Courage and Vulnerability
A reflection on Hebrews 4:12-16 by Nathan Nettleton, 15th October 2000

Because of who Jesus is, we are both naked and vulnerable before him, and confident to approach God. Our only fear is of ourselves!


The first half of this reading is probably the best known bit of the letter to the Hebrews. The second half perhaps runs a close second. Most of our Bibles put a new heading between them though, suggesting that they are not directly related to one another. This is not surprising. Some commentators think that verses 12-13 are quite independent of both what comes before them and what comes after them and are therefore maybe an addition from elsewhere. Others point out that they make a good conclusion to a section that started back in 3:1 and especially to the part that begins at 3:7 with the quote from Psalm 95:7-11. There is general agreement that half way through our reading, at 4:14, a new section starts. It continues to 5:10 and describes Jesus as our merciful high priest. Without wanting to argue too much with the expert commentators, there does seem to have been some connection in the mind of the author, because verse 14 starts with a word meaning “therefore” or “so then”. Given that, and the fact that the lectionary asks us to read them together, I think it is worth us reflecting on how the two halves of the passage speak when they speak as one.

Taking a step back for a moment, it may be worth noting that we don’t actually know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews. People have often called it Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, because the editors of the King James Version called it that, but if you have a look at the start and the end, you’ll notice that it doesn’t have the usual introductions and conclusion that we see in Paul’s letters. The text does not identify the author at all, and the style and imagery are quite different from the letters that we know are Paul’s. Whoever wrote it, it appears that this is their only work that made it into the Bible. This doesn’t matter for anything much, but it does mean that comparing it to other writings in the New Testament doesn’t always help us to understand its imagery.

The letter as a whole is addressed to people steeped in the traditions of Judaism to assure them that Jesus is the true and final revelation of the God of Israel. It places more emphasis than any other New Testament books (other than the gospels) on the humanity of Jesus. This emphasis both calls us to see that we walk the same road he walked, and serves to underpin the comparisons the author makes with various figures from the history of Israel. In the first two chapters, part of which we heard last week, the letter asserts that Jesus is superior to the angels, though for a while he came below them to become one of us. In the section that leads up to these verses, it has demonstrated that Christ is greater than Moses and Joshua. In the section that these verses lead into, it shows that as our High Priest, Christ has superseded all other priests. Later it makes a similar case in comparing Christ’s covenant and his sacrifice with those that preceded him, before leading into the famous “hymn” to the centrality of faith.

Back to this week’s verses, and to our attempt to see what the two halves may say when read together as one unit. We need to look at them separately first. Verses 12 & 13 contain that wonderful image of the Word of God, describing it as “living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword.” The first question is about exactly what is being referred to. Those of us who are used to moving in circles that emphasise faith in the Bible are probably used to hearing this verse used to speak of the Bible. People speak of the Bible as being “the Word of God” so the connection comes easily. But here in Hebrews it is not necessarily a reference to the Bible. If it was in John’s gospel or letters, we would probably conclude that it referred to Christ himself, because that’s how John uses the phrase - “in the beginning was the Word” and “the Word become flesh”. But John didn’t write Hebrews. More likely it refers, as it does more generally through the Bible, to God’s message. This would make sense in Hebrews, because if you look back to 1:1-2, the letter begins with a reference to God having spoken to us through the prophets and now having spoken to us through Christ. This message spoken, the Word of God, is an important theme in the letter.

Anyway, the Word of God is described as something that can open us up, something that penetrates deep within us and exposes who we really are at the core of our being. “There is nothing that can be hid from God: everything is exposed and lies open before God’s eyes.” This is not a very comfortable image. Most of us live with fears about being “found out”, about people really seeing all of us, warts and all. We do our best to “put on our best face.” None of us would want our ears to suddenly turn into loud speakers and start broadcasting our every thought and desire to everyone around us! But Hebrews tell us that the Word of God opens us up and judges the thoughts and desires of our hearts.

I’ve only twice ever had to have a general anaesthetic and neither were for anything that even required opening me up (realigning a broken nose both times!), but a clearly remember last time feeling incredibly exposed and vulnerable as I lay on a trolley and was wheeled from the ward to the theatre. I knew I would be unconscious and that strangers could and would do things to my body that I had no control over and that I wouldn’t even have any awareness of. My head said I could trust these people - my guts said otherwise. It was the most physically vulnerable feeling I have ever known. Hebrews is evoking a similar sense of vulnerability in these verses. In a similar way, the knowledge in our heads that the Word is opening us up for our own good and with our welfare at heart does not altogether relieve the discomfort of our sense of vulnerability.

Now the second half, verses 14 - 16. These verses introduce the discussion of Jesus as our great High Priest. They begin by saying that should “hold firmly to the faith we profess”, that is to say that we should hang in there with Jesus and don’t quit on him. Why? Well because what ever we might be going through and however much it might tempt us to give it all away, Jesus has been through as much and more and survived to tell the story. And what’s more, he is now our High Priest - that is to say that he is the one who will represent us to God. In a nutshell then, the argument is saying that God will accept what Jesus says and that Jesus can relate to our predicaments fully because he’s been through them himself, so we can be sure that he’ll speak in our favour and God will generously shower us with grace and mercy. This idea will ring bells to most of you because it is expressed in the movement of our liturgy each Sunday as we enact our journey of approach to God and our admission into the banqueting room of heaven.

So what happens when we put the two halves back together, the cause of our feeling of vulnerability before God and the basis for our confidence before God? Well, I don’t think you need me to spell it out, and instead I’ll leave it for our discussions. I’ll finish with a story though, that goes perilously close to spelling it out. Actually it is the end of the story I started above about being wheeled into the operating theatre to have my nose put back roughly in the centre of my face. In the midst of my painful feelings of vulnerability and my inner war between trust and fear, something wonderful happened. At the door of the theatre I was met by a nurse. She pulled down her mask and said, “Hi Nathan!” It was someone I knew from my church! She said to me, “What I say goes in here, and I’m going to make sure that they look after you.” The nerves dissolved. I was in safe hands. I still wouldn’t know what was gong on, but someone who cared would. She’d be embarrassed to hear me say it, but she was the icon of Christ to me that day.

Questions for thought and discussion.

• In what ways does or has the Word of God made you feel exposed and vulnerable? Why does this happen?

• What do you understand by the description of Christ as our great High Priest?

• When you put these two images together, how would you describe the message they bring?