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Sermon preached on Hebrews 4:12-16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/20/2018 in Novato, CA.
“In Time of Need”
The last two weeks in Hebrews we have been dealing with the warning its given from Psalm 95. That psalm remembers how the generation that God brought out of Egypt largely fell away when the time of testing came in the wilderness before they got into the Promised Land. God did not let those who fell away in unbelief enter his rest. But Psalm 95 also talked about those God did bring into the Promised Land. Hebrews showed from Psalm 95 that even they were still waiting for a greater rest to come. They then needed to keep their faith and trust in God so they too didn’t miss out from entering into God’s promised rest. The application was again to us, that we too are waiting for that final rest. Yes, we’ve been redeemed from sin by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We’ve been born again as new creations by his Spirit. But we are still waiting for glory. In the mean time we are pilgrims on this earth. That means in the mean time we will have tests and temptations to our faith. And so, though we touched on some of these verses last week, I wanted to spend one more week here to see more about the help that is available to us during our time of earthly pilgrimage. And so today, we’ll consider first the exposing Word, then our sympathetic High Priest, and this gracious throne that we have access to.
Beginning then with this exposing Word, we start in verses 12-13. This is a verse that often gets taught out of context. But I remind you of the context that I highlighted last week. The main point in mentioning the Word of God here is not immediately about the help we have in it. Rather, it’s part of the warning that Hebrews has been giving. Remember, that when Hebrews referenced that wilderness generation, it was referencing Scripture from Numbers 14. That passage in Numbers ended with God condemning the lack of faith the people had. God then swore that they would not enter his rest, which typologically meant for them that they would not enter the Promised Land. So, what did they do? They acted in some sense like they were repentant. When Moses told them God’s response to their grumbling that he wouldn’t give them the land now, they mourned greatly. Then they say that they will bravely go and attack the Canaanites. I mentioned the analogy last week, that it’s like a child who won’t obey their parents until the punishment is at hand. Then suddenly they change their tone and try to get out of their punishment by suddenly trying to comply. But a good parent will know that they need to still discipline the child to teach them for the future that they need to obey the first time, not only when they see the hand of punishment about to fall. And so, that wilderness generation tried to change their tune and start obeying God once the punishment was being given by God. But God said it was too late then. Yet, Israel presumptuously tried anyways. They tried to attack and take the Promised Land from the Canaanites and the Amalekites. Moses pleaded with them and tried to warn them not to try that; that God wasn’t with them. Moses told them they would fall by the sword if they tried. And that is exactly what happen. And so, it’s that imagery that is in mind here when Hebrews says the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword. It’s still dealing with what happened to that wilderness generation and applying it to us. For us, the warning of Psalm 95 to not fall into their same mistake, that’s the sword held out against us. If we don’t heed that warning, if we harden our heart against God, if we don’t continue to trust him in faith, God’s Word will stand against us. God’s judgment will come upon us in a far greater way than any Canaanite or Amalekite sword. One commentator put it like this: “Those who remain insensitive to the voice of God in Scripture may discover that God’s word is also a lethal weapon” (William L. Lane).
With that context of warning in mind, we see the power of God’s Word described here. First, it says that God’s Word is living and powerful. See here the connection between God and his Word. When a person of integrity speaks, the weight of their words relates to the weight of the person. Language can be performative in that it accomplishes the very thing it says. The word of God’s power was very vividly seen in the beginning when he created the world by his word. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And so, if God says that he swears to not let someone enter his rest, the very statement is also an action. By those very words, God enacts an oath that he will surely keep. They will not enter his rest. Again, the living and powerful nature of God’s Word comes back to the living and powerful nature of God himself. If a human makes an oath, we are hopeful that he will keep it, but sadly he might not. But when the living and powerful God speaks, his words are true; his oaths are sure; his claims are certain; his promises will be kept; and therefore his warnings better be heeded.
The Word is further described in terms of its ability to pierce into places that no human sword can reach. Here is where it talks about in verse 12 of piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow. Likely the references to soul and spirit here are synonyms for the immaterial part of human existence, whereas the joints and marrow represent the physical, material part of human existence. And so, its saying how this sword – the sword which is the Scriptures – it can pierce and affect not only your body, but it can get to core of your being. It can strike you in the heart, and I don’t mean the physical heart.
This is further described when it goes on to say that it can discern or judge even the thoughts and intents of our heart. There the analogy the sword begins to fall away and it makes us see how the Word can do what no human can do to another. We can’t read each other minds. In fact, if we assume the worst of someone by ascribing evil thoughts to them, we are sinfully judging them. Similarly, if we impugn their motives without ample evidence, we again are in the wrong. Neither human swords not human wit can truly plunge into another man’s heart. We have trouble sometimes even understanding our own sinful, deceitful hearts. But not God’s Word. It cuts to the heart like nothing else can.
Verse 13 then takes this to the final conclusion here about the Word. Transitioning from God’s Word, to God himself, it says that we are left completely exposed by God’s ability to see into our hearts. Everything about us is naked and laid bare before God who sees and knows all. This is what God’s Word does. It exposes us before the all-seeing God. Remember the Garden when man first sinned. There we noticed for the first time our nakedness. And there we tried to hide from God. But, of course, we couldn’t hide from God. Again, we see the warning brought out here in the full. No one will sneak by God into glory. No one can fake their faith into the world to come. No one can trick God to get into his rest. Only those truly trusting in Christ by faith will enter glory. Thus, this is why Hebrews says we need to be diligent to see that we are in the faith.
In concluding this first point, I would note the flip side to this. Though the power of God’s Word is presented here as part of the warning against unbelief, think of how God’s Word can be used for the believer. This penetrating and exposing Word is something we should want right now. Better to have God’s Word expose a failing in our faith now, than when we stand before God on the final day of judgment. Likewise, as we look to grow in this pilgrim life, this powerful and living Word is something we should embrace as Christians. It is so useful in our sanctification, to have it strike at those deep lusts of the heart or those hidden sinful motives. Christians know that such a penetrating work of the Word can be challenging, but it is ultimately good for us and so freeing. Let us as believers see how this Word can be a great help for us during our earthly pilgrimage.
Let’s turn now to our second point and consider this sympathetic high priest that we have. This is verses 14-15. I love how the sympathy is contrasted here with the fact that he is high in heaven. The fact that he is not here on earth anymore doesn’t mean that he is aloof, unconcerned, or unaware of our struggles. Rather, remember how in John’s gospel Jesus says that it is good that he goes because then he will send the Helper to us, which is his Spirit. It is through the Spirit that he is able to fulfill his promise he will always be with us, even to the end of the age.
So, then, this great high priest can sympathize with us. This gets at how the Son of God took on full and complete humanity. He was made fully like us, with all our frailties, weaknesses, and even temptations. And he was born into this same sin-cursed world, with all the miseries associated with that. He knows what it is like to hunger and thirst. He knows loss and sorrow. He knows what it is like to be tempted to every kind of sin. The point here in verse 15 was that in every sort of temptation that we go through, he’s experienced it. And so, he knows our troubles and heartaches. It’s not like he’s some king who sits sheltered in lap and luxury while passing laws that only affect the commoners of whom he has no real understanding of their life. No, he became one of us and can and does relate to us fully.
Yet, he was also without sin, it says. Some might think that makes him less able to relate to our temptations. True, he doesn’t know what it is like to fail and fall to the temptation. Yet on the flip side, that means he knows the temptations in the strongest degree. Think about that. How often have you experienced temptation and gave in pretty quickly? Sometimes you really fight and fight before you give in. But sometimes you just quickly give in. Satan doesn’t even have to break out the big guns. Do we really know the full extent of being tempted in every point? Jesus does, because he experienced the full measure of temptation in each point, since he wasn’t quick to give in, but overcame in the full. For that matter, he knows how to overcome temptation. Would we want our help in temptation to come from someone like us who constantly fails like us? No, we should want our help to come from the one who knows how to overcome temptation. We should want to get help from the one who gives us power to overcome those same temptations. That’s our great high priest, Jesus!
If there is any doubt of Jesus’ desire and ability to sympathize with our weakness, just remember that he already did so at the cross. In the words of Isaiah 53, Jesus was a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” Knowing our weaknesses, knowing our greatest needs firsthand, Jesus went to the cross for us. Think of that act alone, the sorrows and temptations he experienced in the Garden Gethsemane leading up to the cross. When the armed Roman soldiers came to arrest came to him, he wasn’t concerned about their human swords. It was the sword of God that caused these sorrows. That’s what Jesus experienced for us. He willingly gave himself to have the living and powerful sword of God pierce him through. Sharper than any two-edged sword, God struck him with the divine wrath that was due for us. He stepped in front of that sword, so we could be saved. Turns out there is a hiding place from God’s sword – it’s in Jesus who takes the blade for us!
For Jesus to have already sympathized so much for us, let us not doubt that he will continue to do so. If we cry out to Jesus, “Lord have mercy on me,” surely he will hear us and help us. And so, we have this great high priest that we can and should go to for our help here and now in our pilgrim earthly lives. This leads us then to our third point, to consider this throne of grace that we have access to, according to verse 16. Imagine the picture that is painted here. After the resurrection, the exalted Jesus ascends on high with the name that is above every name. He is then seated before the very throne of God, at his very right hand. He is seated there in power and great glory, even while he is at the same time there before God as our high priest. Hebrews then invites us to come before that glorious throne to seek help during our earthly pilgrimage.
There is certainly a point here that will be developed further as we keep studying in Hebrews. We’ll see it speak to how Jesus is a better priest than what they had under the old covenant, because under the old covenant only the Levitical high priest could go once a year on the Day of Atonement before the mercy seat of God’s presence in the earthly tabernacle. From there he could seek grace and mercy for the people of God. So, now, we are being told that Jesus offered a one-time atonement not in the earthly sanctuary, but in the real heavenly throne room of God. Because of that, we now each individually have the ability to come continually before the heavenly mercy seat of God as often as we need help, with our high priest right there too. There is great access now to God’s presence and help that we didn’t have before.
Similarly, it says we can come boldly. Unlike Queen Esther who feared for her life when she drew near before the Persian king without invitation, we have a standing invitation from the High King of Heaven. And when we draw near, we don’t need to fear judgment or wrath, because our sin has already been dealt with, purged away, by Christ. So, then we can come before this throne of grace with a confidence and a peace that can only be had as those who have found refuge in Christ.
What does it mean then to come before the throne of grace? How do we come before such a throne? Surely, it at least means prayer. We have a way to bring our requests for help to God. It is in prayer. Surely, a similar application is what we do when we gather for corporate worship. In worship we together come spiritually before the throne of grace and worship our God. There we bring again our prayers and praise. But we also receive his blessings and Word. So, let us individually draw near to God in our prayer life. But let us also draw near together when we assemble corporately on the Lord’s Day in holy assembly.
And what is available to us when we come to such a throne? Verse 16 says mercy and grace. Mercy can come in the form of compassion amidst our many troubles and needs. It is a merciful king that pities the sufferings of his people and gives them help. Mercy can also come in the form of pardon for sin. We know we receive that in abundance because of the atonement of Christ. And yet it is still right to ask for such mercy from our loving, heavenly father when we do wrong. As for grace, that is the positive gift of favor, goodwill, help, or other gifts, that we receive from God. It may be the strength to overcome a temptation. It may be the spiritual gift that is used in some kind of ministry. It may be the resolve needed to stand up under persecution. Such grace can come in all sorts of ways. Let us not neglect such a fountain of mercy and grace, but keep going back to the source daily and throughout the day. We will require such help during our time of need in this earthly pilgrimage.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, there is manifold help available for us as Christians while we wait for glory. The exposing Word does not stand against Christians but aids us in our sanctification. Our high priest has and continues to sympathize with our weaknesses, ready to help. Our Lord has won us access to a gracious throne always there to dispense grace and mercy. We live in a time of great need right now in life. We will have such needs until the need. But we thank God for his provisions for us for the journey.
The pilgrim life might seem long and hard right now. But the reality is that one day it will come to an end. As we’ve considered how much we need this throne of grace until then, we remember what it says of that throne in Matthew 25:31. There it speaks of the end, when this pilgrimage comes to a close. There it speaks of the end when Christ returns. Matthew 25:31 says, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.” The throne of his glory! This throne of grace will ultimately be the throne of glory. Grace and glory. Grace now for the journey. Glory unto glory when we arrive. Come quickly oh Lord of Glory! Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.