We are looking at the characteristics of the powerful Word of God in Hebrews 4:12-13. There, the author of Hebrews tells us…
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.
We have seen that it is first, God’s Word, His very words spoken through His prophets so that we might truly know who he is and about who we are. This Word is also “alive,” not dead and it is “active” or “powerful” so that it accomplishes its purpose. Whatever God has said, He will do; whatever He has promised, He will fulfill. Nothing can thwart His purposes.
We were discussing the fact that the Word of God is a sword, or maybe better thought, a scalpel, which pierces our inner person and reveals the truth about our hearts. So, he said, that His Word 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.”
A surgeon uses a scalpel to begin a process of opening a patient up. The surgeon does this in order to see or understand more about a problem inside the patient.
Hebrews describes God’s Word as “sharper than any double-edged sword.” In our world today, this picture of a sword may be difficult to grasp. The idea of a scalpel may be a little easier to understand. A scalpel can open us up and reveal what’s going on inside us.
God’s purpose in cutting us is to bring healing, not to leave us wounded. Sin is like a cancer growing inside of us. Untreated, it will be fatal. The sharp sword of God’s Word, as J. B. Lightfoot put it, “heals most completely, where it wounds most deeply; and gives life there only, where first it has killed” (Cambridge Sermons [Macmillan and Co.], p. 162).
God’s Word exposes our sins so that together we might put our sins to death, before they kill us! God’s book is a dangerous tool. It will cut you! When it makes your conscience go “Ouch!” don’t harden your heart. Rather let God do surgery and cut away the diseased thoughts and intentions of your heart.
As Hebrews urges us to “make every effort to enter [God’s] rest,” we soon learn why we should pay attention to that warning—“for the word of God is alive and active.” The all-powerful, all-knowing God knows us through and through; nothing “is hidden from God’s sight.”
God’s Word penetrates and exposes what is in our heart of hearts. This Word is able to pierce “to the division of the soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Does the “division of the soul and of the spirit” mean that man consists of three parts? Body, soul and spirit? That there is some distinction between soul and spirit is obvious in passages like this (Hebrews 4:12) and 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Passages like Job 7:11 and Isaiah 26:9 show that the terms are sometimes both used to generally refer to the inner man. In other words, they are interchangeable.
If they are distinguished here, soul likely refers to the heart and mind, the processes by which we interact psychologically with this world, while spirit refers to our capacity to relate to God.
God’s Word is able to pierce into these inner processes and lay them bare before God. Leon Morris remarks, “”What the author is saying is that God’s Word can reach to the innermost recesses of our being. We must not think that we can bluff our way out of anything, for there are no secrets hidden from God. We cannot keep our thoughts to ourselves” (Hebrews Bible Study Commentary, p. 44). And R. C. H. Lenski says “The Word of God is the only power that can penetrate so deeply and expose so completely the inwardness of our being” (Interpretation of the Epistle of Hebrews and the Epistle of James, p. 143) X-ray machines and MRIs cannot expose the thoughts and intents of our heart. Only God’s Word can do that.
When God wills it, his Word will pierce anyone. George Whitefield, the great eighteenth-century evangelist, was hounded by a group of detractors who called themselves the “Hell-fire Club,” derided his work, and mocked him. On one occasion one of them, a man named Thorpe, was mimicking Whitefield to his cronies, delivering his sermon with brilliant accuracy, perfectly imitating his tone and facial expressions, when he himself was so pierced that he sat down and was converted on the spot! Mr. Thorpe went on to become a prominent Christian leader in the city of Bristol. (R. Kent Hughes, Preaching the Word: Hebrews, 121)
Fifth, the Word is a discerner of our inner being.
When we read that God can “discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart” it reminds us of the marvelous description of God’s omniscient knowledge of our inner being in Psalm 139:1-4…
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
We may hide from our neighbors and friends and even from our spouse, but not from God. God cannot be fooled by sham or hypocrisy or cover up. He knows what you’re thinking right now and what you’ll think and feel ten years from today.
The word translated “discerning” in v. 12 is also rendered to “judge” in other translations. But he doesn’t mean the word “condemns” us. He means the Word evaluates our thoughts and intentions and weighs them and assesses and analyzes them. The Word of God penetrates deeply into the most secret recesses of our hearts and brings an awareness of what is there: is it good or bad, sincere or hypocritical, honorable or corrupt? (Sam Storms)
James indicates that God’s Word functions as a mirror revealing who and what we really are (cf. James 1:23, 24).
Of all forms of deception self-deception is the most deadly, and of all deceived persons the self-deceived are the least likely to discover the fraud.
The reason for this is simple. When a man is deceived by another he is deceived against his will. He is contending against an adversary and is temporarily the victim of the other’s guile. Since he expects his foe to take advantage of him he is watchful and quick to suspect trickery. Under such circumstances it is possible to be deceived sometimes and for a short while, but because the victim is resisting he may break out of the trap and escape before too long.
With the self-deceived it is quite different. He is his own enemy and is working a fraud upon himself. He wants to believe the lie and is psychologically conditioned to do so. He does not resist the deceit but collaborates with it against himself. There is no struggle, because the victim surrenders before the fight begins. He enjoys being deceived. (A.W. Tozer, Man: The Dwelling Place of God, 88)
This gift of self-knowledge is no small grace and we should thank God for it because when we grasp something of the serpentine ways of our hearts, we are disposed to cast ourselves even more on God’s grace.
This is how God works through his Word to protect us against sin and temptation. You will recall that in Hebrews 3:12 God warned of the “deceitfulness” of sin. Sin is incredibly deceptive when it burrows deeply into our souls and lies to us that we will be better off by sleeping around and ignoring God’s appeals or by amassing more wealth by illicit and illegal means or by pursuing that divorce even though we have no biblical grounds or by spreading slander about someone who stands in our way.
Sometimes we try to hide and cover up the sin in our life. But nothing is hidden from God. And God’s Word reveals things in us and to us that we might think could be hidden. It shows us the truth about us.
God will discern whether or not we make every effort (4:11) and whether or not we have truly come to faith in Christ; nothing can be hidden from God. We may fool ourselves or other Christians with our spiritual lives, but we cannot deceive God. He knows who we really are because the word of God is living and powerful. (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Hebrews, 55)
Our only hope is that we might find something that is powerful enough and sharp enough that it can penetrate through the fog of deception and shed light on my thoughts and intentions and reveal to me the lies that I’m so easily prone to believe. And the one thing that can do that is God’s Word!
We do not always know what is in our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9), but God does. He looks right below the extremely thin veneer of merely outward piety to the true thoughts of man. He can test man’s sincerity. Nothing whatever is hidden from his searching gaze. Everything is exposed to his sight. In view of this, how ridiculous is our pretense and how nauseating our hypocrisy. (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today: Hebrews, 92)
The wise Christian invites the penetrating, discerning work of God’s Word in his life. As wise Christians of old prayed:
O thou elect blade and sharpest sword who art able powerfully to penetrate the hard shell of the human heart, transfix my heart with the shaft of thy love. . . . Pierce, O Lord, pierce, I beseech thee, this most obdurate mind of mine with the holy and powerful rapier of thy grace (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 166, quoting from Liber Meditationum xxvii, in Augustini Opera, IX (Lyon, 1664), p. 29).
We have been speaking of God’s Word in its living, penetrating , and discerning powers. Now in verse 13 the discussion continues, but the focus switches from God’s Word to God as a knowing and reckoning God. God works through His Word.
Verse 13 gives us one of Scripture’s great descriptions of God’s knowing: “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Other passages say: “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). The psalmist likewise witnesses, “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence” (Psalm 90:8).
A. W. Tozer sums this up in lyrical cadence:
God knows instantly and effortlessly all matter and all matters, all mind and every mind, all spirit and all spirits, all being and every being, all creaturehood and all creatures, every plurality and all pluralities, all law and every law, all relations, all causes, all thoughts, all mysteries, all enigmas, all feeling, all desires, every unuttered secret, all thrones, and dominions, all personalities, all things visible and invisible in heaven and in earth, motion, space, time, life, death, good, evil, heaven, and hell (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 63).
God sees and knows everything…everything! There is not an action, a word, a thought, a desire, a mood that gets by God. We cannot hide from His gaze. We are “naked and exposed” like Adam in the garden.
“Naked” renders gymna, a word used of the soul being without the body (2 Cor 5:3), of a bare kernel of grain (1 Cor 15:37), or of a body without clothing (Acts 19:16). Here it means that all things are truly uncovered before God.
The Greek word for naked means “uncovered,” and the term translated exposed comes from the Greek word from which we get our English word trachea. The word “exposed” literally means “twist the neck” or “take by the throat.” It can be used for bending back the neck of a sacrificial animal to administer the fatal stroke (Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews , p. 83). It was sometimes used to describe a wrestler’s hold on the opponent’s throat, rendering him helpless, a choke hold (Lane, Hebrews: A Call to Commitment , p. 69). And sometimes it was used to describe how a man being led to execution had a knife placed beneath his chin so that he could not bow his head in shame away from the gaze of the people (William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957), pp. 36, 37).
Whatever the exact use of the metaphor here, its meaning is clear: all creatures are in the grip of God, totally vulnerable, helpless, and “exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
He will examine every one of us—Christians at the judgment seat, unbelievers at the Great White Throne judgment. We will each have to give an account for every deed, every word, every thought, every desire.
God’s Word can distinguish between the raw drives of the human organism (sex, hunger, survival), and the effects those have on his thoughts. It even is aware of the effect of his sub-conscious forces on his decisions. So when a man makes a decision about the things of God, whether to obey or not to obey, the Word knows what is behind the decision. (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 97)
Have you ever turned over a two-by-four or large piece of plywood that has been lying on the ground for a long time? When you do it reveals an enormous city of bugs and spiders and ants, all dwelling in the dark, undisclosed damp place unseen by anyone. And they don’t appreciate being uncovered, all scurrying off for cover once the light of day exposes their presence.
Many professing Christians live lives where secrets are covered up by darkness. People live in fear that someone someday will lift up the plywood and all will be seen. That’s what the Word of God does! It pulls back the curtain on our souls. It lifts the veil on our thoughts and intentions. It shines a light into the darkness of our hearts and forces us to deal honestly with what is hidden deeply within.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, loved practical jokes. As a joke, he once sent a telegram to each of 12 friends. All were men of great virtue and respected in society. The telegram simply read, “Flee! All has been discovered.” To his shock, within 24 hours, the story goes, all 12 had left the country!
There may be some exaggeration in the story, but the point is that many people have dark secrets that haunt their consciences. There is nothing more painful than a guilty conscience, and no pillow as soft as a clear conscience. Thankfully God’s Word exposes our secrets and gives us freedom of conscience as we repent of those sins.
Medieval map-makers would typically write on the edges of their maps where land and sea were unexplored: “Here be dragons and wild beasts.” Similarly, there are unexplored and mysterious dimensions to the human soul that can only be seen and known and healed by the penetrating power of God’s Word. When the Spirit of God takes in hand the truth of God, our deepest and darkest secrets are surfaced and brought into the light of day; our conscience is pricked; our hearts are inflamed; our hidden sins are laid bare before the God to whom we must all give an account.
God cannot be fooled. The accounting of our lives will be accurate and leave out nothing. Happily, that means good things won’t be forgotten or overlooked. But to the sinning, self-righteous heart, apart from the grace of God, the knowledge of this accounting brings nothing but unmitigated terror.
But this is what the Word of God is for. It is designed to confront our lives with the reality of our behavior, our thinking and our affections so that we can align them with the gospel and then God’s commands.
Andrew Murray is right. He said, “If we will not have it judge us now, it will condemn us hereafter.” Submit to the searching gaze of God through the Word and let it identify the poisonous thoughts, the traitorous desires, the rebellious actions, the sin-laced conversations, so that you can repent and have a free conscience, knowing that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Remember the context. The writer to the Hebrews trusts that he has pierced the hearts of his audience, who thought about “giving up” on Jesus. In this passage, he makes it clear that they can’t give up on Jesus can keep it “hidden” from God. The word of God discovers and exposes their condition. Which is a good thing!
This solemn thought prepares the way for the second main part of the epistle in which the purpose and effectiveness of the high-priestly work of Christ is expounded. The fact that nothing can be concealed makes all the more pressing the need for an effective representative who can act on behalf of men (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, p. 119).