The Word of God is Living!
Hebrews 4:12, 13
I sometimes wonder what it must be like to be a teacher. I suspect that there are times when they are teaching something and it feels like their words are falling to the floor. Some students appear to be paying attention, but when you look closer, the attentive look is really a dazed look. Others have their head on their desk and others are obviously paying attention to something else, possibly their cell phone. As a teacher, you have interesting and important stuff to teach the students and sometimes their interest seems to be absent. At times like that, it must be frustrating and you must feel powerless to make the words heard.
I wonder if God ever feels that way. He has spoken His word and I wonder if He ever feels as if His words are just falling to the floor. The Bible reveals that He is saddened by our failure to really listen to Him and His word, but it also says that He does not feel powerless about the words He has spoken. In Hebrews 4:12-13 we read, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
What this word tells us is that God’s word has power and it will be accomplished. Are we listening? How does His word impact us?
God has spoken, but not only in the Bible. When God created, He spoke. Jesus is called “The Word.” God has spoken at other times through prophecy. When we look at this verse, we need to recognize that when it speaks of the “word of God,” we need to think more broadly than just about the Bible but also about whatever God has communicated. Of course, the clearest word of God we have is the Bible, so that is naturally and primarily what we will think of, but we need to understand that God’s word refers to any way in which God has spoken.
That word is living. That is an interesting concept to think about. A person is living, an animal or a plant are living, but what does it mean that a word is living? We think of a word as something that is a piece of art, a drawing that communicates, but we don’t think of a word as living. What this tells us is that God’s Word is not a word which is spoken and then drops to the ground and turns to dust. It is not like a dead leaf, rather it is like a living plant.
When I was a teenager, we thought we were so cool. We knew the latest songs and styles and were up to date. Our parents were out of date. I have realized since that those songs and styles that we thought were up to date are now out of date. The word of God is living because it never goes out of date. It always has something to say to us.
To say that the Word of God is alive is to recognize that it will accomplish whatever God sends it to do. When God speaks, whatever He speaks happens. Isaiah 55:11assures us, “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
His word is also active. The Greek word for “active” is the word “ἐνεργὴς,” from which we get our word “energy.” Jeremiah 23:29 describes the energy or power of the word of God when it says, “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
The energy, or power, of the word of God is seen in creation. Have you ever contemplated that when God created, He did so by a word? In Genesis 1:3 we read, “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” In the RSV version of Hebrews 1:3 it says, “the world was created by the word of God.” What tremendous power! Our words may occasionally have power when we tell our children to do something and they do it, but God simply spoke and the entire universe sprang into being!
The power of the word of God is also seen in the message of salvation. Romans 1:16 in the Good News Bible says, “I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God’s power to save all who believe…” The word of God, the gospel, has power to forgive sins and give eternal life!
These are probably the two main ways in which God has spoken – in creation and in salvation - and what He has spoken has happened. That is a living and powerful word!
As we read on, we discover that the Word of God has great power in another way. We read, “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
There are several interesting thoughts expressed here. The word of God is so precise, so sharp, so effective that it is able to divide those things that appear almost indivisible. Using picture language, the writer speaks of the word of God as able to dissect soul and spirit. I remember debates in Bible school in which we discussed whether people were divided into three parts – body, soul and spirit, or two parts – body and spirit. I remember thinking that I could not distinguish what was meant by soul and spirit, they seem to me to be one, but the word of God is so sharp, so precise that it can distinguish between soul and spirit. It is also able to separate joints and marrow. These are word pictures and we need to read them as such. Their intent is to tell us that the word of God is able to discern what is in the deepest part of our being and to distinguish all our thoughts and motives and intentions.
The word of God is able to judge and discern all the hidden areas of our heart in ways that we often don’t even distinguish ourselves. The phrase, “thoughts and intentions” tells us that God’s word distinguishes all our motives, all our intentions and helps us understand whether they are godly or not.
What this means, first of all is that God knows all our thoughts and even what is deep in our hearts. One of the great stories of the Bible tells us about this. When Samuel chose David as king, the story goes that Samuel was sent to the home of Jesse to anoint the next king because Saul had failed. Jesse brought all his sons before Samuel and it seems they were an impressive lot - handsome, strong, able leaders. But God rejected all of them. Finally Samuel asked if there was anyone else and the answer of the family suggests that at least in their eyes, the only one left was the runt of the litter. David was summoned and was chosen as king. The reason he was chosen is that God knew what was in his heart. I Samuel 16:7 reveals God’s standard for his choice when it says, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” This is what the word of God is able to do, it is able to discern and recognize all that is happening in our deepest being.
But the word of God not only reveals what is in our hearts, it is powerful to distinguish what is good and what is bad in our hearts. How often do we find a way to justify sin by some excuse? It is easy to fool people with our motives. In fact, it is easy to make ourselves look good in front of people. The word of God, however, is able to separate between what is a good motive and what is a selfish motive. Jesus did this with the Pharisees. They thought they were being obedient to God’s word by dedicating their belongings to God. But Jesus accused them and said they were disobeying God by failing to take care of their parents. The Pharisees came to Jesus with righteous anger, ready to stone a woman caught in adultery, but Jesus, by his question and his writing in the sand revealed the hypocrisy of their hearts. We can fool a lot of people by coming to church every Sunday and perhaps even teaching a Sunday School class, but the Word of God reveals whether our motives are to look good to other people or to serve the Lord because we love Him.
I suspect we have all experienced that penetrating work of the word of God. Gerald Flury writes, “Have you ever wondered how a sermon or a Sunday school lesson can be so fitted to what you are experiencing? You may even think that someone has talked to them and given them some inside information about you. The truth is that it isn’t the teacher or the preacher. It’s the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God, delivering the right message at the right place at the right time.”
John Piper writes, “God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.”
In verse 13 we read, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Two interesting words deserve reflection in this section. The word for “uncovered” is the Greek word “γυμνὰ” from which we get our word gymnasium. It means naked. In Greek times athletes exercised without much clothes on and so the places they exercised were called gymnasiums. To be naked is to be exposed. You know how you would feel if you were in front of other people without much clothes on. You feel vulnerable. In the presence of God we are naked. God knows what is happening in the deepest recesses of our heart.
The other interesting word is the word translated “laid bare.” It comes from the Greek word “τραχηλιzw.” This is the Greek word from which we get our word trachea, which refers to the throat. The picture behind it, the original meaning of the word, is “to bend back the neck of a victim to be slain, to lay bare or expose by bending back.” So the picture here is again one of vulnerability. God knows every excuse and thought pattern in our mind.
The word of God exposes all that is in our hearts and we stand before God without any excuse or anything to hide behind.
I like the way John Piper puts it when he says, “The Word of God's promise is like throwing open a great window of bright morning sun on the shiny-back roaches of sin masquerading as satisfying pleasures in our hearts.”
Hughes writes, “And as God is the God who acts with power, his word cannot fail to be active and powerful…Its effectiveness derives from its source, which is God himself, from its purpose, which is the will of God; and neither God nor his will is ever subject to frustration and defeat.”
If this is the power of God’s word, what do we do with it?
The translation of this verse in most versions of the Bible doesn’t quite get what it says. What is missing is that this is about the word of God. One of the first words in these verses is “word” and the last word in verse 13 is also “word.” So a direct translation of the last part of verse 13 would be, “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom to us the word.” The Message paraphrase does kind of get this idea when it says, “God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.”
This verse tells us that God’s word is very powerful, but is it really?
Do we really believe and live under the power of this word? Is it perhaps like the Wizard of Oz? In that movie there is an interesting scene in which Dorothy and her friends come to the house of the great wizard of Oz. They see a spectacular show of power, until Toto exposes the wizard behind the curtain and we realize that the wizard is actually a man with no power except the power of a good show.
I have 8 Bibles in my office, 9 translations on my computer and another 5 on my PDA. I have heard God’s word almost daily most of my life. Does it do any good? As powerful as that word is, it sometimes appears that it has little effect!
Yet God tells us in His word that He knows this. Just because it does not always change hearts does not mean that the word is not powerful. How do we understand this?
When Jesus healed the man born blind in John 9, the Pharisees questioned the man and argued with him about all the ways in which Jesus could not be from God. Late in the story, Jesus had an encounter with some of these Pharisees in John 9:40-41 which says, “Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” In saying this, he was telling them that the word of God has power, but it was their own blindness that prevented it from penetrating their hearts. We know that there are people who study the Bible in great depth, but because of unbelief it does not change their hearts.
Jesus told the parable of the sower to demonstrate that it is up to the hearer whether or not the word of God will penetrate their heart. The seed has the power of life in it, but it depends on the soil on which it falls. If it falls on the path or among the weeds or on the stone, it will not produce the harvest intended, but not because the seed does not have the power of life, but because the one receiving it does not allow it to grow.
In the Old Testament, Jeremiah condemned the people when he said in Jeremiah 5:21 “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear…” God’s word is powerful, but there are some perhaps we could say many, who do not receive the life giving power of that word because of their unbelief. Are we among them?
So just because there are those who do not hear, does not mean the word is not powerful to them. That is actually what the warning in Hebrews 4 is all about. The writer begins the chapter by saying in Hebrews 4:2, “For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Hebrews 4:12 begins with the word “For” which connects it with the rest of the chapter. This chapter is a warning that we need to respond to the powerful word of God through faith. If we come to the word without faith, we will not be changed by it. It has power to create and power to change lives. It has power to penetrate to the deepest recesses of our life and if we believe it, it will expose all that is in our hearts and minds and renew and restore us and change us into the image of God. But if we do not expose ourselves to this word, how can it change us? If we never let it penetrate more deeply than hearing one sermon a week in church, how will it help us divide between the motives that lead to life and those that lead to destruction? If we never stop to take time to listen to God, how will His word change us?
This word is, as the text says, “to us.” But the word requires our response. It requires a believing heart and an attentive heart.
Israel failed because they did not have a believing heart and the warning in Hebrews 4:11 is “so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.”
But if we refuse to listen to it, if we continue in disbelief and refuse to allow the word of God to reveal what is in our heart and change us, do we make it ineffectual by that refusal? Does it become like the word of teachers that falls to the ground and dies? Are we more powerful than the word of God if we refuse to hear it?
The text says, “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.” This verse also tells us that the word is to us. How does the word of God remain powerful even when we don’t believe it?
It remains powerful because if we refuse to be changed by it, we will be judged by it. The word of God is the basis on which we will be judged, so we have a choice. Either we can believe the word, expose our hearts to it and be changed by it, or on the final day, we will be judged by it. The Word of God serves either as our instructor or our judge. We will have to answer to it one way or another. It is possible, through hardness of heart to ignore the word, to be blind, unseeing, unhearing, but it is not possible to remove ourselves from its effects.
Jesus reinforces this message in John 12:48, “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.”
So we all have a choice to make. The word of God is powerful and living. The choice we have to make is, when do we want the word of God to be applied to us, now or later?
If we allow the word of God to be applied to us now, it will be like a surgeon’s knife. It will sometimes be painful to experience what God’s word wants to say to us. If we respond to it with faith and willingness to be changed, God’s word will do it’s surgical work. It will remove sin, deception, falsehood and lies. But it will also bring healing, as the work of a surgeon does. It will heal our hearts and comfort our spirits. It will show us abundant life and guide us on the good path.
If we refuse the word of God, it will still be applied to us, but then it will be applied in judgment, not like a surgeon’s knife, but like a guillotine. It will be like in the parable in Matthew 25, when Jesus said to those who had not followed Him, “Depart from me…”
The only reasonable response to this is to pray as the Psalmist does in Psalm 139:23, 24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”