Happy Wednesday, friends! Today we in California are celebrating an astounding SIX weeks of sheltering in place, and it looks like a few more weeks are on tap. I guess celebrating is the wrong word there. We are LAMENTING six weeks of sheltering in place. Lord deliver us from this pandemic!
Today's Bible readings don't have anything to do with coronavirus, but do equip us to live and thrive in times of pandemic, trials and troubles. We are reading Numbers 6, Psalms 40 and 41, Song of Songs 4, and Hebrews 4. Our Big Bible question comes from the famous and well-known verse in Hebrews 4:12:
For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Many Christians grew up hearing that passage fairly regularly, but when you actually think about what it means, you realize what a strange statement it is. How in the world is the Word of God a living thing? A sharp thing? A penetrating thing, or a judging thing? Let's go read Hebrews 4, and then see if we can find out more.
And we're back, and we haven't had our question answered yet, at least in Hebrews 4. We do remember, however, that Hebrews began in chapter 1 by discussing the power of God's Word:
3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
All things are SUSTAINED by the powerful Word of Jesus. Further, as we keep reading Hebrews, we discover:
3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
This, beyond a shadow of a doubt, demonstrates the awesome POWER of the Word of God, but it doesn't answer our question - How is God's Word living and active, or living and effective? For that answer, we need to turn to the parable of Jesus that is effectively the key to understanding every parable of Jesus - the Parable of the Sower:
13 Then he said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand all of the parables?14 The sower sows the word.15 Some are like the word sown on the path. When they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word sown in them.16 And others are like seed sown on rocky ground. When they hear the word, immediately they receive it with joy.17 But they have no root; they are short-lived. When distress or persecution comes because of the word, they immediately fall away.18 Others are like seed sown among thorns; these are the ones who hear the word,19 but the worries of this age, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.20 And those like seed sown on good ground hear the word, welcome it, and produce fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundred times what was sown.”
So, we see here exactly how God's Word is living and active, because Jesus tells us that the Word of God is like a SEED. It has life, and it gives life. It blooms and grows, just like a seed, but instead of being sown or buried in the ground,the Word of God is sown into people who listen to it, and bear fruit depending on how they respond to the seed/Word of God. And, from that same chapter:
24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear. By the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and more will be added to you.25 For whoever has, more will be given to him, and whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
Here we see that the Word of God/Living seed comes into a person by virtue of that person HEARING (reading) God's Word. The more you hear - and the more you WANT TO HEAR - the more fruit you will bear and Godly transformation you will see in your life. Jesus here compares eager listeners to those coming to get something good with either a small measure - think a teaspoon, or something like that vs. the person who comes with a great big old bucket. The one who DESIRES more of the Word - a greater measure - will see more fruit in their lives than those who just want a drop or two. Finally, in verses 26-29, we see:
26 “The kingdom of God is like this,” he said. “A man scatters seed on the ground.27 He sleeps and rises night and day; the seed sprouts and grows, although he doesn’t know how.28 The soil produces a crop by itself—first the blade, then the head, and then the full grain on the head.29 As soon as the crop is ready, he sends for the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
We see here that Word of God is the thing that brings transformation and change in people. They aren't changed by their own wills, or by the work of the pastor or a teacher, they are changed because the Word of God is LIVING - like a seed - and when it gets into the soil of our lives/minds/hearts/emotions, it brings growth, transformation and salvation!
This is what is meant when it is said that the Word of God is "living and active." It's not like mere words on paper, because it is (as we learned in Timothy), God-BREATHED. My words are Chase-breathed. They might be memorable, they might be funny, they might be awkward or random or strange. They might be accompanied by bad-breath, or they might be said while I'm itching my noise, because I have the world's itchiest nose...but they most certainly won't be God-breathed and LIVING, unless I am quoting the Word of God. My words don't have life or bring life - they are just Words. God's Words created all that is, and also brings transformation to reality and to human beings alike. I love how Tim Keller expresses the biological nature of God's Word:
I want you to think about the image Jesus has chosen for the Word of God, for the gospel. Even though, by the way, he could because these are used in the Old Testament. He doesn’t choose an image of the word of God as a hammer. He doesn’t choose the image of the word of God as a fire. He doesn’t choose the image of the word of God as a sword.
He chooses a seed, and a seed is weak, a little thing. You don’t drop a seed into the ground, saying, “Bombs away!” because you drop a seed and you can’t even find the seed after you dropped it. Three out of the four soils reject the power of the word. The first one doesn’t let it in at all. The second one is excited about Jesus but really just wants miracles, really just wants good times, really wants just needs to be met. The third group, of course, is very, very concerned about what the world thinks and about the issues of the world and gets choked.
The seed is so weak. It’s not a hammer. It’s not a fire. A hammer crushes its opposition. Fire blasts the opposition. The sword slashes through the resistance. The seed seems so weak.
Why would Jesus Christ characterize the gospel as something so weak? If we think a little bit more about the metaphor, let’s admit seeds have a paradoxical weakness and strength. Here’s an acorn. What’s an acorn? We talked about this a couple of weeks ago. On the one hand, in that acorn is everything necessary to grow a huge tree, and then out of that tree could come hundreds of other acorns.
Out of every one of those trees could come hundreds of other acorns. Do you realize a single acorn has the power in it to cover the entire face of the earth in wood? No hammer, no fire, no sword has the power to do that, and yet you could stick that acorn on the ground and crush it and it’s gone. Power and yet weakness.
G. Campbell Morgan tells an interesting story. He was in Italy once, and he went into a graveyard. This was a kind of tourist attraction, because there was one very, very old grave, centuries old. It was either a king or some wealthy man, and there was this enormous, incredibly thick slab of marble over the grave. It was huge and thick, yet an acorn had fallen into the grave.
Over the years somehow, it had grown up, found a way out of the one side, then got bigger and bigger and bigger. It took centuries. Eventually, it became this huge tree. Over the centuries it had cracked that marble slab and rolled it off into two pieces. Everybody used to come and see that.
Isn’t it amazing? An acorn, something of course if you dropped it on the slab, it never would’ve done a thing. You can just stamp it out with your foot, and yet if you give it a chance to release its power, it can do something a team of horses couldn’t do. Why does Jesus Christ characterize the word of God, the gospel, as a seed? Here’s the reason why.
If you’re reading the gospel of Mark, up to this point some people have pointed out every single soil is somebody’s response to Jesus. The first soil is the Pharisees and the religious leaders. They rejected him. The second soil is the crowds. They’re happy with him but as long as he’s doing miracles. The third soil is his family, who’s very upset with the fact that they’re losing face and the fact of the shame and the fact that they’re losing honor because of what he’s doing.
In other words, the parable of the soils is not just a parable of how people respond to the Word but how people respond to Jesus, and Jesus did not come as a hammer. Jesus did not come as a fire. Jesus did not come as a sword. He came, not to judge, but to be judged, not to be strong, but to be weak and to die, because seeds only release their power if they fall into the ground and die.
If Jesus had come as a sword, if Jesus had come as a hammer, if Jesus had come as a fire, we would’ve all been dead meat, but Jesus Christ came as the ultimate seed. He says it himself in John 12. “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
In the garden of Gethsemane, the night before Jesus Christ was to go to the cross, he was facing infinite suffering. He was facing cosmic abandonment. He was going to pay the penalty for our sins. Even the foretaste of that, even the hint of it, the prospect of it, smote the eternal Son of God to the ground in such shock that blood came out of his pores.
He looks up to heaven and says, “Is there any other way?” The answer of heaven is, “My life cannot be released into them unless you become a seed, unless you go into the ground and die.” And he did. He became voluntarily weak for us. He became a seed that goes into the ground and dies, but that is the secret of the gospel’s power, because the power of the word is the weakness of the Lord.
When you see him doing that for you, if you see him doing that for you, if you see the beauty of his weakness, that comes into your life, and that’s the power that will change you. The weakness of the Lord is the power of the word. Nothing else will change you like that. Nothing else will change you like seeing the beauty of his weakness for you, his willingness to be the ultimate seed.
Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).
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