The Word of God: How the Bible reads us (4/5)
This is the fourth post in a five part series considering what the Bible teaches about itself. The previous posts in this series are 1. How Not to Read the Bible, 2. How to Read the Bible, part 1, 3. How to Read the Bible, part 2. The final post in this series is 5. Reading the Bible, a practical guide.
In an interview following the recent Resurgence Conference, Dr D.A. Carson made an incredibly incisive observation that, ‘We read the bible, not to be a master of it, but to be mastered by it’.
In the first of three previous posts in this series, How not to Read the Bible, we considered that there is a right way and wrong way to read Scripture: the right way will always lead us to seeing Jesus more clearly, loving Jesus more deeply and knowing Jesus more fully. The end of Scripture is that we might see Jesus and run to him.
In the second of the three posts, How to Read the Bible, Part 1, we reflected upon the truth that all Scripture is breathed out by God and, as such, carries the very authority of God. This, of course, changes everything. We now approach Scripture in humility and a spirit that longs to see more and learn more of God. We now submit our opinions and views to the word of God, the very standard of truth.
In the third, How to Read the Bible, Part 2, we understood that precisely because all Scripture is breathed out by God, it must also be useful. Indeed, more than useful, Scripture is in fact necessary. And so, therefore, if Scripture leads us to Christ, it also rebukes, exhorts, teaches and trains that believers might be both ‘fully equipped’ and more like Christ.
This, of course, changes the way that we respond to difficulties and problems. Previously we may have relied on our own wisdom and the wisdom of the world, now we turn to Scripture confident that it is both true and helpful.
The promise of Scripture runs even deeper than this. Consider for a moment the writer of Hebrews claims with regards to the nature and effects of Scripture,
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. 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 (Hebrews 4:12-13).
The word of God is living and active
Before we consider what the writer of Hebrews means when he writes that the word of God is ‘living and active’, we must first define what he means when he refers to the word of God. The first part of this answer is to define the broader meaning of the phrase ‘word of God’.
In chapter 13, the writer urges believers to ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God’ (v. 7) and, in this context, it is clear that it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is in view.
The second part of the answer as to what is meant by the phrase, ‘the word of God’, is determined by the context of the passage quoted above.
Earlier in chapters three and the beginning of chapter four, the writer turns his attention to Israel. You will recall the story of the Exodus. God, through Moses, rescues his people from slavery in Egypt with the intention of leading them into the land of promise. Israel, however, responds to this miraculous act of grace in disobedience, ingratitude and with grumbling.
As a result of this disobedience, Israel is left to wander in the desert for forty years until an entire generation (save a faithful few) had died out.
The writer of Hebrews understands that the demise of this ungrateful and faithless generation was not a result of a bad sense of direction, poor map reading or unreliable satellite navigation, but as a direct result of the right and holy judgement of the living God,
As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest’ (Hebrews 4:3)
The people rebel, God decrees that they shall not enter his rest and the people perish in the desert.
Against this backdrop, the writer of Hebrews exhorts believers to ‘strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience’ (v. 11). This then flows into the passage quote above. In summary, then, the writer of Hebrews is exhorting believers to look back at those who were led out of slavery, to pay heed to the solemn warnings of the Almighty God against disobedience and ingratitude and to remember that this God stands against wickedness and rebellion.
And in this we see the fullness of the gospel, that the same God who, in holiness, righteousness and purity, stands against rebellion, wickedness and sin, enacts rescue in kindness, mercy and love.
Christians are called to remember his mercy and grace with a grateful and thankful heart. Christians are warned not to presume upon the kindness of God knowing that it is his kindness which leads us to repentance and that hardness of heart and impenitence will lead only to wrath (Romans 2:4-5).
Thus, when the writer of Hebrews states that ‘the word of God is living and active’ he has a particular illustration in mind. He bids believers to remember the demonstration of this truth among the people of Israel: God warns, ‘They shall not enter my rest’ and then causes an entire generation to perish in the desert.
There is an essential truth here. We live in deeply cynical times, where words are cheap and empty and spin and superficiality is king. We see this everywhere, in the mouths of our politicians, in the slant of the media and, most sadly, in hypocrisy within the church.
Most clearly, we see this in ourselves. How often have we hastily and impetuously uttered threats that we later regret? How often have we made promises we have no intention whatsoever of keeping?
The truth is that there is a huge disjunction between our words and our real intentions. The truth is that there is an even greater disjunction between our words and our actions.
With God, however, things are altogether different.
Consider the reasons for this. We change our mind, a hasty promise is made and we then regret it. God, however, is unchanging; his purposes are ageless and true, ‘The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.’ (Psalm 33:11). We utter intemperate words in anger that we simply do not mean. God is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34:6). We deceive others and ourselves with our careless and even malicious words. God, however, ‘is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.’ (Numbers 23:19).
The truth is this; God’s character perfectly reflects his values. With you and me this may not be the case. Most of us value mercy, but we are content to prioritise our own comfort above that of others. Most of us value forgiveness, until we are the ones that have been crossed. Most of us value love, but we play favourites and struggle (or even refuse) to love the unlovable.
God’s character perfectly reflects his values. He does not have off days, he is not prone to mood swings and he does not change (Malachi 3:6).
And more than this, God’s actions are in perfect accordance with his character.
Again, consider the truth of this. How often have we been surprised by the response of a friend or a loved one? Perhaps they explode at the slightest provocation or perhaps we expect an angry response and they simply shrug it off. We even have a phrase for such a situation; we say, ‘that was quite out of character’. The truth is that our actions are often completely at odds with our character.
God, however, always acts in accordance with his character. This is why he cannot lie. This is why he cannot simply ignore or turn a blind eye toward sin. He is true and he is holy. He must, therefore, act in complete accordance with his truthful and holy character.
And how does all of this help us understand what the writer of Hebrews intends when he writes that, ‘the word of God is living and active’? The writer simply means this: when God speaks, things happen. With God there is no disjunction between words and activity. He does not blow off steam, he does not make hasty promises nor idle threats. God’s word is active.
Consider Psalm 33:6,
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
The Psalmist refers to creation, the six days in which God spoke all things into being. We often miss the awesomeness of this. God did not strive, struggle or toil, he spoke and things that were not came into being.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)
God speaks and things happen.
The writer of Hebrews understands, therefore, that because God is unchanging, his word is unchanging and because God is powerful he is able to do what he says he will do. There is no disjunction between the intentions, will, plan, character and values of God and his word. His promises will be fulfilled. His warnings should be regarded with sobriety.
Sharper than a two-edged sword
But the writer of Hebrews has a particular activity in mind. He writes,
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.
Remember, the context to this passage is that the writer is exhorting believers to heed the warning from Israel’s wandering in the desert. They rebelled, God promised that they would not enter his rest and a generation were wiped out in the desert.
How then does this passage relate to what has gone before? How does the context help us understand the activity spoken about in the above passage?
The writer understands that there is an effect of the word of God which is external to us. God pronounces judgement, ‘they shall not enter my rest’, and then infallibly brings this to pass by ensure that they wander in the wilderness for forty years. This is God judging, intervening and acting in the world and the life of people.
There is, however, an effect of Scripture that works internally and this is primarily what the writer of Hebrews has in view, for this living and active word is sharp like a sword and cuts into ‘the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow’ and, in so doing, discerns ‘the thoughts and intentions of the heart’.
Reading Scripture is no passive activity. As we read, something happens within. The words reach into the very core of our being, illuminating sin and unrighteousness, exhorting us towards repentance and holiness. The truth is that there is no such thing as secret sin. We may lie to others and even ourselves, but God sees all and, when faced with the mirror which is Scripture, we see our every flaw and imperfection no matter how deeply hidden.
For the believer, this is a blessed grace gift from a loving and gracious Father. You see, without conviction there can be no repentance and without repentance there can be no forgiveness. One of the principle roles of the Holy Spirit is to bring conviction. Indeed, Jesus affirms that,
And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).
One of the principle ways the Spirit convicts people of sin and righteousness is through the Scriptures. Indeed, the Apostle Paul describes the word of God as ‘the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:17), it is the Spirit who wields Scripture most effectively in the life of believers. Scripture is a sword which the Spirit uses to convict, compel and refine believers. It is important that believers understand that to be truly Spiritual is to study, meditate upon and obey the word of God.
But this conviction is the beginning of God’s activity, not the end. The writer of Hebrews continues,
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. 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. 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 4:14-16).
You see, a warning demands a response. The correct response is this, as Scripture cuts deep and exposes our wrong attitudes, motives and hidden sin, we are called to run to Jesus, our great high priest knowing that he understands our weakness, that he is merciful, gracious and kind. Merciful and forgiving when we stumble and turn to him in repentance and gracious in providing us with strength and relief in our struggle against sin.
The sad truth is that we often skirt around those passages that make us feel uncomfortable and that hit a little too close to home when, in fact, we should be truly grateful for these moments. Yes, heart surgery of this kind is painful. It is never pleasant to be cut this hard and this deep, but the promise is that this operation will cause us to draw closer to Christ in order to receive mercy, grace and help.
To allow ourselves to be so cut requires great humility and submission under the mighty hand of God. Without such humility, this conviction will cause us to run and hide from God like our father and mother in the Garden of Eden. Without such humility we will respond to loving correction with anger and bitterness.
The Apostle James exhorts men and women to, ‘receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls’ (James 1:21). The promise for the believer is that the word of God does not remain on the page, but, as we read, it cuts deep and remains there and, implanted and animated by the Holy Spirit (who inspired the very words), Scripture shapes and changes us so that we might be more like Christ.
All believers have experienced those moments when, on the precipice of choosing the path of disobedience, the Holy Spirit has brought the words of Scripture to our mind to encourage, exhort and even rebuke. This is evidence that the word of God is indeed implanted deep within us. This is the stroke of the sharp blade of truth. This is evidence that we are indeed children of the living God (Hebrews 12:7-9).
And so Scripture calls us to receive the truth of God with meekness and, as we submit our lives, our opinions and our priorities to him, we see, in fact, that Scripture begins to read us and in those moments we are forever changed.