Faithlife Sermons

Hebrews 4:12 -- The Book that Reads Us

Sermon  •  Submitted
0 ratings
Sermon Tone Analysis
View more →

I will always remember hearing the testimony of how someone I know became a believer. They did not grow up in a Christian home and certainly did not grow up reading the Bible. If I remember the story right, a friend convinced him to read the Bible even though he was a total skeptic about anything religious. He had read about other religions and had studied some religious thinkers and had basically rejected all things religious. But he had never read the Bible so he decided to just give it a try—mostly so he could say that he had tried it and could check it off his list. His friend told him to read the Gospel of John.
But something happened in a moment in time, something swift and sudden and more than a little scary. He said that as he was reading he started to get the sense that the book was reading him. He read about Jesus and the disciples and a miracle where Jesus supposedly turned water into wine. He read something about needing to be born again. He read something he had heard somewhere before about God so loving the world that he sent his Son into the world so that people could be saved and have eternal life and not perish. But then a few verses later he read about those who do not believe, but reject Jesus. It says that they are condemned and will be judged. Then he came to these three verses:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
He said that he closed the book and quickly put it down. Here was something he had not told anyone. He knew that the life he was living was not good. As long as he felt like he was the judge of religions, things were fine because he was the one holding the searchlight. But this book turned the searchlight on him and he did not want that because he wanted what he was doing to stay hidden—to not be part of the discussion.
He didn’t read anymore that day, but as time went on he kept coming back to this strange book that had read him while he was reading it. Eventually, God broke through, and he came to see Jesus as not just true, but irresistibly beautiful and glorious. And he came to Jesus—he came into the light. And his darkness (his dirty laundry) was brought into the light, not simply to be exposed, but to be washed whiter than snow.
The testimony you just heard is in story form. Here is how I would state the
Main Point: The Bible is a book like no other. We not only read it; it reads us.
How does this verse and its structure express that point? The verse is clearly about the word of God, and it highlights two basic things about the word. The simplest way to divide the verse is to see the division that is there between (1) what the word is and (2) what the word does. Do you see it as we read the verse again?
What the Word Is
What the Word Does
For the word of God is living and active,
piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow
Sharper than any two-edged sword
and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
That insight gives us our outline for the sermon:
1. What the Word Is
a. Living b. Active c. Sharper Than the Sharpest Sword
2. What the Word Does
a. Pierces b. Discerns
What the Word Is
The word is (1) living, (2) active, and (3) sharper than the sharpest sword.
Living Because the word in question is the word of God, it bears qualities that the Bible tells us God has. Hebrews uses this same word to describe God himself three times (3:12, 9:14, 10:31). Two of the three uses are in contexts of judgment: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).
Things that are alive are not inert or static. One of the ways that you know something is alive is activity. It is only when a person is not moving and lying motionless on the ground that you have to ask if they are dead. If they are moving around and active, you don’t ask whether they are dead or not. That leads to the next word Hebrews uses to describe what the word of God is. It is active.
Active The word of God is active in the sense that it is doing something—it is working. The word active here means “effective” or “full of ability or power.” The word of God is living and powerful. The third term is also complementary to the first two in that it goes on to describe what kind of living, active quality the word of God has. It has a piercing power.
Sharper Than Any Sword One commentator I read (N.T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone) shared a story that put this verse into perspective for me:
I washed the kitchen knife, put it down for a moment and then picked it up to dry it. As I did so, I felt what seemed like a slight tickle at the end of one finger. I looked down, and to my surprise and alarm saw blood spurting out of a neat, straight cut across the end. I hadn’t realized that our new kitchen knife had a double blade, and in picking it up—carefully, as I’d imagined—I had for a moment run my finger across the reverse side, which seemed to have been every bit as sharp as the main edge. The sharper a blade is, of course, the less you feel when you cut yourself. It had gone straight through skin and into flesh with no trouble at all.
If a kitchen knife can cut a finger like that, imagine what a sword can do. But this sword is different. I don’t care how sharp you sharpen a physical sword—it will be able to cut through someone’s body, but it will not be able to cut through to someone’s soul, their inner being. But the word of God is a spiritual sword. makes the same point about the word of God as a sword: “The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
What the Word Does
What the Word Is
What the Word Does
For the word of God is living and active,
piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow
Sharper than any two-edged sword
and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Power to Pierce (completely pierce; it cuts all the way down) I think we are in error immediately if we try to read this verse like a human anatomy textbook. If we do, then I have no idea how to define the different nuances between soul and spirit. No one else does either. Furthermore, because there is no biblical text that does, here or anywhere, then it shows that the author’s point lies elsewhere.
It is probably misconceived to seek precise definition in such a poetic passage. The general meaning is clearly that the active power of God’s word reaches into the inmost recesses of human existence (Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews).
The apostle Paul uses a similar construction when he says that the God of peace is able to sanctify or cleanse people completely—spirit, soul, and body (). Hebrews’ point is to say that the word can completely pierce us—down the very deepest part of our existence. It does not just have the ability to enforce a judgment; it has the ability to make a judgment—the power to discern the deepest things we try to keep hidden or secret or sometimes are too deep to even see clearly ourselves.
Power to Discern That is where Hebrews goes next. In fact, it has the power to discern two things that are sometimes hidden in the darkness of secrecy in the recesses of our hearts: (1) what we really think (or believe), and (2) what we really want (intentions or motives of the heart). Did you catch that?—the thoughts and intentions of the heart—not only what our heart’s think (what), but what our hearts intend (why). The word of God has power to probe that deep. It can go all the way down to our deep-seated thoughts and intentions. Nothing is a secret to God. You can hide things from other humans, but not from God.
You might say, then why read the word of God? It is scary. If I just stay away from it then I can keep the searchlight away and stay hidden. God is not limited by whether you read his word or not. If the Bible stays closed, God’s eyes are not. Listen to the very next verse: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” ().
I love what commentator Tom Schreiner says here. “The shift from the word of God to God himself confirms the close connection between God and his word so that the latter is an expression of the former” (Schreiner, Hebrews).
makes the same point about God’s judgment. When the Lord Jesus comes, he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.”
We need to make it clear again that the whole context of this section has overtones of judgment. The wilderness generation of Israel did not believe God’s word, and his prophetic word of judgment was that he swore in his anger that they would not enter his rest. They did not enter because of unbelief. That is what Hebrews is warning against and he is reminding them that God has the ability to know whether they are believing or unbelieving. Remember that he is speaking to professing believers, not unbelievers.
This word and its parallel word for sword show up in contexts of judgment when Jesus speaks to his church (not professing unbelievers). Jesus has the sharp two-edged sword “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword’” (). And, “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (). If your Jesus never says anything sharp and piercing to you, but only soft and fluffy, then your Jesus is not the Jesus of the Bible. His words can pierce now and bring repentance now or final judgment later when it is too late.
The Warning: A Double-Edge Word of Warning/Encouragement This passage comes to us as a warning—we should not be under any foolish notions that we could ever escape judgment by fooling God. God knows if we are believing or not. But the passage is a double-edged sword in that the warning is also an encouragement. If you know that this perfect, inescapable, irrevocable judgment is coming (it will be here sooner or later), only a fool would wait until later. My pastoral word to you is to get on with it and don’t delay any longer.
Don’t be the kind of person who would much rather wait to visit the doctor until you are near death. Do you want an exam or an autopsy? A doctor can run tests and give a diagnosis while you are living or after you have died—post-mortem. My pastoral word for you is to open yourself up now to God’s word—moment by moment, day by day, year after year, and it will make you wise—not just about the things around you, but about the stuff within you. God will give us grace to grow in self-awareness, even showing us the things we can be really blind to— like our motives. Let Scripture saturate you until it sinks down into the depths of your being so that God speaks both clearly and deeply to you through his word. You may think you don’t need that. You may assume that you are totally self-aware. If that is you, then you are in the greatest danger—what the Bible calls “deceiving yourself.”
The Danger: Self-Deceit One chapter earlier, Hebrews warned against this kind of self-assured attitude. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (). Why would any claiming to have a believing heart have an unbelieving heart? Wouldn’t that be clear to you?
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
You can be blinded and hardened by sin’s ability to trick you into thinking you are what you are not—trick you into thinking that your sin is not really a big deal. Paul warns about this point emphatically: “Let no one deceive himself” ().
Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Evil people and imposters will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.—
(See also ; [deceitful desires].)
The apostle John gave the same warning: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” ().
That is why we need each other. We are not called to be lone ranger Christians: “just me and my Bible.”
“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”—
That is why we need the body of Christ to be soaked in the Bible as well. We need to speak the word to each other—exhort one another every day so that we are not hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Jonathan Leeman reminds us that “Local churches exist, in part, to protect us from ourselves. It’s the brothers and sisters around us who love us and are committed to our good that help us to see the things we cannot see about ourselves” (Leeman, Church Discipline).
The link between what the word is and what the word does is a major encouragement to speak the word. Just speak the word and trust that it will do the work. Put and 4:12 together. Someone may read and justifiably wonder: How can I possibly speak a word that would penetrate past all of the defenses of a sick, unbelieving heart? gives the answer. Our words cannot perform heart surgery, but God’s word can. The solution is to speak God’s word with faith in its ability to cut past all of the defensive layers and hidden secrets.
Why the Word Works: A Word for Those Struggling With the Word Let’s double click for a moment on the idea that the word of God is “living.” This means more than that the word has a living quality or is alive like other things are alive. It is alive in a greater sense altogether. It is the word of the Creator. He is not the recipient of life, he is the author of life. In the same way, the word is not just living—it is life-giving (it is alive and makes alive).
The apostle Peter says the same thing about the word of God. He says that Christians have received a new birth through the imperishable seed of the word, which he calls “the living and abiding word of God” ().
The apostle Paul says the same thing about the word of God. He has his own distinction between what the word is and what it does in .
What the Word Is
What the Word Does
Breathed out by God
Profitable for teaching, reproof, correction,
training in righteousness (instilling truth;
correcting error)
The word is inspired by God (i.e., breathed out by God). Verse 16 sometimes does not pack the punch that it should. We think of the Scriptures as “inspired,” but we are often not sure what that really means. “Inspired” means “to breath in.” “Expired” means to “breath out.” Which one is Scripture? We do not want to say “expired” because that reminds us of an expiration date, which means past its shelf life. Expired here means what the ESV translates: “breathed out by God.” So in what sense is it inspired? Scripture is inspired for us when we breath in the breath of God.
To understand this dynamic lets go back to the beginning. “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (). The original creation of man happened when God directly breathed his breath of life into Adam and he became a living soul.
helps us understand the wonder of the word of God. The Bible is now the place where we find God’s breath of life. He breathes his breath of life into a book. When we read it, memorize it, and meditate on it, we breath God’s breath of life into us. We share it with others because we want them to breath in God’s breath of life.
John Calvin understood this dynamic. He movingly reminds us about what we find when we turn to Scripture (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.VII.80):
Nor do we do this as those miserable men who habitually bind over their minds to the thralldom of superstition; but we feel that the undoubted power of his divine majesty lives and breathes there. By this power we are drawn and inflamed, knowingly and willingly, to obey him, yet also more vitally and more effectively than by mere human willing or knowing!”
Here is where I want to say if you are feeling spiritually slow and sluggish, so much so that you don’t have the drive or desire to read God’s word: Read God’s word. Sometimes the will to read (life) comes as you read. Pursue enough to just open it and force yourself to read. Listen to the word. Martin Luther says much the same, but he emphasizes the Bible’s pursuit of us even in our pursuit of the Bible: “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.” If you can’t bring yourself to read the Bible, then get an audio version and listen to it. Surround yourself with people who will speak the word to you. Come to church and hear the Bible sung and proclaimed.
Don’t buy into the lie that life will be found somewhere else. This has really been true in my life. When I am spiritually tired and don’t feel like reading God’s word, the temptation is to pull away from the word toward other things, even harmless diversions. Some people turn to alcohol or sex. I promise you that real life will not be found at the bottom of a bottle, but in the Bible. Real life will not be found under the sheets in someone else’s arms, real life is found in the Bible where we find God’s arms reach out and hold us.
When you take a step away from his word, you are taking a step away from what is living and life-giving ().
What the Word Is and What the Word Does
The Word Is
The Word Does
Law of the Lord is Perfect
Reviving the Soul
Testimony of the Lord is Sure
Making Wise the Simple
Precepts of the Lord are Right
Rejoicing the Heart
Commandment of the Lord is Pure
Enlightening the Eyes
The Fear of the Lord is Clean
Enduring Forever
Conclusion: What the Word Says
Wise for Salvation Available Now God’s word is not just able to make us wise about the world around us or about the world within us. It is able to make us wise for salvation—wise about the world above us and beyond us—and the King of glory that left the courts of glory for this earth to save sinners. A Bible-reading plan will not save. It will show us the way of salvation again and again. This plan of salvation is not written in the stars, and God does not whisper it into anyone’s ears. Scripture alone contains the message of salvation and so Scripture alone grants the wisdom necessary to understand and receive salvation.
John Wesley echoes the importance of the word of God with respect to salvation (from the preface of Sermons on Several Occasions, 1771):
I have thought I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God, just hovering over the great gulf, till a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing—the way to heaven, how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He has written it down in a book. O give me that Book at any price, give me the Book of God
Wise for the Day of Judgment to Come (the Future) God’s word can make you wise for the world around you, and the world inside of you, and the One who came from another world. And it can make you wise for the world to come. Listen to
From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
God did not come and live and die and rise from the dead and ascend to heaven and promise to come again in order to be some kind of consultant or life guru to give you your best life now with health and wealth and prosperity. He is not a consultant. He is a King—the King of kings. The Lord Jesus is not a consultant, but an all-powerful warrior King. He will either fight for you or against you, and all eternity is riding on which side of his sword you are on. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that you are the judge of him, as if you are supposed to now offer your judgment of whether he is King of kings and Lord of lords or not. He is. And he is coming to judge whether you really believe it or not. Be on the right side, not the wrong side of that sword.
Sermon Discussion Questions
1. What the Word Is (v. 12)
2. What the word Does (v. 12)
Main Point: The Bible is a book like no other. We not only read it—it reads us.
Discussion Questions
· What does it mean that God’s word is “living?” What does it mean that the word is “active?” What does it mean that the word is “sharper than any two-edged sword?” How do these three qualities relate to each other to present a bigger picture?
· How is the Word unparalleled in its piercing and discerning power? At the beginning of the sermon, how did the story illustrate the Word’s ability to read us?
· How is the warning of this passage both a warning and an encouragement?
Application Questions
· Describe what your Bible reading looked like in 2016. Evaluate it. How does it compare to previous years? What kinds of aspirations or desires for the Word were birthed as you listened to the sermon? What steps do you need to take to make those aspirations or desires your daily reality?
· What about this message do you need to share with others? Who will you share it with, and how will you do so?
Prayer Focus
Pray for a grace to read Scripture this year, and pray for a grace for Scripture to read you as well.
Related Media
Related Sermons