We’ve just had elections and seen parties and people jostling and competing for political power. In London Boris and Ken were neck and neck and Boris came out on top. Today over the channel Sarkozy and Hollande are fighting it out for years of presidential power in Paris. When the news channels are full of such things it would be easy to lose sight of the truth about where the real power lies. So today we have a timely reminder.
After a pause for Partnership Sunday, this week we’re back to our series in the Letter to the Hebrews. We’ve got to 4.12-13. Just two verses, but what this passage lacks in size it makes up for in significance. Hebrews 4v12-13.
Two weeks ago Jonathan Redfearn took us through 4v1-11, with the challenge to persevere to the end, and the reminder that God’s life-transforming promise of sabbath rest in the age to come requires a response, and that today is the day for us to make that response to God. Delay hardens the heart.
In other words the overarching theme of this section of Hebrews is God’s call to us to make sure that we don’t harden our hearts but instead respond to his Word. Verses 12-13, which can at first sight seem like a little stand alone section, are in fact bang in line with that theme, because their focus is ‘The Word of God’. That’s my title today, as you’ll see from the outline on the back of the service sheet – The Word of God. And you’ll see there also that I have three simple headings: first, God has spoken and speaks today; secondly, God’s word is living, active and sharp; and thirdly, God’s word penetrates and judges.
That’s the message of Hebrews 4v12-13. Here they are:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Heb.4v 12-13)
What’s that saying? It’s saying that God's powerful and penetrating Word uncovers the truth, brings everyone to account, and judges. So we must listen to it now and live in obedience to it. Those who don't will find the time comes when it’s too late. Those who do can approach God's throne with confidence now, and can approach eternity with assurance.
So let’s think these verses through.
First, GOD HAS SPOKEN AND SPEAKS TODAY
Before we delve further, we need to think about the meaning of that opening phrase “the word of God”. Clearly it relates to God speaking, but what exactly does it mean? Well Hebrews has already helped us with that, so let’s remind ourselves what we’ve found out about the word of God from the early chapters. Turn right back to the beginning of the letter. Here’s 1v1-3:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Heb. 1v1-3)
The only way that we can get to know God is by God revealing himself to us. As 1 Corinthians 2v11 has it:
… no-one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 2 v11)
So how has he spoken to us? In three main ways.
First, through the prophets. Hebrews 1v1 again:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways… (Heb. 1v1)
A prophet is someone singled out by God first to receive revelation from him, and then to proclaim that revelation. In all kinds of ways he used human voices to speak his words, and God made sure they were written down and not lost. And that is what we have in the Old Testament. But that was not the end of it.
The second way that God has spoken to us is there in Hebrews 1v2:
but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son… (Heb. 1v2)
Jesus was a prophet. But he was so much more than a prophet. He revealed God not only through what he said, but through who he was and what he did. As he replied when Philip asked him to show them the Father:
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…(John 14v9)
So now, if we want to get to know God, we have to get to know Jesus.
He is and was and will be the divine King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the one who is in control of everything for ever. And how does he control everything? By speaking. Verse 3: he is “sustaining all things by his powerful word”.
He is the word and he speaks the word. No wonder we should listen to his voice above all other voices. God’s revelation of himself in Jesus is comprehensive and it is final. Until the day comes when we do see him face to face, that’s it. So (3v1):
… fix your thoughts on Jesus… (Heb. 3 v1)
But do we have a reliable, God given account of who Jesus was, what he did, and what he said? If Jesus was a once for all revelation of God, that’s a crunch question.
The prophets themselves tell us a great deal about Jesus, in God-inspired anticipation of his coming. So when Jesus wanted to explain his own significance to the confused disciples after the resurrection, what did he do? So the risen Jesus said when he appeared to the apostles (this is Luke 24):
“Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures… (Luke 24v 44-45)
And very significantly he added:
“You are witnesses of these things…” (Luke 24 v48)
That is the third way by which God speaks to us. First, through the prophets. Secondly, and supremely, in Jesus. And thirdly, through the apostles’ inspired witness to Christ and their teaching about him. They tell us what happened, and what it meant, with God’s authority. So if you look at Hebrews 2v3 you’ll see it says:
This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. (Heb. 2v3)
And what we have in the New Testament is the record of the teaching of the apostles.
God’s revelation of himself in Jesus is comprehensive and final. But that doesn’t mean that he’s stopped speaking to us. God has spoken, but he also speaks today. The word of God that we have in the Bible is not dead. It’s not just a word spoken thousands of years ago. It’s a word God speaks today. 4v12:
The word of God is living and active. (Heb. 4v 12)
So, for instance, right here in Hebrews, at 3:7, a Psalm is quoted - Psalm 95. But look at how it’s introduced:
So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Heb. 3 v7)
The message of the Bible is the living word of God which God the Holy Spirit speaks today to all who have ears to hear. That’s the first point. God has spoken and speaks today. And that leads directly to my next heading. So:
Secondly, GOD’S WORD IS LIVING, ACTIVE AND SHARP
Back to 4v12:
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword… (Heb. 4 v12)
We’ve already seen in 1v3 how the living word of Christ keeps everything going – he is…
… sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Heb. 1 v3)
The word of God is what made us and gives us life and sustains us moment by moment. That in itself is astonishing testimony to the living power of God’s word. But there’s more. Because the word of God doesn’t only create us. It acts to redeem us as well – like the super sharp surgeon’s scalpel that cuts out the cancer of sin that would otherwise kill us. God’s word is living and active, not only sustaining us but saving us. It’s impossible to exaggerate either the degree or the extent of its power.
I remember the first time that I heard these verses being taught. I was on a Christian youth camp – in Devon as it happens. I was about sixteen. We were all in a tent – the camp was under canvas. Half way through the talk it was noisily interrupted by a young man rushing through the tent flaps from outside. He was moving as if he was being dragged along and thrown around from side to side and up and down by some invisible power that wouldn’t let him go but that was far, far too strong for him to control or prevent from pulling him along. All he could do was to keep on shouting “It’s alive! It’s alive!” But then we realised that in his hands was a book. And the book was the Bible. And it was this Bible that was the uncontrollable, living power that had pulled him so dramatically into the middle of this talk. A typically off-the-wall kind of illustration so beloved of youth leaders you might think. And so it was. But it got the point home powerfully. That was 35 years ago and it’s still vivid in my mind. God’s word is living and active.
And it’s sharp. One of my tasks at home is to do the carving of the Sunday joint, when we have one. For the purpose, of course, I have a carving knife. I need it to be sharp. So I also have a sharpening iron, and every time before I use the knife I use the sharpener so the edge of that blade will slice through anything. But that’s nothing to the word of God, which is “sharper than any double-edged sword” – let alone my carving knife. It’s an image that the apostle Paul uses in Ephesians 6v17 where he says:
Take… the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephensians 6 v17)
Nothing is so tough that the word of God can’t slice through it when the Holy Spirit decides the time is right.
So, first, God has spoken and speaks today. Secondly, God’s word is living, active and sharp.
Thirdly, GODS’ WORD PENETRATES AND JUDGES
What, then, does this living, active and sharp word of God do? Let’s take it on from the second half of verse 12:
It penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Heb.4 v12)
What’s being said here, as you can see on the outline, is that the word of God engages in two kinds of activity, in two different spheres of activity. And it provokes two possible responses.
The two kinds of activity of the word of God are exposing and assessing. The world of God lays bare the truth, and then it judges – it brings to account.
It penetrates right into the very marrow of our being. “Everything is uncovered and laid bare” by God’s word before God’s eyes. Nothing is hidden from God’s sight.
You see this in practice over and over in the Gospels as Jesus encounters people. So, I quote:
Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts… Jesus knew their hypocrisy… Jesus knew what they were thinking… Jesus knew their thoughts… Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men.
Those are examples of Jesus seeing right into the hearts of his enemies. But the same is true of his friends, as when Jesus says to Peter:
“I tell you the truth, this very night before the cock crows, you will disown me three times.”
And, of course, the same is true of us. There is no hiding place for us.
And what is exposed is not a pretty sight. There was a piece in the papers the other week about a man known as ‘the naked rambler’. He has been in prison again and again – continuously for years now – because he refuses to wear clothes in public. He says (I quote the article):
“One day I was walking and something happened.” He had an epiphany: “I realised I was good… I realised that at a fundamental level I'm good, we're all good, and you can trust that one part of yourself.” This self-realisation led to [him] often choosing to be naked in public: if he was good, then his body was good.
Of course he’s partly right, in that God created a good world, and we’re part of it. But he fails to take into account – in fact he fails to see at all – the disobedience of the Fall that means that exposing our bodies would be bad enough, but exposing our thoughts and minds and hearts would be too shameful for words. We’re right to cover up.
But we can’t hide from God. A court case works by bringing all the facts of the case out in to the open, so that they can be used to form a judgement about what happened. God’s word uncovers the truth as the necessary prelude to God’s judgement. There is no avoiding the fact that we must give account to him.
And those two activities of exposing and assessing are carried out by the word of God in two spheres: the inner world and the outer world. God sees into the inner world of our inmost thoughts and feelings – “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”. But God’s word doesn’t just dig deep into the individual soul. It also goes to the ends of the earth – indeed to the ends of the universe, the outer world. “All creation is laid bare” before his eyes. God’s word exposes and assesses everyone and everything.
So how are we to respond? There are two possible responses, and only one of them makes any sense. We can shrink away, or we can submit.
Think of the word of God in the hands of the Spirit of God as like that knife in the hands of a surgeon.
When he comes towards us with the painful truth about our deadly sin and the painful remedy which is to let him cut it out so that we can live, the danger is that we tell him to go away. We can’t face it. We shrink from exposure before Jesus. How? By hardening our hearts. That’s exactly what Hebrews is warning us against doing. Don’t harden your hearts. Don’t shrink away from the surgeon’s knife. He’s not our enemy, even though what he’s going to do will hurt for a while. He’s our saviour.
We need to be ready to submit to the surgeon’s knife. We need to know that this is the knife, not of a vicious enemy, but of a skilful friend. This surgery of the word of God – penetrating our hearts and judging our lives – is what guarantees us eternal life in the age to come, gets us back to the front line in the fight for the kingdom of God now, and gives us a clean soul and a clear conscience because Jesus has dealt with our sin once for all at the cross.
That’s why Hebrews goes on, in 4v15-16:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4 v15-16
But that’s for next time.