4:12 — For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword … and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
The Bible is not dead but living. It lives both because God brought it into existence and because the Spirit of God brings its message to life in our hearts. It has God’s power to provoke change in our lives.
The Urgency of Rest
Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. (4:11–13)
The need for God’s rest is urgent. A person should diligently, with intense purpose and concern, secure it. It is not that he can work his way to salvation, but that he should diligently seek to enter God’s rest by faith—lest he, like the Israelites in the wilderness, lose the opportunity.
God cannot be trifled with. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, … and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. In the immediate context this verse means that the readers who are hesitating in trusting Christ, who are even considering falling back into Judaism, had better be urgent and diligent in seeking to enter God’s rest, because the Word of God is alive. It is not static, but active—constantly active. It can pierce right down into the innermost part of the heart to see if belief is real or not.
So the Word of God is not only saving and comforting and nourishing and healing, it is also a tool of judgment and execution. In the day of the great judgment His Word is going to penetrate and lay bare all hearts who have not trusted in Him. The sham and hypocrisy will be revealed and no profession of faith, no matter how orthodox, and no list of good works, no matter how sacrificial, will count for anything before Him. Only the thoughts and intentions of the heart will count. God’s Word is the perfect discerner, the perfect kritikos (from which we get “critic”). It not only analyzes all the facts perfectly, but all motives, and intentions, and beliefs as well, which even the wisest of human judges or critics cannot do. The sword of His Word will make no mistakes in judgment or execution. All disguises will be ripped off and only the real person will be seen.
The word translated open had two distinct uses in ancient times. It was used of a wrestler taking his opponent by the throat. In this position the two men were unavoidably face to face. The other use was in regard to a criminal trial. A sharp dagger would be bound to the neck of the accused, with the point just below his chin, so that he could not bow his head, but had to face the court. Both uses had to do with grave face-to-face situations. When an unbeliever comes under the scrutiny of God’s Word, he will be unavoidably face-to-face with the perfect truth about God and about himself.
In light of such certain and perfect judgment and of such beautiful and wonderful rest, why will any person harden his heart to God?
God’s Living Word
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb. 4:12)
One of the great reformations in the Old Testament began quite by accident. Josiah, the young king of Judah, had ordered Hilkiah the high priest to make repairs on the dilapidated temple in Jerusalem. Josiah seems to have been motivated by sincere religious devotion, and he was surely bothered by the way the run-down state of the building symbolized the spiritual malaise of the nation. Sprucing up the building, however, could offer only surface improvements, but inside the temple workers found something that promised to do much more. Hilkiah informed Josiah’s secretary of momentous news from the construction site: “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 22:8).
Although this seemed to happen by accident, there was obviously a great providence at work. Josiah had sought to bless God by fixing the temple, and God blessed Josiah in return by placing in his hands the most powerful force in the world for reformation and revival, for hope and joy, for peace and salvation. The Lord had returned to Jerusalem that which had been lost, the very Word of God, which Hebrews tells us “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (Heb. 4:12).
Josiah began reading the Bible the workers had found, and soon he tore his clothes to lament what had been absent from Israel’s life for so long. He gathered the most godly people around God’s Word to study it. Then they put into practice the things they read in the Scriptures, and the result was a renewal of the covenant with God and the restoration of the blessings that come through faith in him. What Josiah and Jerusalem learned so many years ago is something the godly have been learning ever since. It is what the apostle Peter wrote about in his first epistle: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever’ ” (1 Peter 1:23–25).
God’s Living Word
This view of the Scriptures features prominently in the Letter to the Hebrews. In the long exhortation that runs through chapters 3 and 4, the writer implores his readers to hold fast to their faith under hardship. He boldly insists that a failure to believe the message of Jesus Christ is to forfeit the great salvation rest that God has offered. Consistently, he backs up such statements with the authority of the Word of God. All through this exhortation he has grounded his arguments on citations from the Old Testament, specifically from Psalm 95.
This psalm was written by King David about one thousand years before the writing of Hebrews. David was also interested in exhorting his readers, and he did so by reflecting on the unbelief of the exodus generation, which had led to their destruction some four hundred years earlier. Drawing on that example, David wrote, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test” (Ps. 95:7–9). It is these words that the writer of Hebrews applies to his own generation. In doing so he assumes—indeed, he boldly asserts—that the words written by David not only have relevance, but also have authority over those who read them in his own time.
These readers were experiencing the beginnings of persecution; perhaps they were losing their jobs or even their property because of their faith in Christ. His argument to them is this: “Why should you sacrifice your labor, your worldly goods, and even your lives for the sake of Jesus? Because those words spoken by David are not just old news, irrelevant spiritual musings. They are the very Word of God, living and active even today, and in them your own destiny is bound up through either belief or unbelief.” That is the point being summed up by the opening words from Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active.”
How can this be? How can David’s words, which after all are the words of a man, be living and active? The reason is seen all through this book: because they are also the words of God. We saw this emphasis in the very first verse of this letter, in which the writer described the whole revelatory process with these words: “God spoke … by the prophets.” This is what makes the Bible the Word of God. All through Hebrews the writer introduces Old Testament citations with “as God has said,” or “as the Holy Spirit says.” In verse 7 of chapter 4 he writes: “Again [God] appoints a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David so long afterward.” The words spoken through the man David and written down on paper with some sort of writing implement, are not first and foremost to be thought of as David’s own words, the words of man, but as the Word of God.
Here we need to be very careful not to deemphasize or even deny the human authorship of the Bible. The Bible was composed by some forty different human authors. They were real men; these were their real thoughts; these books deal with their actual circumstances and are colored by their own experiences and interests. To lose sight of this would be to lose much of their value.
How, then, is the Bible the Word of God? That question was important to the apostles, for they regarded the Old Testament writers as authoritative for their own readers. Perhaps the best-known statement is the one Paul made in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The words of the Bible are not the inspired words of men, arising from their own spiritual insight, but they are expired, out-breathed words from God’s very mouth given through them.
This is what makes the Bible so profitable to us, as Paul emphasizes. Through his Word God himself teaches us, rebukes and corrects us, trains us in righteousness and equips us for every good work. When you come to God’s Word in faith—when you open up your heart and mind to the teachings of the Bible, either as it is preached or in your own reading of it—that Word comes alive within you because it is sent by God himself for that purpose. He lives and acts in you through his living and active Word. Therefore, as Martin Luther said, “Let the man who would hear God speak read Holy Scripture.” The Puritan Thomas Watson adds, “By reading other books the heart may be warmed, but by reading this book it is transformed.”2
Paul gives us a very clear description; he tells us that Scripture is God’s out-breathed Word, but he doesn’t tell us how this is so. Fortunately, Peter gives us more insight: “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20–21).
By prophecy, Peter does not merely mean future prediction, but the whole prophetic revelation of God’s teaching. The first thing he says is that prophecy does not reflect the prophet’s own ideas. It is not his own interpretation that is written, nor did the thoughts originate with him, but with God. The key statement is in verse 21: “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it was men who spoke and wrote, but what they said came from God as the Holy Spirit carried them along in their work.
This is why we can say that the Word of God is “living and active.” While there are differences in our cultural, social, and historical settings, compared to the original readers, and our understanding of a particular passage may and should reflect those differences, nonetheless we should read the Bible as God’s Word to us. It is not merely relevant, but authoritative and binding on us as it was on them. It is timeless and living precisely because it is the Word of the eternal and living God. Therefore, Peter writes of the Bible: “You will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19).
God’s Life-Imparting Word
Another great evidence that the Bible is living and active has to do with its content and purpose. The Bible does not merely relate interesting facts and beliefs from our religious tradition. No, the Bible has one overarching theme: God’s work in history for the salvation of sinful people. This is what the Bible records—what God has done to forgive our sins, so that we who are dead in trespasses might be brought to life in Christ. As Paul wrote to young Timothy, the purpose of the Bible is “to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). The Bible’s message is God’s work of salvation through Jesus Christ, and its purpose is actually to bring that salvation to individuals who receive that message and believe.
God’s Word is living and active in the same way that Jesus’ words were living and actives when he stood before the tomb of his dead friend and cried, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). At Jesus’ word the dead man came to life and took off his graveclothes. So also for the Word of God as we have it in the Bible; not only is it alive but it is active in imparting life to us. It makes alive those who are spiritually dead.
The Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias tells the story of a drive he took with an evangelist in the nation of Lebanon. Lebanon was then occupied by the Syrian army, and their control was quite repressive. He and the pastor were driving in a van that was loaded with boxes of Bibles that they were transporting to another city where an effort was being made to reach lost sinners. Zacharias tells of his great anxiety as they stopped at a military checkpoint and a Syrian soldier stuck his rifle in their faces. “What is in this van?” the soldier demanded. Zacharias was horrified when the evangelist replied, “Oh, nothing but boxes of dynamite!” Then, handing the shocked soldier one of the Bibles, the bold pastor explained. “Here is what I am talking about. Read this and it will break into your life with God’s own power.” And so it does! The Word of God is living and active—spiritual dynamite sent by God into a world of darkness with power to overcome every stronghold of sin and human opposition.
God’s Penetrating Word
The writer of Hebrews has more to tell us about God’s Word, continuing with an explanation of how it does its work. The Word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
The image of the Word as a sword is often found in Scripture. In his description of the armor of God, Paul speaks of “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). In his vision of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ, John tells us, “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 1:16). As the ensuing letters to the seven churches illustrate, that sword is obviously his Word. Furthermore, it is a double-edged sword, equally fit to save or to judge.
What this image describes is the penetrating or piercing power of God’s Word: “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (Heb. 4:12). The point is not that a separation takes place between a man’s physical and his spiritual natures. As Philip Hughes explains, “Our author is not concerned to provide here a psychological or anatomical analysis of the human constitution, but rather to describe in graphic terms the penetration of God’s word to the innermost depth of man’s personality.” The Word penetrates against all opposition so as to grip the whole man and not just any one aspect of his person.
Furthermore, we are told what the Word does once it gets inside: “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). How often people think they are judging the Bible when just the opposite is true! The Word of God penetrates within, and its presence makes clear our true thoughts and attitudes. Many people affect to be good and even religious, but when the Word of God comes to them, they respond with hostility and repulsion. Their attitude to the Bible shows their true attitude toward God.
God’s Word comes into us and it discerns, assessing our attitude toward the one who sent it. But when accompanied by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, it does more: it convicts us of our rebellion against God and subdues us; it leads us as sheep to the Good Shepherd. This is how we are born again. We hear God speaking, we read in Scripture of the perfect demands of the law as well as God’s sure judgment, we realize our peril, we surrender ourselves and fall before the Lord in conviction of sin. Then in the Bible we learn of a Savior who has taken our sins away by dying on a cross for us, and we rejoice, we race forward to embrace him, we worship him and follow him.
John Newton was a man who was penetrated and captured by the Word of God. Raised in a Christian home in the mid-eighteenth century, he left home and joined the British navy. There he entered deeply into the ways of sin, and eventually he deserted to live in Africa. He chose that place because there his lusts could have the most opportunity for satisfaction. In the years that followed he became a slave trader, but was also abused by those who gained power over him and was even kept in chains. Physically wrecked, he escaped toward the sea and found his way aboard a British merchant vessel. Due to his knowledge of navigation he became a ship’s mate. However, when the captain showed trust in him, he broke into the ship’s supply of rum and became drunk—so drunk that when the captain returned and struck him on the head he fell overboard. If one of the crew had not rescued him, he would have drowned.
As the ship was nearing Scotland on the way home, it ran into a storm and was blown off course. For days the storm blew and water came into the floundering vessel. Newton spent countless hours down in the hold working the pumps, in desperate fear for his life. There his mind turned to Bible verses his mother had taught him before she died when he was six years old. The Word of God came alive within him, convicted his thoughts and attitudes, and brought him to repentance, and he cast himself on Jesus Christ for forgiveness and salvation.
The ship ultimately did make it safely to port, and Newton entered into the study of theology and became a notable Puritan minister. We know him best for his hymns, especially “Amazing Grace!”
Amazing grace!—how sweet the sound—
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.
That is what God does through his Word—he saves wretches, he finds the lost, he takes those who are blind and makes them to see. God’s Word is living and active, it pierces and discerns and judges, all for the great work of salvation that is its message and its purpose.
Newton’s is a great example, but our own time is filled with other great ones. In the most unlikely ways, hardened sinners come to hear the Word of God, and it brings them to spiritual life through faith in Christ. Recent years have brought all sorts of amazing stories of new life for those who were lost: KGB officers once steeped in the ways of terror; Muslims locked deep within the lands of Islam; wealthy movie stars or media personalities ensnared by godless humanism. High and low, educated and dull, east and west, they are reached by the living and active Word of God.
Someone might object, saying, “I have encountered God’s Word, but it has not affected me. I have not trusted Jesus Christ, I have not given my allegiance to God.” Those things are, of course, precisely what the rebel wants to avoid; he sets up every conceivable roadblock, he turns away from the Word and pushes it away from himself. He avoids Christian teaching if at all he can; if his radio dial lands on a station with gospel preaching he cannot reach out fast enough to turn the dial.
But what these verses say is still true. God’s living Word has found you, it has penetrated, it has discerned your thoughts and attitudes, and you stand judged by it. It is a double-edged sword, standing above you not with the blade that gives life, but with the blade that renders condemnation unto death. It tells you now to repent, to confess and surrender yourself to the God who freely forgives. Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it. And yet he said, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (John 12:48).
God’s All-Sufficient Word
We have seen how God’s Word is living and active, as well as its penetrating power to bring our thoughts and attitudes into judgment so that we surrender to him. The final point we learn here is the sufficiency of God’s Word for our every need in the things of faith and godliness.
We see this in verse 12, where a comparison is made between God’s Word and worldly weapons. It is “sharper than any two-edged sword.” Not only is God’s Word a sword, but when compared with other weapons, it is sharper. Philip Hughes observes, “As the instrument of God’s mighty acts it is more powerful and penetrating than the keenest instrument devised by man.” Since God’s Word is “living and active,” it is effective in a way no other weapon can be.
Another evidence God’s Word is sufficient for our needs is found in verse 13: “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” God’s Word is living and active, it penetrates and probes, and furthermore nothing can escape it. Interestingly, the writer of Hebrews here compares God’s Word to God’s eyes. It uncovers every heart, every act, every intention, every thought and desire and brings them before the penetrating gaze of the living God.
Yet we are living in a time when many Christians, even evangelicals who once were singularly known and even derided for their devotion to the Word, are losing confidence in the Bible’s effectiveness. Yes, it is inspired; yes, it is useful; but it must be augmented by human means or wisdom or methods. Our evangelism now relies on manipulative psychological ploys, our spiritual growth depends on techniques and programs and store-bought gimmicks, our worship reflects the glitter of Hollywood entertainment. Far different is the message of the writer of Hebrews, who says that nothing is able to escape the revealing, energetic Word of God. Therefore, it alone is sufficient for our every need.
This was also the teaching of the apostle Paul. Do we need worldly methods and devices to do the work of the church? Paul wrote, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3–5).
Consider what power is made available to us by the Word of God, and what an incentive this is to use it in our witness and in our own lives. It is sufficient for our every need. What better thing could we possibly do for the salvation of souls than to proclaim and explain God’s Word? It alone conveys God’s own power to convict and to save, to cut away the heart of stone and bring to life a new heart of flesh.
Consider the matter of our sanctification, that is, our own growth in holiness. What could be more effective than to shine the light of God’s Word upon our lives, into our minds and hearts? This is what Paul emphasized, saying in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” This is how Jesus prayed for our holiness, in John 17:17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Our passage says God’s Word “discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” What a blessing it is to have that happen now: to be taught by him, rebuked and inspired by him, to be molded in obedience to God during this life, knowing that in the life to come he is the one, as verse 13 concludes, “to whom we must give account.”
Consider the matter of Christian comfort. Do you sorrow or suffer? Are you tempted and tried? Do you want assurance of salvation and the peace that comes with it? Then turn to the Bible, which speaks of a God who is totally sufficient for your salvation, who is able and willing to save you and to keep you. “He who did not spare his own Son,” it tells us, “but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).
Finally, let me ask you this: do you want to make a difference in this life? Then commit yourself to the Word of God, bring yourself into its life-changing light, and share it with the world by every means you can. This is what godly men and women have done all through history, people like King Josiah who recovered God’s Word and restored a whole nation through it. For to his Word God has assigned great promises:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:10–11)
Therefore any work that relies on God’s Word may be sure to have his blessing, to achieve his purpose, and to bring him glory even as it brings his power for salvation.
12 The exposition of Psalm 95:7–11 is complete, but before moving on with his argument the author pauses to reflect in vv. 12–13 on the power of “the word of God,” and the “for” shows this reflection is not a self-contained comment but a colorful and rhetorically powerful underlining of what has just been taught from the psalm. The psalm has focused on God’s speaking, both in the “voice” that the people are exhorted to heed (95:7) and in the declaration on oath that sealed the fate of those who refused to listen (vv. 10–11). This could be all that our author refers to when he speaks of “the word of God,” but he has also made it clear that he regards the whole message of the psalm as coming from the Holy Spirit (3:7) and from God (4:7), not just from David, so that vv. 12–13 are more likely to be understood in that wider sense. The whole text he has just been expounding is “the word of God” and as such cannot lightly be dismissed. To go further and find in these two verses a description of the whole of the OT goes beyond what the context requires but would be consonant with the authority our author clearly attributes to a wide variety of OT passages. Quite likely he also has in mind the “word of God” as it now comes through Christian preachers, of whom surely he himself was one (cf. 13:7, where the same phrase is used).
God’s word, like its author (3:12), is “living” (TNIV, “alive”). It is also “at work” (energēs, “active, effective, powerful,” GK 1921); the thought is close to that of Isaiah 55:11, where God’s word goes out from his mouth and accomplishes the purpose for which he sent it (cf. Ps 147:15, 18). Jeremiah conveyed this dynamic idea of God’s word by describing it as like a fire and like a hammer smashing the rock (Jer 23:29). Our author goes for a different metaphor, that of a double-edged sword (one designed for stabbing rather than slashing like a cutlass), which conveys not so much its sheer power as its ability to cut through our human resistance. This dynamic understanding of the word of God is vividly symbolized in the picture of a “sharp, two-edged sword” coming out of the mouth of the risen Lord in Revelation 1:16 (cf. 19:15). In the context of his discussion of Psalm 95, our author may be thinking of Numbers 14:43, where even after God’s oath some Israelites nonetheless tried to enter Canaan directly, only to be cut down by the sword of the Amalekites and Canaanites; God’s word is sharper even than that.
The metaphor continues in the following description of the sword (literally) “going right through to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow.” The latter pair, “joints and marrow,” refers to the literal body of flesh and bones, though it is not easy to see how joints can be “divided” from marrow; we may feel the effect of the metaphor without needing to inquire too closely how it might be envisaged physically. But with the former pair, “soul and spirit,” we seem already to be moving beyond the literal picture of what a sword can do. Words such as “soul” (psychē [GK 6034], sometimes better translated “life”) and “spirit” (pneuma [GK 4460], used for angels [1:7] and for the Holy Spirit as well as for people alive after death [12:23]) are notoriously slippery, and our author’s use of the two words elsewhere does not suggest he thought of them as two separate “parts” of a person. As with joints and marrow, we probably do better to feel the force of the metaphor than to press pedantically for a literal explanation. Both terms denote our “real, innermost selves,” and at that level, too, we are still open to the penetrative power of God’s word.
The final description of the word of God as “judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” has left the metaphor of the sword behind. The unusual adjective kritikos, “judging” or “discerning” (GK 3217), denotes its ability to break through pretense and confusion to expose the reality of our inmost being.
4:12 / The close connection between this paragraph (vv. 12–13) and the preceding verses is indicated by the strong conjunction for. These two verses thus supply the ground or logical basis for the preceding exhortation, and this fact is essential for correct interpretation. The word of God is neither a reference to Jesus nor even primarily to Scripture. It is instead what God speaks, and the idea was probably suggested to the author from the repeated reference to “hearing God’s voice” in the preceding verses (3:7, 15, 16; 4:2, 7). God’s voice, the word of God, by its very character demands authentic response. Before his penetrating word there can be no feigning of loyalty. Therefore the author’s exhortation is to be taken with the utmost seriousness. What God speaks is living and active. By his word he brought creation into existence, and his word can never be rendered ineffective (cf. Isa. 55:11). The effectiveness of God’s word is now expressed by the metaphor sharper than any double-edged sword (cf. Rev. 2:12). The sentences that follow are merely a development of this metaphor and are not meant to convey information extraneous to the point being made. The writer does not here reveal his view of the nature of humanity (dividing soul and spirit; the thoughts and attitudes of the heart). All of these details are concerned only to stress the utter effectiveness of God’s word.
The word of God (4:12)
If God has spoken so clearly to his people, then it is a mistake to suppose that man can trifle with such a word. It is alive. It does not simply record the great events of the past. The ‘yesterday’ element is certainly not missing, especially in this letter, but God’s word is something more than a mere historical record. ‘Today’ is a key term here. God is speaking to us through his living word in this very day (3:7, 15). God ‘sets a certain day, “Today” ’ (4:7) as he renews his appeal, and extends his promises, and repeats his warnings. The word not only lives; it works. It is an effective as well as a perpetually relevant word. Its activity is such that it cannot return void; it must accomplish his sovereign purposes. The word is energetic. It is like a sharp sword cutting its way through this substance or that without any kind of difficulty. This sword of the word13 can penetrate deeply into the human heart and mind. It can scrutinize the unspoken thoughts and hidden conceptions of the heart of man. It can reach deep down where, because of earth’s bewildering and preoccupying noises, no other voice can easily be heard. This word probes more deeply than the mere voice of man however interesting or eloquent. It goes to ‘the inmost recesses of our spiritual being and brings the subconscious motives to light’ (Bruce).
4:12. This vivid expression of the power of God’s message provides the explanation for the strong warning of verse 11. Because God’s message is alive, active, sharp, and discerning, those who listen to God’s message can enter his rest. Two questions are important in this verse. First, what is the word of God? Second, what does this passage say about it?
Although the Bible sometimes refers to Christ as God’s Word (John 1:14), the reference here is not speaking of Jesus Christ. Here we have a general reference to God’s message to human beings. In the past God had spoken to human beings through dreams, angelic appearances, and miracles. He still can use those methods today, but our primary contact with God is through his written Word, the Bible. God’s Word will include any method God uses to communicate with human beings.
This verse contains four statements about God’s Word. First, it is living. God is a living God (Heb. 3:12). His message is dynamic and productive. It causes things to happen. It drives home warnings to the disobedient and promises to the believer. Second, God’s Word is active, an emphasis virtually identical in meaning with the term living. God’s Word is not something you passively hear and then ignore. It actively works in our lives, changes us, and sends us into action for God.
Third, God’s Word penetrates the soul and spirit. To the Hebrew people, the body was a unity. We should not think of dividing the soul from the spirit. God’s message is capable of penetrating the impenetrable. It can divide what is indivisible. Fourth, God’s message is discerning. It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. It passes judgment on our feelings and our thoughts. What we regard as secret and hidden, God brought out for inspection by the discerning power of his Word.
In 1995, Johnny Oates was managing the Texas Rangers baseball team when God spoke to him through the illness of his wife Gloria. Oates had become a Christian in 1983; but until the crisis in 1995, he had always lived as if baseball were his god. His wife was traveling to the spring training camp for the Rangers when she became ill in Savannah, Georgia. His daughter summoned him to Georgia with a phone call. Oates arrived to find his wife in a motel, despairing and defeated.
Oates said, “God got my attention and said, ‘Johnny, it’s not going to work this way.’ ” In the grief of the moment, Oates told God that he was ready to listen to anything he wanted to say. The next day Oates checked his wife out of the motel and headed for their home in Virginia. There he and his wife both participated in a Christian counseling program and learned how to communicate with one another. He learned that what he had worshiped was not God or his family, but the game of baseball. Both Oates and his wife moved closer, and Oates said, “As we get closer to God, … we get closer to each other.”
God got his attention. Fortunately Oates listened. God’s message to this baseball manager was life changing. It was also marriage saving.
12a. The word of God is living and active.
The writer reminds the reader that God’s Word cannot be taken lightly; for if the reader does not wish to listen, he faces no one less than God himself (see Heb. 10:31; 12:29). The Bible is not a collection of religious writings from the ancient past, but a book that speaks to all people everywhere in nearly all the languages of the world. The Bible demands a response, because God does not tolerate indifference and disobedience.
In their interpretation of verse 12a, some scholars assert that the phrase Word of God is a reference to Jesus. This view is difficult to maintain, even though such a reference exists in Revelation 19:13 (where the rider on the white horse is called the Word of God). The phrase Word of God occurs at least thirty-nine times in the New Testament and almost exclusively is the designation for the spoken or written Word of God rather than the Son of God. In the introductory verses of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writer clearly states that God spoke to the forefathers in the past, and in the present he spoke to us in his Son (Heb. 1:1–2). In Hebrews Jesus is called the Son of God, but never the Word of God.
In the original Greek, the participle living stands first in the sentence and therefore receives all the emphasis. This participle describes the first characteristic of God’s spoken and written Word: that Word is alive! For example, Stephen, reciting Israel’s history in the desert, says that Moses at Mount Sinai “received living words” (Acts 7:38), and Peter tells the recipients of his first epistle that they “have been born again … through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
A second characteristic is that the Word of God is active. That is, it is effective and powerful. (The original Greek uses a word from which we have derived the term energy.) God’s Word, then, is energizing in its effect. No one can escape that living and active Word. Just as God’s spoken Word brought forth his beautiful creation, so his Word recreates man dead in transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1–5). As in the wilderness some Israelites refused to listen to God’s Word while others showed obedience, so today we see that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
The Bible is not a dead letter, comparable to a law that is no longer enforced. Those people who choose to ignore the message of Scripture will experience not merely the power of God’s Word but its keen edge as well.
12b. Sharper than any double-edged sword.
In the ancient world, the double-edged sword was the sharpest weapon available in any arsenal. And in verse 12b, the author of Hebrews likens the Word of God to this weapon. (In a similar passage [Rev. 1:16] we read about the “sharp double-edged sword” coming out of the mouth of Jesus as John saw him on the island of Patmos. Whether this means that the tongue resembles a dagger is an open question.) The symbolism conveys the message that God’s judgment is stern, righteous, and awful. God has the ultimate power over his creatures; those who refuse to listen to his Word face judgment and death, while those who obey enter God’s rest and have life eternal. Let no one take the spoken and written Word for granted; let no one ignore it; let no one willfully oppose it. That Word cuts and divides, much as the scalpel of a surgeon uncovers the most delicate nerves of the human body.
However, the Word of God also provides protection. Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians equates the Word with the sword of the Spirit—that is, part of the Christian’s spiritual armor (6:17).
12c. It penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
I do not think that the writer of Hebrews is teaching the doctrine that man consists of body, soul, and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23). Of course, we can make a distinction between soul and spirit by saying that the soul relates to man’s physical existence; and the spirit, to God. But the author does not make distinctions in this verse. He speaks in terms of that which is not done and in a sense cannot be done.
Who is able to divide soul and spirit or joints and marrow? And what judge can know the thoughts and attitudes of the heart? The author uses symbolism to say that what man ordinarily does not divide, God’s Word separates thoroughly. Nothing remains untouched by Scripture, for it addresses every aspect of man’s life. The Word continues to divide the spiritual existence of man and even his physical being. All the recesses of body and soul—including the thoughts and attitudes—face the sharp edge of God’s dividing sword. Whereas man’s thoughts remain hidden from his neighbor’s probing eye, God’s Word uncovers them.
God’s Word is called a discerner of man’s thoughts and intentions. In the Psalter David says:
O Lord, you have searched me
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways. [Ps. 139:1–3]
And Jesus utters these words:
As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. 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. [John 12:47–48]
The Lord with his Word exposes the motives hidden in a man’s heart. In his epistle the author stresses the act of God’s speaking to man. For instance, the introductory verses (Heb. 1:1–2) illustrate this fact clearly. And repeatedly, when quoting the Old Testament Scriptures, the writer uses this formula: God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit says (consult the many quotations, for example, in the first four chapters). The Word is not a written document of past centuries. It is alive and current; it is powerful and effective; and it is undivided and unchanged. Written in times and cultures from which we are far removed, the Word of God nevertheless touches man today. God addresses man in the totality of his existence, and man is unable to escape the impact of God’s Word.
THE TERROR OF THE WORD
Let us then be eager to enter into that rest, lest we follow the example of the Israelites and fall into the same kind of disobedience. For the word of God is instinct with life; it is effective; it is sharper than a two-edged sword; it pierces right through to the very division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it scrutinizes the desires and intentions of the heart. No created thing can ever remain hidden from his sight; everything is naked to him and is compelled to meet the eyes of him with whom we have to reckon.
The point of this passage is that the word of God has come, and is such that it cannot be disregarded. The Jews always had a very special idea about words. Once a word was spoken, it had an independent existence. It was not only a sound with a certain meaning; it was a power which went out and did things. Isaiah heard God say that the word which went out of his mouth would never be ineffective; it would always do whatever he designed it to do (Isaiah 45:23).
We can understand something of this if we think of the tremendous effect of words in history. A leader coins a phrase and it becomes a trumpet-call which inspires people to crusades or to crimes. Some great individual sends out a manifesto and it produces action which can make or destroy nations. Over and over again in history, the spoken word of some leader or thinker has gone out and done things. If that is so of human words, how much more is it so of the word of God?
The writer to the Hebrews describes the word of God in a series of great phrases. The word of God is instinct with life. Certain issues are no longer of vital importance; certain books and words have no living interest whatever. Plato was one of the world’s supreme thinkers, but it is unlikely that there would be a huge public interest in Daily Studies in Plato. The great fact about the word of God is that it is a living issue for all people of all times. Other things may pass quietly into oblivion; other things may acquire an academic or historical interest; but the word of God is something that everyone must face, and its offer is something we must accept or reject.
The word of God is effective. It is one of the facts of history that, wherever people have taken God’s word seriously, things have begun to happen. When the English Bible was produced and the word of God was made available to ordinary people, the tremendous event of the Reformation inevitably followed. When people take God seriously, they immediately realize that his word is not only something to be studied, not only something to be read, not only something to be written about; it is something to be done.
The word of God is penetrating. The writer piles up phrases to show how penetrating it is. It penetrates to the division of soul and spirit. In Greek, the psuchē, the soul, is the essence of life. All living things possess psuchē; it is physical life. In Greek, the pneuma, the spirit, is that which is characteristic of human beings. It is by spirit that we think and reason and look beyond the earth to God. It is as if the writer to the Hebrews were saying that the word of God tests our earthly life and our spiritual existence. He says that the word of God scrutinizes our desires and intentions. Desire (enthumēsis) is the emotional part, and intention (ennoia) is the intellectual part of every individual. It is as if he said: ‘Your emotional and intellectual life must both be submitted to the scrutiny of God.’
Finally, the writer to the Hebrews sums things up. He says that everything is naked to God and compelled to meet his eyes. He uses two interesting words. The word for naked is the literal word (gumnos). What he is saying is that we may be able to wear our outward coverings and disguises; but in the presence of God these things are stripped away and we have to meet him as we are. The other word is even more vivid (tetrachēlismenos). This is not a common word, and its meaning is not quite certain. It seems to have been used in three different ways.
(1) It was a wrestler’s word, and was used for seizing an opponent by the throat in such a way that he could not move. We may escape God for a while, but in the end he grips us in such a way that we cannot help meeting him face to face. God is one issue that no one can finally evade.
(2) It was the word that was used for ﬂaying animals. Animals were hung up and the hide was taken off them. Other people may judge us by our outer conduct and appearance, but God sees into the innermost secrets of our hearts.
(3) Sometimes when a criminal was being led to judgment or to execution, a dagger, with point upwards, was fixed below his chin so that he could not bow his head to avoid being recognized, but had to keep it up so that all could see his face and know his dishonour. When that was done, the person was said to be tetrachēlismenos.
In the end, we have to meet the eyes of God. We may avert our gaze from people we are ashamed to meet; but we are compelled to look God in the face. The American sociologist Kermit Eby writes in The God in You: ‘At some time or other, a man must stop running from himself and his God—possibly because there is just no other place to run to.’ To each one of us, there comes a time when we have to meet that God from whose eyes nothing can ever be concealed.
12–13 The parenetic unit begun in 3:7 is brought to a brief and vigorous conclusion in vv 12–13, where the writer provides the supporting reason for the diligence enjoined in v 11 (see Comment above). God’s word, whose sanctions were imposed so effectively upon the Exodus generation, is performative today and confronts the Christian community with the same alternatives of rest and wrath (cf. Trompf, ST 25  123). Those who remain insensitive to the voice of God in Scripture may discover that God’s word is also a lethal weapon. When the past generation sought to contravene the oath of God and to enter Canaan, they were driven back and fell by the sword (μάχαιρα) of the Amalekites and the Canaanites (Num 14:43–45). The word of God poses a judgment that is more threatening and sharper than any double-edged sword (μάχαιρα, v 12) because it exposes the intentions of the heart and renders one defenseless before God’s scrutinizing gaze (cf. Hofius, Katapausis, 139; Lincoln, “Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology,” 187).
The clear allusion to the folly of Israel at Kadesh in disregard of God’s oath and the warning of Moses (Num 14:43) indicates that the expression ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ, “the word of God,” must have specific reference to the text of Scripture cited so extensively in 3:7–4:11, and especially to Ps 95:7b–11. This needs to be affirmed in the presence of a persistent desire to find in v 12 a personal reference to Jesus as the Logos (Clavier, “Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ,” 81–93; Williamson, Philo, 390, 398; Swetnam, Bib 62  214–24). There is no hypostatization of the Logos in v 12 (rightly insisted on by Trompf, ST 25  123–27). The reference is to Ps 95:7b–11 in which the living, piercing word of God addresses this generation in a critical fashion and poses as the only alternative to faithfulness the option of death (3:17; 4:11).
This dynamic conception of the word of God is a proper corollary to the introduction of the quotation of Ps 95:7b–11 as the words of the Holy Spirit (3:7a). The description of God’s word as ζῶν … καὶ ἐνεργής, “living and effective,” signifies that it is performative; it possesses the power to effect its own utterance. Performatives, by definition, commit the speaker to stand by his words. That is demonstrated with reference to Ps 95:7b–11 in 3:7–11 (cf. Caird, Language and Imagery of the Bible, 20–25) and had immediate relevance for a community that had become careless in its attitude toward the word of promise expressed in Scripture.
The predicates ascribed to the word of God in v 12b (διϊκνούμενος … κριτικός, “penetrating … capable of judging”) introduce figurative and popular language that effectively conveys the notion of an extreme power of penetration. The word of God is able to reach into the deepest recesses of the human personality (Ps 95:10b; cf. Wis 1:6). The discrimination of the heart’s thoughts and intentions entails a sifting process that exhibits the penetrative and unmasking potency of the word (cf. Simpson, EvQ 18  37–38).
An impression of total exposure and utter defenselessness in the presence of God is sharpened in v 13. That nothing in creation is hidden from God’s sight was a Jewish commonplace (e.g., Tg. Neof. Gen 3:9, “And the Lord God called the man and said to him: Look, the whole world which I created is manifest before me; darkness and light are manifest before me; and do you think that the place where you are standing is not manifest before me?” cf. Tg. Neof. Gen 4:14; Tg. Ps.-J. Gen 3:9; 24:62; Deut 1:17; 29:8; 32:34; and often). The surveillance predicated of God is exhaustive; nothing escapes his scrutiny. The images of nakedness (γυμνά) and helpless exposure (τετραχηλισμένα, see above, Note ff) express vividly the plight of anyone who believes he can deceive his creator and judge. In context, the force of v 13 is to assert that exposure to the word of Scripture entails exposure to God himself.
12. For the word of God is quick, or living, &c. What he says here of the efficacy or power of the word, he says it, that they might know, that it could not be despised with impunity, as though he had said, “Whenever the Lord addresses us by his word, he deals seriously with us, in order that he may touch all our inmost thoughts and feelings; and so there is no part of our soul which ought not to be roused.”
But before we proceed further, we must inquire whether the Apostle speaks of the effect of the word generally, or refers only to the faithful.
It indeed appears evident, that the word of God is not equally efficacious in all. For in the elect it exerts its own power, when humbled by a true knowledge of themselves, they flee to the grace of Christ; and this is never the case, except when it penetrates into the innermost heart. For hypocrisy must be sifted, which has marvellous and extremely winding recesses in the hearts of men; and then we must not be slightly pricked or torn, but be thoroughly wounded, that being prostrate under a sense of eternal death, we may be taught to die to ourselves. In short, we shall never be renewed in the whole mind, which Paul requires, (Eph. 4:23,) until our old man be slain by the edge of the spiritual sword. Hence Paul says in another place, (Phil. 2:17,) that the faithful are offered as a sacrifice to God by the Gospel; for they cannot otherwise be brought to obey God than by having, as it were, their own will slain; nor can they otherwise receive the light of God’s wisdom, than by having the wisdom of the flesh destroyed. Nothing of this kind is found in the reprobate; for they either carelessly disregard God speaking to them, and thus mock him, or clamour against his truth, and obstinately resist it. In short, as the word of God is a hammer, so they have a heart like the anvil, so that its hardness repels its strokes, however powerful they may be. The word of God, then, is far from being so efficacious towards them as to penetrate into them to the dividing of the soul and spirit. Hence it appears, that this its character is to be confined to the faithful only, as they alone are thus searched to the quick.
The context, however, shews that there is here a general truth, and which extends also to the reprobate themselves; for though they are not softened, but set up a brazen and an iron heart against God’s word, yet they must necessarily be restrained by their own guilt. They indeed laugh, but it is a sardonic laugh; for they inwardly feel that they are, as it were, slain; they make evasions in various ways, so as not to come before God’s tribunal; but though unwilling, they are yet dragged there by this very word which they arrogantly deride; so that they may be fitly compared to furious dogs, which bite and claw the chain by which they are bound, and yet can do nothing, as they still remain fast bound.
And further, though this effect of the word may not appear immediately as it were on the first day, yet it will be found at length by the event, that it has not been preached to any one in vain. General no doubt is what Christ declares, when he says, When the Spirit shall come, he will convince the world, (John 16:8;) for the Spirit exercises this office by the preaching of the Gospel.
And lastly, though the word of God does not always exert its power on man, yet it has it in a manner included in itself. And the Apostle speaks here of its character and proper office for this end only,—that we may know that our consciences are summoned as guilty before God’s tribunal as soon as it sounds in our ears, as though he had said, “If any one thinks that the air is beaten by an empty sound when the word of God is preached, he is greatly mistaken; for it is a living thing and full of hidden power, which leaves nothing in man untouched.” The sum of the whole then is this,—that as soon as God opens his sacred mouth, all our faculties ought to be open to receive his word; for he would not have his word scattered in vain, so as to disappear or to fall neglected on the ground, but he would have it effectually to constrain the consciences of men, so as to bring them under his authority; and that he has put power in his word for this purpose, that it may scrutinize all the parts of the soul, search the thoughts, discern the affections, and, in a word, shew itself to be the judge.
But here a new question arises, “Is this word to be understood of the Law or of the Gospel?” Those who think that the Apostle speaks of the Law bring these testimonies of Paul,—that it is the ministration of death, (2 Cor. 3:6, 7,) that it is the letter which killeth, that it worketh nothing but wrath, (Rom. 4:15,) and similar passages. But here the Apostle points out also its different effects; for, as we have said, there is a certain vivifying killing of the soul, which is effected by the Gospel. Let us then know that the Apostle speaks generally of the truth of God, when he says, that it is living and efficacious. So Paul testifies, when he declares, that by his preaching there went forth an odour of death unto death to the unbelieving, but of life unto life to believers, (2 Cor. 2:16,) so that God never speaks in vain; he draws some to salvation, others he drives into ruin. This is the power of binding and of loosing which the Lord conferred on his Apostles. (Matt. 18:18.) And, indeed, he never promises to us salvation in Christ, without denouncing, on the other hand, vengeance on unbelievers, who by rejecting Christ bring death on themselves.
It must be further noticed, that the Apostle speaks of God’s word, which is brought to us by the ministry of men. For delirious and even dangerous are those notions, that though the internal word is efficacious, yet that which proceeds from the mouth of man is lifeless and destitute of all power. I indeed admit that the power does not proceed from the tongue of man, nor exists in mere sound, but that the whole power is to be ascribed altogether to the Holy Spirit; there is, however, nothing in this to hinder the Spirit from putting forth his power in the word preached. For God, as he speaks not by himself, but by men, dwells carefully on this point, so that his truth may not be objected to in contempt, because men are its ministers. So Paul, by saying, that the Gospel is the power of God, (Rom. 1:16,) designedly adorned with this distinction his own preaching, though he saw that it was slandered by some and despised by others. And when in another place, (Rom. 10:8,) he teaches us that salvation is conferred by the doctrine of faith, he expressly says that it was the doctrine which was preached. We indeed find that God ever commends the truth administered to us by men, in order to induce us to receive it with reverence.
Now, by calling the word quick or living, he must be understood as referring to men; which appears still clearer by the second word, powerful, for he shews what sort of life it possesses, when he expressly says that it is efficacious; for the Apostle’s object was to teach us what the word is to us. The sword is a metaphorical word often used in Scripture; but the Apostle not content with a simple comparison, says, that God’s word is sharper than any sword, even than a sword that cuts on both sides, or two-edged; for at that time swords were in common use, which were blunt on one side, and sharp on the other. Piercing even to the dividing asunder of the soul and spirit, or to the dividing of the soul and spirit, &c. The word soul means often the same with spirit; but when they occur together, the first includes all the affections, and the second means what they call the intellectual faculty. So Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, uses the words, when he prays God to keep their spirit, and soul, and body blameless until the coming of Christ, (1 Thess. 5:23,) he meant no other thing, but that they might continue pure and chaste in mind, and will, and outward actions. Also Isaiah means the same when he says, “My soul desired thee in the night; I sought thee with my spirit.” (Is. 26:9.) What he doubtless intends to shew is, that he was so intent on seeking God, that he applied his whole mind and his whole heart. I know that some give a different explanation; but all the sound-minded, as I expect, will assent to this view.
Now, to come to the passage before us, it is said that God’s word pierces, or reaches to the dividing of soul and spirit, that is, it examines the whole soul of man; for it searches his thoughts and scrutinizes his will with all its desires. And then he adds the joints and marrow, intimating that there is nothing so hard or strong in man, nothing so hidden, that the powerful word cannot pervade it. Paul declares the same when he says, that prophecy avails to reprove and to judge men, so that the secrets of the heart may come to light. (1 Cor. 14:24.) And as it is Christ’s office to uncover and bring to light the thoughts from the recesses of the heart, this he does for the most part by the Gospel.
Hence God’s word is a discerner, (κριτικὸς, one that has power to discern,) for it brings the light of knowledge to the mind of man as it were from a labyrinth, where it was held before entangled. There is indeed no thicker darkness than that of unbelief, and hypocrisy is a horrible blindness; but God’s word scatters this darkness and chases away this hypocrisy. Hence the separating or discerning which the Apostle mentions; for the vices, hid under the false appearance of virtues, begin then to be known, the varnish being wiped away. And if the reprobate remain for a time in their hidden recesses, yet they find at length that God’s word has penetrated there also, so that they cannot escape God’s judgment. Hence their clamour and also their fury; for were they not smitten by the word, they would not thus betray their madness, but they would seek to elude the word, or by evasion to escape from its power, or to pass it by unnoticed; but these things God does not allow them to do. Whenever then they slander God’s word, or become enraged against it, they shew that they feel within its power, however unwillingly and reluctantly.
Ver. 12. For the word of God is living—two-edged sword.—Many distinguished Christian fathers, and, among recent expositors, Biesenthal even yet, regard the λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ here as the hypostatical or personal word of God; but as our Epistle nowhere else speaks of the personal Logos,—although it must certainly be supposed to have aided in preparing the way for that designation,—it is generally understood of the word of God as spoken and as recorded in the Scriptures. Under this view some (Schlicht., Mich., Abresch, Böhm., etc.) restrict it to the threatening and heart-piercing word of the O. Test., while others (Camero, Grot., Ebr., etc.) apply it te the Gospel of the N. T. Ebrard so regards it, even with reference to the fact that the Old Testament word remained exterior, and, as it were, a thing foreign to man. There is no ground, however, for such limitations; nor is there, on the other hand, any more ground for that wide and vague generalizing of the term which, with Bez., Schultz, Bisp., etc., would include in it the whole range of the Divine threatenings and promises, and strip the passage entirely of its local coloring. It is clear from the context that the passage is designed to justify and enforce the preceding warning (ver. 1), terminating emphatically and designedly with its suggestive ἀπειθείας. To do this, the writer brings out the characteristic nature of the word of God. That which God says (Lün.) is, as a product of the Divine activity, infinitely different from every human word. But it appears here in reference to no specific subject-matter whatever, but in reference merely to this single and peculiar feature, that it has proceeded from God, and has the form of the Logos. This is indicated by the properties which are immediately ascribed to it. As a word of God, it is living (ζῶν), Acts 7:38; 1 Pet. 1:23; having life in itself, while again the like appellation is given to God, from whom it comes, ch. 3:12; 10:31. Ebrard interpolates into the thought a contrast with the dead law; while Schlichting and Abresch unwarrantably restrict its import to imperishable duration, and Carpz., equally unwarrantably, to its capacity to nourish the life of the soul. But the inner life of the word reveals itself in actual operation. Hence, it is called ἐνεργής, proving itself operative and efficient; and since it lay within the scope of the author to unfold this feature of the word’s peculiar character, it is called, “sharper than any two-edged sword.” Such a sword, which, as δίστομος, or double-mouthed, ‘devours’ on both sides, issues, according to Rev. 19:15, from the mouth of the Logos. Ὑπέρ stands after a comparative, Luke 16:8; Judges 11:25, as παρά, ch. 1:4. In similar terms, Philo repeatedly speaks of the Logos.
Ver. 12. And piercing through—feelings and thoughts of the heart.—These expressions subserve the same purpose as the preceding, viz., to characterize the word of God as such. A union of the word of the Gospel, or even of the Hypostatical Logos, with the inner life of believers, is not indicated by a single feature of the picture. It simply presents to us the word of God in its proper and peculiar character, as penetrating through every outward and enveloping fold, into the inmost being of man, and thus competent to exercise judicial supervision (κριτικός not κρίτης) over those ἐνθυμήσεις and ἔννοιαι, which, as sources of human action, have their sphere of operation in the heart. The word exercises its judicial functions as well in the realm of thought, purpose and resolution, as in that of affection, inclination and passion; for it penetrates so deeply as to effect the work of separation (μερισμός) in the province of soul and spirit, and that in their natural (though not necessarily, as maintained by Del., sensuous and corporeal) life of emotion and sensibility. For ἁρμοί τε καὶ μυελοί form doubtless a figurative expression for the collective and deeper elements of man’s inner nature (as, in the same way, μυελός is found at Eurip. Hippol., 255, and Themist. Orat., 32, p. 357), and were here naturally suggested by the comparison of the “word” with a sword. And we can scarcely apply the language to the separating of the soul from the spirit, or of both from the joints and marrow of the body (Böhme, Del.); or to the penetrating of the word clear to the most secret place where soul and spirit are separated (Schlicht., who, although ἄχρι is not repeated, does not make ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μύελῶν, dependent on μερισμοῦ, but coördinates them with it). The separation is rather described as taking place in these designated spheres themselves, the word, like a sword, cleaving soul, cleaving spirit. Hofm. (Schriftb., I., 259) assumes a very harsh and indefensible inversion, making ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος depend on ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν=alike the joints and marrow of the inner life. It is a more natural construction (with Lün., Alf., etc.), to take ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν, connected as they are by τε καὶ into closely united parts of one whole, as subordinate to ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος, thus=soul and spirit, alike Joints and marrow [i.e., joints and marrow of soul and of spirit]. To assume (with Calv., Bez., etc.) a coördination of the two sets of words, as corresponding and similarly divided pairs, is forbidden by the absence of the τε in the first, pair; and the order of the words themselves (ψυχῆς, preceding πνεύματος) forbids our assuming, with Delitzsch, an advance from the πνεῦμα, as the primary and proper seat of gracious influences, through the more outward ψυχή to the strictly material and bodily portion of our nature.
12–13 This segment ends with a reflection on the word of God (Gk. ho logos tou Theou) and what it can achieve. There is no ground in the context for identifying this with the personal Word of God mentioned in Jn. 1:1–14. Most obviously, the expression refers to the gospel, which is described in v 2 as ‘the message they heard’ (Gk. ho logos tēs akouēs). The gospel brings the promise of salvation as well as the warning of judgment (cf. 2:1–4). However, it is also clear that Ps. 95 can function as the voice of God, calling us to faith and warning us about hardening our hearts. This scripture is the particular word of God that the writer of Hebrews wants his readers to hear in chs. 3–4. So what is said in vs 12–13 can apply as much to the preached word as to the word of God written in Scripture. In language recalling Is. 55:11, the word of God is said to be living and active, implying that it achieves the purpose for which it is uttered by God. However, Hebrews does not suggest that everyone who hears the message will automatically believe and enter God’s rest. The metaphor of the double-edged sword is used to paint what initially appears to be a rather frightening picture. God’s word penetrates to the deepest recesses of our being, opening us up and judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. It is the ‘critic’ (Gk. kritikos) by which all are judged. Indeed, confronted by the word of God, we are confronted by God himself, and nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. When the writer says Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of God, the image is that of an animal with its head thrown back and neck bare, ready to be sacrificed! Put simply, we cannot hide our faces from the one to whom we must give account. If the word of God has its dissecting and exposing effect in our lives now, we will not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and come utterly unprepared to face him on the day of reckoning. In the final analysis, then, this passage suggests that the negative or judging function of the word of God can be a help to us in pursuing the journey of faith.
4:12. The lesson he had just taught from the Old Testament Scriptures was not a mere historical tale. Instead, as had already been made clear by much he had said, it was powerfully relevant to his audience. For the Word of God is living (zōn) and active (energēs). Not only that, its penetrating power is greater than any double-edged sword and reaches the innermost being of a person so that it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. In doing this, it is able to discriminate successfully between what is spiritual in man and what is merely “soulish” or natural (it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit), and does so even when these often-contradictory inner elements are interwoven as closely as joints and marrow. The inner life of a Christian is often a strange mixture of motivations both genuinely spiritual and completely human. It takes a supernaturally discerning agent such as the Word of God to sort these out and to expose what is of the flesh. The readers might think that they were contemplating certain steps out of purely spiritual motivations when, as God’s Word could show them, they were acting unfaithfully as did Israel of old.
4:12 The next two verses contain a solemn warning that unbelief never goes undetected. It is detected first by the word of God. (The term used here for word is logos, the familiar word used by John in the prologue to his Gospel. However, this verse refers, not to the Living Word, Jesus, but to the written word, the Bible.) This word of God is:
living—constantly and actively alive.
cutting—sharper than any two-edged sword.
dividing—piercing the soul and spirit, the two invisible, nonmaterial parts of man. Piercing the joints and marrow, the joints permitting the outward movements and the marrow being the hidden but vital life of the bones.
discerning—discriminating and judging with regard to the thoughts and intents of the heart. It is the word that judges us, not we who judge the word.
 Stanley, C. F. (2005). The Charles F. Stanley life principles Bible: New King James Version (Heb 4:12). Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles.
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