The Word of God: A Double-Edged Sword, part 1 (Hebrews 4:12-13)

When I was a youngster my mom didn’t want me to have a pocket knife, knowing that I would probably cut myself.  Well, I finally begged enough to be given one, only to be carving one day on the edge of the sandbox and have the knife blade close on my finger.  I immediately started to bleed AND to scheme how to keep this from my mom.  So I ran into the well house and hide my knife in a drawer and went inside to bandage myself.  When my mom saw the cut, she asked what had happened.  I lied and told her I had cut it on a piece of glass in the yard.  Needless to say, she wasn’t fooled.  I didn’t realize that the cut was far too clean and precise to be caused by a jagged piece of glass.  She asked to see it.  So we went and searched (fruitlessly, I might add) for that piece of glass, then she followed the blood trail into the well house right to where I had hidden my pocket knife.  I thought she was omniscient.  She said she had “eyes in the back of her head.”

The Word of God, accordingly to the author of Hebrews, also cuts sharply and accurately.  He says…

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.

When Peter preached his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, those who heard “were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”  The Word of God, in this case the preached Word of God, pierces and lays open our hearts, causing us to be aware of our sins and desire forgiveness.

Though this text has broad positive implications for our life and growth, in its context it functions negatively as a warning to those who disregard God’s Word.  These verses begin with the word “for,” indicating that they function to give us the reason why the exodus generation and anyone else who fails to combine faith with hearing God’s promises, experience such grim results.

An extended warning began twenty-five verses earlier in 3:7, where Psalm 95:7–11 is first quoted as the hearers are repeatedly exhorted with phrases from the psalm not to repeat the mistake Israel made at Kadesh-Barnea—disobeying God’s word and missing God’s rest (cf. 3:15; 4:3, 5, 7, all of which reference Psalm 95).

In fact, the warning against disobedience builds throughout this section and is summarized in 4:11, which introduces our text: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience [i.e., to God’s word]. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. . . .”  Our author wants to remind them of the searching power of God’s Word and man’s inability to hide from that Word.

New Testament scholar William Lane has noted a subtle allusion to the tragedy at Kadesh-Barnea in the reference to “sword,” because after Israel disobeyed God’s word, God said, “None of the men . . . shall see the land” (Numbers 14:22, 23).  The people then responded in essence, “We have made a tragic mistake.  Let’s take our weapons and enter the land.  We are now prepared to believe in God” (cf. Numbers 14:39, 40).  Moses warned them not to go, saying: “Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies.  For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you shall fall by the sword.  Because you have turned back from following the LORD, the LORD will not be with you” (Numbers 14:42, 43).  But they disregarded his warning and went up without Moses and without the ark and without the blessing of God, and they did indeed fall to the swords of the Amalekites and Canaanites (Numbers 14:44, 45).  So we see that the mention of a sharp, doubled-edged sword in our text is a sober warning not to disregard God’s Word as Israel did in the wilderness (Hebrews: A Call to Commitment (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), p. 69).

A strong connection undoubtedly exists between this verse and the last. The warning was based in fact on the nature of the divine revelation.  It was of such a character that its claims could not be dismissed as of no consequence.  Indeed, the powerful qualities of the word are described by means of an impressive metaphor, which emphasizes not only the activity, but also the effectiveness of the word of God.  (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, 116-7)

There are five characteristics of God’s Word in this passage.

It is, first of all, the “Word of God,” none other than the communication of the one and only true God.  “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” (2 Timothy 3:16a).  It does not originate with man, even those who are prophets, but “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).  It can refer to a word spoken directly from God without human instrumentality, but normally it refers to His words as spoken or written through his prophets.

Without God’s Word we would be utterly helpless and hopeless in understanding anything about God, ourselves or the world in which we live.  Thankfully we are not left to guess at these important issues, but God has revealed what we need to know Himself, ourselves and our world through His Word.

Let us never forget that what Scripture says, God says. It is the transcript of divine speech. Paul applauded the Thessalonians because, and I’m reading from 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

Secondly, this Word of God is alive.  It is not dead.  It is energetic and effective.  It has life in itself and produces life in those who hear and believe it.  “There is something about the Truth, as God has revealed it, that connects it to God as a source of all life and power.  God loves his word,” says John Piper.  As the living word, it endures forever, faithfully communicating God’s revelation to every generation.  As Isaiah 40:8 proclaims, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” 

Now, for many people, the Word of God is just writing on a page.  It is inert material printed on pages bound together.  It seems as dumb as the ancient idols.  But in reality, it is alive and produces life.  It brings new life to spiritually dead sinners (1 Peter 1:23) and continues to give life to the saints (Psalm 19:7).

Even though the Bible was written many centuries ago, the Spirit of God still speaks directly to us through it.  It is never out of date or irrelevant.  It speaks to the very issues that we face in our modern world.

This was the experience of E. V. Rieu, the famous classics scholar when, as an unbeliever, he undertook the translation of the Gospels for the Penguin Classics series.  Rieu described what happened during an exchange with J. B. Phillips on a now famous BBC interview:

Rieu: My personal reason for doing this was my own intense desire to satisfy myself as to the authenticity and the spiritual content of the Gospels.  And, if I received any new light by an intensive study of the Greek originals, to pass it on to others.  I approached them in the same spirit as I would have approached them had they been presented to me as recently discovered Greek manuscripts.

Phillips: Did you get the feeling that the whole material is extraordinarily alive?—I got the feeling that the whole thing was alive even while one was translating.  Even though one did a dozen versions of a particular passage, it was still living.  Did you get that feeling?

Rieu: I got the deepest feeling that I possibly could have expected. It—changed me; my work changed me.  And I came to the conclusion that these words bear the seal of—the Son of Man and God.  And they’re the Magna Carta of the human spirit.

Peter put it this way: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. . . . And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23-25).  James echoes Peter’s sentiment: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth.”  Not by our own will but by his divine and sovereign will were we born again, and that by the word of truth.

Thirdly, the word is described as “active” or “powerful,” meaning that it accomplishes its purpose.  The same word that at creation set the elements of the cosmos to their appointed tasks and still governs the universe toward God’s desired intentions (1:2-3), has the ability to effect change in people.  It is not static and passive but dynamic, interactive, and transforming as it interfaces with the people of God.  (George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, 156)

The Word of God is perfomative.  Even in your simple reading of the text, it accomplishes something.  Notice again what Paul said at the end of 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  Even if you don’t remember what you read or heard in a sermon, that word “is” (present tense) at work in you!

In those the Spirit is calling, the Word works in us to produce conviction of sin.  For us who already believe, the Word works in us to turn our focus to Jesus Christ so that we grow from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

As Isaiah 55:11 so beautifully says: “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.”  Indeed, the Word of God is alive and effectual!

This text goes on to describe the dramatic transformative power of God’s effective Word:

“Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle” (Isiah 55:13).

Paul David Tripp, in his pastoral theology work entitled Dangerous Calling, says, “When the Word of God, faithfully taught by the people of God and empowered by the Spirit of God, falls down, people become different.  Lusting people become pure, fearful people become courageous, thieves become givers, demanding people become servants, angry people become peacemakers, complainers become thankful, and idolaters come to joyfully worship the one true God.  The ultimate purpose of the Word of God is not theological information but heart and life transformation” (Dangerous Calling, p. 51).

Now think about this, if I have a thorn bush in my back yard and it’s nourished by the rain and the snow, what do I expect to get?  I don’t expect to get a myrtle tree; I expect to get a larger thorn bush.  It’s a word picture that makes no sense.  If I have a brier in my back yard and it gets nourished by rain and snow, the only thing I would expect is a bigger brier.  What Isaiah is doing is it’s pushing this metaphor to let us know what the Word of God is about.

The Word of God has as its primary purpose the transformation of our hearts, and in the transformation of our hearts, the transformation of our lives.  Not that we become bigger and better of what we are, but we become fundamentally different than we could ever have been apart from the Word of God.  The theology of the Word of God is never an end in itself.  The stories of the Word of God are never an end in itself.  The wisdom principles of the Word of God are never an end in themselves; they’re always a means to an end, and the end is the transforming power of God’s grace.  When the Word of God is brought to you by the Spirit of God, propelled by the grace of God, the result should be heart and life transformation.

You need the Word of God in your life because you need to be transformed.  All of us still have the artifacts of sin inside of us.  All of us still need the power of transforming grace.  If you’re not satisfied with who you are, you’re not satisfied with everything you say, everything you choose, everything that you decide, the ways that you act, then you need the Word of God every day in your life.  It’s God’s powerful tool of personal transformation. (

This was the bottom line in the great Reformation.  Erasmus, the brilliant Renaissance humanist, collected and collated manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, publishing a Greek New Testament that then unleashed the ineluctable power of God’s Word upon the sixteenth century.

Thomas Bilney, who became one of the English Reformers, had been vigorous about his religion, all to no avail.  Then he obtained a copy of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, and all changed.  Says Bilney:

I chanced upon this sentence of St. Paul (O most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul!) in 1 Timothy 1: “It is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am the chief and principal.”  This one sentence, through God’s instruction and inward working, which I did not then perceive, did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that . . . immediately I . . . felt a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch that “my bruised bones leaped for joy.”  After this, the Scriptures began to be more pleasant to me than the honey or the honeycomb.

Martin Luther might have been overstating his case, but he said:

What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone … How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name? … I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.  I did nothing; the Word did everything.

John Calvin believed in the power of God’s Word to change lives.  His style is to explain the text in simple terms that ordinary people could understand, even though he preached directly out of his Hebrew and Greek Testaments, without notes.  After Easter Sunday, 1538, the town fathers banished Calvin from Geneva.  They later realized their mistake, and brought him back in September, 1541.  Calvin picked up with the next verse after the one he had taught in 1538, as if it had been the previous Sunday (T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, p. 60)!  His theme invariably was to show God’s majesty and holiness, our wretchedness and spiritual poverty, and the riches of grace that God in His fatherly kindness has made available to us through Christ (Parker, pp. 93-107).

Sociological trends, psychological factors, philosophical and political theories do not have the power to radically change people’s lives from the inside out.  But the Word of God does!

So Sam Storms encourages:

Let it be the anchor for your soul.  Let it be the rock on which you stand.  Let it be the compass to guide you through trials and tragic times.  Let it govern your choices and renew your heart and restore your joy and ground your hope.  Build your life on its moral principles. Embrace its ethical and moral norms.  Believe what it says about the nature of God. Believe what it says about the nature of mankind.

God has invested the biblical text with the power to change human lives and transform the experience of the church.  If for no other reason we must think about, meditate upon, and study the Word.

To put it simply: the Word of God pulsates with power. It is active and energetic.

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.  (William Hendriksen & Simon J. Kistemaker, NT Commentary: Hebrews, 118)

Fourth, the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, so that it can pierce even infinitesimally small spaces.  In mathematics, an infinitesimal or infinitesimal number is a quantity that is closer to zero than any standard real number, but that is not zero.

Notice that our author describes the Word of God as a sword.  There are many other metaphors of God’s Word in Scripture.  Besides being a sword that pierces, it is a mirror that reveals (James 1:23); a seed that reproduces (1 Peter 1:23) in good hearts (Luke 8:12-15); milk that nourishes the Christian (1 Peter 2:2); a lamp that shines, lighting our path (Psalm 119:103); a fire that consumes (Jeremiah 23:29a); and a hammer that shatters (Jeremiah 23:29b).

The Word is not used to slay us.  In fact, in this context a better image might be the surgeon’s scalpel, which is used to heal us.  First it has to lay us open to see what is wrong with us, then it may have to cut away cancerous cells or some other diseased part—all for our good.

The two-edged sword in view (Gr. machairan) was originally a small one, like a boning knife that cooks used to cut up meat.  In its double-edged form it was a symbol for judges and magistrates in the Roman world.  It illustrated the power of those officials to turn both ways to get to the bottom of a case.

It has no blunt side, another way of describing its effectiveness in accomplishing its purpose of exposing us, exposing what is really happening on the inside where no one but God can see.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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