Hebrews 4:12-16 - Help in Time of Need
4:12Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. 14Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
The Book of Hebrews: Hebrews is not actually a letter. It is a long sermon that made the rounds of house churches in and around Jerusalem in the time of rising persecution prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. In fact, parts of the book, like our passage for today, contain a string of mini sermons that are held together around a basic theme. Many of the hearers in those house churches were immigrants who came to Jerusalem after the Pentecost experience to be near the Temple to await the return of Jesus. The author of this work is unknown.
The Central problem addressed: Two things were happening that threatened the very fabric of faith and life. 1)The rise of persecution and the rising personal cost of choosing to follow the emerging Christian faith. 2) A kind of internal spiritual sluggishness and apathy that was setting in to the church. Many of these early believers came to the faith on a great religious high on, or right after, Pentecost. Ordinary life in the church was becoming boring and repetitive to them. They were falling off in their worship attendance and were not keeping the disciplines of prayer. They had expected more to change after the resurrection, but evil still seemed to persist. At the same time, they were growing tired of trying to live the Christian life in a culture that did not support it at all. They were being attacked from without and within. The author of this book/sermon is concerned that people are forgetting the core of the faith and, because of that, the continuation of the faith itself was being threatened.
Christology in Hebrews: The author of Hebrews wants those who hear his letter to be clear and assured about who Jesus is. He is everything the faithful of the ages ever hoped for and more. He is the great high priest who takes care of human sin. He is the exact imprint of God. If people wonder about God, they need do nothing more than look at Jesus. He is the exalted and glorified one who willingly gave all for those he came to save. All of salvation history pointed to him, was summed up in him, and is ultimately completed in him. Even in human form he was higher than the angels, one like no other one before or ever after. He combined heavenly status and full humanity and, in that reality, speaks God’s final word about both divinity and humanity.
Today’s passage: Today’s verses bridge two sections in the narrative. Verses 12-13 sum up a section that contains a beautiful homily based on Psalm 95 in which the preacher is encouraging the people to listen carefully to God’s voice and to guard against repeating the failures of the past. It is a call to faithfulness when it might seem much easier to fall away. Verses 14-16 are transitional verses bridging the exhortation to listen to God with the section on Jesus as our High Priest and mediator as we do the work of spiritual growth and reform.
Vs. 12 – word – This word has inspired volumes of scholarly conjecture! It is clear in this context that it does not simply refer to the word of scripture. Some argue that it refers to Jesus as Logos/Word as described in John’s Gospel, but most scholars believe that that tradition would have been unknown at the time this book was written. More likely, in my view, it refers to the God’s voice as is comes to us throughout the ages. It is this word/speech that does things. It creates all that is. It contains wisdom. It leads and redirects. It is ultimately made manifest in Jesus himself.
Living and active – the point is that God’s word is not something that is simply learned or absorbed. It actually does things
Two edged sword – the sword is a frequent metaphor for effectiveness in the Bible. See Isa. 49:2 as just one example.
Piercing – this is the word for to penetrate. God’s word is to so penetrate our lives that there is no pretense left in us.
Divides – this is the word (merismos) that means both the divide and to distribute. The Word, when it penetrates a believer, sorts the wheat from the chaff in both priorities and practices.
Soul – psyche – This word refers to the immaterial part of all creatures. We might call it the personality. It’s not the soul like we use the word in referring to one’s immortal soul.
Spirit – this is the word for wind, breath, spirit and Spirit. It is the part of a being that animates it, is eternal and has faith.
Judge – this is the only time this word occurs in the Bible. It is for one who’s gift is to make proper judgments.
Intentions – this word refers to the purpose behind what people do.
Heart – kardia – The heart was believed to be the seat of the will, thoughts, reasoning and understanding.
Vs. 13 – naked and laid bare – This is a fascinating phrase taken from the language of the gymnasium where wrestlers competed naked. There was a move that bent the neck back in a hold that made the person completely vulnerable. Like an animal for sacrifice, this is an image of complete vulnerability.
Vs. 14 – High Priest – The High Priest in Israel was the only one allowed into the Holy of Holies. It was he who made intercession for the people with God and it was in his intercession that sins were forgiven.
Confession – The word homologia means to say the same thing. Here it seems to refer to the common faith that believers profess.
Vs. 15 – sympathize – This entire verse is exquisitely intimate! The word for sympathize means to suffer with or to have compassion alongside another.
Tested – this again an image for proving oneself.
Vs. 16 – grace -charis – means to rejoice, to be joy-filled, to receive favor, acceptance and kindness with no expectation of return.
Mercy – this word refers to special, immediate and concrete actions extended in such a way that consequences, especially of sin, are alleviated.
Questions for Personal Reflection
1. What ways to you hear the ‘voice of God’ most clearly? Are there practices that help you ‘hear’ God? Are there circumstances that function like white noise to obscure God’s voice?
2. In what ways to you find God’s word sorting your life and priorities? Are there things that seem to fall away when you are most attuned to God? How do you experience God’s word as effective?
3. In what ways do you feel laid bare by God’s word? How do you deal with feelings of vulnerability that arise as a result of your actions or inactions in the life of faith?
4. Can you think of a time when you experienced Jesus with you interceding on your behalf? In what ways have you experienced the joy of grace? In what ways have you experienced the consolations of mercy?