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: “...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.
1 See https://poets.org/poem/casey-bat
2 Quoted in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (2nd ed.), p. 210-211.