For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12
Living - Is the Bible a living Word for you? This is not a trivial question. The Bible is not like other books. There are other books that inspire. There are others books that challenge, encourage, command, discipline and exhort. None of these factors are unique to Scripture. What makes the Bible the living Word? It communicates God’s will to us. And since God’s will for us is life, His Word, in any form, brings life with it. It is zoe (alive, living, life-filled).
The Greeks did not usually use this word, zoe, when they spoke about ordinary life. They used bios (our root for “biology”). For the Greeks, bios was about life right here, the day-to-day activities that made up what we experience as being alive. A recounting of present life is called a biographe (literally “life-writing”). But the Greeks did have a use for zoe. Unless we understand how they thought about zoe, we will not see the startling claim in this verse.
Greek metaphysics is built around the duality of the material and the spiritual. OK, I know, that was a bit scholarly. What it means is that the Greeks thought of existence in terms of two levels. One was the level of the material world, where all the stuff we see and deal with exists. The other was the spiritual world, where the divine resides with Truth, Beauty and Goodness. This dual nature of reality has affected Western civilization for thousands of years. In fact, it is the fundamental philosophical principle behind the Christian idea of getting to heaven. Our proclamation of “escape” from this world, whether through divine intervention, rapture, other-worldly orientation or a heavenly gate pass, is really the affirmation that the “spiritual” world is the preferred existence and getting out of here is the real goal. “Where will you go if you die tonight?” is an evangelistic approach that is rooted in Greek metaphysics. The assumption is that getting to heaven is the goal of Christian belief. It sounds nice. Who wouldn’t want to leave all their problems behind? But it’s not biblical. Too bad!
So, the Greek term zoe refers to what we would call “the force.” Zoe is the life-animating principle that comes from the realm of the divine, empowers existence in the material world, and at death, returns to the realm of the spirit. Bios is where I have to struggle with my individual existence, but zoe is my true home, apart from this valley of tears, existing blissfully in the world of the divine. Of course, in the realm of zoe, there are no particular individuals. We all flow back into the life-force. In this world, where bios reigns, we are intrinsically unfulfilled. We can never reach our true state of oneness with the divine because we are “trapped” in a material body that belongs in a material world. In order to reach fulfillment (and perfection), we must escape from this realm and leave the material world behind. Its very presence constrains us. In the realm of zoe we are freed from the material and can exist as pure spirit, operating under the banner of nous, reason alone. For the Greeks, the world is an evil prison keeping us from being the truly rational beings we were meant to be.
This dualism is still with us. Every time you hear someone speak about the evil world, the bliss of heaven, the desire to depart, the anticipation of the rapture or anything that suggests that our purpose is departure, you are probably treading on Greek philosophy. It has been part of the church since the third century. But it is not found in the Bible.
The author of Hebrews calls the Word of God “living.” He uses zoe. With all this Greek metaphysics in the background, why would he use such a loaded term? The answer is that he uses the term as it is found in the Septuagint, where it is influenced by the Hebrew concept of nephesh. But nephesh is not separate from physical life. In fact, it is essentially linked to life as we know it in this world. Why? Because the world is the creation of God and it is good! There is no dualism, no separation between spiritual and physical. God created the world a wonderful, full, significant place where we are to discover His glory in our embodiment. Getting to heaven is definitely not the goal! Enjoying His Kingdom on earth, and seeing it manifest, is the goal. That’s why Yeshua prays that we will not be taken out of this world. We are to experience life in all its fullness right here. Yes, it’s broken. Sin has corrupted this place. But it is not trashed. It is not evil. It is under the influence of evil, but it is to be redeemed. Leaving is not an option if you want to be where God is active.
There is one more important step in recovering the meaning of this word in this verse. Nephesh is all of me, all homogenized together. I am not body-mind-soul. I am the manifestation of God’s breath embodied. And that means that I am entirely under His sovereignty. Life does not belong to me. It belongs to Him. He gives it as a loan to me. Unlike the Greek concept, I am not on a path to ascend to my true calling in the spirit world. I am me right here, breathing the nephesh hayyah that God has given me, designed to do His will on this earth.
What does this tell us about zoe in Hebrews 4:12? God’s Word is living (zoe) because it embodies God’s character in active declaration. It is the manifestation of who He is. It has the same quality as nephesh. It is totally under His control. It is His gift. It is good. And it is designed for this world. God’s Word is God embodied in language. When you read it, you are in the presence of God, filling your thoughts, words and deeds with His character clothed in human communication.
Topical Index: living Word, nephesh, zoe, bios, Greek metaphysics, Hebrews 4:12