Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
12 For 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. 13 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.
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
We’ve been reading and thinking about passages in the Gospel of John this week, including some passages that include very important sayings of Jesus. But we’re stepping away from John today to look at a reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, a passage that’s also very important because of a point it makes about Jesus.
The way our NIV Bible is edited, verses 12 and 13 fall into one section, and the rest of the reading is part of another. Which probably makes sense, since they deal with different ideas. So let’s look quickly at the first two verses before we turn to the last three.
The first couple of verses in this passage describe the word of God as “sharper than any double-edged sword.” That’s an accurate translation, but it seems to me that to really get at the thought the author is expressing, it would be better to think of a scalpel rather than a sword.
The author says that the word of God can penetrate our outer selves to get right to our very hearts. That’s a very interesting thought. Lots of people in our contemporary world regard the Bible as an old-fashioned book with no real relevance to our lives today. That’s probably because so many people glance at some of the rules and ordinances in the Old Testament books like Leviticus, and without really studying the background and context of what those parts of scripture represent, they just decide the whole Bible is sort of morally and socially obsolete.
But I think you could make the case that a lot of people instinctively know that this passage from Hebrews is exactly correct. When you actually study the New Testament and pay attention to what is being said about Jesus – and especially to the teachings of Jesus himself – it really does ‘cut right to the heart,’ so to speak. Lots of people react defensively to the self-righteous and judgmental rhetoric Christians often spout, but when you get past that rhetoric and actually immerse yourself in the New Testament, it’s hard to deny your own sins and shortcomings – your own selfishness and anger and hypocrisy. (Or at least it’s hard for me to deny my own sins and shortcomings. Maybe you’re a better person than I am.)
But it seems to me that to carry the medical metaphor one step further, our sins are like a spiritual infection within us, and it’s only when those sins are exposed that they can be successfully treated. So as painful as it may be to have our true selves laid bare by the word of God, it’s a necessary part of being healed of our own sinfulness.
In the second part of this reading, the author describes Jesus as “a great high priest.” This is a very important idea for all followers of Jesus, but it’s a cornerstone of Protestant theology. In fact, it probably points to the most important difference between our beliefs and those of our Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican brothers and sisters.
A priest is by definition an intermediary between God and humankind. Parts of the church that have priests believe that you need a priest to help you approach God. That’s why people in those traditions confess their sins to a priest, for instance. You need his participation to be forgiven.
But this passage in Hebrews tells us that Jesus has fulfilled that role once and for all. He has become the one and only intermediary we will ever need to approach God. With the death of Jesus on the cross, the way was opened for us to approach God directly, without the need for any other human intermediary. That includes priests and saints.
This important truth about the death of Jesus – that it opened the way for us to approach God directly – was symbolized by the fact that at the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain in the temple at Jerusalem was torn from top to bottom. That curtain was meant symbolize our separation from God. But its tearing signified that we are now invited to approach God, no longer as a dangerous force of nature that strikes down all who come near, but now as a loving father who says to his Son’s followers, ‘Call me Papa.’
Look at how today’s reading ends: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We’re invited to approach the throne of God, not cowering and whining about our own unworthiness, but rather with confidence, rejoicing that we have received God’s mercy and grace through the death of his Son. And that has completely transformed the nature of the relationship between us and God.
Let’s Pray. Lord, we thank you for the power of your word to expose every sin in us that prevents us from living truly abundant lives, and we pray for your continuing help to heal those sins within us. We thank you also for opening a way for us to approach you with the confidence of beloved children through the great sacrifice you made for us on Calvary. Amen.
Have a great weekend!
(The other readings for today are Psalms 105 and 130; Deuteronomy 10:12-22, and John 3:22-36.)