The NIV (2011) makes a bold move in rending this verse “For no word from God will ever fail” in place of the usual and very well known, “For nothing is impossible with God.” (NIV 1984) In doing this it aligns with the ASV, the NLT and some lesser known translations. Wycliffe’s “for every word shall not be impossible with God” is an interesting exception among older translations.
It seems clear that the text allows for either approach, and there seems to be ample evidence for rhema to refer to “thing,” “event” (ie “thing happening”), or “word.” But with such a tradition behind translating rhema as “nothing” in Luke 1:37, including their own earlier translation, the NIV translators must have been persuaded that the change was truly warranted
There is little discussion of the text in general commentaries apart from Calvin. His somewhat elliptical discussion indicates a preference for “word” but allowing that nothing happens without God making it happen by his word, is happy to use the conventional “thing.”
Why is the new newer rendering preferable?
Firstly, it disposes of the pretext for a plethora of sermons about how “God can do anything” with little if any reference to the virgin conception of Christ which is the point Luke is addressing. It is of course true that God can do anything, but not only do many of the sermons on this have little to do with the virgin conception of Christ, they tend to encourage an expectation of God doing what believers decide rather than in following Mary’s example of submission to God’s declared but apparently impossible word.
Secondly, and more importantly, there is a wonderful consistency in rhema being translated “word” in verses 37 and 38. The use of rhema in those two adjacent sentences seems to me to be a strong indicator that, unless some deliberate contrast is intended that requires a different translation, one would expect rhema to be translated identically each time. The effect of this is dramatic: the angel declares “God’s word never fails” and Mary responds, “May that word be fulfilled” in what is not only an expression of remarkable and exemplary faith, but points clearly to what Mary’s faith is in – not some generalised trust that whatever happens will be what God wants, but in the words God has spoken and will do. More importantly, that in its turn points to Luke’s main point: God has declared Mary will conceive the Son of God, and God will do it. Luke uses Mary’s words to endorse the certainty of God’s words being fulfilled (and builds narrative expectation of the impossible becoming reality).
This could legitimately be extrapolated from the older rendering “things” (cf Calvin) but the newer rendering highlights what can otherwise be overlooked, and circumvents a common tendency to loose if not erroneous use of the passage.