Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning, studied the tendency for people to overestimate themselves. He found that those who were the least competent performers have the most inflated view of themselves. The study also revealed that their over-inflation wasn’t due to arrogance, but ignorance.
Obviously, this can be true for Christians as well. We routinely flatter ourselves with false assessments of our own competence. We aren’t even aware of our pride, because we think we’re simply being honest.
Jeremiah 17:9 ESV
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
God is the only one truly capable of knowing his creatures inside and out. That is why his word is so effective at bringing conviction—because it corrects our over-inflated self-assessments.
We concluded last week with the exhortation to strive for rest (v.11). One of the ways we do that is by observing the Sabbath. Another way is by submitting ourselves under the authority of God’s word.
Having just warned his audience about failing to enter into God’s rest, the author of Hebrews points to the exposing power of God’s Word. He’s calling them to recognize how the Word of God strips us of any sense of self-confidence.
We tend to underestimate what God’s word can do while overestimating what we can do.
God preserves us by using his piercing word to convict us and strip us of all self-assurance.
Read Hebrews 4:11-13.
Pierced by God’s Word (12)
The word of God is…
• Living — Often used with reference to God (cf. 3:12). The word of God is just as alive as God is. The word is divine revelation. That doesn’t mean we worship the Bible, but we worship the God who savingly reveals himself only through the Bible. We cannot know the Living God by any means that is contrary to his word. This word also implies that God’s word is not dead/static. It is animated by the Holy Spirit. It is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16).
• Effective — This adjective, translated “active” is only found 3x in the NT and its other occurences mean effective. Even here, that seems to be the sense of the word. Some translations go with “powerful”—which also conveys the idea that the Bible is capable of doing something in the heart of everyone who reads it. Scripture has an impact, it always accomplishes whatever God purposes (Isa 55:10-11). God’s word brings judgment or salvation depending upon the absence or presence of faith.
• Sharp — Only occurence, but related to blades of a double-edged sword. It is a weapon for offense. While a sword can certainly be used defensively, its sharpness is only valuable when it is used to pierce and slice.
God’s word is meant to penetrate the whole person (soul, body, mind, and heart). Notice, the weapon of God’s word doesn’t comfort and protect. It’s not called a shield or helmet. It’s not body armor. The sword of God’s word pierces, cuts, and divides. In other words, it brings about genuine conviction that leads to true repentance.
RPM: “The writer here is not dealing in anthropology, but in admonition. He speaks of ‘an innermost penetration of the innermost man,’ of dividing the indivisible; and his point is that nothing is so deeply hidden in man but that God’s word can uncover it and bring it to judgment.”
Along with “rest”, “heart” is a key word in this section (5x between Hebrews 3:8-4:12). The author explicitly connects the mind to the heart (“thoughts and intentions of the heart”). Both words have to do with the mind, which implies that our thinking determines our passions.
Spiritually speaking, left to itself, the human heart will harden. It’s like an unused muscle that atrophies. Reading God’s word, on the other hand, is like a cardio workout. Meditating upon Scripture activates the spiritual flow of blood throughout your body.
Murray Capill (Diagram 8)—God’s word enlightens the mind, renews the conscience, transforms the will, and gives us godly passions. Exclusively focusing on the mind leads to a cold, hard heart. Only addressing the conscience can become manipulative and leave people in their guilt. Compelling the will, apart from the rest of the heart, will turn preaching into legalism and decisionism. Purely focusing on passion will be nothing more than empty emotionalism.
The author of Hebrews is well aware of our tendency to underestimate God’s word. Instead of assuming that we are arrogant, he challenges us to think rightly about Scripture. Maybe we have never really thought about the impact that God’s word should have in our everyday lives.
After forty days of fasting, Satan’s tempted Jesus to turn a stone into bread. How did Jesus respond? “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Mt 4:4; Deut 8:3).
As we open this book we also want to open ourselves to it. It has a work to do in our hearts. It might confront us in our sin, comfort us in the gospel, help us out of our despair, or encourage us to press on. Every time we read God’s word, it might do one of those things, or all of them.
Our passions follow what we give our thinking over to. If we devote ourselves to entertainment, that will become our hearts desire. If we give into evil thoughts, we will more and more desire to act out that idea (covet > steal).
Conversely, when we devote ourselves to God’s living word, our hearts align with his will. Heeding the warning not to harden our hearts requires an intentional use of God’s word. If God’s word is actively penetrating our hearts, it will not harden against the preserving work of God’s Spirit.
How are you planning on reading the Bible this year? Do you have a plan? If not, Satan will surely find a way to tempt with you plenty of alternatives. He will seek to keep you distracted from the kingdom of heaven, or try to undermine your faith, but at the very least he will ensure that you have an over-inflated view of yourself.
The Spirit of God makes the word effectual for salvation (WSC 89), so we are encouraged to read it and hear it with “diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (WSC 90). In other words, allow it to do its work upon your whole person.
› In addition to being pierced by God’s Word, so that we might recognize our vulnerability, we also learn that we are…
Exposed to God’s Eyes (13)
Disobedient creatures have been attempting to hide from God since the Fall. They feel vulnerable and ashamed as their sin is laid bare. There is an appropriate sense of shame caused by our sinfulness.
Psalm 38:3–6 ESV
There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning.
The language of v.13 (hiding, naked, judgment) takes us back to the garden after Adam & Eve ate the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:7f). They knew they were naked so they immediately hid themselves. This is the natural response to a sense of conviction. If the word has successfully worked on our heart this will be our initial reaction. We desire to cover our shame somehow, regardless of how inadequate it is.
No creature remains hidden, but all are naked—laid bare before God. This word for “exposed” is actually much more graphic in the Greek. But, what precisely it means is debatable:
1. Lying on ones back (naked), exposing what we respectfully keep covered.
2. Or, what I think most likely, it may have to do with a sacrificial animal lying helpless on the altar. The word literally refers to the “neck” (τραχηλος):
• It may reference the breaking of the animals neck, leaving it paralyzed on the altar.
• It may reference a priest inspecting a sacrificial animal for blemishes. Not only is the exterior observed, but also the inward parts are exposed as the priest cuts the animal open, exposing its parts from the neck down.
In either case, the interpretation gives the impression of vulnerability. There is an inability to hide. The word of God leaves everyone stripped and exposed to the scrutiny of the eyes of our Judge—Him to whom we must reckon, give an account.
A lot of research has been done on the concept of shame. Psychologists realize just how powerful an emotion it is. Shame often lies at the root of much of our anger, jealousy, and fear. Our flesh craves to dismiss the shame, so it attempts to covers it up with more sin.
However, shame also serves to conform us to a proper conduct. Since we despise the feeling so much, we seek to avoid whatever causes it. So shame discourages the behaviors that draw it out.
Therein lies the Catch-22. If reading the word of God leaves us “naked and exposed”, why would we devote ourselves to it? It would make much more sense for us to avoid it as much as possible.
The problem is not the sense of shame we feel—that is unavoidable. The problem is what we do with it. Ultimately, the only good solution is to bring our shame before the God against whom we have rebelled. There is a sense in which this too is unavoidable.
John 12:48 ESV
The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.
Even if we know we cannot fool God, by fooling everyone else we essentially isolate ourselves from family, friends, and the church community.
This protective instinct is understandable, but it stems from an unbelief. If people see who we truly are, they won’t accept us. Underneath this assumption is the fear that God hasn’t accepted us. Because we know God has seen us, we feel rejected and condemned.
When we understand the gospel, everything changes! God knew every sin we would ever commit, but he still sent his Son. Jesus saw the depth of our depravity, but he still died for us while we were enemiets. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He has seen us inside and out, yet he promises to preserve us in the palm of his hand.
So we take God’s word, and with the precision of a scalpel, it penetrates our hearts—exposing any waywardness that remains. We willingly open ourselves up to his examination before the great day of God’s judgment.
The paradox is that humbling ourselves before God, exposing our rebellious hearts, actually brings us to the only hope for relief—the gospel. Instead of relentlessly trying to suppress our guilt and bearing the weight of our shame, Jesus offers to remove the our sin and to give us his righteousness.
› Let’s conclude by turning back to the book of Psalms…
We’ve been reading through the psalms because the author of Hebrews quotes or alludes from the psalms more than any other book. So it is appropriate for us to find some relevance there.
Psalm 103:8–12 ESV
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
The word of God continues to pierce us and we find ourselves vulnerable before our great Judge. But, in Christ, we have come to know his steadfast love towards us. Instead of condemnation we receive mercy and grace. So let us draw near to him in confidence!