12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (literally: with whom to us [is] the word). 14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast the confession. 15 For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
For the author of Hebrews, the central understanding of what it means to be a Christian is to be one who puts her trust in Christ. I am sure that his readers would have readily agreed with this definition. But while they most likely got the “definition” correct, they did not have a clear grasp of what it means to live by faith in Jesus. For various reasons, they were tempted to put their trust in other places in addition to Jesus. But when they, or we, turn to other people or things in which to place our trust, we actually take a step away from Jesus.
The author is showing his readers how the inadequacy of our trust is directly proportional to the inadequacy of our understanding of Jesus Christ, and therefore of the triune God. To feed their faith, the author focuses on the wonderful person and work of Jesus, the gracious and faithful love of the triune God as revealed in Jesus. The God who is, the author tells us at the beginning of his letter, is the God who speaks, who reveals Himself in addressing His creation. Ultimately God does not choose to continue to speak through His prophets, but speaks most fully and completely by entering His creation himself in His Son. And what we learn in Jesus, what the author wants his readers to carefully consider, is that God speaks in order to give Himself to us in relationship, to make us, His creatures, into His sons and daughters, children of His heart.
In the section previous to the one we are looking at today, the author issued a warning to his readers not to resist the grace of God like the generation that God had redeemed from slavery in Egypt. He ends this warning with the command to deliberately strive to enter the rest that God is giving us.
Now the author ultimately grounds this command in the person and work of Jesus. Jesus is the living word, our great high priest who has gone on our behalf into the presence of His Father so that we can “draw near to the throne of grace.” We can enter and remain in the presence and rest of God because God in Christ enters into our very lives to transform and heal us and to take us to the Father. Let’s take a look at the passage itself.
First of all, the author talks about the living word of God. Most translations line up the adjectives together—the word of God is living and active and sharper. So, often this passage is thought to primarily refer to the Bible. But in the Greek, living is the first word in the sentence and so has a different emphasis that the other two adjectives, active and sharper. “Living is the word of God, active and sharp!” It is the living word of God that is active and sharper than a sword. While putting it this way doesn’t exclude God’s written word (for example, he mentions at the beginning of this letter God speaking to the men of old) I believe that the author is primarily referring to Jesus, the Living Word that God has spoken by to us in these last days (1: ). His focus throughout this book has been entirely on the triune God as He is known in Jesus, our great high priest. He returns to his discussion of the priesthood of Jesus in the following section with the words, “since then we have a great high priest…” So all this points to the Living Word being Jesus.
The author begins this section with the word “for” and so connects it immediately with the preceding section. We are to strive to enter God’s rest because His living word, or personal address to us, is active and effective to work in our lives. Notice the warning that precedes this section, the author tells his readers to take care lest they develop an unbelieving heart that leads them to fall away “from the living God” (3:12). The God that we know in Jesus is not a dead God, an absent God, or a disinterested God. We can strive to enter God’s rest, because God in His word is actively at work in us to transform us and make us able to live continually in His rest.
This passage is good news! Unfortunately, I think we are tempted to think that this is a warning. We may fear that the point here is that we can’t hide from God—He will find us out. And yes, the author states that “before him no creature is hidden” And if you don’t want God to be able to see into your deepest secrets, then this will feel more like a warning. But I think the author’s main intention is to encourage his readers. “Take heart!” he is saying. “God’s address to us is not a dead word, but is living and always at work. And don’t worry, there is no place in you that He cannot reach with his word to redeem and heal.” Think of it this way. What if you had cancer, and it had spread to several organs. Wouldn’t it be great it there was an instrument the doctor could use, that could separate every cancer cell from every place they were attached? And this instrument was so precise that it could divide down to joint and marrow.
Remember that earlier in the letter we are told that God’s purpose in sending Jesus to us is to bring “many sons to glory” and Jesus is described as the pioneer of our salvation (2:10). Jesus, who sanctifies is one with us that are being sanctified (2:11). I think these verses are what the author has in mind when he speaks here of the work of the living word of God. In His sanctifying work, He is able to enter into to all our thoughts, memories, anxieties, resentments, ugly sin. We are not just to be declared new, but truly made new—from the inside out. How wonderful that we can’t keep anything hidden from God. If we could, how could we ever completely live in His rest?
The nature of this living word is that He is active, He is fully able to do a complete work in us, and He is sees us better than we can see ourselves. That is the nature of this word. I include the literal translation of the last phrase in 4:13. The author repeats the Greek word logos, translated “word” in verse _____, but left untranslated in this later verse. It is a difficult phrase to translate and there are differing opinions on what the author is getting at. I don’t think it is insignificant that the author repeats logos here. The verse literally reads “all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom to us [is] the word.” This one who is the living word of God to us, He is the One who clearly sees us is how I would translate it. The word in a way “reads” us, interprets us, helps us see our selves and see what God will do to sanctify us by that very word.
The author follows his description of the living word by continuing his earlier discussion of Jesus as our high priest. He continues to focus his readers’ gaze on the incredible person and work of Christ. We’ll look first at what he tells them here about Jesus and then at the two imperatives that he gives. First he calls Jesus a great high priest “who has passed through the heavens.” This may seem at first like a strange phrase. What could the author mean? Well, it is connected with the image of Jesus as our great high priest.
Remember the high priest was the one who entered the holy of holies. This was the innermost place in the tabernacle (or temple) and was understood to be the very throne room of God. This is where God dwelt with His people. But He was both with them and separate. The Israelites were reminded of the complete otherness and holiness of this God who had drawn near to dwell with them. A heavy curtain hung between the holy of holies and the rest of the tabernacle. Only the high priest could enter the holy of holies and he could do this only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. He had to go through special preparations before he could pass beyond the curtain, to stand in the very presence of God on behalf of all of Israel. Jesus, our great high priest, who became like us and suffered death for us and our sins, has now not just passed through the curtain in the tabernacle, but through the heavens to the very presence of God, not only as “the Son of God”, but as Jesus, our true brother, on of us.
Now, in his description of Jesus, our author turns to this high priest’s ability to sympathize with our weaknesses. This one who has passed through the heavens is not one who stands over or above us, helping at a distance, with no real knowledge of what our lives are like. No, He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, because “in every respect [He] has been tempted as we are.”
In English we often think of the word “sympathize” in terms of “feeling sorry for” or “pity,” but the Greek word is much stronger than this idea. It literally means “to suffer the same suffering with or alongside.” This kind of sympathy comes from a full acquaintance with the seriousness of the situation (Kittel). Jesus knows our particular weaknesses and suffers with us, takes on our suffering and makes it His own to heal us from the inside out. Far from distancing Himself from our sins and brokenness, God, in Jesus, comes all the way to us and shares our weaknesses.
He has been tempted in all the ways we are, the author tells us. Clearly, though, they are our temptations and sins because He does this without any sin Himself. He has grabbed a hold of our actual fallen humanity, our actual sins and temptations and atoned for it all, passing through the heavens having now healed and redeemed us. This is our great high priest! This reminds me of the stunning earlier verse, “That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (2:11).
So, in light of all of this, what does the author tell his readers to do? First, he encourages them to “hold fast the confession.” Confession means “to say with” and means to be in agreement with someone or something. The readers had confessed, agreed, that Jesus is indeed the Son of God and our great high priest, but they are tempted not to continue to live as if it were true or real. The author wants them to understand that by looking at angels or the Old Testament regulations as other “keys” to living well or rightly, that they were no longer holding fast to their confession, to their trust in the completeness and goodness of God’s work in Jesus.
The second command is, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” What are we to do with our understanding of the living word of God who is our great high priest? We are to draw near. Because God in Christ has drawn so very near to us, we can now draw near to Him, with confidence. And do you see where we are to draw near?—to the throne of grace. Remember that the ark in the holy of holies was thought to be God’s throne. So with Jesus as our high priest, we ourselves can now “go behind the curtain” and be in the very presence of God. Amazing! And we do not approach in a cringing, fearful way. We come with confidence. In other words we go as if we belonged there, because with Jesus as one of us, we do belong there.
We draw near so that we can receive grace and mercy to help in time of need. So, what is the reason the author tells us that the living word is active and sharp and can divide between bone and marrow? Why does he emphasis that nothing is hid from this word? And why does he remind them that the glorified high priest is the one who understands our temptations and sympathizes with us?--So that they will run to the throne of grace to receive mercy and grace. We don’t approach God because we don’t need grace, but quite the opposite. So where does our confidence come from? How can we be confident that God desires us to draw near to Him so that we can receive His help over and over again (the verb is present tense and so denotes continually drawing near)?
Our confidence lies completely in the character and work of God Himself. God speaks to us in His Son, coming to us, grabbing a hold of our fallen, sinful humanity so that, amazingly enough, we can always draw near and know that He will graciously and mercifully help us. He intends to make us His sons and daughters, who share in His real glory as children of his with Jesus as our actual real flesh and blood brother. Knowing us better than we know ourselves, the triune God is committed to making us fully who we are created to be in and through our Great High Priest.