May 21, 2017
Hebrews 4:12 is one of those great “go-to” verses of the Christian faith, to which we all appeal when we speak about the nature and power of the Bible:
“The Word of God is living and active — sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
And it rightfully is held dear to our hearts — a reminder that we cannot avoid the word of God and we cannot disobey it with impunity — there are no secrets from God. The word penetrates that deeply and there is no sin that it does not expose.
Joined with 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (speaking of the profitability of the Scriptures to prepare us for every good work), we have a practical theology of the Scriptures just in two little passages.
And this is the reason that we emphasize the scriptures so much in our worship and for the Christian life…
— From our Call to Worship, which is scripture about the character and works of God that is meant to drive us to worship…
— To our Invocation, a portion from a prayer in the Bible designed to prepare our hearts for worship…
— to the Way of Salvation, which are instructions in the scripture on how to live the Christian life — properly read by the Elders, who are the church’s spiritual overseers, and to which you are called to listen intently so that you can carefully practice such things in your life.
— similarly, when the Councilmen prepare you to give your offerings, they bring the scriptures to bear, reminding you of the Biblical command to be generous and cheerful in your offerings that they genuinely reflect a grateful heart to God.
— When we arrive at the Pastoral Prayer, we bring an admonition from the lips of Jesus, chosen to prepare our hearts to confess our sinful shortcomings.
— And the sermon itself is an explanation of God’s word so that we might understand it better, that we might understand God’s character and purposes, and then apply them to our individual lives in word and action.
— Even the praise songs and hymns we sing are largely based on a passage of scripture and we also sing the word of God itself in the form of metrical psalms.
Scripture, Scripture, Scripture — it is the inerrant and infallible word of God and it has the power to tear your soul asunder and convict you of your sins — and then to build you back up again into a man or woman of God.
It is my greatest wish for each of you that you would find yourself so in love with God’s word that you just cannot put it down when you have picked it up and when you are not reading it because of other commitments in your life, you are thinking about it and even, that when you lay down to sleep, it would order your dreams at night. My prayer is that this Word would become so much a part of you that it would be your very life-blood because nothing else will transform your life as this Bible will.
And that is why we fill our worship with Scripture and then encourage you to read your Bibles daily and as much as you can, doing so with devotions (written and online), reading plans, explanations of scripture and other resources to facilitate that in your life.
That’s the importance of the Word of God and that is my most important task — to take you to God’s word and to help explain it so the you can apply it to your life.
Having said all of that, my concern is that we often pull this one verse out of its context and treat it as if it were a stand-alone statement about God’s word and not as part of the warning that the author of Hebrews means it to be. Remember the broader context — the purpose of Hebrews is to teach us how to understand the Old Testament in the light of Christ. That Jesus is better than all of the Jewish institutions because these institutions are meant to prefigure Jesus.
And as we arrive in chapters 3&4 there is a parallel established between Old Testament Israel in the Wilderness and the New Testament Church — also in the wilderness, in the “In-Between” between what has already been done but which has yet to be fulfilled. And this warning is given to us as Christians so that we examine our hearts lest we too fall away as so many of the Israelites did while they were in the wilderness.
So with this idea in mind, we arrive at these words:
“Therefore, we should be especially conscientious…”
— that’s my translation. Some read: “Strive” or “be diligent” or “make every effort”
“Therefore, we should be especially conscientious to enter that rest” — recalling that the language of Rest for Israel meant the Promised Land and parallels for the church with heaven and the new creation. So, why should we be conscientious?
“in order that no one may fall into that pattern (or example) of disobedience.”
In other words, whose example will you follow? Israel’s or Christ’s. And just to remind you of the rebellion of the Israelites in the wilderness:
— There was the health-wealth crowd complaining that God was not providing enough food and meat in the wilderness of sin and Massah and Meribah. (Exodus 16-17)
— There was the crowd that would put Coexist bumper-stickers on their donkeys who pleaded with Aaron to make them a god, any god, to worship, which brought about the golden calf (Exodus 32)
— There was the Emergent Church in Nadab and Abihu who thought that obedience to God in worship was optional and so they invented their own version of the incense lighting ceremony (Leviticus 10)
— There was the hands-off parent that did not want to train up her son in the faith, but just to let him make his own decision when he was old enough to do so — a decision that brought about his death (Leviticus 24)
— There were the socialists who complained that everything in Egypt was free and in the wilderness they had to work for what they ate (Numbers 11)
— There were power-struggles within the family when Moses’ older brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, wanted to share in the honor of their little brother (Numbers 12)
— There were the cultural cowards that didn’t want to engage against the Canaanites because they felt overpowered (Numbers 13)
— There were those who sought to divide the body (Numbers 16)
— Those impatient with God’s ways and timing (Numbers 21)
— Those who sought to introduce immoral practices amongst the people, intermarrying with Moabites (Numbers 25)
— And then there are just the Cultics — or Mystics — in the world who just need to be rebuked by a donkey (Numbers 22-24)
The repetition of these events can be wearisome, but I couched them in this way because while the times have changed and we are no longer walking in the wilderness literally, we have the same kinds of influences and challenges within the church. Thus, the author of Hebrews challenges us to make a choice: whose example will you follow?
For if we follow the example of the people if Israel, of complaining, distrusting God, idolatry, infighting, worldliness, and human ingenuity over Biblical faithfulness, we will find that we too will be under the judgment of God just as those who died in the wilderness were.
And then, in this context, we find the Word of God being spoken of as a two-edged sword, for if we do not follow the example of Christ, God will use the Word to destroy us (both individually and as a church body). I wonder than, if this might be the reason that so few Americans read their Bibles regularly or carefully. And perhaps, too, it is the reason that so many churches are Biblically and theologically shallow, putting their heads in the sand in the hopes that God will just overlook their sins…but God does not work that way.
But let us not stop there, for this is also why it is so important that the men who serve on the church council be Biblically mature and equipped to engage with areas in the life of the church that are unBiblical — or to borrow from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:14), to prevent the church from being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, and by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
And this word not only reveals our actual sins, but also the intentions of our heart that motivate our sin…which may be the most intimidating aspect of all!
“And there is not a created thing that is hidden from it, but all are stripped naked and laid bare before his eyes — to whom we must give account.”
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:10
“For we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, good or evil.”
And John writes in Revelation 20:11
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence the earth and sky fled away an don place was found for them…”
Nothing is hidden from the sight of God. And if we really understood…or believed that, I believe that our actions would often be very different than the ones we take, whether in church, in school, at work, or in the community — especially at those times when no humans are watching.
As you go about your day, before you take this action — doesn’t matter what it is, good or bad, action “X” — ask yourself, would I want Jesus physically standing next to me, or sitting in the seat beside me, while I said that or did that? Would he be honored or dishonored?
Or put it in this way, if Jesus were to come again, right in the middle of action “X”, would I want Jesus to find me doing this? If not, don’t do it.
My mother used to say that if you wouldn’t want something that you said or did to show up on the front page of tomorrows newspaper for everyone in the congregation to read…don’t do it.
Or ask yourself, if I were to die right in the middle of said action, how would I be remembered? And if I don’t want people to remember me in this way, just don’t do it.
But, lest I reduce this application of the text to a simple matter of morality and say, “just behave yourselves!” — because while Christianity is moral, being moral does not make you a Christian — and there will be many moral people who will be found in the fires of Hell in the last days — let me ask you this: What are the intentions of your heart that lay behind the actions you take? If your intention is to glorify God — well and good. But if anything else, it is sin.
But how will you know how to glorify God? That can only be discovered in the Word of God and in obedience to its precepts and commands…which leads up back to where we started: immerse yourselves in the Bible — gorge your soul on the Word of God. It is truth and it will guide you into living for God’s glory and not for your own.