By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 10, 2021
Hebrews 4:12–16 (ESV)
12 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. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Last week, we began to consider the Letter to the Hebrews. This mysterious letter is filled with intrigue that might confuse us. We look at the letter on the surface, but do we really see what is inside?
The letter to the Hebrews was written to the church during that transition period, where the Gentile believes were beginning to emerge as the majority voice within the assembly. This shift in demographics seemed to cause tension within the church. Salvation came to those people of Jewish heritage first; it was through them that the revelation of God revealed himself and it is their messiah that we follow. The church’s heritage, its roots, are in the culture and religious practices of the Hebrew people. We must never forget this. We must always consider the revelation we have received in scripture not only through the lens of our tradition and interpretation of the New Testament, but also through the culture and revelation from the Old Testament.
When the church’s demographic began to shift from Jewish and moving toward Gentile believers those of Hebrew ancestry began to push back. Even though the leaders like Peter and James publicly proclaimed that Christ was for all people, and that anyone that God has made clean is clean. At the council in Jerusalem, the first council of the church, it was James that stood up before those present and said, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
From the time the first Gentile came to Christ to this day the understanding of the church is that there is no distinction between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female in reference to the grace that we receive from Christ. Yet, as the demographics began to shift many of Jewish heritage began to push back. They began to teach that those that adhered to the teaching of the Torah were greater than those that did not. They began to teach that the Gentiles needed to become Jewish before they could fully experience the promise of God. It is to this ideology that the author of Hebrews speaks.
Like I said last week, we do not know who penned this letter to the general church. Many believed that it was Paul in the first few centuries, but as scholars have analyzed the use of language and style of writing they have nearly universally concluded that Paul was not the author. This does not diminish the value of what is written by any means. It has instead inspired people to study it even more to see what they can find. This quest has led many to believe that because of the writing style it was written by someone that had formal training in the school of Alexandria, because many of the thoughts that are presented reflect the teachings of the great Jewish philosopher, Philo. We see some of that in today’s reading.
How should we live? That is the question going through the collective mind of the early church. We have this rich history of the people of Israel, and many within the community of believers have no biological connection to it. It is easy to understand how or why the idea of converting to the traditions of the religion of Israel would be attractive. Even today there is a great movement of people that want to restore the Hebrew roots of the faith. The Adventist movements, and the Messianic Jewish synagogues all play a role in this movement, I am not saying that they are wrong by any means. But we need to consider what scripture has to say about it.
Today’s reading begins, “For the word of God is living and active,” I have mentioned the ideas surrounding the phrase word of God many times. The term word used in scripture is often associated with divine wisdom and symbolically connected to the term for light. This is important to remember because throughout scripture the uses these terms in both Hebrew and Greek. In the first century the religious understanding of word or the wisdom of God was connected to Torah. In contrast to this, the disciples of Christ used the term word differently, they used this in reference to Jesus.
Right away you can begin to see the struggle within the early church in reference to the word. Those that wanted to maintain a Jewish identity had to come to terms with this dichotomy. What or who is the word of God? Where does wisdom proceed from? Is it the Torah, given to their ancestors by Moses who had received them from the mouth of God on that holy mountain, or did Jesus possess the words of life as his disciples taught?
We only begin to see an answer to these questions. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” At this point the term word can take on either form, Torah or Christ, because the author simply means that the wisdom of God is living and active and when we encounter that wisdom it is sharp and dangerous. If you were to read the various narrative accounts within the Old Testament, we would see how dangerous it could be to approach God in a manner contrary to what is specified in Torah. Even priest who had permission to approach the holy sanctuary could meet their end if they were careless. What is interesting in this the grouping of two. Living and active, two-edged sword, piercing to the division of again groups of two: soul and spirit, joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
I must admit that I was captivated by the illustration of the sword as I studied this week. I spent too much time reading about how this one word was used. It was not a complete waste though. The word for sword in this case does not refer to a sword carried into battle, but something different. Often when I see this word in English, my mind is transported to the battlefield of the Middle Ages, knights riding on their powerful war horses carrying jousts. While clad in complex yet versatile steel armor. And since I am a fan of science fiction, I also think of the movie Highlander, or even the light saber from Star Wars. This is not a sword in this sense, those sorts of weapons are weapons of war, the sword being spoken of in this passage and really throughout the New Testament, are smaller blades. It is a word used for a dagger, a ceremonial knife, or even when used outside of the writings of scripture it could be a surgeon’s scalpel. These are not blades of war. They are the blades used in personal combat or criminal activity; this is the word that Jesus used when he spoke about those that live by the sword die by the sword. I want us to think of that for a moment. This smaller personal blade can be used for self-defense or to threaten others with violence. In both cases the mindset is self-interest, and I am not saying that we should not protect ourselves but we can get into a mindset where we are so focused on protecting ourselves that we immediately respond in violence. That is what Jesus is speaking about, the constant focus on your own self interest at the expense of those around us will often result in violence.
But the word also speaks of a surgeon’s scalpel and a blade used in ritualistic activities. In this sense of the word, the blade is not a weapon of violence but a tool wielded for good. The sense in today’s reading is this type of blade. The word or wisdom of God is living and active, it is piercing with the expressed purpose of dividing.
This is where the influence of Philo is seen. Many of the ancient philosophies had a dualistic thought process. Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher also took this approach. This is a difference from the traditional though processes of historic religions of Israel. The Hellenistic worldview would often separate the body and spirit. The body remains on earth but the spirit is eternal and will enter the afterlife. The ancient Hebrew faith was often more integrated and integrated to the point that not only were the actions done by an individual important but the whole community.
We are given these groupings of two. And even though there are hints of Greek philosophy within these words, there is still truth. The word is living and active, this means that it is animate and interacts with us. It is sharper than a two-edged blade used by the careful and meticulous hand of a priest or surgeon. Piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and the intentions of the heart. In the philosophical mind, the soul would be the embodied life, where the spirit would be the supernatural or immortal essence. This piercing action of wisdom’s blade divides within us that which lasts forever and that which will be cast away. This continues with the discussion of joints and marrow.
When an animal is offered to the priest for sacrifice, it needed to be a specific type of animal without blemish. The priest would make precise cuts on this animal. At first, they would pierce in one place that would cause minimal pain to the animal yet would pierce a major artery that would allow the life to drain from the animal in a humane manner. Then the priest would use this blade to separate and divide the carcass between the sacred and profane. This division was often made at the joints. It is at the joints where division can be done with efficiency because there is less tissue there. If you have a line of worshippers bringing offerings you do not want to take the time to saw through bone, instead you will simply cut the connective tissues that hold the bones together and make the cuts there. But what about the marrow? After reading about the sword, I began to read about the marrow, because I find it to be a weird word to use since the marrow is on the interior of the bone, and to my dismay scholars match my confusion. They do not know why the author uses marrow instead of bone, most write it off as mere poetry. And it is, it speaks of that inner most core of who we are. Deep within our bones is the marrow. The flesh and connective tissue will eventually turn to dust, but the bones remain long after the flesh has returned to the earth. In my mind what the author is speaking of is dividing that which is temporary and that which remains.
And this brings us to that last dualistic reference, “discerning the thoughts and the intentions of the heart.” This last part is the most difficult to consider from the perspective of a physical blade and brings our mind back from the works of humanity to the place where the spirit lives. We can only see what is before us, but the spirit of God can look deeper within. No one knows what someone else is thinking, nor can we able to discern if their thoughts have been made with good intentions that might have been enacted with incomplete knowledge. From our perspective we can only see the results of actions taken or neglected. We should be slow to judgment, and slow to anger, we need to be able to provide a space where people can express their concerns and be quick to listen to what they are saying, because we have incomplete knowledge.
When I was in school, we worked through a book by Dallas Willard called Renovation of the Heart. This book has made a great impact on me and in this book, Dallas illustrates that our heart is the essence of who we are. Our heart is our true self. Outside of our heart is the mind and emotions. These are the two sources of information that we use the most when we are making decisions. The mind and emotions are the two aspects the writer of Hebrews is point out in this sense, thoughts and intentions. We can react and plan using good intentions but might be lacking in knowledge and wisdom. And we can decide using only wisdom and that decision can be cold and emotionless. We can be right and wrong, and we can be wrong and right all at the same time. I know that sounds ridiculous but our words and actions can have lasting effects on those around us. If I tell my son that his picture is wonderful, I might be wrong in an intellectual manner, but right in an emotional one. If I were to respond as a critic of art and tell him where all the technical flaws are he might never draw again. But is I look at it from an emotional plane, if I were to comment on the passion put into the work, I might be able to inspire him to strive for greater things?
The spirit is discerning where we might not be. Often, I do not inspire people to greatness, often I come across as cold and heartless, even when that is not my intention. God in his wisdom can look beyond that and speak directly to our condition. At times that is painful to hear because we like things the way that they are, and at times God does not convict us in areas that others are concerned with because at that moment we are not ready for the whole truth. God knows what we need to move forward.
This brings us to the last couple of verses. The word of God pierces us and reveals to us the things within us that are lasting and the things that are worthless. We are naked before him completely exposed and without defense because he can show us the full truth without our self-justifications. He can do this because He is the high priest who has passed through the heavens.
Last week we explored the concept that Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. The words used in that place tell us that Jesus is God, and that he is the incarnate word of God. He is the essence of God made into flesh. And I mentioned that it was necessary for God to do this because He had a responsibility to restore humanity because his rebellious spiritual beings deceived us to join their rebellion. God is the only one that can initiate that restoration.
Jesus is God incarnate, and since he is God, he is also the wisdom of God made flesh. He is the one being that has the word of God because he came down from heaven or passed through the heavens. Jesus is also the Son of Man. He is flesh, meaning he knows humanity. This brings us to temptation. What is temptation? We often look at this word with a negative perception, but it is not bad. Temptation is a test or being put to a test. This testing proves something about us and we gain knowledge through that experience. Adam and Eve had only experienced the goodness of God in the garden, they did not know evil. When the serpent, or the shining one, came offering a different experience with the promise of greater knowledge, they were intrigued. They knew that they were supposed to bring the entire world into submission and make it like the garden they lived in with God, but how could they do this? The serpent suggested that there might be some knowledge that God did not give them to accomplish that task. And with good intentions and faulty knowledge they took a bite of the fruit that cursed us with separation from God. That is temptation. It is a test where we must discern which direction to go in reference to what we proclaim to believe.
God allows this temptation, but God does not instigate it. We see that also with Job. Satan was out doing his rounds on earth and God gave this accuser or adversary permission to test this righteous man. How do we respond in the test?
Jesus knows what it is like to face the trials of humanity. He is human. He knows the pangs of hunger. He knows the sorrow of loss. He knows the excruciating pain and injustice that others can perpetrate of their fellow men. Jesus knows exactly what it is like to be us, yet he did not sin. He did not sin because he possesses the words of life. He knows the truth, and he knows that suffering last only a while but glory is forever.
“Let us hold fast our confession.” The writer of Hebrews says. Let us not look to our own wisdom, but instead look toward the wisdom that has come down to us from above. Because God himself is enacting our restoration and if we hold to his teaching, if we abide in him and he abides in us we can pass through our trials and stand before God’s through of grace knowing that he has carried us through.
We might ask why all this matters. The early church was very similar to the church today. The church was filled with people. Filled with people that had struggles, joys, passions, and sorrows. Filled with people that had ambitions and people that wanted to encourage others. The church contained people that had faith and with people that doubted their own faith. They just like us, distracted at times, and at other times exhibited faith that would amaze us. The fact is that they and we are not able to do things on our own. We need each other and most importantly we need Jesus. It is only through Him that we can discern true wisdom, the type of wisdom that brings life. As we enter this time of holy expectancy let us consider the living and active word of God. Let us allow that word to pierce us and search us and remove from us all that contributes to spiritual rebellion and death so that we can become encouragers of life.
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