Hebrews 4:12-13 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (NIV).”
That can be a scary passage.
First, there’s God’s living word, which sounds nice until you read that this living word is sharper than a sword and that it cuts between soul and spirit, joints and marrow. Terrifying. Oh, and it hardcore judges you. Nothing is hidden. All is laid bare. God sees it all and God’s the one to whom you must give an account of your life.
Yikes. I can only imagine the wild ways this text has been used to try to guilt-trip people into discipleship. Like, “Hey you’d better stop thinking those sinful thoughts because God is judging you. If you don’t clean up your thoughts, well God’s got this sword…”
If you’ve ever heard a Christian portray God to you like that, I’m sorry. I don’t think that’s who God is. Here’s a different interpretation that I think fits the context of Hebrews 4 quite a bit better.
One of my seminary professors once read our class the text above and told us to note what we felt inside. As you can imagine, most of us felt some kind of fear of this God whose word is like a sword that divides joints and marrow. But then he invited us to read the text with a different metaphor in mind: what if God’s word is not sharp like a weapon but sharp like a surgeon’s scalpel? It divides joint and marrow not to inflict harm but to remedy something harmful. With this image in mind, it is good news that nothing is hidden from God’s sight! If God is like a doctor with a scalpel in hand, then we don’t want anything hidden. We want it all uncovered and laid bare. A blindfolded surgeon would be no use!
This reading of the text gives us a vision of God that is much truer to the God we see revealed in Jesus. It is truer to the context of Hebrews 4 as well.
Hebrews 4 is a continuation of the train of thought started in Hebrews 3. The author is warning his readers to not harden their hearts like the Israelites did when God led them out of Egypt. Three times in these two chapters, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95:7-8: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” This hardening of hearts, the author says, is what prevented the freed Israelites from entering God’s rest—presumably referring to the promised land. God was like a good doctor offering help and healing; the Israelites were like patients who refused the doctor’s care. Here in Hebrews, the author argues that the invitation to enter God’s rest still stands for those who will have faith in the doctor.
I suspect that many of us may have developed hardened hearts, particularly over the course of the last year. Living through a global pandemic that upended our lives, feeling isolated from others, wishing for a return to “normal”—that all sounds like things the Israelites in the desert could relate to at some level. At one point they even wished to go back to slavery in Egypt because there were at least warm meals there! Hearts get hardened in the desert.
What does it take to undo a hardened heart? What can soften it again?
On our farm—like just about any other farm in the Central Valley—there is a layer of what we call hardpan just below the surface of the soil. Hardpan is basically soil that has become hard like a rock. As you can imagine, hardpan is not suitable for growing crops. So, what do we do when we encounter hardpan where we need to grow something? We have to use large metal tools on big tractors to cut through the hardpan—to penetrate the ground, to divide rock from soil. Only once the hardpan has been broken and reintegrated as part of the living soil can it prove fruitful.
Maybe the process is similar for a hardened heart. Maybe the word of God needs to be sharper than a double-edged sword in order to break through our hardened hearts. Maybe that’s what it takes to soften our hearts—to make them beat again. Maybe those hardened parts don’t get removed, but they get reintegrated into the soil of our hearts so that we can be fruitful again. And maybe God’s word needs to be something that is alive and active. In the middle of a desert where life can be hard to find, God’s word comes along, fully alive and wildly active. Like a farmer’s hand digging into dry soil, God’s word works to bring forth life from even our hardest hearts.
I have one more image for you. Last year, my family and I travelled to Barcelona, Spain (Before the whole world shut down due to COVID). One of the places we visited was the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. This hospital (now a museum) was designed with beauty in mind. The architecture and the expansive gardens were meant to help in the healing of patients by way of their beauty. Having visited it, I can confirm that it is indeed beautiful. I don’t know if beauty really helps people heal from disease, but I know it can’t hurt. I can appreciate that this hospital not only offered medical procedures to help heal people, but also trusted that time resting in the gardens would also do some good for those who suffer.
I think there is a similar thought happening in Hebrews 4. God’s word invasively discerns the state of our hearts like a doctor’s scalpel during surgery (4:12). At the same time, God is in the garden waiting for us to join in his rest (4:9-10).
With that in mind, I pray that we follow the advice of the psalmist: “Today, if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7-8). Instead, trust that voice. It is the voice of a good doctor, the voice of a wise farmer, and the voice of one calling you to come rest in the garden.