lab!
That pales in comparison to the forty-day fast that Jesus experienced before his confrontation with the devil in the Judean wilderness. He had skipped 120 meals when Satan showed up and urged him to say the words that would turn the rocks into breakfast!
We recognize that a person needs food to live, but Jesus replied, “There is something more important than bread. Your survival depends on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Our security doesn’t rest on a well-stocked pantry; it depends on the word of God.
You’re probably aware that the usual Greek for “word” is logos. But that is not the word Jesus chose here. Why did he select a different term? Let’s take a closer look to see what we can find. If our life depends on it, we should be sure we get it right!
Logos appears over 300 times in the New Testament. It is usually translated “word,” but it actually covers a wide range of meanings. Check the “Study Hints” below to see the variety of ideas included.
When Jesus rebuked Satan, he used the alternate word, rhēma (RAY-mah), which appears about 70 times in the New Testament. It is almost always translated “word” or “saying.”
What should I know about rhema?
- It is sometimes interchangeable with logos. Both mean “word,” and there are many verses where either word would do equally well.
- Jesus announced, “But I tell you that every careless word [rhēma] that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words [logos] you will be justified, and by your words [logos] you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:35-36).
In other words, it is not always appropriate to spend time talking about the differences between the two words.
- It normally describes a verbal statement – a word or sentence, with an emphasis on the actual words chosen.
- After his third denial of Jesus, Peter remembered the statement [rhēma] of Jesus: “Before the cock crows . . .” (Matthew 26:75; Mark 14:72).
- Jesus refused to answer Pilate with a single word [rhēma] (Matthew 27:14).
- The disciples did not understand His word [rhēma] about his upcoming death and resurrection (Mark 9:32).
In other words, rhēma often refers to the actual words of a specific statement, not just the general idea.
- It occasionally means “matter, thing, event” – something significant that you can talk about.
- Gabriel to Mary: “No thing [rhēma] is impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).
- After the birth of John, people were talking about “all these matters” [rhēma] (Luke 1:65).
- The shepherds said, “Let us go and see this thing [rhēma] that has happened” (Luke 2:15).
In other words, a rhema could be an event, not a saying at all.
What is the difference between logos and rhema?
Logos is most often used to describe the overall truth that God has revealed about Himself and His ways, either in words or in the person of His Son.
Rhēma, on the other hand, refers to the specific words of a message addressed to a particular person.
One commentator says, “Logos can often designate the Christian proclamation as a whole, but rhēma usually relates to individual words and utterances.” (Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theololgy)
What difference does this make?
Jesus could have faced Satan with a broad doctrinal statement like, “The Lord is sovereign, so we must obey His will.” Similarly, we can deal with temptations or by looking at the Bible and asking, “What is the overall message of God’s Word?” When we do that, we are examining the logos of God, summarizing the teaching of many verses. That’s good! But it’s not what Jesus did in the wilderness.
Instead, he met each temptation by zeroing in on a specific verse of Scripture that shot holes in Satan’s arguments. He used the rhēmas of God to beat back the devil’s attacks. This is also good!
Here’s a practical suggestion: Build a stockpile of Scripture verses that you can use when issues arise. Ask God to guide you to passages that relate to your big concerns. Memorize them, meditate on them, and maintain them in your mind so you can pull them out at the critical moment.
You can get an idea of the wide range of meanings for the word logos by consulting the lexicon at the back of a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. Each Strong’s entry gives the primary meanings of the word, followed by a list of all the ways that the word is translated in the King James Version.
Here is what you will find for logos: account, cause, communication, concerning, doctrine, fame, have to do, intent, matter, mouth, preaching, question, reason, reckon, remove, say(ing), shew, speaker, speech, talk, thing, tidings, treatise, utterance, word, work.
It’s quite a spread of ideas! We will do a separate study of logos in a later article.
Q: I have heard some Bible teachers use the word rhēma to describe the experience of having the Holy Spirit bring a specific verse of Scripture to your attention as God’s way of giving direction or revealing something that applies to your current situation. Is this accurate?
A: God is certainly able to use individual verses to provide guidance for His children. Many of us have had the experience of having a verse “jump off the page,” giving us the conviction that the Lord is specifically bringing it to our attention. We sometimes call this the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit. The prophet Daniel was deeply moved when he read Jeremiah’s prediction that Israel’s exile in Babylon would be seventy years long; he realized that the predicted date was approaching; it was something that he might personally witness!
However, I don’t know of a place in the New Testament where the Greek word rhēma is used to describe that experience of reading the Bible and having a particular verse “come alive” for you. There is nothing wrong with using the word in that way, but we should realize that we are using our own definition, not one of the standard ways it was used in the first century.
Most major changes happen slowly and gradually, but there are times when life shifts abruptly. Next week we will look at a Greek word that describes sudden, dramatic changes. When God steps in, He sometimes surprises us!
©Ezra Project 2023