The following is an excerpt from the Study Guide to my book, Jesus Now.
What You Didn’t Know About Hebrews 4:12
When I was a young believer, I committed to memory Hebrews 4:12:
“For the word of God is living and operative and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit and of joints and marrow, and able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Admittedly, I had no clue what “the dividing of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow” meant.
I since discovered that this text has everything to do with one of the present-day ministries of Jesus. Specifically, His ministry as Great High Priest.
The high priestly ministry of Christ is in fact the main theme of Hebrews. Just count the number of times “high priest” is used throughout the letter and that will become clear.
As I pointed out in Jesus Now, we often miss this theme because Hebrews contains five parenthetical warnings which interrupt the author’s main subject.
So what is the meaning of “piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit and of joints and marrow?”
It is this:
Jesus Christ, by His living word and through His indwelling life, enables us to differentiate between our soul (our mind, will, and emotion) and our spirit (the deepest part of us where God dwells).
To put it another way, part of the high priestly ministry of Christ is to reveal what comes from our own thoughts, feelings, and volition and what comes from His leading.
(I’ve demonstrated elsewhere that the human spirit and soul are not the same thing. 1 Thess. 5:23 makes that plain, as well as many other biblical texts.)
In Hebrews 3:1, the writer mentions Jesus as our Apostle (a sent messenger) and High Priest. He uses Moses as a shadow of both roles and then collapses into a long parenthetic warning, explaining how the word of God fell on disobedient ears in the wilderness (quoting Psalm 95:7-11).
In Hebrews 4:12, the writer picks up the themes of God’s word and Christ’s high priestly ministry, telling us that the Lord Jesus is carrying out His work as High Priest for our spirit and soul.
Specifically, the writer likens each of us to be a sacrifice on the altar.
Under the Old Testament covenant, when Israel offered up sacrifices, the sacrifice was tied to an altar. The priest killed it with a very sharp knife, dividing the sacrifice into two halves.
The word translated “sword” in Hebrews 4:12 is machaira, and one of the meanings is “a large knife, used for killing animals and cutting up flesh.” The priest’s knife was so sharp that it pierced the sacrifice to the joints and the marrow.
As a result, all the insides of the sacrifice that were once hidden could now be seen. They were laid bare without concealment. After the priest opened the sacrifice with his knife, he would burn it with fire as an offering to the Lord.
Now hold that image in your mind and read the next verse, Hebrews 4:13,
“And there is no creature that is not manifest before Him, but all things are naked and laid bare to the eyes of Him to whom we are to give our account.”
In verse 14, the writer continues into other aspects of the high priestly ministry of Christ saying, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven . . . ”
So in Hebrews 4:12-14, the Holy Spirit paints a powerful picture illustrating the work of the Lord Jesus as our Great High Priest.
As the sacrifice was opened with the knife of the Old Testament priest so that the joints and marrow were all laid bare, the Lord Jesus does this same penetrating, exposing, and dividing work on our spirits and souls with the knife of His word.
It’s no accident that Revelation 1:16 says of Christ, “Out of his mouth went a sharp two edged sword.” In like manner, Revelation 2:12 says, “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him [Jesus] who has the sharp, double-edged sword.”
As our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus uses His word to pierce and divide every part of us: the spiritual from the soulish.
Only the sharp sword of God’s word handled by the Lord Jesus Christ can clearly discern the source of our living. Just as a human knife can divide bone from marrow, the knife of God’s word can divide the closely knit spirit from the soul.
Within an immature Christian or one who operates in his or her flesh, it’s virtually impossible to distinguish between what comes from a person’s own natural soul (mind, will, or emotion) and what comes from their spirit (the place where God dwells, speaks, and reveals).
In other words, such a person can’t tell when God is speaking to them and when it’s their own fallen thoughts, emotions, or desires that they assume is God’s speaking.
The word of God, when received with a teachable ear and an unhardened heart (see Hebrews 3), proves sharper than any two-edged sword.
Hebrews 4:12 says the word of God is “living.” It’s not dead or inanimate, but something that is vital and speaks yesterday, today, and forever.
(We’ll explore what “the word of God” means in Hebrews 4 shortly.)
It’s also “operative.” This means it’s capable of accomplishing its purpose, which is to divide spirit from soul and expose the intentions of the heart.
It’s “sharper than any two-edged sword.” It’s so sharp it can pierce into the human spirit, the innermost part of the human anatomy. Your spirit is the part of you that’s deeper than thought, feeling, and volition.
So how does this all work practically?