Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16
The Epistle to the Hebrews is often a study in contrasts, and Hebrews 4:12-16 is no exception.
In a passage that sets a chilling warning immediately before a great comfort, it is God and the audience’s relationship with him that unites the disparate sections. He, ever judge, can also be experienced as the giver of grace.
The terrifying word
Hebrews 4:12 and 13 are the culmination of the warning the author has been articulating since the third chapter of this sermon (3:7ff). He desires that his listeners do not replicate the lack of trust displayed by the generation of Israelites who had to wander in the wilderness. God still holds out a place of rest (4:9) if the contemporary descendants of Abraham (2:16) will only keep their hearts tender and free from sin.
Whereas vs. 12 is so easily quotable and applicable to all of Scripture, studying its setting in Hebrews reminds the reader of the verse’s seriousness. Here the author compares the word of God to a sword with a sharp blade on each side capable of cutting through bone. Even more terrifying, as it cuts through physical bodies, it can also cut through the human spirit exposing the inner workings of the heart. Just as the animal prepared for sacrifice has its neck stretched back before the point of the blade (4:13), so is everything in creation exposed before the eyes of God.
We, he reminds his audience, are a part of this creation, so we are poised under God’s searching word. We will have to give an account of our lives and our hearts. The author has created a multifaceted picture with his use of the term logos. The “word” of God is living and active — terrifying, in fact — and to this logos, all creation, including the author and his congregation, will have to render a logos, an account.
Hence, the author of Hebrews seems not to be employing a Johannine Logos. He never, in fact, personifies the logos as equated with Christ. Instead, most often, logos is that which God speaks (Hebrews 2:2; 4:2; 5:13; 7:28; 12:19; 13:7, 17) and here the speech of God is so active that it is able to expose and see all things. He intends his discussion of the word of God to create sobriety. God is speaking to us (1:2); therefore are we ready to stand before his exacting and exposing word? What is the state of our hearts? Are they free from sin? Are they ready to trust in God fully? I can’t help but think his imagery is meant to scare here. Based on other things he says about the audience (5:12), my sense is that this audience may not have had great confidence at this point.
The sympathetic priest
Therefore, the author throws them a rope. Grasp this, he says: our confession. What have they confessed? That Jesus, the man born into the tribe of Judah (7:14) is in fact the Son of God. He is also the great high priest who serves God in heaven itself.
The author proceeds to draw out a vital implication of this confession. This mighty high priest who stands before the face of God is at the same time the high priest who can completely understand the weaknesses of the audience. If they were nervous or ashamed at the prospect of their hearts being laid bare before God, they now hear that One who is God’s own Son understands their weaknesses. His level of understanding, moreover, is not simply academic. He experiences the difficulties that weakness brings because he, too, has experienced temptation and testing in all ways as they have. The author’s language is rather broad and inclusive here. Whatever weakness, whatever secret sin of the heart, whatever lack of trust the word exposed, Jesus, too, has faced.
Nevertheless, his participation in weakness is similar to theirs, not the same. His encounter with temptation is homoi, not homo, for he, in his struggle with all variety of weakness, never succumbed to sin. That is how he is able to have passed through the heavens and serve as priest in the very presence of God.
He is exactly the kind of priest they need in the situation in which they find themselves. Standing before a God who has spoken to them, whose speech revealed their whole being, who is awaiting a response, the members of the audience who can say nothing in defense of themselves proclaim allegiance to and dependence upon the mediator who sits at God’s right hand. The author wants them to grasp this idea: “Jesus is sympathetic to my situation, but he is not stuck in it. He understands why I made the decisions that I did, but he did not make them.” Their confession of him transforms their stance before God. Whereas fear would be expected, now they can come in boldness. They approach the same living and active God, but now they also know his throne is one of grace. The God who knows all about them, who could demand their lives, gives mercy, favor, and help right when it is needed.
Two experiences, one God
It would be tempting to turn this warning and comfort into a good cop/bad cop narrative. God is about to punish you, but nice Jesus steps in and convinces him otherwise. This bifurcation, however, does not fit the text for several reasons. First, Jesus is, as the author states, the Son of God, and though the nuances are as precisely articulated as they will be in later centuries, the author has gone to great lengths to proclaim the divinity of Jesus in the first chapter. The Father and the Son are different persons, but they are both God and therefore are never at cross-purposes with one another.
Second, it follows that both Father and Son speak the word that exposes the heart and both Father and Son sit on the throne that offers grace and help. The shift occurs because the Father sent the Son to be the great high priest. The details of why this shift can occur have yet to be worked out in the sermon, but this passage provides an important fulcrum. God knows the hearts of all. The question remains for his readers: Are you holding fast to the God-priest who not only knows those hearts, but has done something to cleanse them forever?