October 8, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Hebrews 4:12-16 (NRSV)
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Our hearts are seen by the Word, our sin exposed, our entire being known. This could be the most terrifying piece of news we ever receive. But it isn’t, because Jesus the Word is not judging us from outside. He has been exactly where we are. He knows what it feels like, and has been tempted but did not sin. We can approach him with boldness and know we will find help.
There are several Scriptures that are commonly used to talk about the power and authority of the Bible. One of the most famous is 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Another is from this weekend’s Epistle, Hebrews 4:12; it reminds us that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit.”
As someone who believes strongly in the Bible’s authority, I think these are good reminders. But they are also more complex than they appear. This is so for a couple of reasons. First, although we frequently use these verses in reference to the entire Bible, when they were written, they were only meant to refer to what we call the Old Testament. For Paul in 1 Timothy, and for the author of Hebrews, the “Scriptures” were the readings used in Jewish temple and synagogue worship—above all the Torah. Would they be surprised to know that we consider their letters today to be the same kind of thing? We don’t know. We have very good reasons to consider the New Testament to be authoritative Scripture, but we need to remember when we read the New Testament that the claims it makes about Scripture are actually not claims about itself, but about the tradition from which it came.
Secondly—and this is particularly relevant to Hebrews 4—the New Testament tells us, in John 1 especially, that Jesus is ultimately the Word of God—the “Logos” in whom the whole cosmos comes together. How can all these things be true? How can the Word of God be both a divine person of the Trinity and the Scriptures which testify to the coming of that Divine Person? These are questions that early church fathers and mothers wrestled over at length and that we still discuss today.
Reading Hebrews 4 in the light of all this, though, helps us to understand why the author of Hebrews pairs a statement about the word of God being active, alive, and holding us accountable with a statement about who Jesus is and what he does for us. The Scriptures reveal us, Hebrews 4:12-13 says, in all respects: our hearts are seen, our sin exposed, our entire being known. This could be the most terrifying piece of news we ever receive.
But it isn’t, Hebrews 4:14-17 goes on—because Jesus the Word is not judging us from outside. He has been exactly where we are. He knows what it feels like, and has been tempted, but did not sin. We can approach him with boldness and know we will find help. This entire passage follows a much longer exhortation to the readers (Hebrews 4:1-11) that encourages us to do what is necessary to enter into “a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). (I’ll have more to say about this theme in a few weeks when I write about Hebrews 10, where it is very prominent.) The most important thing you can do to enter into that Sabbath rest, the writer of Hebrews seems to say, is listen to the one who has been there before you: Jesus the Word.
Many years ago, in a time of great struggle and suffering, I bought myself a crucifix. I do believe that the empty cross is a powerful testimony. But knowing that Jesus had experienced everything a human being could go through, including a painful death, was deeply meaningful to me at that point. I used to hold onto it and repeat the words of Hebrews 4:15 to myself. One day, someone asked me why I was wearing a crucifix at a Protestant seminary. Suddenly the words of that great old gospel hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” came to me, and I said, “This is my Jesus knows my every weakness cross.”
Jesus knows your every weakness, too, and he will be there in your hour of need.
What do you need from the Word of God found in the Scriptures?
What do you need from the Word of God, Jesus, the Christ?
Listen to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” with its reminder to “take it to the Lord in prayer”—and then do just that.
Lord, thank you for knowing our every weakness and meeting us at the throne of grace. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Sabbath Rest in Christ: Needed for Life’s Journey (Hebrews 3:7–4:16)
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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