Hebrews 4:12-13


Hebrews 4:12-11

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.

In 1970 the late Russian dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered his lecture after winning the Nobel Prize in literature. Near the end of the lecture Solzhenitsyn said, “And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions!” He the approached the conclusion of his lecture by quoting a Russian proverb: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”[1]

That is a fascinating statement, isn’t it? “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”

Indeed, words of truth have weight. But the two verses we are about to consider are going to say more than this. They are going to say not only that words have weight, but that the Word, the word of God, actually has life…and power…and can dismantle…and can search…and can heal.

It is important that we not detach these two amazing verses from the wider context of Hebrews. We have seen, especially in chapters 3 and 4, repeated warnings against ignoring the word of God. We have been told that those Israelites who ignored the word of God in the wilderness fell under judgment. We have been told that those who did not cling to the word in the land of promise fell under judgment. And we have been cautioned again and again and again not to harden our hearts, not to commit the same mistake, but rather to hear and listen and receive what God is saying so that we can live and have life!

So these two verses follow with utter consistency from what precedes them: we must understand that the word of God is not like human words. The word of God is not some passive thing we can take or leave. Rather, it is living, it is life.

We dare not turn from the word!

Grant Osborne, like many others, has argued that the “word” in our text is referring to the scriptures in particular.

These verses provide proper closure to this first major section of the letter, for throughout the letter thus far, the author’s narration has centered on Old Testament citations that provide the background for his argumentation. He wants the readers to realize what this signifies, for it is the word of God, and not just human thoughts, that have been quoted.[2]

Yes, all of the verses that the writer has appealed to cement the point: God has spoken in His word and we must heed what he has said there. Let us consider carefully what our text says about the word of God.


For the word of God is living,” verse 12 begins.

It is not a dead thing. It is not a passive thing. It is not inert. It lives!

Paul made this point beautifully in 2 Timothy 3 when he wrote to Timothy of his, Timothy’s, engagement with the scriptures. Listen:

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of Godmay be complete, equipped for every good work.

Notice the signs of life in these verses! The scriptures, Paul writes, “are able to make you wise for salvation” and are “breathed out by God”! The picture of scripture being “breathed out by God” is powerful and fascinating. Danny Hays writes of this:

The Greek word translated “God-breathed” is theopneustos, a term possibly coined by Paul himself to express the nature of inspiration. The King James Version rendering, “inspired by God,” finds it roots in the Latin Vulgate (divinitus inspirata). Unfortunately “in-spired” might suggest that God “breathed into” Scripture its authority, while theopneustos more likely means that God “breathed out” Scripture. Inspiration does not mean divine validation of a human work, but God’s self-revelation of his own purpose and will.[3]

This image of God’s breath is important for this is the image of the animating power of God used in Genesis 2.

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

God breathes into humanity and we live.

God breathes out the scriptures and it is alive.

“For the word of God is living…”

James Draper points out that “living” is a present participle which “means it is characterized by being alive. It is continuously alive. The Word of God is like that.”[4]

To say that it is living is also to say that it is not dead. Our culture is filled with dead words, word that have no weight. Os Guinness once complained of this and wrote, “Words mean little, and bind no one.”[5]

This is true of our dead words, but not of God’s living word! It means much! It binds us all!


The word of God is also “active.” Why would he add “active” if he has already said “living”? Does not “living” suggest “active”? In and of itself, not necessarily. Donald Guthrie is correct when he writes:

The second characteristic, active (energēs), serves to underline the same idea. A thing may be alive but dormant, but the nature of true life is that it springs into activity and challenges on every front those who fall short of its standards. The Word of God, in its intellectual and moral demands, pursues men and cries out for personal decision to be made in response to its exhortations.[6]

Indeed! The word is depicted as alive and on the move, alive and in our faces! This picture of the word as living and active appears earlier in scripture than our text. Consider Isaiah 55:

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Living. Active.

These are not mere words, and if you have any experience with it you know that it is so.

The word is a lion, not a statue. It is dynamic, not static.

Have you ever read the scriptures and felt that they were indeed reading you instead?

Have you ever decided to work through scripture only to discover that it is working through you?

sharper than any two-edged sword

And the Bible is sharp! The “two-edged sword” was the standard Roman sword. But the writer of Hebrews is not saying the at the Bible is like a two-edged sword. Rather, he says it is “sharper than any two-edged sword.”

The Roman two-edged sword was the standard weapon of the Roman foot soldier in the first century.

From the 3rd century BC…the Romans adopted a sword based on the weapons used by the Celtiberians in Hispania late into the Punic Wars, known in Latinas the gladius hispaniensis, or “Hispanic sword”. New types and variants of the gladius, such as the “Mainz gladius” and the “Pompeii gladius”, were used since the first century AD, until they were replaced by the “spatha” in the third century.

A fully equipped Roman legionary after the reforms of Gaius Marius was armed with a shield (scutum), one or two javelins (pila), a sword (gladius), often a dagger (pugio), and, perhaps in the later empire period, darts (plumbatae). Conventionally, soldiers threw pila to disable the enemy’s shields and disrupt enemy formations before engaging in close combat, for which they drew the gladius. A soldier generally led with the shield and thrust with the sword.[7]

This sword would have been a well-known object in the ancient world. It would have been seen and known as a tool that could do a lot of damage, a tool that could cut to the quick, this way and that. The double blade made it that much deadlier.

It was sharp and kept sharp by the soldier, but the writer of Hebrews says that the scriptures are sharper than the sharpest of these weapons.

The Bible can cut you. It can wound you. There is something profoundly piercing about it. It is not to be trifled with. It is not one big Hallmark card.

Edith Schaeffer, in 1974, wrote in Christianity Today:

…we let words flow over us like rain; we feel the fresh, cooling water, put our tongues out to catch a few drops, and then get a towel to rub dry, freeing ourselves of any effects. Words, words, words, like drops of water, or music, pleasant but temporary in effect. The Word of God is not meant to be like that. If it is not sharper than a two-edged sword, cutting us deep, then we have not really listened or seen.[8]

God’s word is living, active, and sharp. The scriptures are not to be trifled worth. They can sting and they can pierce!

piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow

And the writer of Hebrews moves on to describing the piercing effect of the word of God as devastatingly thorough. The word of God pierces, we are told, two realities of the human person:

  • the division of soul and of spirit
  • the division …of joints and of marrow

These words have been endlessly debated and discussed over the last two millennia by Christians trying to discern what is meant by “soul” and “spirit” and “joints” and “marrow.” This is to be expected, but allow me to commend the suggestion that diving deep into the particulars of these words risks missing the point. For instance, what seems most important is that the word of God is depicted as piercing to the depths of both the material (“joints and…marrow”) and immaterial (“soul and…spirit”) parts of human existence.

This distinction is more significant than the exact meaning of the particulars. The point is that God’s word penetrates to the very essence of all that we are: material and spiritual. F.F. Bruce writes:

The words which follow—”as it pierces, it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow”—are to be understood as a “rhetorical accumulation of terms to express the whole mental nature of man on all its sides”; so A. B. Davidson…That the word of God probes the inmost recesses of our spiritual being and brings the subconscious motives to light is what is meant; we may compare Paul’s language about the coming day when the Lord “will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts” (1 Cor. 4:5).[9]

Meaning this: read the Bible and it will search you to the depths. It will read your mail, even and especially the mail you do not want read. There is no corner of who you are—spiritual or physical—than can escape the probing light of the word of God.

This is what God’s word is like: it pierces to the very intersections of the routes of our being that together comprise all that we are.

discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart

And now we move the final aspect of the word of God, the aspect we are most fearful of, the aspect we most dislike: the word of God “discern[s] the thoughts and intention of the heart.”

Read the scriptures honestly and rightly and God will reveal to you where you really are in your mind and your heart: your thoughts and your intentions. It will leave you with no place to hide. James Draper writes:

            The Word of God rips the mask from us and shows us what we are. That is why one of the most difficult things in the world is to get people to spend time reading the Bible.[10]

Here is where verse 13 comes in like a sledgehammer to show us just how revealing the scriptures are.

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.

And here we come to it: the devil will move heaven and earth to keep you from a deep, consistent, honest engagement with what the Bible actually says. This is because he knows that the word of God can bring you to your knees, break your heart, reveal to you the truth about you, and open the door for the Spirit of God to call you to faith and repentance.

I repeat: if there is one thing the devil does not want you to do, it is you reading your Bible with an open mind and heart, so he will do anything—anything!—to keep you from doing it!

The word of God can melt the hardest heart. The word of God can change your life. God speaks His word into our lives and the word compels us to run to Jesus! God’s word is revolutionary for the one who exposes himself or herself to it! Thomas G. Long was correct when he wrote:

The word of God takes an ordinary day and makes it “today,” takes an ordinary moment and makes it the time of crisis and decision, takes a routine event and makes it the theater of the glory of God, takes an ordinary life and calls it to holiness.[11]

We must heed the word of God, yes, but we must read it if we are to heed it. We must hear it if we are to listen to it.

Are you listening to God’s word? Have you received it by faith into your inner most being? Have you opened your life to its searching ways? Have you allowed God to pierce your heart with divine truth and holy fire? Do not delay! Do not harden your heart! Today is the day! Receive the word of God!


[1] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1970/solzhenitsyn/lecture/

[2] Osborne, Grant, Guthrie, George H. Hebrews: Verse by Verse (p. 109). Lexham Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Hays, J. Daniel. How the Bible Came to Be (Ebook Shorts) (Kindle Locations 82-89). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] James T. Draper. Hebrews (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, Inc., 1976), p.96.

[5] Os Guinness.  The Devil’s Gauntlet.  (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1989), p.17.

[6] Guthrie, Donald. Hebrews (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladius

[8] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1974/september-13/layman-and-his-faith-safe-storage-or-sure-loss.html

[9] F. F. Bruce. The Epistle to the Hebrews (Kindle Locations 1373-1378). Kindle Edition.

[10] Draper, 98.

[11] Long, Thomas G.. Hebrews (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) (p. 61). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.


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