Sunday, September 26, 2021

God, Man, and Sin (Heb. 5:1)

There are two titles that the author of Hebrews attributes to Jesus that are extremely important for our understanding of who he is and what he has done. Those two titles are Son of God and high priest. Both are used in Heb. 5:1-10. In verses 5 and 8, he is referred to as the Son of God; in verses 5, 6, and 10 as high priest. Both titles are Scriptural, that is, they derive from OT predictions concerning the Christ. In this text, the author refers in particular to two Psalms in order to ground his understanding of the Messiah: Psalms 2 and 110.

Christ is the eternal Son of God. Remember that “begotten” in Psalm 2:7 and Heb. 5:5 is not a reference to his birth in the manger or to his becoming a man. Nor is it a reference to his becoming, at some distant point in time in the past, the Son of God. Rather, it is a reference to our Lord’s enthronement in heaven after having conquered death. This does not mean that this is when he became the Son of God, for the Father declared him to be his Son at the announcement of his incarnation, at his baptism, and at the Mount of Transfiguration. It is just that, at his resurrection and ascension, our Lord was invested with the honor that belonged to him as the Son of God and which he temporarily laid aside in order to accomplish his earthly mission.

You see hints of this in verse 8: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered”. If the Sonship of Christ were only a reference to his incarnate manhood, then his learning obedience by the things which he suffered would be a necessary part of his Sonship, but in verse 8 it is understood that his obedience and his sufferings were things essentially incompatible with it. This is why the verse begins with “though he were a Son.” In other words, you would not expect that the one who is the Son to have to learn obedience or to suffer. Nevertheless, we are told that he voluntarily took them on in order to accomplish the salvation of his people (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). It was a part of the “becoming poor” of him who was eternally rich, so that we might through his poverty becomes truly rich (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9).

The Son of God is that name which tells us who the Lord Jesus Christ is in relation to God the Father. It therefore describes an eternal relation. There was never a time when our Lord was not the Son and never a time when the Father was not the Father of the Son. It is not a title that he took on but a description of who he is in an essential and eternal sense. And it points us to his divinity: that he is one with the Father and shares equally with him in the essence of the Godhead.

I recently heard a Muslim preacher say that the reason he was not a Christian was that Jesus never claimed to be God. But this is false, for when he claimed to be the Son of God he was claiming to be God. You see this, for example, in John 10. There, our Lord repeatedly refers to God as his Father (something, by the way, that none of Jesus’ contemporaries did), and then he says this: “I and my Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). To this his enemies responded by picking up stones to stone him – they clearly thought he had just uttered a blasphemy. When our Lord asks them why they are doing this, they respond: “For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God” (10:33). In other words, our Lord’s contemporaries understood the claim to be the Son of God as a claim to be God. But it doesn’t keep him from affirming it: “I said, I am the Son of God” (36).

Now some folks will turn to something our Lord says later as a refutation that Son of God implies equality with God. They will refer to John 14:28, where our Lord says, “If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.” However, this is clearly a reference to our Lord’s future ascension into heaven (“I go unto the Father”) where he will receive the glory that he had laid aside as a part of his earthly ministry (cf. Jn 17:1-3). At the moment when the Lord spoke these words, he was still suffering and learning obedience and as such his Father was greater than he – greater in the sense of his exalted status in heaven. In ascending to the Father, he was also ascending to the greatness of the Father, and this was the reason why his disciples should rejoice.

This is very important and grasping the truth that Jesus is in fact the eternal Son of God is essential for a true and saving understanding of who Jesus is. To refuse to receive him as such is to reject him, and to reject him is to turn away from the only source of eternal salvation. This is what the apostle John would later write: “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father; but he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:23).

And yet, as important as it is that we embrace Jesus as the Son of God, it is equally important that we understand what he did in terms of his designation as high priest. Alongside the confession of Jesus as God’s Son in Psalm 2:7, we also have the confession of Jesus as high priest in Psalm 110:4, “Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 5:6, 10). God is speaking in this Psalm, and our Lord in the gospels says that the one to whom he is speaking is the Messiah, David’s Lord (and thus to himself; see, for example, Mt. 22:41-45). Now we are going to hear a lot more about this mysterious man, Melchisedec, in chapter 7. But for now the point is simply that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, was ordained to be a priest, and that to understand who Jesus is and what he does we need to understand him in the categories of the priesthood.

It is tempting at this point just to skip to verses 11 and following because folks today are just as “dull of hearing” when it comes to the priesthood of Jesus as the original audience of this letter. How many of us read this and think how exciting it is to think about Jesus as a high priest? How many of us understand just how relevant and important this is?

I think there are a number of reasons why we find it hard to engage in any meaningful sense with these verses. One reason is that many of us view the priesthood as belonging solely to the period of OT sacrifice and as therefore irrelevant to NT Christianity. Our approach to this chapter is an artifact of a pervasive understanding of the OT as having no relevance for the NT Christian. We think that the Mosaic ritual was for folks before Jesus and for the NT church we don’t need to be bothered about such things. Of course, there is some truth to this; we are not under the Old Covenant but under the New Covenant. We no longer have to keep many of the ordinances and prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, especially the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic Law. But we must never try to untether the NT from the OT. The fact of the matter is that without the OT we will never really understand the NT. After all, didn’t Jesus say of himself, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Mt. 5:17)? In other words, our Lord himself understood what he was doing entirely in terms of the fulfillment of the OT Scriptures. So if we are really going to come to grips with the work of Christ, we must do so in terms of it as the fulfillment of the OT.

Another reason for this lack of appreciation of texts like Hebrews 5 is that careful thinking about the person and work of Jesus is not considered important in our day. We just think that the most general notions of who Jesus is and what he did is sufficient. And though I never want to give the impression that you have to be a systematic theologian to be saved, neither must we go to the opposite extreme and say that it doesn’t matter what you think or how you think about Jesus. The reality is that there is such a thing as preaching “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4; cf. Gal. 1:6-9), and this other Jesus is a Jesus taught by false prophets who are ministers of Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15). And we must not think that embracing that Jesus would do us any good. Doctrine matters. What you think about Jesus matters.

So, what does this passage tell us about Jesus? It is all about his being a high priest (Heb. 5:1, 5, 10). A priest was fundamentally a mediator between God and men. You see this in the text in verse 1: a priest, and the high priest in particular, was “ordained for men” –to represent them in their place before God, “in things pertaining to God.” Under the Old Covenant, you didn’t approach God directly, you did so through the priest. He took your offerings and presented them to the Lord. He was your representative before God.

Now this gets at the heart of why we modern people in the Western world are especially unable to understand the importance of a priest. In order to understand the importance of a priest, you have to be able to understand the categories in which the priesthood makes sense. There are three basic things you have to understand correctly if you are going to read this text with any interest. You need to have a correct understanding of who God is, of what man is, and of what sin is.

You see each of these things in verse 1. First, the high priest was “taken from among men” and “ordained for men.” The priesthood is defined here in terms of its relation to men. In other words, there is something about mankind that makes the priesthood necessary. Second, the high priest was “ordained for men in things pertaining to God.” That is, the priest is not representing God to men; it is the other way around. He is representing men to God. He is a mediator between men and God. And what makes that necessary is the third thing: sin. The high priest functions “that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.” I believe that it is precisely because we have become as a culture increasingly alienated from the biblical categories of God, man, and sin that the priesthood of Christ seems so foreign and bizarre to us. What I want to do this morning is to contrast the Biblical accounting of these realities with our own and so show why it is so important that Jesus not only came to save us from our sin but that he did so as a high priest ordained by God.

Who is God?

What do we normally think of when we think of God? Well, we don’t have to wonder what modern American folks, especially those who are younger, think. They’ve been asked, and their answers have been recorded for posterity. They are consistent enough that the sociologists put a name on it: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What is it, you ask? Well, it has been identified by five key beliefs.

As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth." 2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions." 3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ones self." 4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem." 5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."1

It is called deism because the God of the deists does not get involved in this world; he made it to begin with, but he leaves it up to us to do with it what we will. Now there are all sorts of reasons why people believe that God is this way, but I would suggest that the most plausible reason people see it this way is that this is the kind of God that simply doesn’t get in the way – that is to say, this God doesn’t get in our way. It’s a lot like the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain; they have a monarch, but a monarch without any real power. People want a God, yes; but they want a god that is subservient to the parliament of their own lusts. We want a king, but not a king who really rules over us. The fourth part of the definition goes along with this: that the only time God gets involved in our lives is only when we need him to resolve a problem; and one gets the distinct impression that we (not God) are the ones who decide when God needs to get involved.

Another thing you might notice about this view of things is that God simply wants people to be nice (moral in the vaguest sense). Now I would suggest that what they mean by this has nothing to do with holiness in a Biblical sense. It corresponds to what they think is the main purpose of life: “to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” In other words, being nice to me means allowing me to be happy and to feel good about myself, and you are not nice (and therefore bad) when you do not allow me to be happy and to feel good about myself. It would follow in this worldview that if God is going to get involved with our lives, he would be expected to help us feel good about ourselves.

And of course good people go to heaven when they die – and as long as you are sufficiently nice, you don’t have anything to worry about.

What does this tell us about God? It paints a picture of a God who exists to support our own dreams and decisions. We are totally obsessed with ourselves and if we want God at all, we just want enough God to support our own love affair with ourselves. In particular, this is not a God to be reckoned with, this is not a God to be feared, not a God to be concerned about. The focus is not on what God thinks of us; the focus is on how we feel about ourselves. This is the therapeutic part of the modern religion: God exists to massage our egos and to help us feel good about ourselves. In other words, God exists to serve man and his goals, desires, interests, and dreams.

Now if this is the way you think about God, the priesthood of Christ is going to appear bizarre and unnecessary and irrelevant. In Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD), God exists to serve us. But in the priestly view of things, we exist to serve God. In MTD, what matters is what we want. But in the priestly (and Biblical) view, what finally and ultimately matters is what God desires. In MTD, man is preeminent, but in the Biblical world of priests and sacrifices, God is preeminent. In other words, the modern accounting of things is exactly backwards from the Biblical view of things.

The problem with the modern view of things is just that: it is a man-made and modern view of God. It is the human attempt to make God in our image. However, if we really want to know who God is, we need to let him tell us who he is, instead of projecting upon him what we wish he was. And he has done exactly that in the Bible. What does the Bible say about God?

First of all, it tells us that God created everything, which indeed is affirmed by MTD, but it doesn’t follow through with the implications of this. God is the only Being in the universe that exists necessarily; that is, who does not depend upon anyone or anything for his existence. In a real sense, all of the Bible is simply an unpacking of Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” He does not exist in time and he did not ever begin to exist. He is completely self-sufficient. He does not need you or me, and he does not exist to serve you or me.

Some people give the impression that God needed the creation and that’s why he created it. But that doesn’t even come close. The creation cannot fill a need in God since all the creation depends upon God.  Whatever it could be that God gets out of the creation would simply be something that originated in himself to begin with. King David understood this, and this is how he put it when he was preparing for the temple and had received generous gifts from fellow Israelites for that purpose: “Blessed be thou, LORD God of Israel our father, for ever and ever. Thine, O LORD, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O LORD, and thou art exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come of thee and thou reignest over all; and in thine hand is power and might; and in thine hand it is to make great, and to give strength unto all. Now therefore, our God, we thank thee, and praise thy glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? For all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee” (2 Chron. 29:10-14).

It is not God who depends upon us; it is we who depend upon God. In him we live, and move, and have our being. He holds our every breath in his hand.

And he is holy. In the vision that Isaiah saw of God (Isa. 6) and that the apostle John saw in his own vision (Rev. 4:8), God is addressed as, “Holy, holy, holy.” There is no other attribute of God that is repeated this way, not even love. This suggests that holiness is the fundamental attribute of God, and it is when we consider that holiness is not just a term that points us to God’s moral purity (though it is partly that), but fundamentally to say that God is holy is to talk about the otherness of God, his transcendence. It is the sum of all his glorious attributes (note the second part of the anthem of the Seraphim in Isa. 6: “the whole earth is filled with his glory”). God is not fundamentally like us. Though it is true that we are made in God’s image, this is a far cry from saying that we are like God in every way. We are not. There is and will always be an infinite distance between man and God. He alone is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He alone is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.

In the modern accounting of things, man is primary – his wants, desires, and dreams. But we could only begin to say this because we have reduced God to a feathery being who exists just to make us happy. However, the God of the Bible is primary, not man. He does not exist to make us happy – we exist because it pleased him to make us (Rev. 4:11). And when we see reality in this way, which is as it really is, what we will inevitably be faced with is that God is the one “with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). And we will understand two things: it is infinitely more important for this God to be pleased with me than it is for me to be pleased with myself, and second, that it is folly to think that I can approach him on my own terms.

If this is the case, we need a mediator; we need someone to come between us and God. And therefore it is good news to learn that Jesus came to be a high priest – and as such to represent men to God and to bring us to God.

What is man?

The second thing we need to get right is a proper understanding of man. When you read Genesis 1, you realize that man is not just another animal. I know that is the way modern man likes to speak of himself, and the bad theory of Darwinian evolution has only served to reinforce this wrong idea. But we are not another animal, and this is shown in the fact that man and woman are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Now we must not misunderstand this to mean that we are equal with God, or even that we are made into little “gods.” But one of the things it means is that we are able to enter into a relationship with God. You can see this in that unlike the rest of the creation, God enters into covenant with Adam and Eve.

But what it also means is that we have a purpose for existing, and that this purpose is not something that we assign to ourselves but given to us by our Creator. Or, in the words of Psalm 8, we are crowned with glory and honor because God has crowned us with glory and honor – it is not something which we bestow upon ourselves. This means that just as God is independent of everything outside of himself, including man, man himself is radically dependent upon God for purpose and dignity and identity as well as our very being. It is folly to think that we don’t need God or that we could get along without him. God may not need me but I need God for everything, for life and breath, but especially for eternal life. For there is no eternal life apart from a relationship with the eternal God.

This leads to the next point, which is,

What is sin?

“Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”2 God, not man, determines the conditions by which we relate to him. He established this at the very beginning with Adam and Eve. In his generosity, God gave them the privilege (it wasn’t an inherent right they could demand from God) to eat from every tree in the garden in which he placed them, with the exception of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they ate from that tree, they would die. Now there has been a lot of confusion as to the designation “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Does it mean that by eating this tree, man would obtain an experiential knowledge of good and evil? No, because by knowing good and evil, men become like God (cf. Gen. 3:22). Rather, it means that, “By violating the command of God and eating of the tree, they would make themselves like God in the sense that they would position themselves outside and above the law and, like God, determine and judge for themselves what good and evil was.”3 Only God has the right to determine what is good and what is evil, and it is rebellion against God when we take it upon ourselves to decide for ourselves what is best and good for us. But this is exactly what Adam and Eve did when they took the fruit. And it is what we do every time we sin.

It is evil to sin thus against God. And it is only our blindness and folly that we do not see that such choices merit God’s eternal displeasure and judgment. This is what has happened: by our sin we are cut off from God, justly separated from his goodness and love and favor. We can no longer draw near to God. Like Adam, we must hide ourselves at his approach. Thus we see our need for a mediator. This is not something we can fix ourselves. This is something that must be done for us. We need someone who can offer before God and to God an atonement for sin.

Jesus our high priest

We will consider in more detail later how Jesus is a better high priest, better than Aaron. But for now, I want us to bring together the above considerations so that we can see that we need Jesus to be a high priest for us. Because of the transcendence of God, because of the debt we have incurred by our sin against God as those who have defaced the image of God in ourselves, we need someone who can bring us to God, not for judgment but for salvation. We need someone who can become the author of eternal salvation for us (Heb. 5:9).

We need a high priest. I think it is important to see that Jesus is not just a priest, but that he is a high priest. What is the significance of that? It is significant in the sense that it was only the high priest who was allowed to enter the Holy of holies. He was the only one who, once a year on the Day of Atonement, would take the blood of the sacrifice and bring it to the Ark and sprinkle it there in the very presence of God himself. In doing so, the sins of Israel, all of them, were symbolically purged. In fact, in order to make the picture clearer, two goats were chosen, one for the blood sacrifice and then the scapegoat which would be released into the wilderness.

Here is what would happen: “And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. . .. And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness” (Lev. 16:9-10, 21- 22).

Even so, by designating Jesus as our high priest, we are being told that he has made an atonement for our sins, the thing that separates us from God. He does not do this by simply being a martyr. The cross is not primarily an example of endurance or selflessness or even an example of love for others. It all these of course, but fundamentally, the cross was the place on which Jesus bore the sins of his people, of those who believe in him. Except this time the transfer of sins from us to him was not symbolic, it was real. And he didn’t just bear them away into the desert but he put them away forever.

Now where are you this morning? Do you stand outside the congregation of God’s people? For the high priest didn’t offer for just anyone; he offered for the people of God. Are you one of his? I will tell you how you know it: do you see that you are a sinner and that you cannot save yourself? Do you see that your sins really do merit God’s judgment upon you? Do you loathe yourself for your sin? Then, my friend, the Bible tells you to look to Christ, to trust in him to be your high priest. And the Bible also says that all who believe on him will never be ashamed. As the prophet put it, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth”! (Isa. 45:22).


2 Shorter Catechism, Q. 14.

3 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Baker, 2006), p. 33.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Authority and Inerrancy of Scripture


Statement of the doctrine: the Bible has the right to bind our consciences to believe and obey it in all that it teaches.

How do we come to stand under the authority of Scripture? That is, how can a person come to gladly believe that it is, in fact, God’s word?

We can follow the lines of evidence that support the Bible’s claim to be God’s word.

  • The testimony of Jesus
  • The fulfillment of prophecy
  • Its internal consistency
  • The consistency of its teaching with empirical reality

But ultimately, the only way we can move from probability to a glad certainty is from the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

  • Because of sin, which blinds us to truth and hardens our hearts against it. Jn. 3:19-20; 2 Co. 4:1-3. This is not a simple matter of deciding between flavors of ice cream – for the Bible confronts our idolatries that we love so much and commands us to repent.
  • Because the best we can get from philosophical or historical arguments is a probabilistic case for the truth of God’s word.
  • God promises this and Scripture and the experience of two millennia of believers testify to it. 1 Jn. 2:20-27; Jn. 10:27.

This doesn’t mean that the above arguments are useless. God can, and does, use them to bring about our conversion. Nevertheless, ultimately our confidence rests in the witness of the Holy Spirit to the truth of God’s word, and he can, and does, many times brings about this conviction directly through his word.  (Story of the village in India with Carey’s Gospel of Matthew; Testimony of G. Campbell Morgan.)


Statement of the doctrine: the Bible is true in all that it teaches.

  • Proof 1: God does not lie: Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18; 2 Sam. 7:28
  • Proof 2: God’s word carries the character of God himself: Ps. 12:6; Prov. 30:5; Mt. 24:25; Mt. 5:17-19; Num. 23:19; Jn. 17:17

This is consistent with:

  • Use of ordinary language, like the sun rising and setting. 
  • Use of free quotes
  • Bad grammar

Challenges to inerrancy

  • The claim that inerrancy a poor term – an unbiblical term.  But we must sometimes use non-Biblical words to defend the statement of Biblical truth, since it is the meaning of the Biblical words themselves that are in question (like the debate around the Trinity).
  • The claim that inerrancy only applies to “matters of faith and practice” – but see Acts 24:14; Luke 24:25; Rom. 15:4.
  • Accommodation. But see 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21. Moral problem: we are to imitate God – is it okay to lie in order to make a larger point?
  • The claim that we are overemphasizing the divine aspect in inspiration of Scripture.
  • The claim that there are clear errors in the Bible
    • “The Bible is a hammer that has worn out many anvils.”
    • Voltaire and the Hittites; B.B. Warfield and Belshazzar and Nabonidus
    • Most apparent errors appear so because of a paucity of evidence and our lack of access to data from the ancient world. 
    • There are no alleged contradictions that have not been given a satisfactory solution.
  • No inerrant manuscripts: inerrancy applies to what was originally written. Thus Grudem’s definition: “the inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

Question: how can we have confidence that we possess the words of Scripture today? This is the question of the Preservation of God’s word, which we will take up next time.

Resources: Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (2nd edition); William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (1st edition), Chapter 1.

Help for Hurting People (Heb. 4:14-16)

Christianity is not just a philosophy. It is not something which merely addresses the intellect. It does that, of course, but this is not all it does. Nor is Christianity a self- help program, giving tips so that you can become a better you. Along these lines, it is not like Buddhism, which argues that the way to deal with the suffering which is endemic to this world is to make yourself become dead to it, ultimately by achieving Nirvana. Rather, Christianity addresses itself to hurting and wounded people, to those who are weary and heavy laden, as our Lord put it (Mt. 11:28). It addresses itself moreover to people who realize that there are things about their life that they cannot fix, especially when it comes to the brokenness in their lives that is the result of sin. And the gospel helps us to recognize that the main problem behind all this is not the horizontal problems that our sins have caused, but the vertical problem of our relationship with God. Sin has separated us from God, and from this comes all the misery caused by our revolt against the Lord.

In other words, Christianity says that we need help, and we need help from outside ourselves. But it goes beyond a recognition that I might need help here and there; it involves a recognition that there is no time in my life that I don’t need help. I am not self-sufficient. I am not the master of my fate or the captain of my soul. That kind of talk is crazy talk for delusional people whose perception of themselves and the world has become twisted out of all proportion to reality.

Now I’m not saying that such people can’t sometimes achieve a sort of success in this world. The Bible often speaks of the wicked who prosper in this world (cf. Ps. 73:3; 17:13-14). But their success does not go beyond the borders of the grave; they die in their sin (Jn. 8:24). Furthermore, the Bible recognizes what we often see ourselves – that with such earthly success comes a lot of collateral damage as they cause irreversible hurt to those around them in order to get ahead and achieve their own personal dreams.

On the other hand, a person who sees their own vulnerability is much more likely to be sensitive to the vulnerabilities of those around them, and instead of stomping on them to get ahead will be much more willing to give a helping hand. In other words, people who recognize that they are not self-sufficient are much more likely to be kind and gracious and loving. When we look around and see all the suspicion and discord and hate, we can readily see that we need more of this sort of person in the world.

This is the kind of person that is addressed in our text. This text is not for self-sufficient people. This is a text for people who find themselves in need of help beyond themselves. In fact, this is a text for people who realize that the kind of help that they need is not something that can be given by a mere mortal. Which means that this is a text which is for people who see things as they really are. We are people who need help, and we need help that comes from God. If you realize that, that is a good thing, and boy have I got good news for you.

Help for hurting people

Note where this text ends: “that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Mercy is for hurting and miserable people. And we remember that this epistle was not written to folks who lives were just fantastic but who were enduring suffering and persecution. Life was not easy for them. They were hurting, they were wounded. They needed mercy, and this is what is offered to them in this verse. And they needed mercy that would come in the form of help. They didn’t just need a pat on the back, they needed support and strength and guidance and comfort and hope. Where would they get that? How would they get that? These verses are about help for hurting people, and how the Bible – God’s word – directs us to it. In them, we see that help comes from grace that we obtain by prayer which is made successful through our high priest, Jesus Christ, God’s Son. And it is all centered around God’s throne which through Jesus our Lord has become for us a throne, not of judgment, but of grace.

We need grace

Grace is something we can give to each other (cf. Eph. 4:29, but even here the grace is grace ministered through the believer but which finds its ultimate origin in God, not man), but in the Bible grace is almost always spoken of in connection to what God gives. In the Bible, grace is not a human gift but a divine gift. Grace is a gift – something freely given to us by God. As Paul puts it to the Romans, we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). And when he says, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32), the phrase “freely give” is a single verb in Greek which could also be translated “to give graciously” (charizomai – the verbal form of the noun charis, grace). Grace is anything freely given to us by God – which, by the way, is every good thing, beginning with our salvation in Christ. Everything good that we enjoy comes to us as a gift of grace, including mercy and help. This is why the text describes the help that we receive as “grace to help” and the source from which it comes as “the throne of grace.”

This is good news because we not only don’t deserve mercy and help but we actually deserve anything but. In reality, we deserve to be punished for our rebellion and sin against God. This explains why the good things that we receive are given to us by grace – grace because we don’t deserve them; grace because we don’t merit them and God gives them to us as a free gift.

This is important to remember for a couple of reasons. One reason is that when we forget that we need grace, out of pride we inevitably adopt an attitude of entitlement. We think we are owed the good things we have, whether they be material things, our relationships with family and friends, success in our endeavors, or even explicitly spiritual blessings. And that not only guts a heart of thanksgiving toward God, it also makes us resentful and bitter when things don’t go the way we think that they ought. Grace destroys that sinful sense of entitlement and engenders a heart of gratitude toward God and trust in God.

Second, it is important to remember this because we can also be crippled and paralyzed by a sense of our guilt, and think that there is no way we could ever hope to receive anything good from God. Prayer becomes almost impossible in this emotional atmosphere and despair begins to grip our hearts and minds. However, grace reminds us that God does not relate to us with a balance sheet in hand. He justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). He receives sinners. Why? Because God relates to the believing sinner by grace.

The greatest gift of grace is that of our Lord Jesus Christ, because it is in him that we receive everything else – this is in fact the very point of Romans 8:32. Chief among all these blessings is the forgiveness of sin and hope of eternal rest. We are saved by grace though faith (Eph. 2:8), and in the ages to come God will put on display the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:7). But we must remember that between the initial forgiveness of sin and our final victory over it in the new heavens and new earth, God continues to give us grace for help in our times of need.

What does grace do for weary and worn people?  Well, it gives us help.  First and foremost, it brings us into the family of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  But we must not think that, having forgiven us all our sins, God leaves us to ourselves.  No, grace is something which gives us daily help.  

For example, God gives us grace to strengthen us in our infirmities. This is what the Lord told the apostle Paul who was struggling so much against his thorn in the flesh: “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Here we see grace coming in the form of strength and power so that the weak and powerless are able to gladly bear with their infirmities. I think it is important, by the way, to point out that this grace and strength was with reference to a thorn in the flesh. In other words, we don’t just go to God for grace to help when the need is explicitly spiritual; we should also do so for physical and earthly trials. There is no problem that is beyond the scope of God’s grace for help and rescue.

Grace not only enables us to endure affliction with joy, it also strengthens us to serve others. In times of weakness we often turn inward. But grace turns us outward again. Thus the apostle Peter writes to saints who were also suffering: “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 4:10-11). God gives grace to us as stewards of his grace, not to monopolize it all for ourselves but to share it with others through the spiritual gifts which he has given to us.

You see both these things coming together in Acts 4:33 (grace to strengthen in times of weakness and grace to empower for ministry to others). The context of this verse is the prayer of the church after they had received the report of the apostles who had just been examined and threatened by the authorities not to preach the gospel anymore. The church then appealed to God for help; it was a great and stirring prayer (verses 24-30). One of the things they prayed for was that the Lord would “grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word” (29). God answers almost immediately, and in verse 33 we see part of his answer: “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.” This seems to link, if not equate, grace and power. God’s grace comes upon his church to give them power in their weakness so that they will boldly proclaim the gospel to the lost.

Not only does God give grace to help, but he gives it at exactly the right place and at exactly the right time. Notice how the grace is described: “grace to help in time of need.” Unfortunately, people can disappoint us at this point. They will promise us all sorts of help, but when it comes to crunch time, they are nowhere to be found. I’m probably guilty of this. But not so with God. He gives grace at our time of need. It is gracious help and it is timely help.

The bottom line is this: the help that is promised is help that comes from grace. That means two things. It is help that comes from God, because in the Bible grace is ultimately a gift of God. It is not just another helping hand that is promised here, but help that comes from heaven itself. Second, because this is help that comes from grace, it is not something we have to deserve in order to get it. It is a free gift. It is not waiting for you to pay for it or merit it; it is offered to us freely in Christ.  

Brothers and sisters, we all need help somewhere and in some way. And all of us need help that requires more than what another human can give to us: we need God’s help.  This may seem out of reach, but thank God, through grace he gives us help: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” “God is in the midst of her [the city of God]; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early” (Ps. 46:1, 5). This is a promise, my friend, you can bank on it.

The question is, of course, how do we bank on it? How do we take advantage of this precious, precious resource? And this brings us to our next point.

We obtain grace through prayer

Prayer brings us into the very presence of God. This is not something I’m making up: it is right here in the passage: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace” (16). The throne here is God’s throne, for our high priest ministers now in the heavens (14). How do we come boldly unto God’s throne which is also the throne of grace? We do so by prayer.

There is an incredible picture of this in the book of Revelation. There we are given a glimpse of the goings on in heaven, in the very presence of God (8:2), and we see this: “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand” (8:3-4, emphasis mine). What follows is God’s intervention upon earth (5, ff), apparently in response to the prayers of the saints which are pictured as incense before God. He hears the prayers of the saints and he acts upon them. They don’t just hit the ceilings of our homes and stay there; they come before the very presence of God. Through prayer we really do enter into the presence of God and stand before his throne of grace. Grace is gotten at God’s throne, and the way we get it is through prayer.

We can sometimes think that God doesn’t hear us, or that talking out our hurts won’t be heard by God. Surely he is too busy to be bothered by us. Surely he is too exalted to take notice of us. Surely our problems are too small or too unimportant to get his attention. But that is not what the text says. If you go to God’s throne, you will get mercy and find grace to help in time of need. I know that God will hear those who call upon him, when they do so through Christ, with humble and repentant hearts. I know he will because he commands us to pray and he promises to answer when we pray: “Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee and thou shalt glorify me” (Ps. 50:15).

Our Lord himself reiterates this: “And whatever ye ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn. 14:13-14). Now, yes, we should not take this as a blank check to ask things for the fulfillment of our lusts (cf. Jam. 4:3). It is when we pray according to God’s will, that he hears us (1 Jn. 5:14). But neither should we sell these verses short. God hears our prayers. The Son of God hears our prayers and he delights to answer them. It was our Lord himself who gave us the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18 for this purpose: “that men ought always to pray and not to faint” (Lk 18:1).

What should we pray about? Let’s let the apostle Paul answer that question: “Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). What should be bring to God in prayer? “Everything”!

Again and again, the Scriptures give us encouragement to pray, not as a duty to assuage our conscience, but as a privilege to enjoy as children of the Most High. Our Lord put it this way: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he seek a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Mt. 7:7-11). What an encouragement to pray!

Thus, though we are so often hesitant to take advantage of this privilege to enter into God’s presence in order to obtain from him mercy and grace for help, we are not only encouraged to do so, but to do so “boldly” (16), with confidence. This confidence doesn’t come from us, for this is again a throne of grace. This is not about putting your game face on or pretending to be something that you are not. No, this entrance into God’s presence something which is given to us by the Spirit of God, who enables us to approach God as children would a father. That’s where the boldness comes in. A child of a king doesn’t worry about the fact that their father is a king; they come boldly in. This is what the apostle Paul is writing about to the Romans: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16). Indeed, for it is through Christ that we have access by one Spirit unto the Father (Eph. 2:18).

If you are still unsure that you can do this, let’s look at a couple of examples of folks who did find mercy and grace to help. Sometimes we think that God doesn’t hear us if we don’t have the right words. But, my friend, it is not the words that are important so much as the attitude with which we approach him. In fact, Paul himself admits that we don’t always know what to say, but that doesn’t really matter for the Spirit intercedes for us even in our groaning (Rom. 8:26-27).

Then take the example of the poor publican: “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk. 18:13). Note several things here. First, he stood “afar off,” probably because he didn’t think himself to be worthy of being in the presence of “religious” people. In fact, he does not refer to himself as “a sinner” but as “the sinner” (Gk. to harmartolo). Second, though it was normal in those times to look up when you prayed, he didn’t even feel worthy enough for that. He must have felt embarrassed even to show his face to God. Third, his prayer was very simple and short: it was a simple cry for mercy. Technically, he asks for God to be propitiated – “let thine anger be removed” would be another way to translate that (see Leon Morris, Luke [TNTC], (IVP, 1999), p. 290). He understood that he was a sinner who deserved, not mercy, but judgment. Nevertheless, what was the result? In comparison with the Pharisee, who thought he was doing God a favor by praying, our Lord comments, “I tell you, this man [the despised publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other [the proud Pharisee]: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Lk. 18:14). My friend, it is precisely those who do not feel worthy before God whose prayers are heard.

On the other hand, consider Elijah, as the apostle James tells us to do (Jm. 5:17-18). The fact is that, at the end of the day, Elijah was just another man. He needed grace and mercy too. So don’t cordon off his example as unapplicable to yourself: “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” Why does James say this? Because “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (5:16). He was like us, says James, and we should expect the same answers to prayer as did Elijah.

But how do we get this boldness? How can we say, with the hymn writer,

“Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.”

Well, that brings us to our final point.

We come boldly because of our great high priest, Jesus Christ.

There is no way any of this would be possible apart from Jesus Christ. You can pray and pray all day to God, but it is madness to think that we can approach God on our own terms and in our own way. You wouldn’t do that with the

President of the US, so why do you think that you can do that with God? God makes it clear in his word how we can approach him, and on what grounds we can have this boldness. Any other way of approaching God is presumption and you will meet with the same end as the sons of Aaron who presumed to go into the tabernacle with strange fire (see Lev. 10). He makes it clear right here in the text, in verses 14 and 15. Note that the point in both verses hinge on the fact that “we have a great high priest” (14). In verse 15, if you take away the double negative, you get the same thing: we have a great high priest.

The high priest was the mediator in the OT ritual between God’s people and God himself. He was the one who was allowed once a year to enter into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement. The fact that our author describes Christ in this way shows us that he is the only one who can give us entrance into God’s presence, and that the way he does this is through his atoning death on the cross. Remember what has already been said: “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).

The Bible doesn’t sidestep the problem of sin. It doesn’t pretend away the evil that dwells in every one of our hearts. It doesn’t nourish the self-righteousness that turns even secular Americans into Pharisees who look down their noses at “those religious people.” The Bible doesn’t buy into the fairy tale we tell each other every day: that man is basically good and if you just throw enough money and kindness and information at people they will save themselves.

There are two things that are said here about our Lord that gives us the boldness to enter into the throne room of God. First, we are reminded of the transcendence of our Lord: “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (14). He is not only a high priest, but he is a great high priest. The author of Hebrews will have much more to say on this point later, but the basic idea here is that Jesus is not messing around in some earthly tent or in some building made by hands: he is in heaven, bringing before God’s throne the infinite value of his atoning sacrifice once for all accomplished for his people. It is no accident that John saw Jesus pictured in heaven as “a Lamb as it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6). Moreover, the idea here is of a successful Savior. When the high priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, it was a sign that God had accepted the sacrifice. Even so, when Christ emerged from the tomb and ascended into heaven he demonstrated that the sacrifice had been accepted by the Father. Those who come to God by Christ will find God’s throne to be a throne of grace because those who do so are covered in the blood of the Lamb. Their sins have been atoned for and all their sins have been forgiven. There is therefore no reason why they cannot come before God’s throne and come with confidence that God will accept them.

The other thing that is said here about our Lord as high priest is that, even though he is in the heavens, he is able to sympathize with us: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (15). Another reason one might have for a reluctance to enter before the throne of grace is that we might think that God is so unlike us that he just cannot understand what we are going through. But the Son of God is also the Son of David (cf. Rom. 1:3-4). He who is the eternal Son of God entered into an estate of humiliation by becoming a man. In doing so, he entered fully into our experience, with the sole exception of sin.  The result is that he is able to sympathize with us and be touched with the feelings of our infirmities.

One of the most beautiful pictures of this in the gospels is the story of our Lord’s encounter – apparently his first in his public ministry – with a leper. As you might know, lepers were separated from the rest of the community, they were not allowed to participate in public worship, and you weren’t even supposed to touch them. Here is Mark’s account of it: “And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean” (Mk. 1:40). Now most people would have already made it home by this point; they would not have stayed around the moment they noticed this guy was a leper. But Jesus has stayed and listened to him. And then we have this amazing description of what happened next: “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean” (41). Note two things here: first, he was moved with compassion – he didn’t just heal him because it was the right thing to do, he did so because he was genuinely touched with the feeling of this leper’s infirmities. Second, the way Jesus healed him is significant: he touched him. He didn’t have to do it that way. Clearly, he could simply have spoken and he would have been healed. But here he was putting his hand on this defiled leper – probably the first time anyone had touched him in years. Because Jesus can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, he reaches out to touch us with the hand of his mercy and grace. When everyone else forsakes us, then the Lord takes us up.

Where are you this morning? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel like you need help but no one can give it to you, except God? But do you feel that God would never help you because you’ve sinned against him and deserve only his judgment? That is true, we do only deserve his judgment. But Jesus Christ came to be a high priest. He came to offer a sacrifice – his own life – not as a martyr, not as an example, but as an atonement to pay for the sins that we committed and to bring us to God. If you want to summarize in one phrase what our Lord did on the cross, this is it: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). He came to bring us to God’s throne and to make it for us a throne of grace. If you need help that only God can give, this text is very good news. We can get help through the grace of God, grace which is obtained at the throne of grace through prayer, because Jesus our high priest has made atonement for sins by his death on the cross.

Which means that, even if your troubles have mounted into the heavens, the place to start is not by dealing with the troubles themselves but by believing on Christ and putting your trust in him. There is one command I haven’t dealt with yet: “let us hold fast our profession” (14). The profession, or confession, has as its content faith in Christ. Remember how the author put it back in chapter 3: “Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus” (3:1). We hold fast our profession by holding on to Jesus by faith. Do you? This is where we start and if we start there, the rest of the text becomes a reality for us too. Thanks be unto God for his indescribable gift!

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Word of God (Heb. 4:12-13)

Yesterday (9/11/21) was the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon and the tragic downing of Flight 93, all orchestrated by Islamic terrorists bent on an agenda of destruction and hate. Twenty years later, our country ingloriously left Afghanistan, the training ground of these terrorists, leaving thousands of people there to the mercy of the Taliban – especially Afghan Christians. One wonders after all this what was accomplished: has anything really been done in the last twenty years to stop the progress of militant Islam? It can be discouraging to dwell on.

However, we need to remember in these uncertain times that God is in control. Tragedies like 9/11 or the abandonment of the Afghan people don’t happen because God forgot to keep his hand on the wheel of the universe. God allows things like this to happen on purpose, not because he gets delight out of human suffering or because he doesn’t care about justice, but because he is going to bring about something much better out of the rubble and the ashes caused by human evil. Though God allows evil to take place, the reality is that evil will not have the final word. He will make things right. Another way to put this is that God will have the final word, and by this word he will bring about surprising good for his people and surpassing glory for his name.

This is one of the lessons of Psalm 33. There we read about the power of God’s word: “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth. He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap: he layeth up the depth in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD: let the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast. The LORD bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought: he maketh the devices of the people of none effect. The counsel of the LORD standeth forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:6-11). The same word that created the universe is the same word that brings the counsel of the nations to nothing. In the end, God’s word will stand. His word is a powerful word because the God who speaks is omnipotent and sovereign.

In our text, we are face to face with this powerful word of God. It is the word that the Hebrew Christians needed to be reminded of. They needed to remember that, whatever the difficulties that were making them think twice about their faith in Christ, nothing is able to stop or stand in the way of the fulfillment of God’s word, either in his promises to his people or his warnings to his enemies. In the end, God’s word will stand. All the voices that have been raised in opposition to God will one day be silenced. All the plans and the counsels devised against the people of God will come to nothing. For only God can speak and it is done, can command and it infallibly comes to pass.

But what, or who, is the word of God spoken of here in the text? There actually has been quite a bit of debate over the referent to the “word of God” in verse 12. Some, like the fourth-century church father Athanasius, have said that this has the same meaning as we find in the gospel of John, where we are told that, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14), clearly referring to Jesus the Son of God. However, given the context, the word of God here clearly means the word which God speaks, his utterance, and which is communicated to us in the pages of Scripture. The context demands this interpretation. Notice the word “for” at the beginning of verse 12: “For the word of God . . .”. It is the reason why we are to do verse 11: “Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.” The danger of unbelief is the failure to believe God’s word – both his word of promise and his word of warning.

Again and again we see this emphasis on what God has spoken and said, particularly in Psalm 95. Remember that back in chapter 3 where this Psalm was introduced, it was introduced with the expression, “as the Holy Ghost saith” (3:7). Then, throughout the following verses we have this repeated reminder that God is speaking to us in the words of the Psalm (see, for example, 3:10, 11, 12, 15, 18; 4:2, 3, 4, 7, 8). This is not just a Psalm of David; it is God speaking to us in the Psalm of David (4:7). This is the word of the Lord.

Thus, when we come to the phrase “word of God” in 4:12, the first thought should be the word of God as spoken in the words of Scripture. Though it is true that the word here is logos, as in the gospel of John, we also see that logos is used in 4:2 – “but the word (logos) preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.” There, in the immediate context, logos means the word of God which is preached, and which is identified with the exhortation given in the word of God written (Ps. 95). Note that the word here is likened to a sword – this should remind us of Paul’s description of God’s word in Eph. 6:17, which is surely meant to refer to God’s written word.

However, you cannot separate God’s word from God himself. Thus, when we get to verse 13, “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do,” we are manifestly getting a description there of the omniscience of God himself. The idea is that God will always back his word. He will not let it fall to the ground. What he says he will do. What he says will stand, even though the entire world of human thought stands against it. “Let God be true, and every man a liar,” as says the apostle Paul (Rom. 3:4). Thus the prophet Isaiah writes, “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).

In the same way, though I don’t think we should identify the “word of God” here with the second Person of the Trinity, there is an intimate connection between the spoken word of God and the eternal Word of God who is Jesus our Lord. You see it in the vision that the apostle John had of our Lord: “And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 1:16; cf. 19:15). The fact that the sword is coming out of his mouth is meant surely to signify his word which is, as here, like a sharp two-edged sword. But again, though we don’t identify the two (the sword is not the Son), neither do we separate them. To reject the word of God is to reject God. To obey God’s word and to believe God’s word is to believe God.

Thus, when we consider what is said here about God’s word, we are made to realize that the reason why God’s word possesses the qualities that it does is precisely because it is the word of God. The qualities which are possessed by the word of God in verse 12 are the qualities of God. The point of the author here is to raise the eyes of the recipients of the letter from God’s word to God himself. The God who spoke in the promises and warnings of his word stands behind those promises and warnings. Again, to reject God’s word is to reject God himself. So if we are looking at this text and asking the question, “Is this talking about God or is this talking about Scripture?” I think we are presenting ourselves with a false choice. This is talking about the God who speaks in Scripture.

However, we haven’t yet addressed the question as to how these two verses are meant to function as a reason why we are to labor to enter into God’s rest so that we don’t “fall after the same example of unbelief” (11). More to the point, how do the qualities attributed to God’s word motivate obedience and faith? To answer this question, let’s look at each of the qualities listed in these two verses. We can group them under three categories: powerful, piercing, and perceptive.

God’s Word is Powerful

“For the word of God is quick, and powerful” (12). The translation “quick” is the old English word for “living” (it is related to the English word “quickened” which means to make alive). When we are told that the word of God is living and powerful, we are meant to understand that God’s word will always do what it promises to do. None of God’s promises or warnings will ever fall to the ground. “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect” (Rom. 9:5). That cannot happen.

This doesn’t of course mean that we can use the Bible like a talisman, as if by quoting a Scripture at someone we could cast as it were a magic spell. What this is saying is that nothing can get in the way of the fulfillment of God’s word. The “scripture,” as our Lord put it, “cannot be broken” (Jn. 10:35). Or as he put it in the Sermon on the Mount, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt. 5:18). The point is that we can believe without hesitation all that God has spoken. It is living and powerful; it is not a dead word that promises much and accomplishes little or nothing.

You see this connection between God’s word and God’s power also in the story of Abraham. Here is the way Paul put it: “ is written, I have made thee [Abraham] a father of many nations, before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations; according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:17-21). Why did Abraham believe God’s promise? He did so because he believed God was able – was powerful enough – to do what he said he would do. In fact, the God who spoke the promises is the one who is able to speak something out of nothing! There is simply no power in the universe that can match or compete with the power of God. What is impossible with man is possible with God. Abraham knew that, and that enabled him to endure through many setbacks and long waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise.

In the immediate context of Hebrews 4, the point is that these wavering Christians should remember that the promise of entering God’s rest is sure, not because of their power to make it happen but because God’s word is powerful – it will come to pass no matter what kind of opposition the believer encounters. There is nothing and no one that can stand in the way of God fulfilling his word (cf. Rom. 8:31-39). It is when we truly believe that God is fully able to bring his promises to pass that we will persevere through discouragement and opposition and trials.

On the other hand, just as God’s promises are sure, so are his warnings. There is a fearful warning there in the ninety-fifth Psalm: “Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest” (Ps. 95:11). In fact, as the author of Hebrews will put it later, “if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27). You cannot resist God and therefore you will not be able to resist his word – either his word of warning or his word of promise.

God’s word, by the way, doesn’t depend upon us believing it. “If we believe not, yet he remaineth faithful: he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). Just because we have convinced ourselves that God’s word is not reliable doesn’t mean it will not come to pass. A lot of people are like Casey-at-the-bat1: they don’t like the way God pitches his word to them and they let it just pass by. But every time, God calls “strike”! and eventually they strike out and it is too late.

God’s Word is Piercing

Next, we read that God’s word is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (12). Too much ink has been spilled over this verse over the wrong things, as if the point of it is the distinction between soul and spirit. There may be such a distinction. The point, however, is how penetrating and piercing God’s word is. It pierces to the level of soul and spirit; it goes beyond the external and pierces to the level of the joints and marrow. It is summarized in the words “and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” By “heart” is not meant the physical organ that pumps blood, but the totality of the inner man, including the thoughts, the affections, and our volition. In other words, God’s word speaks to who we really are; not merely as we appear to be but who we are on the inside – the real me.

There are two ways that this works. First, God’s word in Scripture pierces us in the sense that as we read it, the Holy Spirit speaks through it to us – it is the sword of the Spirit – and when he speaks to us he is able to do so in a way that cuts through our hardness and our excuses. There are no blunt edges to this sword for it is two-edged. The Spirit uses God’s word to convict us of hidden sins. Or he speaks through it a word of comfort and hope. I am thankful for both. You see how this worked in the early church through the prophets – “if all [the church] prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth” (1 Cor. 14:24- 25). Have you not experienced this? Have there not been times when you have been reading God’s word and all the sudden you felt as if God were speaking directly to you and into your situation? Have you not felt as if the word had discovered the very secrets of your heart? Thank God for that!

But there is another way it works. God’s word is piercing in the sense that God’s word demands nothing less than obedience all the way down to the level of the heart. The commands that come to us in God’s word are not meant to make us hypocrites; they are not concerned with merely external obedience. God does not look on the external appearance as man does; he looks on the heart (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7). Even so his words pierce to the heart in the sense of commanding and demanding the obedience and the affection of our inner man. We are to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

We run into problems when we begin to treat God’s word as if it were just concerned with appearances. We can all keep up a good appearance, even when our hearts are far from God. Like those in our Lord’s day, who drew near to God with their mouths but their hearts were far from him (Mt. 15:8). But sin begins in the heart and is only carried on with the permission and consent of the heart. Sin begins in the imagination before it filters into action. Lust precedes sin in the overt act. It is therefore imperative that we keep our hearts with all diligence, for from it are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23). Hence Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that God’s word pierces to the heart, not merely in an experiential way, but in terms of its authority and scope. In fact, the reason why God’s word can prick us in the heart (Acts 2:37), is because of the scope of its commands. God’s word commands your thoughts, your loves, your priorities. If we are not obeying him on that level, we are in serious danger.

And this word which pierces us will judge us accordingly. As our Lord put it, “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (Jn. 12:48). It is true that not everyone who hears God’s word responds in repentance. But those who have hardened themselves against it will one day find that it pierces them and discovers the weakness of their excuses as they stand before the Judge of the universe.

God’s Word is Perceptive

“Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). Here we move almost imperceptibly from God’s word spoken to the One who speaks. Again, we cannot separate God and his word. He always stands behind his word. To reject God’s word is to reject God.

Now in a real sense this statement is a confirmation of the previous one. The reason why the word of God is able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart is because the God of the word is omniscient. However, there is a difference. Whereas the focus of the previous statement was the depth to which the word of God pierces, the focus here is on the breadth to which the God who speaks sees. It is not saying just that God knows a few people well (down to the depths of their hearts and souls) but that he knows everyone this way (“neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight”). There is no one who can escape God’s penetrating gaze: “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3).

The point is that you cannot escape God. Now these struggling Christians were wanting to escape the suffering that they were enduring. And one route they could take was the route of abandoning the faith in Christ. That would have afforded them temporary but immediate relief, and this made it very tempting. How does the book of Hebrews counteract this tendency? It does so by reminding them (and us) that no matter where we turn, we do not move outside the realm of God’s kingdom. He knows everything we do at every moment. And we cannot ultimately escape his judgment.

Jonah found this out the hard way, didn’t he? God told him to do something that was to him very distasteful, and so he decided that he wasn’t going to do it. And so “Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish [the opposite direction from where God told him to go – Nineveh] from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:3). That’s the beginning of the chapter. You know how it ends? “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (1:17). You cannot outrun God. You cannot really go from the presence of the Lord. When God had the fish vomit Jonah back up onto land, he simply reiterated his command to Jonah (2:1-2). “So Jonah arose...” (2:3), finally learning his lesson!

In the same way, when God warns us against rejecting his word (like Jonah tried to do), we should not think that we are somehow going to weasel our way out of the consequences of disobedience. It just doesn’t work that way. Now I know that a lot of people will object here and point out all those who are living in abject rebellion against God and seem to be doing just fine. But the judgment of God, like the Christian hope, is something mainly reserved for us on the other side of death: “It is appointed unto men

once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). The reality is not that God doesn’t care about the wickedness of the wicked but that he is giving space for people to repent (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1-9). In fact, to use God’s forbearance – the temporary staying of his hand of judgment – as a reason to go on in sin, only exacerbates our guilt: “And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Rom. 2:3-4). Shall we despise the goodness of God by scoffing at his judgment which is temporarily restrained by his mercy?

Note the way God is described at the end of verse 13: he is the one “with whom we have to do.” We can ignore God now; we can deny he exists or doubt it and think that belief in God is irrelevant. That’s the way a lot of folks in our society look at God. However, you will have to deal with God; it is unavoidable. He is the one with whom you have to do. He is the one to whom we will all have to give an account. He is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Of him and through him and to him are all things (Rom. 11:36).

Since we cannot run from God, the only logical thing to do is to run to God. This quote in Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics puts it so well:

When you wish to do something evil, you retire from the public into your house where no enemy may see you; from those places of your house which are open and visible to the eyes of men you remove yourself into your room; even in your room you fear some witness from another quarter; you retire into your heart, there you meditate: he is more inward than your heart. Wherever, therefore, you shall have fled, there he is. From yourself, whither will you flee? Will you not follow yourself wherever you shall flee? But since there is One more inward even than yourself, there is no place where you may flee from God angry but to God reconciled. There is no place at all whither you may flee. Will you flee from him? Flee unto him.2

This would be frightening if God only revealed himself to us as our judge. But that is not the only way he is the one with whom we have to do. In the person of Christ God reveals himself to us as God reconciled. We see this in the following verses, which we will (Lord-willing) consider in more depth next time (Heb. 4:14-16). There our Lord is presented to us as a high priest – the function of the high priest being to represent God’s people to God and to provide atonement for their sins – so that the throne of God becomes to us in Christ a throne of grace. This is the point of the apostle Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian church: “All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:18-21). The gospel is the gospel (good news) precisely because in it God comes to us in Christ as reconciled.

And it is important, by the way, to understand who it is that needs to be reconciled. The problem is not mainly that we need to lay away our enmity toward God. That is true of course and it is important that we do this – we do need to repent of our hostility toward God. But that is not the primary problem! The primary problem with the human race is not man’s beef with God but God’s holy and just anger toward us. We need to be reconciled to a God who is alienated from us on account of our sin. And the only way this can happen is through Christ who bore the punishment due to sin so that those who believe in him might be made righteous before God and reconciled with God.


Quoted in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (2nd ed.), p. 210-211.

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