Reconciling Hebrews 4:12-13 with my experience of it (Part 1)

This Sunday I will be teaching on Hebrews 4:12-13. This well known text powerfully captures what theologians call the “efficacy” of God’s Word.

“For the word of God is alive 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.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)

God’s Word is alive, active, sharp, and penetrating; a dividing sword. That is some powerful imagery. However, if I’m honest, I must admit that if you take this text as it is often interpreted – that Scripture cuts to the heart those who read it – and my day-to-day experience of reading the Bible, I have a serious and disturbing disconnect. The reality is, sometimes I feel the piercing and dividing cut of God’s Word and sometimes I am struck as I read or hear the Word proclaimed but often I am merely attentive to the words, and sometimes not even that.

And so, I am stuck, it seems, with a dilemma. On the one hand, these verses compel me to believe that God’s Word is effective in its work and, on the other hand, my personal experience often tells me otherwise. How do I resolve this? As I’ve studied I believe I’ve come to a better understanding of the text which, on the one hand, helps me resolve the above tension, but also raises a more serious one.

How might you resolve the first tension?

First, understand that the “Word of God” in Hebrews 4:12-13 is both more broad and more narrow than just the Bible: In Hebrews, the “Word of God” is the word spoken through the prophets (1:1), especially Moses (3:5). It is the living Word, the Son, who is the radiance of God’s glory (1:2-3). It is the Old Covenant, spoken through angels (2:2). In the most immediate context it is the word spoken by the Holy Spirit, which was a word from David to the Israelites (Psalm 95) which the author of Hebrews appropriated as a word to his audience (Heb 3:7) and is a word for us. The word is the “gospel” given to the Israelites by Moses (4:2) and the even better “gospel” which is offered to us in Jesus. Certainly this list includes the Bible (the “today” of Psalm 95 is relevant for us, just as it was to the Israelites and the early Christians) but it is not limited strictly to the Bible, per se, and indeed finds its culmination in Christ Himself.

But the usage here is also, in another sense, more narrow the whole of Scripture. The specific call in Hebrews 3:7 – 4:13 is a call to persevere in the faith. It is a warning against unbelief, against rebellion, and against falling away. The intent of this particular word (“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”) is to convict us of our hard hearts and turn us to Christ. It’s a call to repentance, if we have a need to repent. But, not every verse of Scripture is a call to repent. Sometimes it is a call to comfort, or simply a guide to godly life, or it serves some other function. Not every part of Scripture cuts like a sword. Sometimes it refreshes, or binds up a wound, or simply informs the mind.

Check tomorrow, for the second way this tension is resolved, and for the greater tension that is created.