THE BROAD CONTEXT:
The author identified neither himself nor the people to whom he was writing. However, the content of the book, including the frequent references to the Hebrew Scriptures, makes it clear that he was writing to Jewish Christians who were sorely tempted to leave the Christian church and revert to Jewish worship.
There were a number of reasons why these Jewish Christians might have been tempted to return to Judaism:
- Families and friends surely pressured them. This could have taken many forms––expressions of disapproval, shunning, disinheritance, etc.
- They would have missed the elaborate rituals and furnishings of the Jewish Temple and the synagogues. Christians didn’t have church buildings in those days, but met in the homes of fellow Christians. Compared to Jewish worship, Christian worship must have seemed spare––even poor.
- Those who had enjoyed special status in Judaism would miss the prestige and influence that they once enjoyed. Luke tells us that “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Whether they could have become Jewish priests again is open to question, but some would likely be tempted to return if they thought that would be a possibility.
The author spends the first ten and a half chapters of this thirteen chapter book (1:1 – 10:18) emphasizing the superiority of Christ and the new covenant to Moses and the old covenant. In chapters 1-2, he focuses specifically on the superiority of Christ to angels.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
The author implored, “Beware, brothers, lest perhaps there be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God” (3:12). He reminded them of the Israelite rebellion in the wilderness, and God refusing to allow them entry into the Promised Land “because of unbelief” (3:19). He then raised his concern that “anyone of you should seem to have come short of a promise of entering into his rest” (4:1ff.). He concluded, “Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, lest anyone fall after the same example of disobedience” (4:11).
HEBREWS 4:12-13. THE WORD OF GOD IS LIVING AND ACTIVE
12 For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 There is no creature that is hidden from his sight, but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
“For the word of God is living, and active” (v. 12a). “The word of God” comes to us in various ways. It comes through:
- The law and prophets.
- Jesus Christ, who was known as the Word (John 1:1ff.)
- Scripture, both Old and New Testaments.
- The work of the Holy Spirit, living in and among us.
- The preaching of the Gospel and the teaching of scripture.
But this verse tells us that “the word of God is living, and active”––which suggests that we need to be careful about putting it in a straitjacket by assuming that it can come only by certain ways. Can’t the word of God come through:
- Dreams and visions (Acts 2:17)?
- Rubbing shoulders with other Christian believers?
- Secular stories, music, or poetry?
- Communing with nature?
That is not to say that we will always be on solid ground when we dream dreams and see visions––or when something from secular sources or nature moves us. We must test everything by the words of Jesus and the teachings of scripture. Nothing that contradicts scripture is from God.
When the author of Hebrews says that “the word of God is living, and active,” he speaks of a word that can come from unexpected directions and require us to respond to unanticipated calls.
Of course, false prophets might claim to speak the word of the Lord when they are speaking only their own word––or that of the devil. To deal with this risk, we can do two things:
- We can pray that God will enable us to discern truth from falsehood.
- We can compare the word the person is speaking with the word of God as found in the Bible. The canonical scriptures are the gold standard. Some might say that Jesus, the Word of God, is the gold standard, and I wouldn’t argue with that. But how do we know what Jesus taught? We find it in the New Testament––scripture. So we can discern truth from falsehood by comparing what we hear with what we find in scripture. We can be sure that anything that contradicts scripture is false.
“and sharper than any two-edged sword” (v. 12b). In that day, swords were a soldier’s primary weapon. Soldiers would spend much time sharpening their swords, so that they would always be ready for battle.
A two-edged sword would be particularly lethal, because it would cut when swung this way––and again when swung that way. It would also be effective when thrust into an opponent’s abdomen.
The author notes that the word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword.” The word of God will not be denied entry anywhere. It cannot be held by prison walls. It cannot be tamed by chains. It penetrates to our hearts, and breaks the bonds its’ enemies would impose on it.
If you wonder whether God’s word has power, check with the Gideons, the people who place Bibles in hotel rooms and prisons. Gideons have a host of true stories of the transforming power of scripture. God’s word changes lives.
“and piercing even to the dividing (Greek: diikneomai) of soul (Greek: psyche) and spirit (Greek: pneumatos), of both joints and marrow, and is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (v. 12c). Just as a sword can penetrate deeply, so also the word of God penetrates to the core of our being.
What is the difference between the soul (Greek: psyche) and the spirit (Greek: pneumatos)?
- The Greek word psyche (soul) is related to the word for breath, and is the person’s physical life-force.
- The Greek word pneumatos (spirit) also has to do with breath, but is the person’s spiritual life-force.
While this translation translates diikneomai as “dividing,” a better translation would be “penetrating” or “piercing.” The word of God penetrates to the core of our being––to our soul and spirit. The word of God can even “discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” We can hide nothing from God.
Paul used the sword metaphor in his letter to the Ephesians, calling the sword of the Spirit the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). John saw a vision of “one like a son of man…. Out of his mouth proceeded a sharp two-edged sword” (Revelation 1:13, 16). Since that which typically proceeds from the mouth are words, it would appear that the two-edged sword of Revelation is also intended to portray the word of God.
“There is no creature that is hidden from his sight” (v. 13a). The author introduced the idea of the all-seeing God in verse 12c above, and continues it here.
The Psalmist dealt with this, saying:
“Where could I go from your Spirit?
Or where could I flee from your presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there!
If I take the wings of the dawn,
and settle in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there your hand will lead me,
and your right hand will hold me.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me;
the light around me will be night;’
even the darkness doesn’t hide from you,
but the night shines as the day.
The darkness is like light to you”
That is reassuring for those of us who need God’s help. It can be frightening for those of us with something to hide.“but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (v. 13b). The phrase, “of him with whom we have to do,” is a veiled reference to Jesus and/or God.
Jesus gave us a glimpse of the one who sees the heart and knows our true motives. In his dealings with the scribes and Pharisees, he repeatedly bested them because he knew their hearts (Matthew 9:10-13; 12:1-14, 22-32; 15:1-9; 23:13, 23-36).
The picture that comes to mind when we think of “him with whom we have to do” is the judgment of the nations as found in Matthew 25:31-46. When the Son of Man comes in glory, he will separate the sheep from the goats––the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. The criteria for judgment will be whether they have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison. But the main point for this verse in Hebrews is that the Son of Man will make those judgments quickly and easily, without having to examine each person closely––because “all things (will be) naked and laid open before (his) eyes.”
HEBREWS 4:14-16. HAVING THEN A GREAT HIGH PRIEST
14 Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold tightly to our confession. 15 For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace for help in time of need.
“Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (v. 14a). In Israel, the high priest was responsible for administering the sacrificial system that God had established for various purposes, atonement for sins being the most important. Only the high priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies––the dwelling place of God––and then only on the Day of Atonement. He presided over the Sanhedrin, the highest authority over all matters in Israel, both religious and civil.
Jesus assumed the role of high priest––our intermediary with God and the ultimate arbiter of salvation.
The author notes that Jesus is a great high priest––one “who has passed through the heavens.” He is thus superior to earthly high priests, whose access to God’s presence was limited to one day a year in the Holy of Holies.
“let us hold tightly to our confession” (homologia) (v. 14b). The Greek word homologia combines homou (together with) and lego (to say), so it has the sense of a shared belief or confession. Paul uses this word in 2 Corinthians 9:13, where he defines the homologia (confession) as “the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
The Christian community was allowed to differ on many things, but the central tenet of their faith was “the Good News of Jesus Christ.” This was the one thing on which they could and must agree.
The author of Hebrews says that, since Jesus is our high priest, who has passed through the heavens, we can and must hold tightly to our confession of faith.
“For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (v. 15a). A more literal translation would be “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.”
The word “for” ties this verse to that which preceded it. We can put our faith in Jesus, because he has walked in our shoes––has experienced life as we know it from birth to death––has experienced hunger and thirst and a primitive world with stables and dusty roads and crosses.
“but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin” (v. 15; see also 2:18). Each of the Synoptic Gospels has an account of Jesus’ temptations at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), but we shouldn’t imagine that those were his only temptations. Luke tells us that, “When the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from (Jesus) until another time” (Luke 4:13).
Nor should we imagine that the devil would tempt Jesus only occasionally. The devil plays a mean game of chess, always anticipating his opponents’ moves and plumbing the depths of his opponents’ weaknesses. He does that with us, and we can be assured that he pulled out every stop in his attempt to undermine Jesus.
Having experienced human life to its fullest, Jesus can sympathize with us when we turn out to be weak––sinful.
Not only can Jesus sympathize, but he can and will help. His God-given mission was not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17).
“Let us therefore draw near with boldness (Greek: parresia) to the throne of grace” (v. 16a). The Greek word parresia comes from two words, pas (all) and rhesis (speaking), and literally has to do with freedom in speaking. However, it evolved to mean confidence or boldness, particularly with regard to speech.
The author encourages us to approach the throne of grace with confidence or boldness––ready to speak. That’s quite a privilege.
If we were invited to approach the throne of the king or queen of Great Britain, we would be obligated to observe strict protocol.
- We would need to use proper wording to accept the invitation.
- Women would wear white gloves and hats, and men would wear morning dress or uniforms (with decorations, of course).
- In the presence of the queen, women would curtsey and men would bow.
- The queen would be addressed as “Her majesty.”
- The king/queen would take the initiative with regard to conversation, and we would NOT be expected to steer the conversation in a different direction. No personal questions, of course! No questions about state policy.
- And that’s only the beginning.
But we are children of God––adopted into God’s family––”heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17). While it is ever so much grander to enter into God’s presence than into the king/queen’s presence, we can do so with the confidence that we have been grafted into God’s family––and that God loves us even more than we love our own children.
We shouldn’t imagine that we will approach God’s throne of grace only after our death and resurrection. Every time we go to God in prayer, we are approaching his throne of grace. While we should be respectful, even as we should be respectful when approaching our earthly father or mother, we can also be honest. In the Psalms and Lamentations, we hear people crying out to God in pain. Even Jesus on the cross cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”––”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
“that we may receive mercy (Greek: eleos), and may find grace (Greek: xaris) for help in time of need” (v. 16b). The Greek words eleos (mercy) and charis (grace) are similar in meaning. Both have roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s loving-kindness, mercy, and faithfulness.
Furthermore, both mercy and grace imply that we have not earned God’s favor. Instead, God has bestowed his favor on us freely (whether we call his favor “mercy” or “grace”), in spite of the fact that we have not deserved it. Both grace and mercy result in salvation (Romans 3:24; Titus 3:5).
In his book, Synonyms of the New Testament, R. C. Trench distinguished between charis (grace) and eleos (mercy) by saying that God extends charis (grace) when we are guilty and eleos (mercy) when we are miserable. That is the thinnest of distinctions, however, because guilt and misery so often go together––and the remedy for one will so often be the remedy for both.
In any event, the promise of this verse is that we can expect both mercy and grace when we approach God’s throne.
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan