SERMON : The penetrating eyes of Christ the Judge, who examines both soul and spirit (transcript of the recent sermon on Hebrews 4:12-13)

HEBREWS 4, v12. “For the word of God is quick, and powerful”.

This chapter 4 is all about the need to enter into God’s rest. The gospel calls men into rest, the rest of enjoying peace and communion with the Creator. This rest is the knowledge of salvation through faith in Christ. The persecuted Hebrew Christians are in danger of forfeiting this rest, as they are tempted to abandon the faith of Christ and to return to Judaism. How they must persevere in the faith and not fall away.

To help them in this task they must realise the power of God’s word in the mouth of Christ, when He speaks as  Judge. That is the focus of the phrase ‘the word of God’ – what Christ decrees as Judge of all men. “(So) the written word of God is not the prominent thought here, though … (the term ‘word of God’ obviously) includes the (written) word” (1) . However, as the immediate context shows, “(the) special reference (is) to (the) judicial power (of Christ)” (2), for the preceding verse 11 speaks of God’s power as Judge coming against the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness.

In this and the previous chapter the author to the Hebrews has been warning the Hebrews that they are in danger of not entering into God’s rest of salvation. If they ignore this warning, then Christ will come against them in His judicial power and with words of condemnation. He will judge them both now in time and also on the great last day. So the term ‘word of God’ here means Christ’s declaration of judgement.  

This word is “quick and powerful”. The original meaning of our English word ‘quick’ is ‘living’, and in the Greek it is placed at the beginning of this verse 12 for emphasis : Living and powerful is the word of God. What Christ decrees as Judge has immediate power and cannot be resisted. Our Lord taught in John 12, 

“He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).

So Christ’s words are going to be the basis of men’s judgement. 

v12. “For the word of God is … sharper than any two-edged sword”.

Christ’s decrees as Judge have a penetrating power. His word gets right to the heart of the matter, showing a man his sin and condemned state, and how he might escape. His word humbles and subdues, it exposes pride and hypocrisy, it makes men tremble. It sorts out real believers from counterfeit ones. His word lays bare all that a man is inside. That is why it is described as a two-edged sword. There is no direction in which the sword cannot move and be effective. There are no places where this sharp sword cannot reach. In Revelation chapter 1:16 John has a vision of Christ, whose appearance includes the important detail that “out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword”. In Revelation 2:16 the Lord Jesus Christ declares, 

“Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against (the false teachers) with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:16).

The Lord was referring to the false teachers known as the Nicolaitans. These Hebrew Christians are being led astray and sorely persecuted by Jewish false teachers who are denying that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. To encourage them they are being told here that the word of God in the mouth of Christ, the Judge, will vindicate them and bring their enemies down. 

v12. “For the word of God is … piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit”.

Again the emphasis is upon the penetrating power of Christ as Judge to deal with men in all their rebellion against God. The Lord Jesus Christ in His work of judgement perfectly penetrates both the soul and the spirit. If soul and spirit were exactly the same, this would be a pointless remark. The word of God does not divide the soul FROM the spirit, but minutely divides up each in its own right (3).

Nevertheless, this implies that a distinction is being made between them. The distinction is not easy to articulate, because, whilst being separate, soul and spirit are also closely connected. To understand exactly what the distinction is, we need to be painstaking in our definitions. Sadly in everyday English usage the two words are often used interchangeably, which makes the terms harder to pin down. 

So, how do we define the word ‘spirit’? It “is the immaterial part of our being that was created and breathed into us by God” (4). It is in a very real sense a man’s life. In terms of its connection with the body the spirit is the difference between being alive or being dead. When the body dies, the spirit is the part of a man which lives on after death, and so which has an existence apart from the body. The spirit is also, during a man’s life, his motivation, his heart, his inner being, including his conscience. Solomon writes of the death of a man in Ecclesiastes 12:7, 

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

So there we see the spirit being the essential life of a person, carrying on its existence after the body has died. 

The word ‘soul’, in contrast, is a broader term, speaking of the whole person made up of both a body and a spirit. The body of course is the actual flesh of a man; but man is more than just flesh. “(He) is a united body and spirit that together comprise a living soul. (So) a human soul is the spirit and the body united as one person” (5). The word ‘soul’ represents all that a person is in both his physical being and in his will, thoughts, words and actions. After death this word ‘soul’ continues to refer to whole person who at that stage is no longer body and spirit, but just a spirit. So, for example, in Revelation 6:9 the apostle John says, 

“I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God” (Revelation 6:9).

There the use of the word ‘souls’ is in terms of men’s identity, their whole persons as considered by God, including how they had thought and willed in their lives. After death, however, in terms of their mode of existence, they are actually just spirits; but the word  ‘souls’ is used to “refer to the whole person, whether alive on earth or in the after life … (Accordingly, we can say that) human beings (alive on the earth) have a spirit, but (it would not be right to say that) they are spirits” (6). They are souls. 

As well as this broad general sense of the word ‘soul’ referring to the whole person, it is also used in Scripture as being “the seat of the thoughts, emotions, feelings, desires, (will) and actions” (7). So in this sense we can say that a man has a soul as well as being a soul, the soul being the non-physical, thinking and emotional part of his human nature. The soul includes therefore the operation of the brain. 

Now, we rightly make a distinction between the brain and the conscience, and in the same vein we must make a distinction between the soul and the spirit. The spirit is the part of man where he makes moral choices and considers his attitude to God. He uses his brain to think, but the direction of his thoughts are determined by his spirit. It is in his spirit that he decides how to use both his body and his soul. In his spirit he decides what his thoughts and actions will be. So it is in a man’s spirit that he resolves whether to believe in God or to reject Him. God accordingly declares in Isaiah 66, 

“To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).

Solomon similarly states in Ecclesiastes 7, 

“The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Ecclesiastes 7:8).

So a man can be of a proud spirit or of a patient and humble spirit. The latter man repents of his sin and endeavours to love God. Indeed, he is exhorted in other parts of scripture to love God with all of his soul. Because of the disposition of his spirit, his soul, namely his thoughts, emotions and will, are now directed to pleasing God. He loves the “Lord (his) God … with all (his) soul” (Matthew 22:37).

In contrast, a man who is proud in spirit does not see his need of the Saviour, and so in his soul, in his thoughts, will and affections, he remains in love with this world and with all its God-rejecting attitudes. Alternatively, he may say that he follows God or that he is a good person, whilst remaining unregenerate and unconverted; whilst still being a natural man, alienated from God. In his soul, in his thoughts and will, he says, I am a good person, but in his spirit he is proud, failing to trust God and without true repentance. 

So hopefully we can begin to see that the word soul refers to a man’s thoughts, attitudes, will and actions, but it is in his spirit that the true inward motivation behind those thoughts, attitudes, will and actions is seen. Both soul and spirit are non-physical or immaterial, but it is the spirit which provides the inward motivation of a man. 

Now, no man can see into another man’s spirit and discern for certainty its true nature, but the Lord Jesus Christ uniquely can, and that is the point which is being made here in Hebrews 4:12-13. The word of God whereby He judges men though Christ has the power to expose inward motivations, to expose what is going on in a man’s spirit, as opposed to his more obvious thoughts, will and actions. It is very difficult  for a man to discern another man’s thoughts, that is, the actions of his soul, but the Lord Jesus Christ can. It is impossible for a man to discern the workings of a man’s spirit, but the Lord Jesus Christ can. In other words, as this verse 12 tells us, the word of God, Christ in His work of judgement, penetrates to the very core of both a man’s soul and his spirit.

Let us take an example of this piercing discernment. The scribes and Pharisees thought that they were real followers of God. In their bodies and souls, in their physical actions and in their thoughts, will and emotions they appeared to be true worshippers, but the Lord Jesus Christ could see into their spirits, that they were proud and had no real love for Him. In this way He distinguished between soul and spirit, between the thoughts, words and will of a man, and his true inward motivation. So we see that the word ‘spirit’ is closely related to how we often use the word ‘heart’ – in the sense of inner motivation. Thus our Lord said of the scribes and Pharisees, 

“This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).

Our Lord could see that in their spirits they rejected Him. In their souls they were claiming, I am a good person, but in their spirits, they were proud and trusting in their own imagined but non-existent goodness. It is the word of God, what Christ decrees as Judge, which is able to discern the both the thoughts of the soul and the inward motivation of the spirit. This makes Him the perfect Judge, able to see whether a man is spiritually alive or spiritually dead. A man in his thoughts, emotions and will (i.e. in his soul) might think that he is a Christian, but the word of God exposes whether there is real God-honouring life in his spirit, that part of him which will live on after his body dies. We are further told in this verse 12, 

v12. “For the word of God is … piercing even to the dividing asunder of joints and marrow.

Joints and marrow are “figurative terms which are added for the sake of illustration” (8). It would have to be a sharp and piercing implement indeed which could split bones apart or separate out the marrow which resides within the bone itself. Christ’ word, however, is such a two-edged sword. His power to judge can penetrate into the soul of a man, into his thoughts, will and emotions, and it can also penetrate into his spirit, discerning the most inner workings of his heart.

v13. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

Seeing that “the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son” (John 5:22), these words again refer to Christ. No one is exempted from exposure to His all-seeing eye. As Paul tells us in Romans, 

“We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ … every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10–12).

The One with whom all men must have dealings, the One to whom they will have to give an account for how they had led their lives, is Christ, whose eyes perceive all things about a man. Every word, thought and action is exposed to Him. Again referring to John’s vision of Christ in Revelation 1, the apostle tells us that “his eyeswere as a flame of fire” (Revelation 1:14). This again means that His eyes are “piercing and penetrating into the very hearts and reins of men” (9), exposing their innermost being. Once, when the Lord was speaking to a paralysed man, He pronounced his sins to be forgiven. We are then told, 

“Behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves (of Christ), This man blasphemeth. And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts?” (Matthew 9:3–4).

The Lord knew their thoughts, their soul life, and He also saw the inward motivation behind their thoughts; He saw into their spirits, and realised that they had no true love for God at all, even though they claimed to be worshippers of Him. No one can escape from Christ’s all-seeing eye. If these persecuted Hebrew Christians abandon the faith of Christ because of all their immediate difficulties, the Lord, the perfect Judge, will see into both their souls and their spirits. He knows the motivation of their hearts. He knows if they are willing to follow Him at all costs or not. Therefore, let them be warned, and let us take heed also, for Christ knows whether our love for Him is real or not. 


1 Jamiesson, Fausset and Brown, Olive Tree software on Hebrews 4:12

2 Jamiesson, Fausset and Brown, Olive Tree software on Hebrews 4:12

3 See R.C.H. Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament, Hebrews/James, p142, Ist para.

4 R.C.H. Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament, Hebrews/James, p142




8 R.C.H. Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament, Hebrews/James, p143

9 Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Hendrikson, Vol. 6, p904

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