Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16
In “Glory Days,” Bruce Springsteen sings of that high school baseball player who “could throw that speedball by you.
Make you look like a fool boy.” Not being a gifted baseball player, I dreaded those moments. And my dreams about teaching or preaching in my birthday suit indicate that fear of exposure still runs deep in my psyche.
And yet that’s the image with which this lectionary reading from Hebrews begins–with a disturbing image, not of a speedball, but of the word of God that slices us open for inspection. The opening two verses (4:12-13) describe the power of God’s word.
The writer lists several characteristics of that word. First, it is “living and active” (4:12). The writer frequently describes God as “the living God” (3:12; 9:14; 10:31; 12:22), and here he uses the same adjective to describe God’s word as one that acts and accomplishes the divine will.
Secondly, the divine word penetrates. The writer pictures the word as a sword (compare Isaiah 49:2; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22, 24; 18:15-16; Ephesians 6:17; Revelation 1:16; 2:12; 19:15). No matter how sharp a knife or dagger one might wield, the word of God cuts with even more precision as it reaches our innermost being.
Third, as the word penetrates, it judges our hearts. The role of the heart is a central feature in the sermon against unbelief (3:7–4:13). The writer quotes the psalmist’s warning against hard hearts (3:8, 15; 4:7), for God laments that the wilderness generation went astray in their hearts (3:10). Since our hearts represent who we are as a whole, the condition of our hearts marks our openness to or rejection of God’s voice. Thus the divine word unmasks and makes clear our faithfulness or unbelief.
The following sentence (4:13) also focuses on judgment, but the focus shifts from the divine word that judges to those of us who are judged. Nothing is hidden from the Creator whose scrutiny encompasses all of creation. God sees and knows all, and we stand accountable before God for our response to the divine word. The term “laid bare” comes from the verb “to grip in a neck-hold,” an image that conveys vulnerability and peril. This stress on our exposure and accountability provides a solemn warning for all of us who hear the word of God.
Given this uncomfortable picture of our nakedness before God, we may rightly ask, “Where is the good news in this passage?” Thankfully, the text does not end here. Instead, the writer affirms Jesus’ high priestly ministry to us in our need (4:14-16). That affirmation transforms the warning of the first section. Even though the word of God penetrates and exposes the deepest recesses of our hearts, we should not despair. We must give an account, a word that responds to the divine word. But in our efforts to speak, we are not left alone. There is one who has come to help us, to be our “merciful and faithful high priest” (2:17).
As the Exalted One seated at God’s right hand (1:3, 13), Jesus has passed through the heavens to occupy a place of honor and glory. That status inspires us in moments of discouragement to hold on to our confession, our hope, and our confidence in God and Jesus (3:1; 10:23). We have an advocate in God’s court.
And there is more. Though Jesus occupies this exalted status, he understands our frailty and suffering from the inside. The writer expresses that truth by means of a rhetorically powerful double negative: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). The author thus emphasizes the radical identification of Jesus with us, as he has “become like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (2:17), even in every form of testing. Whatever trial faces us, Jesus has faced that test as well. Therefore he is now “able to help those who are being tested” (2:18).
Knowing that the powerful Son is at the same time the Son who knows our lot gives us new courage. However vulnerable we may be before the eyes of God, we can approach the heavenly throne boldly, knowing we come to a throne of grace where Jesus offers help to those who are tested (2:18).
Thus, as we have seen, this brief but theologically rich selection from Hebrews divides into two parts: a warning and an exhortation to boldness. Discerning the connection between the two parts of this lectionary passage and structuring a sermon that honors the movement of the text is central to the preacher’s task.
Thinking about this two-part movement, I remembered H. H. Farmer’s description of God as absolute claim and final succor. On the one hand, Farmer stressed, God sees and knows the innermost chambers of our human hearts. That places an unparalleled demand on our lives. We must render an account of our response to the divine word. On the other hand, obligation is not the end of the story because God moves with compassion to meet our human weakness and need. That compassion proves God is the trustworthy savior of our lives.1
Hebrews stresses that the Son’s work as high priest joins together these two ideas of claim and succor. As the Exalted One, he participates in the transcendent glory of God. But because the Son also knows our human lot, because he is also a “man of sorrows,” he can connect us to God’s presence and favor. That combination of might and mercy steels our hearts and brings a song of praise to our lips. We do well to sing the words of Philip P. Bliss: “‘Man of Sorrows,’ what a name for the Son of God who came ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah! What a Savior!”
1H. H. Farmer, Revelation and Religion (New York: Harper, 1954), 79.