Hebrews 4:12-16

Cut That Out!

By Dr. Mickey Anders

Today I want talk about two ways to understand the phrase used for the title of my sermon. “Cut that out!” can be a stern word of judgment uttered by parents correcting rowdy children. For example, the children may be bickering with each other and the father will say, “Cut that out!” Or one sibling may be complaining too much about having to carry out the trash, and the mother will say, “Cut that out!”

On the other hand, those same words can represent a life-saving circumstance. Imagine a hospital patient who has just been told that there is a cancer in her lung. She may be given some options for treatment, to which she replies, “Cut that out.” In this case, the cutting out has an entirely different tone.

The same thing is true with our text today from Hebrews. This passage is something like a morality play in two acts.

In the first act we find that the “word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword…” and ” no creature…is hidden from his sight, but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do….” Most interpreters see a word of warning and judgment in this.

First, we find that the word of God is “living” (v.12). How is the word of God living? This means that it has a life of its own. Jesus once described the word of God when he told a parable about the farmer sowing seed. Some seed fell on the path, some fell on rocky ground, some fell among the thorns, and other seed fell on good soil. In each case the seed had a life of its own. The seed grows and bears fruit because it is alive.

Next, we see that the word of God is “active” (v. 12). Here the word of God is described by what it does. Anything with life is active. It grows. The word of God affects us. It grows in us. The more we meditate on the words of the Bible, the more it affects us. The Greek word here sounds like our word energy, and it has the same root. It means there is a spiritual energy in the word of God. It is active.

The word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (v. 12) Here we have a natural image of violence. Swords are used in warfare, and they are used for the dismembering of the enemy soldiers. They quite literally tear joints from marrow.

We might ask, “Why does the author make such a point that the sword is ‘double-edged?'” Obviously, a double-edged sword cuts both ways. In fact, the Romans were famous for their invention of the double-edged sword. Some historians say that the double-edged sword was such a radical new invention in warfare that it had the effect of an atom bomb in their time.

When we say that the word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword, we mean that it has incredible power. When it cuts into us, it has an amazingly powerful effect. It penetrates like a sword. It can see through all the sham and pretense to the real thing. It means we have to face up to who we really are and stop pretending.

The word of God pierces “even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (v.12). As such, the word of God goes inside of us and becomes like a surgeon’s knife. It cuts and divides. The word of God finds our bad attitudes, our rebellious spirit, our lustful hearts, our hypocrisy, our greed, our hatred, and our unforgiving spirit.

Before God, we are “naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (v. 13). We have nothing that can hide us from God. God sees all and knows all. God knows our thoughts and our motives. God knows our secret sins as well as our all-too-public sins. The word of God that created the world in Genesis is also able to discern and judge in Hebrews.

Psalm 139 says, “Yahweh, you have searched me, and you know me. You know my sitting down and my rising up. You perceive my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but, behold, Yahweh, you know it altogether…. Where could I go from your Spirit? Or where could I flee from your presence? If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there! … Search me, God, and know my heart. Try me, and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the everlasting way.”

This verse reminds us that there are no secrets from God. No one pulls the wool over God’s eyes. No one is going to talk their way into heaven. No one is going to talk their way out of judgment. No one is going to explain away their bad behavior by making excuses before God. The word of God will discern whether our thoughts and motives are right.

For most of us, this IS a message of judgment and fear. Some of us have known the fear and trembling that comes when we are audited by the IRS. Even if we have been honest on our tax return, there is the fear that maybe the IRS will not see things the same way we did. An IRS audit is a time for fear and trembling because we are being laid bare before the one to whom we must give an account.

If we fear the IRS, how much more will some of us fear the all-seeing eyes of God. The word of God will bare our soul before God. No matter how hard we have tried to be good and to do what is right, we will worry because the law of God is perfect. And most of us know that we have not been perfect.

The New Revised Standard Version translates this part of verse 12 this way, “It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” But A. T. Robertson’s famous Word Studies says this phrase is better translated “quick to discern.” He says it means “skilled in judging, as the surgeon has to be and able to decide on the instant what to do… The surgeon carries a bright and powerful light for every dark crevice and a sharp knife for the removal of all the pus revealed by the light.”

We can take comfort that the word here doesn’t mean “condemn,” but “discern.” The word of God discerns the intentions and motives of our hearts. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus cut to the heart of the matter when he asked, “Where is your husband?” In fact, she had been married five times and the one she was living with at the time was not her husband. All of her life was apparently revealed to Jesus. Jesus did not condemn her, but he did discern everything about her life.

We can conclude our discussion of the first act of our play, verses 13 and 14, by imagining ourselves going into surgery. We are laid bare and naked, vulnerable on a gurney, ready to be wheeled into the operating room. We know that we will be unconscious while strangers cut and probe our bodies. In our minds, we may trust the doctors and nurses, but there is a part of us that is filled with fear and foreboding. I want you to hold on to that image and those feelings in your mind while we consider the rest of the text.

Now we come to the second act of our play in verses 14-16, in which we have an entirely different tone. Verse 14 says we have “a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.”

A Jewish audience would be completely comfortable with this talk of a “great high priest” because they were familiar with the ritual need of a sin bearer. Once a year the high priest entered the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple to perform a sacrifice of blood which would bring forgiveness to God’s people.

In the following chapters, the writer of Hebrews will expound on this idea saying that Jesus is the high priest of all high priests. All of the high priests in the Old Testament got old and finally died. In fact, the high priests wore a bell on them so that the people would know if, perhaps, he had died while inside the Holy of Holies. In that case, the people would merely anoint a new high priest. But Hebrews tells us that our “great high priest” lives forever, and he does not only enter the Holy of Holies once a year. Jesus Christ is sitting at the right hand of God all the time.

“We don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin” (v. 15). The writer says essentially the same thing in Hebrews 2:18, “For in that he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.”

“We don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin” (v. 15). The writer says essentially the same thing in Hebrews 2:18, “For in that he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.”

We do not have a high priest unable to sympathize. He can sympathize? Why? Because He understands us. See, Jesus is not only God, but human as well. He was fully God and fully human, so he fully understands us. In other words, “Jesus knows our pain!” He has been there and faced up to whatever we face in life. Jesus is not some remote high priest that is out of touch with reality. He suffered, and he was tempted.

Suddenly we get an entirely different view of this whole judgment matter. The difference is knowing the judge is Jesus.

It seems that some religious people love to sit in judgment of others. They relish the chance to point out the sin in someone else’s life. They are quick to insist that “they” must repent and turn from their sin if they ever hope to be forgiven.

And I must admit there are Biblical passages that seem to endorse that approach to religion, but I would argue that there are plenty of verses that soften the blow. For example, there is the powerful story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. Many people have correctly observed that this story could more rightly be named the parable of the Loving Father. Just look carefully at the picture of the father in this story, remembering that this is Jesus’ most telling remarks about the nature of God the Father. The prodigal’s father is incredibly patient, never angry, eager to forgive, rejoicing when the sinful son returns, never insisting on an apology or formal statement of repentance. If God the Father is anything like the prodigal’s father, and I believe God is, then we have nothing to fear from the discerning that the word of God does!

When we understand that we don’t have a high priest “who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are” then we know that we do not have to fear the all-knowing, double-edged sword. In fact, we can “draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace for help in time of need” (v. 16).

The “throne” reminds us that God echoes and amplifies every measure of greatness that we can imagine. In New Testament times, the “throne” of Rome was absolute. In the same way, God’s power and majesty is even greater!

And “Grace” means a sympathetic compassion which is prepared to reach out even to the undeserving. Compassion and kindness, grace and mercy, are there when we face our times of need. This is not so much about when we fail, as it is when we face hard times and are confronted with temptations which threaten to overwhelm us.

When we understand this second act of the play, we can focus on the character of the one behind the judgment and discerning mentioned in the first act. We see that the sword is more like a surgeon’s scalpel than a weapon of warfare. God’s loving purpose is to bring healing into our lives by removing the cancerous sins that “so easily beset us.”

Sword––not an image of warfare, but like a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon is someone we trust. We lay ourselves bare before him, trusting that he will remove the cancerous sin in our lives and bring us to health again.

And now I want you to remember that surgery scene with which I ended the discussion of the first act. Remember that we are going into surgery, and we are filled with fear and foreboding. There is an inner war going on inside of us, with our minds saying to calm down and our heart saying, “But who knows what they are going to cut out once they get in there!”

Now imagine that the doctor approaches your gurney and removes his mask to reveal that it is one of your good doctor friends from the church. With a reassuring smile, he says, “Don’t worry. I’m going to take good care of you.” Because you know you can trust your friend, the doctor, you begin to calm down and relax. It is still going to be a scary operation to remove the source of illness, but now you know who it is that will be doing the cutting.

And now you can confidently say, “Go ahead, doc! Cut that out!”


I am indebted to a several good sermons for the ideas used in this sermon, though I do not believe I have not quoted extensively from any of them.

1) “Sword-Play versus Mercy and Grace by Timothy Hoyer, Retrieved 10/5/2003.

2) “Sharper Than Any Double-edged Sword” by Rev. Min J. Chung, Retrieved 10/5/2003.

3) “Courage and Vulnerability” by Nathan Nettleton, 15th October 2000, Retrieved 10/5/2003.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2003 Mickey Anders. Used by permission.