“All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). This verse is the key passage for the doctrine called plenary verbal inspiration. Various incorrect theories will arise if we try to read our ideas of “inspiration” into this passage. We think of a touching story, or a thought planted in our head, or something like that. The word for “inspired by God” in this text is a compound word literally meaning “God-breathed”. It signifies that Scriptures come out from God.
So what exactly did God breathe out while the prophets and apostles were writing? The text says that it is Scripture. I point out the obvious here because many say that God inspired the writer alone, and that person wrote down whatever they felt. However, the writers of Scripture are not even hinted at in this passage. Rather it is the Scriptures– the writings themselves- that are God-breathed.
That’s where the word verbal comes into play. Verbal inspiration means that it is the very words themselves which are breathed out by God. This is distinct from false notions that God only inspired the ideas of Scripture. However, here we see that God put exact words in the prophet’s mouths which they were to convey word for word to their hearers. He did not simply say, “Hey Jeremiah, go tell your kinsmen to repent,” but gave Jeremiah sermons including specific sins, specific threats, and specific details of future events.
Quotations of “Scripture”
There are plenty of New Testament passages where the writers will quote “Scripture”, yet the place of quotation is not spoken directly by God. (There are other places where such citations happen, but for our purposes I shall only refer to those that are specifically deemed “Scripture” by the New Testament author). For example, in Mark 12:10-11 Jesus prefaces a quotation from Psalm 118:22-23 with, “Have you not even read this Scripture?” The words to which he is referring are David’s. Likewise, in John 13:18, He says that Judas’ betrayal of Him was “that the Scripture may be fulfilled,” and then He quotes Psalm 41:9. Again, the words of the human author.
In John 19:24, the apostle John says the soldiers’ gambling for Jesus’ clothes “was to fulfill the Scripture,” and then quotes Psalm 22:18. Peter says that Psalms 69:25 and 109:8 were prophesies of Judas in Acts 1:15-21. He calls these “Scripture,” and says that “the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David” these things (Acts 1:16). Both Paul and James consider Genesis 15:6 to be “Scripture” (Rom. 4:3; Jas. 2:23), whereas that is simply narrative. In Romans 11, Paul quotes from 1 Kings both words of Elijah and words of God and calls them both “Scripture” (Rom. 11:2-4, quoting 1 Kin. 19:10, 14, 18). Paul considers the words of Sarah recorded in Genesis 21:10 to be Scripture (Gal. 4:30).
Thus, to Jesus and the apostles, not only were the words which God directly spoke considered Scripture, and therefore inspired, but the entirety of the writings in the Old Testament-whether narrative, or quotes from a human- are all inspired. Thus 2 Timothy 3:16 holds true, that “All Scripture is inspired by God.”
Write/Speak Exactly What I Say
When God would give a message for His prophets to speak or to write, He cared a lot about the words, and demanded that it be written exactly as He spoke it. Consider His words while commissioning Jeremiah: “Behold, I have put My words in your mouth” (Jer. 1:9). If we try to avoid the implication that Jeremiah spoke the exact words God wanted, God also says to him, “speak to them all which I command you” (v. 17). Everything that God wanted to be spoken was spoken. Ezekiel’s commission has this idea also. God says to him, “you shall speak My words to them” (Ezek. 2:7). A scroll was given him and he was to eat it. Then the charge is repeated, “Speak with My words to them” (3:4). Also, God says that they will not listen to Ezekiel because they will not listen to Him (3:7), thus equating the words of the prophet with the words which God tells him.
Consider the attitude of Balaam. Three times Balak tries to get Balaam to curse Israel in the name of God. However, each time his response is that he can only speak what God says. In Numbers 23:5 we are told that God “put a word in Balaam’s mouth” and he was told to speak exactly that. After hearing the word from God, Balak was angered, but Balaam responded, “Must I not be careful to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?” (v. 12). Notice that the words he spoke were the words put in his mouth. Also notice that he was careful to speak the correct things. He thought about it, was careful not to slip, and did not spice it up with his own opinions (See also 22:18; 24:12-14). (Such was the attitude of Micaiah, and Moses and Aaron e.g. 1 Kin.22:14; Ex. 4:12, 15, 28-30).
We see this in the example of Jehoiakim burning the scroll that Jeremiah dictated to Baruch (Jer. 36). First, may it be noted that it was dictated (vv. 4, 6). When asked if he dictated it, he responded, “He dictated all these words to me, and I wrote them with ink on the book” (vv. 17-18). Another important fact from this account is that after the scroll was burned, the LORD wanted an exact copy made. “Take again another scroll and write on it all the former words that were on the first scroll which Jehoiakim the king of Judah burned” (v. 28). So we see that the exact words which God originally spoke to Jeremiah were dictated to Baruch and written down by him, and then spoken to the people, and then burned, and then again rewritten exactly as before. God did not ask for paraphrasing or related thoughts, but for the exact same words.
Care for little details
Consider Revelation 22:18-19, where we are warned not to add to, nor take away from, the words of that book. I am not trying to use this in the typical sense where people say it refers to the entire Bible and this is God’s “Holy Stop Sign” to further revelation. Clearly this passage only refers to the book of Revelation. However, what is important to note for our task at hand is that it is the words which are not to be altered in any way. Knowing that God cared so much that these exact words were written down as He told John, we can beat down some notions. You see, some may believe that God mostly just gave John the visions, and he was to describe them the best he could in human language. God didn’t unveil his glory and say, “Ok Johnny, be poetic now!” No, every word in Revelation is just what God wanted John to write.
Another example is Jesus’ famous words, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). Again, I am not using this verse in the typical sense, and perhaps in the future I could blog my thoughts on it. What I wish to show is the same attitude we saw from Revelation, that the words are of great importance. And this time Jesus goes even further than words! He speaks of every jot and tittle! In our modern English, we would say, “Crossing every ‘T’, and dotting ever ‘i’.” Paul also makes a comment concerning one letter in the Old Testament, where he points out that the promise to Abraham was to his “seed” not his “seeds” (Gal. 3:16).
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus says, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25, emphasis mine). Here, he says that all of what the prophets spoke is to be believed and accepted. We cannot accept some of the Old Testament and reject the rest. Also, from the context we learn that Jesus was not referring to only the prophets, but extends it to the entire Old Testament. For it says He explained all things concerning Himself and His suffering “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets” (v. 27).
Therefore, every word -in fact, every letter-of Scripture was inspired by God as the Spirit moved the prophets to write. God’s words in the Scriptures are not limited just to His talking, just as Jesus’ words are not limited to the red letters. Let us, then, uphold their truthfulness and trustworthiness. For the God who spoke them is a God of truth who cannot lie.