The Two-Edged Scalpel of God (Part 2)

The Two-Edged Scalpel of God
(Part 2)

David. J. Macleod

Dr. David J. MacLeod is a member of the faculty of Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. This is the second of his two-part study of Hebrews 4:11-13.

The Means of Diagnosis

The necessity of diligent attentiveness to God’s Word is explained in Hebrews 4:12. We must give heed to the Word for it is God’s means of diagnosing our condition, bringing us to blessing and warning us of judgment. We should consider verse 12 carefully because it tells us five things about God’s Word.

It is Living and Active

The Scriptures are living because their source is living. The true God is the “living God” (3:12). God’s Word “is no dead letter,” says Philip Hughes, “no utterance lost as soon as spoken in an unresponding void.”1 This sets the Bible apart from all other books.

What precisely does “living” mean? If we include the teaching of all of the New Testament it means several things. First, the Word witnesses to the Cross of Christ (Rom. 10:17) and actually brings spiritual life to unsaved people (1 Pet. 1:23). Second, as saved people read it, it cleanses them (Eph. 5:26), nourishes them (1 Pet. 2:2) and causes them to grow (John 17:17-19; Acts 20:32).

Third, the Word of God is living in the sense that it endures (1 Pet. 1:23, 25). Charles Spurgeon, prince of Baptist preachers in the 19th century, once said, “If, when I go to heaven, God should say, ‘Spurgeon, I want you to preach for all eternity,’ I would simply say, ‘Give me a Bible, Lord; this is all I shall need.”2

The great spokesman (“spokesperson!”) for atheism in our day is Madelyn Murray O’Hair. In the 19th century it was Robert Green Ingersoll, an American lawyer. Mr. Ingersoll wrote a book entitled Some Mistakes of Moses in which he predicted, “In 25 years … the Bible will be a forgotten book.” About 15 years ago, George Sweeting, then President of Moody Bible Institute, went to the Randolph St. Library in Chicago and borrowed Mr. Ingersoll’s book. He was the first person to do so in 20 years. He then called the large Kroch’s and Brentano’s Bookstore and asked for it. The salesperson said they did not have it and could not get it. It was out of print. Dr. Sweeting then asked her, “Do you have Bibles?” “Oh yes,” she answered, “how many would you like?” Dr. Sweeting told her that he really didn’t need any, but he did ask how the Bibles were selling. The clerk told him that the Bible was still one of their best sellers.3

The Word of God is living, then, in that it brings life, cleanses, nourishes and endures. In the passage before us in Hebrews 4 it is living because of its capacity to diligently probe and accurately diagnose the spiritual condition of our inner man.

The author of Hebrews adds that the Word is “powerful” (AV) or “active” (NASB) . The original text has the sense of “effective.” God is a sovereign God, and when His Word acts in salvation or judgment it does not act without results, and those results are inevitable. “Neither God nor His will is ever subject to frustration and defeat.”4

It is Sharper Than any Two-Edged Scalpel

The Greek word machaira means “knife.” The term is found in Ephesians 6:17 where the Word of God is pictured as a sword with which the Christian can fight the Christian warfare. The author of Hebrews, however, does not picture the Christian life as warfare. Instead he pictures it as a pilgrimage in which his readers have become sick and lame (12:13). In such a state of soulsickness the Word of God comes like a surgeon’s knife or scalpel. In the hands of the Great Physician (cf. Matt. 9:12) this knife is a “probe”5 which diagnoses the condition of our heart. It is a “scalpel” with which He cuts “pitilessly to disclose the secret thoughts of the heart of man.”6

It Penetrates Even to Dividing Soul and Spirit (NIV)

The Word of God is able to discriminate in the believer between what is spiritual and what is merely natural. By soul the author refers to the whole inner life of a person with his or her powers of will, reason and emotion. It is all that individualizes and personifies each of us. By the term spirit he means the new nature, the divine life that is fathered in each of us by God, “the Father of spirits” (12:9), at the time of the new birth. It is the seat of God’s gracious operations in regenerating and renewing us.

Sin often causes a breach between the two7 and the inner life of the Christian becomes a “strange mixture of motivations both genuinely spiritual and completely human. It takes a supernaturally discerning agent such as the Word of God to sort these out and to expose what is of the flesh.”8 The first readers of the epistle (like some readers today) were pursuing a lifestyle they may have thought had purely spiritual motivations. The Word of God would show them, however, that they were acting unfaithfully as did Israel in Old Testament times.9

It Divides Joints and Marrow

Some commentators understand the author to be speaking metaphorically. The Word penetrates to the very “joints and marrow” of our souls and spirits. It penetrates to the very core of our being.

Others have understood the text to have a more literal sense. If this is so it has practical implications. Those involved in pastoral counselling have long observed that many bodily ailments such as ulcers, paralysis, diarrhea and obesity are sometimes the direct result of soul trouble or spiritual difficulties. Sin such as willful rebellion and bitterness (cf. 12:14-17) can lead a person to terrible guilt which can lead to bodily sickness. Such sin can be rationalized and covered up, but the Word of God cuts through all our defenses and exposes our folly.

It is Able to Judge the Thoughts and Intentions of the Heart

This fifth quality of the Word brings us to the central lesson of verse 12. God’s Word exercises a judicial scrutiny over every thought, reflection and idea of our hearts. According to Martin Luther the Word of God often comes as adversarius noster (“our adversary”). It was not given merely to comfort us in our rebellion and sin, to confirm us in our self-satisfied traditions.10

We were all fascinated some time ago by the story of Cathleen Crowell Webb. As a girl of 16 in 1977 she was picked up by the police. She claimed that she had been raped, and her ripped blouse and smudged face seemed to confirm her story. Police later arrested Gary Dotson, a man in his early 20s, and he was convicted and sentenced to 20 to 25 years in prison. Six years later, Cathleen, now a wife and mother, went to court and recanted her story. Gary Dotson had not raped her. She had made up the story because of her fear that she was pregnant by a boyfriend. The authorities announced that they could not understand why Mrs. Webb was recanting. But she had clearly explained. Between her original accusation of Dotson and her recantation she had become a Christian. Before, she explained, “I didn’t have a soft conscience about this. I hardened my conscience and tried to forget what I had done… Since I made my decision to become a Christian, the Lord kept convicting me about my need to make restitution, and He would not let me alone.” In these simple words (“He would not let me alone”) Cathleen Webb described the judicial, convicting power of the Word of God.11

Admittedly we at times would prefer to neglect God’s Word and pamper our sins and rebellion. How much better to let the Great Physician take His scalpel and cut away the spiritual cancers that are sapping our spiritual lives. Surgery can be a dreadful thing, and so can spiritual surgery. Yet it can lead to health.

Henry Bosch has told the story of a wealthy Chinese business man who visited England many years ago. He was shown a powerful microscope, and with it he examined crystals and the petals of flowers. He bought one and took it with him back home. He thoroughly enjoyed using it. One day he examined some rice (his favorite staple food) which his family was going to eat that evening for supper. Under the microscope he discovered tiny living creatures crawling in the rice. He took the microscope and destroyed it! Such is the Christian who seeks to ignore the Word of God. How much wiser was the psalmist who wrote, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there by any hurtful way in me, and Lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps 139:23-24).

The Certainty of Judgment

In Hebrews 4:11-13 the author goes full circle. In verse 11 he warns of future punishment, i.e. the failure to enter rest. In verse 12 he speaks of the present searching work of the Word of God. In verse 13 he again speaks of future judgment.

In verse 13 the subject changes from the Word of God to God Himself. We are reminded by the author that it is God Himself who carries out the searching ministry he has described in verse 12, and God is omniscient, i.e., He knows everything. There is nothing hidden from him. “All things are open to Him.” The word translated “open” literally means “naked.” Everything in our hearts is unconcealed, disclosed and manifest to God.

Furthermore, “all things are … laid bare” to Him. The Greek verb here translated “laid bare” was used of the bending back of the neck of an animal sacrifice to cut it. It was used of a wrestler’s neck hold that rendered an opponent helpless. It was used of criminals who sought to lower their heads in shame. The guard would drag the head back by the hair or prick the criminal under the chin with a knife to force his head up. The imagery is a serious one. The writer is reminding us that we are dealing with God, and before Him we are denuded and helpless.

At the close of verse 13 the author reminds us that it is God “to whom we must give account” (NIV). The author is deliberately vague as to which of the biblical judgments he has in mind. This is due to his uncertainty over the actual spiritual condition of his readers. If they are professing Christians who are not truly regenerate, then his warning concerns the terrible Great White Throne Judgment of the lost described in ch. 10:29-31 and Rev. 20:11-15. If they are genuine believers, albeit immature and dull ones, then his warning concerns the Judgment Seat of Christ when the redeemed face their Lord and suffer loss or receive reward (1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:10).12


When 17-year-old W.P. Mackay left his humble Scottish home for college his mother gave him a Bible. In it she wrote his name, her name and a Scripture verse. While at college he led a very sinful life, even pawning his Bible for whiskey. He eventually became a doctor, and one day he found himself at the bed of a man in the city hospital who moments before his death asked for his “book.” After the man’s death Mackay looked around the hospital room and found the man’s “book.” It was the very Bible that he had pawned years before for whiskey.

After returning to his office the doctor gazed at his mother’s familiar handwriting, and he noticed the many verses she had underlined, hoping he would read them. As he read he became convinced that he was a sinner in need of forgiveness and deserving punishment. He also came to see that Jesus Christ had died for his sins. After many hours in that office W.P. Mackay knelt and prayed to God for mercy.13

Dr. Mackay learned the message of this passage. If we are to enjoy the world to come we must allow the Word of God to expose our sin and need and direct us to Christ who alone forgives sin. If we as Christians are to fully enjoy our salvation in this life then we too are to allow the Lord to search our hearts. We do this by the careful reading of and submission to the Scriptures.

We must not run from the Lord by neglecting His Word. Rather, we are to allow the Great Surgeon to probe our deepest being and minister to our deepest need. You see, the teachings of Scripture uncover, as someone has said, “the deeps in man.” The Bible shows us where our hidden interests lie and what we want.14

As the Scriptures confront us we may try to make excuses. We may be evasive. We may try to find reasons to doubt and to run. At times the confrontation may seem simply dreadful. But, we must let the Scriptures do their work, for the Word of God is the severe, yet healing, scalpel of God!

1 P.E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 164.

2 As told by W.R. Newell, Hebrews Verse by Verse (Chicago: Moody, 1947) p. 136.

3 G. Sweeting, “The Indispensable Word of God,” Moody Monthly (May, 1975), pp. 46-47.

4 Hughes, Hebrews, p. 164.

5 W. Kelly, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (London: T. Weston, 1905; reprinted., Sunbury, PA: Believers Bookshelf, n.d.), p. 75.

6 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “machaira,” by W. Michaelis, 4 (1967) :527.

7 Cf. F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1871; reprinted., Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1978), vol. 1, p. 213.

8 Z.C. Hodges, “Hebrews,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament Edition, ed. by J.F. Walvoord and R.B. Zuck (Wheaton: Victor, 1983), p. 790.

9 Ibid.

10 G. Ebeling, Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language, p. 17. Quoted by A.C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p. xx.

11 C. Colson, “Stabbing the Conscience of a Sleeping Church,” Moody Monthly (Sept., 1985), pp. 14-15.

12 Cf. P.E. Hughes, Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 182. Hughes argued that “it is the redeemed alone who stand before” the Judgment Seat of Christ.

13 “The Pawned Book,” Moody Monthly (Jan., 1976), p. 124.

14 Cotton, p. 637.