Sometimes Christians say weird things. We have a slew of sayings that the average unchurched person would think just weird, if not down right creepy. Words like: born-again, washed in the word, touched by the Spirit, filled with the Holy Ghost, and covered by the blood, just to name a few. These expressions have all sorts of uses, some good and some completely absurd. But when we speak of the Bible Christians are often prone to quote, even if unknowingly, Hebrews 4:12 saying, “The Word of God is living and active.” What does this mean? If we are to properly understand and use Scripture then this seems like a key phrase to nail down.
In the immediate context of Hebrews 4 we find that the author is using this statement to warn Christians not to fall away from the faith. After all, the Word of God can seek out and discern what is genuinely happening in the heart of a “believer.” So, in calling men to enter into the spiritual rest of God, the author of Hebrews writes:
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” 6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:1-16)
The point of the passage is to encourage recipients of the letter to seek out genuine faith in God which will lead to eternal spiritual rest. If they try to fake it, or if they fall away from the faith, as their forefathers had, then God’s Word will work to expose and judge them. But how exactly does a book do something like that, and why call it “living and active”?
We may be tempted here to revert back to the idea of John 1 and Jesus as the Logos. Certainly it is true that Jesus is the “Word of God.” John writes: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God (John 1:1-2). And I don’t doubt for a moment that is part of what it must mean to speak of the Word of God as living and active. Jesus is the true Word of God and he is a real being moving and working among his followers. And yet, in the context of Hebrews 4 it seems far more likely that the author has in mind what most of us have in mind: the Bible. Of course here he speaks specifically of the Old Testament, since the new had not yet been written, but it applies all the same to God’s total revealed word in Scripture.
Note that throughout the whole book of Hebrews the author has quoted passage after passage from the Old Testament, but with each quote he says something like “God spoke,” “as God has said,” or “as the Holy Spirit says.” Even when quoting King David he says “again he [God] appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward” (Hebrews 4:7). So it is David’s word, yes, but it is God’s word through David. The idea, then, is that it is the Old Testament Scripture which will judge us. The Bible is the Word of God in particular view in Hebrews 4:12. This, then, gives us a little better starting place to wrestle with the idea of a “living and active” word.
The idea being presented here, and indeed in the whole of Hebrews, is that the Bible is not merely an occassional book with isolated and specific messages for isolated and specific people. Because of its divine authorship it spans time and space and occasion to reach down to all of us who read it. We must not downplay the occasional nature of its writing, nor its human authorship, but we must not let those things bar us from seeing the Bible as a book of relevance and authority for us today. As Richard Phillips wrote:
This is why we can say that the Word of God is “living and active.” While there are differences in our cultural, social, and historical settings, compared to the original readers, and our understandings of a particular passage may and should reflect those differences, nonetheless we should read the Bible as God’s Word to us. (Hebrews, 136).
The Word of God is living and active because God is still moving through it today to speak to us, direct us, challenge us. As Adolph Saphir wrote:
God speaks in and through the Word. It is not that God spake long ago, and that the record of His acts and words, His revelation, was embodied in a perfect manner, and preserved for us in Scripture. This is true. But God gave us the Bible, not to be silent now and let the Bible speak instead of Him, and be a guarantee for Him, but that He Himself may through His word speak, comfort, and confirm the soul, filling it with His light and love.
God speaks to us today through His word written thousands of years ago. It is alive and active because its author is moving through it.
The fact is that the Word of God is intimately connected with the Trinitarian life of the Godhead. Again Saphir writes:
And thus it becomes to us an engrafted, implanted Word, inseparably connected with the Father, with the living Savior, and with the indwelling Holy Spirit. God reveals Himself continually to us in the Word – God in Christ and by the Holy Ghost.
God’s Words for us are communicated through the pages of Scripture as the Holy Spirit and the Son of God reveal them to us. We read and are enlighten by God himself as His ancient Words are communicated with fresh meaning to us today. The Word of God is living and active, unlike any text every written before. It’s divine authorship, and its divine interpreter make it so.
Because of this intimate connection between the Godhead and the Scriptures some have been prone to accuse Evangelicals of making an idol of the Bible, of worshiping Scripture instead of worshiping the God of the Scripture. Next week we will look more carefully at that accusation.