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“Open Soul Surgery”

Hebrews 4:12-13
Bob DeGray
October 28, 2001

Key Sentence

Through his Word the great Surgeon wishes to bring healing to your soul.


I. A Living Scalpel (Hebrews 4:12)
II. A Knowing Incision (Hebrews 4:12)
III. A Revealed Heart (Hebrews 4:13)


        A few weeks ago we compared the process of examining yourself for a hardened heart to the medical process of scanning a heart for blockages or other problems. The same analogy can be extended to the work of God’s Word in restoring health to the heart - or the soul. Hebrews describes this in terms that sound a lot like open heart surgery - but what we see in Hebrews 4:12-13 is open soul surgery.

        Consider a heart by-pass operation. These days they wheel the patient into the operating room while he is still awake. They transfer him to the operating table and make sure everything is in place before the injection that quickly puts him under. The surgeons are there, an anesthesiologist, and someone called a perfusionist who controls the heart_lung machine. A cardiologist helps interpret x-ray and ultrasound data, and there are several specially trained nurses. It’s a big show.

        Once the patient is asleep they quickly clean and anesthesize the chest area and then using a quick stroke of the scalpel, open an incision twelve to fifteen inches long down the length of the breastbone. Clamping off the exposed blood vessels, they reach for something that looks for all the world like a hacksaw, and proceed to saw the patients breastbone in half. Now the heart and lungs lie exposed, protected only by a layer called the pericardium, which the surgeon quickly peels back.

        Next comes the heart-lung bypass. The surgeon places tubes made of a special kind of plastic into the veins or right atrium of the heart. These tubes divert oxygen poor blood into the heart-lung machine, where it is oxygenated, purified, and then pumped back into the body. In this elegantly simple way, the heart is freed from its burden. It can now be stopped and it’s defects repaired.

        Meanwhile, a second surgeon has been at work on the patient’s leg, where a section of particularly healthy vein is carefully removed for use on the heart. Now the two surgeons and the cardiologist work together to definitively identify and bypass one or more of the small veins that lie on the outside of the heart, that provide bloodand oxygen to this essential muscle. A heart attack would occur if any of these veins became completely clogged. So the team works very carefully to select the blocked veins, tease them away from the heart and replace the critical sections, attaching the replacement veins with microscopic stitches.

        When this is done, the heart is carefully and gradually restarted, and the seams of all the repairs are checked for leakage. Only then is heart lung machine removed, and all the incisions closed, the breastbone wired and the external cut stitched, taped and stapled before the patient ever wakes up in the recovery room.

        That’s open heart surgery. The analogies to the open soul surgery God performs on us through his Word are striking. Let’s read the passage and we’ll see the process God uses as His Word works for the sake of our souls. We’ll recognize that through his Word the great Surgeon wishes to bring healing. Hebrews 4:12-13 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

I. A Living Scalpel (Hebrews 4:12)

        Remember the context. The author of Hebrews has just been reminding his readers that the promise of entering God’s rest still stands. But he has also warned them not to miss that rest through disbelief and disobedience. But how will they know if some crucial area of their hearts needs to be softened and changed? They’ll know through the Word. In an immediate sense the Word brings them the examples of disbelief from Jewish history that force them to evaluate their own hearts by comparison. More broadly, the Word of God brings conviction of sin and assurance of comfort, forgiveness and salvation. Or more accurately, it is God’s work through the Word that brings these things. He is the surgeon and his Word is the scalpel.

        The description in verse 12 makes it clear that this is a living scalpel. The fact that the Scriptures can be called living simply shows that they reflect the true character of God himself. This is the same Greek word used in John’s famous description of the Word becoming flesh: “In him was life and that life was the light of men.” In the Old Testament God’s Word seems to have a life of it’s own. Isaiah 55:10_11 “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, . . . so is my Word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

        God’s Word is a living messenger of God’s will. It is also ‘active’ or ‘effective’. One of the characteristics of life that you learn in biology is that life has motion - either the slow motion of plants or the faster motion of animals. The Word has motion too, action, energy. In fact the Greek word for ‘active’ is ‘energeos’ - energetic. The Word of God literally stirs things up. This is key: we should expect the living and active Word of God to stir things up in our souls. If it doesn’t something is wrong. Throughout history the testimony has been given over and over as to the living power of the Word to change lives. When St. Augustine heard the voice that led to his conversion it said ‘Take up and read. Take up and read.’ When Martin Luther was close to despair because he saw his inability to meet God’s standards, he found the comfort that began the Reformation in the book of Romans “Night and day I pondered until I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning.”

        And not only to Luther - this truth swept the Europe - through the living power of the Scriptures that were just then becoming available in quantity. Later Luther would say “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”

        God’s Word is active: living and effectual. In Jeremiah God says “Is not my Word like fire, like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” To our souls the Word is a living scalpel, sharper than any two edge sword. John Wesley testified to this in his conversion. He had been a disciplined churchman for many years before he realized that it was all of him and nothing of God, that he was not really a Christian. It was at a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London that Wesley heard Luther’s preface to his commentary on Romans, and Wesley says “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation.” This is the power of the Word of God a living and active scalpel, used by God to perform soul surgery.

II. A Knowing Incision (Hebrews 4:12)

        Like any great surgeon, God uses this tool to make a careful incision by which he can expose a diseased area. The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. The comparison of the Word of God to a sword is founded several places in Scripture. You’re probably familiar with Ephesians 6:17, the description of a Christian’s spiritual armor, where we are encouraged to take up the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. It is striking there that while the Word is a sword, the one who uses it is not the believer himself, but the Holy Spirit. He is the one who pierces hearts and brings conviction and healing. Similarly, in Revelation 1:16, the idea of a two edge sword is used to describe the nature of the words which proceed from the mouth of Jesus.

        The emphasis here is on the penetrating nature of the Word. This is expressed in the comparative description, sharper: a two edged sword penetrates deeply, and God’s Word is sharper than that. It can cut through anything and bring conviction. It pierces into the very heart of every person, even to the hidden place where soul and spirit meet, the place where good and evil wrestle for control of the heart.

        As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago "If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" The Word of God is a living scalpel able to excise the cancer of evil from the heart of the believer. It penetrates even to the division between the joints and the marrow of the bones that form them.

        As R. Kent Hughes says in his commentary “when God wills it, his Word will pierce anyone.” George Whitfield, the great 18th century evangelist, was hounded by a group of detractors and mockers who called themselves the ‘Hell-fire Club.’ On one occasion one of them, a man named Thorpe, was mimicking Whitfield to his cronies, delivering his sermon with brilliant accuracy, perfectly imitating his tone and facial expressions. Suddenly he himself was so pierced, as he heard himself proclaim God’s Word, that he sat down and was converted on the spot! Mr. Thorpe went on to become a prominent Christian leader in the city of Bristol.

        “God’s Word cleaves through our hard shelled souls like a hot knife through warm butter. Certainly we Christians find this to be true in our lives. There are sections of God’s Word that cut through all pretensions and religious façade, leaving us convicted.” I can’t begin to tell you the many, many times that one or more of you have come up to me after a church service and said you were convicted by the message, or that it was exactly what you needed to hear. This is not because my messages are aimed at individuals - far from it: My only goal in preaching is to say again what God has said. It is the the Word of God that pierces your soul, often to bring comfort, but sometimes to bring conviction. My prayer is that when you and I are convinced by the Word of God that something is true, we will respond with changed lives.

        The Word, our author says, judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The root word for ‘judges’ is kritikos, from which we derive ‘critic’ and ‘critical’. So the emphasis here is on discerning judgment. The heart is the seat of human personality. It is hidden from all. Yet God’s Word sifts through its thoughts and attitudes with an unerring discrimination. Therefore if we really want to understand ourselves we must fill our souls with God’s Word. When read, meditative upon, and applied it will give us brilliant discernment and profound self knowledge. Jeremiah indicates that in human wisdom we can’t understand our hearts. Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can understand it?” But James says the Word functions as a mirror revealing who and what we really are. This self knowledge is no small thing, for when we begin to grasp the serpentine ways of our hearts, we are more apt to cast ourselves fully on God’s grace.

        But we will also be judged by God’s Word. And here is a warning to those who do not truly believe - and remember, the evidence of disbelief is pervasive disobedience. Be warned: His judgment will be perfectly discerning. The wise Christian invites the penetrating, discerning work of God’s Word in his life. As Christians of old prayed: “O thou elect blade and sharpest sword, which art able powerfully to penetrate the hard shell of the human heart, transfix my heart with the shaft of thy love...Pierce, O Lord, pierce, I beseech thee, this most obdurate mind of mine with the holy and powerful dagger of thy grace.”

        God works supernaturally to bring His Word to bear on human souls. I love the account given at a meeting of the Gideons of a Christian man who had a habit of reading Gideon Bibles in hotels where he stayed. On one trip to the majestic Windsor Hotel in Montreal, Canada, he felt moved of God to write his thoughts in the margins. His greatest concern was the salvation of his son, who rejected the Christian faith. At the end of his devotions, the man knelt by the bed in prayer. Three years later, his son visited Montreal and stayed in the same large hotel. Feeling depressed, he did something uncharacteristic _ he picked up the Gideon Bible from the night table. Leafing through it, he noticed handwritten notes and recognized them as the writing of his own father. The outpouring of his father's heart for the son's salvation so moved the young man he knelt beside the bed and accepted Christ as his Savior.

III. A Revealed Heart (Hebrews 4:13)

        God’s Word is a living and acting scalpel which cuts away surface pretensions and denials and excuses and barriers to reveal the soul ready for surgery. Finally, with ruthless effectiveness, God uses this scalpel to cut away all that is diseased in our hearts and souls. Verse 13: Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

        We have been speaking of God’s Word in its living, penetrating, and discerning powers. Now in verse 13 the discussion continues, but the focus switches from God’s Word to God himself as a knowing and reckoning God. This is very natural because God and his Word cannot be separated. The living scalpel which God uses to perform surgery on our souls is living because it is always held in his hand.

        God sees everything. This is comforting in times of trouble or distress or need, but it can be discomforting if we have something to hide. This was the experience of some boys who were stealing apples. As they were in the act it so happened that the great American astronomer Samuel Alfred Mitchell was observing the sun through his telescope as it descended, and as it set there came into view the crest of a orchard covered hill some 7 miles distant. There Dr. Mitchell watched the two boys – one picking apples while the other stood guard making sure they weren’t seen. That is a picture of God’s divine gaze, which penetrates both light and darkness. Proverbs says: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” The Psalmist likewise witnesses, “you have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.”

        A. W. Tozer says this in lyrical cadence: “God knows instantly and effortlessly all matter and all matters, all mind and every mind, all spirit and all spirits, all being and every being, all law and every law, all relations, all causes, all thoughts, all mysteries, all enigmas, all feeling, all desires, every unuttered secret, all thrones, all dominions, all personalities, all things visible and invisible in heaven and in earth, motion, space, time, life, death, good, evil, heaven, and hell.

        This is an uplifting truth, but the words that follow make it also a terrifying truth for those who imagine they can avoid his gaze: “everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” “Uncovered” is literally “naked.” Everyone is stark naked before him. There is nothing to hide in or behind. The next word means “laid bare” or “exposed.” But there’s no consensus among comentators as to what exactly the metaphor pictures, because “laid bare” literally means “twist the neck” or “take by the throat.” It can be used for bending back the neck of a sacrificial animal to administer the fatal stroke or of a wrestler’s hold on the opponent’s throat, rendering him helpless. Figuratively, God takes you by the hair and bends back your head so that the sword of the Spirit is at your throat.

        Each of us, whether we want to admit it or not, is in the grasp of God, totally vulnerable and helpless, an open book before the eyes of the judge with whom we must deal. We usually have to recognize this truth before God performs needed surgery on our souls. We must place ourselves in submission to God through his Word. We must give the Word of God permission to convict us, to exhort us, and even to comfort us. If we place ourselves above the Word of God none of this will happen, but if under the Word of God, soul surgery and healing are almost guaranteed.

        Dr. Ben Carson, in his autobiography Gifted Hands tells the story of Craig, a young man with a disease that caused numerous benign tumors. When Dr. Carson, a brain surgeon, met him, it was because a tumor had appeared near the back of his brain, quite possibly in his brain stem, an area which surgeons never touched because of the high likelihood of fatal damage. Dr. Carson operated on Craig and removed all of the tumor not in the brain stem. He could tell from the swelling of the stem itself that there was likely tumor within. So he informed Craig and his young wife Susan that the only hope was another high risk operation.

        Carson describes the operation: “an orderly wheeled Craig to the operating room, where he was laid face down on the operating table, his head tight in a frame so it couldn’t move. Once again, doctors shaved his head. A nurse placed a sterile drape over him, with a small window at the surgical site.” Even getting to the site of the brain stem was difficult and demanding surgery, but eventually they succeeded. “Now I’m going to open up a little hole in the brain stem” he told his staff.

        Carson then describes the almost uncontrollable bleeding that resulted from his small hole. Unless controlled Carson would have no chance to locate and remove the tumor. Finally he decided to try a relatively new instrument, a laser scalpel, which could both cut and cauterize at the same time. He succeeded in opening a tiny hole with minimum bleeding. Carson says: “feeling something abnormal, I teased out a little piece. It was probably tumorous, but it was stuck. I tugged gently, but nothing came off. Again I hesitated, not wanting to become too aggressive. I couldn’t open up the hole any larger without severe damage to the brain stem.”
        At this point the anesthesiologist warned that Craig’s brain waves were becoming flat. But Carson knew the presence of that tumor would kill him as surely as the operation. He prayed “‘God, I just can’t give up. Please guide my hands.’ I kept at the tiny hole in the stem, my hands easing, pleading, begging. Finally the growth started coming out. Gently I tugged, and suddenly it all came free in one gigantic blob.”

        Carson was almost sure he had won the battle against the tumor at the cost of crippling his patient, if he survived at all. He was surprised, dumbfounded and astonished when he walked into ICU the next day to see Craig sitting up, able to move every part of his body, to talk and think clearly. He attributes success to a profound miracle of God. But it is no more miraculous than the soul surgery God wants to perform on you and me through his Word, to remove the tumors of sin that continue to grow in us, and to comfort and heal us in every circumstance.

        Through his Word the great Surgeon wishes to bring healing to your soul: for the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

        I’ve intentionally kept this message short, because I want to take a few minutes now to give you some tools for application. For years my wife has reminded me from time to time that I needed a physical, so I would know if there were any problems with blood pressure, cholesterol or other indicators of significant illness. Her point is that you have to have the physical before you can address the issues. In the same way, until you are involved in a daily and weekly habit of Bible study, the Great physician cannot even show you the issues that plague your soul. So by way of application I want to encourage you to do Bible Study, and I’m giving you three methods of Bible study, each outlined on one page, plus a devotional record sheet. If you’re not yet involved in the men’s study or one of the ladies’ studies or your own personal study, you can use these. They will help you to get the physical, to let the Bible begin to work on your heart and mind so that through his Word the Surgeon can bring healing to your soul.