For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.
Failure to Trust—Failure to Enter God's Rest
Last week we ended with Hebrews 4:11, "Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest [God's restful salvation of forgiveness and hope now, and heaven when we die], lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience." So it's an urgent plea to be earnest and careful so that you don't throw away the offer of God's rest.
The verse says that if we are not diligent to enter God's rest, then we are following an example of disobedience. Whose example? The example of Israel in the wilderness. Hebrews 3:19 says, "And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief." The disobedience that 4:11 is talking about is the disobedience of unbelief—a failure to trust. Don't be like them, the writer says, because their failure to trust kept them out of God's rest. And it will keep you out of God's rest.
Be Diligent to Hear God's Word
Failure to trust what? We saw the answer in Hebrews 4:2, "We have had good news preached to us, just as they also [had good news preached to them]; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard." What they failed to trust was the good news, the Word of God, that was preached to them in the wilderness—the promises of God that he would care for them and give them victory and forgive them and be merciful to them. They didn't believe God. They murmured in their troubles and wanted to turn back to Egypt rather than follow God. This is their unbelief and their disobedience.
Now this is extremely important to see if we are going to understand the link between Hebrews 4:11 and Hebrews 4:12. Let's make sure we have 4:11 clear before us before we make the connection with verse 12. Verse 11 urges us to be diligent to enter God's rest so that we don't fall through the same sort of disobedience the Israelites showed in the wilderness. That disobedience is described in verse 2—they were unbelieving. But let's be very specific. Verse 2 indicates that what they disbelieved was "the good news that was preached to them," or the middle of the verse says: "the word they heard did not profit them, because it did not meet with faith." Mark carefully this focus on the word. The word did not profit them, because they did not believe it.
What verse 11 urges therefore, when it says, "Be diligent to enter that rest," is, "Be diligent to hear the word, the good news, and be diligent to believe in it, to trust the good news, to embrace it and hold to it and be satisfied by it, so that you don't murmur and want to forsake God and go back to the Egypt of sin.
Now we are prepared to see the connection between this verse 11 and verse 12. Be diligent with this word of good news (from verse 2), to hear it and believe it, verse 12: "For the word of God is living and active . . . "
Let's stop here just to make the connection between these two verses plain. Then we will see what verses 12 and 13 say. Verse 12 is giving a reason or a support or a ground for the call to diligence in verse 11. Verse 11 says in essence: Be sure that you know and trust the word of God referred to in verse 2—the good news of God's promises and forgiveness. Then verse 12 says: Yes, and one reason to do this is because this word (the good news referred to in verse 2) is living and active, etc. So today's text is an argument for why we should be so diligent to enter God's rest by hearing and believing God's Word.
The Big Picture
Now let's step back a minute and get the big picture. Some of you are analyzing people and you like to analyze the parts of a text. And some of you are synthesizing people and you like to see the synthesis—the big picture, when it is all put back together again. So listen up, all you synthesizers who like the big picture. There are four stages.
The aim of life, according to this chapter of the book of Hebrews, is to enter God's rest—to be saved from our sin and spend eternity joyfully in God's restful presence. That's the great goal of life—and to lovingly take as many people there with us as we can (which is why this author wrote the letter!).
To enter this great and joyful rest we must trust God. Verse 3: "We who have believed enter that rest." So the utterly indispensable means of getting to heaven is believing God. Trusting him.
To believe God, to trust him, we must hear his Word. We must hear the good news. We must know the promises that he makes for us to believe. That's why verse 2 is so definite about this matter: "For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also." If they, or if we, didn't have the good news preached to us, then we would not be able to believe the Word of God. So this stage is utterly crucial. The Word of God, the good news, the promises of God, have been preached to us. This is what makes faith possible.
Finally, we must now be diligent lest we give way to unbelief. This is the front-burner issue for the book of Hebrews.
- Hebrews 2:1, "Pay much close attention to what [you] have heard"—the Word.
- Hebrews 3:1, "Consider Jesus, the Apostle . . . of our confession"—Apostle = the one who speaks the Word.
- Hebrews 3:12, "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart"—a heart not hearing and believing the Word.
- Hebrews 3:15, "Today if you hear his voice [his Word], do not harden your hearts."
So now we can see the burden of this book in the light of the big picture.
- The great aim is that we will enter into God's rest and enjoy his restful fellowship.
- The great means to get there is trusting him.
- The focus of our trust is his Word, his promises, his good news (as it's called in 4:2).
- To keep on believing the promises of God we must be diligent, pay attention, consider, take care, and not harden our hearts. In other words the pathway to heaven is a path of unremitting focus and earnestness and vigilance toward the Word of God.
About the Word
Now the point of today's text (Hebrews 4:12–13) is to help us do that by telling us about this Word. Be diligent, verse 11 says, because (verse 12 says) the Word of God is . . . And then it tells us about this Word.
So let's read again what it says about this Word. Verse 12:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Now I am tempted to take every word here and probe into why it is used. Like, why mention joints and bone marrow? And what's the difference between spirit and soul? And what precisely is the difference between thoughts and intentions? And do the words "living and active" perhaps correspond to any of these other pairs: spirit-soul, joints-marrow, thoughts-intentions? Is the "heart" (mentioned at the end of the verse) different from the soul and spirit? And so on. These are good questions and they are worth meditating on for hours.
But this morning I don't want to lose the forest for the trees. I wonder if we couldn't all agree on this much from verse 12: one of the functions of the Word of God when it comes into us is that it penetrates very deep—like a sword through tough, hard layers—and makes judgments about what's there.
The word "judge" in verse 12 ("to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart") does not mean "condemn." It means "assess." When we show somebody a painting and say, "What's your judgment?" we don't mean, "What's your condemnation?" We mean, "What's your assessment of the quality? Is it good or bad?" So the Word of God penetrates to the deepest place in our lives and assesses what's there. Is it good or bad?
Eternity Is at Stake
But now let's be more specific. What's really at stake in these chapters? What's at stake is entering into God's rest. Eternity is at stake. And the way to enter that rest is faith, or belief, or trust in God's promises. The great danger in these chapters is not just bad thoughts. The great danger is unbelieving thoughts. Hebrews 3:19: "They could not enter because of unbelief."
So what we need is protection from unbelief. Day in and day out we need to fight unbelief in the promises of God. It's unbelief that will keep us out of God's rest. That's what's at stake in the call for diligence in verse 11 and that's why the Word of God in verse 12 is so critical for us. The Word of God penetrates to the bottom of all our defenses and deceptions and exposes belief or unbelief. It assess our thoughts and intentions as to whether they are believing thoughts and intentions or unbelieving. Are we trusting the promises of God or aren't we?
Are We Trusting God's Promises?
This is what I need help with. This is what I am desperate for in my life. For example, this week, I had two or three very difficult telephone calls to make—the kind I do not like to make. They involved disagreement. They were the kind of calls that feel like a no-win situation. If you go one way, you will compromise your integrity or the truth. If you go another way, you will almost surely be misunderstood and disapproved. So you struggle and agonize over whether to call and what to say and which way to go.
And in those moments the most important thing is this: am I trusting God? Or am I subtly beginning to put my faith in compromise, or half-truths, or expediency? And all the while I know that I am utterly fallible and prone to self-justification and liable to deception, so that I may think I am walking by faith when I am, perhaps, in fact becoming callous to the truth and slipping into unbelief in the promises of God.
So what should I do? At least two things. One is to immerse myself in the Word of God with prayer. The other is to email my small group. So I read my Bible. I prayed. And I sent out a plea for counsel to Tom Steller and David Michael and Brad Nelson and Erv Mickelberg and Chuck Morris. Within 24 hours I had four brotherly exhortations, rooted in God's Word. With those, and the encouragement of my wife, and the effect of the Word, I made the calls and I believe I acted by faith in future grace.
Now what was really happening here? Look at Hebrews 3:12–13.
Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called "Today," lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
The Deceiving Power of Sin
Notice three things here.
- In verse 12 the danger day in and day out is that an evil, unbelieving heart would lead us away from God. Unbelief is the issue. The issue is failure to trust God's promises.
- Then (in verse 13) notice that something like small groups is essential: "Encourage one another day after day." So you get your small group involved. You need their help. Why?
- That's the third thing: the way our hearts become unbelieving (verse 12) is by being "hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (verse 13). We need help to keep from being deceived by sin. How are we going to be rescued from the deceiving power of sin? How can small groups help? How can we help?
That's what today's text in Hebrews 4:12 is meant to answer. The Word of God is living and active and penetrates to the bottom of our lives and rips the pleasant mask off the ugly face of sin. The only reason anybody sins is because at some level they are (culpably) deceived. They start believing the lies of sin instead of the promises of God.
Sin whispers through the desires of the flesh and the rationalizations of the mind, your only hope of future happiness is to have an abortion. It whispers that you will not have a chance in the future if you don't cheat on this test. It says that you won't be noticed and liked if you don't dress provocatively. It says you will lose the one person who seems to care for you if you don't compromise your sexual standards. It says you won't have job security if you speak up about the dishonest practices at work. It says your life will be wasted in this relationship if you don't get a divorce. It says that only a fool would go on looking weak instead of getting some kind of revenge.
Every one of those statements is a lie. It's what Hebrews 3:13 calls "the deceitfulness of sin." Now those lies sometimes lodge themselves very deep in the heart as thoughts and intentions that seem unshakably true because of the hardness of deception that encloses them like a dark, sealed casket. In that condition unbelief has the upper hand. We are not believing in the promises of God, we are trusting in the promises of sin. And we are in mortal danger of becoming so hard that repentance will become impossible (Hebrews 6:6), and heaven will have been thrown away for the sake of a few fleeting pleasures, like an inheritance sold for a bowl of stew (Hebrews 12:16).
How Will We Escape the Deceit of Sin?
What is our only hope? Our only hope is that there is something sharp enough and powerful enough to penetrate through all the deception and shed light on my thoughts and intentions. And that's what our text is about in Hebrews 4:12. The Word of God is our only hope. The good news of God's promises and the warnings of his judgment are sharp enough and living enough and active enough to penetrate to the bottom of my heart and show me that the lies of sin are indeed lies.
Abortion will not create a wonderful future for me. Neither will cheating, or dressing provocatively, or throwing away my sexual purity, or keeping quiet about dishonesty at work, or divorce, or vengeance. And what rescues me from this deception is the Word of God. The Word of God's promise is like throwing open a great window of bright morning sun on the shiny-back roaches of sin masquerading as satisfying pleasures in our hearts.
In other words, I see Hebrews 4:12 as a tremendous encouragement coming after verse 11. Be diligent to enter God's rest by fighting off the disobedience of unbelief. Why? Because (verse 12) God has given you his good news (verse 2), his promises, his Word to protect you from the deep deceptions of sin that try to harden the heart and lure it away from God and lead it to destruction. Be of good cheer in your battle to believe. Because the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and it will penetrate deeper than any deception of sin has ever gone and reveal what is truly valuable and what is truly worth trusting.
And so we end this message at a point of crisis. You have heard the Word of God. Much has been exposed to your own conscience this morning. And now as verse 13 says, "no one is hidden from God's sight; but all things are open and laid bare before his eyes." His gaze is upon you. What will you do with what he has exposed, and what he now is watching?
I hope the answer is: turn from the deceptive promises of sin, and trust in the all-satisfying promises of God.