Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16
This week’s reading from Hebrews continues to address the malaise that the writer’s community was experiencing.
Last week we explored that situation and saw that the writer began his sermon to the group with soaring lines about the God who speaks (Hebrews 1:1-4). This week again the writer gives vivid testimony to the dynamic power of God’s word. If the readers saw life mainly in depressing shades of gray, the language of this passage uses bold colors that are first unbearably intense and then abruptly shift to warm tones that encourage and uplift. If set to music the initial section about the relentless word of God would have rumbling tympani and sharp brass notes to disturb the hearers (Hebrews 4:12-13). Then after a dramatic pause, the section on Jesus as sympathetic high priest would be carried by gracious waves of sound from the strings (4:14-16).
For many modern readers the imagery used for God’s word in this section may seem strange (Hebrews 4:12-13). The writer pictures the word of God as a two-edged sword that is used like a scalpel on the human constitution. It is a precision instrument that seems able to cut along the fine lines between bones and marrow, soul and spirit, thoughts and intentions. How much more precisely can you cut things? And the imagery may be valuable to a preacher precisely because of its strangeness. It stimulates the imagination and challenges the listeners to picture themselves and their situation in new ways.
The passage recognizes that in ordinary life people go along with much that is hidden, like the internal workings of the body and mind beneath the skin. Thoughts and intentions are a private matter and most of us prefer to keep it that way until we choose to make our thoughts or intentions public — or inadvertently disclose them by what we say or do. We gauge what to disclose by what we assume others might think. People valued their reputations at the time Hebrews was written, and they still do today.
So what Hebrews says about the word of God is disturbing. It removes the option of concealment where God is concerned. And that presses for a heightened sense of candor about the selves we would prefer to keep hidden, the selves we would not want to be seen on social media. What would that mean for God to have access to all of the personal information? For God to see all of the dynamics that are operative within us? Could that ever be helpful or welcome?
If we look at the imagery in a physical sense, the activity of God’s words is like a form of precision surgery. The sharp instrument is used with skill in order to open things up in a manner that the surgeon can see. The goal of surgical treatment can be bringing things to light, in order that they can be treated and improve the life of the patient. And that is what the word of God is designed to do as well, according to Hebrews. God opens the human heart in order to treat it. The word calls readers to the recognition of their own vulnerability in order that they might receive what God offers them.
God’s gift is expressed in the second part of the passage (Hebrews 4:14-16). The writer depicts Jesus as a sympathetic high priest. The shift is remarkable given the surgical imagery of the previous section, but the element of sympathy is the essential counterpart to being exposed. The word “sympathy” in Greek as in English conveys the idea of “feeling with” someone. We might better translate it “compassion.” When people undergo surgery they want to know that the physician is with them and for them. They need to know that the procedure is ultimately aimed at their wellbeing.
That same aspect of sympathy is central to the passage’s depiction of Jesus as high priest. He understands human vulnerability, since he has experienced it. And Jesus’ response to human vulnerability is one of grace, which brings healing. That way of depicting a high priest is in a sense extraordinary.
In the ancient world, the Jewish community had a high priest whose primary roles involved offering sacrifice within the temple precincts and presiding at other public functions. Ministering to the vulnerable was not usually listed as a primary role on the job description. The same was true of high priests in Greek and Roman contexts. They too had priests that oversaw the offering of sacrifices, but again it was not commonly said that sympathy was a part of the role. Yet by focusing on that sympathetic aspect of Jesus’ character, the writer invites the kind of confident trust that he commends to the readers, which he understands to be truly life-giving.
The dynamics in this passage are enacted in Christian community through the practice of confession and absolution. Where confession is a response to God’s word opening up the heart (Hebrews 4:12-13), the sympathetic word of grace is the response that heals and restores (4:14-16). The two aspects function together, much as medical diagnosis is accompanied by treatment in physical healing. Theologically this involves the interplay of law and gospel.
The practice of confession may be done collectively in worship, and in such settings the statements made together by the congregation are necessarily broad. But a time of confession can also create space for each person to reflect on the dynamics that she or he might prefer to keep hidden. Although the Lenten season is typically regarded as a special time when confession receives emphasis, the need for opening up to God and receiving the word of grace knows no season. It is as appropriate during late Pentecost as in the weeks before Easter.
The reading for this week invites the possibility of making confession and absolution not only the topic of the sermon but special focus for the service itself. Hebrews is a text designed to engage readers in the practices that renew faith and community. Hearing the word but also enacting the word through our own liturgical words of confession and absolution are but one way of allowing Scripture to shape our life together under the priestly ministry of Jesus.