Reconciling Hebrews 4:12-13 with my experience of it

In a couple of Sundays I will be teaching on Hebrews 4:14 – 5:10. If you would like a recap of where we are in Hebrews, here’s a brief reflection on Hebrews 4:12-13. This well known text powerfully captures what theologians call the “efficacy” of God’s Word.

“For the word of God is alive 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.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)

God’s Word is alive, active, sharp, and penetrating; a dividing sword. That is some powerful imagery. However, if I’m honest, I must admit that if you take this text as it is often interpreted – that Scripture cuts to the heart those who read it – and my day-to-day experience of reading the Bible, I have a serious and disturbing disconnect. The reality is that sometimes I feel the piercing and dividing cut of God’s Word and sometimes I am struck as I read or hear the Word proclaimed but often I am merely attentive to the words, and sometimes not even that.

And so, I am stuck, it seems, with a dilemma. On the one hand, these verses compel me to believe that God’s Word is effective in its work and, on the other hand, my personal experience often tells me otherwise. How do I resolve this? As I’ve studied I believe I’ve come to a better understanding of the text which, on the one hand, helps me resolve the above tension, but also raises a more serious one.
How might you resolve the first tension?

First, understand that the “Word of God” in Hebrews 4:12-13 is both more broad and more narrow than just “the Bible”: In Hebrews, the “Word of God” is the word spoken through the prophets (1:1), especially Moses (3:5). It is the living Word, the Son, who is the radiance of God’s glory (1:2-3). It is the Old Covenant, spoken through angels (2:2). In the most immediate context it is the word spoken by the Holy Spirit, which was a word from David to the Israelites (Psalm 95) which the author of Hebrews appropriated as a word to his audience (Heb 3:7) and is a word for us. The word is the “gospel” given to the Israelites by Moses (4:2) and the even better “gospel” which is offered to us in Jesus. Certainly this list includes the Bible (the “today” of Psalm 95 is relevant for us, just as it was to the Israelites and the early Christians) but it is not limited strictly to the Bible, per se, and indeed finds its culmination in Christ Himself.

But the usage here is also, in another sense, more narrow the whole of Scripture. The specific call in Hebrews 3:7 – 4:13 is a call to persevere in the faith. It is a warning against unbelief, against rebellion, and against falling away. The intent of this particular word (“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”) is to convict us of our hard hearts and turn us to Christ. It’s a call to repentance, if we have a need to repent. But, not every verse of Scripture is a call to repent. Sometimes it is a call to comfort, or simply a guide to godly life, or it serves some other function. Not every part of Scripture cuts like a sword. Sometimes it refreshes, or binds up a wound, or simply informs the mind.

Second, understand that the function of the “Word of God” in Hebrews 4:12-13 has more to do with objective reality, than with experience. Once again, it is easy to simply read the “it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” as describing the personal experience of the hearer. I believe that phrase includes that interpretation, but is not limited to it.

First, it includes the experience of being “cut to the heart.” Consider these examples from Scripture: When the residents of Nineveh heard the word, they repented. The Israelites wept when they heard Ezra read the law. After Peter’s sermon the people were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized. Paul says that an unbeliever who comes into a church where the word is being spoken intelligibly (in this context, through prophecy) might be “convicted of sin and brought under judgment … as the secrets of their heart are laid bare” (1 Cor. 14:24-25).  If you have personally had a conversion experience, you have experienced the convicting, penetrating, powerful experience of the Word of God in your own heart.

The primary function of the Word, however, is not simply to produce in us the experience of feeling convicted, but to actually hold us accountable – to actually convict us of sin, whether we experience the feeling of conviction or not. Note where the passage goes: “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.”
In Hebrews the call to persevering faith remains the same, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” but there are two responses: respond in faith, or harden your heart. Was the word ineffectual because the Wilderness generation rejected the word and refused to go into the land? No, it was effectual even for them because their rebellion resulted in their just judgment, wandering in the desert 40 years.

Hebrews 4:13 says “everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” The imagery here is of a patient whose neck is bared before the surgeon’s knife, or the wrestler who has just been overpowered by a superior foe. We’re helpless, naked, exposed, and overpowered by God and His Word. We may not always experience that reality, but it doesn’t make it any less true. To His Word we must give a “word of account.” Before the judgment throne of God we are judged and held accountable to His call.

And so, one tension is resolved but another is uncovered. The tension of my experience is resolved when I understand the Hebrews 4:12-13 is more about the reality of the Word of God than my experience of it. But the new tension arises: In myself I am ill-prepared to give my own word of account before the overpowering Word and call of God. Thanks be to God, this second tension is resolved in priesthood of Christ. At the end of Hebrews 4:12-13 the reader ought to be left with an appropriate sense of the fear of the Lord, which ought to help us grasp with even greater joy the good news, that Jesus gives a word on our behalf.


Laura said:

Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your willingness to speak freely of your own conflicts with the word and a willingness to accept the truths that you find.

08/03/13 at 8:46 am

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