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Last Sunday's Sermon

 

 "Confidence and Mercy"                            October 14, 2018                                    Hebrews 4:12-16

 

This passage is somewhat like a morality play in two acts.* In the first act we see that the "Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword..." and "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." Most interpreters hear the warning and judgment in this verse.

 

First, we find that the word of God is "alive" (v.12). How is the word of God alive? It's living, with a life of its own. Jesus once described the word of God when he told a parable about the farmer sowing seed. Some seed fell on the path, some fell on rocky ground, some fell among the thorns, and other seed fell on good soil. In each case the seed had a life of its own. The seed grows and bears fruit because it is alive.

 

Then, we see that the word of God is "active" (v. 12). Here the word of God is described by what it does. Anything with life is active. It grows. The word of God affects us. It grows in us. The more we meditate on the words of the Bible, the more it affects us. The Greek word here sounds like our word energy and it has the same root. It means there is a spiritual energy in the word of God.

 

The word of God is "sharper than any double-edged sword" (v. 12). What does this violent image mean? Swords are used in warfare; and they are used for the dismembering of enemy soldiers. They literally tear joints from marrow.

 

We might wonder why the author draws from an image of war to say that the sword is "double-edged?" Obviously, a double-edged sword cuts both ways. In fact, the Romans were famous for their invention of the double-edged sword. Some historians say that the double-edged sword was such a radical new invention of the Romans that it had a similar effect that the atomic bomb did.

 

When we say that the word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword, we mean that it has incredible power. When it cuts into us, it has an amazingly powerful effect. It penetrates like a sword. It can see through all our pretense to the real thing. It means we have to face up to who we really are—stop trying to fool others and stop pretending.

 

The word of God pierces "even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (v.12). As such, the word of God goes inside of us like a surgeon's knife. It cuts and divides. The word of God finds our wicked intentions, bad attitudes, rebellious spirit, lustful hearts, our hypocrisy, greed, hatred, and unforgiving spirit. Before God, we are "uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (v. 13). Nothing can hide us from God. God sees all and knows all. God knows our thoughts and our motives. God knows everything.

 

Psalm 139:1-4 says, "You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely..." Those verses remind me that, even when we try, we simply cannot keep any secrets from God. No one pulls the wool over God's eyes. No one is going to talk their way into heaven. No one is going to talk their way out of judgment. No one is going to explain away their bad behavior by making excuses before God. The word of God will discern whether our thoughts and our motives are right.

 

Hebrews 4 could be read as a message of judgment and fear instead of a message of confidence and mercy. Some people have known the fear and trembling that comes with an IRS tax audit. Even if we have been honest on our tax return, there is the fear that maybe the IRS will not see things exactly the same way we did. How much more should we fear the all-seeing eyes of God. The word of God bares our soul before God. No matter how merciful God is we still worry because the law of God is perfect. And most of us recognize that we are far from perfect.

 

The New International Version translates part of verse 12 this way, "It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." A. T. Robertson's famous Word Studies has an even better translation: "It is quick to discern the thoughts and attitudes of the heart," meaning "able to discern, as a surgeon has to be able to decide in an instant what to do...The surgeon carries a bright and powerful light for every dark crevice and a sharp knife for the removal of all the [disease] revealed by the light." My Greek lexicon also tells me that the word "judge" does not mean "condemn." Yet the word of God is able to discern the intentions and motives of our hearts.

 

We could conclude our discussion of the first act of this play in verses 12, 13 and 14 by imagining ourselves going into surgery. We're laid bare, ready to be wheeled into the operating room. We know that we will be unconscious while strangers cut and probe our bodies. In our minds we may completely trust the doctors and nurses, but there is part of us that senses fear. I want you to hold on to that image and those feelings in your mind while we consider the rest of the Scripture passage and move into the second act in verses 14-16.

 

Verse 14 says we have "a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus, the Son of God." A Jewish audience would be completely comfortable with talk of a "great high priest" because they were familiar with the ritual need for a bearer of our sin. Once a year the high priest entered the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple to perform a sacrifice of blood which would bring forgiveness to God's people. In the following chapters we will see the writer of Hebrews expound on this idea saying that Jesus is the high priest of all high priests. All of the high priests in the Old Testament got old and eventually died. In fact, all the high priests wore a bell when entering the Holy of Holies so the people would know if, perhaps, he had died while inside. If that should happen, the people would pull him out and anoint a new high priest. But Hebrews tells us that our "great high priest" lives forever. He does not enter the Holy of Holies only once a year. He sits at the right hand of God for all time.

 

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin" (v. 15). The writer says essentially the same thing in Hebrews 2:18, "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted."

 

We do not have a high priest unable to sympathize. Why? Because he understands us. Jesus was fully God and fully human, so he fully understands us. In other words, "Jesus knows our pain!" He has been there and faced up to whatever we face in life. Suddenly we get an entirely different view of this whole judgment thing. The difference is knowing the judge is Jesus. Some religious people love to sit in judgment of others. They relish the chance to point out the sin in someone else's life. They are quick to insist that "they" must repent and turn from their sin if they ever hope to be forgiven. There are some biblical passages that seem to suggest that approach, but I would argue there are plenty of verses that soften the blow. For example, there is the powerful story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. Many people have correctly observed that this story could more rightly be named the parable of the Loving Father. Look carefully at the picture of the father in this story, remembering that this is Jesus' most telling remarks about the nature of God the Father. The prodigal's father is incredibly patient, never angry, eager to forgive, rejoicing when the sinful son returns, never insisting on an apology or formal statement of repentance. If God the Father is anything like the prodigal's father, and I believe that God is, then we have nothing to fear from the word of God!

 

When we understand that "we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin" then we know that we do not have to fear the all-knowing, double-edged sword. In fact, we can "approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (v. 16). The "throne" reminds us that God echoes and amplifies every measure of greatness that we can imagine. In New Testament times, the "throne" of Rome was absolute. In the same way, God's power and majesty is even greater!

 

Remember dear friends that the throne of God is a "mercy throne." When we are in need, compassion and kindness, mercy and grace are found there. This is not so much about when we fail, as it is when we endure hard times and are confronted with temptations that threaten to overwhelm us.

 

When we understand the second act of the play as one of confidence and mercy, we can focus on the character of the one behind the judgment and distinguish from the first act. We see that the double-edged sword is more like a surgeon's scalpel that brings healing than a weapon of war. God's loving purpose is to bring healing into our lives by removing the cancerous "sin that so easily entangles" (Hebrews 12:1).

 

*Now I want you to recall that surgery scene from our discussion of the first act. Remember that we were going into surgery and we were filled with fear and foreboding. There was an inner war going on inside of us, with our minds saying to calm down and our heart saying, "But who knows what they will cut out once they get in there!"

 

Now imagine that the doctor approaches your gurney and removes his mask to reveal that it is your good doctor friend [of over 30 years]. With a reassuring smile, he says, "Don't worry. I'm going to take good care of you." Because you know you can trust your friend, the doctor, you begin to calm down and relax. It's still going to be a scary thing to remove the source of your illness, but now you know who it is that is doing the cutting.

 

In verse 16 the writer of Hebrews encourages us to approach "God's throne of grace with confidence" when we pray. A pastor heard that a mother prayed with her five year old son every night before bedtime. "What does she say?" the pastor asked him. The little guy answered, "Thank God he's in bed."

 

When we pray, we can say "thank God" for his mercy and grace. This is because the Great Physician, our good friend, Jesus, is doing the cutting as we are laid bare before him. In our "time of need" God gives the mercy and grace.

 

Incredibly, the writers of the Bible speak about God's mercy over 5,000 times! In Hebrews 4 we learn that we can have confidence, because God gives us mercy. Amen.

*From a sermon by Mickey Anders (https://www.sermonwriter.com/sermons/hebrews-412-16-cut-anders-2/)