Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16
Hebrews 4:12-16 falls into two parts. Verses 12-13 in their context form a postscript to the argument of 3:7 – 4:11, providing extra motivation for the exhortation of 4:11.
However, they also make sense on their own, and verse 12 is widely quoted by itself. Verses 14-16 begin a section that spans all the way through chapter 10, focusing on Jesus as high priest. The verses here can well be termed a thesis for the larger section, presenting the key ideas about Jesus as high priest and stating the exhortation the author sees resulting from these ideas.
The phrase “the word of God” in verse 12 is not a direct reference to written scripture but refers to God’s active proclamation and revelation. God’s active speaking was an important part of the argument of Hebrews 3:7 – 4:11, and that active sense carries through to here. Scripture is certainly included in the reference, as the quote of Psalm 95 in chapter 3 indicates, but “the word of God” is not merely a designation for scripture.
God’s word here is not said to be read to provide guidance or instruction, but rather it pierces the human being like a sword, not for the purpose of slaying but to “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Verse 13 reinforces this sense of the word’s penetrating power. Before God we are “naked and laid bare.” The power of the word is such that we lie completely exposed to God’s scrutiny. Psalm 139 can well be used to expound on this: “You discern my thoughts from far away…Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”
The metaphor of God’s word as a sword is by no means unique to this passage, though it perhaps pushes the metaphor further than anywhere else. Ephesians 6:17 includes the “sword of the Spirit” as the word of God among the armor Christians are to wear. Revelation pictures the glorified Christ with a sword coming out of his mouth (1:16; 2:12; 19:15, 21), and the connection to judgment there is even stronger than it is in Hebrews. At the forefront of the image in our passage is the penetrating action of the sword, action making known to God the deepest parts of our beings. The combined imagery of this penetrating action and judgment is what makes the sword metaphor so apt for picturing God’s word.
Hebrews 2:17 first introduced the idea of Christ being a high priest, but it is here in 4:14 that this role begins to be explained. Our passage focuses on the implications of the high priest designation, its justification as a role not being given until chapter 5. The idea that Jesus as high priest has “passed through the heavens” may sound strange to many readers, but it is an essential component of Jesus’ high priestly identity.
It refers to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (the plural of “heavens” is typical in the Bible, denoting the idea of there being layers in the supernatural realm, seen in such places as 2 Corinthians 12:2), and it is only through these events that it was possible for Christ to have become a high priest. Jesus could not have been an earthly priest due to his Jewish tribal identity, as places like 7:14 and 8:4 make clear. It is by virtue of his exaltation to God’s right hand that he holds this role (see, e.g., 8:1), and the fact that he operates as high priest in heaven is what establishes his priesthood as superior to the earthly ones (8:5-6).
Hebrews 4:15 emphasizes Jesus’ ability to identify with human weakness, an ability resulting from his own human status. This ties in the argument of chapter 2 that it is Jesus’ human status, including his having experienced suffering and death, that enables him to save humankind. Thus while it is important that Jesus is at God’s right hand in heaven, it is equally important that Jesus is human. Since he has himself faced the full spectrum of temptations, he does not judge us harshly.
This is the conclusion drawn out in verse 16. We may approach him “with boldness,” expecting to receive mercy and grace. Indeed, his very throne is described as a “throne of grace.” Here we may tie in verses 12-13, for while our whole beings are exposed to God — we can hide nothing — this is cause not for despair but for hope.
The brief reference in verse 15 that Jesus was fully tempted, “yet without sin,” often strikes readers’ notice. This idea is often stated in the New Testament (see, e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Here it serves no major function in the point of the passage but puts a limit on the extent to which Jesus identifies with us. It is important in Hebrews, however, since Jesus could not have been the perfect heavenly high priest if he was tainted with sin; in other words, his sinlessness is yet another way in which we see his superiority compared to the earthly priests.
Thinking more broadly theologically, it is also important that Jesus’ status as a human did not necessarily entail a status of sin. Being human does not in itself imply being sinful, not in God’s original design. On the contrary, sin is a perversion of God’s intention for humanity. Thus when Hebrews speaks in 2:10 of Jesus bringing his brothers and sisters to glory, we can confidently have faith that our ultimate destiny is one without sin, too. While now we must struggle with sin (12:4), perfection is part of our end design, the fulfillment of God’s promises (11:39-40).
The ultimate encouragement we are to receive from all this is stated at the end of verse 14: “Let us hold fast to our confession.” There should be no greater encouragement to us as Christians than that of the mercy and grace God promises to us, mercy and grace that are based on Christ having loved us enough to identify with us to the point of suffering and death.