I almost skipped over the next passage on our hike.
Like the Starry, Starry Night of scriptures, right after the Mona Lisa (John 3:16) and Da Vinci’s Last Supper (Psalm 23), Hebrews 4:12 is so familiar to most Bible readers, it almost seems redundant to discuss it. But maybe that’s just me. I’ve read it thousands of times with seekers over the years; it’s one of the best verses to introduce the power of God’s Word, and nearly everyone seems to connect with it.
Still, it merits our attention. Here it is, along with its companion verse:
The Word of God is living 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. (Heb.4: 12-13)
So let’s hike it!
Do you view the Bible as living and active, distinguishing it from all books ever written—in a class above all others? I hope so! Despite its advanced age, the Bible has a freshness and immediacy no other books share (especially when we read it in contemporary language, rather than the Shakespearean-ese of the King James Version). Another word for this quality is “relevant”; although its words were penned many centuries ago, they speak to us today, right now, whenever we open it.
This was immediately apparent to me when I first read the opening verses of John’s gospel, almost 40 years ago. I was a spiritual seeker, actively running from Jesus while I sought the truth through other books, workshops, gurus, and philosophies. I read diverse religious texts and had a bookshelf full of alternate teachings. Most of them were like swimming through clouds, trying to grasp something solid; I didn’t reject anything I read, nor did I find satisfying answers. The more I searched, the emptier I felt.
I was partial to the I Ching, the ancient Chinese ‘Book of Changes’, which isn’t really a religious text but a collection of 144 oracles, or readings, to be consulted when faced with a burning personal question or conundrum. Wisdom is sought by laying down yarrow sticks and being directed to a specific oracle. Most of my burning questions concerned love and romance, but I once consulted it on behalf of a friend seeking guidance over whether to have an abortion. The oracle advised against intended action, so she asked for a second and then a third reading, attempting to get the answer she wanted. For too long, the I Ching was the most helpful book I’d found, which isn’t saying much.
God used a series of profound life events—the death of my fiancé, an odyssey of bicycle wanderings—to stop me in my tracks and confront me with his Word. When I finally sat down near a sunny mountain trail in Montana and opened my borrowed Bible, no one had to convince me I was finally reading Truth. The words had an impact on my spirit: a troubling, unsettling, earth-tipping impact that wouldn’t let go. THIS was the living and active word of God, cutting me like the sharpest of double-edged swords. And I hadn’t even read any verses about sin yet!
This probing and penetrating work continued over the next two weeks as I kept reading, moving me from unsettled to intent, from tormented to hopeful, and from reluctant to being caught in an expanding joy. Henry’s story was similar. A stranger in London handed him a battered Bible (apparently stolen from a Paris library), and without any human guidance, my almost-eighteen-year-old future husband read through the Gospels and underwent the same transformation. Like me, he needed no outside convincing, no “proof that the Bible is true” studies. The Word of God proved itself living and active by the changes it worked on his heart and mind.
This act is not meant to be painless. If anyone can read the Word for the first (or first effective) time* and not be cut, penetrated, divided and discomfited, he or she must be hardened to truth. I question a painless conversion, just as I question dullness in the hearts of older believers. A double-edged sword cuts deeply, both ways, and I warn newbies that Bible study, at least initially, won’t always feel great. It’s like having a deadly tumor, I’ll say. Would you undergo the painful surgery to have it removed, or would you pretend it wasn’t there and let it grow?
God’s Word exposes more than our outward, dastardly deeds. He’s concerned with the inner self, the secret thoughts and attitudes belying our benign exterior. Lots of us are quite good at pretending to be “good”, knowing how to fool most outsiders. (I suspect a lot of grannies are especially adept at this, as no one believes their dear grandmother, however unbelieving, deserves to go to hell.) We silence our cuss words, hide our resentments, polish our lies, and cover our pride with begrudging acts of service. God doesn’t care about our outward appearance, except to label it as hypocrisy. He sees deep inside, where the rotten stuff lives, and he’s given us his Word so we can see it, too.
This is one of his greatest gifts: letting us read the Answer Sheet, so to speak, before we face the final exam, when it’ll be too late. His Word tells us everything we’ll be judged for, inwardly and outwardly, and gives us the priceless opportunity to clear our accounts through three provisions of grace: confession and acknowledgement of our sins; full repentance (turning from) those sins; and absolute and ongoing forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Everything is laid bare and uncovered before God, I’ll say. Wouldn’t you rather face and deal with your sins now, while there’s still time, than face God unprepared?
This should be a rhetorical question, though some folks choose to forego the early Answer Sheet and walk away.
A side point which often comes up is the “soul and spirit” question. What’s the difference between them? While this topic makes for lively conversation (and I have my own, untested ideas), I don’t think discernment of such is the point. The point is, we can’t tell what sets them apart; only God knows. That’s how sensitive and discerning his Word is, how insightful and knowing, how exact, how inescapable.
Each of us will have to give an account of our lives before God. Did we seek him? Love him? Obey him? God cannot be separated from his Word. Your attitude toward the Scriptures demonstrates your attitude toward God.
How do you rate yourself? More importantly, how does God rate you?
*I’d been exposed to the Bible as a child, attending Sunday school and Christian camp till I was fourteen. Reading it for myself, as an adult, was completely different.