A message by Chad Harrington, “Hebrews 4:12 Explained: The Piercing Word of God,” adapted here for blog format. Watch the sermon here.
The author of Hebrews writes, “For the word of God is living 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.” — Hebrews 4:12
What does this mean exactly?
For a quick answer, you can jump down to this section here.
For the full answer, looking at the context, here’s what it means and what I believe the church needs to hear today:
God’s word calls us to be faithful to him with our obedience at the deepest level; that’s why we must approach his throne with confidence so we can receive the necessary mercy and grace obedient faith requires.
Here’s the context of this powerful text, starting with verse 11:
“Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. For the word of God is living 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 4:11–13
Here’s what comes next, starting in verse 14:
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
— Hebrews 4:14–16
In order to live an obedient faith, we need God’s help—we desperately need his help—but the problem is we’re often afraid to approach him.
In this post:
- Read about the problem: fear.
- Understand the solution via interpretation of Hebrews 4:12 (and surrounding verses).
- Apply it to today.
A Story of Fear
I’ve been afraid to approach God at certain points in my life—sometimes for long stretches—especially when my sin is evident and imminent—right in my face. I’m faced with my need for God.
It’s like when I was a kid, afraid to approach my dad with confidence.
I was about six years old; it was when my family lived in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
It was the middle of the day, and I was biking on the huge hill next to my house—you know, the kind that when you’re a kid is huge, but when you’re older isn’t nearly as big—and I was going down pretty fast.
My bike had those brakes that trigger when you push back on the pedal. The only problem with those is that they cause you to skid pretty hard.
So I’m going down this hill, and I remember it like it was yesterday: a car quickly pulled out of an alley street to turn onto the hill I was going down and when it saw me just stopped.
I was going too fast and was going to hit the side of the car, so instead, I slammed on the brakes. I proceeded to flip head over heels over the handlebars and landed on the pavement, scratching up the skin on my face and on my arms.
Shaken, I walked my bike home and saw my dad working on the car.
Now, if you know my dad, the image of him working on a car is funny because he doesn’t know how to work on cars!
Anyway, he was working on his car and had his back turned to me because of how I was approaching him.
I remember being hurt so bad, injured from what felt like head to toe—literally bleeding. All I said to my dad,
“Hey, Dad, what are you doing?”
I was afraid to approach my dad because I didn’t know what to do with my need and with his agenda.
That’s what it’s been like at times in my relationship with God, when I need him the most, I sometimes don’t know how to approach him.
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Our Challenge: Fear of Approaching God
I think we can all struggle with how to approach God when we’re in need. To create a few caricatures of how we sometimes view God, here are a few misconceptions about God:
False Image of God #1: Wizard of Oz god.
We think he’s a far-off and distant god.
Like the wizard in the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, the man in power is hiding behind a curtain, out of reach for us.
For those who see God this way, God is distant and out of touch.
False Image of God #2: Buddy the Elf’s dad.
Or we feel like he’s too busy for a relationship with us and he can’t relate.
Sort of like Buddy’s dad in the 2003 movie Elf, starring Will Ferrell.
“Bye, Buddy, hope you find your dad.” Mr. Narwhal said.
And when he found his dad in the “big city,” his dad was too busy for him—he couldn’t relate and didn’t want to have a relationship with him. For those who feel this way about God, God is cold-hearted and doesn’t understand our challenges.
False Image of God #3: The Grinch god.
This “god,” when you do encounter him, doesn’t actually give anything; instead he only takes and punishes.
For those who see God this way, he seeks to punish us for having fun and to take from us what we enjoy in life.
We’ve all got reasons that make us afraid to approach God’s throne, but our need remains: we need help from God to live a faithful life. So what can we do to approach his throne with confidence to get the help we need?
We need to know the heart of God.
Hebrews 4:12 can help.
Understanding Hebrews 4:12 in Context
“Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.”
A few takeaways from this:
- He calls us to enter his rest, which comes at the Second Coming (Hebrews 9:28).
- We enter his rest through Jesus, who energizes our obedience, which takes effort.
- So, God doesn’t want us to follow those who are disobedient but those who have an obedient faith so we can enter his everlasting rest.
How do we do this?
The word of God is our first clue.
Hebrews 4:12 (a): “For the word of God is living and active.”
The “Word of God” in Scripture carries with it different meanings based on context. We know from John 1:1, for example, that the “Word” is Jesus himself, so “word of God” doesn’t necessarily mean “the Bible” in all contexts. That’s why:
We must allow the context of Scripture to determine the meaning of scriptural words.
In Hebrews, the phrase “the word of God” carries a rich meaning. Let me share with you seven of those nuances that describe the Word of God just in Hebrews:
The Word of God in Hebrews 1 to 4
God’s word is spoken by God.
Hebrews 1:2: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe”
This means it’s personal.
God’s word is creational.
Hebrews 1:2: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”
This means it’s personal: Hebrews 1:2.
Hebrews 1:3: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
God’s word is cosmic.
This means it’s personal: Hebrews 1:3.
God’s word is gospel-focused.
“We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3 how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.”
This means it’s about Jesus’ power to save us from our disobedience and it’s something we can hear.
God’s word is proclamational.
God’s word is living and active.
This means it’s not just words on the product of a dead tree but alive, living in our hearts, convicting us, and even speaking directly to us today.
God’s word is piercing
- Hebrews 3:7–8: “So, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert . . . .’”
- Then, in our text here, Hebrews 4:12: “The word of God is . . . 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.”
So far, this all sounds good and exciting. We can approach this kind of God! He’s awesome.
But before we get to the throne of grace, we need to know something else: his word is also sharp and piercing. It pierces our hearts through to the very core of our being.
This means he cuts deep—to the heart-level.
The Word of God Is Living and Active
Some people don’t want the living, active, and piercing word of God.
- They don’t want any authority speaking to them, even if it’s God; they want to be their own authority.
- They don’t want an eternal word; they want a god of their own making they can fully comprehend.
- They don’t want something cosmic; they want something tame, something local with a message only for them.
- They don’t want a gospel-focused word because then they’d have to admit they need salvation.
- They don’t want a proclamational word because they don’t want to hear another “sermon”; they get it.
- They don’t want something living and active because that’s vulnerable; they want something they can simply analyze and take from as they see fit.
Some people, though, like those things about God’s Word, even if it pierces a little. Because that means God helps them. He:
- Gives grace
- Is powerful
- Invites us into his kingdom reign
- Builds us up and sends us out!
But even when they receive God’s piercing word, they don’t want the double-edge word of God that cuts with both sides of the blade.
They’d rather just have:
- The encouragement without the conviction
- The grace without heeding the call to sacrifice our desires for his
- The power without our submission
- The commission without the humiliation of humility
- The building up without the breaking down
- They want the blood of Jesus but not the life change of his word
Yet some people do want that double-edge sword…
- They want the conviction
- They embrace the sacrifice
- They are willing to submit
- They will suffer the humiliation necessary to form humility within us
- They’ll even let God break them down to build them back up again
- They want forgiveness and the life change
But even with all these things, they still don’t want God’s double-edged word to go beyond externals in their life.
- They are okay with behavior modification
- Small tweaks to their character
- Improvements to their prayer life
- Tips and tricks for self-improvement
- And even a confrontation here and there
But they keep the inner person—the deepest part of their soul—on reservation. God’s allowed in, but he’s not allowed in that closet, he’s not allowed in that room, he’s not allowed on that floor.
But God’s word doesn’t just cut skin deep; it penetrates to the bone.
We need the rest of Hebrews 4:12 and following to really get the message here.
Hebrews 4:12 Explained in More Detail
Hebrews 4:12 (b): “It penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Now, I have often wondered what this means exactly, and here’s my best understanding of what the author of Hebrews is saying here: It’s not saying that it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow. Instead, it’s saying:
God’s word penetrates our very spirits.
It can cut through everything in our lives, even through our soul and our spirit, as with a knife that cuts through joints and even into the marrow of bone.
It can penetrate our joints but even down into the marrow of our bone—spiritually speaking.
And when it cuts that deep—and enters the depths of our hearts—it has the capacity to judge not just our thoughts but also our very motives, attitudes, and intentions.
“For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives” (1 Corinthians 4:5, NLT).
In other words: the gig’s up.
This is where we’re all caught red-handed. At this point, it’s not just “them” who don’t want that two-edge sword. None of us want that sort of judgment because none of us is innocent before God.
This is when it becomes really problematic. Hebrews 4:13 says:
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.
The connotation of this verse is that we’re all exposed to the knife of God—to whom we must give an account.
At the end of the day, we’re all going to be brought before the judgment seat of God. He’s spoken to us, but what will our word be to him?
How the World Handles God’s Word
Now, if we take a step back and look at the way the world handles the voice of God, we can quickly see what not to do.
With the rise of:
- cancel culture, which is filled with flaws from every angle,
- censorship challenges arising on the internet, and
- a heightened awareness in recent years of sex abuse, harassment, and scandals…
All of these reveal that we do indeed have a sense of right and wrong.
The problem is that…
There’s no objective standard for right and wrong apart from the living and active word of God.
So, we’re seeing all sorts of people get canceled, censored, accused, marked, castigated, excluded, and condemned.
The world comes out with its accusations and judgments, but they’re often quite literally only skin-deep, based on a limited perspective, a narrow scope, and a soundbite. Whether someone has sinned is sometimes clear, sometimes not. What did happen in that hotel room? What did that family member actually say in private?
Whatever these accusations, though, they’re only skin-deep, or post-deep, or sex-scandal deep. Media outlets judge and condemn and uncover people’s darkest secrets. And we often stand and think, Man, that’s really bad, I’m glad I’m not them.
But here’s a tough pill to swallow…
If we’re honest, we’re all capable of all those evil things—and worse.
And God’s word goes there. It says “everything is uncovered and laid bare.” Nothing is hidden! Not even our thoughts or intentions:
God’s word doesn’t go skin keep; it cuts all the way through to our core.
In the end, it’s not just influencers, politicians, and musicians who face accusations; we’re all indicted. And when God indicts us, it’s real:
We’re all guilty.
So, the truth is that in our flesh, none of us want the word of God. And we’re very creative at eschewing the word of God:
- We defer an answer.
- We cast blame on someone else.
- We avoid going to church.
- We stop responding to leaders’ efforts to care for us.
- We stop caring.
Our hearts become hardened.
The place of hard-heartedness, where we don’t even care anymore—that is what the author of Hebrews is warning us about.
So, what do we do when we’re utterly slain by the conviction from the word of God piercing our hearts about our sinfulness?
Keep reading from Hebrews 4, picking up with Hebrews 4:14:
Hebrews 4:14 and Following
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.
Some of us are ready to give up.
But, we have a great high priest: the “greatness” of Jesus comes from the fact that he’s been through what we’ve been through.
It says that “he’s gone through the heavens,” which is to say, he’s gone through the different layers of earth: he’s walked on the crust, passed through the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, and the thermosphere—any other sphere that surrounds our earth he’s been through and come out of.
He’s not some faraway god but the very Son of God—the Word of God incarnate.
Continuing with verse 15:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.
When we think God doesn’t understand, we know that in Jesus, he fully understands—and “sympathizes with our weaknesses.” Whatever we struggle with, he’s faced the same temptations. He knows how hard it is to resist!
Yet he was without sin.
This means he’s stronger than us if he faced the same temptations but didn’t give in. So we get to rely on him to help us!
Whatever our problem, whatever our sin: he gets it, he cares, and he knows the way to victory to help us “hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
Hebrews 4:16 continues:
Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
“Therefore,” “then,” “for this reason”: because of who Jesus is, we can approach the throne of God.
Oh, that word grace!
It’s not the throne of condemnation but of grace; it’s not hidden from us but available; it’s not far away but near—and it’s characterized by grace.
“Thrones,” even in the OT, were a place of judgment. But notice it’s called the “throne of grace” here. We don’t have to be afraid of his judging word because in Christ, our judgment is “forgiven,” “I accept you,” and “you are mine.” He doesn’t leave us where we are but he accepts us as we are.
And he says we can approach his throne with confidence.
- This means we can boldly come to him without fear.
- This means in the midst of our exposed self, we don’t have to hide anything from him because he’s gracious and merciful.
- This means grace for us.
It says we approach God “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
- We receive God’s mercy, which is not getting what we do deserve.
- And we find grace, his unmerited favor—getting what we don’t deserve.
- We need both his mercy and his grace in order to be faithful.
And we need the throne of grace in order to live a faithful faith, and because of Jesus we can access this.
Finishing My Story: Fear Meets Grace
I told you the story about when I interrupted my dad who was “fixing his car” when I a bike wreck as a six-year-old kid. I remember what my dad did like I was watching a movie. I tried to cover up my hurt, and I approached him coyly and just asked what he was doing. But when he saw the wounds on my face and on my arms, he immediately dropped what he was doing, swooped me up, and rushed me inside, where I could get the bandages and care that I needed. It was my time of need.
I approached my dad with timidity and he still carried me.
And that’s my earthly father, who is not perfect.
How much more in our time of need, when we’re wounded from life and from our sin and all we need is our heavenly father to swoop us up, to carry us to his side, and to heal us, can we approach God with confidence. Confidence in what he’ll do for us, not take from us.
“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence…
“… so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
When God’s word pierces your heart and calls you to be faithful to him in obedience at the deepest levels possible—and it’s convicting, not just encouraging—I urge you to approach his throne to receive the necessary mercy and grace faithful faith requires. And do it with boldness and confidence.
- Allow him to pierce your heart all the way and expose it all.
- And when you’re faced with your authentic self, with all its flaws, seek his throne for grace and mercy.
- And he will save you. “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.”
A Call to Repentance
Repent of your sin, church, turn it over to him, and seek his throne of grace because you’ll be received with open arms.
Repent of your struggle with pornography, your wrathful anger, your seething jealousy, your prideful thoughts, your sexual exploits, your drug problem, your addiction to whatever, your idolatry of politics, wealth, or worldly success.
Repent unto God’s throne of grace.
Today, if you hear his voice.
Imagine where you are there is the throne of God’s grace. It’s the place every one of us would seek in our time of need because at it we would find everything we need to heal our sin-inflicted bodies, our broken spirits, our wounded souls.
In the world today, when you don’t know who to trust with your deepest challenges, the throne of God’s grace is the safest place on earth.
Kneel to receive his mercy.
Repent to find his grace.
Listen to this as you do.
Prayer of Mercy and Grace: Download
During the worship service in which I preached this sermon, we recited a Prayer of Mercy and Grace, which I wrote.
Then, our team at HIM Publications created a whole graphics package to go with this (see below).
Purchase this package for free with coupon code GRACE2021 at checkout, when you see the whole thing here.
Note: All Scripture quotations, except otherwise noted, mentioned in this post were taken from the NIV (1984).
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