A Most Misapplied “Word”

All of my life I have heard preachers proclaim lessons about the value of the Scriptures and point to Hebrews 4:12 as a proof-text. Most people familiar with the New Testament are at least vaguely familiar with this verse as the writer proclaims, “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” We have often heard lessons revealing what the writer meant when writing these things about the Scriptures and how they impact us. However, the more I have read and studied this passage, the more I am convinced we have been misapplying the emphasis of the passage and the one to whom it really relates. Let us make a deeper examination of the text and I believe you may come to a different conclusion than we have generally heard.

Consider the context. The context for the statement in Hebrews 4:12 goes all the way back to chapter 3:1-3. There the writer proclaims, “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus; Who was faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house. For this man was counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who hath builded the house hath more honour than the house.” The writer then proclaims the necessity of following after the head of the house: Jesus (Vs. 6). He then gives a comparative example of the Israelites of Moses’ day and how they were not willing to remain with God, but because of their unbelief they were rejected from entry into the promised land. He concludes the point in chapter 4:11 when he writes, “Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.”

The context very clearly states this is a discussion about Jesus and our relationship with him; nowhere in the context are the Scriptures as a whole the primary emphasis.

Consider the descriptions. Verse 12 is, in reality, the answer to the question of why we need to labor and not fall into unbelief. “For,” the verse begins, meaning “reason given;” “the word of God is:” the following will be descriptions of the word of God. We know that there are other passages of Scripture (cf. John 1:1-3) wherein Jesus is referenced as “the Word.” Consider these descriptions and whether they better apply, both contextually and descriptively, to the Scriptures or Jesus.

The word of God is quick. The word translated “quick” is the Greek word zao meaning “alive, living.” The meaning is not that the word of God is fast, but alive. Many have argued that this is a description of the living nature of the Scriptures and that it is not a dead letter that is useless. While such arguments are valid from other passages of Scripture, remember the context is about Jesus our high priest (3:1; 4:14ff), the word made flesh (John 1:14). This description is a pertinent reminder about the living Christ. He is not dead, but has been raised from the dead and lives and reigns over his church (Phi. 2:8-11; Eph. 1:20-23).

The word of God is powerful. The word “powerful” is translated from the Greek word energes, from which we get our English word “energy,” and it means “to be active.” This has been used to teach that the Bible has the ability to be active in man’s life if he will let it. Such is true, but again does not fit the context of the discussion. Instead, it is a far better fit if it is understood to be teaching that the resurrected Savior is active with his people today. He is the High Priest, he is not just living, but working and taking an active part in the body he died to create. He is concerned, caring, and acting on behalf of his people.

The word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword. This is often applied to the sharpness of the Scriptures to convict man, and such it does. However, the description here is not of a sword (i.e. Eph. 6:17; Rev. 1:16), but that the word of God is “sharper than” a two-edged sword. It is a statement of comparison. Our Lord has the ability to cut us off spiritually, not just physically (see Mat. 10:28, 32-33).

The word of God is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. This aspect is probably the most problematic description of “the word” in trying to apply it to the Scriptures. The word “discerner” is from the Greek kritikos and means “capable of making a decision, discerning, able to judge” (Rogers and Rogers). This would then require that the Scriptures be actively able to judge our hearts. The text does not say that the word of God “reveals” our heart, but that it is capable of making a decision of judgment on the thoughts and intents of the heart. I know of no book that can make a judgment, but a living, decisive being can. Jesus is already shown to have such discerning power (John 2:24-25). It is he who will judge both our deeds and our hearts (Acts 17:31; 2 Cor. 5:10). Our Lord knows not just what we do, but our thoughts and intentions as we do them.

Consider the personal pronouns. In verse 13, the writer continues by stating: “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” Continuing his description of the “word” he says there is not any creature that can hide from his sight. The word for “creature” is from the Greek word meaning “creation.” There is nothing of his creation that is not seen by him. Notice, the word is not the neuter “its” as it would be if referencing a thing, but is the masculine “his” used in reference to masculinity. It is used, not once but twice in this verse, and the second time is even more enlightening. The ESV records the latter part of the verse this way, “but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” This is a better rendering of the original Greek text and emphasizes that the “word” is referencing “him to whom we must give account.”

The evidence is overwhelming that the writer of Hebrews was not intending to emphasize the Scriptures in verses 12-13, but instead the one who gave them; the high priest and Savior of mankind: The Word. Someone may ask why it really matters; the answer is quite simple. We are to handle God’s Word correctly (2 Tim. 2:15), we are to use it as intended and treat it with the respect it deserves because it is his book. Therefore, we must make every endeavor to ensure that we apply each passage as it was intended, placing the emphasis of Scripture where God placed it, so that we never leave room for any man to question our motives or our desire to use God’s Word correctly.

The principles concerning Scripture that we hear from this passage are biblical, and can be proven from multiple other texts throughout Scripture. Let us use those passages for their proper points, and not take out of context a passage that is not intended to teach those things. 

3 Comments

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3 responses to “A Most Misapplied “Word”

  1. John

    We like to find principles in passages that have application elsewhere. Perhaps that’s what has been done here; after all, as you mentioned in your final paragraph, the applications of these characteristics to the Bible are true and can be established from elsewhere.

    The trouble we run into sometimes is that we look for the principles and applications first and forget to make sure that this is what is truly intended in the context.

    Lest anybody doubts me on that point: try studying the Parables with a class full of adults. People can become so interested in showing how something in the parable applies to today that it can be difficult to get to the: “What was Jesus trying to teach when He said this?”

    If we can discipline ourselves to put first things first we’ll greatly reduce the likelihood of unintentionally abusing Scripture…but that kind of discipline takes a lot of work and an ongoing commitment. In other words: it’s not easy.

    Thanks for your thoughts on the passage. It is good to stop and (re)consider such things.

  2. Cheryl Cozort

    Thanks for your insightful study. Mom

  3. Daniel R.

    I just happened upon this during an online search – and wow! This is some great analysis and I find myself persuaded and feeling blessed with new understanding. The traditional interpretation of the passage you cite, and which I am familiar with, never felt quite right. To see clearly now that Jesus is being poetically described here as “the Word” and is thus the subject of this verse fills me with wonder and awe. It is obvious to me that our Risen Lord is active and at work in His body today. We don’t know a Jesus that merely walked the earth some 2000 years ago in ancient history; indeed, the Word made flesh still lives, and He reigns among (and, at times, in spite of) us even to this very day! And here now I see a beautiful passage that presents this fact clearly to us that we may continue to humbly and seriously trust in Him and His activity in us. Bravo!

    I am going to be looking toward my Savior with greater reverence because of your faithful work here in rightly dividing the scriptures. I will also be watching my own thoughts and behavior more carefully, prayerfully, and openly as a result. And clearly, that is the reaction this passage was intended to cause in us. Reading it the other way may give someone undue liberty to think of the scriptures as a powerful tool in their own hands. Such thinking may lead a person, and especially a church leader, into making it their personal crusade to root out unbelief in the church. Certainly, we must help each other maintain and grow in our commitment to Christ; but humility is so key. We must never forget that while we are using the Scriptures to whatever end, Jesus is watching. And He is certainly not doing so passively! So thank you again for this post.

    I would add that your interpretation is heavily supported by the book of Revelation (e.g. Rev. 1:16; esp. 2:12, 16; 19:15,21), where we see imagery of a sharp sword associated exclusively with Jesus. Interestingly, the concept of God’s ability to “cut off” are communicated outside the passages discussed so far but with slightly different imagery; note Isaiah 11:4, 30:33; also 2 Thessalonians 2:8. To me, all this underscores your point even more.

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