Sharper Than Any Sword (Phil Johnson)

Hebrews 4:12   |   Sunday, June 16, 2013   |   Code: 2013-06-16-PJ

     I want to start with the words of the apostle Paul, who (in 2 Timothy 4:3-4) said, "The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." What was Paul's answer to that? If he were a typical 21st-century church growth expert, he would say, "You've got to connect with the culture. Don't force-feed people what they don't want, but learn how to speak to their felt needs. Contextualize by bringing in references to popular culture. Exegete the latest Superman movie or draw out spiritual lessons from popular television sitcoms."

     Does that sound like Paul?

     No, Paul told Timothy: "As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching."

     That is what we as the church of Christ must be focused on—not the fads and fashions of our culture. Not even the silly parade of evangelical fads that have assaulted the church in wave after wave for two decades running. The fads and the programs have buried the gospel under a mountain of trivialities and gimmicks. And history proves that when churches and denomination decide that the preaching of God's Word is not sufficiently relevant for the times, those who make anything other than biblical preaching the highest priority soon lose influence and die—because, after all, the Word of God is the only message that has the power to give spiritual life.

     That is the message of the text I want to look at in this hour. Hebrews 4:12: "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."

     This is not an easy passage to expound in a single message. It's not as simple to interpret as it might appear at first glance. The very best Biblical commentators and expositors are divided on the basic question of whether the expression "The word of God" refers to the incarnate Word—the divine Logos—Christ, who, as the eternal Word of God (according to John 1:1-2) "[is] God" and was "was in the beginning with God."

     Or is this a reference to Scripture, the written Word of God?

     John Owen, who perhaps the greatest of all Puritan commentators and certainly one of the most scholarly expositors who ever lived, wrote a massive 7-volume commentary on the book of Hebrews, and he says this is a reference to Christ.

     On the other hand, John Calvin (who is no slouch as a biblical exegete), together with a large number of the best commentators, insists it's a reference to the written Word of God—the inspired text of Scripture.

     Spurgeon said they are both right, and the passage is deliberately ambiguous. It speaks of both the Christ of God and the Book of God. And perhaps Spurgeon has a point, because everything this verse says is equally true of the Lord Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word) and the Bible (the inscripturated Word). Both are living, and powerful, and infallible discerners of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

     But I cannot ultimately resist the conclusion that both the context and the plain sense of this passage refer primarily to the written Word of God, the Scriptures. So I'm inclined to side with Calvin and most other Protestant commentators. (But even in doing so, I would heartily encourage you to read and study the expositions of this text given by John Owen and many other great expositors who agree with him, because I think their comments are helpful and edifying and too full of rich insight to ignore.) It may well be true that the reference is left ambiguous precisely because there is a depth of meaning in these statements that is intended to make us realize and meditate on how intimately Christ and the Scriptures are identified with one another. Spurgeon said, "How much that can be said of the Lord Jesus may be also said of the inspired volume! How closely are these two allied! How certainly do those who despise the one reject the other! How intimately are the Word made flesh, and the Word uttered by inspired men, joined together!"

     And, we might add, adapting a truth from Matthew 19:6, "What . . . God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." You cannot have Christ apart from the Scriptures, or vice versa. Although hordes of modern pseudo-scholars pretend to search for the historical Jesus apart from Scripture, the Bible is the only true and infallible revelation of Him, and the Bible says "there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." If you take Christ out of the Scriptures, you remove the central and essential point of the Bible. And if you embrace Christ as Lord, you must also embrace His Word, because He said in John 10:35: "Scripture cannot be broken." In Matthew 5:18, He said, "Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." Luke 16:17: "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void." In fact, according to Matthew 24:35, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but [Jesus says,] my words will not pass away."

     So you cannot separate the incarnate Word from the inscripturated Word. Christ and His Word are inextricably linked—and that is why Jesus himself is called "the Word." The written Word of God and the Word incarnate bear witness to one another. Both are perfect and infallible. Both reveal God to us. Both are "living and active," and both stand in judgment of every thought and intent of our hearts. So everything this verse teaches is true of both Christ and the Bible.

     But again, I believe the primary reference of our text is all about the Word of God as it comes to us in written form through the Scriptures. The writer of Hebrews speaks of "the word of God" four times: here; in Hebrews 6:5; in Hebrews 11:3; and in Hebrews 13:7. You could argue that three of those four references are ambiguous and might be speaking of either Christ or the Scripture. But the fourth, in Hebrews 13:7, is a clear reference to the Scriptures. And it seems to me that it's reasonable to interpret our passage as a reference to the Scriptures as well. It fits the context best, and it seems to be the most obvious and natural sense of the expression here.

     So what does this verse teach us about the Word of God? It's a rich text, full of meaning, but I want to isolate what seem to me the three main qualities of the word of God that are highlighted in this text, and let's carefully consider what they mean.

     First of all, it teaches us that—


1. The Word of God is Powerful

     The King James Version says, "the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword." Quick, of course, is the old English word for "living." I was surprised in reading John Owen that  even though he wrote in the 1600s, he had to explain the word quick to his readers. He referred to the word quick as an improper translation, because, he said, "that word doth more ordinarily signify 'speedy,' than 'living.'" So I don't know when the word quick stopped meaning "alive," but it was apparently before John Owen's time.

     I grew up in a church where we used to recite the traditional version of the Apostles' Creed, which says, Christ "ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." And that made perfect sense to me. I figured "the quick" were those who made it through the crosswalk, and "the dead" were those who didn't.

     But, of course, that's not the meaning of the word at all. Quick in this kind of context just means "alive" or "living."

     And if you're using a modern version, it will say "the word of God is living." That's the correct sense. It speaks of vitality, life, activity, energy. The word of God has a life-force that is unlike any merely human book. It is not only alive; it has the power to impart life to those who are spiritually dead. Jesus said in John 6:63: "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." First Peter 1:23: "You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God." James 1:18: "Of his own will he [begot us] by the word of truth." Psalm 119:50: "Your word has given me life."

     You can take all the great books and all the great literature in the world combined, and they do not have this life-giving power. No book changes lives like the Word of God. You might occasionally hear a person say his life ways transformed by a self-help book, or someone will tell you this book on dieting or exercise or organizing your living space was totally revolutionary. Someone's whole worldview might change after reading a book on philosophy or politics.

     But the life-giving and life-changing power of the Bible is something far deeper than that. It renews the heart by giving spiritual life to the spiritually dead. It changes our character in an essential, fundamental transformation of the heart. It completely revamps our motives and our desires; it cleanses and renews us thoroughly; and it brings about a total moral overhaul such as no human literature could ever hope to accomplish. In biblical terms, it sanctifies us—and that's something no other book could ever claim to offer. But more than that, it resurrects the soul from a state of hopeless spiritual lifelessness. It has the same creative power in the command of God when He said, "'Let the earth bring forth living creatures. . . ' And it was so."

     The word of God is inherently powerful. It is, after all, the Word of God, the Creator. His words have life and vitality that mere human words do not possess.  In many of Jesus' parables, He portrayed the Word of God as seed—a living, life-giving, fruit-bearing instrument of vitality and righteousness. It is the means by which God breathes spiritual life into us. Second Timothy 3:16-17: "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."

     No other book has that effect. It rebukes us. It chastens us. It comforts us. It guides us and gives light to our path. It preaches to us. It restrains our foot from evil. It frowns on us when we sin. It warms our hearts with assurance. It encourages us with its promises. It stimulates our faith. It builds us up. It ministers to our every need. It is alive and dynamic.

     And the vitality of Scripture is eternal and abiding. In John 6:68, Simon Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." The eternality of divine life is perfectly embodied in the Word of God. Again, Jesus said (Mark 13:31), "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." Isaiah 40:8: "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." Psalm 119:89: "Forever, O LORD, your word is [settled] firmly fixed in the heavens." First Peter 1:25: "'The word of the Lord remains forever.' And this word is the good news that was preached to you."

     Have you ever considered the antiquity of the Scriptures? Portions of the Bible were already ancient by the time Homer wrote the Iliad. Compared to the book of Job, Plato's Republic is a modern book. And yet every page of the Bible has a life-changing power that is just as fresh as the day it was written. We don't have to make it come alive; it is both alive and active. It is always relevant, eternally applicable, speaking to the heart with a power that is unlike even the greatest of human works. The thoughts and opinions of men come and go. They fall from fashion and fade from memory. But the Word of God remains "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword."

     And what is true of the whole is true of the parts. Every part of Scripture is alive and powerful. Proverbs 30:5: "Every word of God proves true." Jesus said "every word that comes from the mouth of God" gives life and sustenance. That's why Deuteronomy 8:3 says, " man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD."

     I'm always amazed at the passages of Scripture that have been instrumental in bringing people to Christ. I've told you before how I came to saving faith in Christ by reading 1 Corinthians as a senior in high school. The passage that drew me to Christ is not one you would necessarily think of as an evangelistic text. First Corinthians 3:18-19: "Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God." But it rebuked my sin and turned me to Christ.

     I have heard people tell how they were awakened to eternal life by verses from the gospels, the epistles, the psalms, and even some of the obscure parts of the Old Testament. In college I knew a girl who was born again after listening to an old testament prophetic text being sung in a performance of Handel's Messiah. I doubt there's a page or a paragraph anywhere in Scripture that has not at some time or some place been used by the Spirit of God to convert a soul. None of it is superfluous. Second Timothy 3:16 again: "All scripture is . . . profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."

     I met a man in Sicily who came to Christ during a severe paper shortage after World War II because of a single page of Scripture from a Bible someone had thrown away. Paper was almost impossible to come by, so merchants used old newspapers and other scrap paper to wrap whatever they sold in the marketplace. This man went to the fish market and bought a fish. When he unwrapped it at home, one of the papers used to make the package was a page from the book of Romans, taken from a New Testament some priest had confiscated from a parishioner and thrown out. This man read it (Romans 4:5): "to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." That made him determined to acquire a Bible of his own. He did, and started reading it regularly. And within a very short time, this man (who had been a lifelong Roman Catholic and had never before read a verse of the Bible for himself) became a believer. His conversion was the beginning of a significant Protestant movement that still thrives today on the island of Sicily.

     "The word of God is living and active." That's the ESV. The Greek word translated "active" might be rendered "powerful" in your version, depending on what version you're using. The Greek word is enERges. It's the source of our English word "energetic." It has both ideas: power and activity. So "active" is a not a bad translation. It signifies something that is dynamic, operative—effectual. The apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:13): "We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers." The King James Version adds a word that gets closer to the idea of the Greek word. The KJV says the Word of God "effectually work[s] . . . in you."

     That's a bit of a redundancy, or course, because the Word of God always works effectually. It always accomplishes its intended purpose. In Isaiah 55:11, God speaking, says, "So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it."

     Sometimes God's purpose is rebuke and correction; sometimes it is instruction and edification. Sometimes it is blessing; sometimes it is judgment. The gospel is "a fragrance from death [leading] to death" for some; for others, it is "a fragrance from life [leading] to life." Either way, the Word of God is effectual, productive, powerful. It always produces the effect God intends.

     That's why preachers ought to preach the word instead of telling stories and doing comedy. That's why when you witness, you should rely on the power of God's Word, rather than trusting your own cleverness or charm. This is where the power for ministry resides: in the Word. It's not in our cleverness or our oratorical skills. The power is in the Word of God. And our task is simple: all we have to do is make the Bible's meaning plain, proclaim it with accuracy and clarity. And the Spirit of God uses His Word to transform lives. The power is in the Word, not in any technique or program.

     Spurgeon said, "What an honor to have it as one's calling, to study, to expound, and to publish this sacred Word! I cannot help feeling that the man who preaches the Word of God is standing, not upon a mere platform, but upon a throne. You may study your sermon, my brother, and you may be a great rhetorician, and be able to deliver it with wonderful fluency and force; but the only power that is effectual for the highest design of preaching is the power which does not lie in your word, nor in my word, but in the Word of God. Have you never noticed, when persons are converted, that they almost always attribute it to some text that was quoted in the sermon? It is God's Word, not our comment on God's Word, which saves souls."

     So the Word of God is powerful. It is powerful because it has life and vitality that flows from God Himself. The Word is not only His perfect, inerrant, powerful self-revelation to His creatures; it is also the instrument through which He breathes spiritual life into us.

     That's characteristic number one of the Word of God. It is powerful. Here's characteristic number 2:


2. The Word of God is Penetrating

     Notice how vividly the writer of Hebrews portrays this idea: "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."

     The Word is like a sword. And this is one of the main reasons I believe this text refers primarily to the written word of God. Throughout Scripture, God's revealed and inscripturated Word is portrayed as a piercing, penetrating sword that cuts to the heart. Ephesians 6:17; the only offensive weapon in the spiritual armor that is outlined in that chapter is "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." Revelation 1:16 describes John's vision of Jesus: "In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword." Again, the sword is His Word, which comes from His mouth. In Revelation 2:16, He says, "Repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth." That's the Word of God, which He uses to destroy His enemies. Revelation 19:15: "From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations." That echoes Hosea 6:5, where Christ, speaking prophetically, says, "I have [cut them in pieces] by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth."

     Notice that the Word of God is like "a two-edged sword." It has no blunt side. It cuts no matter which way you swing it. Not only that, but it also has a penetrating point. It is "piercing." You can swing it like a saber or thrust with it like a rapier. You don't have to be highly skilled to use it with effect. In the hands of an amateur, it will still work. And there's nothing so hard or so deeply concealed that it can't penetrate.

     In fact, look at the expression in our verse again: the Word of God is "sharper than any double-edged sword." No human instrument or worldly technique or psychological therapy is more effective than the Word of God to penetrate the human heart. It lays bare the true thoughts and intents of every heart. Remember that when you're counseling people.

     I had a friend in college who was describing his efforts to evangelize a fellow student. My friend was convinced—quite incorrectly—that stealth evangelism is the best way to win people to Christ. So he was trying to be a subtle as possible and as delicate and indirect as possible while waiting for an opening to tell this non-Christian student about Christ.

     He kept telling me about conversations he had with this guy, and how he was looking for some kind of "opening" to work the gospel in. This went on for months. And it seemed to me that he had already wasted several good "openings," but he just lacked the boldness to bring up the subject of Christ. It seemed to me that he was waiting for the guy to be like the Philippian jailer and ask, "Sir, what must I do to be saved?" And I could see it wasn't going to happen. So I said, "Why don't you just bring up the subject, and tell him in the plainest possible language what the Bible says about Christ?"

     And he said, "I just don't think he's really open yet."

     But you know what? We don't have to be "open" for the Word of God to penetrate. It is "sharper than any two-edged sword," and quite capable of opening even the hardest heart.

     We need to have more confidence in the ability of the Word of God to penetrate people's hearts. This is one of the real deficiencies in this generation of evangelicals. We don't have enough faith in the power of God's Word to penetrate a hardened heart. And so some Christians—and even lots of churches—actually back away from proclaiming the simple Word of God to unbelievers in plain language. They think it's necessary to have music, and drama, and other forms of entertainment to soften people up and prepare them to receive the Word. And in many cases they never do get around to declaring the Word of God with any kind of boldness.

     You hear people today talking about "pre-evangelism." I don't know what that is supposed to mean, but usually it refers to some activity or technique that entertains people and tries to make them friendly to Christianity while carefully avoiding the risk of confronting them with the truth of Scripture—as if something besides the Word of God might be more effective than Scripture at penetrating their hearts. That is sheer folly, and it is a waste of time. Nothing is more penetrating and more effective in reaching sin-hardened hearts than the pure and unadulterated Word of God. All our human techniques and ingenuity are like dull plastic butter knives compared to the Word of God, which is "sharper than any two-edged sword."

     There's a story in the biography of George Whitefield about a man named John Thorpe, who was a bitter opponent of everything that is holy. By some accounts, he was a member of the "Hell-Fire Club" That was a notorious society of free-thinkers and pagans that flourished in England and Ireland in the 18th century. Members of the Hell-Fire Club would gather in mobs to commit open acts of deliberate public blasphemy. They would also meet clandestinely in private gatherings to commit secret acts of gross immorality. They reveled in all kinds of wickedness, and they absolutely hated Christianity.

     They were the evil counterpart to the "Holy Club." That was the nickname of a fairly small group of young college men who had been organized at Oxford under the leadership of John and Charles Wesley. That name was pinned on them by other students who despised what they stood for. It was meant to be derogatory, but that's what the original Methodists came to be known as: The Holy Club. So you had "The Holy Club" and the "Hell-Fire Club" at opposite extremes of English culture.

     George Whitefield was drawn to the "Holy Club" (out of curiosity at first) while he was a student at Oxford, and it was there that he began to study Scripture and read Christian literature, and it wasn't long before he was converted. And of course he became arguably the greatest preacher of the 18th century and one of the greatest preachers of all time, preaching to untold thousands on both sides of the Atlantic.

     When it was clear that the preaching of Whitefield and the Wesleys was having an impact in British culture, the Hell-Fire Club hammered them with opposition.

     Now, I should mention that George Whitefield was not a physically attractive man. He had a great voice, but he wasn't much to look at. For one thing, he had severely crossed eyes. Contemporary woodcut images of him sometimes show his crossed eyes, and it always looks cartoonish. You might think the artists were deliberately exaggerating to make him look funny, but I don't think so. Evidently his eyes were profoundly and permanently crossed. (One writer, making fun of him, said his eyes were perpetually making the sign of the cross.) Whitefield's enemies nicknamed him "Dr. Squintum."

     That kind of mockery seemed to follow Whitefield everywhere he went, and he handled it magnanimously and courageously. When he opened his mouth, people listened and were captivated, so he just kept preaching. And everywhere he went, people were converted under the power of the Word of God.

     But in every town, it seems, there were these groups of young ruffians, hooligans, and members of the hell-Fire Club who opposed him. They would accost him on the streets, ridicule him publicly, and do anything they could think of to try to make his ministry a reproach.

     When Whitefield came to the town of Rotherham, in central England, John Thorpe and a little gang of  young, rebellious thugs decided to make a burlesque of his ministry in a crowded pub. They were drinking and laughing, and making fun of Whitefield and Christianity in general. And someone suggested they should have a contest to see who could mimic George Whitefield the best. Four guys would open the Bible at random and preach a mock-sermon on whatever text he opened to.

     This guy Thorpe was apparently pretty good at doing impressions, and he knew all of Whitefield's mannerisms and gestures, so he eagerly volunteered to take a turn. He was chosen as the final contestant, so he got to watch the first three guys perform.

     Nothing was deemed sacred. Blasphemy, buffoonery, bad language, and base morals all flowed as freely as the beer. Everyone, including John Thorpe, was laughing hysterically, completely untroubled by this open display of sacrilege.

     When Thorpe's turn came, he stood in the center of this pub and crossed his eyes and waited till the laughter died down. Then he brashly announced, "I shall beat you all."

     Someone handed him a Bible, and it fell open to Luke 13. His eyes went straight to verse 3: "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." He began to read the text aloud, fully intending to deliver a humorous message mocking Whitefield's style. But as soon as he read the text aloud, Whitefield's biographer (John Gillies) says,

his mind was affected in a very extraordinary manner. The sharpest pangs of conviction now seized him, and conscience denounced tremendous vengeance upon his soul. In a moment he was favored with a clear view of his subject . . .

And as he began to preach on that text, the whole pub fell silent. Thorpe said later that his mind was filled with sudden insight on that text, he delivered a full sermon on it, not as a burlesque, but with genuine gospel passion.

     The Word of God had pierced John Thorpe's own heart, and when he finished his sermon, he sat down, trembling and broken-hearted. In John Gillies' words, "instead of entertaining the company, [that sermon] spread a visible depression, and [by the time Thorpe finished speaking, there was] a sullen gloom upon every countenance." John Thorpe himself later testified that when he read that text and it gripped his conscience, his hair stood erect. He confessed the truth of the gospel and gave his heart to Christ right there in that pub.

     His aim was to taunt and ridicule, but he accidentally converted himself! Or rather, the power of the Word of God penetrated his soul and cut him to the heart. He became a preacher himself and quite an effective evangelist, because he knew firsthand the power of the Word of God to penetrate hardened hearts.

     Look at the text again. The Word of God pierces to the very depths, "[even] to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." It probes to the deepest recesses of the heart, no matter how hardened or how closed the heart might be. In fact, only Scripture can do that.

     Notice militant this language is. It sounds like the language of armed conflict—swords and cutting, and dividing asunder of the joints and marrow. It's vivid, destructive-sounding language—the language of warfare and devastation. And it is true that sometimes the Word of God pierces hearts as a judgment, without remedy and without any healing.

     But I don't think that's primarily what the writer of Hebrews has in mind. In this context, he is urging his readers to examine themselves, lest they fall away from Christ before they have truly embraced Him with saving faith. He is warning them that it is possible to come close to Christ and yet fall away without entering into His rest—the rest that comes with redemption and the forgiveness of sins.

     Verse 11: "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience." And our verse comes immediately after that admonition: "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword." He wants them to allow the Word of God to cut through their pretensions and their false professions and reveal the true thoughts and intents of their hearts.

     And this is a reminder that there's a painful process involved in regeneration. In Ezekiel 11:19, the Lord describes what is involved in this process, "I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh." Spiritual open-heart surgery.

     This is the very thing that was pictured in the act of circumcision. According to Deuteronomy 10:16, it pictured the cutting away of the foreskin of the heart. Jeremiah 4:4 speaks of it too: "Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts." That's why the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 2:28-29, "No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart."

     That's the very imagery our verse in Hebrews 4 calls to mind. It's the cutting away of that which defiles. Circumcision of the heart. The Word of God is the instrument that makes this possible.

     Painful cutting is often the necessary prerequisite for true and thorough healing. That's what surgery is all about. And that is precisely the ministry the Word of God has in the lives of those who genuinely know Christ. If you have never experienced that painful piercing of the two-edged sword, then you ought to examine yourself to see whether you are really in the faith. Because you cannot possibly know Christ in a true and saving way unless the Word of God has rebuked your sin and cut into your fallen heart and convicted and convinced you of your own desperate need of cleansing and spiritual heart-surgery to deal with your sin.

     And that, I believe, is the very thing the writer of Hebrews is speaking about here. It's a wholly beneficial thing. Although the Word of God is like a sword that cuts deeply and penetrates to the very depths, it is a necessary and beneficial incision that ultimately is designed for our own good. And for those who submit to the Word of God rather than resisting it, the cutting and probing of the two-edged sword always results in salvation, rather than destruction.

     How can that be? you ask. How surgery be done with a sword? Well, that brings us to the third characteristic of God's word in this text. First, the Word of God is powerful. Second, the Word of God is penetrating. Third—


3. The Word of God is Precise

     Notice how this verse describes the ministry of the Word of God as precision surgery, not wanton destruction: "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."

     Now, obviously, surgery is ordinarily done with a scalpel, not a sword. Scalpels are small and precise, and razor sharp—just like the Word of God: "sharper than any twoedged sword." The surgeon uses a scalpel with great care to cut precisely, sometimes dividing fine layers of tissue with remarkable precision.

     That is exactly what is described here. The word of God divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and it is capable of great discrimination. It discerns "the thoughts and intentions of the heart"—something that is not even visible to the human eye.

     We cannot look upon the heart—the innermost part of the human soul. First Samuel 16:7: "man looks on the outward appearance, [only] the LORD looks on the heart."

     Did you know that you cannot even correctly discern the thoughts and intents of your own heart? Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" We are all subject to self-deception and blindness when it comes to judging our own hearts. But the Word of God reveals what is really in our hearts, and it correctly assesses our thoughts and intentions. It shows our motives and our imaginations for what they really are. And that is why it is capable of such precision surgery—even in the deepest recesses of our souls.

     Some people misread this phrase "the division of soul and of spirit" and imagine that this describes two completely separate parts of the immaterial makeup of our beings. I don't believe that's what it is teaching. I realize there are good Bible teachers who teach that man is a tripartite creature, consisting of body, soul, and spirit. But I don't believe there's any biblical warrant for that. Scripture often uses the expressions "soul" and "spirit" interchangeably.

     In biblical terms (Genesis 2:7), "the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." You are a living soul, consisting of a body (your material side), and a spirit (your spiritual side). Various commentators have tried to define all kinds of distinctions between soul and spirit, but when you examine them carefully in light of Scripture, they all fall short. It is difficult to make any meaningful division between soul and spirit, and that is the whole point.

     Just like the "joints and marrow" of your bones and the "thoughts and intentions" of your heart, these things are so inextricably linked that it's impossible to separate them without destroying one or the other. They aren't separate entities that exist apart from each other. They aren't distinct human faculties. There is overlap and interdependence. But the Word of God is precise and exact, and it cuts with painstaking accuracy. It divides what cannot otherwise be divided. It is sharper than any two-edged sword, and yet more precise than any surgeon's scalpel.


     Now, what does all this mean in practical terms? Since we're told in James 1:22 to "be doers of the word, and not hearers only," what is there in this verse that demands action on our part, and how can we put its truth into practice in our daily lives?

     First, and most obviously, remember that this verse simply expands on the command of verse 11: "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience." This is written to warn people who are half-hearted and vacillating in their commitment to Christ. He's urging them to examine themselves, to submit to the probing and penetrating power of God's Word and to let it do its painful work in their hearts. They need to examine their own motives and attitudes by the discerning light of Scripture and face the question of whether they are truly regenerate—whether they have truly entered into that state of spiritual rest Christ offers to all who genuinely trust Him alone for salvation. If they fall, he says, it will be because of unbelief. And the only cure for unbelief is the probing and penetrating ministry of the two-edged sword.

     Second, for those who do know Christ as Lord and Savior, this verse suggests that we should prize and revere the Word of God above every earthly treasure. The Word of God alone can sanctify us and conform us to the image of Christ. Listen to Psalm 19:8-11:

the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;

9 the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.

10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

The psalmist said in Psalm 119:72, "The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces." God's word is a greater treasure than all the wealth of this world.

     Here's a third practical implication of this passage: We ought to revere the Word of God so much that we tremble at its message. It is powerful; it is penetrating; it is precise. There's no room for treating it flippantly or refusing to submit to it. Those who ignore the Word of God or receive it superficially do so at their own eternal peril. We ought to welcome its correction, respond quickly to its reproof, cultivate a thirst for its instruction, and cling to it for wisdom. It accurately discerns the thoughts and intents of our hearts better than we can ourselves. We need to depend on it and submit to it humbly.

     Fourth, when you lack strength or spiritual vitality, you can draw it from the Word of God, which is living and active. When you feel weak or frail, you can gain power from its life-giving energy. When you sense that you are spiritually parched and dry and lacking in spiritual desires, don't avoid the Word of God, but go to it and drink deeply of the water of life it offers. Revitalize yourself with its life and power. Hide it in your heart perpetually, and keep your heart open to it, and you won't have to endure the severe pain that always results when the Word of God has to pierce and cut through a hard and worldly exterior in order to penetrate and reach our hearts.

     And finally, we ought to make better use of the Word of God in our ministry to others. After all, only the Word of God has the powerful, penetrating precision that is necessary to reach and revitalize hearts that are cold and dead because of sin. "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." It's living and powerful, sharp and discerning, and it will not return void.