Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16
The second in this series of readings from Hebrews focuses on two very rich passages: the first is a declaration of the awesome power of God’s word and of our fear-inspiring accountability before the God who has spoken (4:12-13); the second is an invitation to make use of all the sustaining power and help to persevere in faithful witness and obedience that God will provide (4:14-16). The lectionary has, however, joined together the conclusion to one segment of this sermon (3:7-4:13) and the introduction to the next major part of the sermon (4:14-10:18).
Nevertheless, the selection preserves a juxtaposition of rhetorical strategies that are characteristic of this author’s sermon—arousing fear in his hearers in connection with the path of breaking faith with Jesus and seeking to conform once again to the practices that their neighbors would approve and instilling confidence in connection with the path of continued allegiance, obedience, and witness (compare 6:4-8 alongside 6:9-12; also 10:26-31 alongside 10:19-25).
The lectionary selections from Hebrews manage to avoid giving airtime to any of the author’s warnings apart from 4:12-13, so—in all fairness to the integrity of the author’s thought—it might be well in a sermon to set the stage more fully for hearing these two verses. The author begins this previous section with a lengthy recitation of the second half of Psalm 95 and will dwell, refrain-like, upon its solemn summons: “Today, if you hear [God’s] voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95:7; Hebrews 3:7-8; see also 3:13, 15; 4:7). He seeks to impress upon his hearers that the greatest threat to the well-being of his hearers is not their non-Christian neighbors’ hostility; it is not their loss of status, economic footing, nor even physical safety. It is the possibility that they will cease responding to God’s call, cease ordering their steps so as to walk toward God’s promise.
This is precisely, the author argues, what led to the downfall of the generation of Hebrews that Moses led out of Egypt. At the very threshold of entering into the land God promised them, they placed greater weight on the strength and fortifications of the inhabitants of Canaan than on the good will and power of God. As a result, they refused to advance on God’s order, revolting against Moses’ leadership instead. The consequence was that they would wander in the desert until that whole generation had died off (Numbers 16; Hebrews 3:16-4:2).
Hebrews 4:12-13 presents a rationale for the author’s exhortation to his hearers, who have received God’s promises in Christ, to persevere in faithful obedience and not make the same mistake that the Exodus generation did. Those who do not continue to live responsively to God’s word throughout their lives will encounter its piercing sentence on the day of judgment—the day on which all will give account to God. The picture of Hebrews 4:13 is one of utter vulnerability: the verb rendered “laid bare” more fully evokes the image of a condemned person whose throat is pulled back before the executioner’s blade!
The tone and content of Hebrews 4:14-16 are stunningly different. Suddenly the author casts off the shadow of fear and invites the hearers to draw near God’s throne with confidence, assured of receiving all the help they will need to complete the journey on which God set them when they first responded with trust to the word announced through—and concerning—God’s Son. As one of many grounds for assurance, Paul had once spoken of Jesus interceding at God’s right hand on our behalf (Romans 8:34). The author of Hebrews goes much further, interpreting Jesus’ death and ascension in terms of a high priest’s mediation between God and human beings (this will be the focus of 7:1-10:18, though it is intimated in 2:17 and begins to be developed here in 4:14-5:10).
A large portion of Hebrews is dedicated to laying out the advantages of having Jesus, the Son, as our mediator—our “inside man”—with God the Father. He is the best mediator in the history of go-betweens, beginning with the angels (who during the period between the testaments increasingly play a role in carrying prayers from the faithful to God and executing God’s instructions), moving through Moses, the mediator of the first covenant, going on through the priests of the tribe of Levi, the mediators appointed under the first covenant.
As the author will later celebrate, Jesus as our high priest offered the most effective, single sacrifice where the sins that separated people from God’s full presence were concerned, opening for all who believe in him the way not merely into the Holy Place of an earthly temple, but into the eternal Holy Place, God’s realm beyond the created heavens, which Jesus has now entered—but specifically as our forerunner (6:19-20). And as “Son,” he enjoys greater intimacy and connection with God than any servants in God’s household, whether the angels (1:14) or Moses (3:5-6): those who approach God through Jesus have every reason, therefore, to trust that he will secure for them all that they need.
Since the believers have such a privilege, the author urges, they must hold onto it by standing firm in their profession of Jesus in the witness of their speech, their associations (with the local Christian assembly), and their actions (including their fidelity to the one God in the midst of a society that equates honoring many gods with being a pious and reliable citizen). But, since they have such a privilege, they also have every resource they could need to hold on.
Here the full humanity of Jesus comes to the fore as critically important (as it did in 2:14-18 and will again in 5:7-10). Jesus experienced all the trials of being human. More particularly, he faced the utmost in terms of hostility, pain, and degradation, discovering all that it took to persevere in obedience on the path set for him by the Father. His experience, the author assures his hearers, gives Jesus deep sympathy for the “many sons and daughters” who likewise struggle to persevere in the face of temptation and trial. Knowing this, however, believers have every reason not to succumb, but rather to seek from God through Jesus the daily, the hourly help they need to persevere. Or, in the words of the much-loved hymn, “Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.”
As a two-edged sword, the word of God cuts both ways. It reminds us of our complete and unmitigated accountability to God, who calls us to “live no longer for ourselves but for him who died and was raised on our behalf” (to borrow an image from 2 Corinthians 5:15), to “pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14), to “continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name” while also not forgetting “to do good and to share what you have” (Hebrews 13:15-16).
If we keep this firmly fixed before us, what realignment of our energies, resources, and practices might ensue? The word also gives assurance to those who persevere in grateful obedience and allegiance to Jesus that God will supply them with all the sustaining help they require to attain God’s promises and not “fall short” (Hebrews 4:1; 12:15). Do we believe the promise of 4:14-16, that God can indeed empower—and reward!—such things as God’s word summons us to do?