The Word of God Is Living & Active
Topic: Scripture Passage: Hebrews 4:12–4:13
“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest…” Remember the rest he has in mind: no enemies, no sickness or death, creation bountiful, everything rightly ordered, everybody made whole—all in the presence of God. That rest is held out to you in the gospel. Jesus opened the way for you to enter that rest, a rest he already enjoys. That rest belongs to those who trust and follow Christ. It’s not here yet, but it will be. So he says,
11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience [meaning the disobedience of the Israelites in the wilderness]. 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.*
Being a pastor, people will sometimes ask what pushed me in that direction. Several factors. I enjoyed teaching God’s word. I loved serving the church. I had a great burden to see the gospel upheld. Also, several godly men affirmed certain giftings and suggested I consider serving in that role one day.
But the initial push wasn’t unique to those who might eventually become pastors. The initial push was God’s word powerfully impacting me, my dad, and a group of students. I grew up in the church; and many would’ve called me a Christian because of my behavior. Outwardly, I conformed to the morality of my surroundings. I participated in church functions. But inwardly I wanted nothing of God.
Eventually, I started letting people know that. I told the church leadership I didn’t believe in God. I argued at school that Christianity was just a crutch for weak people. My dad talked to me about the money I was making as a welder; and I remember walking out the door saying, “If God wants my money, he can come and take it.”
Then at 17 I heard the gospel. Others had preached Christ to me, especially my mother. But for reasons only explained by sovereign grace, I listened this time. I went into a church chasing a girl with all the wrong reasons, but I came out of that church a new creation. The word of God wrecked me. It exposed me. The word of God penetrated my calloused heart. That word changed my life forever.
Then I watched the word powerfully impact my dad. My dad would pray with us at night. But he wasn’t the spiritual leader of our household. My mom functioned that way. But after seeing the word transform my life, he started sitting under the same preaching—preaching that explained the Scriptures clearly and presented Christ in all his saving glory. That word not only awakened my dad. He started leading the family; and to this day he continues to mature in Christ, lead my mother, and serve the church with zeal.
I also watched the word powerfully impact a group of students. Picture a Wednesday night student meeting—what some would call a youth group. For years they played games for an hour and forty-five minutes with Jesus tacked on the end. I came in and simply started teaching the word. Within months, I watched a game-night turn into a two-hour Bible study with parents sticking around afterwards—both elbows on either side of the Bible wrestling with what God’s word says and longing to obey it.
How is the word of God powerfully impacting your life? I don’t mean how much more do you understand what’s in it? That’s important. The question is more so how is what you do understand moving you to obey? In our passage, we’ll see that if God’s word isn’t changing you, that doesn’t mean the word is ineffective. It means the word will expose you at the judgment for what you really are. That’s a sobering thought. It demands a response. Either we bow or it judges.
Setting the Context: “Strive to Enter…For”
Verses 12 and 13 are the focus. But we must remember: they have a context. It’s not uncommon to encounter these verses in a book or sermon to support a doctrine of Scripture. Rightly so. But often the context goes missing. If not careful, we walk away knowing a few more things about God’s word, but without allowing God’s word to address us as written. I don’t want that to happen.
So, notice first of all how verse 12 supports verse 11 with the word “for”: “For the word of God is living and active…” It belongs to a larger argument. In fact, it closes the argument he began in 3:7. In 3:7 he quotes Psalm 95, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” He quotes the word of God. He explains the warning in that word of God: don’t harden your hearts, otherwise you won’t enter God’s rest. He explains the promise in that word of God: God’s rest for the believer.
Then finally he tells us what to do in light of that word of God: “therefore, let us strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active…” What word? Specifically that word. The word from Psalm 95 he’s been explaining for two chapters.
Now, we can make a more general application to the whole of Scripture. After all, he does use Genesis 2 and Exodus 20 and Joshua to explain why he interprets Psalm 95 the way he does for the church. But the immediate context points to the word of God in Psalm 95, and how that word should affect us in light of Scripture’s storyline and the finished work of Jesus. On that note about Jesus…
Some have viewed “the word of God” here as referring to Jesus.[i] Much like God’s Son is known as “the Word” in John’s Gospel or “the Word of God” in Revelation 19, that’s the way some read it here. And one could argue that Christ is the final word given by God in Hebrews 1:2. Christ too is living. Christ has a sharp sword from his mouth in Revelation 19. More importantly, doesn’t verse 13 suggest a person? Without a break it says, “…and no creature is hidden from his sight”? Might “his sight” in verse 13 look back to “the word” of verse 12? Perhaps the person of Jesus is in view.
But a few observations lead me to take a narrower reading. One is the context of him explaining the written word from Psalm 95. Secondly, each time he refers to the “word” leading up to verse 12, it refers to God’s word declared by angels or the gospel message spoken to the people in the wilderness that also abides for us. The same expression also appears in 13:7; and there the gospel word from Scripture is in view.
Also, Christ does have a sword from his mouth in Revelation 19. But that’s just the point: he isn’t the sword itself. The sword represents his word coming from his mouth—it’s imagery from Isaiah 49:2. With regard to “his sight” in verse 13, it could simply point to God in verse 12: that is, God’s word is living…and no creature is hidden from God’s sight. Or, it may simply continue the personification of the word.
We have to admit, though, part of the complexity here is that God is Trinity. We could easily say that God in Christ by the Spirit is personally present in his word. Then how do you decide? Also God will judge the world in Christ; and that very well fits with verse 13 as well. But you have the two interpretations. I’ll leave it for you to do your homework and weigh them for yourselves. The outcome isn’t all that different.
So for now, we’ll walk through the passage seeing “the word of God” in verse 12 to mean the written word. But more specifically, it’s the written word as it continues speaking by the Holy Spirit—3:7, “the Holy Spirit says” as in “still says today.” It’s also the written word as that word finds its climax in the person and work of Jesus—1:2, “in these last days, God has spoken to us by a Son.” Jesus is God’s ultimate Word. That word, given by promise in the Old Testament and by fulfillment in the New—that word is in view. That word is living and active.
Still, how does that support verse 11? Like this. Verse 11 says, “Therefore, let us strive to enter that rest…” If we don’t strive to enter God’s rest, we will fall into the same patterns of disobedience that kept Israel from entering God’s rest. Verse 12 comes in to say, “and God wasn’t kidding around.” He swore his word of judgment over them. They didn’t enter his rest. God is just as serious when he says to us in Psalm 95, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
How do we know he’s serious? His word is living and active. That’s why we must avoid patterns of disobeying him. His word is powerfully penetrating. His judgment is inescapably exposing. You won’t get away with it. If you treat God’s word lightly, it will find you out. If you ignore the warning of Psalm 95 it will expose you. The hope, though, is that when it finds you out, you submit to it. Before you reach the judgment seat of Christ, you submit to it and keep submitting to it.
God’s word is alive and powerfully penetrating.
That’s the context. Let’s now look at verses 12-13 more carefully. Why strive? Why make every effort? Why persevere to enter God’s rest? Because God’s word is alive and powerfully penetrating. He lists several qualities in verse 12.
One, God’s word is living and active. It’s true that God’s word is life-giving. But that doesn’t seem to be the emphasis here; and we know that because of the way he couples “living” with “active.” “Living and active” together speak more to the word having an abiding and powerful relevance. There’s not a sense in which God’s word ever amounts to a dead letter. A society might have a written law in the books, but in practice it doesn’t really matter. It’s not enforced. It has no abiding relevance.
God’s word is the opposite. It’s not just black ink on white paper, or mere pixels you swipe on your Bible app. Even though he spoke Psalm 95 thousands of years ago, that word is living. Quite apart from how you respond to it—it’s living. The living God stands behind it. It’s active. It’s not just power, but power exerted. It’s fully effective in what God means his word to accomplish. In the word of God, Jesus by the Spirit sits in active judgment over us. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or not—there’s no neutrality when you pick up the word. In the word, Jesus actively sits in judgment over us. As he lives, his word lives. As he acts, his word acts.
When God swore that the disobedient wouldn’t enter his rest, that word did something. Remember Numbers 14? God swears they wouldn’t enter his rest. The people mourn. They even confess, “We have sinned.” Then they say, “We will go up to the place the Lord has promised.” In other words, “Okay, okay, now we’re going to do it.” But Moses had to explain it was too late. The Lord had spoken. They tried it anyway, and the text says, “you shall fall by the sword.” And they did fall. It’s living. It’s active.
Meaning, when it says, “Don’t harden your hearts as in the rebellion;” when it says, “Take care lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God,” pay extra careful attention. These aren’t human words, which are often ineffective and don’t pan out. God’s words are living and active.
His promise of rest is living and active. Not just the warning, but the promise too is living and active. God stands by his word. He holds out the promise to all who believe. He will secure them in his presence. Question is, do you take him at his word? Does that promised rest move you to labor well for his name’s sake?
God’s word is also penetrating. Verse 12 says it’s “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow.” The point here isn’t to explain human nature, what we consist of—that humans have a soul and a spirit that are two separate entities. The New Testament often uses soul and spirit interchangeably. Better is to see the writer stacking up language to describe our innermost person. It’s a division within; not a separation of.
The soul and spirit are like the joints and marrow: they’re inward, hidden, out of sight. But like the double-edged sword slices through thick armor, then flesh, then muscles, down to the very marrow, so also God’s word penetrates to the core of our being. Our defense mechanisms that often keep other humans out; our façade and pasted on smiles that often fool other people; our calloused self that wants to suppress the truth—they’re no match for the word of God. It penetrates to such a depth that soul and spirit lie exposed. You can do nothing to protect the most secret part of your being.
God’s word is also discerning. It says, “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Bible will often refer to our inner-most person as “the heart.” It’s not so much the seat of affection as it is “the control center for life.”[ii] Our thoughts, words, actions, reactions, motivations—all stem from the heart.[iii] Depending on its moral condition, depending on its willingness to submit to God, the heart determines whether we live in ways that please God or in ways that displease God.
God’s word penetrates to that depth and then discerns/judges the thoughts and intentions of our heart—what’s good or evil, what’s pure or impure. That’s significant because it comes in a context warning us not to harden our hearts. 3:8, “do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 3:10, “they’re always going astray in their heart.” 3:12, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart…”
God’s word penetrates to that heart—it discerns whether there’s actual faith or not, whether there’s belief or unbelief, whether there’s true worship or idolatry. That’s crazy unsettling, because I know how prone my heart is to wonder and my knowledge is incomplete. It’s limited. I don’t even know half my heart’s problems.
At the same time, it’s good to know there’s actually something to cut that deeply. It’s good to know there’s actually a Surgeon who can get in there and address my heart problems. If hardness of heart keeps us from entering God’s rest, be thankful there’s Someone who’s sword can address that hardness. There’s actually something sharp enough to penetrate our callouses, to cut through the hardness, and lay us bear to humble us, to change us. Only God knows the true state of our hearts. But he addresses them with his word. No part of us can escape the careful scrutiny of God’s word.
God’s judgment is searching and inescapably exposing.
Why else should we strive? Why make every effort to enter God’s rest? Because God’s judgment is searching and inescapably exposing. Verse 13, “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” No man, woman, child, president, poor, rich, angel, devil—no creature is hidden from his sight. It’s not even that you might try to hide later and can’t. You’re not hidden now. As you sit there today, he sees you through and through. As I preach he sees to the depth of my soul and knows every wayward thought I think.
To give into sin is to live as if God isn’t there. To borrow time at the office when you’re on the clock is to live as if God doesn’t see. To only disclose part of the truth and not all the truth is to live like an atheist. To be sweet to your wife in public but harsh at home is to pretend like you can hide from God. In reality, we’re naked before the Lord. We be running like Adam and Eve to cover ourselves in his presence. But we can’t.
In fact, the word “exposed” in the ESV, or “laid bare” in other translations was used in other literature to describe the twisting of the neck. Think of a wrestler twisting the neck of his opponent up. Or in another context, think of a priest twisting up the neck of the animal to slit its throat. We stand before God absolutely vulnerable. There’s no escaping his eyes. He sees everything. God never has to learn anything about you. He just knows. He knows it all—everything you’ve done, say, think, desire. You must give an account to him. Jesus said, “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt 12:36). Paul said, “[Jesus] will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor 4:5).
Be moved to faithfulness by God’s all-searching gaze.
Among others in the New Testament, one motivation to persevere in faith is God’s inescapable judgment. One motivation for making certain that you are trusting Jesus and truly following him is God’s inescapable judgment. I don’t mean it’s just a motivation for those without Christ to come to Christ. It’s also a motivation for those who know Christ to remain faithful to him. We will give an account for the way we love others, the way we use our money and spend our time, the way we speak to our children, the way we nurture and protect our wives, the way we work and use our skills.
That’s why the Bible says we work heartily as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord we will receive the inheritance as our reward. We serve the Lord Christ (Col 3:24). Or, 2 Corinthians 5:9-10, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” His judgment is searching and inescapably exposing. Therefore, don’t be a pretender. Don’t put up the facades. Don’t grow lazy and indifferent to the kingdom as if that Day isn’t coming, as if he can’t see you now.
Bring yourself to the word of God; prioritize Bible intake.
Also, if a hardened heart, if a heart of unbelief, if a heart that’s always going astray and giving into patterns of disobedience—if that kind of heart keeps you from entering God’s rest, what are you doing to address it? I said earlier that with our limited knowledge, it’s impossible for us to know our heart fully. Even the stubbornness we may see, it’s impossible for us to assess it rightly and sort through all the motives driving it. There are times when I have to tell Rachel or other brothers, “Look, I’m feeling this way about a matter and I know it’s not godly, but I can’t quite put my finger on where it’s coming from. Can you help me see it?”
We’re limited in our ability to assess and discern. We’re limited in our ability to penetrate to the depth of our unbelief. But the word of God isn’t limited in its ability. Therefore, if the state of your heart is a matter of eternal importance, and if God’s word is living and able to penetrate and discern your heart, then bring yourself before the word of God. It’s no small thing when we tell you to keep reading your Bible. We’ve got all kinds of junk in here, and you’re limited in your ability to change it and the elders are limited in our ability to change it and counselors are limited in their ability to change it, but God isn’t. God in Christ by the Spirit is present in his word.
By his word he goes to work, personally; and he is able to penetrate to every place we need to change. Prioritize Bible intake. Your life depends on it. Making it to God’s eternal rest depends on it. Just as you plan for other things in life, plan to sit before the word. Set aside time to read and meditate on Scripture. Memorize it. The church has a Fighter Verse schedule to work through. It’s printed in your worship guide every week.
Talk about the word with one another. Be honest with each other when you’re finding the Bible boring, and then pray for God to give light and joy. Perhaps serving other people, enduring a rushed morning, or just a poor use of time prevented you from getting in the word. Don’t shy away from admitting it—Jesus is our justification, not Bible reading plans—and then ask your brother or sister to feed you with what they read. God’s word is living and active. It alone cuts to the heart.
Know that in God’s word, he examines you.
But be careful here. It’s not simply about getting more Bible data in you. I know Bible scholars who have nearly both Testaments memorized in Greek and Hebrew, but they’re not Christians. It’s also not simply treating the Bible as an object of our study. Should we study the Bible? Rigorously! It’s necessary to make God’s word the object of our study. But if that’s all it is, then we’re missing the words of this passage.
Who’s the real object of scrutiny according to verses 12-13? It’s not the word of God. It’s you and me. That should inform our posture when we open the word of God. It is not merely “This is the word I study and scrutinize.” It’s “I am the object upon whom the word acts and scrutinizes and penetrates.” In the word, Jesus by the Spirit sits in active judgment over us. Ultimately, we are the object when coming to the word. Ultimately, God’s word puts us in our place beneath his rule. Ultimately, he opens us and sees us for who we really are inside. He wields the sword on us, slices through our defenses, exposes our inner secrets, and wars against our sin. Painful as that sounds, this is how we approach the word of God: “Lord, you know all things. Lord, I am not hidden from you. Do your work on me. Everything that needs to happen in me to keep me persevering to the end, do your work on me.”
We are commanded to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God—Ephesians 6 says. But in taking it up, we must remember: it is the sword of the Spirit. Ultimately, he wields and makes it effective. Meaning, long before the word becomes a sword in our hand, it is the sword in God’s hand to penetrate us.
Before his searching gaze, remember his merciful provision.
Hearing a message like that of verses 12-13 leaves many of us laid bare. We find ourselves even now unhidden and exposed before the Lord. Perhaps his word penetrated where it hadn’t before; and you find yourself wholly undone. What you deserve before his holy, searching gaze is judgment. What you need is mercy. And that’s where Hebrews 4 goes next: “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. 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.”
Lord willing, we’ll talk more extensively about that next week. For now, let’s take the Supper together, knowing that the one before whom we are exposed also made provision to enter God’s presence.
[i] Most commentaries since Calvin have abandoned this interpretation, but some of the best arguments for seeing “the word of God” as referring to Christ appear in John Owen, Hebrews, vol. 4 (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1991; reprint of Johnstone & Hunter, 1854), 349-56.
[ii] Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, 2nd ed. (Wapwallopen: Shepherd Press, 1995), 3.
[iii] Prov 4:23; 20:5.