I'm going to show you something that might blow your mind.
It concerns a very popular verse in the Bible.
And it certainly blew my mind - even after years of knowing (and quoting) the verse, having been raised in Christian culture. It's a simple and yet very pervasive error of interpretation. A wrong understanding which has become the dominant understanding.
Pastors say it all the time. Congregants parrot it. Books are written. Conferences held. Bad t-shirts made... All because of this popular verse. All meant to be “honoring” it... Let’s take a look.
Hebrews 4:12 says,
"For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart."
I'm sure most of us are quite familiar with this verse. But here's the thing:
It absolutely is not. Not at all, really.
Would you want me to explain? Here goes... Context is everything. And people who pride themselves on interpreting the Bible pay lip service to context far more often than they actually observe it. But it really is very important.
...So what if we were to read that verse with even just a tiny bit of context?
We could start by continuing on to verse 13,
"And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account."
Did you catch it? The statement immediately after the famous verse 12 begins, "And there is no creature hidden from HIS sight..." Wait, "His?" What is "His?" "His" is a pronoun. And, grammatically-speaking (this is quick and painless - stay with me), a pronoun is used in this case because the proper noun has ALREADY been established.
What did the previous statement establish? What proper noun was used?
"...the word of God..."
Think about that. That should lead us to a FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION we never hear asked:
Is The Bible, is scripture, a "He?"
Of course it isn't.
Are you saying Hebrews 4:12 was always referring to Jesus?
Oh, most definitely.
...Do you think I'm reaching? Do you think my suggestion is far-fetched? Basic grammar review doesn't "do it" for you, eh? That's okay.
How about this as evidence:
Hebrews is a book about Jesus from start to finish.
Hebrews begins by saying “Jesus is how God is talking to us,” and ends by saying “Cling to Jesus, because Jesus is the same, always.” Hebrews is about Jesus’ superiority to all things the Hebrew people had considered sacred - their former revelations, covenants, priesthoods, oracles, laws, etc. Jesus is superior to all of them. Every one.
HEBREWS is is arguably the most Jesus-centric book in the New Testament (that is not a gospel).
Hebrews is about Jesus being what God has to say.
And within that structural mainframe is what we call "chapter 4," which concerns entering in to the final and ultimate rest God has provided IN Jesus. It details how Jesus is different from the priests Jews had previously known - how Jesus is a compassionate high priest who has represented us before the Father perfectly (while revealing the Father just as perfectly!)... And in the middle of Hebrews 4 is this verse about "the word of God."
Now, either the writer of Hebrews randomly breaks from the theme of rest in Jesus to give an off-topic shout out to the Bible (which, by the way, won’t even be put together as we know it for more than three hundred years after Hebrews is written anyway), or... Hebrews 4:12 is part of the same point being made about Jesus on either side of it.
Let me state that again to make sure we're clear.
There are two options:
- Hebrews 4:12 is a random shout out to something which does not yet exist, or
- Hebrews 4:12 is a statement that is consistent with the context of the message being presented around it.
Which is more likely? I’d say the second option, wouldn't you?
If you're still not convinced, consider this: the word translated “word” in verse 12? That’s the Greek word 'logos'. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As in, “For the LOGOS of God is living and powerful...” Now, where else might we find ‘logos’?
John 1:1-5 is an excellent place to look, since it’s the first place this Greek concept of a ‘logos’ enters the biblical record...
“In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word [logos] was with God, and the Word [logos] was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Just as in Hebrews 4:12, all those times we see John using “Word,” we find the Greek term ‘logos’ behind it. And once again, what happens right after all those uses of ‘logos’ is an immediate move into pronouns like “he” and “him”.
And what’s John 1 talking about? Jesus.
So why is Jesus being called the Word/Logos here and elsewhere? Interestingly, John picked a term from Greek philosophy which resonated with the grander ideas of his own Hebrew background and common Aramaic terminology. It is a very inclusive move by John, adopting this encompassing 'logos' term. And with that term, he is saying something magnificent: namely that the revelation and manifestation of God's creative presence and power - which his own people and the Gentiles both had been dreaming of and chasing down - was here. Here in absolute fullness.
The concept of Logos is a way of referring to a “grand reality” or “ultimate truth behind everything.”
John seems to be evoking the Stoic philosophers use of the term especially, since the Stoics used Logos to reckon with “the divine, animating principle which pervades the Universe.”
John, a first century fisherman from an oppressed and occupied people, borrowed the term to say something beautiful and far-reaching:
JESUS is the animating principle, the ultimate truth, and the grand reality of the universe.
And John declared this while embracing the entire world as he knew it. All the best it had ever declared or hoped for was embodied in Jesus.
So... what difference does it really make?
Can we consider again Hebrews 4:12-13 with this new understanding of the Word/Logos? Can we see Jesus in this passage, where he belongs? Let's attempt reading it again with Jesus in mind...
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account."
Wonderful, ISN'T it? ...But also a bit scary.
Because you can read the Bible a hundred times cover to cover and still miss this simple truth. You can even know all your New Testament Greek and have all the study aides at your disposal, and you can teach every week from a pulpit… and still miss this simple, simple truth. I know because I have done exactly that. And isn't that odd? I mean, this should be Bible 101, if there was such a thing. It’s a basic reading and understanding of one of the most fundamental ideas in the New Testament - Jesus is the Word of God - and yet, the most basic understanding of this verse is not even the common interpretation of this passage!
God help us - this is not even one of the confusing passages! (And there are plenty of those.)
And that should give us great pause, because, for however much we claim to “just believe the Bible,” or however much we champion the words on its pages... If we are missing the Source of those words - the true Word, the true Light - then we are not honoring them as we think we are.
Please, please, please -
don’t misunderstand me.
I am not suggesting we need to strive to be more correct and rigidly adherent to what we consider “scriptural” to fix this problem.
I am not suggesting we lose ourselves in academic pursuit, seeking perfect understanding or interpretation. Doing that has already proven to not work, because that’s already what people do... and yet, here we are.
No amount of what my friend Darrell calls "bibliolatry" is going to fix this problem. The very "authorities" who spend all their time in the scriptures and yet can't see simple things like this are the same authorities who think their rigid biblicism can fix any problem and illuminate any truth.
And clearly that hasn't worked. So I'm not suggesting we double down on that.
What I am suggesting is that we are blind.
Blind because we see what we want to see. Blind because we have been trained to use scripture to confirm our biases. But most of all blind because, in so many ways, we value scripture - value our doctrine, value our structures of theology and teaching - more than we actually value Jesus. We are so infatuated with the oracle that we've missed the Lord of it. So enamored with the pages that we miss Who they’re meant to be pointing us to.
When a Christian uses the phrase "the word of God," or says, "I need to spend more time in the word," that Christian is always referring to scripture... But when scripture itself uses that "Word" terminology, it's always referring to Jesus. And when the Bible - and particularly the New Testament - contains words that really do refer to scripture, do you know what term translators use in English?
But we remain - so in love with our ideas about the Bible that we assume it's talking about itself when it's talking about Jesus. We do this to the extent that we have hijacked terminology which the Bible uses to elevate Jesus... in order to elevate the Bible.
And when we think we're honoring the scriptures and holding them high, we're ignoring the very things they have to say. Not because we haven't studied hard enough, but because that's what our hearts are set on doing, and that heart orientation has blinded us.
It’s an amazing, bizarre, twisted irony, isn’t it? That we could love a verse so much, and yet miss what it’s saying entirely? There are churches, colleges, even software programs named after this words in this verse, all under the assumption that it's talking about the Bible. It’s indicative, as so many things are, that something is pervasively, generally wrong in Christianity. I’m not talking about some fringe bad doctrine that a few people have fallen for - I’m talking about the general and broad sense of what these things mean to the vast majority of us.
...I'm talking about THE basic lens through which we view everything.
SOMETHING has become increasingly clear to me LATELY.
It is that we have allowed our inherited understanding of the institution of "Christianity" to be Lord rather than Jesus. It's evident when we can't allow Jesus to step in and take over our preferred titles and designations for things like "the word". It's evident when people react to what I'm saying as though Jesus was threatening something more sacred than himself simply by being allowed access to his own term. It speaks volumes about what we idolize if we won't allow Jesus his own title. And if we refuse to allow Jesus to upset our preconceptions, how are we any different than the Jews who didn't believe him, and who didn't want him changing their established way of thinking?
The Old Testament tells us that God is absolutely One - in perfect unity and harmony and beauty, which was a radical idea for its time. This means that God is not splintered or divided into warring factions, and doesn't have schizophrenic tendencies or separate personalities at odds with each other. This Hebrew God does not reflect humanity's brokenness as the gods of Egypt or Canaan or Babylon did. This God's nature is One. This God's character is consistent. That, in many ways, is one of the most central ideas to be found in the Old Testament. And because it's so different from the climate of belief that surrounded it, It is probably the most revolutionary thing the Old Testament champions:
"Listen up, those Governed-by-God! This God we're talking about - this God of community - is ONE!" (Deut. 6:4)
And to this understanding, the New Testament brings a twist to the narrative and adds something even more radical, declaring that this God-Who-Is-One is absolutely like Jesus. Thus, “Jesus is Lord” becomes the confession of the early church, and the ultimate clarion call of the New Testament. Not Moses, not Caesar, not Rome, not Judaism... not anything but Jesus. It is a broad statement, and a defining one. Everything is made subject to the essential person of Jesus, because Jesus is Lord.
And Jesus is a revolutionary Lord, because he’s always upsetting assumptions and expectations.
He's constantly affirming the people considered “out” and constantly upsetting the people considered “in.” At his table are thieves and terrorists and whores - all running like mad into the kingdom of heaven while the religious look on with skepticism.
But I look at the state of Christianity and see so little of “Jesus is Lord” in its essential quality. I see so much “Christianity is Lord,” “Theology is Lord,” “Conservative politics are Lord,” “American Empire is Lord…” I could go on, but that’s unnecessary. What’s necessary is to say this: If we can’t hold Christianity - and even our understanding of “the Bible” - to account at the feet of Christ, then Jesus is not Lord.
You see, we think we have such a clear understanding of so many things, or we trust that "pastors" have it all figured out for us, but it's our perspective that controls what we are able to see and receive. Truly, truly, “The eye is the lamp of the body…” just as Jesus said.
So, If our desire in approaching scripture is to confirm the authority of scripture rather than the person of Christ, we will see “Bible” when we read Hebrews 4:12.
And we will see “Christianity” when Jesus talks about his Kingdom and Church. And we will see “convert people” when Jesus says to “make disciples.” And we will see “believe the correct things about God” when Jesus talks about knowing God at our core.
And when Jesus says, “I will send you a Helper - the Spirit - and here are the keys to the Kingdom, so bind and loose truth as you are led, and continue to progress as the Kingdom invades the whole world with love and beauty, because it’s spreading like leaven and the gates of hell themselves can’t stop it,” we will instead be ever-reaching backward to remain comfortable and unchallenged, smug in our certainty over what we’ve deemed to be "fundamentals."
And when Jesus says, “You have one Father and one Teacher, the Messiah,” we will still surround ourselves with spiritual authorities and hierarchies and corporate structures - people we entrust to bring the commandments down from the mountain to us.
And when Jesus says, “You’re all brothers and sisters and friends” to reference His Body, we will respond by turning “church” into something where only one person has any real input, and others just receive passively without contributing. And we'll think we're so "blessed" because our church has gotten so big that we don't even know anybody there... As if Jesus was always chasing the easy crowds. As if real relationship and community was some sort of "secondary option" if you follow him.
And when Jesus says he measures worship by how we treat "the least of these," we will respond primarily by trying to sing passionately in a room together.
And when Jesus says “Follow me, learn from me, practice my Way,” we will see that as “Maintain the status quo of Christian belief and fight the culture wars.”
...And when Hebrews tells us we can enter Jesus’ perfect rest,
and come boldly before God’s throne of grace, we will still be paralyzed by shame and false humility, groveling before the same throne... Because we’re still afraid. Though Jesus - the very Word of God - can pierce to the core of us and love us infinitely, and though "Perfect love casts out fear," we will remain afraid and driven by fear, because we haven't known perfect love.
Because, for many of us, if we’re honest - something is Lord.
But it’s not Jesus.
FINAL NOTE: I don't think I'll ever hear this song the same again.
[All images in this blog are borrowed affectionately from The Matrix trilogy, property and trademark of WB and Silver Productions.]